Skyrim, Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 3: Are RPGs Evolving or Dying?

Published 4 years ago by , Updated February 10th, 2012 at 8:38 pm,

Elder Scrolls Skyrim Mass Effect Dragon Age 2 RPG Dumber

Five or six years ago, someone might have taken a look at the properties dominating the gaming industry in terms of both sales and buzz, and seen mostly shooters clearly atop the pile. Quite a bit has changed since then and now RPG titles are just as prevalent, influential and groundbreaking as any other genre. It makes sense though, since some of the first computer games could best be described as role-playing, whether it be text-based games like Zork or games for the die hard graph-paper-types like King’s Quest and Ultima.

The amount of commitment and dedication to gaming that those first titles demanded wasn’t easy to come by, and with the mainstreaming of the video games industry into the billion dollar business it is today, priorities have changed. Instead of designing games specifically for their target audiences, developers and publishers are making it their goal to appeal to the average gamer.

What this means for franchises like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and now The Elder Scrolls is that the complex and intricate gameplay mechanics that have defined the genre are being tossed aside in favor of a more “user-friendly” approach.

We here at Game Rant aren’t against progression or evolution of gameplay, and we have little interest in debating whether the changes will result in a ‘better’ game.

Instead, we’re wondering what this means for the modern RPG, and whether it has a chance of existing in its current form, or will inevitably be twisted into something that no longer possesses the qualities that defined the genre.

Mass Effect will likely be remembered by many of those who played it as a dream come true. We’ve long been told about the size of the game worlds that consoles could make possible, but BioWare‘s science fiction epic delivered on more promises than we could have ever expected.

Aside from bringing a memorable and successful next-gen RPG experience to the Xbox 360, Mass Effect seemed to give players a real sense of power in shaping their own interactions with the game’s narrative. Major characters could be killed, crew members could be saved or spared, and personal relationships could be forged or destroyed. Players were also allowed to progress through the game at their own pace, taking as much time as they liked exploring the various planets of the universe.

An incredibly robust inventory, weapon and armor system allowed different ammo types to be equipped for dealing with different enemies, and armor could be upgraded, adapted, bought and sold from different vendors across the universe.

Sure, the menu system built to deal with all of these item and upgrade options was at times cumbersome, but many found the amount of choice better than a lack of it, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t confess that more than a few hours were spent collecting matching sets of armor for our entire team. Just because you have to save the world doesn’t mean you can’t look good doing it, right?

Mass Effect 2 RPG Removal Shepard

Unfortunately, BioWare responded to fans’ complaints of the bulky and confusing menu screens by removing the system entirely for Mass Effect 2. Instead of various ammo types and upgrades that could be put into yours our you team’s weapons, players were given the oversimplified choice of fire or ice selected on the fly. Instead of personalized and upgradeable armor, Commander Shepard’s armor was confined to a basic model and a handful of boosts, giving players the ability to change the appearance and paint scheme. Your team’s armor could no longer be altered, modded or upgraded in any way.

Weapon upgrades became nearly inconsequential, and the looting system – a staple of any self-respecting RPG – was completely eradicated. All of these decisions were made to change Mass Effect 2 from a niche RPG game to a role-playing shooter, a property BioWare felt would be better overall. Shooters are far more popular among the mainstream, and the cinematic presentation of the game had the ability to be an instant hit with modern gamers, if only the ‘clunky’ RPG mechanics were removed.

In the end, the changes worked. The game became a much better shooter, and the shooting corridors, shooting galleries, and shooting boss battles led to a much more ‘streamlined’ game. But did simplifying it improve the experience, or cheapen it? There was no managing of loot, the collection was solely for recreation, and upgrades could either be gained by simply buying them, or researching them through mining methods that made the original game’s systems seem exhilarating.

Take into account the complete removal of any planet exploration, and the case could be made that to define Mass Effect 2 as a space RPG would be somewhat misleading. The first game’s shooting seemed to be more of a diversion from the story and conversations than an equal element of gameplay, but ME2 could be better described as a story-based third-person shooter.

