The difference between clever and cunning.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mass Effect Retrospect, Part Two

Welcome back to our Mass Effect series retrospect. We continue with the second game in the series, which features cleaner and more tightly focused gameplay but shifts to an even less linear story and narrative structure.

Mass Effect 2 (ME 2 for future reference) wastes no time in upping the stakes. Within the opening few minutes the Normandy is attacked by a malevolent bug-like race called the Collectors.  Most of the crew escape, but Shepard perishes in the battle and the Normandy is destroyed.

The scene is all the more effective by having you actually play through part of it. I’ve long maintained that the strength of games as a medium is in letting you experience things first hand rather than absorbing it passively. It’s one thing to see the Normandy being shot up in a pre-rendered cutscene, but guiding Sheppard through the burning and breached ship yourself drives home the seriousness of the situation in a way nothing else could.

We can Rebuild Him

Shepard’s default face is all over the box art, so it would be unusual if Bioware left the commander dead and forged ahead with a replacement lead. Instead the body is rescued by a radical pro-human organization called Cerberus. They spend the next two years rather improbably bringing Shepard back from the dead, which provides a convenient justification for you to choose a new appearance and even character class if you chose to import a character from the first Mass Effect. Sheppard having literally been dead comes up surprisingly little, and Sheppard remembers nothing between death and resurrection. All this also has some potentially disturbing theological implications that never come, but so it goes.

Your mysterious benefactor and leader of the morally suspect Cerberus.

Those of you who did a lot of the side content in the first Mass Effect might remember that Cerberus was a minor antagonist faction. Most of their plans seemed to revolve around trying to control or breed various alien killing machines, then acting surprised when they lost control and were devoured. Their leader, the sharply dressed and charismatic Illusive Man, hand waves away past misdeeds before sending you back into the fight. He did just spend a gazillion space-bucks snatching you back from the icy talons of death and building you a bigger and even more advanced replacement Normandy, plus it’s hard to get too mad at anyone voiced by Martin Sheen.

Casting Call

The basic narrative structure of ME 2 has you building up a team of specialists, mercenaries, scientists, and a few psychopaths thrown in for flavor. Once you’re staffed up Shepard will then pursue the Collectors beyond the ominous “Omega 4” relay and confront them on their home turf. The game is at least as non-linear as its predecessor.  Missions are loosely divided into a few different acts, but for the most part you can tackle them in almost any order.

As we’ve come to expect with Bioware games your growing crew is made up of a diverse array of humans, aliens, and more. Standouts include a fast talking and hilariously written ex-special forces scientist and a Geth scout who provides some fascinating insight into the nature and culture of that race of aggregate AI’s.

Moradin steals the show as best recruit able team member.

The bulk of ME 2’s missions are based around either recruiting a new character or resolving some sort of outstanding issue that’s troubling one you’ve already obtained. Once you’ve helped them gain whatever vengeance, redemption, absolution, or revelation they needed Sheppard secures their Loyalty. Earning a character’s loyalty unlocks an additional power and has important implications for the final mission.

None of these missions or the characters they’re built around is outright bad in terms of story and gameplay. Some missions are a bit stronger than others, but all are at least entertaining and devoid of any obnoxious mechanics. You’re free to tackle them in almost any order and there can be a half dozen or more waiting for your attention at once by the mid-game.

Clear up any outstanding business before heading to the derelict Reaper.
(Level design courtesy Ridley Scott)

All this has the effect of making the game feel like a collection of only loosely related character driven vignettes, rather than a single sweeping story with galactic level stakes. The structure might be better suited for a more freeform game where you play as a pirate captain or mercenary commander putting together a crew to explore and pillage. It would have helped if the main villains, the Collectors, had appeared more frequently.


For example for much of the game you’re fighting either generic security robots or one of the various color coded mercenary factions. They’re enjoyable enough to shoot at but have nothing to do with the central story. In ME 1’s main missions you were battling the minions of antagonist Saren at every turn. Here the Collectors hardly appear at all. You don’t even get to fight them until the beginning of the second act.

If, as the story implies, the Collectors are so interested in Sheppard they don’t put a lot of effort into showing it. During the opening mission why do you find yourself fighting boring security bots, rather than a Collector strike force sent to make sure the newly revived Sheppard stays dead? Why not have them drop in to attack you during unrelated missions, reminding you that they’re still out there and gunning for you?

