Mass Effect 2: Story

I’ve written everything I’ve wanted to write on Mass Effect 2 (or so I thought). But after finishing playing and writing out my thoughts, I decided to read other reviews to see how everyone else thinks. The biggest surprise to me was the view on the story.

Personally, I felt it was fine but I don’t tune in especially hard to the big story details while I play. Items that irk everyone else usually register as nothing more than little blips in the back of my brain that I largely ignore. I’m more about the fun and the moment. But then I read Twenty Sided’s three-part assault on the story. Here are the links: part one, part two, and part three.

I’m not going to respond in full to the criticism but I will quickly say that a majority of his points are right on; I’d guess only a few could be debated. The sections that resonate the most with me are the Reboot, the Illusive Man, and the Final Boss. As for the Reboot, I have to admit that BioWare missed a great opportunity to have Shepherd dying at the end of game one in a sacrificial manner to set up the intro of ME2. I think that might have felt more seamless.

Speaking of sacrifices, while reading reviews and comments I came across one that wrote that the more you care about your henchmen, earning their loyalty and upgrading them, the more likely they will all survive and that stretch of the game’s story will come off as a little flat. The less effort you put into the henchmen and their stories, the more likely they will all die (perhaps Shepherd included) — but you won’t care. Phrased like that, the end sequence comes off as a bit of a failure on BioWare’s part, especially when placed against ME1 and its Ashley/Kaidan decision.

And speaking of loyalty itself, one person wrote that BioWare should “make loyalty harder to get. Make the things you have to do to gain loyalty much more distasteful, like Zaeed’s one. Less loyalty translates into more death in the end game, and that’s good.” Another person added, “And there should be conflicting goals of your companions. To gain loyalty from one might very well mean losing loyalty from another.” I think that ties in with the idea of the ME1 Ashley/Kaidan decision, and represents a better solution to a potentially flat end sequence.

Thinking on these comments makes me realize that we’ve just been introduced to “loyalty” and that BioWare games of the future will likely both incorporate and evolve this system. That’s a good thing.

One thing I have to say as I jot down this post, ME2 sticks with you — just as Dragon Age and ME1 stick with you. I don’t think any of these comments would exist in relation to a lesser game.

Mass Effect 2: Post 07 (finale)

Victory! The threat to the galaxy is once again stopped. I really enjoyed the title and mostly loved the ending. And like Dragon Age, I’ll happily fire this one up again after all the DLC is bundled (though I’ll probably start over in ME1 with a very different character to pick up on more of the differences). Here are a few extra thoughts to close down this series.

(Although it should be assumed that every post contains spoilers, here’s a reminder: don’t read this post if you don’t to be spoiled about the game’s ending.)

