Despite my uneven record with RPGs, I've recently installed and started two 2009 releases on my shiny new PC: Dragon Age: Origins and Divinity II: Ego Draconis. And my conclusion is this:
No, seriously, I really hate party-based gaming.
I'll admit that I had an irrational love for Divine Divinity. It was, and remains, one of the worst names ever given to a game. But oh, what fun! I'd never have picked up this isometric Diablo II look-alike on my own, but in July 2003 I had a brand-new gaming-capable desktop for the first time in seven years (sound familiar?) and a friend brought DivDiv for me as a gift. I installed it at something like 9:00 p.m. and became vaguely conscious, some time later, that I was both thirsty and needed to pee, and also that it was after dawn.
That summer I was unemployed and transitory, between college and grad school, so I had some time on my hands. I must have poured at least a hundred hours into DivDiv and I still can't say why except, and this is important, that it was fun. The story was fairly derivative, the translation errors (Larian is a European studio) were occasionally painful, and the mechanics were simple... but I loved it. The game had hooked me and I was bound to see it through to the end, and to replay it on occasion as the years went on.
All the games I've loved through the years have hooked me in that fashion. I've played and enjoyed games that didn't, but anything on my Top 10 or even Top 20 list has generally made me completely lose track of time at least once. So it's an experience I welcome.
Dragon Age had piles of rave reviews behind it. I managed to end up with a free (gifted) copy and looked forward to playing a for-really-MODERN game on my new machine. So I sat down to play. Went with a City Elf, Female.
I'll give them credit for writing; I liked her origin story. And I'll give them credit for graphics; the world is gorgeous and a couple of the male characters around were indeed attractive and fun enough that I wanted to play until I got to a romance stage. But something just didn't click. Nothing hooked me. And so I put in a few 30 - 90 minute sessions out of obligation, and haven't been back since. I'm maybe five hours into the game but every time I see that icon I think, "I could, or..." and end up firing up EQ2 or Fallout 3 or Solitaire.
But then, last weekend, I managed finally to get my hands on Divinity II. It's far less well-loved, and to many it suffered from the ill-timed comparison to Dragon Age, as both were RPGs released near each other. But to me, Divinity II is massively more entertaining. I wandered, slightly disoriented, for a few minutes but then old memory and gamer instinct (thank goodness for the standardization of WASD) took right over and I was in a game I'd loved seven years ago... only better. I'm old enough now to tear myself away at bedtime rather than staying up until dawn (being married helps with this), but I got cranky doing it. I want to keep playing!
The only way I've been able to describe why I love Fallout 3 but not Mass Effect, why I'll play Divinity II but not Dragon Age is this: I seriously hate party-based games. I play a rogue, a thief, an assassin, or even a warrior -- but I play alone. Summoned creatures and NPC allies are too much trouble. They get themselves killed, they blunder in the way, and they need controlling. I'd rather strategize on my own time. Whether that strategy is to stealth-and-snipe (how I played Bioshock or Fallout 3) or to hack-and-slash (the easiest and occasionally most entertaining way to play, well, anything), I like doing it my way and not accounting for others.
The odd counter to this is that I enjoy time spent in an MMORPG. Admittedly, I spend more time solo than grouped, but I like grouping and I used to enjoy raiding. I think it's because players in an MMO (theoretically) do their own thinking, and I don't control any character but my own. And I never play pet-summoning or charming classes.
So Mass Effect 3 will be a game for my spouse only, and that's cool. I'll be Kratos, going solo, in God of War 3 and we'll both be happier for it.