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.

Assassin’s Creed 2 — Core Pillars

From: http://gdc.gamespot.com/story/6253593/ubisoft-on-designing-assassin’s-creed-2

For Assassin’s Creed 2, Plourde said the gameplay pillars were fighting, navigation, and social stealth.

I probably would have simplified this to fighting and navigation. Social stealth isn’t fully realized on its own so I’d call it a subset of navigation.

Regardless of that slightly differing matter of opinion, interviews like this one with lead designer Patrick Plourde are wonderfully educational to read. Like a post-mortem, his comments are insightful and honest, not colored and tweaked by PR (or, at least, not overly so). In the interview, he talks about the problems with combat, how they tied their mechanics and puzzles/levels together more tightly to always maintain a fun experience, and why they steer away from making the parkour more challenging — amongst other things (and yes, I realize this is an older interview. But I wanted to play the game before reading it, and then once I did play this post got lost in my drafts). The only sad thing is how short it is.

Table of Contents

Over the course of this web log, I’ve written a few articles with my thoughts on what makes an RPG good and how they could be better or different. What I’ve written so far is by no means comprehensive, but here are some essays on the topic in order from oldest to most recent:

Random Thoughts: The post that kicked it all of, and it came at the end as an aside. In the post I raise a simple question I’ve long struggled with: how do we take the coolness of a cutscene and turn it into player-determined gameplay?

Dexter, the video game: At this point, I still hadn’t formalized the idea of a series of posts. But after learning that there would be an upcoming video game based on the TV show Dexter I decided to put my love affair with Fahrenheit on full, unabashed display as a reference point to describe how I’d design the game.

Gaming Immersion: Here I discuss the importance of pulling your audience into the game experience. Immersion is a subjective term and can be achieved in different ways. Tetris can be immersive as much as any graphically-stunning first-person shooter. In the post, I make note of a couple examples of cool moments I’ve had while playing games that stand out in my memory.

Three-Part Series, Part One: Some of my better gaming moments have come when my party of adventurers wasn’t at full strength and I had to be creative to get them through a difficult encounter instead of relying on superiority. This article is, in part, about that very idea and different ways it could work in a game.

Three-Part Series, Part Two: Failure! How many games let the player advance the story after failing? Very, very few. I try to get at how a player could fail in a game and yet move the story forward in a satisfying way.

Three-Part Series, Part Three: A while back I came up with a specific game mechanic for an RPG. This article is focused on that mechanic, which I refer to as “time paths”. The idea behind them is to facilitate an evolving, unique experience each time you play the game.

Three-Part Series, Epilogue: I wrap my three-part design series with an observation about how slowly game systems evolve, and how we need better prototyping from ambitious designers and a healthier independent infrastructure to change it.

Choice & Consequence: C&C has become the latest-greatest buzz phrase in the marketing of RPGs. The gamers want it and the developers want to say they’re focusing on it. But are they really? We can only figure out if they’re giving it to us by declaring what “it” is. And I theorize that C&C is only supremely effective when the game is designed around a few focused-but-branching choices.

Death & Aging: An exploration on the incorporation of aging, including death, to limit the scope of a single adventure and, theoretically, to encourage re-play.

Setting/Society: Fantasy games are often that: fantasy; escape; simple good-and-evil roles. And I’m fine with that. But it would be interesting to see an occasional game developer take up the challenge of going with very dark elements and tougher choices that expect you to role-play a very different set of moral standards.

Bloodlines – Continued: Although this is part of another series (a rolling review of Vampire: Bloodlines — the Masquerade), it expands on the observation (from my first post, Random Thoughts) that cutscenes steal control away from the player during critical moments while also bringing up how some games wait around for you to do something before time advances.

Dilemmas: A comment from Richard Garriot in an interview inspires this post. I argue that throwing a moral dilemma into the game is great, but you have to give the player closure to any implemented solutions for it to be meaningful — something Garriot misses. Obviously, the puzzle and its solutions should use mechanics the player is familiar with in the game for it to be a rewarding experience.

Model Game: Creating a cinematic, story-focused RPG is difficult because of our expectations on combat and our desire to have lots of it. But using QTEs in an RPG can allow us to create that cinematic role-playing experience, trading quantity of opponents with duration of fights.

Casual RPG: I decided to take a stab at creating a simple RPG in the vein of the casual types of games you might see on Facebook, like Mafia Wars or Castle Age. But better, of course. Much better.

Magic Equipment and Mystery: By removing stats from characters and items and by also providing some randomized effects we create mystery in our games that would provide an interesting counter-balance to the proliferation of numbers-based meta gaming in RPGs. In the post, I explain in greater detail how this would work.

