Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Great Game Throwdown: RPGs

Both the LastBestAngryMan and The Philosophy of Time Travel are way ahead of me here, but this marks the final installment of the Great Game Throwdown.

Being nerds of the highest quality, we have saved the best, Role Playing Games, for last.

5 - Planescape: Torment (PC)

One thing you'll find in common with most of these choices is the quality of the stories told.

What's kind of sad is that not many heard this particular story.

Made by the RPG kings at BioWare (now a part of the EA conglomeration), Planescape: Torment was designed on the same Infinity Engine on which the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale games were built. The world of Planescape, however, is a far cry from the prototypical stuff one associates with the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, and I think this probably hurt sales of the game.

Correction: Astute reader Dhruin correctly points out that the game was actually made by Black Isle Studios using BioWare's Infinity engine, not by BioWare itself.

The Nameless One, pictured here with his sidekick, Morte the floating skull

But that's too bad, because the story is nothing short of awesome. One of the major themes deals with "consensus reality", the notion that if enough people believe in something it becomes real, and that's really what the Planescape universe is all about. The game capitalizes on this in very clever ways, and in the end it is one of the more tragic plots I've played in a computer game.

A terrific game, and one I wish I could play again.

4 - Final Fantasy VII (PS1)

One of the things I've kind of been struggling with when doing these lists is what exactly the notion of "great" is.

For the most part I've been posting games that are great to me personally. Games, like music, are usually a matter of personal tastes.

But there are certain bands that whether we like or not, we can't deny they had a major impact on music in general. The same holds true for certain games.

Final Fantasy VII isn't my favorite game in the Final Fantasy series (that would be FF IV, which was actually FF II here in the US. I know, it's confusing), but it has to be considered one of the most important games in the history of RPGs, if not video games period.

The game had such enormous impact and such a complex storyline, unprecedented at that time, that it introduced an entire generation of gamers to the possibilities of the video game medium. When critics attack video games as nothing but murder simulators, it is games like FF7 that gamers present as their defense.

The iconic moment of Aerith's death in the game is one that anyone who has ever played the game remembers perfectly, and is often cited as the moment people realized that video games could be so much more.

Aerith, a gaming icon

Final Fantasy VII proved that this is a medium that can move people, and a medium that can move people can surely be considered art.

Yes, art. And I don't think the importance of FF7 in this argument can be understated. It's a game about which people have written books and graduate theses. Countless articles have been written about the game's impact. People still write fan fiction and chat about the game.

Is it a great game? I don't know. It's not really a sandbox like some of these other games, and you're kind of forced step by step through the story. But the story was unprecedented, the emotional impact real, and the significance, I believe, yet to be paralleled.

3 - Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (PC)

The Elder Scroll games have built their reputation on being insanely open-ended. On the one hand that usually means the main story isn't particularly tight (at least I found that to be the case with Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall). But it really doesn't matter because the game is more like a huge sandbox anyway.

Portals to other dimensions are great space savers for your closet or garage

I know LBAM picked Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind on his list but I've got to go with Oblivion for the following reasons:

- Story felt tighter and more interesting.
- The side stories/quests were better quality for me.
- Game was significantly less buggy.

They're all great games and you can easily get 100+ hours of gameplay out of any of them.

2 - Chrono Trigger (SNES)

The best game ever to come out on the Super Nintendo, hands down.

Chrono Trigger has a terrific plot line that actually uses time travel and makes it not suck. Wonderful, clever characters. For my money the best soundtrack a video game has ever had. Multiple endings. A mode where you could start the game from the beginning with all of your existing experience and gain access to even MORE endings by beating the game at different times in the plot line.

I've always wished they'd release an updated version of this game for the Nintendo DS or something. I'd buy it the second it became available.

You know it's the final battle because there are, like, LASERS in the background

A sort of sequel, Chrono Cross, was released on the PlayStation and was a decent game in its own right, but it didn't capture the pure magic of the original. If you can find this anywhere, even on an emulator, I really encourage you to do so.

1 - Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (PC)

Here's the thing about BG2: everything I said about every other game in the list applies here, and then some.

Did BG2 have the incredible cultural impact that FF7 had? I highly doubt it. But for me it's the coming together of dozens and dozens of other great design ideas into one flawlessly executed package.