  • Statistically speaking, I clocked in with 41h56m invested into ME2. Good value. My paragon, female Shepherd is level 27, and I flopped back-and-forth between hardcore and insanity difficulty. I started a new game to hit level 30, and did so at 1h03m en route to recovering Mordin.
  • Almost everyone in my crew had a few unused talent points. That’s disappointing, considering how valuable talent points should be. I know the implemented system makes it impossible to account for every single point, but that is one of the flaws (albeit minor) in the progressive-cost skill system for ME2, versus ME1’s 1:1 costs.
  • Color me (happily) shocked. I can’t think of a single moment in a single BioWare game where the game tells you to act now and you actually need to act now. Until ME2. Your crew is abducted by the collectors, and the game tells you that in order to save them you need to act now. I was like, “sure, sure. I’ll get to it.” Miranda, especially, was persistent. But I ignored her since, you know, I had a few loose ends to wrap up — maybe doing a little gambling with the krogan or some such. Alas! My poor assistant, Kelly! I’ll always remember that night you hung out in my quarters. :p
  • I was really enjoying the run-through to the end of the game until my group had to fight the Reaper embryo. Yes, it may be a “six-of-one/half-dozen-of-another” comment, but I’d rather watch large chunks of health fall away from the embryo — and then have it climb down, heal itself, and return — rather than unload with clip-after-clip as tiny pixels of health are grudgingly given up. It makes me feel a little impotent — the opposite of how I should feel as the galaxy’s savior. I had the same complaint with the NWN: Hordes of the Underdark boss fight. The difference is I was the QA Tech Lead back then and convinced the designer to change it.
  • I really liked the final major decision: save or destroy the Collector base. I liked it because it was a tough decision. ME1 was straight-forward: do you want to see a diverse civilization including humanity, or a xenophobic, human-dominated civilization? In ME2, it’s much more gray; I’m playing Paragon but it’s hard to argue against the value of all that technology. I wanted to save it, but I wasn’t willing to make a Renegade decision. If I had not been clued in which was Paragon or Renegade, I likely would have kept the base around. That said, my party seems to be happy with my choice. I’m really curious to find out how this plays out in ME3.
  • And while I also liked all the different ways you can save or lose your henchmen, I’m at least a little bothered by the ambiguity. For example, how do I know which defenders are the ones that can survive the final assault? I felt compelled to read along at the Mass Effect wiki as I played to make sure I didn’t lose anyone.
  • I hate losing control of my actions during a cutscene. I like impressive cutscenes, true, but I hate that my character pulls off these amazing feats that I cannot do in the game. Or that something drastic happens during a cutscene that I have no control over. I wish more companies, BioWare included, would do something to keep the player from putting down the controller during those moments. Similarly, I wonder if BioWare gave thought to letting the player volunteer himself as a specialist during the end-game sequence. For example, when I had to pick a tech specialist to manipulate a door — why couldn’t I volunteer my Engineer? Or when Samara was struggling to hold up the biotic shield, and Jack was in my group, why couldn’t Jack help out?
  • Looks like BioWare’s QA department has gained a new testing team since I’ve left. Back then, we had QA Design (the game itself) and QA Tech (the systems and tools that make the game). According to the game’s credits, we now have a QA Story team complementing the aforementioned. Cool. I’d say the expansion has paid off.

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway: Mass Effect 2 is a great game and a strong sequel to Mass Effect 1. In fact, when I’ve said that video games are an arena where sequels are wonderful (as opposed to Hollywood where it feels more like a cash in), this is a great example of why; the designers are less focused on waiting for tools to arrive and more focused on getting content created with pre-exisisting tools with which they are already familiar, using art assets and such that are already created. It makes for a much better gaming experience.

If you haven’t played this game yet, and you enjoy RPGs, you need to give this one a chance.

Mass Effect 2: Post 06

I’m getting close to the end of the game and don’t have a lot of new things to say. I figured I’d lay down the remaining unrelated observations all in one post, and then maybe wrap the series up in a few days with an after-I-beat-the-game post.