We’re not saying one is better than the other, but feel that BioWare missed a major opportunity. Instead of proving that an RPG could be made into a cinematic, story-driven adventure game with competent shooting, the developers simply avoided the task by changing the very nature of the game.

We have our own hopes for what we can expect from Mass Effect 4, with a return to classic RPG elements at the top of the list. But given everything we know about Mass Effect 3, that is seeming less and less likely. On top of that, our interview with Mass Effect 2‘s Lead Game Designer Christina Norman showed that the second game was closer to the story that BioWare intended to tell, which for obvious reasons is a bit disappointing.

Continue to Page 2 for our thoughts on the Dragon Age franchise!

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TAGS: Dragon Age, Dragon Age 2, Dragon Age Origins, Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3, Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls

  • otoan

    Fable 1 went from an amazing albeit short rpg to something that can’t even be called an rpg in fable 3. The Final Fantasy games…not even going to get into how disappointing those have become. Even the star ocean games. All are becoming watered down, cheap aspects to make a couple more bucks. I want a rpg I can sink my teeth into. I really hope Witcher 2 and Skyrim stick to their roots instead of trying to appease the masses. Oblivion had some good going for it (I hated playing morrowind and haven’t some far off monster ‘dodge’ 5 of my shots just from a roll of a die) and some bad stuff (no epic wins/monster level with you.) Overall, Oblivion was an amazing game and I have high hopes for Skyrim.

  • HexRei

    The second was better for the simplified inventory and gear system. Furthermore, you could still customize shepard quite a lot, moreso if you picked up the DLC’s.

    A good RPG does not depend on forcing players to manage inventory ridiculously. It depends on allowing the player to make choices, in the role of the character, that affect the universe they exist in. And ME2 delivered in spades.

  • HexRei

    I mean you really think that looting enemies and managing inventory is what makes a “Role Playing Game”? What are you playing the role of? A warehouse stocker who robs corpses in his free time?

    Yes, these things do take place in many RPG’s paper or CRPG and are more common in CRPG but looting enemies is actually more of an action element in my opinion. practically every FPS has loot. Inventory is obviously common in RPG’s but it’s not really integral. Not nearly as much as the ability to interact with other characters and shape the world around you.

    • Yoogle

      You cant do that in Mass Effect 2 though. I continuously see people leaping to ME2s defense by claiming that the story, characters and choices is where an RPG is made, but even ME2 fails badly in this regard.

      ME1 wasnt stellar, but it was still built in the form of a Bioware RPG, but with a heavy (if clunky) shooter element. In ME2 everywhere you visit is a one off shooting gallery, where you occasionally stop to engage in conversations with now even more limited options.

      Youd think now that they take away player customisation by giving you a pre-defined character, they would make up for it with variance in conversation, but they dont. So often you will be simply asked to choose between two options, neither of which change the direction of the conversation WHATSOEVER and merely define if Biowares Shepard is acting bitchy or pleasant.

      People really need to stop clinging to this idea that ME2 qualifies as an actual RPG on any level. At best its the weakest of weak hybrids (like the series was supposed to be) with the shooter element completely taking control with RPG being little more than an afterthought (its how they designed the game – rip the RPG out first developing the game as a shooter and then reinserting said pathetic RPG elements afterwards).

      Just accept it: there is discontent because at its core, ME2 is little more than a bland shooter with a dialogue system, and a disjointed, disposable mission based plot.

      The game is little more than a long string of excuses to shoot your way through box filled corridors. Occasionally stopping for new, RPG lite “cinematic” conversations (or jumped up cutscenes with the illusion of choice and effect).

    • Lundix

      “the ability to interact with other characters and shape the world around you” is hard to do without there being a vast selection of items. For instance, different combat scenarios have to involve different tactics and different equipment for the player to really feel the difference. Quests and missions will also often include items of various kinds. It’s extremely hard to create a satisfying world without the different items that would be common and/or necessary. We are materialistic beings, and we need our items (check out George Carlin on “stuff” for further thoughts on that) 😛

      Also, the thought that developers have been making enormous efforts to create things that were neither wanted nor necessary seems a bit far-fetched to me.