The Collector general “Harbinger” could have been an interesting antagonist. With his ability to directly possess any of his followers he should have been a constant presence in the story, taunting and trying to thwart Shepard at every turn. As implemented his only memorable trait is over-clocking a random Collector in combat, making them moderately more dangerous.

The Collectors will need to work harder if they want to be worth Grunt's time.

While Saren could have had more appearances in ME 1 at least he managed an interesting characterization as a powerful and driven individual slowly being subsumed by an even more powerful and terrible force. A good “save the universe” story needs a good villain. Harbinger really doesn’t get the screen time or character development necessary to be one.

Past and Present

One of the more unique and exciting features the ME series promised was the ability to import a finished save file to the next game. In theory your decisions in the previous game affect the story in the sequel. I chose to import my file and found, while it does have a notable impact, it’s not as dramatic as I was expecting.

It’s understandable but slightly disappointing that the effects of importing a save are mostly in the form of small bonuses, side quests, and minor narrative deviations. For example if you chose to spare the Rachnai Queen in ME1 you receive a brief message from her, but the Rachnai don’t actually show up anywhere in gameplay or the central storyline. I guess it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to pour valuable development resources into content that a player might not even see based on previous decisions.

A great many characters from ME1 return, assuming they survived the events of the first game. It is pretty cool to see a character you had the chance to slay but didn’t still alive, and it gives a bit of weight to the decisions you made a whole game ago. The impact of other decisions is only hinted at via newscasts or background conversations, but it’s nice to see the nod to what you’ve done.

While most of your old team from ME1 pop up at some point or another Garrus and Tali are the only characters to actually rejoin you. Seth Green also reprises his role as “Joker”, the Normandy’s skilled but brittle boned pilot. While a relatively minor character he’s clearly having a great deal of fun with the part, and the scenes where he interacts with the Normandy’s experimental AI are always entertaining.

The "Blood Dragon" armor is a Dragon Age DLC bonus.

ME2 still tends to resort to showing cool stuff in cutscenes rather than letting you do it firsthand more than it should, but the new dynamic Interrupt system helps. During a conversation you occasionally see brief prompts that a Paragon on Renegade interrupt is possible. Tapping the appropriate mouse button and Sheppard leaps into action while the other party is still blathering.

Paragon interrupts have Sheppard heading off violence or offering a shoulder to cry on. Renegade interrupts are of the bad-ass “Han shoots first” variety, allowing Sheppard to end the conversation in a flurry of gunfire or fling the offender from a great height. They’re a tremendously fun addition that makes conversations more cinematic and dynamic. Sometimes it’s just better to shoot the villain in the face while he’s in mid-rant.

Lessons Learned

Character progression has been trimmed down and streamlined. Every class has a handful of powers that share a collective cooldown and so can’t be spammed one after another. Each power has only a few ranks, but the difference each rank makes is significant. Unlike ME 1 there’s no scaling, so even a +10% damage bonus means a lot when mercenary grunts don’t magically get tougher as you level up.

There’s no random loot either.  Some upgrades can be purchased, but others must be found and then researched in the Normandy’s lab. ME 2 leaves you with less flexibility to shape and specialize Shepard and your team, but individual upgrades and power ranks are much more meaningful.

The Mako is gone, as is dropping in on unexplored planets and wandering around to see what you could find. While ME 1’s unexplored worlds were mostly poorly made terrain and a whole lot of nothing ME 2 loses a bit of the sense of size and scale of its predecessor. The carefully scripted missions are one of the ME 2’ greatest strengths, but there’s no denying they’re very linear.

Hard cover (or bulletproof glass in this case) beats the best shields and armor any day.

Combat is tighter, deadlier, and much more cover based than it was before. You can tell when a fight is coming just by looking for the chest high walls, and you’ll want to get behind those ASAP before you get shot to pieces. Shields and health are easily stripped away but both regenerate quickly. Guns have been downgraded to needing ammo in the form of “Thermal Clips”, but remembering to reload and grabbing the occasional ammo cache isn’t that big a deal.

