What Happened to the Open-World Crime Genre?

Article By 
Alan Walsh
April 17, 2021

What Happened to the Open-World Crime Genre?

Article By 
Alan Walsh
April 17, 2021

Remember games like Scarface, True Crime and The Getaway? Or how about Sleeping Dogs, The Godfather and Mercenaries? I’d be remised if I didn’t mention Driver, The Saboteur or Total Overdose! Then you had the prime days of Saints Row, Crackdown and APB Reloaded. Heck, one-time it always felt that the next entry in the Grand Theft Auto series was right around the corner.

What do all these games have in common with one another? They all form what I consider to be the open-world crime sandbox genre and let me tell you, throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, it was booming. There was no shortage of fantastic crime-action games to check out, so if you liked stealing cars, gunning down peds and pulling off epic stunts in an open-world environment, you were covered. The best part was that no two games were ever identical. Despite the overused term “GTA clone” which commonly appeared in reviews, press coverage and discussion around these games – a phrase that I am advocating to be retired, each of these titles brought something new to the table. It drove competition, and this in turn fuelled innovation.

But today, the genre feels almost non-existent. It’s been seven-years since the last installment in the Grand Theft Auto series, with developer Rockstar Games instead opting to focus on supporting GTA Online. But all of these other great franchises like The Getaway, Sleeping Dogs and Driver are now a thing of the past and it’s a real shame. If you love action-crime sandboxes, there’s very few options for you outside of GTA Online. Thankfully Just Cause 4 is a genuine boot-load of fun. Its gadgets allow for unlimited possibilities and experimentation, while the gameplay is focused on player agency and providing a massive sandbox with all the tools needed to make the experience unique for everyone. Its developer Avalanche Studios appears to be following a three-year development cycle for the franchise. Sadly, it has been reluctant to add multiplayer support and there’s no guarantee that it’ll arrive in the future either.

Meanwhile, APB Reloaded, a free-to-play game set in a modern-city is the opposite. It’s an online third-person action game consisting of two sides fighting each other in missions as Enforcers attempt to stop Criminals from completing objectives. APB suffered a rocky launch in 2010, however, due to its subscription-like model that required players to buy “game time” on top of the initial retail purchase. You can thank the executives at EA for that one. Sadly, this resulted in both the game and its developer Realtime Worlds to be shut down. Development costs exceeded $100 million, and EA were satisfied to dispose of all that effort due to their awful mishandling of the game. Thankfully, the APB property was picked up by Reloaded Productions and relaunched in 2011 as APB Reloaded using its free-to-play model that exists today.

APB in its initial form was created by David Jones, who also conceived the Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown franchises. The latter of these had its last sequel in 2019. It was supposed to feature a fully-destructible cloud-powered open-world, but this was scaled back entirely for the final release – and was only somewhat utilized in the Wrecking Zone compeititve multiplayer mode, which wasn’t anything too special. Considering Jones’ work on APB beforehand, as well as his earlier Crackdown games, it’s a shame that Crackdown 3 ultimately failed to impress. It’s worth noting that he wasn’t around for its final few years of development, however. Cloudgine, a cloud computing software company founded by Jones was acquired by Epic Games at the end of 2017. It doesn’t sound like Jones will be launching any new open-world sandbox franchises anytime soon, if ever again – and that’s a real-shame. When you consider the success of the GTA series, as well as the limitless potential of APB and Crackdown, it’s evident that Jones was a true talent for the genre. I’m sure I speak for many fans when I say I’d like him to give it another stab, either in one of his existing franchises or a wholly new IP – just without the mismanagement from publishers that plagued much of his previous efforts.

Developed by Volition, Saints Row is another ongoing open-world crime franchise that began to lose its way with fans with the release of Saints Row The Third. While I personally enjoyed its recent remastered version, it did ultimately lead the series to where it is today. Saints Row 4 focused on superpowers while the Gat out of Hell standalone game was literally set in hell and saw the player act as Satan and working alongside demons. One time, it all wasn’t this far-fetched and ludicrous. In fact, Saints Row was the most notable competitor in the genre though considering its lack of competition these days, it still holds that crown. Some even preferred it over the GTA franchise due to its more light-hearted approach and a focus on pure fun gameplay experiences. It also proved just how nonsensical the whole “GTA clone” term is because Saints Row The Third even featured GTA Online’s infamous Oppressor Mk2 back in 2011. In the words of Volition’s social media manager, now who’s copying who?

