Random Thoughts on RPGs

I play a lot of RPGs (roleplaying games).  I recall getting the original Final Fantasy for Christmas and nearly wetting myself with excitement.  I played that thing through many times, as did my dad.  There was something addictive about trying out a new party composition and seeing it slowly grow in power as the game progressed.  It’s something I still find rather enthralling despite now having a more refined palette that judges RPGs as much for their plot, characters and role playing as for their combat.  Sadly, the modern RPG is in a state of decay.

Any discussion of modern RPGs must mention the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online RPG).  I have played my fair share of World of Warcraft.  In fact that is really the problem with the entire genre.  Everyone has played World of Warcraft.  It means nobody wants to stray from the formula in the hopes of attracting former WoW players and at the same time every new release leaves me wondering why I would play this identical game over WoW?

As much as I criticize Blizzard they are at the forefront of the genre in terms of usability and functionality.  Queues to join random strangers for dungeons, first introduced in WoW, are pretty much mandatory inclusions in every new MMO.  Cross-server functionality continues to improve, with only the highest end raids still requiring everyone to be on the same server.  Finally, though everyone claims that WoW is now easymode or whatever, it has many gradations of difficulty for every skill level of player with the top level still legitimately quite difficult.

The one area where WoW is showing its age is in the nature of combat.  Recent years have seen a gravitation towards more action based MMORPGs such as TERA, Guild Wars 2, Neverwinter Nights and the recently released Wildstar.  The last has dodging, telegraphed attacks and full on aiming for many abilities.  Yes, WoW has added telegraphs to many attacks and you do have to move out of them, it’s not quite as visceral as its modern offspring.  I certainly find it more appealing than the staid stand and cast ability rotations of WoW.

However, none of these games have done anything to address leveling.  It’s still the tedious and overwhelming log of quests that initially drew people into WoW but now a decade later seems incredibly archaic.  There hasn’t been an MMORPG since WoW where I have actually achieved the level cap, and I have tried many, with one exception:  Star Wars The Old Republic.  While the rest of the game was a pale shadow of WoW with Star Wars trappings, Bioware did attempt something slightly new in terms of leveling.  It had different storylines for each class on each faction and every planet usually had its own plotline as well.  And they weren’t completely awful and instead somewhat motivating.  On top of that, monsters you encountered were not always solo encounters of roughly the same power as they are in WoW.  No, there were legitimately difficult solo encounters and there were groups of weaker enemies that gave you a reason to bust out your area attacks.  Little things keep a game fresh as you grind your way up to the level cap.

Still, nobody else has done anything like that.  Wildstar by all accounts has an absolutely awful leveling experience which may keep me from ever giving the game a legitimate shot.  Maybe I am alone in this, but at my age spending days worth of time leveling so I can get to the fun stuff is untenable.  I don’t think I am alone though considering the crying on the Wildstar forums about leveling and the nearly ubiquitous use of the negative word grind to describe the process of leveling.  Ideally, leveling would be a short process with an engaging storyline and quests similar in flavor to other single player RPGs.  It would be a joy unto itself rather than a sadistic (or is it masochistic in this case?) gate to better content and it would also do a better job of teaching people to play.  Blizzard has already said they are nudging towards this with their latest expansion pack; promising faster leveling and more tightly focused questing.  We will see the end results soon.

But enough about multiplayer RPGs, what about their solo experience brethren?  Not much really.  Again we see among the major titles a shift towards increasing action.  Mass Effect 2 brought the series into a full on FPS.  The Witcher combat system is not dissimilar from a Diablo.  The venerable Fallout series has gone from turn-based to something in the first person perspective and Elder Scrolls’ combat may be atrocious but it is full of action.  Ironically, player skill has become far more important in modern RPGs than its ancestors and yet the average player is seemingly far worse than the average player of yesteryear.  I mean originally the idea was that you roleplayed a character and their success was mostly based off the stats of that character rather than the person behind that character, but now we have more elaborate character creation systems and require more player input.

A caveat is in order as recently we see a resurgence in old-school turn based RPGs.  Legend of Grimrock single-handedly revived the first-person turn based party RPG even if it’s simultaneous combat resulted in a lot of hokey kiting.  Following in its footsteps, Might and Magic X was a perfectly respectable homage to this once dominant genre updated for modern sensibilities.  I recently attempted to play Wizardry 8, also in this category of RPGs, and truly struggled through its opaque systems and clumsy interface, so it is nice to see M&MX jettison that baggage while still keeping it old school.

Turn-based combat in general seems to be en vogue though.  Transistor’s innovative pseudo TB combat was exceptional, a highlight in an otherwise mediocre game.  Shadowrun Returns, Blackguards, New XCOM, Xenonauts, Open XCOM and now Divinity Original Sin are all TB and recent releases.  On the horizon we have Wasteland 2 and Torment 2 and probably many others.  Not to mention that the ascendant rogue-like genre is almost exclusively TB.  If we look broader, the 4x genre of games, almost always TB or at least pausable, has also seen a steady stream of pretenders to the throne and more are on the way.  It’s a good time for fans of this style of play (count me as one of them).

Of course none of this really says anything about the roleplaying part of RPGs.  That is much harder to judge, but Original Sin, Wasteland 2, Torment 2 and Pillars of Eternity seem to have their hearts in the right place.  At least none are jumping on the abysmal open world bandwagon I have already written extensively about.

As a last topic of interest, I want to talk about the relatively mediocre character creation systems infesting modern RPGs.  Bioware has gone down the streamlining route with only a few choices for each class and a paucity of equipment variations.  The Witcher series still hasn’t figured out a way to make their talent tree interesting and not excessively specialized.  This would need to go hand in hand with a proper combat system.  One particularly bad system was Blackguards which had a paucity of interesting loot and a leveling system that pigeonholed characters into very specific builds.

However, the absolute worst IMO is the skill system used most famously in The Elder Scrolls games.  This improve-by-doing system whereby your skills increase by using them is ALWAYS a bad idea.  Usually this means that at some point you can do everything really well.  I guess some people enjoy that fact as Skyrim’s last patch allowed you to reset a skill to continue gaining levels.  Or there is the entire Disgaea series which seems to cater to a crowd of people that love to grind and see ever bigger numbers.  Anyways, this IMO is a bit boring and usually means any chance of a balanced game is gone.

This is not my primary complaint though.  Instead I dislike all the gamey things it encourages.  Like jumping incessantly in Morrowing to skill up Athletics or making sure to use all you magic points before resting to level up magic skills or throwing daggers at animals in Jagged Alliance 2 to level throwing skills.  This stuff is tedious, but at the same time not doing really rubs the OCD part of me the wrong way.  Some games are even worse, like Wizardry 8, where you also gain levels which award skill points.  Thus you are constantly trying not to waste points in skills that are needed at low levels but can probably be trained in combat with enough effort and instead keep them for harder to level skills.  Wizardry 8 also scales enemies to your level so it behooved you to not always level up but still try to get skill ranks to make the game a bit easier.  As you can see, my recent attempt to play Wizardry 8 left a bad taste in my mouth.

I am still a fan of class-based systems, though the genre is definitely pushing against that.  I think that is mostly due to the lack of party-based games.  Classes are not a great design with only one character which is unfortunately the vast majority of recently released RPGs.  But again, the future is looking bright on this front as party RPGs are making a comeback.

So, yes, the genre has gone through some dark days, but the future is looking glorious and I can only hope it fulfills its promise.

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