When Grand Theft Auto 3 exploded onto the scene, it did so to critical acclaim and massive popularity, while virtually inventing the "sandbox" genre. The game gave the player a world to explore, and let him play in it however he liked. The popularity of the GTA series is unquestioned, especially with the upcoming Grand Theft Auto IV, and with games like Saints Row, Mercenaries™, True Crime™: Streets of New York, and the forthcoming Crackdown™, the genre is certainly going full-steam ahead.
Your base of operations in Saints Row. Look for it on your map.
While sandbox games are often quite intuitive, using simple game mechanics that seem obvious to the casual player, there is still plenty for the novice gamer to learn to be more comfortable and successful in these games.
Defining the Sandbox
There are a few essentials to understand when first sitting down to a sandbox style game:
- Sandbox World: Though typically (at least for now) these games take place in large urban environments, the purpose of these virtual cities is not only to simulate a busy metropolis, but also to give you a playground to experiment with.
- Side Missions: While all these games possess a core story, the replay value exists in the ongoing side missions. They won't all jump out at you, however, so pay attention as you progress through the game. Also, pay attention to the dialogue in-game as it may steer you towards a new mission.
- Your Own Pace: The joy of open-ended games is the freedom they offer. What you do, how you do it, and when you do it is largely up to you. Initially, this lack of direction can be disconcerting, but if you understand it from the beginning, any frustration should be minimal. Know that the core missions will always be available for you to return to.
Vertical level design, shown here in Crackdown, is becoming a sandbox staple.
Sandbox games don't exist in the typical linear setup found in most games, where you progress from level to level. Instead, they offer one massive level, which holds the content for the entire game. Typically, these vast areas maintain a few standard elements of design:
- Sectioned Off: It's not uncommon to have major sections of the world unavailable at the beginning of the game. Areas that are locked will be opened later as you progress through the main story of the game. Often you will be given a specific mission to go into a new area that will unlock it.
- Territory: Another almost universal custom in sandbox games is that different sections of the map will be controlled by different factions. It might be gangs or armies, but many of these areas will be patrolled by hostile factions. It may be difficult to move through these areas, you will often be attacked, so go armed, and bring backup.
- Goodies: The massive and intricate environments created for these games hold an equally massive number of hidden items, like costumes, cars, money, and weapons, adding extra incentive to explore the sandbox and discover its secrets.
The following tips are common to the sandbox genre, and should provide a solid base on which to approach any of these games.
Your homies help, trust me.
Nobody likes getting lost, and even if you don't stop for directions in real life, use the in-game map. Getting your bearings is often vitally important in sandbox games, as it is easy to get lost in the large environments. Memorize landmarks that you see often, and always remember to check the map. You may even find a few short cuts.
Icons on the map are always useful, not only showing you where to start a new mission or side quest, but also where to stock up on ammo, change your clothes, or build up your health. If you're wondering where to go next, don't wander aimlessly, just pick an icon and head for it.
Smoking Car Bomb
Driving is a universal staple of sandbox games. The indicator that your car is all used up is just as universal. When your car catches fire, it's time to bail out and find a new one. If there are enemies on the screen, aim the car at them before jumping out.
Look for Loot
Keep a sharp eye out for weapon locations and power-ups while you play. For example, in the GTA games, you can find stars that will lower your wanted level. Remembering where these are when the heat is on can save your hide.
When you mission is to take out a group of enemies, always stay in your car as long as possible. Just because your targets are on foot doesn't mean you have to be. Not only will the car give you some protection, but you can also run over your enemies. Don't forget to aim it where it will do the most damage when it finally explodes.
Exploding barrels—a staple of any action game.
Try Something Different
When you find yourself trying the same mission for the fifteenth time, it is time to take a break. The beautiful thing about sandbox games is you can always come back. Drive around for a while, blow some stuff up, hunt for secrets, and then come back to that annoying mission. You may find a particular mission much easier if you return after developing your skills some more.
Learning the fundamentals of any genre as you're just getting started, particularly a genre as elaborate as sandbox games, can eliminate a great deal of the frustration you might otherwise experience. You can shorten your learning curve and get right to the good stuff, like running things over, blowing stuff up, and getting rich.