Free-roaming: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

What makes a good free-roaming game?

Before we get started, let me share my definition of free-roaming with you - the semblance of freedom in a game, brought about by giving you access to an open game world or a large portion of a game world open for exploration. This does not necessarily mean that the mission structure of the game has to be free-form. This does not mean that the game has to be non-linear. The gameplay, on the other hand, should preferably be non-linear.__STARTQUOTE__Free-roaming: The semblance of freedom in a game, brought about by giving you access to an open game world or a large portion of a game world open to exploration.__ENDQUOTE__

Free-roaming: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

While we're at it, let me clear a popular misconception - a lot of gamers mistake free-roaming for sandbox games - they're not the same. The difference between them is that a free-roaming game gives you access to a fixed game world that you can explore freely, while a sandbox game give you an open slate, where you can reconstruct the game world to your liking. Let me give you a few examples to get things a bit clear. Free-roaming games include S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, the Grand Theft Auto games, FarCry 2 and Assassin's Creed, while Sandbox games include the tycoon games, such as Railway Tycoon, Theme Park Tycoon, etc.

What makes a good free-roaming game?

Just giving you access to an empty game world doesn't make a free-roaming game good. Take a look at this year's post-apocalyptic racing game for example - Fuel. While the game didn't pivot around free-roaming (since missions could be picked up from a standard load-out screen, unlike Burnout Paradise), the game's expansive free-roaming mode was boasted of and ended up being one of the most boring and pointless features in the game. While free-roaming in Fuel, you lacked any sort of purpose; you would occasionally come across upgrades scattered around the game world, but that's all the reward you'd gain for exploring. The game world felt empty, since you lacked any sort of incentive to explore.

Even though desolate, Fallout 3's wasteland beckoned you to explore.

So if there's nothing that beckons you to explore, such as rewards, mission progressions or side quests/missions, free-roaming falls flat on its face. Look at Assassin's Creed for instance. While I really loved the game, I found the free-roaming bit that allowed you to move between cities pretty pointless. There was nothing to be gained out of riding your horse from point A to point B. The free-roaming bit was just used as a mode of transition between missions, making it unnecessary and redundant. The only possible thing you could do is hunt for collectibles (flags) along the way, which again, is something not everyone would opt for.__STARTQUOTE__So if there's nothing that beckons you to explore, such as rewards, mission progressions or side quests/missions, free-roaming falls flat on its face__ENDQUOTE__

The reason why games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl did free-roaming really well, is that you'd be encouraged to explore. Even the desolate post-apocalyptic region of

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