Narrative and Gameplay
Two very different aspects of a game that can, either independently or in tandem, set a game above or below the rest of the pack.
There are certainly going to be games where the story is so compelling, so enthralling, that you don’t mind a relatively simple gameplay environment in which to experience it. Getting truly sucked into a story, so much so that you find yourself up at 2 in the morning wanting to know what is going to happen next, is a benchmark for a truly narrative driven game to strive for. For role playing games this is often the most critical aspect and when it is not achieved the rest of the game can crumble beneath it. Some examples (your mileage may vary) are JRPG, Morrowind games, or Fallout games.
For some titles the unique and engaging gameplay or game-mechanics are what make the game game appealing. Trine, Braid, Limbo, and P.B. Winterbottom are all examples of smaller indie games that have focused on giving the player a new and different gaming experience that would set them apart from the rest. If you’ve ever played a game and found the mechanics themselves leaving you in awe, or perhaps the stunt you just pulled had you yelling out in excitement, then you may have found a game whose gameplay is a measure of its worth. For a lot of people competitive FPS’s and RTS’s fit into this category as it is inevitably the fundamental differences between these games that set them apart in the glut that is the current game market.
Occasionally you might find games that, for you, rise above the rest by having both exceptional narrative and gameplay. These concepts are purely subjective and the list of games will vary from person to person of course but we will each hold them very dear to us. Some people really liked Final Fantasy 8, for example, for both its story and gameplay and some find it a loathsome blemish.
Concessions – losing out on one of the two due to dumbing down the game
Within the past two years I have played two games by a single company that I want to talk about here and how the development of each franchise is similar to what we are seeing in WoW.
Mass Effect: like many people I was drawn into the story of Mass Effect right away. The game-universe was well fleshed out, extremely detailed, and even believable (if there was such a thing about a space opera). This was a game, I thought, that took an action shooter and put an RPG engine under the hood. The game is not without its faults don’t think I am giving it a free pass. The fights got repetitious by the end and the “dice rolling” on your shots got aggravating at times, but the core mechanics were very well executed and at the end of the day that is what we remember. Thought was required while speccing out your character and I have always liked games with inventory management and weapon/armor/accessory collecting. Mass Effect 2 stripped out almost all of the RPG elements of the game and reverted it into a cover based shooter. While the gameplay was still entertaining on a basic level, it was no longer as thrilling or unique but more “one more of the same”. The storyline was also simplified into “get the band back together” with only 2 or 3 real meaty plot missions and a terrible final boss that you had no real motivation to hate.
Dragon Age: this game was in development prior to Bioware even starting on Mass Effect 1, and wasn’t released until after Mass Effect 2. The age definitely shows in both the graphics engine as well as the somewhat archaic (at least for Bioware) interface and dialogue displays. That being said, this game really scratches the itch a lot of gamers had for a real micro/macro tactical RPG in the same vane as Baldur’s Gate. The combat was a bit sluggish though the ability to zoom in and out and handle the battle from different perspectives made up for it to a degree. The plot held up fairly well and the constant shades of grey dialogue options made it tough to really figure out if you were really helping the right person. I have heard some people say that the general gameplay of Dragon Age was pretty painful to slog through and that the story was what held it together. First off: Play it the right way, on the PC. Second, you need to like that level of customization. Some gamers like a very simple plug and play style game whereas I, like Kat Bailey from 1up, like to really tweak out my party and get it just the way I want. Complex party building is an art that is long lost in a lot of modern sword and sorcery RPG’s. Dragon Age 2 so far seems to be this awkward blend of Dragon Age (minus the customization) and God of War and some of the “streamlining” that Mass Effect 2 underwent as well. Instead of a well thought out group of adventurers you have a flashy one man wrecking crew of a character.
After all this complaining the question is, will I play Dragon Age 2? More than likely. Will I like it more than Fallout: New Vegas? Probably not. The real question though is what is driving this shift in games towards the more accessible, streamlined, simplified versions of their predecessors. Many cry out that it is the financial backing that drives the change (EA, Activision, THQ etc.) in the hopes of broadening the player base for each game. While I would love think the developers are immune from having such factors affect their decisions I am sure that it does. Games like Baldurs Gate, Fallout: 2, Civilization, and Dragon Age are still not the kind of game the general gaming population would really warm up to without a lot of people whose opinion they trust telling them to do so. The easier solution is to dumb the game down, make it more accessible, and see those profits rise. I cannot blame them for this really, money is money after all and if you can increase your player base by even 20% from one game to the next then your management will call that a win.
The “Dragon Effect 2” in World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft has been going through its casualization phase for a good while now. I still have fun playing the game don’t get me wrong, but I do get a little bitter and resentful of the direction the game is going from time to time. I’m going to go a little “back in my day” here, but I remember in vanilla wow how impressive tier 3 gear from Naxxramas was. When you hung out in your Naxx gear in any major city you got a lot of attention and people knew right away that you had accomplished something truly impressive. This epic feeling was not lost on Blizzard either, as the three most prominently visible pieces of your tier set (head, chest, shoulders) were often dropped from the harder bosses in the instance. I don’t necessarily want to go back to the days of only 5% of the raiding population seeing the hardest bosses in an expansion, but I think there was something to be said for beating the hardest encounters and being proud to show off the accomplishment. Right now gear is, for the most part, a joke. Most anything can be bought with badges or crafted in some fashion, attunements have gone by the wayside, and class homogenization has stripped much of the uniqueness from a lot of class/specs out there. Even with all of this though, the game still maintains an avid playerbase and quality end game content for the more serious raiders. What I would like to know from you the readers (or reader?) is what would you like to see done differently to keep WoW’s gameplay engaging, and not stripped of the complexity it truly needs. What aspects of the game that are being removed do you really wish would stay?
Tom Chilton at GamesCom was quoted as saying that the current bipolar system for raid boss difficulty did not really cater to the diverse community in WoW. We end up having encounters that are either very easy, or brutally difficult and you risk alientating a lot of people by doing so. Apparently they are looking into expanding upon that into three difficulties(normal/heroic/epic perhaps?). WoW needs to continue to grow in depth as it ages and not regress like Mass Effect or Dragon Age. So far Cataclysm has yet to disappoint graphically, but the raid content has yet to be realized and that is ultimately what a lot of us care about.