After Mass Effect: The Changing Landscape of RPGs and Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 changed everything. It was the action that did it — the shooting. It wasn’t just the emphasis on it, but the polish of it. It didn’t just change the series, it was part of a rapid tidal wave that reshaped the RPG genre.

And I liked it.

Some people didn’t like it. They lamented the change from older Bioware games like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic. Even the original Mass Effect focused more on character build, weapon customization, and party arrangement. And those stats that were crunched under the hood had more to do with your result in combat than your proficiency with aim and reflex.

In a small way, I lamented that change also.

I liked the older style western RPGs. In addition to the Bioware titles I just mentioned, I liked Knights of the Old Republic II, Jade Empire, Fallout 1 & 2, and even Morrowind to some extent. There was something other than the action-reaction loop of downing enemies in those games that made them compelling. Trying to explore their particular charms would take several articles. But suffice it to say their time is now gone, and I kind of miss it.

But for all that those games did well, they missed something that Mass Effect 2 got right. Mass Effect 1 missed it, too. It was the satisfaction of action and reaction. It was the way immediacy and threat were tied to a combat scenario inside of a longer form narrative. It was steadying your aim, reacting fast, and mastering timing to make an enemy go down — not just crunching numbers.

Succeeding at a more statistically based, methodical RPG is satisfying of course. But playing one where your nerves and reflexes are required isn’t inherently less satisfying. While you certainly might prefer one or the other, neither one is fundamentally a better kind of satisfaction; only it seems one is always over utilized while the other is underexplored and this contrast can alternate.

There’s an assumption around RPGs now that fast means dumb, and slow means smart. I think it’s more that action RPGs are more forgiving in the long term, but less forgiving in the short term compared to their older, more methodical siblings.

In an action RPG, being less aware of your long term strategies can be overcome by mastering short term encounters. A misstep in the strategy of your character build or squad special ability trees can be overcome if you know to use a debuff power on an elite enemy, then do regular damage to take it out (while cooling down or recharging mana or whatever), then using an AOE on the grunts in those first few seconds during an enemy encounter. If the game is in real time, and your reflexes are swift, you’re even better off.

The newer, faster RPGs require strategy at a different pace and at different times, not in a different amount, and not even a different kind necessarily (although potentially it has room for kinds of strategy not necessary in slower games).

The second assumption is a larger topic: that anything requiring reflexes is exclusive to certain gamers. And it is. That’s what makes it rewarding when you’re successful. Trying to remove the win condition from games is ludicrous because there’s always a point when you sit down to play a game, even the point is walking on the beach, playing chess, and smoking cigarettes. Even if the point is learning something, feeling something, considering something — pressing a button, looking, hearing, reading, anything that fires a synapse in the brain is a something and it is the point.

If the point is doing X in Y amount of time with Z amount of accuracy, that’s not invalid because it’s hard, any more than dense literature is invalid because a lot of people don’t get it.

I feel a great sense of satisfaction when I appropriately sense a thematic theme that’s elegantly woven into a story, or feel complex emotions aroused in me because of authentic characters. If that’s the point of an experience than it’s immensely satisfying and generally I like that better than I like the gratification I get from being quick with analog sticks or mouse and keyboard.

But I do like successfully exercising my hand-eye coordination. If you don’t, that’s fine. And if you don’t care for the subtler shades of storytelling or highly strategic gameplay, that’s fine too. There should be something for everyone, but everything shouldn’t be for everyone.

The Mass Effect

Role-playing games have been making a shift. In 2007 games like Mass Effect and The Witcher started it. Real-time combat in RPGs has been around for a long time, but ME and Witcher put it at the forefront and it some places it was good enough to be the whole reason you played the game.

But it was also frustrating at times. It was good, but not polished. In ME, shooting and the cover system didn’t feel tactile enough, movement sometimes felt floaty and imprecise. Character class and stats made a huge difference; it could make certain weapons unusable even if your aim is perfect.

Putting the reticle right on line, in your weapon’s range, and hitting nothing but air because of stats being crunched behind the scenes didn’t feel right. It had to change, and in ME2 it did.

