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Unfair Leveling RPGs

The ultimate goal of an RPG leveling system with multiple builds or classes is to offer the player multiple equally effective but varying play styles. This makes the game feel more personal, as it lets you feel like you’re shaping the experience. It also adds replay value, since you can try out each of the different play styles and builds and see how they all go.

Of course it’s very hard to balance all of the different builds just right, especially in a game that gives you a multitude of choices rather than just a few different classes, but I figure that if one build makes you worse in nearly every conceivable way than another, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

So here’s to all the games that failed in that regard. Here’s to the games that cheated, humiliated and wronged us. Here’s to the games that effectively cripple anybody who had the sheer audacity to not make the correct choice at the start of the game.

System Shock 2

I already mentioned this in a previous post, so I’m going to keep this concise. Basically, this game completely favors “regular” weapons over energy weapons. Energy weapons are only effective against robotic enemies, and virtually every major threat in the game is organic. I hope you didn’t want to go Pew Pew, because if you try you’re just going to go Q Q.

Fallout: New Vegas

The weapon category imbalance was an extremely sore spot for me in New Vegas. There is simply no reason to specialize in Guns or Energy Weapons rather than Melee or Unarmed. Guns deal less damage, require more maintenance because of ammo, weigh more (especially in hardcore mode because of the addition of ammo weight), and are constantly at risk of jamming if you don’t keep them at high condition. Guns are worse than melee attacks in every conceivable way, except for the fact that they look cooler.

Mass Effect 2

Bioware took the easy road with this game by simply giving you six classes rather than letting you make your own build, and yet it still completely fumbled. I remember attempting a playthrough of Insanity, the highest difficulty, as a Sentinel (cross tech/biotic) and reaching a point where I couldn’t win no matter what I attempted.

I suspected that this might be more than just me sucking at the game, so I looked up online walkthroughs and found that if you’re playing as any class other than Infiltrator (the designated “sniper” class) you most likely won’t get through the game on Insanity without utilizing exploits or glitches. The Infiltrator gets a temporary invisibility spell, which apparently helps a lot with exploiting enemy AI patterns.

Boo.

Alpha Protocol

At the start this game appeared to have a lot of promise. It was going for Deus Ex style espionage gameplay where you can choose to shoot the baddies down, sneak past them, hack machinery or utilize whatever other strategies might be lying around in the room.

However, unlike Deus Ex, this game blatantly favors certain skills over others.

To anybody who doesn’t believe me: I challenge you to specialize in stealth and melee combat and get through the game without becoming thoroughly frustrated at least five times. I think what really killed it was the unskippable boss fights. I don’t think I need to explain why mandatory battles with powerful enemies is a bad idea in a game like this.

I’ve read that Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which is coming out in just a few days, by the way, and which I’m totally psyched about) also has mandatory boss battles, which begs the question: Holy shit, how have RPG devs not figured this out yet?! How is it not completely counter-intuitive to force the player into combat situations in a game that encourages — nay, boasts — combat alternatives like hacking and speech?

Christ, that game had better not suck.

Fin

I read about character builds in Fallout 1 and assumed it would have the same unfair inanity. After hearing about the hilarious brokenness of Barter and the depressing uselessness of Outdoorsman, it was hard not to come to such a conclusion. Judging from the almost universal objections I’ve received, I may have been wrong in my assumption. Maybe the game really does let you play however you want.

But I thought it would just be fair to point out that I don’t always have to have the most powerful build ever. I like a challenge, and I like to play by my own terms. I just don’t want to be gimped, and I’ve been gimped plenty of times in the past. And this definitely is not a complete list.

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25 responses

  1. On Mass Effect 2: you must visit different forums than I did. Everything I read suggested the Sentinel as your Insanity run class, because the tech armor basically doubles your health. So that was my choice, and I didn’t struggle at all with it. So YMMV.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:51 PM

    • JPH

      Hm. Maybe I have bad sources.

      Either way, the game still clearly favors one class over the rest.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:56 PM

      • I won’t argue that – in my experience, the Vanguard is the loser class in ME2. There are far too many situations where the goal is to stay back and shoot from a distance, making the Vanguard’s “get up close” power useless. It too often lead to death.

        The Infiltrator and Sentinel were the most powerful in my experience.

        August 19, 2011 at 5:30 PM

        • Khizan

          The standout ME2 classes to me were Soldier and Infilitrator. Infilitrator gets the invisibility cloak that lets them exploit AI and snipe. Soldier gets bullet time, which massively helps with sniping and close up shotgunnery, as well as making it easy to rush things like the Collector ship switch-hitting mission.

          If you asked me to pick a loser class, it would be Vanguard, because when cover is SO incredibly important, the “get right up in their face” class is at a disadvantage. With that said, I also thought Vanguard was by far the most fun because it’s the most active. Other classes duck and shoot and duck and shoot. Vanguard charges a dude, sends him flying, shotguns him midair, and repeats. It’s harder to the point of being infeasible in a lot of places, and I spent a lot of time doing duck-and-shoot, but it’s still viable.

