Eternally behind as I am, I finally picked up the Lost and the Damned DLC for GTA IV. I'm quite impressed with it, but I wanted to talk about something in particular that they do- something that ties into my talk of sandbox games and what they are doing wrong from earlier. Y'see, one of the really nice things about GTA IV was its writing- the characters overflowed with personality, especially Niko himself, and their interactions were always a delight. Missions that had you driving along with someone to a job, which were frequent, were made much better by the banter between Niko and his partners as they drove. The normally slightly dull transportation parts were much better because of this.
Lost and the Damned keeps up this trend, but takes it one step further as well. Seeing as, in the LatD, you're a member of a biker gang, you drive in formation with the other bikers on your way to missions. This may not seem amazing, but it's handled very nicely- not only do you have several people for your character to talk with, but it's also much less like autopilot- instead of just driving to wherever, you have to keep in position with your brothers, easing up on the gas when you start to lose them, not taking turns too sharply and causing someone following you to hit a railing. In game, you're a better biker than them- that is, you're a better racer. So you kinda have to ease that up when you're in formation, and I like that. It's more immersive and engaging. Plus, sometimes they decide to make it a race among the gang, and I always kick the shit out of them. Heheh.
But that's all beating around the bush. The point is this- not only is good writing necessary, but if you're going to make a sandbox game, you NEED to come up with some way of keeping the running around from A to B all the time that the player will be doing interesting. That's the cardinal sin that most sandbox games fail. Assassin's Creed, Prototype, and inFamous all tried to keep it interesting through utilizing freerunning/parkour. And in all three titles, it worked for a little while... and then it wore off. It wasn't enough. I haven't finished LatD, maybe the formation gimmick will wear off, too. But it's not a minor detail. If you think about a sandbox game that you found boring, I am nearly certain that when you think back to what you didn't like about it, you remember some boring-ass Fedex mission, or something of the sort.
That's the lesson. If you can make just going where you're supposed to fun and interesting... what happens once you get there will have all the more weight. If, on the other hand, you spend fifteen minutes driving across your giant map in silence, trying not to piss off the cops/army/whatever antagonistic force is in your open world, the player is going to be going into the mission in a pretty nasty mood. I still think we need to scale back on sandbox games, but they sell, so I don't see that happening. So how about, at the very least, you make them more fun to play?