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.

The Saboteur: First Impressions

The Saboteur is a game that is very similar to the Grand Theft Auto, Mercenaries, Saints Row, and Crackdown franchises. So far, I’d say the main thing that differentiates it from its competitors is that it takes many of the best elements from these games and combines them all in one place.

There are disguises similar to [Prototype], wall climbing like in Assassin’s Creed, plenty of driving missions like Saints Row and GTA, cover-based gun fights like GTA IV, and destructible environments like Mercenaries.

Overall, my first impression of the game is that it’s very fun but also quite frustrating. The reasons that the game is fun are more obvious (“sandbox” game play; use of color and the lack thereof; and the freedom to beat missions in any which way you can manage them), so I’ll focus on the frustrations — along with providing my “fix” to keep it constructive.

  • There’s an early mission where you have to win an auto race. The first time I tried it, I was getting used to the driving mechanic and controls and ended up falling horribly behind. I may have been half-a-lap or more behind. At the time, I didn’t know you could jump to your last checkpoint. Instead, I spent another few minutes racing to the finish line so that I could fail and try again. When I was suitably far enough behind, the game should have popped up a “Don’t forget: if you’d like to re-try, press [start] and then [y].”
  • From another early mission, I was tasked with using stealth to release a guy named Crochet from a prison. The moment you release Crochet, whether you’re spotted or not, an alarm goes off and everyone is shooting at you from every direction. But you can’t run away just yet because you’re told to open three more cells. What works better? Tell the player that killing everyone on the way in, racing to open the doors, and then getting out of there is the best approach. Or get rid of the other cells.
  • Related to the prior comment, after you open a cell you stash your weapon. At first I thought I was losing my gun each time I opened the door — and I was racing to find a new weapon to replace it while under a steady barrage of fire from the Nazis. Since this is the first time you lose your weapon in this way, the game should have popped up a note to let you know that you’ve stashed your weapon — or, more simply, re-equipped it for you automatically after the door was opened.
  • Whenever you die or fail at a mission, you lose all of your grenades and explosives and any guns you may have just purchased. Bleh. So if you do fail at a mission, instead of quickly re-trying, you first have to track down new gear. I prefer a less penalty-driven approach where you keep everything you had at that last check-point, or at least start out with a pistol and a dozen bullets.
  • The combat is generally fun. Lots of good run-n-gun goodness. But I really miss the inclusion of the ability to lock-on to a target — or, as with Mass Effect, to require only that your aim is “close enough” to your opponent. Unfortunately, like Saints Row, I frequently over-steer my aim when I’m in combat, first firing over a soldier’s left shoulder, then his right, and then his left again as I try to actually hit him.
  • When you perform a feat of terrorism the area around your activity, on the mini-map, turns yellow. It’s now a suspicious zone and if you stay in it when guards are around you’re going to be in trouble. When you do get in trouble a large red circle forms around your character’s position on the mini-map. Every German is now hostile toward you and will attack you until you are out of range. You can try to escape the zone but if any Nazi spots you along the way the circle re-centers on you. It’d be more than nice if, instead of these psychic guards, the system featured a circle that does not re-center on you unless you perform a new suspicious activity.
  • In the first black market mission you’re sent to re-claim a bottle of wine. The moment the mission started the guards immediately went to red alert. The game informs you that the nearby gestapo can see through your disguise, but by then it’s too late. The game should have started me in a safer location so that I could have more easily removed my disguise.

Bottom Line: Like any complicated game there’s a learning curve. Once you get past the curve, a lot of these criticisms disappear. And while Pandemic definitely could have done a better job of easing the transition on some of these points, I don’t want to criticize them too harshly because they have a lot of very helpful tutorial pages as you play.

Mass Effect

Almost three years ago, with Mass Effect mostly complete, I ended my seven-year stay at BioWare. Despite playing Mass Effect many times, I had not played it since my last day with the team. And I saw that as a problem since I wanted to see the “final” version. Well, I’ve recently corrected that problem. I spent the past week or two playing through the game and beat it yesterday. And while I could easily write a book about the experience of working on the game, for my post on playing the game I’m going to keep it relatively short.

