I’ve always been a sucker for the digital landscape. You might have noticed by now from my screenshots and such but the main focus is never really the combat or any sort of mechanic it’s the zones in these games, specific vistas I’ve jumped to and just the beauty of what has been created for us.
I play a lot of different genres and a variety within these but the worlds I always seem to get more enamoured with are the ones from mmo’s. Single player games have some amazing worlds now too; the defined paths of the adventure based games, the wonderful backdrops of puzzle ones. Even those large sprawling worlds from games like Skyrim and co. while amazing don’t seem to get my interest as much. I’m not sure whether the feel is different due to the multiplayer aspects or just how differently they are designed but whatever it is the scenescapes in mmo’s are places I adore.
The differences between games is rather striking as well, each have there own particular style with how they are set up, the flow of movement and the areas that draw focus… Not to mention just how much a particular art style changes the experience.
Recently I’ve been finding that the zones in Wildstar are rather well done. Those beginning spaces not so much, there is something about them that feels a bit too artificial, a space that is trying to hard to be interesting but with those later levels it seems they have really gotten the right balance. They are large enough to allow a decent amount of movement around so it’s not just a single path and the flow between points is well spaced. Mostly it seems they have the right aesthetic with providing something both interesting in it’s design with a nice attention to detail and something that is muted enough to actually be appealing and more grounded in the realistic… it’s no longer breaking that sense of disbelief any more and the mind is free to engage again.
I like how they have a decent amount of differentiation in the zones themselves between hubs to provide some differentiation. They aren’t drastic in most instances and keep the general feel of a zone but also change enough to provide new experiences, new objectives and encounters that play into the lore of the zone and are free to change the gameplay with different enemies. Mostly the part I enjoy the most is how they are constantly playing around with verticality; they aren’t content with the player constantly playing on the same plane and provide a variety of terrain changes, obstacles to move under and over and larger structures to move around that provide some amazing views. Even without these there are the mechanics that let you traverse in new ways.. bounding higher and shifting the players view. It leads to a lot more interesting experiences while questing.
I think my favourite zones so far are the bio domes. They have a really nice aesthetic within that is colourful yet constrained and with the elder tech integrated all around it makes for a very interesting space. The are smaller and more constrained but that works with the feeling and lore of the zone.
I also enjoyed the landscapes in Elder Scrolls Online. It was a very well thought out and highly polished world with a consistent image perpetuated throughout. The world had a certain aesthetic that is grounded in a sense of realism and each zone is planned with this in mind. Rolling hills interspersed with signs of civilization, structures that you can imagine being physical constructed; it was a fluid and consistent experience. Because of this my initial experiences within the world were quite strong, you immediately feel engaged in it… a part of the experience.
The issue was that it was too grounded in realism, to unchanging from one place to the next as that overarching theme imposed certain restrictions on the design. There was never anything that really stood out throughout the zones, sure a few larger castles, the Mer towns and that sort of thing but it was a feeling that was all too familiar. While I jokingly stated in my comparison post that ESO was Boring, that’s exactly the issue. Now while the main zones seemed restricted by their design ethos, the instances were places of absolute wonder, showing some truly breathtaking scenes with changes in structure and colour. I just wish this sort of thing was more in the world itself.
While I was a bit partial on all that purple to begin with, Coldharbour did eventually become my favourite zone. There is just so many amazing spaces that change the experience immensely both in gameplay and aesthetic. With Coldharbour they were free to change the zone in drastic ways depending on what was happening there and it made exploring it that much more interesting.
Guild Wars 2 was one of the prettiest MMO’s I’ve played lately. This was in part due to the upgraded graphics but not entirely, they had an amazing art style that really worked well to enhance that sense of wonder you often feel from exploring these worlds, of the mythical and mystical that these fantasy worlds contain. That painterly style and then getting a view from some of the amazing vistas takes my breath away each and every time.