Great story? Check. Great characters? Check. Great soundtrack? Check. Open ended enough to feel like you're not boxed in? Check. It goes on and on.

The hand painted backgrounds still look good

Even the expansion pack, Throne of Bhaal, which ends the story once and for all, is incredibly satisfying. But BG2 is capable of standing alone. This is BioWare at the height of their powers.

Worst Ever - Neverwinter Nights

Maybe it's harsh. Maybe the game wasn't really that bad. Maybe it's simply crazy for me to criticize the same company that produced the Baldur's Gate games.

But I remember sitting at GenCon in Milwaukee the year this game first got demoed. I remember being blown away by how easy it looked to create your own adventures, control your own story, etc. BioWare was selling this as the game that was going to be able to bring the tabletop experience to computer gaming. I left absolutely convinced that Neverwinter Nights was going to make it possible for my friends to play D&D together forever, wherever we might end up.

I realize now that translating the tabletop experience to a video game is just an impossible goal. The developers probably knew it too. It was probably just a marketing ploy. But none of that makes the end result any easier to swallow.

It's not just that the multiplayer aspect of this game fell way below the hype and expectations. The single player game is actually several steps backward from games like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, games the same company made.

The storyline is cookie cutter. The combat is elementary. You can only control one character plus one sidekick. The initial release of the game had a horrendous bug that crashed your game after the 4th chapter. The dialogue trees would repeat themselves. None of the attention to detail and careful QA was in Neverwinter Nights that we say in every other game made the company up to this point.

BioWare would bounce back with Knights of the Old Republic, which barely didn't make this list (it would come in at 6th). They made another classic with Jade Empire after that. Now that the company has been purchased by EA, I'm skeptical that they'll ever release a really excellent game again, but I'm willing to wait and see.

But Neverwinter Nights was truly a low, low point for me. Not only did it fail to deliver on what was promised, it failed to deliver on anything really fun.


Andy said...

I forgot about Morte the Skull!!! He may have been the greatest character in any game ever.

With the possible exception of Boo the Hamster.

Great list, though.

I think we are all in agreement that unless there are some major changes in input devices or networking abilities, tabletop will still be king when it comes to impact and creativity.

Dhruin said...

Drive-by comment...Planescape: Torment wasn't made by BioWare even though it used the Infinity engine. It was made by Interplay's internal studio, Black Isle.

LastBestAngryMan said...

Man, NWN sure was a disappointment. Just a nonstop dungeon crawl with zero development, zero NPC interaction. Gah. It was like reading a bad novel, only while staring at a screen and occasionally clicking.

It pains me that I have not yet played Oblivion. Someday....

I also need to play Planescape: Torment. Never even saw it in a store.

Anonymous said...

Given your comment "I realize now that translating the tabletop experience to a video game is just an impossible goal. The developers probably knew it too. It was probably just a marketing ploy. But none of that makes the end result any easier to swallow", what's your opinion on Wizards newest attempt to the bring game online with their digital gaming table?

~Dan C

robustyoungsoul said...

I think it's a great thing for WotC and the health of the hobby in general. WotC's biggest problem has been that D&D is not a sustainable source of income. You could a huge boost every time you release new core rulebooks, but the money made on supplements is tiny compared to the money made on rulebooks.

This way hopefully they will have a sustainable source of income and stay healthy as a business.

Now that said, I find it unlikely that I personally would sign up for such a service at that price point, but who knows? Bottom line is even with all the video and voice conferencing technology in the world, there is no substitute for the energy created in a room of people face to face. It's like the difference between movies and live theater: both are entertaining, but they are still very different.

Anonymous said...

Baldur's Gate II was a great choice for this list, but I think it's only at its best when paired with the original. The stakes are stupidly high in Baldur's Gate II; everyone is at higher levels, and some of your opponents are so crazily powerful that fights are often five-second armageddons of spells which end with every single person dead.

This is amazing, of course, but for the full impact, you need the peaceful, empty beginnings of the first Baldur's Gate, where you would wander for hours across quiet fields, gradually increasing your level and performing simple quests as you become more aware of the world.

Dave said...

As you probably already know, Chrono Trigger is indeed coming to the Nintendo DS.