  • I like the new ship. The old Normandy felt huge and empty. The new Normandy is at least twice as big, yet is filled so much more satisfyingly. And believably. There’s a crew’s quarters. There are bathrooms. There’s a med bay. There are research stations and weapons lockers. There are storage rooms. There’s a captain’s quarter. The ship has it all. And there are people in every corner of the ship. It’s a fully realized stronghold.
  • And, like Assassin’s Creed 2, you can upgrade your stronghold — though apparently the upgrades to the ship impact how the end-game plays out. I cannot fully comment on that yet since I have not finished.
  • I love the henchmen loyalty quests. After a while, a henchman asks you to help them in some matter — something like a 30-minute one-off mission. Instead of each one requiring you to shoot a bunch of enemies in generic fashion, they’re crafted in a manner appropriate to the henchman and filled with interaction with that henchman — kind of like the BG2 stronghold quests. One mission requires you to seduce someone. Another requires you to spy on a politician. Very cool.
  • But that’s been the best part of ME2 versus ME1: the level of polish. Every level feels unique. Nothing is filler. And the story contains a lot more moments of “showing” versus “telling”. For example, in ME2, Jack asks you to take her to the lab where she was tortured and abused. You get to see first-hand where she has been, and listen to her as she responds to various in-level stimuli. ME2 shows the developers’ personality and love for the franchise, and also may hint at a little more wiggle room in the schedule this time around.
  • I like walking into a new city location. Lots of people. Advertisements. News. Ambient conversations. It feels busy and more like a living city than locations in ME1. It’s not to the level of Assassin’s Creed 2, but AC2 had the benefit of centralized locations whereas ME2 is all about world-hopping.
  • The continuity provided by the loading screen graphics is a huge improvement and helps provide a greater level of immersion. And what I mean is that when you complete a mission in ME1 you jump from the middle of a swamp to the comm room of the Normandy with only a spinning Mass Effect relay in-between. In ME2, there’s a loading screen where you see your skiff lift off the planet and fly straight up to be intercepted by the the Normandy on its way out of orbit. In ME1, elevators were long and painful. In ME2, longer elevator rides are masked by a load screen showing a graphic of your location and the moving elevator. It definitely makes a seamed world feel more seamless.
  • I bet I could out-run Shepherd, and I’m not in optimal shape. She runs 20 feet and then she’s heavy breathing for a while. Really?
  • In ME1, I spent a lot of time running around the ship talking to every henchmen only to learn that most of them never wanted to talk to me. I felt so rejected. In ME2, my assistant kindly tells me that Grunt or Jack need a talking to, and off I run to do it. Much more efficient. She’s also nice enough to feed my fish for me and let me know when I have new e-mail. And speaking of, I love the mails themselves. Instead of wondering why I never had a scene with so-and-so, as was often the case in ME1, in ME2 I’ll spot a new e-mail with an update from so-and-so. And they’re cheap, from a development perspective. Designers don’t need to craft a scene with camera angles and VO and so on when they can write up a quick e-mail.
  • Is it just me or are the “husk” levels awfully buggy? I’ve managed to fall out of two different husk levels. My henchmen are constantly disappearing for long stretches before reappearing in random locations, or just straight up teleporting. Or dying and returning to life in the same combat. And husks are dying without playing the proper animations. Or they’re standing still while I stand next to them unloading bullets into their face. Etc. ME2 is not a buggy game, so it’s surprising that these levels are as buggy as they are. While I applaud the unique style to them (husks swarm you, thereby preventing you from staying hunkered down in cover. Instead, you have to strafe in circles or go for the fire-and-retreat strategy), I’d applaud them more if they worked properly.
  • I had to use the web to verify this, but it turns out the credits available in the game (approximately 1,150,000) balance out almost exactly to cost to buy everything (approximately 1,250,000). In other words, if you do everything, you can buy almost everything. So at the very least, you’re not going to exit the game with a giant wad of cash and nothing to spend it on (like ME1).

GamesRadar on ME2 put up a pretty good piece, almost post-mortem-ish, on Mass Effect 2. They kick the piece off with a comment noting that scanning/mining wasn’t popular:

“The mining?” asks BioWare dev Christina Norman, “everyone hates the mining.” Yep, the mining was Mass Effect 2’s one mistake, and even then it was a small one, made worse by the sheer bloody amount of probing you had to do just to become competitive.

Later, in a reference to the in-development Mass Effect 3, project Producer Casey Hudson adds:

“The scanning minigame…” says Hudson. “I think the overall approach was fine, but we could have made it faster, more rewarding, and less critical to progression. We’re already working on adjustments to those aspects.”

Also in the article, they talk a little (not enough for my tastes, but enough to whet the appetite) about switching from unlimited ammo to limited heat clips, requiring player skill instead of character skill when aiming a weapon, tweaking the biotic system, tracking 700 player decisions made in ME1, and overhauling the inventory system.

I don’t have a lot to say about inventory so in lieu of a full post I’ll make a quick comment here: I don’t miss it at all. I’ve played games like Oblivion, Diablo, and Baldur’s Gate. I know all about managing an inventory. But I don’t think of managing an inventory as anything more than an unnecessary time killer.

Anyway, go read the article.

Mass Effect 2: Post 04

Continuing the theme of rolling updates, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about ME2’s economy, of which there are two types: minerals and credits. Minerals are what you gather from the harvesting of a planet’s resources. Credits are what you earn as you complete missions. Minerals are used for upgrades and research. Credits are also used for upgrades and research (and a few other odds-and-ends) — but via shops.

Most RPGs have a pretty simple resource curve. There are few things to buy at first, and you’re able to save some money even after buying those items. Then there’s a long stretch where even though the money comes in much more rapidly, there are far more items to buy and the costs for objects soar; as a result, you must pick-and-choose. Near the end of the game, thanks to hours of adventuring and, usually, establishing and fully upgrading a stronghold, you’ve bought everything and the money is still pouring in. Obviously by that point the economy has collapsed.