The zones were lived in with some interesting differences between them based on the changes of terrain and the inhabitants. This played in with the events system as well that changed the world as you played. It was something grounded in an internal logic, some sort of real world understand but it succeeding in being rather magical as well.
One issue I had though was that it often felt too compartmentalized. Each zone has a certain theme that really doesn’t change that much and even throughout large spaces like Kryta there is a striking similarity except for certain cosmetic differences like the churned earth of a Centaur camp. The only way to experience such change and differentiation is to take a portal and change an instance to a new zone, or new racial area.
The other part, and this is highly subjective but with the painterly style it sometimes felt like the world was more of an illusion or, not so much that but more looking towards a painting or image rather than that of a traversing a world. It’s beautiful but beauty that felt like an imitation or a façade.
The zone I enjoy the most within Tyria I think was the Charr areas. I tend to like the more rocky desert types space, the burnished lands filled with reds and browns. They feel homely in a way but also so free and open to exploration. Of these I always enjoyed hanging out in the Plains of Ashford, it has that familiar theme but plays so well with the colours of it. Those Large Ascalonian ruins added a sense of mystique to the lower spaces and the the large Iron structures from the Charr bring in a modern industrialised touch which creates an interesting juxtaposition.
My favourite MMO for the world it creates though is still The Secret world. The real world inspiration with places and items really sets the stage well for the story the tell but because of this it also creates a far more personal and emotional experience. While there is that real world base they do break from this rather often by incorporating elements of the supernatural but it’s something that doesn’t break into the unbelievable. It’s a world that always seems to make sense no matter the scenario.
The zones within each area do have a specific theme they attempt to portray throughout and these do well to create a sense of coherence through the zones. While that god forsaken fog of Solomon islands is extremely depressive I don’t think those spaces would have had the same feel without them. Through these changes in aesthetic you also understand more about the zone, the issues and effects then you might have from a quest or lore item. It becomes an integral part of the experience.
The more brilliant point of this worlds design is how the zones softly blend from one point to the next. Small subtle changes that you barely notice at first but then you become surrounded in a completely new space. Different in both terrain design, colouring and density. Constant changes like with questing spaces and going from built up spaces and close quarters to wide open plains, to deep valleys and haunted forests. It’s an element that made the experience feel that much less artificial. I’ve talked about this sort of thing before and the subtle zone changes that occur but it really does bare repeating about how well it is done compared to others. I’m a bit over the heavily instanced design and the annoying trope of designating a certain theme to each zone and rarely changing from that at all and, while The Secret World always had a strong theme they were presenting it was far more malleable and as such improves the experience immensely.
For the Secret World I think My favourite Zone had to be has to be those of Transylvania. Such a wonderful space full of old world charm, ancient and mythical spaces and pieces of modern civilization. It is an interesting zone filled with a myriad of different interests groups and cultures as well as a variety of changes in the environment itself. They are extremely well researched spaces in every regards and lovingly crafted with an eye for detail.
The Shadowy Forest is the cream of this crop. So many amazing spaces to become immersed in. Crumbling castle complex’s, decayed forest, and interspersed throughout are a few modern services like a power station and water treatment plant… oh, and lets not forget the gypsy camp. It’s an enthralling combination.
And even after these amazing spaces we have so much yet to come in the MMO space. I’m hankering to explore those within Archeage, some of those newer eastern mmo’s like Black Desert and even the indie spaces within Pathfinder, Camelot Unchained and Repopulation. I actually think with many of these mmo’s the design of the world will be that much more important as we want just be deciding where to quest in but where to live. That’s a huge step. Archeage certainly has the advantage there with the larger amount of resources but who knows where those others will take us too.
Part of me thinks that this connection we have, and will have to this worlds is actually more important than a connection to people. It is something that encompasses us i every instance of play and a part that is fundamental to that sense of immersion and engagement. Or maybe it’s something wherein both need to work in harmony, we shall see.