Take yourself back to 2005. The HD console era was about to commence. After a generation that was defined by the open-world crime sandbox genre – with GTA games arriving onto the Xbox platform later than PlayStation, one thing was clear: Microsoft needed a competitor. In comes Saints Row. Originally planned for the PS2, Saints Row was secured as a permanent exclusive and revealed alongside the Xbox 360. Before the game’s launch in 2006, a free demo was made available – breaking Xbox Live records by being downloaded more than 350,000 times in its first week. There’s no doubt that Xbox 360 gamers were thirsty for a new urban crime sandbox and Saints Row was here to quench that desire. It reviewed favourably among critics and fans alike, going on to spawn numerous sequels including the fan-favourite Saints Row 2 – which is currently being fixed up on PC for those eager to revisit it on modern hardware. However, by the time the sequel would be announced, Microsoft had lost interest in the franchise, presumably because it had locked down a deal with Rockstar for Grand Theft Auto IV.

Not only would GTA IV launch day-and-date on Xbox 360 with the PS3 version – a first for the series, but Xbox 360 had timed exclusivity on both Episodes from Liberty City: The Lost & Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. The PC version of GTA IV that arrived several months later would also be integrated into Microsoft’s Game for Windows Live platform. Considering all of this, as well as the fact that the game included a one-month trial for Xbox Live Gold – a once-off scenario, it’s clear that Microsoft understood the importance of the open-world crime-action genre. But this energy would be lost. While Crackdown titles remained in active development, that was it. Microsoft became comfortable knowing that Rockstar were committed to supporting the Xbox 360 due to the console’s runaway success, and of course, GTA Online is hugely successful today on Xbox One, as well as the PS4 and PC. It’s constantly charted as one of the top-played and best-selling games on all systems, which greatly benefits platform-holders such as Microsoft and Sony. Both receive royalties from digital game sales and Shark Card purchases. It’s an almost never-ending cycle of “free” money.

In addition, the ongoing success of GTA Online and its continuous updates are both huge factors in encouraging console gamers to continue renewing their Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus subscriptions. When you consider its absurd level of support over the past seven-years, I can’t help but see GTA Online as the perfect expression of Microsoft’s vision for Xbox Live, especially in its early days. This never-ending success has great consequences on the open-world crime-action genre, however. There’s no need for Microsoft or Sony to launch their own first-party competitors because there’s no push to do so – Rockstar already has that market well established for them, even if they’d prefer not to pay those large platform fees; while third-party publishers are too scared to compete with the seven-year juggernaut for fears that their game will be contrasted and ripped a part for not bettering Rockstar’s efforts. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone involved except Rockstar and the platform-holders, and we’ve certainly lost on out on some incredible games because of it. This is when I feel grateful to Avalanche and Volition for still attempting to diversify the genre as much as possible, because at least they’re trying to compete and rejuvenate it – which can’t be said for most other publishers or developers.

Sony’s London Studio, formerly known as Team Soho, created The Getaway as a PlayStation exclusive franchise. It was supposed to launch alongside the PlayStation 2 but later arrived in 2002. Set in London, the game was inspired by British gangster films and was directed by none other than Brendan McNamara – a name L.A. Noire fans should be familiar with. The Getaway not only featured a real-world urban setting, but also licensed vehicles from the likes of Rover, Peugeot, Fiat and Lexus. I remember playing this one as a kid and being in awe of how detailed the city looked for its time, but of course it wasn’t the only game that left me feeling that way back then as we were spoiled for choice those days. The Getaway also felt like a movie and it’s clear this is something London Studio strived to achieve considering its inspirations. It was constantly compared to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City however, which launched around the same time and was hugely popular. This did affect sales and frustratingly shows how overtime studios became discouraged to continue competing with such a blockbuster hit, but of course, back then it was still early days for the genre and developers were highly motivated to add their own twists to open-world crime games, even if it meant being slammed with that defamatory “GTA clone” term.

