A battle is coming. You must prepare. Who will you choose to be your companions for the upcoming challenge? The mage, for her ability to decimate groups of foes, or a warrior who uses his heavy armor to protect his allies? Will the mage be carrying a staff that will add +10 to fire damage or a staff that gives a bonus to healing? Is the warrior leveled high enough and is he speced correctly to take the punishment from the enemy? Is everyone equipped with epics? How many healing herbs do you have in your inventory? Better stop by the town shop to load up. If there has ever been an exercise in extreme micromanagement in games, it has been in the RPG genre. Old school RPG fans love to be able to customize, but game developers are moving towards more simplified and mainstream interfaces for their epic adventures. Are developers going the right direction by simplifying these games or are these new “improvements” only making unfulfilling, shallow experiences?
As you might expect, it really depends on the game, the player, and the experience the game wants to provide. Mainstream games like those in the action genre are now taking on characteristics of the RPG genre. Call of Duty has its multiplayer progression, Team Fortress 2 has random drops of bonus items, and Crysis 2 has suit upgrades. RPGs, on the other hand, are borrowing from the action genre as well, with more action oriented combat like in Mass Effect 2 or the Witcher 2. The series in the action genre are evolving into better games by blending these genre characteristics from the RPG, but when this happens the other way around, the RPG games become simplified and some RPG elements get cut.
When RPGs move toward the action space, sometimes gathering loot takes a back seat. Mass Effect 2 completely lost its inventory system to the change (relative to a typical RPG), toting a mere 22 different weapons where it really made no difference whether you were carrying the M-3 Predator Heavy Pistol or the M-6 Carnifex Hand Cannon. The armor didn’t matter either, being mostly for aesthetics and not effecting your performance in combat. The companions were barely customizable, only allowing weapons to be switched out.
In the Witcher 2, for a game that is about a guy who is a monster hunter by profession, playing through the game I only fought three giant monster bosses which were skinned or dropped something upon death that could be made into a set of armor . That part of the game was freaking awesome, but it never happened again. In an RPG, I would expect that kind of encounter to happen at least four to six times, giving me three or four epic monster armor sets before the end of the game. What happened to fighting a ton of giant bosses throughout a game, gathering up all of the mystical items they somehow end up eating and looking like a complete badass by the end of the game?
I am all for changing and blending genres to make them more appealing to the mainstream, but the evolution of the RPG genre is much more than that. Adding more exciting moments through action oriented combat and set-piece sequences gives the game widespread appeal, but the focus of these games has shifted to provide a more immersive experience than the games that have come before them. Characters now have full conversations with each other, towns are vibrant and alive with residents going about their business, action is more like it would be in real life, fast paced and intense with all of the RPG dice rolls and statistics effects being pushed behind the scenes, and the overall story-arches play out as if they were straight out of Hollywood.
Mass Effect 2 and Witcher 2 were absolutely fantastic games, but carrying the RPG categorization automatically sets expectations for a truly epic, fully customizable, micromanagy adventure to be completely intact. If one of those features is missing or not up to par, it is hard to help but feel like something is missing from the experience especially for a hardcore RPG gamer.
But I like the way that the RPG genre is evolving. Developers are learning to cut the fat from the old ways and are creating more intuitive and more meaningful games. Mass Effect 2 may not have had as many guns as the first game in the series but that allowed the game to flow better by not taking you out of the moment to have to drop into a menu and switch out gear. The companion characters had their own distinct look and personalities showing instead of looking like a generic soldier who went dumpster diving for armor. Witcher 2 kept the main plot in focus, emphasizing Geralt’s need to move forward without diverting him (or the player) with meaningless boss battles (although one or two more would have been cool).
Focus has shifted from the tedious activities like grinding and inventory management to where it matters most in an RPG, the story and the immersion of the world, now I can’t wait to see how good these games are going to get.
What do you think about the newer mainstream RPGs out on the market in terms of gameplay and features? Is simplifying the RPG genre the way forward or do developers need to take a few steps back? Let us know in the comments.
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