The relationship between defenses, weapons and powers is more complex and interesting, with a rock/paper/scissors element. Tougher enemies have multiple defensive bars layered over their health that must be stripped away in sequence. Against a robotic foe you might use the Overload power to knock out its Shields, exposing the lumbering machine’s Health bar and leaving it vulnerable to being AI hacked and turned against its allies. Krogan protected by Armor forge ahead relentlessly until you burn their protection away with Incinerate, letting biotic powers toss them across the room.

All this creates a welcome level of tactical depth and gives you incentive to think carefully about what squad-mates to bring and what selection of powers and weapons you’ll have during a given mission.  Your HUD tells you what powers an enemy is currently resistant to whenever you target them, removing guesswork and letting you focus on the fight.


As tightly constructed as the core combat and missions are its unfortunate that you’ll spend so much time staring at a loading screen between encounters. ME 2 has load times so lengthy and frequent I started keeping a magazine near my computer. Even just moving to a different deck on the Normandy requires sitting though a load screen, and it really drags down the flow of the game.

Probing planets, the primary way to find resources for researching upgrades, is also dull and tedious. Fortunately you don’t actually need that many resources to research everything, and there are plenty of mineral rich planets scattered around.  You can likely stockpile everything you need in about half an hour total and then forget about it for the rest of the game.

ME 2 wraps up with an epic, multi-stage mission that feels like a Stargate or Star Trek season finale. It’s possible to launch the finale with a bare minimum of characters recruited, but realistically you’ll want to spend as much time building up your team, ship, and arsenal as possible. Your choices during the final mission and level of preparedness beforehand determine who lives and dies. It’s probably safe to assume characters that perish in the final assault won’t reappear in ME 3. It’s even possible to finish the game with Sheppard dead for the second time, in which case presumably you won’t be able to import that save.

As per gameing bylaw #412 you do shoot zombies on occasion.

Finally ME 2 has a solidly implemented postgame. Assuming you and any of your team survive the final mission you’re allowed to go back and travel the galaxy cleaning up any content you missed. This includes any DLC, which is handy if you discover some that interests you after finish.

Speaking of which ME 2 has gobs of DLC.  A decent amount of it is free if you’re willing to register on the appropriate website and have bought a new copy of the game. The game came out nearly three years ago though, and much of the DLC is still being sold individually and at full price. Games like Borderlands and Fallout 3 at least had the sense to roll everything into a “Game of the Year” edition to try to tempt new players.

If Bioware and EA had any common sense they’d have bundled all the DLC together for a single payment of $10 bucks by now or included it with the latest edition of the game. They apparently don’t, because everything is still being sold piecemeal for too much money and I honestly can’t muster the energy or burn the cash to deal with it. The free DLC was decent but nothing spectacular. I enjoyed the bouncy hovertank. 

Illium. Like Coruscant, but with even more blue women.

Ultimately Mass Effect 2 is a good game but not quite a great game. Bioware was able to smooth out a lot of the rougher edges to the gameplay and write a host of interesting characters, but weren’t able to make as strong a core story or antagonist. Still, the third game promises a true Galactic scale war, much lamented ending an all. I might as well take my save file and finish the fight.

Reasons to Play: Strong writing and characters. Tightly balanced cover based combat. Interrupts make conversations more dynamic and let you feel like a badass.

Reasons to Pass: Too long and too frequent load times. Weaker core story and villain. DLC hasn’t yet been bundled yet. Save File import feature less exciting than it initially appeared.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mass Effect Retrospective

The Mass Effect series is a trilogy of sci-fi action RPG’s from Bioware. I played about halfway through the first game when it came out five years ago before getting distracted. If you’ve been following gaming news you’re probably aware there has been a bit of a backlash about the ending to the third game, which perversely has renewed my interest in the series. 

As such I’m going to attempt a play through and review of the entire trilogy. My goal is less a “buy/pass” breakdown of the game and more a study of how the design has evolved from iteration to iteration. I’m also curious about the ability to carry my save from game to game.