Eight Days is a cancelled linear action-crime game that was being developed exclusively for PlayStation 3. London Studio had several interesting design concepts planned, as well as large-scale set-piece moments – including a prison break, a gas station shootout, and a helicopter chase with two characters hanging from a bank safe as the pilot crashed through a highway. The gameplay flow of each scenario would’ve consisted of an epic gunfight to a high-octane set-piece beat before the player escaped in a vehicle to proceed to the next level. As its title suggests, Eight Days would’ve been set over the course of eight days across eight different states, including Texas, Arizona, New York, Colorado, and California – with each offering their own gameplay distinctions. The idea of including a real-life clock was also considered, so if you played the game during the night, it would also be dark in the game.

Players would’ve also been given a choice of characters too – either good or bad. The former would focus on a detective searching for a mob syndicate that kidnapped his son, while the latter entailed getting revenge on that same gang. Both characters would eventually cross paths and work together. Sony had used Eight Days as a PlayStation 3 tech demo to demonstrate the capabilities of the PS3’s notoriously hard-to-develop-for Cell processor. For the time, it was a visual showpiece with many questioning the authenticity of the footage shown for the game. Eight Days promised to feature slick shooting mechanics and its smooth gameplay animations made it look like a blockbuster action movie – which isn’t a surprise when looking back at their efforts on The Getaway. This was further amplified by its impressive physics work and some truly destructive explosions, which were quite unlike anything else we had ever seen before.

Plans were also underway for The Getaway 3 at London Studio, with both it and Eight Days being developed concurrently. It all however came to an end in June 2008 – notably two months after the highly-successful launch of GTA IV, as both games had been cancelled. Sony reasoned its decision by stating it had an “incredibly strong list of exclusive first party titles” and would instead allocate its resources to those. Former Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida later said that Eight Day’s lack of online support fuelled this decision, and it didn’t fit the company’s strategy. This is ironic because the PlayStation first-party line-up of today mostly focuses on blockbuster single-player and story-driven games.

If Eight Days had come to fruition, it could’ve been the “ultimate Hollywood action movie experience,” as the game’s former principal animator Jim Jagger called it in a Polygon feature article. “It was geared towards putting the player in the greatest action movie that had ever been made,” he said. One of the other interesting titbits of that story is that it finally confirmed that Eight Days’ infamous debut at E3 2006, which many felt looked “too good to be true,” was indeed faked and even outsourced to another studio. Like many other developers, London Studio found it a challenge to develop for the PlayStation 3’s architecture. It also didn’t help that the developer’s new engine had its fair share of technical issues. The sad reality is that Eight Days had little legitimate gameplay that could’ve been shown to the public before it was axed. It would’ve taken the studio at least another year before they’d have any kind of playable “beta” ready.

Agent, a stealth action-game from Rockstar would be announced at Sony’s E3 presser as a PS3 exclusive just one-year after the cancellation of Eight Days and The Getaway 3. It was to be the “ultimate action game,” as Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser put it. Set during the Cold War in the late 1970s, Agent would “take players into the world of counter-intelligence, espionage and political assassinations.” Twelve years later and the spy-based action game has yet to be released. It hasn’t been officially cancelled by Rockstar either, at least from a public standpoint. It remains listed on their website, but little else is known. Some excellent reports have been published on Agent’s troubled development, including how another version of it began production at Rockstar San Diego in the early 2000s before it was handed over to Rockstar North.

In addition, a team of former artists at the studio travelled to Cairo, Egypt to capture imagery of various landmarks. The trip did not go smoothly, however as the developers involved were put under house arrest. It’s a bizarre story that proves just how far studios are willing to go to bring us some of our favourite game experiences. One of the artists on that trip was Darrell Gallagher, who is currently Studio Head at Microsoft’s The Initiative – the studio rebooting the Perfect Dark franchise. Many former Rockstar San Diego employees have joined the team, so it’s no surprise that the game’s reveal trailer featured series protagonist Joanna Dark overlooking a city in Egypt – an appropriate nod to their previous, yet unreleased work. They had planned “at least three” levels for the game, including an open-world hub in Washington, while more linear levels such as Cairo were focused on set-piece moments. For the record, the art team did visit Washington D.C. for a research trip and were similarly detained. As for the other levels, Rockstar San Diego didn’t have the opportunity to start work on them – in 2005, they were told to bundle up the assets for Rockstar North and to begin producing the western content.

