By snide 271 Comments
OK. I guess there needs to be some clarification about my comments on TNT about Mass Effect 2 as I received way too many PMs on the subject.
First let me start by saying that of all games released last year, I'd put Mass Effect 2 up there pretty high as the a game I would recommend to a random gamer I met on the street under the age of 30. This is strictly a personal opinion and more a commentary on the direction of the industry in general. This discussion is specifically only meaningful to those who are familiar with the history of Bioware and the Western RPG genre.
It is of my opinion that Dragon's Age will likely turn out to be one of the last, if not the last AAA produced single-player CRPG. What do I mean by the term CRPG? As an acronym, Computer Role Playing Game. Put in less generic terms, the type of RPG that follows the traditions of the Rogue, Ultima, Gold-Box, Wizardry, Might & Magic and Infinity Engine era. I leave out The Elder Scrolls mostly because it has never been a party based game, and always existed in real-time in the first perspective. In that sense, The Elder Scrolls series was always more about exploration than combat. My guess is that over time, even the Elder Scrolls style games will rapidly devolve into games more along the lines of Fallout 3. That is to say, action games with light, meaningless skill progression that exist in large, explorable worlds. Are they RPGs? Yes. Are they part of the same genre of the old CRPGs I love? No. They share more in common with Red Dead Redemption than Wizardry.
If you ask the majority of people what they like about RPGs, they'll normally talk about the story. But to be honest, the story in most video games is horrible, and outside of a couple true gems like Planescape, we're really talking about great stories in relative terms within the medium. What I, and I believe some people who grew up on CRPGs really enjoyed, was the complicated, challenging and more importantly... flexible combat systems that existed in those games. When you're asking me to pinpoint how I can consider this genre dead, I'm pointing to the tactical combat portion of it. The story in Dragon Age was relatively great, and by all means Mass Effect 2 seems to be better, but I thought Dragon Age was a great game because the combat was rewarding.
The combat in Mass Effect 2 is boring. It's is a shooter more than an RPG. That's OK, I like shooters and I certainly like STALKER and BioShock, so what's the deal? Well, I also think Mass Effect 2 is a shitty, uncomplicated, floaty shooter with fairly meaningless skill upgrades that they are for the most part pre-set and easy to choose. Fuck yeah I want better shields. Fuck yeah I want better X attack. The actual combat involves me moving from set-piece to set-piece Gears of War style. See those barricades? Oh. I guess a fight is about to happen, I better go hide behind this wall where I'm suddenly impenetrable from anything. Because of the meatiness of the health and shields in these types of games, you largely die because of a lack of patience (trying to kill them too fast) vs. making bad decisions in strategy. I miss the puzzles of battle. I miss counterspells. I miss crowd control. I miss focus fire. I even miss the idea of things like tumble rolls. I miss knowing that in some battles I should take the mage out first, but in others I should prolly sleep his minions and take out the healer.
Please don't confuse this with me thinking games are too easy. I can up the difficulty in games like Mass Effect 2 and make them difficult. But that change normally only effects my caution, not my planning. I'll admit, I couldn't make it through Mass Effect 2. But that was because the fights at hour 15 were the same fights I had at hour 2. I just couldn't walk through any more barricaded chambers. The rock, paper, scissors shield mechanics created a formula that was static throughout the course of my time in the game.
I did enjoy the story and the characters for the most part. It's what got me through the first game. But once I found that I was going through another assemble the team style plot device (it was a weakness in DA too), even that couldn't keep me going. You want me to walk through all 3 ship decks with their individual loading points to get to the fun conversations? Ugh... at least in Dragon Age they were all sitting at that one camp. Morrigan was all of 10 steps away. Having to make my way through the ship in ME2 was the worst. I quit. I had to. I finished one of those world missions and went through all that mediocre combat and now I've gotta spend 30 minutes walking around just so that I don't feel I'm missing out on anything. Done. End. Rage Quit.
But this is the new style of "RPG". They are essentially hybrid shooters with dialog trees. Deus Ex plus. Remember when Deus Ex 2 came out and the whole world groaned? That is what I think about Mass Effect 2. Oh... OK, so you took all the challenging bits out of a the good style of game you used to make (I'm talking infinity engine), made the world progression a lot more linear and made it so that it's impossible to totally gimp your character with the trade off that non of these skill choices really matter.
It's certainly nothing new, and it's not Mass Effect 2's fault. If we're looking to point the finger, KOTOR is certainly the one that lead us here. I only chide Mass Effect 2 so much because I'm bitter no one is making combat CRPGs anymore. The Eastern Block style games are closest. They are both challenging and radically different. Say what you will about the technical qualities of games like STALKER, The Void or Amnesia. They are god-damned different that it takes you a couple hours just to figure out how to play them correctly. Look, that limits their appeal, but shit, that's what I enjoy out of games these days: a novel approach.
I wouldn't be so mad about these games existing other than that they are pure replacements, rather than alternatives to the style of game in which they preceded. I wouldn't lose all hope though. There's still an audience for this stuff. We're not huge, but I get PMs almost daily from people who miss the old style combat CRPGs. That's what the independent gaming movement will eventually find. It's not just about games like Braid that push you outside of the mainstream to some higher plane, it's simply about reaching a smaller, passionate audience. We're out there and we're waiting.