The Mass Effect series has the almost unique property of allowing you to import your saves from one game to the next, in theory remembering major choices you’ve made and adjusting the game world accordingly. A few old school RPG’s like the Wizardry series would let you import an old party into a sequel, but nothing with such a dramatic effect on the game world and story. It’s a tremendously cool idea and I’m eager to see if Bioware was able to implement it successfully. 
Captain on Deck

Mass Effect puts you in the boots of Commander Shepard, a capable soldier of variable appearance, gender, and background. Aside from the usual facial customization you can also chose between six different combat classes, each wielding a different mix of weapon, tech, and biotic skills. Weapon skills are self explanatory and Tech skills do things like strip enemy shields or overheat weapons. The Force-like biotic powers are especially fun to use, sending enemies and objects hurtling about or floating helplessly through the air. 

Biotics reduce even giant alien bugs to physics props.

With character creation complete Shepard is launched into a tale of rogue secret agents, murderous machine intelligences, ancient alien legacies, and (of course) the fate of the galaxy. The opening mission does a solid job of establishing the setting, stakes, and primary antagonists. It’s a strong enough start but the pacing stumbles a bit after the gunfire dies down and you’re sent to the seat of galactic government, the enormous Citadel space station. 

The Citadel is mostly elevators and un-interesting side quests. Fortunately these are also largely inconsequential can be safely ignored. If you can put up with an hour or two of running back and forth, elevator riding, and petty politicking you’re ultimately handed your own ship and sent back out into the wider galaxy. In classic Bioware style you’re given a list of major plot missions and the freedom to tackle them in any order.

Strange New Worlds

It’s a big galaxy out there, with plenty of unexplored worlds. Almost every system has a planet you can land on and explore, both on foot and in a powerful APC called the Mako. The Mako is incredibly durable but handles like nothing you would expect from an armored vehicle, bouncing around like a giant chunk of Styrofoam and grinding up almost 90 degree inclines. It’s more goofy than annoying most of the time but feels very arcade like compared to the rest of the game.

The Spice must flow...

Unfortunately most planets outside of the core story missions aren’t worth the trip.  Mass Effect’s unexplored worlds are barren, featureless wastelands that feel like they were cranked out in five minutes with a random terrain generator. Only the Mako’s own improbable physics model makes it possible to clamber up and down the obnoxiously hard to navigate valleys and mountains. There’s little to do but prospect the occasional mineral node for a marginal reward and try not to get eaten by the rare giant sandworm, which have the charming habit of randomly emerging directly underneath your tank for an unavoidable one-hit kill. Many of the alien sky-scapes are quite pretty though.

You can also shoot through the same few rooms over and over again. I’m not kidding. Each unexplored world’s “dungeon”, whether a pirate base, rogue genetics lab, or lost colony, has the exact same layout. I understand development resources for peripheral content are limited, but this level of blatant recycling is ridiculous.

Be prepared to see this room a lot if you do any side quests.
Set to Kill

Combat is a significant part of Mass Effect, and unfortunately this is not the very best third person shooting you’ve ever seen. The cover system gets the job done but could be tighter. Weapons, especially sniper rifles, are aggravatingly inaccurate until you’ve made significant upgrades to your skills and equipment. You can pause at any point to shuffle equipment, queue up powers, and give commands to your teammates, which keeps things from getting too out of hand. 

Enemies with rocket launchers or special tech or biotic powers can be dangerous but don’t coordinate with each other. In outdoor areas they’re sniper bait, if you don’t simply vaporize them with the Mako’s cannon. Indoors foes are a bit better about using cover but still tend to trickle towards you a few at a time, letting your squad pick them apart piecemeal. Victory yields the expected XP, levels, and points applicable towards improving Shepard’s skills. 

This guy picked a bad day not to call in sick.

The character development system isn’t the most complex but still allows a degree of flexibility and specialization. Improving an active skill usually also provides a passive bonus, and there are never quite enough points to get everything you want. Squad mates level up at the same time Shepard does, so you never need worry about characters falling behind. 

Making leveling systems work in a game this non-linear is tricky, and Mass Effect attempts to remain challenging by having everything scale along with you. XP and money rewards, equipment drops, and enemy strength all grow at the same rate you do. This robs leveling up of some of its impact but Mass Effect’s free-roaming structure makes it a necessary evil. It also keeps looting interesting by ensuring you’re constantly finding slight upgrades, and you can conveniently recycle your old junk into “Omni-gel”, a magic paste that picks locks, repairs the Mako, and allow you to skip certain puzzles.

