How RPGs Colonized Some of 2012's Best Games

20 Oct 2012

While it doesn't focus on full-blooded RPGs this time around, Rowan Kaiser's latest column still concerns them tangentially, as it tries to show how RPGs mechanics have influenced some of the best/most successful games of 2012.

One of his examples is a game we're covering, XCOM: Enemy Unknown:
XCOM: Enemy Unknown, for example, is one of the best-received games of 2012, due in part to its use of RPG mechanics. Tactics games are often associated with RPGs (especially Japanese-style tactics games) but the connection isn't always so concrete with "western" games. For example, I don't really qualify the original X-COM: UFO Defense as an RPG, due to its too-large squads filled with personality-free squaddies, whereas Jagged Alliance 2 certainly fit the mold.

XCOM tweaks the initial game's form in ways that align with traditional role-playing games. The squad size is limited to 4-6 characters, traditional RPG numbers, and only having one base means you rarely need large numbers of squaddies – I never had more than 15 at once, and even that was high due to playing on "Classic" difficulty. It also slightly decreases the importance of the strategic decision-making level, putting the focus on the characters in the field.

It's the level of RPG-like character customization that makes XCOM different, and in many ways stronger, than its predecessor. Spending time customizing character face, voice, and hair is a hallmark of an RPG (although those options are too limited for my tastes). On the other hand, the ability to customize armor color and design gave instant differentiation and personality to the soldiers. But the RPG-style customization isn't simply cosmetic. XCOM assigns the soldiers into classes. As they complete missions, they gain promotions, which act as levels, and with those, they're given new skills, most of which are choices. A third-level Sniper gets to choose between the "Squadshot" skill and the "Snapshot" skill, letting you customize a character for accuracy or mobility. I'd still hesitate to call XCOM an RPG but I wouldn't hesitate at all to say that it's a better game for its similarities to RPGs.