Much of Rockstar San Diego’s technical contributions on Agent would be repurposed for Red Dead Redemption and the creation of Rockstar’s in-house RAGE engine, while some of Rockstar North’s efforts emerged in Grand Theft Auto V and GTA Online. The Richards Majestic’s “Backlot City” film set consists of assets originally intended for the spy-thriller, while the Stromberg added in The Doomsday Heist was also first conceived for Agent. It’s a submersible vehicle that was a part of Rockstar North’s initial test demo for the game – one which their colleagues at Rockstar San Diego said, “blew anything that we had done out of the water.” But outside of some missions, concepts and locations that appeared in Grand Theft Auto V, the game never saw the light of day. Agent started development almost twenty years ago. It remains one of the most mysterious projects in the history of gaming – though this concept art as well as these images which surfaced online some years ago provide just a glimpse at what Rockstar North at least had in the pipeline.

If Sony had cancelled Eight Days and The Getaway 3 to focus their investment on Agent instead, then that clearly backfired on them massively. Sadly, London Studio hasn’t had the chance to revisit those projects and instead focuses on enriching PlayStation’s casual line-up, including games for PlayStation VR. One of those that caught my attention is Blood & Truth, a first-person action shooter involving a London mob boss who has kidnapped the protagonist’s family. It sounds familiar, right? Not only did London Studio call it a “love letter to classic cockney gangster movies,” but they even considered making it an installment in The Getaway series. Despite a history mostly consisting of SingStar and family-friendly titles like Wonderbook and EyeToy games – they even developed PlayStation Home, maybe one day, Sony will allow London Studio to mature and get back to what they do best. If Blood & Truth proves anything, it’s that these developers are clearly itching to make a new open-world crime-action game and I hope they finally get that opportunity on the PlayStation 5. As of writing, London Studio are recruiting for “a brand-new, next-gen IP.”

Sleeping Dogs brought the urban crime genre to Hong Kong in 2012. It followed an undercover Chinese-American police officer Wei Shen in their efforts to infiltrate a crime syndicate. It placed a heavy focus on melee combat, as well as parkour and the use of gadgets. Sleeping Dogs, like so many other titles in the genre, suffered from a troubled development cycle. At first, it was supposed to be an entry in the True Crime series before Activision cancelled it. Square Enix acquired publishing rights and while it was no longer licensed under that franchise, it was considered a spiritual successor. However, the game was ultimately deemed a “failure” as it sold-in 1.75 million copies. While the publisher initially defended these figures and admitted that it had unreasonably high expectations for the title, both its sequel and a multiplayer spin-off game were cancelled.

The sequel to Sleeping Dogs started pre-production in 2013 but it never left that phase. If the game had been fully realized, it would’ve been set in China’s Pearl River Delta. Players would’ve been able to arrest any NPC they find in the world and influence “a branching storyline.” There were also plans for a second screen tie-in, allowing you to make choices that affected gameplay, such as calling in police backup or managing which territories officers should try to control. An idea for players to influence the gameplay experience for everyone else was also being considered. For example, busting a crime or taking a bribe could adjust the dynamics of the city in other players’ games. This means that everyone could’ve worked together to clean up one part of town and transform it into a liveable neighbourhood. There were also plans for co-op, including some missions and challenges specifically designed to play with friends, such as street races, fight clubs and survivals, as well as “procedurally generated missions” that would assemble a unique campaign using existing characters and objectives – an impressive but mostly unexplored concept. The standing you had with factions within the city would also influence certain bonuses or new mission opportunities, all as part of an effort to provide dynamic consequences to every action you do.

Meanwhile, Triad Wars was a PC online game designed with MMO elements in-mind. It could’ve been a direct competitor to GTA Online, but instead it offered little-to-no player interaction and was focused on raiding enemy hideouts filled with NPCs. Players could also upgrade their own settlements, complete side missions and steal cars to explore the map – which was identical to that of Sleeping Dogs. You could also raid other players’ turf to hinder their experience but doing so brought little benefit or consequences. Triad Wars focused more on strategy and its open-world instead of creating a compelling online experience. It was naturally microtransaction-heavy too despite being in “beta,” and IGN described it as “nothing more than a Sleeping Dogs single-player mode with leaderboards.” If players were able to establish gangs with other players and build up a criminal empire while attempting to dethrone rival triads, it could’ve been something truly special, but it remains another missed opportunity as the Sleeping Dogs franchise remains dormant.

