Listening to many gamers and critics prattle on about Mass Effect 2 is kind of like listening to a teenager talk about their first love. The game, they say, can do no wrong. It’s a pure, perhaps even blind sort of love, and at first glance, it’s well-deserved. But no videogame – no matter how much of its dialogue is delivered in Martin Sheen’s seductively raspy warble – is perfect. Problem is, many of Mass Effect 2’s detractors are picking on the wrong “flaw.”
For Mass Effect 2, the word of the day that’s got nitpickers screaming like they’re on an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is “streamlined.” Or, in many cases, its more derogatory cousin: “dumbed-down.” “Mass Effect 2’s not even an RPG anymore,” many of them hoot and holler. “It’s just a shooter with RPG elements!” Now, ignoring the fact that large chunks of Mass Effect 2 see Shepard holstering his sticks and stones in favor of words so that the player can -- you know -- play a role, streamlining the game’s combat doesn’t diminish its effect. In fact, I’d even argue that it allows for greater strategic depth. Problem is, many gamers still cling to dusty, archaic notions of what certain genres should be, which – in my opinion – is keeping those genres stuck firmly in the Stone Age.
I realized just how much I appreciated Mass Effect 2’s straight-to-the-point take on running and gunning while I was making my way through BioShock 2. Yes, BioShock 2’s got all the trappings of a shooter, but – at any given moment – there’s just so much to do. Among other things, you’ve tons of guns and powers to shuffle through, health and plasmid meters to regulate, traps to keep an eye out for, items to pick up, etc. Now, BioShock 2’s combat definitely thrives on chaos, but – when the real meat of the game lies in staying just one precarious step ahead of splicers, Big Daddies, and Big Sisters – micromanaging the above factors really only serves to confuse and overwhelm the player. Don’t get me wrong: options are great. But so is food, and as with options, if you cram too much of it into something, you just get a bunch of unnecessary fat.
Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, gave me what I needed in battle and the means by which to quickly and conveniently access it. Nothing more, nothing less. My mind, no longer firing on all cylinders to just handle just the basics of combat, was free to plan out inventive strategies in the heat of battle. Instead of fumbling through my arsenal while working up a nice, refreshing nervous sweat, I was firing off orders and giving my enemies fits. Similarly, Mass Effect 2’s simplification of leveling, weapons, armor, and stats in general had me spending far less time bathed in the neon-glow of menu screens and more immersed in the stories of Shepard and his gang of incredibly dysfunctional cutthroats. A win-win situation, in my book.
That’s only one example, though. Over in Console Land, two games have (semi) recently come under fire for eschewing genre traditions and trimming away unnecessary fat. First up, Final Fantasy XII – in many ways the most progressive game in its entire 400,000,000 game series – bellyflopped its way right into the bargain bin because, as many gamers put it, “the game played itself.” Is that such a bad thing, though? Final Fantasy XII allowed players to program their characters for specific battle situations, all but eliminating the mundane menu-crawling that so characterized the series’ random battles for its entire existence. Again, Final Fantasy XII aimed to streamline and refine its combat system, but close-minded gamers were too stuck on their preconceived notions of what an RPG – and, on some level, videogames – should be, so they turned up their noses, scoffed, and went back to enduring random battle after random battle because that’s the way it’s always been. And guess what? Square Enix listened. Final Fantasy XIII’s a “return to form” for the series. Talk about a hollow victory.
More recently, PS3 heavy-hitter Heavy Rain took its fair share of flack for fusing a number of game genres with the cinematic flair and pacing of a movie. “It’s just a series of glorified ‘press A to not die’ quick-time events!” skeptics cried. “It might as well be Dragon’s Lair.” Again, however, by shaving off a few layers of interactivity, Heavy Rain created an entirely new form of videogame. But instead of embracing the notion of something new, many gamers hesitated to even call Heavy Rain a videogame. And yeah, it’s difficult to find a nice fit for Heavy Rain in the larger tapestry of videogame genres, but that’s the point!
And therein lies the rub: We’re operating on an outdated, utterly arbitrary notion of what makes an RPG an RPG, a shooter a shooter, and even a videogame a videogame. We’re taking our cues from a canon that’s still very much in the making. But really, if we want videogames to take off and reach their full potential, we need to stop binding their wings with our short-sighted ideas. We complain that videogames have stagnated – that they’re not innovative enough anymore. But when someone puts a new spin on an old idea, we roll our eyes and suddenly become cynical old museum curators, shooing away every piece that can’t fit in a frame and hang on a wall.
With the rapidly climbing price of game development, it’s already difficult enough for developers to breathe life into new ideas. So when a developer makes its very own Frankenstein’s monster of game genres, let’s at least wait until we’ve actually played the result for ourselves before raising our pitchforks and torches.