So usually when I play games of the next-gen variety now, I tend to stop, swerve the camera around a bit, and look at my surroundings. Then I ask myself, "how would this look in 2D?"
It's come to the point now where 3D isn't as ground breaking as it used to be. Back then of the days of low polys, little to no texture and shading, and a really blurry bitmap image pasted behind the playing field as a background, I can say it has come a long way. But really,we know the imagination can only do so much when it comes to making really great game environments, but why do game designers get lazy and just stop creating and start copying and pasting?
When I play any GTA series, especially IV, while I'm not amazed by the designs of the city, I am glad to see the designers have taken every little detail into making every street, building and landmark unique. Despite the fact all of it in is a 3D "imaginary" space, it makes you really feel compelled that you're playing in such a world, filled with people and interactive things. Super Mario Galaxy is another great example, of how it takes the simplistic 2D Mario iterations and morph them into 360 degree worlds. When SMG was announced, I couldn't wait to see how the hub world was going to be. Even though I was disappointed, the game's "galaxies" make up for it. To see tons of platforms and "planets" suspended in space, and the fact that it gives off that "I wonder if I can go there next" train of thought really helps the player feel like they're really there.
Unfortunately, like 2D worlds, the 3D world has to end sometime. Which is why I've come to the flaw of 3D environments: invisible walls. You can't tell me you've never played a game with these bastards. It's unfortunate now they make the backgrounds so polished and seamless into the 3D foreground, you think you can go "anywhere". And on top of that, draw distance plays a big part in it, too. Remember Super Mario Sunshine's incredible draw distance? How you can see other parts of the island but you were only restricted to just that one area? Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. Unlike 2D, where you can obviously see it's boundaries(unless it's games like Super Mario World with it's different exits), 3D tends to follow a rule where its point A to point B and everything in between, but not thereafter. Eternal Sonata is pretty much like this the entire way.
Racing games fare well in 3D, that's to be expected. Even back then, the Need For Speed games on the PSX were filled with shortcuts, ambiguous hidden pathways, and even though it felt "limited", you still had plenty of places to go. Burnout Paradise is a very fun, open world racer, but it falls under the invisible wall and boundaries factor. Sure there are lots of shortcuts and hidden places to go, but in the end you're still racing from point A to point B and everything in between, and never outside. SSX3 really broke grounds for me as a semi-open world snowboarder(theres only so much you can do on mountain), and once again, those taunting images of mountains in the background still say "hey player, I may look good, but you can't get to me!"
I believe one day in console gaming we will have 3D games that break grounds in terms of "breaking the playfield". Mirror's Edge looks good, and Prince of Persia Next Gen does as well. But I'm just looking forward to the day where in games a background is no longer just a background, and 3D is everything from point A, to point B, in between, and all around.