Square Enix released a Definitive Edition of the original game in October 2014 for the new consoles, which bundled all post-release content into one package and improved gameplay, visual and audio quality. Sadly, its developer United Front Games would be silently shut down, which means there’s almost no chance that we’ll see a Sleeping Dogs sequel unless Square Enix hands it over to one of its other studios, such as Crystal Dynamics who successfully rebooted the Tomb Raider series, but its latest effort, Marvel’s Avengers was a significant failure. For more on the potential of Sleeping Dogs 2 and the internal studio affairs, this feature story from Vice has you covered.

Reflections Interactive, nowadays known as Ubisoft Reflections, brought its own twist to the open-world crime formula. Since the series began in 1999, the team shipped a total of five main installments, as well as several spin-off titles for handheld consoles and mobile devices. What makes Driver so interesting is that it gave players the freedom to explore a 3D city almost two years before the Grand Theft Auto series did it. At the time, GTA was still a 2D top-down game, while Driver featured four real-life cities in 3D: Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. Players assumed the role of John Tanner, a former racecar driver turned undercover detective. Its storyline was inspired by car chase movies of the 60s and 70s, including Bullitt and The Driver. In addition to being the first game to accomplish such technical feats, Driver would remain the best-selling entry in the series. Driver 2 would follow a year later and was set in four new cities: Chicago, Havana, Las Vegas, and Rio de Janeiro. It introduced 2-player modes, curved roads and the ability to get out of a car at any time to steal another. Indeed, Driver successfully replicated vehicle hijacking in a 3D urban world almost a year before the franchise named after the crime itself would catch up. So, does this make GTA a “Driver clone?”

Set in Miami, Nice and Istanbul, Driver 3 would follow in 2004 but at this point, Grand Theft Auto 3 and its predecessor, Vice City, had taken the world by storm. It was the first entry to receive poor critical reviews, despite adding new features such as firearms combat. Game publisher Atari admitted that it pushed out the title before it was given necessary polish to hit the market before the eagerly-anticipated GTA San Andreas. There was also a massive scandal that broke out at its release as Atari were accused of paying two outlets for positive reviews that didn’t mention the game’s clearly obvious technical shortcomings. The fourth entry in the series, Driver: Parallel Lines released in 2006 and brought the series back to its roots with a more driving-focused experience – clearly a move to separate the series from its widespread comparisons to GTA. Did you know Rockstar even poked fun at both Driver and The Getaway in its 3D GTA titles? Anyways, Parallel Lines introduced a new playable protagonist named TK – a criminal who would find himself sentenced to prison for 28 years. Another change was that the game was set in just one location, New York City, but it did feature two distinct time periods, 1978 and 2006. However, the franchise’s downward spiral of sales figures would persist. TK would reappear in the PSP-exclusive Driver 76, which was the first entry to be published by Ubisoft following their acquisition of Reflections. Instead of playing as TK however, players assumed control of his friend Ray. The title was set in 1976’s New York once again and was developed in collaboration with Sumo Digital.

After five years of production, Driver: San Francisco homed in on the franchise’s driving origins when it released in 2011. Its location should be easy to guess, but this time Tanner was back in the driving seat. However, players would no longer be able to exit their vehicle to steal another – the developers sidestepped this through their new “Shift” mechanic, allowing players to use a drone-like camera to explore the map and move to any other vehicle around them. While Driver San Francisco sold well and received the highest reviews in the series of any Driver sequel, there hasn’t been another mainline entry since. Ubisoft Reflections has focused on assisting Ubisoft with the driving elements in their other open-world games, including racing series The Crew – which is set across the entire USA, and the hacking sandbox that is Watch Dogs. The latter of these has become Ubisoft’s primary competitor to the Grand Theft Auto franchise, though its focus on using “hacks” to solve problems in missions or create a unique flavour of carnage in the open-world franchise set its aside from being directly compared to Rockstar’s juggernaut series.

Watch Dogs prioritizes its stealth and puzzle elements throughout each of its missions, centring the storyline around different hacker protagonists who find themselves in a stark criminal underworld to take down corrupt companies, crime bosses and rival hackers. Cities in the Watch Dogs universe are connected through the ctOS network which players can take advantage of to rein havoc in the world. What makes Watch Dogs stand out compared to most other games discussed in this article is that it’s still an active franchise – with the latest entry Watch Dogs: Legion having just released last year. Ubisoft has also launched a multiplayer mode for it, which acts as a playground for you and your friends to experiment with all the game’s hacking capabilities in a vast London sandbox. It’s set in the near future however – so at this point, the world has mostly automated itself, and some features I personally consider key to the genre – like being able to walk into a store to purchase items such as clothing or vehicles, are missing. Regardless, it’s a contender and it brings a fresh perspective on what an online open-world crime game can look like. There’s a series of cooperative missions that encourage player communication, numerous side activities to complete in Freemode and a Spiderbot Arena PvP mode. While they lost me somewhat at that last one, truthfully, I don’t find the hacking objectives or use of futuristic gadgets like Spiderbots and drones all too interesting in these games, I still appreciate the effort nonetheless because it’s something – and they’re open to PC modding, which I highly approve of.

