The Rise of the Role-Playing Shooter

If you’re not already quite excited about upcoming supernatural steampunk shooter Dishonored (American spelling, obvs), then you probably should be. With an interesting array of powers and some impressively open-ended design principles on display, the game could be a welcome antithesis to the current malaise of cookie-cutter Call of Duty clones. The Victorian-inspired aesthetic might feel a little Bioshock-heavy, but it’s still a much more fresh and inspired game world than the endless urban corridors that abound in modern shooters. Dishonored is also the latest in a long line of games looking for the sweet spot between the first person shooter and the role-playing game. Adding role-playing mechanics to other genres has been in vogue since the mighty Bioshock appeared on the scene, and Dishonored seems to be buying into the same design philosophy of experience points, skill trees and upgrades.

The utopian promise of combining the role-playing game and the shooter comes with it the hope that the frenetic intensity of first person combat will alleviate the migraine-inducing tedium of the grind that RPGs inevitably force you to endure. The seductive appeal of role-playing game mechanics is rooted in growing and building a character, but to qualify for the experience points necessary to level-up an RPG will routinely make you battle endless hordes of mice and weasels. If you combine the FPS and the RPG, however, the aforementioned grind is shooting dudes in the face, an activity that many games have proven is an intrinsically enjoyable experience. Furthermore, the role-playing elements can add depth to the shooting; one of the great joys of the excellent role-playing shooter Borderlands was how constantly upgrading your weapons and developing your powers became exhilaratingly addictive.

+5 gratuitous booty shot.

Unfortunately, some of the experiments into the shooter/RPG hybrid have on occasion forgotten to include the bit where you have fun. The dusty post-nuclear foraging simulator Fallout 3, for example, was a role-playing shooter without any actual shooting in it, because every time you wanted to shoot at somebody you had to stop time and have a stats lesson. Fallout 3 skillfully combined the worst parts of both RPGs and shooters: from RPGs they took all the bits involving maths, and from shooters they took all the bits involving not shooting people.

Not pictured: excitement.

Fallout 3’s inclusion of chance and probability into its gameplay seems contradictory to the increased focus on player choice that role-playing elements usually introduce. Dishonored is stressing open-ended gameplay, with many different ways to complete a level, often heavily dependent on your preferred play style and subsequently which abilities you’ve chosen. This seems to be following the example set by Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and his father before him, the original Deus Ex. The seminal 2000 shooter (a cruel reminder of my age: that game is twelve years old) was the granddaddy of games offering you multiple routes through every level. This usually came down to a choice between sneaking into a complex through the air vents with your door-unlocking hack tools or punching rocket-shaped holes through the armies guarding the front door in what you might call a more direct approach.

The third option: get a snack.

This aspect of player choice is the most intriguing aspect of the role-playing shooter, because it means that every single person will have a different experience of the game. I’m always hugely impressed by games that accommodate the player’s capacity for invention, that provide you with the basic tools you need and let you decide in what way to use them. Even though this usually manifests itself as a choice between being stealthy and being gung-ho, at this point I’m so numb from overly prescriptive modern shooters that I’ll happily take any element of choice more sophisticated than the order in which I shoot terrorists in the face.

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