I have not been playing long enough to know if ME2 follows the curve to the end, but I can say the first two parts have held true to form. I was buying everything and saving money for a while, but now I’m penniless, despite every store giving me a discount, and unable to buy enough to satiate my hoarding tendencies. I’m trying to make mental notes of all the shops where I’ve had to leave stuff behind so that I can return when I’ve stashed up some more credits.

Even though I’m poor, credits are fairly easy to earn and come as a by-product of playing the game. I have no complaints here. Minerals, on the other hand — well, scanning sucks. Not in a “broken” way, but in the “boring” way. There, I said it. And having said it, I’ll be honest and admit that, yes, boredom be damned, I’ve scanned many planets into oblivion. Even though I find the scanning system tedious and dull, I’ve definitely put some time in on it and I will continue to painstakingly do so in order to earn more upgrades. One of my four bars (iridium, I think) just cleared 100,000 units. From memory, I think palladium is just about to 100,000 units, platinum is in the 50,000 or 60,000 range, and element zero is lagging behind — maybe around the 20,000 or 30,000 range.

At this point, if you were to ask, I’m not sure what I’d say in response to a “how could it be better” type question. Maybe I’d suggest finding ways to minimize the time spent on the activity. Make the scanning circle five-times larger. Make less active nodes on a surface; drop it from 25 to, say, three. Make the scanner move at the same speed whether or not you’re scanning. Let me get in and out of a resource planet/moon in thirty seconds. But slowly moving a little radar circle up-and-down, back-and-forth across the entire surface of a moon/planet, hoping for a spike so that I can launch yet another probe and mine a few hundred or a few thousand minerals, content that has little to do with the core pillars of ME2, is not my idea of fun. I know many people enjoy it for its Battleship-esque game play. I am not one of those.

I recently posted a link to an interview with Patrick Plourde, the lead designer for Assassin’s Creed 2. In it, he said that the big difference in their philosophy between AC1 and AC2 was to center their activities around their game’s mechanics. AC is about parkour and fighting, so all the activities you engage in are parkour and/or fighting related. ME2 is about shooting and talking. That means I expect a significantly large percentage of my time to be spent shooting stuff or talking to stuff. And while there are some happy exceptions in ME2 (i.e. the two hacking mini-games are neither shooting nor talking but they are brief), I’m sinking an awful lot of time into moving a little circle in order to progress my research and upgrades. I’d say that’s a direct contradiction to the gaming wisdom that Plourde espouses.

So don’t do it, you’re telling me. It’s not a requirement for the game, you say. It’s a time waster with some in-game rewards, like hacking, and not required. But the thing is, I want to play the game. I want those rewards. I want to upgrade my ship and weapons and so on. This isn’t the same thing as playing Pazaak in SW: KotOR — where you have a time waster that earns you credits. There are many ways to earn credits. But the only way to get minerals in ME2 is to distract myself from the game for long periods of time by scanning surfaces. And I don’t think that was a good idea.

Mass Effect 2: Post 03

If I were to guess, I’d say I’m about 15 hours into the game — fifteen hours that would break down as: five hours spent picking up on differences between ME1 and ME2, and ten-plus hours since spent completely absorbed by the title’s level of quality. Fifteen hours is enough to have a fairly accurate feel for ME2’s big pillars, which are talking and fighting. Let’s chop one of them pillars down today. Let’s go for the fighting.

  • I have to start by saying that I greatly enjoyed playing through ME1. But ME2 makes the ME1 experience feel like a straight-forward stroll down a nondescript hallway shooting whatever happens to pop up in front of you. What a difference. Well-placed cover points, hiding spots, bridges, explosives, and door ways all work together to create built-in surprise and strategy to far more ME2 encounters.

  • But it goes beyond the layouts. In ME1, a great majority of the time you were marching forward, constantly blitzkrieging bewildered opponents. In ME2, some levels require you to push forward while some task you with holding a location. I love the addition of defense to the mix. It completely changes your mind-set.
  • And then we add AI to the mix. Opponents don’t meander down hallways to your location allowing themselves to be picked off. They hide behind cover. Or some of them hide behind cover while their friends sneak around to your flanks; there has been more than one time where an enemy slipped past unnoticed and took out my group from behind. Or they send animals or giant mechs or krogan running to your location, and take advantage of the chaos. There were a few tough battles in ME1 where I had to stay in cover. But I never had a situation where I had to flee from my cover while taking fire, as in ME2. It definitely adds some needed tension and the necessity for quick thinking to the battles.