As a whole, the Watch Dogs franchise has done well for Ubisoft and sold-in more than 10 million units since its initial debut in 2014. The first two entries were set in Chicago and San Francisco respectively, though the former was heavily criticised for apparent “downgrades” compared to what was first shown at the game’s reveal during E3 2012. Ubisoft set out to right those wrongs with its sequel and many considered it a solid improvement over the original – it’s personally my favourite of the three games as it feels the most grounded, relatable and features the best sandbox of the bunch. Watch Dogs 2’s fictional San Francisco – a location familiar by now to Ubisoft fans, offered the most exploration variety with a sizable city consisting of multiple islands to discover and a large outskirts region to boot. Using boats were also an appropriate form of transport in this game too, as there were otherwise inaccessible locations to discover! Additionally, Ubisoft filled the map with various activities to complete, stores to browse and vehicles to purchase. There was also plenty of side content to keep players occupied upon finishing the main questline – as well as an integrated multiplayer mode so you and your friends can undertake various cooperative and competitive content, or just play and roam the sandbox together.

Watch Dogs 2 and its world has a sense of empathy – it had charm and much it sadly didn’t carry over to its successor. Going forward, I hope Ubisoft reflects on what made Marcus Holloway’s adventure so special and fun. Watch Dogs Legion’s ability to recruit and play-as-anyone in the world, while technically impressive, sucked out much of the game’s personality – and it feels unnecessarily limiting as certain traits, weapons and vehicles are locked behind specific characters. It makes the game feel less of an experimental sandbox and more of a generic third-person shooter with hacking puzzles tossed in. Its hi-tech and futuristic London map with each of its various districts are simply great; it feels realistic and genuinely mammoth at times, plus it even reminds me of travelling there in a pre-pandemic timeline, but it doesn’t beat San Francisco’s truly remarkable and modern-day open-world – not by a longshot.

It’s clear that Watch Dogs has come a long way since its initial outing, a franchise that was created by Assassin’s Creed executive producer Jade Raymond. Shortly after the first Watch Dogs, she founded her own studio as part of EA called Motive. The publisher wanted her to create a blockbuster “gigantic-action” game in the vein of the Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto franchises. When Raymond first opened Motive in late 2015, EA admitted that it had little to offer in the open-world action sandbox genre. While working on its new IP codenamed “Gaia,” EA also had Motive assist with its Star Wars projects. EA had acquired the rights to create exclusive games based on the IP but was struggling to deliver them at the rate desired by both the publisher and Lucasfilm. This distracted Motive from the game – and Gaia was rebooted due to “creative conflicts” and headed in a new direction in 2018.

Raymond would leave EA shortly thereafter to join Google as the VP of Stadia Games & Entertainment – where she also tried to establish a large-scale multiplayer action game. These efforts would not come to fruition, however. Earlier this year, EA cancelled “Gaia,” the rebooted “gigantic-action” game from Motive and Stadia Games & Entertainment was also shuttered. Google has promised to release any titles that are almost completed, but Raymond departed the company upon Stadia’s first-party closure. In March 2021, she launched a new independent studio called Haven Entertainment. It has received investment from Sony as the studio sets out to create a new original IP for PlayStation. Whether it’ll be an open-world crime sandbox in the vein of Watch Dogs remains to be seen, but after two failed attempts in a row in bringing a gigantic urban-action game to life, they say third time’s the charm – and I’d love to see her original vision for “Gaia” and her ideas to revolutionize the genre finally become a reality.