The first time Shepard gets on his feet in the Cerberus labs in ME2’s first mission, you grab a pistol, and immediately have to shoot your way out of a problem. I still remember taking cover, shooting a few rounds, pausing the game, and saying, “Oh my God. They nailed it.” They did nail it.

‘Nailing it’ is firmly snapping to cover when you want to, not being sucked into when you don’t — it’s the tight snap of recoil, and just the right amount of heft to the weapon that makes your aiming feel grounded.

There’s nothing dumb about great shooting. It’s a technical marvel, and takes a lot of design iteration to get right. Great shooting doesn’t hand you anything, it gives you a space to execute trial and error, and ultimately train your muscles to respond appropriately, always ramping up the challenge or changing the details to keep it from being just muscle memorization.

Sword play is a whole other aspect of the action rpg. The Witcher elevated that gameplay mechanic, giving my clicky fingers and mouse a workout, but also upping the strategy from simple hack and slash.

Games like Fable II and Fallout 3 followed the trend in 2008. Risen, Divinity II, Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas, Dragon Age 2, and others tried to follow the trend, and not all of them succeeded. By 2011 it was clear the JRPGs and turn based games that ruled the role playing genre in the past were now dethroned, replaced by the contrasting western action based RPGs.

Now it’s Mass Effect 3, Witcher 2, and Skyrim that are the leading role playing games. Elder Scrolls has probably always been the best balance of traditional and more action oriented RPG but Skyrim is undoubtedly starting to lean towards the trend of more tactile and reflex based combat.

But the question I keep asking myself is why? The easiest answer is challenge. It’s hard to master the reflexes and urgent decision making necessary to be really good at these games and it feels good when you do it. But it also feels good to solve puzzles, form long term strategies, customize characters or environments, and grasp subtle story or emotion in games. All of those things have challenge, too. So why have role playing games been trending towards the shooting, slashing, real-time, fast paced kind of challenge?

I’ve been thinking about this answer for the past four days as I’ve worked on various drafts of this article and I don’t think I have an answer I’m satisfied with. Money is undoubtedly part of it. The best selling games of the last 10 or 15 years have been shooters or other action titles. Forty hour, fully voiced role playing games with multiple, branching storylines are costly to produce and broadening the audience to include shooter fans helps offset that.

This brings up a different issue in all entertainment industries of the push for tent-pole projects, and nothing but tent-pole projects with no room for smaller, less expensive, more niche expenditures. But that’s another topic unto itself.

Another part of it is the over utilized/underexplored contrast I mentioned earlier. Even as RPGs move more towards action oriented playstyles, people are calling for a return to the classical RPG days. I remember really liking Mass Effect’s combat, but wishing at times it was more like shooters of the time.

Mass Effect 2 fixed that, and again, I liked it. I liked Mass Effect 3, too. I still like this action RPG trend, maybe because it’s still newer and more distinct than the classical RPG style and the modern shooter designs. Shooters by themselves are getting boring for and a lot of people. That genre will have to adapt, and when it does some people will call for the “good ol’ days” of shooters (some people already do).

I think the pendulum will swing back a bit on role-playing games eventually, but not soon. While playing Mass Effect 3, on multiple occasions I fought enormous, sentient space ships head on. One time I charged straight at one as it blew up everything around me and the battlefield was littered with other enemies trying to kill me. All real time, all nerve punishing, all amazing.

So no… I don’t think the good old days are coming back anytime soon.

3 responses to “After Mass Effect: The Changing Landscape of RPGs and Mass Effect 2”

  1. lalzy says:

    The problem with mass effect(and dark souls, witcher 2 and so forth(skyrim not so much, it have different problems) is the action. I mean if you remove the dialogue tree from the conversations, remove the space travel(and make it linear aproach instead, which wouldn’t change too much too be honest) you suddenly have an action game with a few rpg elements(leveling up skills that add a few differences but generally don’t matter much).

    Because of this I can’t personally see it as an improvement. How is making the rpg genre into a clone of the action genre a good thing? Why should the rpg games all be action games with dialogues? Why not just call them action games which they actually are? I’m not suggesting that the “old days” will come back, and more action oriented rpg’s are only inevitable because of the way 3D looks(as seen in morrowind, it was annoying that a dice determine hit rates when you clearly hit something), however this dosen’t mean that the combat should become or be clones of the action genre.