  • Jon Flora

    I would say that RPGs are evolving. RPG fans who did not like the consolization of ME2 and DA2 (myself included) should not worry; evolution has its share of dead ends and streamlining will most likely be one of them. Bioware’s pendulum swung towards streamlining, the next round will swing back towards customization and those other goodies rpg fans like.

  • Dark

    Did you guys play oblivion at all? there wasn’t really any classes in the game to begin with, well there were, but you could always just make a sword wielding archer that shoots fireballs. The leveling system actually seems pretty much the same as oblivion just taking out the make your class function, which be honest we all did anyway.

    I personally couldn’t finish mass effect 2, i loved one, two just seemed like i was doing the same thing over and over and over again, i never felt i was making progression as a normal character does in an rpg, it felt more like i was playing halo 4 or something along those lines.

    For me it doesn’t much matter, i just won’t be purchasing any more bioware games.

  • Bloot

    What you call intricate and complex, I call tedious and time consuming. And as for exploring planets. In ME1, what you explored were barren, desolate patches of planets with nothing to do but scan something occasionally.

    ME2 gives you planets to EXPLORE, with missions, and things to shoot. And I prefer the system of giving me money, rather than giving me useless loot to sell. Cuts out the middle man.

    And there is tons of variation in your armor, though a lot of it is via DLC which sucks.

  • Perry de Havilland

    DA2 is an arcade fighter game, not an RPG. Want an RPG? Play Witcher 2 when it comes out.

  • Jojobean

    In regards to Dragon Age 2. I didn’t mind the change in combat but with regards to taking away the customization from your party..WOW! By limiting customizing your parties total gear, they took away 9/10ths of the point of treasure hunting and looting…There was a lot more gameplay in Dragon Age:Origins just from sitting in the inventory screen and optimizing your parties gear. Also taking away 2 handed weapons from warrior and only daggers, etc for rouge…GEEEEEEZ!!! I hope that the developers at least take a hint from mine and many other similar remarks on this and rectify this issue……Thanks..

  • red

    Dragon age 2 reminded me more of BG2:SOA then Dragon age did, not the gamplay but the story.

    I only have the xbox title but the combat is not bad, you can still pause and play. as for Dice rolls, they are becoming antiquated and useless. i would much rather damage de determond my my stats and wepons then the roll of a dice.

    yes I would have liked to see more areas then just the city but, a game can only do so much.

    as for ME2 i loved the combat and areas, but hated that i had no invantory. I was glad to see the mako go though. the Story was strong as were the cast. and that to me matters much more than the game play

  • Brian

    This summarizes everything I’ve been feeling since I bought Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2, I feel cheated on both games. Like I want my money back cheated. This makes me sad because of how true it is…

    • Andrew Dyce

      Exactly. I’m seriously conflicted on both, since I loved Mass Effect so much more than most people, it’s nice to see the sequel get such great praise. At the same time, in my mind the first game was far more special an experience than the much more linear and streamlined sequel.

      Being able to run around the Citadel, through the Wards, into the Nightclubs, and all around missions areas like Noveria. Then to see each area turned into little more than shooting galleries, broke my heart.

      Similarly, I’m loving Dragon Age 2 as an action game, since it is definitely a great example of mixing entertaining combat with a cool story. at the same time, it differes from the original in much the same way.

      That’s the basis behind the title of this article: these so-called ‘RPGs’ are becoming better at certain things, but those things are being placed ahead of the RPG elements that helped earn the two series their fanbases.

    • Perry de Havilland

      Well I quite liked Mass Effect 2 and felt it was true to Mass Effect 1 in the things I found important.

