Bigger is NOT Better: Halo Infinite and Open World Games

Since its announcement, much speculation has surrounded Halo: Infinite, the seventh main installment in Microsoft’s flagship franchise. Among the most common questions was whether the newest Halo would be an open-world game.

In a recent article published by Destructoid, it was revealed that while the game does appear to encompass most, if not all, of its content on a single map, the player will not have boundless freedom to explore everything right out the gate, instead they will unlock sections of the map as they progress through the game’s story.

…which I am very relieved to hear.

Over the past decade, we have seen several franchises move away from enclosed level design and smaller-scale maps, instead taking on ambitious open-world projects that span across massive world spaces. Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, and Assassin’s Creed are just a handful of the franchises that have made this transition. (The Breath of the Wild sequel may even use the same massive map. Read about what else may happen with Breath of the Wild 2.)

And while some games have benefited from the design philosophy of “bigger is better,” I personally feel the overwhelming hugeness has damaged the experience of many others.

Breath of the Wild open world map
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. A big, huge map, but where’s all the stuff?

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, used its open world as a huge selling point from the very first trailer. And when it was announced, I was very much fascinated by all the possibilities it presented for the game.

An open world in a stealth game meant you could approach enemy bases from all kinds of different angles. With as many tools as the game provides you, ranging from a wide variety of weapons and vehicles, as well as fascinating ways to toy with the AI, every single mission could be played a variety of different ways.

In this regard, The Phantom Pain succeeded phenomenally, and remains one of my favorite games to this day.

However, despite how much praise I have for The Phantom Pain’s game play, I found that the open world factor did not enhance the infiltration experience as much as it could have. Instead, if anything, it detracted from it. Because the developers had to put so much time and effort into creating such a big map for players to explore, they had to neglect all kinds of other details.

Level design was not nearly as intricate as it had been in past installments. The freedom I had in approaching the game’s challenges quickly made them stop being challenging, and thus, less engaging. And outside of the missions given to you, there wasn’t anything really significant to do in this massive map. You could capture animals, fight random enemy soldiers for kicks, and do side-ops that were mostly just variations of those two things.

And as much as I love doing all of that – again, this is one of my favorite games to exist – I always wonder: Did the game need a map this big? Or would it have been better without it?

Metal Gear Solid V the Phantom Pain companion app
Plan your attack, of just goof around.

That question can be explored by comparing The Phantom Pain to the other part of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.

In Ground Zeroes, the entire game takes place in an isolated military based called Camp Omega. There is significantly less space to operate in here than in The Phantom Pain, and much of it is enclosed and heavily guarded, with limited entrances and exits to sections of the base. It’s confining and oppressive, and you have been sent here with only so many weapons and ammo to choose from – no choice at all, in your first play-through of each mission. 

But because the level is such a smaller space, the developers were able to fill it with so much more content!

There are prisoners held throughout the base that you can rescue, collectible military patches that unlock even more content if you find them all, and over half an hour of hidden dialogues and interactions between the soldiers stationed at Camp Omega, on top of countless little details spread all over the map that tell so many stories about its world, immersing you deeper into the experience.

When you’re playing through the content of Ground Zeroes, you are extremely engaged, especially during your first time.. There is an element of danger to the entire base that keeps you on your toes, and constantly has you aware that you are an intruder in an hostile environment. Every objective that you accomplish is satisfying, because the dangers you traversed to beat them were real, and so many things could go wrong.

Ground Zeroes is built off the exact same engine as The Phantom Pain. It uses the same base mechanics, the same assets, the same everything. It was meant to be a teaser of what players could expect from The Phantom Pain – but instead, I find that its one little level provided much more for me in engagement than the game it was meant to hype.

Metal Gear Solid V is fantastic to compare large open worlds against smaller levels with more time put into them, because it does both. And because of that, it makes me wonder: How would other games have benefited if they weren’t so focused on providing a big map space for the sake of being big?

Skyrim map
Skyrim discussion is mandatory in an open world article.

What if Skyrim was half as wide, but given twice as much detail as a result – not unlike its early predecessor, Morrowind? The game has so much content cut from it that may have been able to stay otherwise. 

What if Red Dead Redemption 2 trimmed down its ambitions for world size, and traded them instead for providing players with more to do? Maybe developers could go see there families during the holidays, instead of trying to provide an excessive amount of content.

Even Zelda: Breath of the Wild, is criticized for much of its content feeling isolated from the rest, since it was designed to be done in whatever order a player desired. (Despite this, it still managed to outsell every other Zelda game in the franchise. How does your favorite Zelda game stack up?)

Maybe larger maps aren’t the best thing for every game, if it comes at the cost of all the details, interactions, and intricacies that would define them, as well as the sanity of those making the game. Maybe some games benefit from being a little restricting, if only so that the developers can create a much more deliberate experience for players to remember. 

Halo: Infinite may not be as open-world as some people wanted it to be. But at the end of the day, that could mean we get levels that are unique from one another, encounters that don’t end up becoming menial, and a game that has all of its space filled in with the details one would expect of a good Halo game.

The original Halo trilogy was very linear, even with some of its larger levels. But I remember every single one very intimately, some with great nostalgia, and some with intense anger (looking at you, Library.) 

A bigger canvas isn’t always the best surface to paint on – especially if trying to fill all of it makes you run out of paint.

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