A Brief Comment on RPG Elements in Contemporary First-Person Shooters

Author’s Note: Just a piece of Blatant Fillerâ„¢ this week. This is an interesting topic, and I may expand on it later when I have a bit more to say on it.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare not only represented a significant change in its series, from superficially realistic Second World War action to modern-day urban warfare with the same veneer of realism, but also worked its way into the multiplayer market with faster-paced action than the predecessors in the series. One of the big features which Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare brought to the fray was an experience-based progression system which allowed customisation of class traits and weapons, along with the unlocking of weapons and perks as kills were made and specific goals were achieved.

It was undoubtedly not the first game in the first-person shooter genre to do something like this, but it certainly popularised this as an element of multiplayer play. With a large demographic of casual and occasional enthusiast gamers along with the more traditional first-person shooter audience, the following titles in the Call of Duty series have progressed along the same lines in multiplayer, even with the brief return to the Second World War setting with Call of Duty 5: World At War.

I’m not an avid online gamer, nor am I a particularly accomplished one, but I have a bit of online first-person shooter experience ranging back about eight years, starting with Quake II and progressing through some of the more popular multiplayer games of the period. As such, I’m in two minds on the subject. There’s certainly more longevity with an RPG-like progression system in a multiplayer game, and Call of Duty‘s achievement system does encourage the use of weapons beyond the comfort zone of the player. That said, almost all RPG-style systems, whether they are in the role-playing genre themselves or allied to a different style of gameplay entirely, are imbalanced in some respect.

From my perspective, the main imbalance in the Call of Duty games comes as a result of the perk system. While weapons aren’t entirely balanced, and have at some points been gamebreakers (I’m looking at the Model 1887 shotguns here!), there is sufficient flexibility in the weapon choices even for a novice to overcome these problems. The perk system, on the other hand, has had a clear gap between some of the perks for a long time. This was most clear in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with the Martyrdom perk, which violated what should be one of the unwritten rules of multiplayer first-person shooter mechanics: Do not reward a player for being outclassed. Martyrdom, which chucked down a live grenade next to the corpse of the player who chose the perk, completely broke this rule with a game mechanic which was lethally effective in small maps and even moderately effective in larger maps.

After making a return in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, irritating everybody once again, this perk was thankfully removed from Call of Duty: Black Ops. However, not everything is right with the perk system in the most recent instalment of the series. The Pro perks, improved versions of the perks with no balancing disadvantages, give an edge to more experienced players at the cost of neophytes, with no cost to the Pro players except the time and effort required to complete the challenges required to receive the Pro perks. I don’t mind more experienced players having more flexibility when they’re choosing perks, but I’d prefer the clear gap between the neophytes and the experienced players in a first-person shooter to be a consequence more of skill rather than unbalanced game mechanics.

I have complaints about the Call of Duty system of multiplayer progression, but at least they’re taking their influence from more traditional RPG mechanics. Team Fortress 2 seems more content to take influence from a different set of RPGs – the MMO sort. How else could you explain the huge set of revenue-enhancing devices, the purely cosmetic set of hats which the game has acquired and the item crafting and trading mechanics? OK, to Valve’s credit, they haven’t made it a necessity to use the unlockable weapons to play the game competitively, which is a good thing. I vowed when the first set of unlockable weapons were released that I would never use any of the unlockables in the game, and it still irritates me that a huge set of achievements are locked unless you use them.

Yes, OK, it’s good to see that Valve is still supporting its games and what not. I’d just rather they put those people to work on Half-Life 2: Episode 3. Cliffhanger ending? Remember?