Are Games Better With RPG Mechanics?

No, it’s not a written-in-blood fact, it is merely my opinion – I feel that games are improved when they employ mechanics typically found in RPGs.  Warning: The following contains things that I personally consider “RPG mechanics”, your mileage may vary. This is my editorial and so you’ll have to live with what I consider RPG-based mechanics. Sound good? Okay, let’s start.

In recent years there has been quite a few mash-ups of RPG and [enter other game genre here]. Whether it be action game, platformer, first-person shooter, racing game – you name it, developers have tapped into mechanics that were once considered (mostly) RPG staples. In my opinion, these mechanics added to a title seem like the “in” thing to do these days, so everyone is doing it, however it does make those games better overall. Perhaps that is just the RPG fan in me speaking out. Also, perhaps that is why there is such confusion these days about what to put in the “RPG of the Year” categories in various web site awards and, especially, on shows like the VGAs.

So, let’s take a look at some of the recent games that have crossed paths with the RPG, and consider the horror that these titles would be without that element.

Borderlands (FPS):
If you were having a conversation with me face to face you probably wouldn’t want me to get started on this subject. I figure I’ll just get it out of the way here and now: No matter what anyone tells you and no matter what Gearbox says, Borderlands is not an RPG. It is a stylized Call of Duty with loot and a crappy story. Now, no where in there did I say it was a bad game – quite to the contrary. For a FPS game, it is pretty darn good. I actually own it, and I’m not a fan of FPS titles! I know, you’re surprised, right? I don’t have a problem with the game itself, I have an issue with labeling it as an RPG.

Take out the loot and experience and the game is a standard FPS title (although the nice visuals help it stand out, it would still be rather typical of the FPS genre). Every year in video game awards – and one show in particular, the VGAs – it seems like they have to sneak one game in there that is mostly an FPS title but just happens to have RPG elements, and this year it was Borderlands. Come on now, if you’re going to put Borderlands in that category, why not go all the way and put Modern Warfare 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time and Forza 3 in that category as well, because they all have about the same amount of RPG elements.

Ok, rant over. The point – Borderlands minus the loot and experience system is just a standard FPS title. Possibly still fun, but I wouldn’t own it.

Assassin’s Creed II (Action-Adventure):
Another game I adore. I enjoyed the first one, even though it was highly repetitive and lacked most of the RPG elements they added the second time around. Gear upgrades – check. A (simplistic) town-building system – check. An economic system (money) – check. Looting corpses – check. The previous game had none of those, that’s why I just liked the first game and why I adore the second. Would I have purchased it without these RPG elements? Probably, but only because it isn’t an FPS title.

I would have, however, liked to see Ubisoft go a step further with the RPG side of things. In fact, it would be awesome if they took a look at Fable II and said, “Hey, what if we allowed our character to purchase properties and decorate their own houses!” Yes, that would indeed have been a cool feature of ACII. The fact remains, many of the best features of this sequel are RPG elements, without them there wouldn’t be much improvement over the first installment. Don’t even get me started on the massive amounts of side quests…oh, wait…

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time (Platformer):
Weapons leveling up via experience and side quests? Those two features scream RPG, mostly because my first ever experience with those features were, naturally, in an RPG. Your typical platformer usually doesn’t have side quests. (I’m at a loss as to which genre this game actually fits into, but I’m going to call it a platformer for the sake of diversity.) During your time spent between story segments, you’re tasked with performing various side-quests and collection tasks in the “space” areas of the game. Many of these are optional, or, if you will, side quests. Have I said that enough? This is a platformer with side-quests. That’s not a bad thing!

Mario could take a lesson from Ratchet and Clank. Imagine New Super Mario Bros. Wii with dozens of side quests you could take part in, either during or between levels. I’d love to see Nintendo tackle that one! Giving Mario customizable, upgradable lasers might not be the best idea, however. So, imagine the latest Ratchet and Clank without any of the side questing. It would be a much less robust experience. Or, basically, like Mario. (Zing! Down Nintendo fanboy, down!)

Forza Motorsport 3 (Sports/Racing):
Okay, I can understand the RPG elements in Borderlands, Assassin’s Creed II and even Ratchet and Clank. But, a racing game? C’mon, now you’re just messing with my head. In Forza 3 you actually gain experience as you race – you gain overall experience and experience per car (or manufacturer). These experience points lead to you “leveling up”. Of course, this doesn’t signify that you get more abilities, it merely opens you up to more events and some car rewards or discounts on cosmetic and performance upgrades. Still, it’s experience in a racing game!

Again, not a bad thing, just awfully odd. Next thing you know my car will be performing a limit break on the car in first place and will get disqualified for “unsportsmanlike behavior”.

These are just a few of the more recent titles that I feel benefited greatly from adding RPG elements to the game. I certainly feel the games are better for it, however I’m strongly against labeling them RPGs in any sense of the word. Borderlands is a FPS with RPG elements, Assassin’s Creed II is an action-adventure title with RPG elements, and so on. While I’m not saying a first-person style game, for example, can not also be a true RPG (look at Oblivion), I am saying that I think we need a stricter genre labeling system for these various non-standard awards we tend to hand out as an industry.

In addition to all that, I have nothing against these RPG elements in games of other genres – it definitely makes them more attractive to me. Sure, I would buy some without those elements, but then again, some I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole if they didn’t have those mechanics.

Take this article as you will, it is purely my opinion on the matter. As always, your thoughts are appreciated in the comments below.

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Chad Awkerman

Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.

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