Likes

  • I really enjoyed the game’s combat. I’m not a great fan of first-person shooter “twitch” games. I prefer my shooting to be a bit more strategic. Mass Effect hits it perfectly. Hide behind cover, pop out and get a few shots off, and when your gun starts to overheat jump back behind cover and wait for the enemy’s gun to overheat and your gun to cool off. In between, feel free to move your squad to another piece of cover or, if things are dire, use some biotic abilities.
  • I like the reapers. When I was working on the game there was a lot of concern about selling a spaceship as a bad guy, but I’ll give credit to Drew (writer) and say it worked. The fear and tension built through Saren about the reapers in deep space is kind of like the Silver Surfer heralding Galactus or the news broadcasting a looming hurricane. In other words, terrorism is scary but you need a face like Osama bin Laden on it to let it tell its story; that’s how I see Saren and the reapers working.
  • The story was good. I always forget the finer details of the Ilos reveal. Playing through the game this time, that was one of the few conversations where I let every last bit of VO play out because I wanted to absorb all of the available information. I love the idea of the last of the Protheans waking up hundreds of years after the massacre, knowing that all is lost but doing their best with their remaining lives to help the next generation of the galaxy’s life.
  • After the game shipped, I read a few reviews and noted people were largely bored or annoyed by the Uncharted World missions. Personally, I disagree. I enjoyed them. I did every last one and had fun. I remember Casey (producer) telling us that the idea behind them was to mimic Grand Theft: Auto. Sometimes, in GTA, you only want to play for 20 minutes. You don’t want to get caught up in a mission so you drive around and start some mayhem and have a little fun. That’s how the Uncharted Worlds were envisioned. I don’t think they work in that sense, but they do work in that they let you gain some experience and have some straight-shooting, low-story fun.

Dislikes

  • I’m not sure how the economy could have been worse. Very few RPGs get economy close to balanced, but ME was especially poor. I maxed out my credits toward the end of the game: 9,999,999. And that was after buying everything I could find.
  • This piggy-backs on economy, but there was seriously way too much loot. I hit the 150-item limit frequently — and it always led to me digging through my stash to see if there was anything worth keeping. Sadly, it was rare that I found something better. The names differed and the numbers got bigger, but whatever I was currently using was significantly more powerful. I’ve read ME2 does away with the inventory system and that they auto-equip better mods. Maybe this is presumptive, but… thank you!
  • I’m used to having never-ending, on-going conversations with my henchmen in BioWare titles. There’s none of that in Mass Effect. A few of them have a few things to say, but that’s it. Not that I completely hate that because it meant more time to go on missions without listening to Carth Kaidan go on about his feelings, but it was a bit different. Although I guess the amount of dialogue was also reduced when I sacrificed Kaidan and aborted our budding romance. Don’t look at me like that. I was an Engineer and Ashley was so much more useful.
  • I also found I had no real “favorite” henchmen to team with. As an Engineer, I could do everything so it didn’t matter who came along. Sometimes it was Liara so I could watch her lift someone. Sometimes it was Wrex because he had the shotgun or Garus because he had the sniper rifle or Ashley because she had the armor with a rating over 400 for shields. I think I swapped guys out for every mission because they were so interchangeable.
  • I mentioned that I enjoyed the Uncharted Worlds but I’ll admit I didn’t much like the buggy. That thing is hard to keep going in a straight line, and it is way too bouncy and flips too easily. Plus, some of the worlds featured locations that sat behind quite-vertical mountain ranges — meaning you had to patiently figure a way to tediously navigate your buggy up a very steep incline.
  • I loved combat and thought it was fun, but the difficulty for the game was low. Yes, I’ve played the game hundreds of times and am probably a little more comfortable with the system than the average new-comer. That said, I played my first game on veteran (the highest unlocked difficulty for a new game) and only came across a few challenges — despite rarely using biotics or grenades or medigel. Many enemy attacks are so slow that you see them coming and — stand there to get off a few more shots before stepping to the side to dodge the attack. After beating the game, I tried the hardcore difficulty and see that it’s the same thing — but enemies dish out and take much more damage. I think that’s a cheap-out. Difficulty should come via enhanced strategy, not cheating.
  • Navigating the Galaxy Map was a mess for me. If there was a way to mark off which locations you have and have not yet been to, it escaped me. I took to the old tried-and-true method of pencil-and-paper. And while that doesn’t bother me, in today’s day-and-age that’s unexpected.
  • I was surprised to stumble across a few bugs where characters got stuck on the terrain or an opponent’s AI seemed to shut down. I guess I have no one to blame but myself on that one. 🙁

Bottom Line

I love this game and have no reservations about recommending it. It was a lot of fun, probably one of the more “pure fun” BioWare games out there, and I really enjoyed the trip down memory lane. It’s a game I’m very proud to have worked on and, now that I’ve finally finished it, I’m excited to see how far the sequel has taken the franchise. In fact, if it weren’t for the sequel, I’d probably hop right back into ME and take her for another spin.