Saturday, November 8, 2014

Mind of the Beholder
Part 2

Level Up!
"Endurance +1, intelligence +3, wisdom +1, charisma +2"

The Role Playing Games genre is unlike any other. Not only has the face of games with the label changed considerably over the years, it has even been applied to games that aren't RPGs at all. The simple reason is that RPG elements have made it into other genres. Even in Need For Speed: Shift players drive for experience. No, this isn't the advertised Real Driver Experience but the numerical indicator on the top of the screen that climbs higher and higher to suggest your driver's level.
Call of Duty 4 is another example, as one of the first games that kicked of the trend. A brilliant game, unique in the way how it's remembered for its story campaign. However, the multiplayer design in particular stuck with the series, structured a bit like an RPG. It also stuck with EA's Battlefield series, EA's Medal Of Honor series, EA's Titanfall series, Crytek's Crysis series, THQ's Homefront series, Sony's Killzone series. And so on.

What is Prestige mode?

Entering prestige mode in Call Of Duty is the ability to reset one's progress. The player loses all unlocked items, experience points, the ability to make and use custom classes. The idea is to revert back to the very beginning of the multiplayer game. In exchange the player obtains an emblem beside their name to show off their prestige level. This can be repeated about 10 or 15 times, depending on the game.

Safe to assume this system was universally considered a good idea, it enthralled its gamers. To some it ruined the First Person Shooter genre - adding an XP grind for items and prestige system which enabled online boneheads to boast about their levels as if it wasn't an indicator of time played but of actual rifleman skill. The real crux of the matter is if this system makes people play the game because of good gameplay or because of the carrot dangling fifteen minutes in front of their crosshairs. This question isn't as innocent as it may appear: if an opponent prevents our brain from getting the dopamine fix we are expecting, like animals we rage. You can't blame the person for this because that's how people work. Critisism befalls the game. Other than this, CoD really isn't the worst offender: the XP grind to unlock all is short, prestige mode: optional for those with time.

I generally distrust any game where "level up" or any similarly worded bullet points make up part of the main features. Nor do I enjoy the marketing that raises level caps as if the grind to come is something very enjoyable. I say this because I've never found theme park MMOs to have anything resembling a worthwhile story. I'm not averse to theme parks. But if a game is made up of roughly similar looking attractions and I have to ride said attractions until they start boring me, about 3 times, the theme park quickly becomes a vision of hell, where everything that was once enjoyable becomes as stale like food without taste of which no amount will ever satisfy your desire. Until the bell of the next level-up rings, not as a reward but as the sign that the ride on the caravan of the damned has one less stop to make towards the end of the line. Logically, I don't think it speaks in favor of your game design if the host of the game allows you to take a mercy shot taking you to the end of the line if you pay the price of the game over one more time - logical if it means you won't pay to play the game for another few months this way. Only fair to make up for lost revenue, right? Well, your RPG should be a game, not a damn business model.

The back of the box of World Of Warcraft reads:

A World Awaits...
Descend into the World Of Warcraft and join thousands of mighty heroes in an online world of myth, magic and limitless adventure. Jagged snow peaks, mountain fortresses, harsh winding canyons, zeppelins, epic sieges - an infinity of experiences await. So what are you waiting for?

Ask any guildy for the reason why they can't come play in your party and chances are high he won't repeat the box quote but will say... "I'm leveling." Again, WoW isn't the worst offender. Blizzard made old content a lot more rewarding enabling players to do one quest instead of twenty to progress to newer areas - saving time and keeping their playerbase at the latest zones.

Star Wars the Old Republic started out spectacular but imagine what if this was the intro to a Mass Effect-esque Knights of the Old Republic 3 instead.

I don't really mind the limited range of things a player can do in a game (fetch quest, kill quest, escort quest, collect quest, etc) as long as the motivation is right. Proof of this is Star Wars the Old Republic, where the story missions were as highly enjoyable as the ones you'd find in a single player RPG. The fully voiced cast of companions and related NPCs draw you into a world that has more to offer then any vendor-trashable quest reward ever could. However, set foot outside the neatly drawn line of the story areas and you won't see its kind again for literally hours while you, a level 43 imposing and life-destroying Sith Lord, would listen to NPCs whisking you along with their petty sorrows and requests, to get kittens out of the old Bantha tree by either shooting the kitten, cutting the tree down or climbing up there, a right Sith monkey - each solution with its proper light and dark side implication.

