Can you remember the first time you saw an in game map that truly gave you a sense of wonder and the feeling that there was a whole world out there to explore? I can. For me, it was first seeing the pixelated head of Link, marking my position on the overworld map – rendered in the SNES console’s almost magical sprite rotation feature, Mode 7 – in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Not only was it a handy tool to see where you were in the huge world, but it was also a brilliant way of demonstrating how big the world was and how much was out there. It made the world truly come alive as a ‘real’ place (and truly blew my mind when transformed into a more sinister reflection of itself with the Dark World!).
In the years since, video game worlds have become much more three dimensional than the top down 2D world of A Link to the Past, of course, but they don’t always feel as vibrant or alive. In the years since the first Assassin’s Creed introduced us to a large but segregated world, with very distinct areas that didn’t necessarily feel like pieces of a larger whole, the series – and UbiSoft games in general – moved into a very formulaic structure of a huge overworld, revealed piece by piece as towers are scaled, the map filling with icons as more of the world opens up. Though this was initially thrilling, it soon gave way to the feeling of busywork and box ticking, with plenty of missions or collectables just there for the sake of giving the player more and more to do, not because they add anything to the story or the experience. By the time the original series style reached its end, with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, it felt overly, overwhelmingly stuffed with, well…stuff.
The rebooted series began with Assassin’s Creed Origins in 2017 and though the style of combat changed – along with a change in the way that towers are used – the maps continued to grow in size, to the extent that when I realised, after hours of play, that I’d barely scratched the surface of exploring the ridiculously enormous map, I stopped playing completely. Other UbiSoft games in recent years have felt similarly overwhelming in scope, which is great if you have time to commit to a single title for the long duration of their games – but I tend to find myself becoming bored way before the end of the game. Watch Dogs Legion, with its impressively recreated London that shrunk a number of very recognisable real world areas down into still-sizable chunks, seemed to strike just the right balance of scale and fun for me, which was also helped by the fact that I could navigate much of the world by my knowledge of London in the real world.
The joy of using a map is part of the appeal of playing Sea of Thieves, which uses them in a variety of ways. There’s no waypoints and no maps accessible unless you use the world map on your ship – or you have a quest that requires you to track down a treasure chest, in which case you use your ship’s map to match the island shown on your quest. This can then be used to track down your treasure, using the map as a rough guide to locate where you have to dig on an island, with only your compass and the landmarks in the world to further guide you. It’s a very addictive and compelling way to use maps, which makes you feel oh-so-clever when you use your shovel and hear the satisfying thunk of metal-against-chest on the first try.
There’s more in the way of 2D maps that are wonderfully implemented, of course. Metroidvania titles – taking their cues from the wonderfully functional level maps in Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – live or die on the clarity of their maps.
I found the map in EA’s Metroidvania-esque Jedi: Fallen Order absolutely atrocious. Though thematic for a Star Wars game – looking just like something that’d be plucked from the tech used in the movies – it made exploring or finding the one path to your next objective (or back to your ship) an absolute chore during the latter stages of the game.
The GTA games have always been great at presenting at the size and scope of their cities using maps, as well as partitioning off certain sections until later stages put everything at your fingertips. They never overwhelm with icons either, seeming to strike a nice balance between functionality and playability.
This is far from a comprehensive list of maps and worlds; more just a short series of general observations about a few of the worlds I’ve entered and the methods provided to find your way around them. Are there any maps or worlds that have impressed or turned you off a game? Let me know in the comments below!
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