I want to talk to you about RPG elements. This really is becoming to mainstream video games what the iPhone is to all my mindless trend-following friends. I'm not sure how this particular trend got started. A part of me wants to say Resident Evil 4, but overall it's creeped up so gradually I hardly noticed, like the Nazi party.
I'm referring to the practice of acquiring "points" of some kind throughout the game, and assigning them to stats representing your abilities or equipment, gradually improving them in various ways. And I've lost count of recent mainstream action games that have boasted this feature. Arkham Asylum. Wolfenstein. Red Faction Guerrilla. Ghostbusters. Both Infamous and Prototype. And of course Darkest of Days, whose RPG elements were so blatantly token that they look like the short kid wearing an over-sized leather jacket in a vain attempt to join the big boys' club. You can level up your skill with pistols or rifles, and that's it. Sadly, no option exists to level up the entire game.
I appreciate that between this and my rant on overcomplexity a few weeks back I'm starting to sound like some kind of ageing video game Luddite. But as weak as this argument may sound, I'm not.
I've got nothing against RPGs, believe me. I'm all about customizing my gameplay experience. I especially like games with customizable appearances, a la Saint's Row 2, and I know it shouldn't matter but the experience is somehow greatly improved when my avatar looks like me in a dress. My well-established antagonistic relationship with JRPGs stems largely from the fact that most JRPGs aren't RPG enough. There isn't any role-playing - you're always some poorly-dressed teenager who looks like a cross between David Bowie and Meg Ryan. You have no control over their motivations, nor, often, on their stat upgrades when they level up. So I've got plenty of time for RPGs when I'm in an RPG sort of mood. Just not when I'm in any other sort of mood.
OK, it works for some games. Arkham Asylum uses it pretty well, leaving aside the issue of how Batman never leveled-up during his previous however-many years of crimefighting. Every time you level up, choose a little upgrade from a list, chop chop and off you go. But then, Arkham Asylum was keeping a lot of balls in the air. It's the straightforward shooters that suffer. The weapon-upgrading systems from Wolfenstein and Darkest of Days really don't fit in.
For starters, it's selling the game short. In today's age adult gamers have busy professional lives and child gamers are all hopped up on Ritalin and sugary breakfast cereals, so first impressions are important. And the first impression will be a game full of poorly-balanced guns made from glue and sand, with aim waver like there are hummingbirds worrying at your fingers. Horrible weapons becoming more effective over time is kind of the exact reverse of a difficulty curve.
For main course, it forces you to invest in weapons that may become obsolete. Resident Evil 4 pulled a very mean dick move - after spending the first chapter blowing sackfuls of zombie farmers' stolen pocket money on upgrades for the shotgun, rifle and pistol, suddenly the merchant remembers he has some better models you can trade in for, which have to be upgraded from scratch. So you either write off the upgrades as a loss or stick stubbornly to the inferior models, and then who's the Luddite?