I love RPGs. I love the opportunity to become someone else in a game; becoming a valiant knight, a stealthy spy, a hard-bitten mercenary or a roguish star pilot for a brief time instead of a middle-aged office worker. So when BioWare, probably the premiere RPG gaming company out there, releases not one but two RPGs within a few months of each other, it should be a RPG gaming feast.
And with Dragon Age: Origins this was fulfilled. My newly created Grey Warden was soon making his way across Ferelden. Fighting Darkspawn, picking locks, making traps and mixing poisons to aid in his quest, he was eventually able with the aid of his companions to defeat the Arch-Demon and save the world.
Just in time too because no sooner had I finished then Mass Effect 2 was released. I had played and enjoyed the original Mass Effect so I quickly loaded it up, imported my character from Mass Effect 1 and launched into space to once again save the galaxy.
And just as quickly realized that, even though I was enjoying the game, it wasn’t an RPG.
As I said a few paragraphs back, the attraction of playing an RPG is playing a character that isn’t me. Hand me a sword and I’d probably cut my own leg off by accident before I could hit an actual Darkspawn with it. But this isn’t a problem for Dirk Rapier, human rogue and Grey Warden. I add points to his combat skills, point him at an opponent and he leaps into the fray, effortlessly attacking and parrying before leaping into the air and delivering the deathblow to an ogre with a flourish. I could never do it myself, but my character can.
Mass Effect 2 was a bit different. David Shepherd starts across the station and suddenly encounters hostile robots. I go to check his gun combat skills, only to realize that he doesn’t have any. I can’t just point at a robot and tell him to destroy it, I have to treat it like a first person shooter; point the gun at the robot and click to fire.
Things don’t get any better when he reaches a locked door. Instead of using a non-existent lock-picking or electronics skill I have to complete a mini-game of Concentration to match pairs of symbols to somehow unlock the door. This differs from the computer I hack later where instead of using Shepherd’s computer skill I have to play a pattern-matching game where I have to select the correct “code sequences” to remove the firewall. Beyond the fact that neither of these bear any resemblance to reality, they also don’t have anything to do with role-playing. Where’s the role-playing if I’m the one doing it?
Mass Effect 2 isn’t a role-playing game. It’s a story and dialog heavy shooting game.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against shooters. Some of my favorite games have been shooters. Of games I have rated highly I can point to Far Cry 2, Bioshock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as a few (more or less) recent examples that I have played and enjoyed.
But just because I enjoyed them doesn’t mean I didn’t sometimes find them frustrating.
I’m a Paleogamer, remember? I’m over 50. My reflexes and coordination aren’t what they used to be. I often find shooters to be unbelievably frustrating. In fact, sometimes I find it so frustrating that I have to resort to cheat codes in order to complete the game. (I’m looking at you Half-Life 2: Episode 2.)
Watching my Grey Warden tear a swath of destruction through the ranks of the Darkspawn is fun. Reloading after getting killed by Harbinger for the third time because my marksmanship skills are only a bit lower than those of Imperial Stormtroopers is not.
Some games attempt to bridge the gap between shooter and RPG better than others. Fallout 3, I thought, did a very good job of it. If your personal skills were up to it you could play it as a shooter. Or, if you were like me, you could kick in the VATS system, pause the game, pick your target and let your character use their skills for you. I could be a bad-assed hero of the wastes without needing better reflexes than I had when I was even half my current age.
Back when Fallout 3 came out I actually had someone complain to me that VATS made the game too easy. Apparently since I couldn’t consistently hit my target on my own I didn’t “deserve” to get through the game. I disagree. As I have said before, I should be able to enjoy the game to my own standards no matter what my personal skill level is. This isn’t a competition; it’s a hobby for fun.
I am making my way through Mass Effect 2 and I am enjoying it, but I am also not ashamed to say that I am playing it on Casual. I’m playing for fun, not to prove that my twitch reflexes are better than someone else. I just wish that it was more of an RPG so I could avoid having to manually hack computers, bypass doors and scan planets and get back to helping Shepherd kick Collector ass across the galaxy.