Why Mass Effect 2 is the future of the RPG

Mass Effect 2

I’ve always been interested in the evolution of video games. While some games provide a sort of comfort zone for me that I know I can always go to to play a familiar type of game, I am far more interested in what a game is doing to further the evolution of a series or the genre it’s a part of. I’m not looking for anything radical, but when a game like BioShock challenges the very idea of player action, or Dead Rising forces you to face the consequences of your in-game actions, I perk up and immediately take notice, hoping future games will continue to evolve.

But this is not always the case. Sometimes a game will be released, trying something different, and players will not take to it, forcing developers to go back to their established formula, permanently. I saw the future of the Zelda franchise with the superb Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, a game that shook the very foundations of the Zelda franchise and provided truly original gameplay, but was "too weird" for Zelda fans, and we were stuck with both The Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time retread, Twilight Princess following that. While both of these games are still good in their own right, they are basically derivatives of A Link to the Past.

Well, dear readers, I’ve seen the future once again. A game has been released that has challenged the RPG genre and is the harbinger of the future of the RPG. It takes everything that is great about RPGs, trims out all of the useless tropes that plague the genre, and delivers an experience that made me realize that this is what I play these games for.

That game is Mass Effect 2 and I’m going to tell you why it’s the future of the RPG.

Let me start at the beginning though. In order to express my point that Mass Effect 2 is the future of RPGs, I have to explain why the RPG genre is in such a state that allows this to be true. As it stands now, the RPG genre is so riddled with cliches and rip-offs that it no longer knows what message or experience it wants to deliver. RPGs are supposed to deliver rich stories, interesting characters, and engaging worlds to explore, yet they are so bogged down by useless micromanagement, xeroxed stories, and boring characters. The JRPG is a shining example of this. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Amnesiac kid in a sleepy town is having a great day until (insert tyrannical villain/empire) invades and destroys everyone he thinks he loves, leaving only his scrappy friend/love interest behind. They leave on a quest to find out why such an atrocity was committed, along the way recruiting a characters who all fit the bill of patrons at a D&D tavern, and discovering the hero is really the "Chosen One." They also meet a creature/fluffy animal/weird alien that serves as the party’s mascot.

I just summarized 90% of the JRPGs to be released in the past 10 years right there and it’s getting worse. I don’t know about you, but I can’t trudge through that scenario again. They present this "story" as some epic yarn with a boring battle and level system that gives the illusion of character progression. Your character may be getting stronger, but he himself has not evolved at all. You don’t know him any better than you did at the beginning of the game.

Don’t think this just affects JRPGs. Western RPGs don’t fare any better. While most of them are already rich in character development, they are so weighed down by confusing combat systems and the always-imposing thought that you can break your character at anytime. Trying playing through the original Fallout or Fallout 2 without some sort of character guide so you don’t make a useless build. Or take a look at Arcanum‘s character screen. While the game’s story, world, and character progression are excellent, there are about 20+ stats that you can build, all of them vague and confusing. You never know which one to really build or where to invest. It’s overwhelming and is just not fun at times.

This is where Mass Effect 2 comes into play. Everything that is wrong with RPGs is gone from ME2. There are no idiotic JRPG tropes or useless level grinding. You never have to keep track of your inventory, or gather tons of loot that will serve no purpose other than to be traded for currency later. The game boils down what an RPG really is: character progression, story, and most importantly, having you play a role.

So many other RPGs hand you a character that is nothing like you want them to be. They are their own character and you are just controlling them. They make their own choices and are slaves to the game’s narrative. Yet in ME2, you can alter the story based on your choices. You’re not bound to any strict storyline. You can choose to gain your crews’ loyalty, or you can choose to not care about any of them, just the mission. Yes, there is a base plot here, but you can build your own story with it.

ME2‘s dialogue system is also an evolution of the genre. Instead of watching a cutscene play out in a JRPG, or choosing static dialogue trees in a western one, the dialogue wheel allows for flowing conversation. Conversation becomes a metagame in itself, making it fun and engaging just to learn more about your party members or investigate a local quest. Dragon Age had great writing and characters, but still adhered to the antiquated dialogue system, allowing pauses in the middle of conversations. While this does work if the characters aren’t backed by voice actors, when there are abrupt pauses in conversations, it takes you right out of the experience.

Mass Effect 2

ME2’s characters are also a leap ahead of any other game I’ve played. Each character in your crew, with the exception of two, are fleshed out and have histories, personalities, and demons. What begins as simple characterization leads to deep conversations about past lives and mistakes. Every time I spoke with a one of my crew, I learned something new or helped with their loyalty mission, which shed even more light on them. Most RPGs don’t even approach this kind of character development. They are copies of previous roles, with personalities that are common to their profession. The merc is going to be hard boiled and closed off, the mage may be spunky or cute, and the rogue is shady at first, but damaged deeply. Boring.

Lastly, ME2‘s combat and character progression are incredibly simple and streamlined, but fun. Instead of having countless stats which lead to countless ways to break your character, each crew member has around six powers to upgrade. There is no loot, and money and experience are set, guaranteeing your steady progression through the game. You’ll never encounter a boss that is a higher level than you, forcing you to go and grind to try to level up. You can instead focus on the story and building Shepherd as a character, instead of needless micromanaging. And by making combat a straight shooter, you don’t have to worry about pumping stats into helping you aim or worrying about mana/energy to use powers. The combat is endemic to your skill, and powers are governed by a simple cooldown, allowing you to focus on the action. It’s fun, a word that most RPGs seem to have forgotten.

Mass Effect laid the seeds for this genre transition, but it was held back by a frustrating inventory system and dodgy combat. Mass Effect 2 delivers a true RPG experience that is indicative of where the genre needs to go. They need to deliver great stories, true character progression, interesting companions, and fun battle systems. I’m not saying every RPG needs to be ME2, but they need to reassess the cliches that they have fallen back on. ME2 has illuminated the issues that I have with RPGs and given me hope for the genre. The game is a manifesto as to what I play RPGs for.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the galaxy needs me.


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Author: Matt Erazo View all posts by

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