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Batthink avatar 4:58 PM on 10.28.2009  (server time)
Nothing is Sacred: RPG-style Upgrades and the Inability to Incapacitate

I love RPGs. There is nothing I love more piling hours of my time into them, slowly generating a character, evolving them through battles and then watching with glee at seeing them pummel a powerful enemy into the ground. Unlocking new skills is like unwrapping a present; for me it is Christmas every couple of hours. To celebrate the birth of our Lord and Saviour, I learnt how to set multiple enemies on fire rather than just the single (insert smile-symbol here)!

And what could be more interesting than having a game that combines an RPG mechanic within another genre? It sounds sweet, that’s what! In the case of Deus Ex, there are RPG-style upgrades within the confines of an adventure FPS. I played most of the game (my copy for the PC strangely disappeared on me), and I loved it to pieces.

There was only one problem…the way you started out didn’t make sense.

Okay, here’s the deal. You’ve already accustomed yourself to the tutorial level, working out what button does what and how to gain experience to achieve the upgrades, where to put them, etc. You then start off as a fully-trained UNATCO agent, ready for your first mission. Your task; to take down terrorists who have captured the Statue of Liberty. You can take them out how you want, although it’s suggested that you try to keep casualties to a minimum with tranquilizer darts or stun-batons. Oh, and you have a few upgrades to begin with. Handy.

So what I did when I played was to put the upgrades on firearms (for tranquilizer dart fire, natch) and strength (for close combat, or a club to the head). Now, I decided to creep up on a target from a distance behind a group of crates. Okay, videogame staple, I know, but the bad guys need to get supplies in somehow. I decided to fire off a couple of dart rounds just to make sure I could bring the fella down, then duck back behind cover. The fool noticed a stinging dart in his arse, and knew something was wrong. His natural reaction was to try and find the source of what penetrated his backside, and I waited for him to drop unconscious…

….and waited…

….and waited…

….and waited, SH*T, HE FOUND ME.

After about twenty seconds of wondering whether he was prone on the floor or not, he had spotted me behind the crates and starting firing a weapon at me. With damaged pride and a few additional bullet-holes on my cyber-enhanced body, I escaped him. He went back to guarding the area, and I had to form a new plan.

Over the course of trying to take out the various guards to complete the level, more things happened to me that became a little bit nonsensical. I would shoot more tranquilizer darts with careful aiming, only to realise I had missed the target when I had a decent sight of it or hit the object I was being covered by. I got the hang of shooting and running a mile after a while, but maybe I was only doing it more because of my lack of confidence regards the use of blunt objects. My first attempt trying to club someone around the back of the head went like this; creep up behind the target, stand up, club. The terrorist responded by turning around. Seriously, I hammered the mouse-button like mad, trying to strike that arsehole down. By the time I had hit him for the third time, he had yelled out, started running backwards and fired his gun at in my direction. Honestly, this is ‘normal’ difficulty here.

Try upgrading shooting or strength abilities, you might say. Well, that’s a good idea, but there is a problem. For every person you defeat and every objective that is completed, you get experience to spend on your upgrades….but only when you do them successfully. I’d like to be able to have the ability to kick ass straight away, but if you can’t kick ass well and you need to kick ass in order to be kick ass….well, you’re facing an uphill struggle. I could try to resort the upgrades, but I didn’t think the game would let me do that unless I restarted the game from the very beginning. That would be very useful if I could change abilities on the fly, weakening one power to strengthen another, but this, I believe, wasn’t an option.

In narrative, this underpowered individual doesn’t make sense. You are Denton, a UNATCO agent. You should be able to karate chop people on the back of the neck, and they should drop to the floor or at least be incapacitated in some way. You should be trained as a counter-terrorist. You should have had so much training in the shooting range that hitting the target from a distance in some part of the anatomy should be no problem. You’ve been cybernetically-enhanced. You should be able to do more than what your standard rookie soldier can do. There should be more ‘are’ than ‘should’ in this paragraph.

That’s maybe the problem with basing your character on an individual who starts with the need to improve. Get the balance (in who your character is, what he/she can do to begin with, and what they can improve in) right, and you not only have a useful, believable character, but someone who can progress in the game the way you want to. After all, you are given the tools to shape the agent into a stealth, heavy or assault-focused warrior.

That said, there is another, more concerning downside to a weak character in a game like that. This aspect is present when someone is watching you playing.

If you sense that a game with RPG-upgrades makes you look completely and utterly inept, which is probably what happens at the start of a game, maybe it is better you play the first bit alone. Then, once you’ve powered-up your character to become a little proficient in what you want to perform in, allow your friends around to show off how good you are. You don’t want to look like you are playing with all the skills of a Stormtrooper.

A visible case in point would be if you were that Mysteron who tries to shoot Captain Scarlet at the beginning of the show;

You’d take a look at that and say ‘WTF, that guy can’t shoot’ and you’d be right. It doesn’t show off Captain Scarlet’s ‘indestructibility’. It doesn’t make good viewing for anyone who wants to use that for an application for the army or a Counterstrike team. In fact, your fellow Mysterons would probably be laughing their heads off so much, that they wouldn’t be able to give out that scary message threatening to destroy or kill something on Earth to Spectrum Command properly. That’s what you risk after failing on a game that deliberately under-powers your avatar (not Mysterons, but embarrassment and shame).

I don’t know yet if the second Deus Ex game sorted these issues out, because I never got round to playing it yet. My memory of the first game was sketchy enough that I could be wrong on at least one part of the game mechanics. If you want to correct or update me, feel free to comment. Give me an example of a game where the inclusion of RPG-stats done little or took away for the enjoyment of it. Just as long as it isn’t as shameful to me as trying to hit a terrorist on the back of the head with all the power of an 80 year-old riot policeman.

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