Why Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon’s compact open world is so effective

When a game is described as ‘open world,’ certain titles and expectations come to mind. Your brain will probably do that thing brains do and make a connection to a different, recent game with the same descriptor. Sleeping Dogs, perhaps, or Skyrim. It might take you back to some classics like Daggerfall or Grand Theft Auto III.

Chances are, the phrase will give you a sense of scale and scope. Open worlds tend to be all about letting the player roam freely through whatever countryside, cityscape or weird planet the developers have put together, and in contemporary gaming that tends to mean vast, expansive spaces.

The Witcher 3 (12)

It’s no surprise that CD Projekt has been keen to run the “bigger than Skyrim, 30 times larger than The Witcher 2” line about upcoming, open world sequel The Witcher 3. Players who gravitate to these titles love exploration, and open world titles cater to that desire. The more of the world there is to tromp around in (the theory goes,) the greater the chance of finding multiple, interesting things to do and see.

If, that is, the developers have the time, creativity and/or processing power to add them in. There’s always a risk with these projects that huge swathes of the landscape actually turn out to be quite dull. The quicker the player begins to rely on a fast travel system to zip around the place, the more likely it is that the bits in between just aren’t worth seeing more than once or twice. At that point, maybe it would’ve been better just to make the world smaller?

That’s exactly the route taken by Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, which reduces the original game’s island area to a more compact space that Sergeant Rex Power Colt’s cyber-legs can sprint across in a matter of minutes. In part this is a consequence of the stand-alone game’s budget nature (it’s $15 USD rather than $50-60,) but it’s a design decision that works rather well.

blooddragon (7)

To make a bit of a literary comparison, Blood Dragon has the open world equivalent of a short story or novella. It’s still ‘open’ in all the ways that matter; you can (after a linear intro) go wherever you please, tackle side-quests and garrison posts in whichever order and whatever style you choose, and generally cause unchecked mayhem. But the more focused nature of the world means that it, and the over-the-top story, don’t outstay their welcome.

There’s a fast travel system in the game, but I never really felt compelled to use it. The game is tight enough that it’s really not necessary. Rather than presenting a myriad of locations sprawled over a vast space, Blood Dragon sticks to what it knows; absurd 1980s action film dialogue and encounters with cyborgs. The ‘open world’ aspect here refers to the freedom to act how you like, decoupled from the guiding hand of a developer, rather than the freedom to roam all over gigantic open spaces.

There’s still just about enough space between garrisons and landmarks for the odd dynamic firefight between motorcycle helmet-clad baddies and hapless scientists to pop up, but not so much that you’re ever far from another story mission or ridiculous side-quest about rebellious animals. Like the overall tone and the ridiculous one-liners, the game would’ve been poorer had it been spread too thin. Staying (relatively) short at 6-8 hours, and compact in size was a wise design decision.

Far Cry 3 (1)

Of course, Ubisoft was able to make a game like this because all the code and much of the technology had already been developed for Far Cry 3. That must still have left a sizeable amount of work to do (mostly in the art and writing departments, you’d imagine,) and as a stand-alone game Blood Dragon presumably required a pretty hefty marketing budget for all those trailers. But that’s an expense that a large publisher/developer like Ubisoft can absorb and is a lot cheaper than developing a ‘new’ Blood Dragon game from scratch.

If this experiment sells quite well for Ubisoft (and right now it’s the second highest seller on Steam behind a 50%-off Tomb Raider,) it could encourage other companies to follow suit. Those lucky enough to have similar resources and multiple studios at their disposal could allow small teams free creative reign to make stand-alone spin-off games based on the tech of established titles. Let’s have a 1970 World Cup game based on the latest FIFA engine complete with period appropriate rules (yes, ok, that’ll never happen because EA wouldn’t sell a FIFA game for $15,) or a 1940s noir crime thriller in the Deus Ex: Human Revolution mold, please.

It’d be unwise to encourage every developer to go the ‘lol 1980s’ route, but there’s a part of me that would crave a bite-sized Hawk the Slayer-esque fantasy romp based around Skyrim. Nobody dictated that fantasy RPGs have to be (urgh) ‘epic’ and 30+ hours in length, yet for some reason they always are.

Hawk the Slayer

In many ways, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon defies conventional big-budget title wisdom. It’s an open world game with a small world; a ‘Triple A’-styled title that doesn’t take itself at all seriously; and a polished release from a major publisher that doesn’t come with a $60 USD price tag.