          Personally, I was rather happy with most of the class balance issues. Yeah, there’s a “best” class, but I’ve never played a game that didn’t have one of those. Every class in ME2 was perfectly viable, though, and I’ve played a lot of games where that’s not the case.

          August 19, 2011 at 10:30 PM

          • Deadpool

            If Vanguard is the WORST… I remember watching Spoiler Warning and Josh murdered people with Vanguard. If that’s the WORST, then it doesn’t belong on this list. The idea is games where some builds are broken and ruined. I can see Alpha Protocol with the Stealth/Melee issue (although Stealth is BROKEN good. Melee is the one that stinks), and didn’t play the rest…

            New Vegas doesn’t fit either. Ranged has an inherent advantage over melee: The RANGE. There are times when enemies are too far and MUST be killed with ranged weapons. Which means a melee specialist must have a ranged weapon on him at all times for those rainy days… I beat the whole game with the worst weapon build (Energy Weapons) with EASE. So any build WILL do in New Vegas too…

            August 19, 2011 at 10:57 PM

            • JPH

              I never encountered a situation where I had to use a ranged weapon. I did a full playthrough of New Vegas using nothing but melee, and it was easy.

              It’s not about whether each and every build is “possible,” it’s about if there’s one or more builds that are objectively better in (virtually) every way than one or more other builds.

              Also, the stealth in Alpha Protocol is really only effective if you also specialize in pistols. Otherwise it’s not going to help you in the boss battles.

              August 19, 2011 at 11:13 PM

              • Deadpool

                I dunno man… I remember some areas with ranged enemies in some high, hard to reach places where you’d have to walk around while being shot at just to get to them.

                It’s DOABLE I guess, but FAR easier to just pull out a sniper and pop them in the head.

                In the end, melee weapons have better DPS, but ranged weapons trade damage for versatility. Might not be perfectly balanced, but one is not inherently superior to the other.

                Stealth in Alpha Protocol is awesome with just about anything. I mean, sure, SMGs kinda suck (surprised you made no mention of THAT) and Pistols are broken good, but that whole invisibility thing at higher levels is absurdly good with any killing implement… Against mooks? Awesome.

                August 20, 2011 at 10:45 AM

                • JPH

                  Against mooks, yeah, stealth is crazy good. You don’t even need to add to any other skill for that to work. My main concern was with the boss battles, though. And stealth can come in handy against them too, but you generally have to specialize in pistols for it to work.

                  I don’t think I ever tried SMGs in Alpha Protocol, to be honest.

                  August 20, 2011 at 11:32 AM

                • Deadpool

                  Don’t I did two runs on Alpha Protocol (one Rookie, one Veteran). Pistols/Assault Rifles at first, and Pistols RULED, Assault Rifles were meh, then one with Shotgun/SMGs and I NEVER USED THE SMGs… Worthless trash. Put most of my points on Stealth instead and just snuck up on people and shotty to the face.

                  Pistols > Shotgun > Assault Rifles > SMGs.

                  I hear melee is good against mooks, never tried. Shotguns are a little dependant on their special skill but those things rock.

                  August 20, 2011 at 2:01 PM

                • JPH

                  Melee is very good against mooks. That’s why I added a bunch of points into it, and then got screwed over by that one cokehead in Moscow who pulls knives on you whenever you get close enough to punch him.

                  August 20, 2011 at 2:21 PM

            • Khizan

              If Josh wasn’t playing on Insanity, Vanguard wouldn’t be difficult at all. On Insanity, it’s the worst of them by a long shot because it’s a class designed around rushes and close quarters combat in a cover based shooter that’s really really serious about the cover.

              It’s not impossible to win like that, but it takes more skill than any of the others.

              August 20, 2011 at 1:11 AM

              • Falcon

                Vanguard on insanity is very difficult to a point. On the prison ship in particular, the part with the mech took me a dozen or so tries. That said once I got to around level 7 things went from near impossible to easy. Once the shield boost for the rush is upgraded enough you become the pinball god of death.

                But yeah before you get that boosted enough, major pain.

                August 21, 2011 at 7:20 PM

            • Melee in Alpha Protocol stops stinking once you learn how to run up to enemies and knee them in the face. Then it becomes the most awesome way to take out adversaries.

              August 20, 2011 at 6:24 AM

  2. David

    In Fallout New Vegas, I specialized in energy weapons, and I’m not really having any significant problems. I’m not one-shotting like in Spoiler Warning with that shishkebab, but my plasma rifles are plenty powerful. On the other hand, I also have a high speech, and I generally try to do less violent quest options, so there’s that too. I guess I probably couldn’t play Cuftbert style with my build, but I’m doing just fine as is.

    August 19, 2011 at 6:36 PM

    • Deadpool

      Depends on the weapon. The special Gauss Rifle is a beast. And the Holorifle, fully upgraded and repaired, can one shot a LOT of enemies…

      August 19, 2011 at 10:59 PM

    • Khizan

      Melee and Unarmed are overpowered, yeah, but Guns/Energy are far from useless. Saying something like “I don’t always have to have the most powerful build ever. I like a challenge, and I like to play by my own terms. I just don’t want to be gimped” and then crying about guns in NV is sort of disingenuous.

