Sandbox games are a genre based on leaving the player on a large open area and giving them complete freedom. They are also called GTA clones, because until at least 2006 that was ridiculously accurate.
Grand Theft Auto
Sandbox games were essentially created in 1997 when a small company called DMA Design released a game called Grand Theft Auto. The game was an oddity even for the caveman-like society of the time. For instance, the game was in 3D, which was quite the new thing at the time (caveman-like society, remember) but went to great lengths to conceal this fact. In fact, the game boasted that it only used 20% of the console's power to draw graphics, as opposed to the 40-50% that were the rule for most games. This meant the game had the additional processing power to run an A.I. so sophisticated that it would not notice if you fired a silenced pistol behind them. (Gasp!)
Despite that, Grand Theft Auto was built around one of those ideas that looks obvious in hindsight but takes a visionary to come up with. It combined the games in which a little guy ran around shooting stuff with the games in which a little car drove around over stuff. GTA was not the first game to do it, but was the one to be most thorough with it. Even more, it also had you play as an unapologetically bad guy, who caused mayhem and murder not for a greater cause but for points/money. Even so, Playstation era GTA games never gained more than a cult following.
This changed with the release of GTA III, the first game in the series with actual 3D looking graphics. Suddenly, the cat was out of the bag and the GTA franchise became one of the most famous of that generation. It was at this time that DMA Design, now Rockstar North, pretty much started trying to sabotage their own games to see if people would still buy it. Subtly at first, setting Vice City in the worst decade of the century, and arguably of the millennium, and giving the main character a shirt that was garish even for its standards. Then, with San Andreas, they went crazy: a RPG like leveling system that would make your character play like shit at the early game, the character would become weaker and eventually die unless you constantly ate and played drab minigames, the setting was full of empty tracts of land and a gang war side mission was designed to be the most evil thing possible, and then set to be reset the beginning just when you thought you were getting the hang of it. It's still one of the most beloved episodes of the series.
Rockstar took its time before bringing the franchise to the current gen. The game would be called GTA IV, hinting that it would be as advanced in relation the previous GTA games as GTA III was in relation to the Playstation games. Unfortunately, we will never know. Just before the game was released, professional evil company EA tried to do a hostile takeover of Rockstar's publisher Take-Two. This scared off the GTA IV devs, and they hid in an undisclosed location with all copies of the game. Yet, thanks to the previous experiments, Take-Two knew players would buy any game en masse as long as it was called GTA, so they just slapped the logo on a Driver game they had lying around for some reason. The most perceptive gamers immediately caught on to the deception. It's simple, really: If it has decent graphics, bad on-foot gameplay, a load of sidequests and a light-hearted storyline, it's GTA. If it has awesome graphics, horrid on-foot gameplay, no sidequests and a heavy-handed storyline, it's Driver. Millions of gamers failed to realize the difference and now GTA: Driver is the most successful entry in the Driver franchise.
Driver is widely considered to be the first game to try and topple GTA's domain on the sandbox genre, which is curious considering that the first game was simply one of the games in which a little car drove around over stuff. Since the series started before the GTA boom, it was created in those quaint times in which gamers were believed to not be complete bastards. So your character in the game is a cop, but he's an undercover cop so it's OK for him to run over pedestrians wantonly, as long as no one asks him if he's a cop, otherwise he has to reply truthfully or commit seppuku.
Driver is the only sandbox franchise to also harken back to an ancient time in which Playstation consoles had no numbers and Nintendo consoles were named after how many bits they had, but in the same way that for the laymen the first GTA game is GTA III, the first Driver game is Driv3r, which is actually kind of sad, because at least you can tell GTA III can't possibly be the first game in a franchise, but with a title like Driv3r there might have been an insane marketing analyst in the branding department. Driv3r decided to take GTA head on, creating a product with great graphics and extremely detailed collision physics, unfortunately forgetting that it was supposed to be a game as well. Once the novelty of tires rolling away and cars being crushed in two wore off, players realized that the only tangible way the game surpassed the GTA series was in that it somehow managed to have even worse gunplay. The next game, Parallel Lines, tried to use the GTA technique of setting a game in an older, cooler decade, but even the power of the seventies could not save it.
A new Driver game is to be released in 2011, and they'll fix the on-foot gameplay by removing it entirely and replacing the player character with a ghost that can possess drivers at will. This is not a joke, look it up. More information on this game is available but once you find out that a game's main character is a ghost that possesses drivers you already know whether or not you'll buy it.