Cyberpunk 2077. It’s undoubtedly the most controversial game in recent memory due to a levy of bugs and performance problems – especially on older consoles. However, its blend of open-world crime and role-playing elements resulted in a unique game. Most RPGs opt for fantasy, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic or historical settings, which made Cyberpunk 2077’s take on the genre the most refreshing of any. The hype was second to none, with some even expecting this to be the “GTA killer.” While that wasn’t the case, as Cyberpunk lacked the necessary sandbox features, it’s still worth examining. Night City is an enormous, densely populated metropolis with its outer suburbs and wilderness bringing a welcome change of nuance to the world. Cyberpunk 2077 set out to “redefine” open-world gameplay – its pre-launch marketing drew close comparisons to the Grand Theft Auto franchise for many, with CD Projekt Red even rebranding the game from being an “open-world RPG” to “an open-world action-adventure story.” This was arguably more appropriate due to the game’s focus on a more linear narrative instead of branching pathways.

While Cyberpunk 2077 wasn’t the gameplay revolution many had hoped for, it was an ambitious effort nonetheless and most of its issues were a result of management problems, which is something that affects almost every title we’ve discussed in this article thus far. CD Projekt Red were also committed to a standalone multiplayer game set in the world of Cyberpunk 2077. It’s clear they wanted to launch a direct competitor to GTA Online, but sadly this won’t be happening anytime soon as the company recently told investors it’d be pivoting away from this idea to instead focus on implementing online into its future games. That means the standalone Cyberpunk multiplayer game is off the table and we may never see an online experience for the futuristic game unless of course, it receives a sequel. Despite its issues and controversies, Cyberpunk 2077 has sold very well – so let’s hope CD Projekt Red are willing to give the franchise and a potential online mode the chance they both deserve.

Scarface: The World Is Yours. It’s the title that opened this article so it’s only fitting to give it the elaborate write-up it deserves. Instead of being a direct adaptation of the classic 1983 film, the game presents itself as a “broad strokes” sequel that changed the movie’s ending so that Tony Montana survived. The premise of the game focuses on enacting revenge on those who ousted the formidable kingpin all while re-establishing his drug empire. Players can take control of cars, boats and wield several unique weapons, but unlike most other titles in the genre, they cannot kill innocent pedestrians. If there’s any game that comes remotely close to GTA Online’s cargo and drug trade businesses, its Scarface – a game that predates it by over a half a decade, which only further proves the overall peculiarity of the calling open-world crime sandboxes “GTA clones.” You could hire employees to help rebuild Tony’s empire, including a driver, a boat pilot to smuggle larger hauls of cocaine, an arms dealer to supply weapons, an enforcer to protect businesses and attack rivals, and finally, a hitman who would eliminate gangsters and competing dealers. It really does sound familiar, as GTA Online lets you recruit bodyguards to reduce the risk of businesses raids, hire and train employees to be more proficient in goods production and even assign workers to different types of cargo. The only difference is that Scarface reached the punchline ten years earlier while still maintaining a further level of intricacy in running such operations.

Despite its age, Scarface still offers some remarkable gameplay mechanics. For example, targeting distinct body parts will produce various reactions from enemies. Shoot the opponent in the leg to watch them fall but watch out – they’ll continue firing at you – or hit them in the arm to weaken their aim. There’s even a slow-motion bullet-time-style mode that switches the player to a first-person perspective, provides automatic aim and infinite ammo, as well as no reloads. Killing enemies in this mode also heals Tony and gives you with a sense of badass satisfaction. Scarface also has a surprising amount of depth to its progression. There are four regions for players to control the drug trade, reputation that must be earned to unlock certain items, and missions and even side-requests that can be carried out to get in contact with a cocaine supplier. Smaller “grams” can be sold directly to street dealers or dispersed through other means, while larger “kilos” must be stored in a warehouse before being distributed to buyers in a single run – all while being pursued by rival gangsters. Heck, you can even directly buy large amounts of coke from the Caribbean Islands, which you must escort safely back to the mainland while avoiding pirates and the coast guard. The level of depth here is just astounding and it makes GTA Online’s effort at running a drug empire feel not only limited, but just pitiful. The vast assortment of options for running your trade in Scarface is eye-opening and it shows just how much room for expansion there really is.

