Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mass Effect 2

Due to my spotty gaming history and never having owned a Playstation 2 or Xbox in their heyday, there are few current gaming franchises to which I feel very connected in that I have expectations of their sequels. However, in my job as a game developer, the first Mass Effect was my life for almost two years, so it was excitement and trepidation that I sat down to play Mass Effect 2. This article is about my impressions of how the game has changed in this sequel.

The biggest problem of making improvements to a game like Mass Effect 1 is that they bring to light all the shortcomings of the first game. For all its flaws, ME1 was a triumphant lovechild of action and story. ME2 is that child all grown up. In story, gameplay, and characters, ME2 does almost everything better than the first go around.

As a whole, the story of ME2 simply comes together better and makes more sense than the first. It’s more immersive, paced better, and makes a better game. In ME1 you're told to rush out and save the galaxy, but are presented with seemingly inconsequential side quests. While we all know this is standard RPG fare, it lessens the urgency of your main objective; enjoying the game content is in opposition of the fiction of the story. In ME2, the side quests are reasonable to pursue because the main fiction is that you're on a suicide mission, and any new crew members and ship upgrades increase your survivability. Not only that, but by making your crew members loyal to you by helping them out with personal issues, they contribute to your overall success, and present you with additional abilities. At a few points, characters even argue over whether you should do more side quests to build up your forces or rush into the final battle. Rather than ask the player to accept the necessities of the game mechanics, it turns them into an interesting conflict and choice. The game would not have been less fun without these touches, but they do much to make the story and game structure support each other.

The mechanics of character interactions in a BioWare game, while old hat to old school gamers, can be a bit tricky to grasp to newcomers. It’s not clear when new conversation options will become available. Yeoman Chambers addresses this problem. She is your in-game notification system that there is interesting NPC content to be had. As we now can't imagine playing an RPG without a journal that keeps tracks of our current quests and where we should go next, soon we won't accept anything less than our own personal Yeoman Chambers telling us which NPC's have new conversation options. I missed a lot of the teammate interaction in the first game simply because I didn't know when I should go try talking to them again, but I feel like I hit them all in ME 2, thanks to the Yeoman.

The shooting mechanics are greatly improved over ME1. The cover system works a lot better, and shooting areas are provide enough cover to make using it fun. Weapon selection is simplified, and there's no need to enter an inventory screen to switch ammunition types. I still felt a few rough spots. I found myself popping out of cover unintentionally, and playing a infiltrator, I used my sniper rifle often, and found myself stuck in or unable to get into zoomed mode after using the powers menu. This inconsistent behavior made the combat get in the way just a tad too often. Otherwise, the combat was pleasant, to the point of feeling too easy; I played on veteran and hardly ever had any trouble. Similarly, I never felt like I had to use squad commands to give me an edge in combat, with a single exception (the final battle when you pick up Grunt). On one hand, that could be a testament to good AI, but on the other hand, it never left me with the feeling that my squad just barely survived. All in all, my complaints are few and minor, and what I take away from the game are memories of good action sequences and some interesting combat scenarios.

Side missions feel a lot better in this version. They almost all have some individuality and relate strongly to the plot. They also almost always have battle situations, so if you're ever bored of talking to people, just go scan planets until you find a side mission. They are good breaks from the plot and usually digestible in short gaming sessions. And often, these side missions will eventually result in you getting an email regarding the outcome of the missions, which gives them a nice bit of resonance.

The game's lore is expanded from the first game. I found the story of the krogan genophage to be some of the most interesting and compelling writing of the game, and brought the other races into a different light, challenging me to make tough choices about where to put my support. Beyond just trying to guess which choice would take me down the Renegade or Paragon path I thought I wanted to follow, ME2 made me think about how I wanted to affect the world and progress the story. On the other hand, while we find out more about the previously mysterious and faceless bad guy geth race, it only serves to make them a more familiar science fiction archetype. The universe of Mass Effect is getting wider and deeper and continues to be comfortably familiar as well as surprising at times.

Shepard feels much more like a leader and commander in this game. In ME1, and in many other games that put the player in a role of leadership, I never really felt like a commander. Sure, I got to pick my squad and make some inspiring speeches, but I never felt like the character deserved the role the game told me was mine to play. The decisions Shepard has to make in the sequel are a lot tougher, and challenge the player to think like a leader. Some times it seems like there are no right answers to avoid crew casualties (though I guess there actually are, and I just didn’t find them). He isn’t just a player avatar that you can make good or bad by choosing the right dialog options; he is a character that you have to actually have to become, and in doing so, build a level of empathy that is absent in too many games.

And yet, there are problems. While ME2 omits long Mako safaris across barren planets, there is the planet scanning mini-game. There is an awkward and contrived plot device near the end of the game that exists solely to allow a dramatic confrontation. There are side quests that feel like they got tacked on at the end of the project. But whatever, they’ll probably fix them all in the next game.

All in all, ME2 is a wild success, not just compared to other games, but compared to itself in ME1.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mass Effect 2, on the best mini-game ever

I’m finishing two articles on Mass Effect 2, and this little item didn’t fit into either, but I don’t want to let it die. It’s about the planet scanning mini-game.

To acquire mineral resources that purchase upgrades, you need to find planets and scan them to find mineral deposits. Each planet has, maybe, twenty or more deposits to find. The interface for this has you use a thumbstick to move a reticle over a spherical model, like a cursor with a radius. When you hold down one trigger, the reticle moves slower, painfully slower, but you are able to detect deposits. A display on the right tells you if you’ve detected any resources and to what degree; you can find deposits with a range of amounts of one or more elements. When you’ve found a node, you can make smaller adjustments to find the local maximum, honing in on the greatest payout. When you’re ready, you hit the other trigger to fire a probe that magically scoops up your loot.

Yeah, we all hated it. It is simply a time filler. That said, the implementation is incredibly pleasing; when you hit a deposit, you receive graphical, physical, and audible feedback that indicate the presence and amount of minerals. For each of the four different mineral types, there is a distinctively different type of vibration and sound. The rumble feedback varies from a slow, pulsing throb, to a fast jackhammer. The graphical display is a series of squiggly lines, like an EEG, that spike at different points according to what mineral you’ve found. Maximizing your take involves moving the scanning reticle very small distances to make the line the biggest and the vibration the strongest. It’s captivating.

Yet, it goes over the top; I'm not sure why the screen shakes and there's an explosive shooting sound when a probe is launched, as if I'm firing a torpedo from a submarine instead of the most advance spaceship in the galaxy. And really, don't I have a science officer? Should I really be spending my time scanning for minerals? Furthermore, the game doesn’t let you know when you have ‘enough’. I ended the game with over 100,000 units in three categories of minerals; even after buying every upgrade I kept going as I thought there might be something more to do with them. I wish Yeoman Chambers would've leaned over and been, like, "Hey Shepard, I think you may have a problem. Put down the probes."

It’s a charming, annoying, captivating, and completely interesting little piece of this massive game. For what could’ve been a forgettable mini-game, with the amount of player feedback it gives, it’s the most polished and pleasing mini-game ever, and I’m still not sure if I love it or hate it.