Engine Trouble

A few of the set pieces look good, but many of Mass Effect’s environments are sparse and dull. The frame rate was also surprisingly jerky at times for a five year old game. Loading sequences disguised as painfully slow elevators are common. 

For an armored vehicle the Mako can catch some serious air.

Moving from technology to design one of the minor but ubiquitous problems Mass Effect suffers from is a general lack of player feedback. It can be hard to tell when you’re taking hits in combat, especially from awkwardly animated melee enemies. The galactic map doesn’t tell you where you’ve already been, and where side quest you’ve accepted can be found. Character and power information is terse and vague. If an item gives me a bonus of fifteen to power cooldowns, what exactly does that mean? Fifteen seconds less? Fifteen percent? Does it stack with similar effects? It’s a mystery. 

Finally the equipment interface is clunky. Equipping your team is a real chore, one that would have been largely removed with a drag-and-drop paper doll interface. It’s still a significant improvement from the original console interface but could have been better implemented. Other PC specific upgrades, like hotkeys for player and squad-mate powers, are more effective.

Away Team

Over the course of the game Shepard assembles a small group of human and alien support characters. Two of them always accompany you in combat and they can be chatted up between missions for tidbits about the Mass Effect universe. Voice acting is well above par and everyone has a distinct personality and back-story, though as often as not it boils down to complaints about their relationship with their parents.

Krogan, like Wrex on the left here, are fiendishly tough to kill.

Your squad mates can generally hold their own in combat. There’s an interface to micromanage them, but I found it more trouble that it was worth and just let them do whatever they wanted. They’re at their best when allowed to use their special powers freely. 

I particularly enjoyed how biotic characters would yank enemies out of cover and leave them flailing helplessly in midair. There’s no damage from friendly fire, which is good because squad marksmanship is a bit less impressive. I had my aim thrown off regularly by allies shooting me in the back of the head. 

As you’ve likely gathered by now Mass Effect’s gameplay, especially its combat, is a bit uneven. Never outright broken or bad, but some elements (like biotics) work a lot better than others (enemy AI, the Mako, etc.) The greatest strength of the game comes from offering interesting, difficult choices without a clear cut answer and letting you resolve them as you see fit.

Prime Directive

Rather than the standard good/evil dichotomy Shepard’s actions are broken down a bit differently. Talking down a frightened civilian waving a gun at you is a Paragon action. Punching the man unconscious or shooting him in the hand to disarm him is a Renegade response. The Paragon and Renegade bars fill up independent of one another, unlocking new and generally beneficial dialog options as they do. 

Lets be honest. As a starship captain hitting on blue alien women is practically Shepard's job.

It’s a well handled system. Shepard never breaks character to act cartoonish evil or lawful stupid. Shepard is a military agent on a save-the-galaxy mission, not a random adventurer or mercenary, but how hard-ass, violent, or by-the-book Shepard acts is up to you. You’re also free to approach each new situation on a case by case basis. Unlike Bioware’s Old Republic games there is no penalty for acting against your dominant “alignment”.

The choices you’re called upon to make over the course of Mass Effect have real consequences, including what major characters live or die. Supposedly many of these consequences will carry over and affect the later games in the trilogy. Having only finished the first game I can’t yet judge how effective this is, but I’m looking forward to finding out. 

The dialog is snappy and the writing engaging, with bits of slightly self-aware humor when appropriate. It holds to the level of quality we’ve come to expect from Bioware. Finally there are a number of genuinely epic and memorable moments, especially towards the last few hours.

Bouncing off into the sunset.

In spite of some general gameplay and technical clunkyness Mass Effect is still able to get by and then some on the strength of its writing, its characters, and the vivid sci-fi universe it creates. The sequels supposedly tighten up many of the gameplay elements I’ve complained about, and I’m deeply interested in seeing if Bioware is able to make my decisions feel meaningful when I import my save into ME 2. I’ll let you know as soon as I finish.

Reasons to play: Galaxy spanning adventure. Biotic powers are a hoot. Game asks you do make difficult and interesting decisions. 

Reasons to pass: Dull, repetitive side quests. Moderately awkward combat. General lack of feedback. Loading elevators everywhere.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.