GeekPlanetOnline’s Editor-in-chief, Matt Dillon, is a man of many passions - although most of them involve a joystick. In this semi-regular column, he shares his thoughts on life, love and the pursuit of video games (and occasionally other things).
Like a lot of people I go through phases when it comes to entertainment. I'll spend months reading then switch to catching up with movies and TV or to playing video games. Of course gaming is my particular passion, as anyone who’s made a habit of reading this column will know, and as such when I hit a gaming phase it tends to lead to binges where all other forms of entertainment go almost completely ignored. My most recent gaming binge has involved, on a rather intense scale, RPGs - most specifically two of the most expansive, sweeping, involving RPG epics ever written, namely Skyrim and Mass Effect - so to say that I'm rather “RPGed out” at the moment would be something of an understatement; despite the vast enjoyment I receive from playing with stats, equipment and dialogue choices I'm craving something completely different at the moment. Unfortunately the games industry isn't making this easy for me.
After saying my farewells to Mass Effect with Citadel in April I popped out to the sales last month and had a sniff around games that I wouldn't usually consider. After mulling over beat-em-ups and the odd racer I finally settled on stylised stealth/assassin title Dishonored because it seemed ideal - the focus was on stealth (which I'm usually too impatient for), there's an interesting story and it has Brad Dourif in it. What's not to like? So I threw the disc into my Xbox and played through the opening section... whereupon I was invited to spend the runes I'd earned to level up my skills and buy new ones, and then started picking missions from the new hub that had just opened up. In other words, I was playing another RPG. Well, shoot.
Dishonored was finished rather quickly, admittedly to more than a modicum of enjoyment, and payday had swung around again so I popped out shopping for another game. This time I went completely out of my comfort zone and grabbed the new reboot of Tomb Raider. Works for me, I thought. Puzzles, shooting dinosaurs, backflipping through ruins. So un-RPG it isn't true. The disc went into the 360. The opening section was... well, I don't know if played is the correct word for that many Quick Time Events, but experienced certainly. The back story was set. Then I was invited to spend the XP that I'd earned levelling up my abilities and asked to start taking on missions from the new hub that had opened up. I switched the Xbox off.
The introduction of RPG elements - in particular mission hubs and skills to level up – has been an increasing trend within the games industry over the last few years and it's really starting to grate across my nerves. Don't get me wrong, I can certainly see the attraction to games developers: it's a very easy, tried-and-tested way of controlling difficulty and imposing structure on your gameplay. But it's also exceptionally lazy and after a while it makes every game start to feel the same. I like fundamental differences between my genres. I like to know that when I pick up a gun in an FPS - when I've fought through a tough level and earned that new gun - that I'm not going to have to do a bunch of side-missions to earn the XP to level it up before it becomes worthwhile. I want to know when I enter a new tomb that I'll be able to solve a puzzle there without having to complete another mission beforehand to unlock the relevant in-game skill. Games used to work perfectly without the need for hubs and artificial barriers to new area. Games used to have levels.
Take Saints Row 2. It has missions. It has a story. It also has “distractions” (which could be viewed as side-missions). But rather than forcing you to earn XP to unlock new abilities, skills, weapons, and so on it employs a "game respect" system to limit your progress. So you can go anywhere in the game world and do almost anything from the start, but the game staggers your progress (and therefore the difficulty) by asking you to explore a certain number of activities (thus teaching you and giving you practice at the various mechanics of the game) before you can continue with each chapter of the main campaign. If you earn a weapon (either by stripping it off a corpse or by buying it from one of the in-game shops) it works just as well at the start of the game at it does at the end. If you enter the game for a replay already aware of the various mechanics and tricks available you can perform those moves from the start without having to "unlock" them. Having read my description a cynic might claim I’m splitting hairs but believe me, in gameplay the difference is very distinct. Saints Row 2 is not an RPG and it doesn't try to behave like one.
I'm all for the games industry trying to improve our staple genres and I do understand that the industry does move on, that is does adapt and react to new trends. That doesn't make it less frustrating. It feels like a form of entertainment which I have enjoyed for almost thirty years is losing its diversity and imagination - due in part, I have no doubt, to corporations like EA steadily buying up every developer who scores a hit and pushing for shorter development cycles to maximise profits - and it's becoming more than a little wearing. It would be exceptionally galling if I were forced to take a break from my favourite hobby to let this trend play itself out, but that is where I feel things are being pushed. RPG elements, and zombies, are the gaming equivalent of comic book movies at the cinema: a few examples have been profitable so now that’s all the industry seems to be producing.
On the plus side my frustration may prompt me to return to my stockpile of retro titles and play through some of the classics that I’ve never completed. On the other hand it seems to a crying shame to have two shiny, powerful current-gen consoles sitting on the AV unit gathering dust.