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?
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.