Scarface also had a unique approach to its money system. Cash on hand is considered “dirty” and if the player dies, is arrested by cops or gets shaken down by an opposing gang, they’ll lose all of it. The only way to protect that money is to launder it into a bank. Sounds familiar, right? Each time you deposit cash, the bank will take a cut of the total – a value that’s determined by Tony’s current “cop heat.” The higher your heat level, the bigger their cut – but you can even bribe police to lower it. Meanwhile, the price of cocaine is determined by “gang heat,” but similarly, Tony can intimidate other gangs to reduce it. Hilariously, there’s also a mode called “You’re fucked,” which as its title suggests, prevents the player from escaping the police alive if your “cop heat” exceeds a certain threshold. These innovative gameplay approaches haven’t been seen in any other game, except for GTA Online’s split between banked money and cash-on-hand – some of which you’ll lose when you die or if a mugger is sent your way, but otherwise they’re totally unique to Scarface, so it’s no surprise the game sold more than 2 million units worldwide – with Vivendi, the game’s publisher expressing that it wanted to turn Scarface into a multigame franchise.

Company president Phil O’Neil’s exact words were “a Scarface 2, a Scarface 3, a Scarface 4, and consecutive iterations of that product [are] a really important component of what we're trying to do here.” But what really happened was nothing. Rights to the franchise were transferred to Activision in 2008 and later handed back to Universal Pictures, but the Scarface franchise has remained completely dormant ever since. Vivendi did release a turn-based strategy Scarface game for PSP, but sadly killed an Xbox 360 port for Scarface: The World Is Yours in the process. It’s a dire shame overall, because this franchise would’ve been the closest to a “GTA killer,” at least in terms of a Vice City-esque game, but sadly due to publisher mishandling, it was never meant to be. But if there’s one thing we can take away from Scarface, it’s that we badly do need more open-world crime games set in the 80s amidst some of the world’s largest drug trades. It also proves that with the right combination of gameplay systems and design innovations, it’s indeed possible to outdo the game that most are too afraid to rival.

Scarface developer Radical were also developing a new Jason Bourne game adaptation called Treadstone, which would’ve been an online game set in the world of the spy agency that trained Bourne himself. The game was similarly cancelled due to the Activision and Vivendi merger and the Bourne IP ended up at EA. The publisher had planned to make several Bourne games, but the first that was being developed by Starbreeze Studios was also cancelled. All these games being either abandoned, shelved or terminated mid-production really has to make you wonder why publishers struggle to output games that are focused on open-world action, be it a sandbox crime game or an espionage spy thriller. Perhaps we’ll never know for sure, but there may possibly be hope – something that could give the gaming industry and more particularly the open-world sandbox genre the revolutionary overhaul it so desperately needs.

Leslie Benzies, the former lead producer on the Grand Theft Auto series who left Rockstar after a permanent sabbatical – and ended up in a legal battle with the company over unpaid royalties, is currently developing an ambitious new game called “Everywhere.” His studio Build a Rocket Boy Games are crafting a near-future open-world experience that promises to offer seamless multiplayer integration. The project started development on Amazon’s Lumberyard engine but considering its infancy and the lack of technically accomplished games developed on it, it’s no surprise that Benzies’ team switched to Unreal Engine from November 2020.

Other former Rockstar North staffers Matthew Smith and Colin Entwistle are also onboard with Everywhere – all with a shared goal of making the least restrictive, but feature-filled open-world gameplay experience ever. It sounds like a monumental task, but if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s these guys. It’s just ironic that the contender we’ve been awaiting to rival GTA this entire time might establish itself in Edinburgh. The Scottish capital is home to both Rockstar North and Build a Rocket Boy Games but considering the experience of Benzies’ and his proven team, I think we might be in for a treat with Everywhere. Who knows, it might just become the greatest sandbox game of all-time. We can always dream.

Update (24/04/2021): An admin from the Everywhere Network community, Nestor reached out to inform me that neither Matthew Smith nor Colin Entwistle is currently employed by Build A Rocket Boy. Both departed the company around Summer 2018. Smith joined EA’s Motive as an Audio Director, while Entwistle lists Everywhere as one of his “previous projects.”

Former Crytek Studio Head Kristoffer Waardahl is currently the Studio Head and Director at Build A Rocket Boy. He is joined by Gameforge’s former Chief Publisher Officer, Tim Campbell, who is also listed as a Studio Head and Business Director.

Alan Walsh

Alan is the co-founder and co-owner of FullThrottle Media. As someone who enjoys spending all his free time playing video games, he keeps the website updated with new and relevant content, including news stories, reviews and opinion pieces for the games he likes writing about the most. He also tweets too much, probably.