If you think calling games GTA clones is bad, you'll need to reconsider for True Crime. Unlike Driver, which already existed and was just repackaged as a GTA killer, True Crime was created from the ground up to dethrone the king of the sandbox, which sounds a lot less badass when your metaphor involves dirty toddlers. It also starred a cop rather than a crook, but since the great excuse for a cop driving over people and then shooting them of being undercover was already taken by Driver, it was decided to set the game in Los Angeles.
True Crime's biggest draw was the large size of its play area, about half as big as the city of Los Angeles, because it takes place in about half of the city of Los Angeles. Some people will still argue about whether it was or wasn't larger than the play area of GTA: San Andreas, but that discussion is pointless because San Andreas looks like a real place while True Crime's LA looks like a scale model of LA after a bully threw congealed Mountain Dew in it.
True Crime: Streets of LA actually had some novel ideas, such as the random crimes that gave something to do to people who weren't entertained by counting how many grannies they could run over without letting go of the L button, the John Woo inspired gameplay that, as corny as it was, was still better than the complete lack of gameplay its competitors had, and the alternate levels you could play if you failed some levels and forgot you could replay them because of a hilarious amnesia-inducing bowling ball accident. All these were pretty much pointless when the main character kept falling through holes in the world, and thus a game in which you can frisk a granny and find an AK-47 on her before she jacks your car managed to become average at best.
The sequel, True Crime: New York City, expanded these novel ideas until they were no longer fun and was rushed through development so much that small woodland animals can be found flattened against its many glitches. Even a cast of big name voice actors, such as Lawrence Fishburn, giving their best performance from the bottom of a well could not save the game from its mediocrity.
Where most games that tried to dethrone GTA were quick to point out that they weren't GTA clones, Saints' Row never bothered. Not only was it an obvious GTA clone, it was an obvious GTA San Andreas clone. In fact, it was an obvious late-game Los Santos GTA San Andreas clone. This isn't the only thing Saints' Row did differently from its predecessors; unlike Driver and True Crime, Saints' Row had clearly been gone through a completely normal QA process and had been playtested by rational beings with human-sized hands. As a result, it was actually playable. Saints' Row also had comprehensive avatar customization options a few months before it became the latest fad, causing people looking through screenshots to be completely confused, and made the weird sidequests obligatory in order to proceed with the main game, causing a chorus of eyebrow-raising reviewers first damning the game for this hand-brake then thanking it for the awesome experience it forced them to have.
The sequel received an unexpected boost when it was slated to be released shortly after GTA IV, which turned out to be a Driver game (see above). While GTA IV was gritty and realistic and had half a dozen identical suits, Saints' Row 2 was lighthearted and loose and let you play as a girl in bondage gear or an obese man in a hot dog costume (amongst others). The fight between the Saints' Row franchise and the GTA franchise is one that exists mostly inside the heads of Saints' Row fans, but the battle has gained some weight when notorious video game critic and accent haver Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw gave it a favourable review. Then, when giving out awards for games at the end of the year, he gave it the only positive award - in a year in which Fallout 3, Resindent Evil 5 and Left 4 Dead came out. And then again, during the next year, he downright said no game had been as spotlessly good as Saints' Row 2 - in the year in which Uncharted 2, Assassin's Creed 2 and Dragon Age: Origins came out. He gave the award to Batman: Arkham Asylum, pointing out that it would be better if Batman didn't walk so weirdly. Since Saints' Row does allow players to change how characters walk, maybe the next Batman game should also let an option to have the Dark Knight strut the Gotham hoods like a pimp.
Shortly after the release of the XBox 360, players who purchased a beta key for Halo 3 were surprised to find a disc than, when placed inside the console, would run a game that was not Halo. This unconceivable situation was a vehicle to deliver a game that encapsulates the essence of the current generation's sandbox games: a game in which you run around a big city, steal cars, and also do something quite awesome. The lure of Crackdown was that the player was not just a guy that run around shooting people, but a super guy that run around shooting people and throwing cars at them during building-bounding jumps. Granted, of course, one had gained enough experience to jump higher than a sidewalk and throw objects heavier than the character's biceps.
Later on publishers re-released Crackdown as Crackdown 2 and tried to convince people it was a different game. It didn't work, and no one wanted beta keys for Halo 3 any more anyway.