      When you get right down to it, you’ll never have a perfectly balanced game. This is especially true of an FPS-styled game that has both melee and ranged as options for main combat tactic, unless they put an absolutely crazy amount of detail into the game’s combat. So melee tends to either be useless or overpowered. They went with OP, but that’s not to say that ranged isn’t worthwhile.

      I played a Very Hard 100% energy weapons playthrough and I never had a problem with it or a desire to go melee.

      August 20, 2011 at 12:45 AM

      • JPH

        Yes, it’s virtually impossible to balance melee combat with ranged combat in a game like this. That’s why I think developers should just choose one or the other, never both.

        And if they absolutely must have both and make one more powerful, then I figure the logical choice would be the one that requires more maintenance, skill, strategy, and weight capacity to use effectively, for Christ’s sake. I could at least accept that in a high-risk-high-reward sort of way, but as it stands there’s no logical reason to go with guns instead of melee.

        Also, yeah, obviously “crying” is the same thing as “criticizing.” Way to over-exaggerate.

        August 20, 2011 at 1:46 AM

        • Khizan

          If melee’s not overpowered, it’s quite likely to be underpowered and difficult to work with. Figure that if ranged has a survivability or DPS increase that makes it the superior option, melee’s going to be horrible because the enemies would have to be balanced around the ranged metagame. The thing that actually proves a threat to the man with the full-auto plasma rifle is going to eat hammerman alive.

          So it would suck, and the complaints you’d see about it would be “Why let me make a melee based character if it’s going to suck so hard? Two entire skillsets aren’t even viable at all, qqqqqqqqqqqq”. Instead, you’ve got melee doing too much damage and two completely viable methods of combat, which I find vastly preferable to the alternative.

          Anyways, all the combat in FO:NV is laughably easy anyways, so the difficulty isn’t even a huge factor in anything.

          August 20, 2011 at 2:09 AM

          • JPH

            “Two entire skillsets aren’t even viable at all, qqqqqqqqqqqq”

            Are you just trying to piss me off now? Because it really seems like that’s what you’re trying to do.

            August 20, 2011 at 2:12 AM

  3. The big name when it comes to unfair levelling is of course Oblivion. That was mainly because it was a sensible levelling system, following in the footsteps of the levelling system in Morrowind, that was completely horrible for anyone who wanted to enjoy the game. Playing a build that’s focused on non-combat skills? Bad idea, because when you level, all the enemies get better at combat, while you don’t. And they scale more than you do, even if you ARE building a combat wombat. The best strategy in Oblivion was to carefully ensure that every one of your primary skills was something you would never, ever use, because you needed to avoid levelling up at all costs.

    August 19, 2011 at 9:24 PM

    • JPH

      I’ve heard many horror stories about the leveling system in Oblivion. I didn’t play it enough to see it take effect, but that does sound atrocious.

      August 19, 2011 at 10:03 PM

      • The other standout issue with that was that a lot of combat effectiveness in Oblivion is gear, so as the enemies scaled up, they got better gear. So, you’d be accosted by a random bandit, who’d demand your money or your life, and if you killed him, he’d have a magic sword worth thousands, armour worth even more, and an inventory of 37 coins and a potato. Utterly nonsensical.

        August 19, 2011 at 10:37 PM

      • Image walking through the infinite grasslands of the Imperial Province, and being accosted by a wolf. No problem, right?

        Now imagine that wolf having razor-sharp diamond teeth and fur made of carbon nano-fibers wrapped, somehow, around more diamonds. That are also razor sharp. And the whole wolf is somehow made of lasers as well.

        This is what Oblivion level scaling did (in my experience) to non-geared enemies.

        August 20, 2011 at 8:02 AM

    • Ranneko

      Morrowind’s levelling system was pretty bad in of itself. In that the stat advancement mechanic was both confusing and hard to deal with unless you knew exactly what you were dealing with.

      If you had sneak as a class skill and maxed it without sleeping, you would get one instance of getting +5 to the agility stat, then whenever you slept you would level up but only get +1 boosts to the agility stat.

      Mods can fix this, I like the you advance skills that you use system, it is the level and stat advancement system that is broken.

      Then Oblivion added taking this broken levelling system and used it to level the entire world. Leading to the best approach to pretty much be to pick class skills that you will never use, max non-class skills and then kill/sneak past everything since the enemies are expecting a standard low level player.

      August 20, 2011 at 8:34 AM

  4. A stealth/melee run of Alpha Protocol? Done. It wasn’t particularly hard. There’s only really one boss fights I can remember that forces you to use a gun, and it’s probably one of the easiest.

    Also, the mandatory boss fights of Human Revolution look to be (judging from the one in the beta) good in that they’re plentiful in possible ways to win.

    August 20, 2011 at 12:50 AM

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