  • Speaking of added tension and requiring quick thinking, I think I now understand why BioWare switched from overheating weapons to weapons that require bullets. At first glance, the shoot-pause-shoot pacing for guns with bullets and guns that overheat is identical. So why change what already works? My guess is that because a gun can only hold so many rounds, resource management becomes an extra concern. In some of the tougher, longer fights I’ve almost run out of bullets. But there are always ammo clips scattered about a level — teasing you, just out of range and away from cover. It’s quite the rush to dash out from cover to grab a clip and hope you can jump back to cover before dying.
  • In ME1, I can think of very few instances where I did something aside from press forward, but there have been many missions in ME2 where I had to backtrack or move back-and-forth through an area a few times or deal with enemies coming at me from a branch in the path. It has more of a first-person shooter feel to it. That is, instead of always moving through new space, you stay in an area longer and gain some familiarity with the map. It’s not only a more efficient use of resources, but it creates a stronger attachment to the location for the player.
  • In ME1, when I think back on it, I have trouble remembering fighting much of anything aside from geth. But there’s a real diversity to the opponents in ME2. I’ve come across a few different alien mercenary types, i.e. salarians. And robot types, i.e. mech bodyguards. And creature types, i.e. verran and robo-verran. And giant mechs. And geth. And armatures. And, of course, there are humans. It’s quite the mix. Some of the diversification affects strategy. Some is only meaningful aesthetically. But it makes each situation feel that much more unique.
  • And adding yet another layer to everything mentioned so far that makes combat more exciting, some of these guys have armor and barriers and other protections that you have to work together with your teammates to whittle away. And while you’re working their shields, they’re using guns and biotic powers or firing missiles at you. It’s a really big tool box from which the designers can challenge the player, which forces the player to pay attention and make liberal use of the power wheel. As I referenced in an earlier post, I probably used the power wheel a half-dozen times in ME1. And never to give a command to one of my henchmen. I’ve surely used it three or four times, per fight, in every fight in ME2 I’ve been in so far — for myself and my henchmen.

  • I had written that it felt like very little improved with your character as you played, but I was at least partially wrong. True, the characters themselves are more limited in their level-up gains, but you can do research to improve everything for your squad from damage to health to shields to biotic duration. So it isn’t that BioWare stripped out that level of customization; they merely pulled out the stuff from level-up that applies to a larger cross-section (like gun usage) and re-direct it into the research and upgrade stations. I’m OK with that. It actually seems a bit smart since it taxes the economy system (more on that in an upcoming post).
  • I mentioned earlier that I felt rather inept with the pistol as an engineer. Since then, I’ve found a one-handed machine gun of some sort that has definitely made me much more deadly. I really liked the way the pistol felt in ME1, and this doesn’t feel like that, but it works. So while my engineer powers are my preferred, and most efficient, method of taking out foes, my gun is now making a lot of noise.

And that brings us to… my lone criticism of combat.

  • Even after a few play sessions I’m finding cover to be slightly flawed. There have been times where I’m nestled in safe-and-sound and, after turning too far to the side to target an opponent who is attempting to flank my group, I stand up away from cover and am promptly riddled with bullets. There have been times when I accidentally jump forward over the cover I’m hiding behind, exposing me to the opponents. There have been times where I tried to run down a hall away from opponents and accidentally jumped into cover the wrong way, with my back exposed to the following opponents. And there have been times where I think I’ve jumped into cover yet I stand there next to the cover getting shot. These moments are few and far between (unfortunately, much less rare are the moments where my henchmen refuse to use cover or follow my orders for more than a second or two and are quickly put down. *sigh* Jacob and Grunt seem especially fond of shirking cover entirely). But they do happen and, while they’re usually not “game over” mistakes, they do raise the tension a little more than the situation might otherwise warrant.

And that does it for my experience with combat so far. Until next time.