      Dragon Age 2 however just turned that franchise into a game that looks like a lame console arcade fighter that is clearly aimed at a demographic other than RPG’ers… and judging from large number of hostile independent reviews I have seen (i.e reviews not bought from by EA/Bioware) I am far from alone in thinking this :-)

  • NC

    Completely disagree. What’s wrong with having the option to learn what you want? Just because you are free to customize your character doesn’t mean it’s not role playing. What your saying is that these worlds need to be so restrictive as to only allow a single path for people to enjoy at one time. When in reality Role Playing is customizing a character in a world that is not our own, and the very definition of customizing is that you can do as you like, and thus take on the ROLE of someone else as you imagine them. This is exactly what ROLE PLAYING is. No two characters are alike this way, where as in restrictive worlds characters are limited to class and homogenized to the point that you can just say Ranger, Magic-Use, etc and everyone knows what that means. What fun is that? you’re playing the same Role as thousands of other people. I would much rather define my own path with as much customization and options as I have in real world.

  • Andy

    This is the dumbest topic I have heard of….How many western rpgs are out there? Now how many Shooters , WW2 shooters , Racing games etc..?
    Point is the genre is just getting started , the development time for
    a rpg is alot longer than average so it takes longer to evolve.
    Are all racing games perfect ? Are some sequels to shooters a let down..?
    I think the future of gaming is choice , not just same old, same old shooters with different window dressing etc.

  • chris

    well i recently purchased da2, which i wish i never i felt i was shown the beginning of a new era by da-o but no.. it reminds me more of fable 1,2 + 3. Kids games easy and simple . all i got to say is please release do3 with a bit more depth, fable is good dont get me wrong, just im not 12 any more kicken a chicken for fun just dont do it for me any more (but i did enjoy it :D)

  • fearghoul

    I think it’s way too early to speculate on Skyrim. I can safely say however, that how the Elder Scrolls series evolves depends solely on its fanbase. If the fans want a more freer experience that allows them to develop supercharacters who can excel at everything, then that is what Bethesda will give them. Bethesda is not catering to “generic RPG fans”. The Elder Scrolls series first and foremost delivers a massive sandbox world and I think that is their main focus, not adhering to a strict definition of what constitutes a role playing game.

    You have valid criticisms of ME and DA but I think it’s too early to say anything about Skyrim.

  • Robar

    I haven’t played any RPG except the Mass Effect series, but I bought Fallout 3 and left the game in frustration after 2 hrs of trying to play. The game has depth and I like the inventory system and leveling up. What I totally disliked was how slow the characters moved and the combat system was so rubbish. VATS is just not for me. The action should be simple. I point the gun at the guy, I shoot it and it hits him. Why do RPGs have to have dumbed down action? RPG means Role Playing Game, not Rotten Playing Game. The decision making, leveling, looting and inventory are all great, but the swift action only compliments it. Look how great a game Borderlands is. Or just look at Mass Effect series, though I do miss the inventory and loot in ME2, which are gladly making a return in ME3.

    • Perry de Havilland

      “What I totally disliked was how slow the characters moved…”

      Huh? Movement in Fallout 3 was pretty realistic. Why expect super fast arcade game style movement in an RPG? Also VATS is entirely optional, you can play the entire game without using it just fine. My only wish was they had a cover mechanism for the combat.

  • xentar

    As a proponent of classless leveling systems I’d have to disagree with the Skyrim part. My favorite of the implemented systems, the one in Arcanum was entirely classless, and yet, the number of unique character possibilities was comparable with if not greater than it was in many other more traditional systems (previous TES games included).

  • TheDevian

    The Classless systems can work well, White Wolf, for another example, did an excellent job, it just depends on how it is done.
    My biggest problems with Obliv were the fact that I had to manually aim instead of my skills and the luck of the ‘dice’ doing that work and that horrendous character generator. Oi! I don’t know if their goal was to make it so people spent insane amounts of time on making their character or they wanted people to just all be hideous, so no need to put any time into it at all. Just go with the defaults cause playing with it will only make it worse.

  • Sandra

    Without Skyrim, It would be better
    Witcher 2, Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect would be better