Well, in between my intense suffering at my family’s hands and being dragged around everywhere, I have actually gotten to play a little bit of Dead Space 2 from time to time, and have gotten enough of a taste to really talk about one of my favorite parts in gaming: weapon upgrades. The Power Node/Workbench system is the primary focus, but there will be honorable mention to Fallout soon enough. And again, I would like to sincerely apologize, this post was supposed to go up yesterday, but once I got dragged out by the family I didn’t make it back until the wee-hours of the morning. I am truly sorry. Hopefully, this article will scratch that mechanical analysis itch some of you have!

Upgrading weapons is a time-honored trope in gaming, and can be viewed basically anywhere, in any game. World of Warcraft and MMO’s like it have enchanting, giving bonus stats or effects to your weapon, Dead Space 2 has Workbenches which can be used to upgrade weapons in a variety of ways, and Fallout: New Vegas has weapon mods which allow for personalized touches to your preferred weapon. Like always, I’ll start with the poorer ways this mechanic is used, and then highlight the good cases.

Poor Upgrades:

You know those games where every weapon starts out garbage, and has to be upgraded to fit what would be called “passable” usability? Those games all fall in here. It’s a hack-job at creating false difficulty early on by making your weapons garbage until you can upgrade them, usually in time for a boss fight or new level or whatever. This is not fun, no one likes wasting precious upgrade materials or time on weapons that were already weak. It’s counter-intuitive. You don’t reinforce a shaky wall with one piece of wood at a time, you find better building material. Then reinforce that, until you have a veritable castle. Wait… this was an article about weapon upgrades. A castle… that shoots lasers. Yeah, that’ll do. My horribly mangled metaphor aside, games that force cheap difficulty in this way need to stop. Likewise, games that cripple the über-weapon until you can upgrade it’s power/damage are just as bad. If you really don’t want the player using it, restrict ammo, don’t gut the thing. Now then, on to the good uses and ways to make upgrading fun and a powerful tool for the player!

This, but tickling your opponents to death.

Good Upgrades:

Right now, we’re going to cover my two of my current favorite upgrade mechanics in gaming, Fallout: New Vegas and Dead Space 2. Trust me when I say I could, and probably will, write an entire article on the upgrade system in Monster Hunter and I have a few choice words with the MMO system. I haven’t forgotten, just keeping this one under college-thesis level. Anyways, My most recently played first:

Dead Space 2:
Throughout the game, you can find or buy items called Power Nodes which can then be used at a Workbench to upgrade any weapon you are carrying,  your armor, or your Stasis ability. For now, we’ll focus on weapons. Every weapon in Dead Space 2 is, so far, tuned perfectly. Heck, you can very easily go through the entire game on just the starting pistol. It’s that powerful upgraded, and two well placed shots early game will kill borderline anything. The Rivet Gun is much weaker, but has an absurd rate of fire, and the alt-fire turns every bullet already launched into a tiny area-of-effect bomb. The Javelin Gun will one-hit-kill any weaker necromorph at any point in early game, and it only goes up from there. The hands-down most powerful weapon in the game, the Supercollider Contact Beam, will kill any non-boss monster in one hit. Anything. That’s it’s starting level of power.

However, the Contact Beam does not ever gain damage, except for its alternate-fire mode. The main cannon shot will always be the same strength. It’s upgrade path is far more interesting, forcing the player to prioritize how you want to upgrade it: Do you go for a faster reload? The Contact Beam has to vent access heat for quite a while before it can be safely reloaded and fired again. Or do you want to shorten the wind-up time, going for the kill that much faster?  Or upgrading it’s capacity, and storing more ammo in a single clip? Or, as I said before, upgrade alt-fire for a little area control around you? There are no less than 4 ways to try to rush, to upgrade as fast as possible and get the most of this canon. Or you could do what I do and grab everything as you go along, slowly increasing its overall strength. So, we now have 5 different ways to upgrade the most damaging weapon in the game, and not a single one of them adds a single point of damage to its main firing power.

Every weapon in the game is like this, having multiple upgrade paths and decisions. Do you want the damage upgrade on the Javelin, or the reload speed? The alt-fire bonus on the Rivet Gun, or the rate of fire increased? There are tons of fun decisions to be had, especially when the weapon has a SPC (Special) upgrade point. Those create even more fun moments, things like causing the Plasma Cutter’s bullets to light the target on fire, or the Javelin to explode after being alt-fired, turning them into fast-moving, impaling bombs. It’s a whole new level of fun and goal-setting, without adding much damage to the guns main form of firing.

You know you want to light things on fire. Go for the SPC upgrade!

Fallout: New Vegas:
The other insanely fun system of weapon modifications and upgrades, only found here. Every gun feels like it could hold its own in a firefight, but let’s say you have that one special gun you always take with you. In New Vegas, if you have that special gun, odds are there is a weapon mod for it. And mods do a massive range of things. There are mods to let a Laser Rifle fire two beams instead of one, cutting the individual damage but cranking it up if both it, mods to reduce the weight on your heavy sniper rifle, mods to give scopes (and night-vision scopes sometimes) on your favorite rifles, mods to squeezes every last bit of power out of your weapon of choice. This creates an even more diverse level of interest, as the player can now try to find mods to both upgrade power, but also utility mods to better fit into the player’s chosen style in the game. Like to go sneaky-sneaky? Grab a silencer and go to town. Don’t like up-close and personal? Grab a rifle and scope it, or even better a sniper and upgrade that too. The possibilities are truly massive. There is a cap to mods, three per any one weapon total. If you want another mod, one of the existing three will have to go. I actually like this, as it encourages specialization and decision-making instead of just “find mod, cram mod into gun, kill everything” thought process that most players get stuck in when no such limit is present.

Sneaky kill is the only way to kill.

If there is one thing I hate about the weapon mod system, it’s that there aren’t enough. Some weapons can have up to four or five, and the rarer mod selection going to six, while other weapon types will be lucky to have two. Remember when I said decisions making was good? The cap is three, and any weapon with that number or lower of available mods, the player will just throw whatever they get in there. There isn’t any fun thought, it’s not even a binary decision. Does this make my gun better at what I do? Yes – load it in, no – load it in anyways, there is no downside and it may come in handy. A little more would have done wonders for the mod system in this game.