Last year, I reviewed Far Cry 6 for us, and I found myself so bored, I almost wanted to quit game reviewing entirely. I wrote in my review about how I'd become fatigued by the Ubisoft open-world formula, which is big on copy and paste and light on soul. The fact I also worked on Watch Dogs: Legion, previous recent Assassin's Creed games, and other Ubisoft-style open worlds contributed to the way I've started to feel about their format and made me wonder whether I haven't just started despising open-world games altogether. Thankfully, Elden Ring showed me that this needn't be the case.
Elden Ring is a truly incredible game, and will be held up as a seminal moment in the industry, much like games like Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim, and The Witcher 3 before it. FromSoftware's absolute mastery of RPG depth soars to incredible new heights in Elden Ring, but for me, the star of the show has been the open world itself.
I find myself truly aghast at Elden Ring. In the prologue area alone, I found at least 15 hours of raw, handcrafted, meaningful gameplay, with dozens of unique monsters, boss battles, loot, and dungeon areas. Dozens of weapon types, skills, abilities, and armor give you a truly insane amount of control over how you will curate and tailor your character's playstyle. Even the most basic tombs and mineshafts felt like they had something interesting to discover at the end, even if they didn't provide anything specifically decent for my class build. That sense of wonderment and discovery is present at every corner of Elden Ring, and bristling with detail, and unique events.
Critically for me, after playing Elden Ring, I expect it will change my personal standards for what constitutes quality open-world gaming forever. Elden Ring is one of the best Xbox and PC games ever made.
Mastering the fine line between fun and fatigue
Open-world games often run this fine line between being epic, grand, and amazing, and being dull, lifeless, and work-like. I pick on Ubisoft a lot for this, given that their games often sort of blend together into this homogeny of repeated themes and mechanics. Ghost Recon plays like Far Cry plays like The Division plays like Watch Dogs plays like Assassin's Creed, and so on. Other games see how these titles end up being popular and try to emulate them to mixed success. I found the Batman: Arkham open worlds to be similarly dull, thankfully saved by some great story writing. I also got tired fairly quickly of Metal Gear Solid V's flat open world, and barely remember it as I write this down, despite having spent dozens of hours writing the review for it.
Much like The Witcher 3, Breath of the Wild, and Skyrim before it, Elden Ring's open world is meticulously hand-crafted, and you can feel it in every corner of the game. In some ways, it's almost like two games, with the open-world connecting more intimate Dark Souls-like dungeons and castles, with classic complexity, absolutely crammed with secrets and restlessly nail-biting boss battle setpieces. You spend the majority of your time in Elden Ring inside the open-world areas, and much like previous FromSoftware RPGs, the volume of tools to uncover and unlock is somewhat staggering.
If rewards weren't enough, much like Halo Infinite to some degree, the combat system is so immaculate in Elden Ring that simply exploring and defeating bosses is reward enough. Elden Ring also puts a large emphasis on the ease of traversal. Much like Halo Infinite's vehicles, Elden Ring's Torrent steed is incredibly fun and easy to ride.
There's been a focus in the post-Skyrim era among some AAA studios that size alone is the selling point. You can have the biggest open world in the universe, but if it's full of dull content, with dull traversal, and dull combat, it creates layers of irritation that don't make the journey worth the effort. The guise of "more = better value" thankfully is waning as a concept, with more users than ever seeking a high-quality, memorable experience, rather than something that is vast for the sake of vast.
Somehow, and despite all the odds, Elden Ring manages to build a world that is uniquely colossal, while simultaneously ensuring consistently cutting-edge worthwhile content. Every layer of Elden Ring is expansively varied, and wholly devoid of anything that could be considered "filler." That sense of wonderment and unknowing that is very typical of FromSoftware's unique RPGs has become an utterly perfect stage for an open-world format that some AAA publishers have abused to the point of absurdity.
A seminal moment for open-world games
For the big publishers with mountains of resources building these types of games, Elden Ring should serve as a firm wake-up call. It's not going to be enough to constantly re-use the same themes, with flat and repetitive gameplay wholly devoid of creativity. Elden Ring has singlehandedly raised my standards for how an open-world game should be. And this has nothing to do with the difficulty debate, because yes, in typical FromSoftware fashion, Elden Ring can be incredibly demanding. However, that's beside the point I'm trying to make here.
Even without the challenge, Elden Ring's open world is just beyond the competition in ways that are hard to fully describe without listing out a trove of spoilers. The passion and artistry oozes out of this game in such abundance that it simply makes me wonder just what the heck are other AAA studios doing wrong? It's certainly not for lack of money.
I have no idea how FromSoftware does it, in an age dominated by microtransactions, cheap monetization gimmicks, and cut-corners design. They've managed to create a AAA game that defies industry trends and represents the zenith of interactive art. And I'm so grateful I got to experience it. Hopefully, other studios take a little peek at Elden Ring, and discover that it isn't Hollywood celebrity casting or size for the sake of size that makes a game brilliant.
I want more games like this.
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