Wednesday 21 April 2010

Mass Effect 1 & 2

Whereas I knew exactly where I stood when I started playing the BioShock games, Mass Effect is a completely different kettle of alien fish.

Mass Effect (PC May 2008) and Mass Effect 2 (January 2010), both developed by BioWare, are classified as action role-playing games. This rather vague genre (or sub-genre) gives the classic FPS (or hack-and-slash) a bit of depth, as the player can participate in more meaningful choices regarding the progression and development of their protagonist(s). Perhaps.

A lot of RPGs are tainted with a stigma of micro-management of spells, potions, armour and arms. And this is certainly the case with the original Mass Effect game. However, I feel that the pendulum swung back too far the other way with Mass Effect 2.

The main problem with the original game's equipping is not the concept, it's the poor user-interface design. As a squad, you can only carry a total of 150 weapons and enhancements. Juggling this number of items (many of them duplicates) is just too unwieldy and a lot more thought should have gone into a simple (but precise) management scheme.

The developer's solution for Mass Effect 2 is to eradicate the vast majority of items completely. The only equipment choice is which of a series of weapons to kit out for each character. Even here, except for Shepard's heavy weapon, the choices are pretty clear-cut and linear. Also, unless you come across a weapons locker, you cannot modify your selections mid-mission.

In terms of character traits and development, Mass Effect 2 also has a more streamlined approach, but this seems to work much better than the predecessor's flabbier system. However, the new "loyalty" attribute is a little clunky and, in my eyes, only serves three purposes:
  1. To unlock a special power for each character;
  2. To add extra terms to the "final game score" calculations [see later]; and
  3. To add some missions (one per character) to the game's "critical path". These missions are rather unimaginative, usually relating to a character's long-lost father/sister/daughter, whilst trying, unsuccessfully, to add moral ambiguity to the mix. For me, the only one that stands out is Mordin's re-visiting of his work on the Krogan genophage, which truly is an interesting moral subject.
On the subject of Mordin, the eccentric Salarian scientist, my favourite line in either game is when he uses his "Incinerate" ability during combat:
"Flammable ... or inflammable ... can't remember which ... doesn't matter!"
The conversation and Paragon/Renegade system works very well, and the designers have been sensible not to change it at all between games. From a design point of view, it is very clever of them to maintain Paragon and Renegade as two scales instead of conflating them into a single Good/Bad spectrum (as I think I would have naively been tempted). At least no-one at BioWare thinks morality is just a number between zero and one!

In the original Mass Effect, you could recruit up to six squad members. This was increased to at least ten (more if you have downloadable content) in Mass Effect 2. There does seem to be a "dilution of concern" with the increase in squad size; I only felt attachment to Garrus and Tali (carried over from the original game), Grunt (the proxy for Wrex) and Mordin (the archetypal scatty scientist). Perhaps the problem is that choosing two team-mates from ten gives considerably more possibilities (forty-five) than two from six (fifteen), so you get lazy and just pick the same two over and over again.
One reason for the designers to increase the number of potential squad members is that they're used as part of an elaborate implicit scoring system at the end of the final mission. Depending on how "well" you played, more of your crew will survive. The precise computations as to who dies has been documented thoroughly in the online forums and wiki pages, but generally you lose crew members depending on:
  1. The loyalty rating of each squad member (whether you completed the character's personal mission);
  2. Upgrades you bought for your spaceship;
  3. The choices you make concerning which characters assume which roles in the final mission; and
  4. The choices you make concerning what to do with any surviving, non-squad, crew members such as Doctor Chakwas.
However, if, like me, you play RPGs and RTSs in a very Type-A manner, you will have pretty much maxed out your ship and squad's stats and been careful with your selections, so all your crew will survive (excluding the arbitrary Lilith, who's unsaveable!); you'll never see this "scoring" nuance. However, play "badly" and most of your squad could be wiped out, although you'll still save humanity, thank goodness.
The concept of Romance (along with the related Achievement) is carried over from the original game into Mass Effect 2. But whereas it was simply stilted and coy in the former, it is downright laughable in the latter. It's 90% of the way to being tongue-in-cheek, but not quite enough to stop me cringing at the dialogue. I've had some experience of this minefield when working on the Thrillville games, so I might revisit this topic in another post.

Finally, going back to the fuzziness of the ARPG sub-genre, you can "tune" the game to be more of an FPS by choosing the Soldier class for Shepard (which, tellingly, is the default). However, it quickly dawned on me whilst playing the first game, that your skills as a soldier are primarily a function of the player's FPS skills, as opposed to their character's in-game attributes. So I restarted with a character of the Adept class (analogous to a Wizard in hack-and-slash games) which gave me access to the Biotic powers, whilst leaving me sufficient in-game combat abilities and weapons to make me feel I was playing a pure FPS. This makes a bit of a mockery of one of the replayability promises of a fully-fledged RPG, which supposedly promotes restarting the same game as a different character class to get a subtly different experience. There really didn't feel like there was sufficient differentiation between the character classes to warrant a complete replay.

In my book, Mass Effect is an FPS with some good RPG elements. Mass Effect 2 is even more FPS, less RPG. The makers obviously don't see it that way, or they'd have concentrated more on the enemy AI to bring it up to 2010 standards. The player of a good FPS should not expect to be able to walk into a room full of frozen enemy characters that only respond when you reach a trigger point or fire the first shot. Even then, the unimaginative enemy reactions are a far cry from those in Half Life 2 or ... erm ... Far Cry. But perhaps you can get away with these substandard elements in an ARPG.

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