Trace a line back from today's open-world 3D games and you run through the likes of Grand Theft Auto 3 and Morrowind, via Ultima Underworld, to end up at Elite. However, there's one stop-off that's too commonly ignored.
Mercenary was first released in 1985 for the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64 and it rendered an explorable city in wire-frame vector graphics on 8-bit machines. Granted, the frame-rate was a blistering 5fps, but Mercenary combined flight simulation and true exploration in an open and interactive world. It had vehicles, objects and puzzles. There had never been a game like it - so much so that it doesn't really sound like a game from the 1980s at all.
You have crash-landed amidst a civil war on the planet Targ. It's up to you which side to support, but you need to find a way off the planet. Targ features an overground city on a simple grid, with a building at nearly every intersection, and you have a personal computer called Benson, who gives you information and serves as a navigation display. You crash at a small airport, where you can buy a sleek craft, the Dominion Dart, and then you're given a job offer and a grid location to visit. From then on, you're free. I remember getting into the Dart and moving off at speed, then lifting up and taking into the air. It was a revelation. After some flyby sightseeing and the surprise of some aerial combat, I flew to 09-06, landed and coasted into a low wire-frame cage. Looking at the instructions, I wondered if it was an elevator. I pressed 'E' and, boom, my head exploded.
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