(For those who’ve played and are curious where I am in my playthrough, I’d guess somewhere between a quarter and half way. I’ve recovered the first batch of henchmen: the Professor, Archangel, and the Convict. I visited the Citadel and hung out with my old pal Anderson. And then I grabbed Tali, the Warlord, and the Assassin. In between acquiring cohorts, the aforementioned have been taking turns informing my assistant that they each need a favor of me. So I’ve also been earning some loyalty.)

Mass Effect 2: Post 02

Here are a few more observations now that I’ve made it a little farther into the game. These bullets come from about a week ago, though I’m only just writing them now. I got a little behind.

As for the content, it’s funny (to me) to read this one because I want to make corrections to each point. Yes, all five of them bug me at least a little now. So why post them? Remember, it’s a rolling review and I’m trying to record my thoughts as I go to see how or if they change. When I was in QA, initial reactions were highly valued because they helped the development team shape how they introduced these ideas. Right? Right. On with the show.

  • I’m not sure how much I like the decision to limit the ammunition. I appreciated the way things worked in the first title: you shoot for a while, your gun gets hot, you drop back into cover. While you’re in cover, your opponent shoots until his gun gets hot and then he drops back into cover. Repeat until someone’s dead. I can remember all the conversations we had in the office about why we were not using ammunition in ME1. So why is ME2 using it? What made them change their minds? I’ll keep an open mind but as of now I can’t see the benefit to the change.

  • There are two hacking mini-games, one representing a circuit board hack and one representing a firmware hack. For the circuit board, there are 10 icons (made up of two pairs of five unique icons) face down on a circuit board. Like the game Memory, you need to match the five pairs. Pretty easy. I don’t mind it, either. It always seems like you have plenty of time and it’s pretty mindless. The other mini-game is more challenging. There are three columns broken up into four rows of blocks of text that scroll by (see image above). Some of the blocks are red and if your cursor touches them you then it counts as a mistake (you have three chances). The object is to find a chunk of text that matches a pre-defined chunk of text and select it. After three successful matches, you hack the firmware. I’ve only done this one two or three times but so far I’m always worried I’m going to mess up and it’s not as mindless as the other mini-game. I haven’t decided if that makes me like it or not.
  • What is this planet scanning thing? I fly to an unexplored planet or moon, and hit [Y] to begin scanning. Then the game says to hit [LT] and then [RT] to launch a probe. I hold [LT] and press [RT] four or five times but I don’t see anything happening other than probes flying at the surface of the planet. I don’t understand what’s going on here. I have four mineral categories and I do not appear to be gaining anything in any of them as I launch more probes, even though the planet is listed as “Rich” in resources. Do the probes accumulate minerals over time? Was I supposed to only launch one and then leave?

  • Character creation and customization feels less rewarding than in ME1. Maybe I haven’t figured it all out yet, but it seems like you get a gun and that’s it. In ME1, you could put talent points into a gun to become better at it. You could also find weapon mods throughout the game and use them to alter how your weapon worked — that is, let it be more effective against shields or make it less accurate but deal more damage. In ME2, it seems like all of that is gone. None of my characters have any weapon skill. I guess that means I’m as good at level one with the gun as I’ll be at the end of the game. And it isn’t just the missing gun talents. In fact, each character only has a few talents (three at the start, and one doesn’t add anything new; it only makes you more proficient at your class) and they can only be advanced through four tiers. It’s all very streamlined. Again, I’m not sure if I’ll end up liking this more or less at the moment, but it looks disappointing on the creation & customization landscape.

Here's a screenshot from the web of a soldier. I have a female engineer.

  • Jumping off from the prior thought, I’m playing as an Engineer and I feel kind of useless with my gun (which is all the more disappointing since I can’t get better with it). My henchmen are far superior. They’ll take out opponents quickly while I need to nail a few head shots to do some damage. This is a stark change for me; my pistol pretty much owned the battlefield in ME1. On the other hand, I never used the Engineer abilities on the power wheel in ME1. That has drastically changed in ME2. I use the power wheel a few times in every fight with ME2. I call that a victory for BioWare to make a game that encourages you to use the controls.

Mass Effect 2: Post 01

I recently started (well, back on Apr 28th) playing Mass Effect 2.