Who knows, maybe in-between battles Achilles also had to mend the sandals of scores of Greek villagers in order to allow them to yield unto him the required amount of frustration that would allow him to angrily slaughter his King's enemies on the next battlefield.

Hardly the stuff of legend, but who knows. Maybe in-between battles Achilles also had to mend the sandals of scores of Greek villagers in order to allow them to yield unto him the required amount of frustration that would allow him to angrily slaughter his King's enemies on the next battlefield. No, The Old Republic tragically and quite literally bored me to tears near the end, so I got off the snail train through Purgatory. The uninspired way EA/Bioware decided to turn it into an micropayment advertisement insulted my sensibilities and previous dedication so it lost me as a player too. I could come back to the game, it has many saving graces such as customizable companions, but only if I was convinced the slow progression wouldn't dampen my enjoyment. Unfortunately the game has already caused some offence when it culled my ingame funds when it (partly) transitioned to F2P, deleting everything above the limit - an eye-watering amount.

Another MMO I played for a few months is Wildstar. An impressive design, limited skill bar, creative classes, great art style. It's not even big on grinding - in the sense that you're able to blaze through content rapidly if you have the right class and setup. I clocked in at about 2-3 weeks of intensive playing to take a character from the creator to the endgame. Again, I'm stressing the leveling in this game because there's nothing else to propel you forward. This game has no story, heroes nor villains, no endgame content save for a couple of areas where the player repeats daily quests - another theme park from hell. Each town hub has its own set of quests, with a small narrative red line, but nothing that stands out. The game is made up out of Sci-fi and Spaghetti Western tropes - much more tired than witty. I don't see myself picking it up again even though I really liked the class designs.

No game should consist of boring stuff to pad out playtime. That task should fall to the co-op or competitive PVP modes. No game should be played for the sole reason of gaining XP. If the experience bar is reduced in such a way that all it basically does is exchange rewards or trickle content for time played, why keep jumping those hoops? Real RPGs have levels to roughly indicate where your character should be in regards to the story or place in the world. Each level brings with it more tricks and solutions to tackle the game's challenges. It usually also brings an increase in stat points making the characters stronger in order to cope with increasingly stronger enemies. When the player gets relatively stronger due to more tools and superior stats, there should be satisfaction: all the thinking, building and strategizing is paying off in a real way. Some games don't even need the experience track for that.

Guild Wars Factions had some lovely vistas Despite its age, Guild Wars Factions still stands as one of the finest RPGs I have ever played. Expect it to show up a few more times in this series.

One of such is Guild Wars. With a top level of twenty that was never raised by expansions mandating their purchase. The game is quite big, yet max level is reached about halfway through a single story, concluding an introductory period. After that the game truly breaks open. You'll become competitive in PVP multiplayer matches, explore zones to hunt for useful elite skills learned from vanquished foes, forge armor that doesn't infer any special benefits other than look splendid. Al the while the XP bar becomes a detail that pops off every so often to announce another spendable skill point has become available. None of this is insanely time-consuming so a player is invited to create a new character and replay the game. Before you ask: character slots are limited to one of each class. Additional slots, one of many but far from necessary convenience items, come at a small fee. The only real cost was the game's box. It didn't waste your time because that would cost the developer. Nor did it chain the player to the game with subscription fees. Considering all it had to offer, Guild Wars as an MMO comes closest to the single player RPGs that came long before.

In its undiluted form, the traditional cRPG, exist mostly in the past. Venerable names such as Baldur's Gate, Planescape Torment, Ultima, Icewind Dale are nearly a decade and half old and have yet to get proper successors. Only now with indie developers and without the nay of big publishers, do we see a resurgence - to slake the thirsty and arguably aging masses. That is not to say that I have a cRPG shaped hole in my nostalgia that absolutely needs to be filled. The bigger need is that of good game design, an engaging story or universe dealing with interesting issues. To drive the point home one more time: none of these old masterpieces even considered wasting their player's time. To nostalgic players these new classics do away with the dictated, often unwanted (in the case of SWtoR) megalomaniacal multiplayer component found in MMORPGs and focus on what RPGs should be about: story, characters, universe building and challenging combat supported by a solid foundation of game mechanics.

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