Leveling Up, When Possible
Posted by deckard47 on August 3, 2009
In honor of my most recent obsession, Dawn of War 2, I wanted to write something about the games that have tickled that part of me that really enjoys collecting points (experience points, mostly). This isn’t going to be a post about CRPGs in the most traditional (for me) sense. I’m sure I could write a lot about Bauldur’s Gate (my first real experience with such games, outside of tabletop D&D) and the games that followed it, but I’m interested in games that managed to work in this delicious mechanic without wearing that big, elf-ridden “RPG” stamp.
We’ll get to DoW 2 eventually, but I wanted to start with some older titles, ones whose RPG tricks didn’t stand out to me at the time.
On of the oldest is, of course, Dungeon Keeper (which predates BG, now that I think about it). Now, it’s not exactly like the game hid its RPG aspects. I mean, you could train your monsters in the training room, and they would level up and gain new abilities. Not subtle at all. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that this is what allowed me to tolerate what would normally have been an inhospitable genre: the RTS/building sim. I’ve always been shit at these games. When I played SimCity 2000 (which I did a whole lot), I would always build a bunch of hydro-electric plants on a mountain waterfall, and then rush-build a doomed city. The Sims, Black & White, and others either frustrate me or bore me. The same can be said for RTSs over the years. I played Starcraft, Warcraft II, and other titles because my brother played them. I always failed at them, and their upgrade mechanics, however enticing, were (for me) always a bad camouflage for the weird, anti-turtling mindset that was required to master the game. I had no idea at the time that this is why I liked Dungeon Keepr, but when the sequel came out I recognized it instantly. It’w what kept me playing both games while the horrible, inevitable god-game blues crept in (“your creatures are unhappy!”).
This leads me to my next title: Heroes of Might and Magic II (of course, I could pick any game in this series, but Heroes 2 was my first). This game blew me away. Not only did it introduce me to my favorite PC hotseat game ever, it featured an awesome world, tons of skills to level, an various cities to build (but really, that was leveling too). I refined a variant of turtling here, whereby I would only venture out into the wilderness when I knew I would win. It’s the kind of game I’m often not allowed to play, in RTSs. So often, victory is earned by blindingly fast expansion (along of course, with mastery of the game’s armies and buildings). Suffice it to say, I’ll always be a fan of these games, just as I am now a fan of their modern successor (and, I believe, progenitor), King’s Bounty. These games also feed into a certain bear-like gaming habit I have. I love games, and I play lots of them, all the time. Sometimes, however, I find a long, deep game that I can just sink into and tread through, in no particular hurry. Both the HoMM games and King’s Bounty allow me to do this. It’s the same thing that happens to me when I pick up almost any good RPG, from Baldur’s Gate to Septerra Core to KotoR.
Now, we take a break from RTSs (thankfully) to explore the few FPSs that have tickled my RPG fancy. As luck would have it, two completely different titles came out in 2000 that proved to me that an FPS could perfectly meld with an RPG (I never played System Shock 2, which probably means that the devil will make me play it forever in hell). The first (in my memory) was No One Lives Forever. Now, NoLF was already an amazing game in many ways. It was smartly, funnily written, it was beautiful and colorful (if you think shooters today are bland, recall that back then it was all neon-hued Unreal engine games and WW 2 shooters), and the story was long, long enough to stop me from finishing it on my first run through it. The wacky thing about the RPG mechanic in NoLF was it was a secret. I didn’t know about it until I realized that my armor and health had permanently boosted, thanks to my solid performance in a previous mission. You could unlock tons of items, from weapons to armor, to gadgets, this way. I was actually pretty bad at the game, and my little brother did most of the unlocking, but it was still enough to get me through some of the campaign’s slower sections. Of course, NoLF 2 would eventually come along and refine this technique: as a result, I liked that game about ten times as much as I liked the first one. I could specialize in flipping through documents! A revelation!
The second game was, of course, Deus Ex. I don’t know if I’ve written much about DX before, but it was and still is by far my favorite game. DX was long, deep, a flexible and fun RPG, a great stealth/action shooter, and endlessly entertaining. Looking back on it now I realize that the story and writing isn’t quite as amazing as I remember it being (although it’s still better than 95% of the stuff out there), and the enemy behavior (and the wonderful tricks you can play on them) is incredibly obvious and routine. What’s amazing is that, despite the fact that I know all of this (and that I’ve beat it 3 times), I’m still sucked in by the combination of shooting and stealth, talking and leveling, that stay strong until the (slightly) overblown ending. I’ve yet to play its better or equal (in the realm of shooting RPGs), and I’m not holding my breath.
After Deus Ex, not much else has ever come close to mixing my beloved RPG with a foreign element. Games like Warcraft 3 (fun, but I don’t care for Blizzard game-building/world-building), Dungeon Seige (which is really a light tactical RPG, and barely and RPG at that), the Bethesda games (too slight, from a story perspective, and they just smell a little off, for the most part) and many others.
If you skip ahead in this story you arrive in the recent past. I’ve actually been playing a lot of straight RPGs and straight other games, so it’s hard to pick any games that I’ve really recognized as being great because of their RPG leanings. It’s funny, because it’s extremely fashionable to do so, with Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, and the other bad boys of Consoledom leading the way.
From time to time, somebody gets it right. Modern Warfare forced me to play that game like I never play online shooters. It made me explore and push myself, attempting to reach new goals and levels. It’s badly replicated in many games, although I have a special place in my well of dislike for Halo 3‘s “leveling.” It’s almost insulting in how it is not in fact a leveling mechanic… It’s just more gamer points, with a different name (not that they’ve ever called it leveling, it just bugs me).
Still, these days, people are happier with an “RPG” like God of War, or something of the like. It’s strange to see a game like Dawn of War 2, which approaches the various elements of classic RPGs like something to carefully adapt and recreate, not strip-mine for shallow gameplay mechanics. In DoW 2, the leveling isn’t just in there so you can make your super-slash bigger or your fire ring a bit more firey. It’s there to compliment the deep item selection, and the complicated tactical options offered by your squads. Maybe that’s what I like then… Not upgrades and levels (things which tricked me into liking Dead Space, among other games), but complicated, interwoven levels of character development, in-game as well as in-story.
As it is, I’m excited to take a step back and look at Company of Heroes (and DoW 2 single player’s obvious precursor, Tales of Valor). There are a lot of RPGs on the horizon, but not a lot of games that mix up the formula. Irrational (who made Freedom Force, which deserves a post full of love) is busy making a new kind of game (unless they backtrack from Bioshock), one that I don’t really care about on a deeper level. Warren Spector is busy doing his (possibly Disney-related?) thing, and HoMM is dead in the water. Monolith continually disappoints, moving farther and farther away from the two games that made me absolutely love them. It’s all well and good to look forward to the Torchlights, Dragon Ages, Mass Effects, and other RPGs of the coming months and years, but I miss those hybrid games.
At least I have DoW 2 for now, and, eventualy Deus Ex 3 (which I will imagine fondly as being amazing until anyone can prove I shouldn’t) and the (once again) Relic-developed Space Marine.
Oh wait, that’s an action RPG.