Just Cause is one more game that, like Crackdown, describes its premise as 'like GTA but' yet wanted there to be something more meaningful to follow besides 'YOU'RE COP!' So the main gimmick is that your character has a grappling gun that lets him hook to vehicles from across the neighborhood, reel on it, perch on top of it, kick out its driver and take it over. If you think that's the most awesome way to steal a car ever, we'll add it also works on aircraft. So Crackdown has a superhero and Just Cause has a guy with an improbable technological artifact and amazing training. So he's not a superhero. You know, like Batman isn't a superhero.
This is the second time Batman is mentioned in an article that has nothing to do with him so it may be better to move on.
When DMA Design took a break from the early GTA's lack of success and decided to create a game for the Nintendo 64, they created a game in which a guy in bright orange armor travels through time driving over giant alien insects. It wasn't a hit by any means - while nowadays any N64 game looks ugly, Body Harvest managed to look ugly from its release day, and its bad gameplay can't be (entirely) blamed on the three-pronged controller. But it was the first game that looked like a game from modern sandbox genre - a full 3D view of a guy walking through a large continuous environment and hopping into any vehicle he saw. Only instead of shooting foul-mouthed colorful gangsters and comically inept policemen he was shooting giant purple alien scorpions with laser guns on their stingers and instead of driving tuned-out muscle cars he was driving tanks and armored cars and also tuned-out muscle cars.
In some alternative universe Body Harvest is the start of the modern sandbox genre, which is about driving through places killing giant aliens in cars. This proves some outdated theories about us living in the best possible world incorrect.
The first round of GTA's fame caused a curious effect on developers. Everyone wanted to mimic GTA's success, but were very aware that the franchises trying to emulate it were failing. Instead, they decided to increase the GTA factor of their own franchises. However, the developers appeared to only have a cursory understanding of what made GTA famous, believing it to be entirely based on the fact that the series was about a bad guy who drove cars.
Franchises deflecting into the sandbox genre can be easily detected. The game's story will take a turn for the dark and evil, and if the franchise didn't have a story, it will get one only so it can be dark and evil. If it's about a sporting event, it's now about an illegal tournament of that sporting event. It doesn't matter if the sport in question is curling, they will find a way. Police will chase the main character for some reason. It will now have a large sandbox world, even if it does nothing that a menu screen couldn't do more effectively. There will be completely pointless driving sections, or if the game was originally about driving, there will be pointless walking sections. And the game's name will not follow the usual Game Name (Previous Installment+1) method; it will be Game Name: Evil-Sounding Word. Odds are nine in ten the evil-sounding word is Underground.
The release of Tony Hawk Under Ground left people confused as to why there was a story in their skating games and what was the point of driving a car if you always got off at the same spot you got in. While the series was already stagnating and dying, these installments allowed it to enter a vicious downwards spiral that would eventually end in Tony Hawk Ride. Need for Speed Underground was downgraded from a game in which you'd start in a Lamborghini and eventually get a McLaren to a game you might some time maybe get a Lamborghini after starting in a Honda Civic, but in return it had a lot of customization options and a beautiful world in which crime is so low police have nothing to do but buy exotic imports and paint them white and black. The latest, and hopefully last, confused entry into this hall of dubious honor was Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. Now, pay close attention to this. The fact that Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts exists means that at some point an executive looked at a gaming landscape where the only AAA platformer released in years was the wildly successful Mario Galaxy, looked at the famous 3D platformer that had at a point challenged Mario as equals he owned, and thought, 'We should make this more like every other game coming out this gen.'
The trend has now effectively subsided, and franchises that took a leap towards the sandbox have mostly returned to their former selves, but the sheer amount of games dabbling into it during the generation is positively puzzling. There were vehicles in TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, a game that could be just TimeSplitters 2 again and everyone would love it. 007: Everything or Nothing somehow manages to sneak in nonlinear environments (okay), walking around during driving levels (inside a tiny invisible box and you can't shoot or do anything - weird) and police chases (but I'm James Bond!). The most puzzling entry, of course, was Mario Sunshine. This one was quite subtle, with Yoshi replacing a large host of vehicles, but it was still themed around the main character being brought down by the police, gave up visiting plenty of strange locales so the action could happen around a consistent place, and even had Tommy Vercetti's shirt as an unlockable bonus! It's a good thing these shenanigans have mostly ended.