As some of you may know, I like posting my thoughts as I play instead of writing up a formal, polished review at the conclusion of the experience. I find that a single review at the end of the game focuses on the experience as a whole. Comments throughout focus on any number of things and better show the range of reactions throughout the experience.

Although I focus on game mechanics as I play, instead of giving a blow-by-blow of what I’m doing in the story, I often provide examples that require me to use details from the story as context. As such, expect spoilers. Also, as you might guess you’d read from a series of reaction posts, there will be dumb observations. At first, I might be confused by something. An hour later, I totally get it. But I try to record my initial confusion since that’s important.

Mass Effect 2 is one of those games (i.e. BioWare RPGs) that I get really absorbed by, so expect at least a half-dozen posts on this title — and possibly more. I’ll try to keep them at least somewhat focused on a topic, but I make no promises about length. 🙂 That said, this first post comes to us via Facebook where I left a few quick, first impressions as a comment.

  • Random, unimportant things I noticed while playing: improper use of semi-colons; gratuitously bigger boobs on my female Shepard; the Illusive Man is a bad role-model who makes me want to smoke; and a reference to me being a sole survivor when we’ve since learned (on one of the uncharted worlds in ME1) there were two survivors at Akuze.
  • Random, cool things I noticed while playing: you directly control the movement of the Normandy about on the Galaxy Map; meeting up with Tali, my first encounter with one of the henchmen from ME1 who have since abandoned me; designing your armor’s look; swapping armor with clothes on your ship; and the two new mini-games for hacking.
  • Random, bad things I noticed while playing: uh… nothing yet, I guess. Oh wait, I popped out of cover once when I turned the camera too far to the side — and was promptly killed. But other than that, it’s been fun-fun-fun. I’ve really only just started, though. I haven’t even found this first scientist guy that the Illusive Man wants me to track down.

The Saboteur

Not too long ago, I started up Pandemic’s (rest in peace!) The Saboteur and posted some thoughts about the game.

My first impression was that it seemed good, a blend of all the action/sandbox games out there that I love like Saints Row, Crackdown, and Assassin’s Creed, but seemed to be missing something. I couldn’t put my finger on it and I probably played for about 4 or 5 hours before I figured out that, truth be told, the game is not missing a thing.

As such, I’d say my initial uncertainty is more properly attributed to the learning curve. The game does a lot to make it easy for new-comers to figure out how to control the game, but it also misses some basics. To elaborate a little, some missions are so easy if you just shoot everything that moves. Others are simple if you stealth your way through and snipe a single target from a distance before sneaking away. The game also employs various systems, such as stealth, that take a little time to master. Once you do, you get a sense of what the game expects and how to proceed. And then everything is much easier and more enjoyable.

So was it perfect from there? No, not quite. My biggest criticism seems to be the same as the critics: the awareness radius of the Nazis. The fact is that the alarms are occasionally fun for short stints and serve a purpose, but they ultimately end up disrupting your experience and preventing you from getting back to playing the game — and that only serves to punish we the players.

I’m surprised it wasn’t picked up on during development since Pandemic is really good about honing in on “fun”. And while it’s too late now, I think the simple solution would have been to provide alternative ways to escape the alarms. Instead of forcing you to move outside an ever-increasing radius rimmed by more Nazis without being seen, to name a few they could have also let you remain hidden for a specific duration, provided more “safe houses” in the form of kissable girls and the like, and auto-ended an alarm at mission completion. They also could have added a transitional stage to the alarm, similar to the currently implemented yellow alarm — giving you a few moments to kill the whistle-blowers and escape before things became serious. And if they could have come up with even more than that, I’d have been fine with that as well.

Anything else, aside from the alarm? Or was this a near-perfect game with an Achilles’ heel? I guess I do have a few random comments.