Its apparent level of success should be an indicator to other publishers that it’s fine to take creative risks on more outlandish projects when they’re based on previously developed, full price titles. Blood Dragon also demonstrates that an open world doesn’t have to be gigantic to function just fine. I’m as keen as anyone to see the scale of the world that The Witcher 3 will offer when it comes out in a year or so, but there’s no reason why the same principles can’t continue to be applied to more compact locations.

Read the IncGamers review of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, here (spoiler: I liked it.)


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  • Tim McDonald

    Two points.

    First: “Blood Dragon also demonstrates that an open world doesn’t have to be gigantic to function just fine.”

    I’d agree. I’m at the point where open worlds have stopped automatically wowing me; in fact, since… probably GTA: Vice City onwards, I usually prefer to fast-travel unless there’s a lot of fun stuff to do along the way, things are pretty or lore-ridden, or the game’s travel mechanics are inherently interesting. A few games – Far Cry 3 and Sleeping Dogs, most recently – have still done the whole open world thing pretty well by nailing one or more of these points, but it either takes a lot of environmental detail or points of interest to make me do anything but skip over vast amounts of the open environments nowadays.

    Secondly: yeah, this is a very interesting experiment, and something I’d like to see more of. Sort of reminds me of Ye Olde Shareware Model, albeit less free, in that it’s a fairly sizeable chunk of game available for less than the full thing. I also like that it’s actually unique content. I suppose it might also be a decent way of keeping part of your team occupied when the “main” game is being finished up, but I don’t really know much about internal studio politics. Either way, I can’t imagine this took TOO much effort to sort out – the majority of the world assets and terrain, at least, are the same as Far Cry 3; they just look different because of the 80s filter effects. So yeah, cost-effective way of getting more out of the engine and existing assets that your employees are already completely au fait with, so it’s presumably pretty fast, too.

    I suppose it depends on just *how* different it is, though. If you release a racing game (say) and then later release a stand-alone set of maps with a different set of cars and a completely new theme – a Ferrari pack, with five tracks set in ancient Rome! – then I can guarantee there’ll be a tonne of backlash, both from people complaining that this is essentially charging for a demo, and people complaining that this is just DLC which was cut out of the game so that they can make you pay for it twice. Blood Dragon gets away with it because it *is* so wildly different.

    Still, it’s a pretty cheap way to get a unique slice of content. I mean, if you like Blood Dragon, you’ll like Far Cry 3, and vice versa. And if you don’t know whether you’ll like either, Blood Dragon’s a cost effective way of finding out!

    And third, because I have to: “I was like you once. Blonde hair, scraggly little beard, childlike ears; full of beans and spunk. I let my principles get in the way, sometimes. I punched a bloke in the face once for saying Hawk the Slayer was rubbish.”

  • Tim

    I totally agree about making games based on established tech. Honestly, for some game series’ the new tech just fucks up the things you liked about the old gameplay experience. For me this includes games like Duke Nukem Forever and Assassin’s Creed 3 where the free running has no more precision (you just kinda point the stick and climb without needing to actually pick your route) and the combat has been made less fun and varied (Including double Assassinations just plain not working properly anymore).

  • Ryan

    I’d love to get this game but I’m to broke. For now I’m enjoying the reviews i see. It really looks like a great game and for the cost its a must have imo. I hope your right and that other company’s take this as a sign that there are different or new ways to make traditional game genres. And I would also love to see a L.A. Noir game with the Deus ex feel to it.

    The gaming industry is, in some ways, similar to the Imperium of Warhammer 40k, stagnant with no new ideas and simply repeating old ones, even ones that no longer work. Not to say that I’m not jizzing in my pants waiting for The Witcher 3 and Wolfenstein The New Order game, just saying that new ideas need to be tried and I cant wait to see what other game company’s can think up to rival or put up against Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon.

    good article!

  • BrainDrain

    Many game developers would learn a lot from FC3: Blood Dragon. I watched the trailer in April Fool’s so I didn’t take it seriously but the game turned out to be an epic one.

    The guys at Ubisoft basically made gave 80’s a new look with a plot similar with the era’s action movies. It’s just a DLC but I enjoyed playing it more than Crysis 3. Even the collectibles are worth finding as they are necessary for upgrading weapons compared to useless relics in the original Far Cry 3.

    I hope this wouldn’t be the last time we see Sgt. Colt and for gamers who are having a bad time with the game, here’s a walkthrough: http://www.cheatmasters.com/blog/2013/05/02/far-cry-3-blood-dragon-guide/