    I think the best balance is the one found in the gothic series. Like games today it uses a “if you would hit, you hit” type of mechanic, however it also uses a “dice” system like other games(say 15-20 damage on a sword) and it compares stats(player and weapon) to armor ratings and so forth. The only “difference” is that there is no “hit” calculation, since it’s guranteed. Because of this a level 1 character would not get far in the game, and it is impossible to complete the game as a low level(with the expansion in gothic 2 you pretty much have to reach max level to hope to beat the last boss).

  2. Jordan Rivas says:

    Hi lalzy — welcome to the blog, and thanks for reading and commenting.

    I actually agree that removing the dialogue tree and open world elements (however sparse) would make a role playing game much like a typical action game. But I consider dialogue trees (or wheels, if you prefer) and open world elements to be integral elements of the RPG. So I’m not sure I can (or want to) defend RPGs that don’t have those elements.

    As I understand it, both Mass Effect and Dragon Age still do some dice rolling behind the scenes when calculating damage, critical chance, critical damage, secondary effects (freezing, etc), and perhaps some other items as well. But I think it was Casey Hudson, director on the Mass Effect trilogy, who said he wanted to empower a player to feel like their skill determined if that hit or missed a target. It’s debatable whether that makes for a better experience, but I think mixing the control of one-to-one correlation involved in aiming and shooting with the longer, more strategic gameplay in stacking stats to benefit your character in dice rolls is a nice balance.

  3. lalzy says:

    Jordan Rivas: It’s true that leveling is more important and noticable in mass effect 1, this is an “acceptable” title for rpg, mass effect 2 and 3 however changed this. Leveling isn’t important in mass effect 3 as most damage is done with your weapons, so upgrading those is an advantage(however, it’s actually not needed unless your playing on hardcore or insanity difficulty, and then leveling is another advantage(but not directly needed)), there is no dice roll I’ve seen in me3(doh there might be an extremely small one for damage) it’s all in a paper scissor like way except in “resistance”: wrap is almost useless against shields, moderatly good against armor, and very good against barrier(iirc). And that goes for most powers, throw/pull etc only works against enemies with non protection things(shield etc) and so forth.

    Obviously that is more skill based rather then anything else. Now obviously one could debate what makes an rpg allot, is it the plot advancements, or is it the leveling systems? With this, I would point towards JRPG’s, there are no doubts they are rpgs however you have absolutely NO dialogue options at all, except to ask to see someones shop! Yet these clearly are rpgs because of the leveling system.

    Which then goes back to my original point, Gothic 1-2 had the right mixture of leveling and action. Leveling is important as you can’t do anytihng at lower levels, however you can take on enemies far above your “current level” if you did have high enough skill(but you still wouldn’t beat any bosses or heavy armored characters etc), and the higher skill you had as a player also would allow you to use less health potions(since you’d get hit less often obviously).

    Baldurs gate, icewind dale and so forth however(while my favorite rpgs) are different as they are in a isometric view and are tactical squad based rpg. I don’t see this becoming an extremely popular rpg type again either(but we’ll see with project eternity, if it’s popular enough it’ll show that there indeed is a market for it(which I’d say the kickstarter proved). And like I said, morrowind was a perfect example of how doing the dice-roll/isometric logic in the first or third person view just won’t work.

    For me personally, I played the first 3 hours of mass effect and had to take a break… this wasn’t an rpg, this was an exact copy of pretty much any action shooter I’ve played the last 4 years now. And after a few hours of taking a break i decided to replay it, however this time I went in with the mentality that it’s not an rpg, it’s an action shooter with small rpg elements, and by seeing it as that it was more playable(doh the AI of your squad mates drives me crazy, but this will always be a problem, as shown in arcanum, you can’t have AI driven squad mates if the players life depend on them! Which is does on higher difficulty…). So I’ll just state for the record: Mass effect series is a great action game, but not so great rpg series in my opinion, and so it should have been relabeled as an action game, or at the very least action rpg(but by doing that, baldurs gate needs to be relabeled to an rpg instead of an action rpg(yes it’s an action rpg)).

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