  • I was really surprised there weren’t more racing missions. I think there were three or four races throughout the game. For a game that has you spending so much time driving, has really cool race cars, and a great driving/racing physics/system, you’d think there’d be at least a couple dozen races. I would have begged the devs to add races all over Paris. I also wonder why they didn’t consider races on foot, i.e. courier/delivery missions, since you can not only run, but climb.
  • Even as I got near the end of the game and grew comfortable with the general process, I found myself in missions where I didn’t understand what the game wanted me to do. For example, I can think of two separate occasions where jumping across a pit was the only solution. However, both times my characters failed to make the jump on the first try and so I assumed it was not the correct solution instead of thinking I had simply missed the jump. Journal entries or on-screen tips would have been a great aid for those non-intuitive moments.
  • The game had many places where you could cheap out the system. In other words, the perk you get for blowing up 20 Nazi vehicles without losing or leaving your own vehicle appeared to be an impossible one to earn. But there are plenty of places the enemy cannot access. And some of those places have gunnery stations — which leave you nigh invincible. For example, I found a surface-to-air artillery station in a park with only one access point available to the enemy. So I hopped in and fired round-after-round at that one access point. 20 tanks later, the perk was effortlessly earned. I’d rather see perks a little easier to come by so players aren’t looking for exploits like these. Or maybe they could have implemented para-troopers at alarm four/five who land at your location to keep you from cheesing the game.
  • I had a lot of trouble with the controller sensitivity early on, finding that I would shoot to the left of the enemy, then to his right, then to his left again as I tried to center my aim. By turning down the sensitivity, I was able to overcome this problem — but it would have been a more elegant solution had they incorporated a target-lock system. It likely also would have fixed the occasional problem where you try to “sucker punch” a Nazi to prevent him from triggering an alarm, but cannot properly target him. Oh, the frustrations I had with trying to stop those whistle-blowing Nazis!
  • Some of the missions seemed to never end. You’d think you had finished a mission and then you’d see “checkpoint” — suggesting you weren’t quite done. Although the game said it had saved, I was always nervous that if I turned it off I’d have to start over from the beginning of the mission when I resumed play. As a result, there were times where I kept playing beyond when I wanted to quit for the day. True, I could have trusted the game or tested it to see how it worked, but I wasn’t keen on potentially losing progress.
  • I know most people will say “seriously?”, but there were too many little white dots on the map. The white dots represent “free play” locations and range from propaganda speakers to guard towers to weapon crates and so forth. It’s really hard to ding a game for too much content, but the truth is that the content is the same two or three types repeated ad nauseum. There’s a sort of mindless enjoyment to it for a while, but eventually you hit a point where you’ve taken out two or three hundred and you still have maybe seven hundred to go. I fully understand it’s content to keep you busy, there for those who want it, and completely unnecessary to the game and its story, but the more white dots in the area of a mission the harder the mission. And it takes away from the thrill of beating the game to feel like you’re not even half-way done liberating the city.

While I wouldn’t say it was perfect, it was damned good and well conceived. And while we could theoretically get a Saboteur 2 somewhere down the line, it won’t be a true sequel. That’s sad. But for this game, the bottom line is it’s a game you have to play.

Are Video Games Art?

I’ve been quite hesitant to post on this topic because it’s one of those items better served as a conversation piece over dinner rather than as yet another web log post. But as I read countless “me too” game sites calling Roger Ebert wrong or misguided for saying that video games are not art, I have to chime in and say, “You know what? He’s right.”

Don’t get me wrong. There are many elements of artistry in any given game. But as a whole, games are not art. They’re games.

When I play Grand Theft: Auto, I’m not sitting back and admiring the creation of an immense, realistic city; I’m more likely cursing at the TV because I had to re-do a mission for the 5th time. When I play Super Mario Bros. Wii, I’m not actively appreciating the color palette; I’m concentrating on jumping over a pit onto a small ledge without falling off or pushing Candice or Lisa off that small ledge. When I play Braid, I’m not worried about where the story might lead; I’m worried about how to navigate the next puzzle.

Games are made up of individual components of artistry. There is artistry in the conversation you see between two characters. There is artistry in the look of those two characters — and the set they exist on. There is artistry in the music that plays in the background as these two speak. There is artistry in the effort of bringing it all together. And when I think back on the experience of playing a game, I do feel “affected” as I might with some piece of art or movie.

Those moments of artistry aren’t the video game. They are elements of the game — the game you play. But they aren’t the game. If video games were just stories, they’d be Final Fantasy boring. Instead, we play the game and along the way we are rewarded with bits of artistry. And then, after we’re finished with the game, we think back and latch onto the art.

Is that bad? No. Video games are wonderful things. Every game represents an experience that may end up treasured. Developers should be very proud of what they accomplish. But they shouldn’t call it art.