(Warning: long post about computer role-playing games.)
My favorite genre of computer game, ever since discovering that it existed fifteen years ago, has been the role-playing game (RPG). I greatly enjoy the feeling of being some kind of overpowered hero doing battle with generic evil things, stealing their treasure, and pimping out my weapons and armor. This morning I was thinking about three RPGs that I've loved over the past several years: Diablo II, Oblivion, and (wait for it...) World of Warcraft. The three games are very different in many ways; what are the common themes and differences between them?
(For the sake of this post, I'm talking about computer RPGs, not console RPGs, which are a somewhat different beast.)
All of the games feature the things I described above: combat, treasure, upgrades to weapons and armor, and a sense of heroism. They're also generally games that take a long time to play, so you can develop a strong attachment to your character. I'm so overboard that I generally save copies of my characters even after uninstalling the game; I can't bear to let them die.
All those things are great, but I'm more interested in what's different about each game.
Essentially every RPG places a strong emphasis on combat. The RPG where combat isn't the most important part of the game is a rare one indeed. The three games I listed all have a different style of presenting that combat, though.
In Diablo II, you wander around left-clicking and right-clicking on things until they die. You can equip different abilities and spells for each button, and change those during combat, but you're generally not dealing with too many things at once. It's very simple, and it's fast, visceral, and exciting.
In Oblivion, combat is also fast, though not really quite as fast as Diablo. The action is in first person, and you can dodge arrows, take cover, and really get a feeling that you're surrounded by your opponents. Similar to Diablo II, you either wield a weapon or cast a spell at any given time, and can choose what you're doing in the middle of combat.
World of Warcraft is the most different here. Enemies are tougher; whereas in Diablo II taking on ten or twenty little goblin creatures at once is no big deal, you're rarely fighting more than a couple at once in WoW, and depending on your character class, you may rarely fight more than a single enemy at once. The game encourages grouping up with friends, so with only one human player whacking on the goblin, it's slow going. You rarely mow through enemies in WoW. Also wildly different is the number of abilities some characters may use at once. On my main character in WoW, I have about thirty buttons for spells and abilities on my screen, and others that I might use in a given combat are simply bound to keys or mouse clicks. While I'm certainly not using all of those in a fight, they're all very easily available, and in a complex enough fight, I may still use up to ten of them. Combat is much more interesting in WoW.
By myself, I enjoy the fast, ridiculous combat of Diablo II the most, but playing with a friend in WoW is really the experience to beat. I like the versatility of WoW and the feeling of "being there" in Oblivion. It's interesting that Diablo II's combat has the best pace but is still the least interesting.
In Diablo II, your objectives are simple: explore every part of the map, and kill every living (and undead) thing you come across. In Oblivion, you largely choose your own objectives: there's a main storyline to follow, but an insane number of other things you can do. I played the precursor to Oblivion, Morrowind, for over two hundred hours, and much of that was just wandering around, exploring the countryside. In World of Warcraft, there's no real objective. You keep playing because you want to, because you want to get better equipment, or because you want more money. You can never win, and you're never done, which is both an upsisde and a downside. Also, when you reach the level cap in World of Warcraft, your character can only increase in power through equipment and your own skill at playing, and that slows the pacing of the game considerably, which is unfortunate.
Every RPG has quests, but the three games do them very differently. In Diablo II, the quests are practically just checkboxes to make sure that you've killed everything. If you've killed everything in every area of tha map, you've probabably finished all of the quests. The storyline is advanced through the quests, but what it really boils down to is that after you've killed each group of X-hundred creatures, you get to continue the next part of the storyline.
World of Warcraft is kind of similar, except where Diablo II has under thirty quests in the game, World of Warcraft has something like two thousand. The storyline is also advanced through quests in WoW, but most of the quests in WoW largely exist just to make sure that you're seeing the whole world, helping to pace you and make sure you don't skip parts. Almost all of the quests are very simple: kill ten boars, or go talk to the innkeeper in the next town over, or keep killing bears until you've collected ten furry bear taints. They also serve as an excuse to give the player a constant source of new equipment; a great deal of quests will reward you with a new weapon or piece of armor when you're done, so you're always getting new shiny things.
Oblivion is different. Some Oblivion quests involve killing, but their overwhelming purpose is to advance the storyline, and there have got to be hundreds and hundreds of them. Oblivion has a very rich story, and it works through quests. Like the other games, the quests also serve as reasons to go to places that you might not have visited yet.
I like Oblivion's quest model the best. Doing tasks for the people of Cyrodiil really made me feel like I was a part of the world. World of Warcraft is good too; the quests are balanced pretty well to help you spend the "optimal" amount of time in an area, and keep you focused. Since there are other people in the same game as you, the monsters all respawn after a couple minutes, and without something to guide you, many players may just kill the same thing in the same area over and over again if not guided to new places by quests.
World of Warcraft has far more interesting items than the other two games, in my opinion. There are just tons and tons of weapons, armor, and accessories to accumulate and wear. In Diablo II and Oblivion, items are much more repetitive. Every robber in the camp in Oblivion may carry the same sword and three pieces of glass armor, and almost every item you find in Oblivion and Diablo II is the same item you've found a dozen times, with a new prefix or suffix—maybe this is a Large Club of Fire, so it deals fire damage when you hit. World of Warcraft has those too, but there just seems to be a much wider variety of stuff to find, and after you've played for long enough, you'll be wearing a variety of beautiful and rare pieces of armor. In Diablo II you can barely see what you're wearing, but it will probably mostly be pretty "standard" stuff unless you're extremely hardcore. In Oblivion, you'll find tons of stuff, but it's rarely anything you'll want to keep for yourself. WoW definitely wins here.
Also, in Diablo II and Oblivion, the items you receive are almost entirely random. In World of Warcraft, the item you receive for killing an opponent is random, but it comes from a set table of possible items custom-tailored for that creature. A particular boss will have a dozen items that it can drop when killed, so if you see someone else with an item you like, you know where you could potentially find it. I love this aspect of the game. The downside is that if you really, really want a particular item and will accept no substitute, the way to get it is to kill the same thing over and over until you finally win it.
Travel is where the single-player games shine. In Diablo II, you can easily teleport between a town and your current location, and you can use waypoints to travel between major locations instantly. In Oblivion, you can open up your map and click on anywhere you've ever been and appear there instantly. In World of Warcraft, you can go back to town once an hour, but you can't return, and if you want to get to somewhere besides your one "home" town, and can't find someone to help you out with a magical portal or ritual of summoning, expect to spend five to ten minutes getting there. They say this adds to the realism, and I think that's a load of crap. Oblivion is probably the most immersive, "real" game I've ever played, and it let me teleport all over the place. Traveling through an area once and seeing the landscape can be interesting and exciting, especially in Oblivion where the world is so beautiful, but doing it for the tenth or hundredth time in WoW just sucks.
My ideal RPG
Ideally, I'd love to see a game as beautiful as Oblivion, with combat and items as interesting and complex as those in World of Warcraft, and as fast as Diablo II or Oblivion, that can be played solo or cooperatively with a friend. WoW and Oblivion were and are "big," and I'm hoping that someone else feels the same way.
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