Monday, June 23, 2008

Backblog: December 3rd, 2007. Mass Effect?

More like Ass Effect!

Shortly before my termination from work, I had purchased an Xbox 360 and Halo 3 (which I'll get to later), and put down cold hard cash on a Pre-Order of Mass Effect, a game that anyone into gaming will say looked "Radical!" (that is to say, if one were to ask them back in 1987).

Given Bioware's (the developer, for the uninitiated) track record with really good games, such as Neverwinter Nights on the PC and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) for the Xbox and PC, it seemed like a sure thing (okay, they had a game called Jade Empire for the Xbox that didn't do so well, but one bad apple can't ruin the bunch, right?). I mean, check out the video if you don't believe me. Doesn't it look frickin' amazing? All of that stuff you see is in realtime!

There are even a few gameplay videos out there, which showcase the tactical combat of this game. After picking a (seemingly) random planet from a gigantic map of what seems like dozens of worlds to explore, the video cuts to the mission. After demonstrating one of the conversational sequences, the fight begins against some rather cool-looking enemies. The developer pauses the game and commands the other two soldiers (not the one he's playing) to take cover at specific points and then to use their powers to effect. This looked like it would come in handy in many of the completely insane battles that would ensue.

Wow. So what happened, eh?

Simply put, they misled everyone.

First of all, graphically, the game is okay. The models are nice and the facial expressions are animated, to a very conservative degree (example: the Normandy's original captain, Anderson, is voiced well, but his face always looks like he's going to cry, no matter his mood). I also have issue with one of the aliens on my team, a "Quarian." Her legs look like she should be walking digitigrade (on her toes like when people dance with dogs and such), but she is animated to walk plantigrade (heel to toe). It's like the animators didn't even talk to the artists. There is weird shading throughout the game, but this is largely due to trying volume-effect lighting on a scaled-down realtime perspective, so it's forgivable if it's only somewhat impressive. The graphics do suffer from a low framerate, which deteriorates as the game loads its texture maps, which you will frequently see "pop in" (anyone who has played Halo 2 will know what I'm talking about - unlike Halo 2 however, this game does it all the time and not just in the in-game cinematics).

Gameplay is difficult from the outset, mostly because you can't review the tutorials without turning them all back on. Those of us who only read once or avoid the instruction book at all costs are at a disadvantage here. Depending on your character, you will not be able to afford or equip better armor from the outset, and will have to sit through the game's annoyingly long death sequences several dozen times. Incidentally, even if you have auto-save turned on it will only take you to the beginning of the planet that you touched down on, not anywhere near where you died - so save frequently!

Control is another issue that could have been fixed. The character (Shepard) takes cover automatically whenever you're near a wall. You will use this only occasionally, because there are only certain areas in the game that make it necessary (see my comments about artificial intelligence). It becomes a problem when an enemy that you can't see around a corner runs past you and then shoots you while you're trying to pull away from the wall to return fire (you can't fire in the direction that your character is facing when you're against a wall). I was also trapped in a situation where the hall was so narrow that while I was trying to back around a corner my character kept sticking to one wall, then the other when I pulling away from the first. Repeat. Oh, and the "pause the game to give orders to your teammates" feature? Gone. While it's true that you can order your soldiers to take positions, you can only do this in real-time, and only from where you're standing. You can have your troops use their powers on enemies by pausing the game with either the equip button or the Biotics (Star Wars force-like powers) button, but only on the enemies you can see, not from the perspective of your troops. In effect, you can't do what they show you in the aforementioned gameplay movie.

Driving around the Mako (your characters' planet-side vehicle) is also difficult, due to the fact that it only "sort of" has an independent turret. Ergo, the camera follows the turret, but the vehicle only does when it's moving. This makes something as simple as strafing far more difficult than it is, such as when you are shooting at an enemy and driving out of their line of fire - adjusting the turret to account for the change of position sends your vehicle straight into the enemy that you were trying to avoid. Vehicle battles quickly become a game of "turn, drive, stop, shoot, and repeat," which is less fun when you account for the fact that the camera will go underneath the Mako when you drive onto a hill, obscuring your view entirely.

The game's size is also misleading. I assumed that the worlds that they showed you in the demo would be small (how much data can you fit on a DVD, after all), but I was shocked at how little of the game there actually is. The map from "zoomed out" to "zoomed in" breaks down into galaxy, star systems, and solar systems. Once in the solar system you chose from the star system map is selected, your ship flies there and you can begin surveying the planet. Yes I used the singular "planet" and not the plural "planets." This is because every solar system only has one planet that you can land on. All of the others are just pictures that you click on the game gives you a paragraph talking about what you found when you went there (some planets don't even give you that). What's more, all of the planets that you land on are almost exactly the same.
They consist of:
1) Rocky mountainous environments that you can only explore about a square mile of before you're out of the "mission zone." They come in cold, hot, and sandy. They're just bitmaps that the developer made with gradient colors that they then had their 3D program "pull up" and then just laid textures on top.
2) One or two crashed satellites/probes/dead aliens that you can get weapons from, one of which will almost invariably be a trap.
3) Mineral deposits that look like space poop that you have to survey.
4) A (that is to say one) Thresher Maw (almost every planet has one of these monsters - they are a pain to kill and can destroy your vehicle with one or two blows).
5) A generic building with criminals hiding in it (I've found three variants: a two-story box, a series of three underground bunkers, and a cave. That's it. That's the extent of futuristic architecture).

That's it. I'm serious. There's nothing else. No trees, no water, no animals. There are a few planets that have more architecture and plants and stuff, but those are the "main mission" worlds (which is what Bioware shows you in the demos). After playing the game casually for about 20 hours I can tell you there are only about four or five of them that I've seen so far, and all are smaller than the levels in similar games. If they wanted to pad the game out with these side missions why didn't they make at least some of them interesting?

There are a few missions where you'll board a spaceship to search for people, but those are only about the size of a mobile home, and they don't have any variation.
What's even sadder about the whole situation is the fact that if you've played KOTOR on the Xbox, all of the new levels don't look significantly different or better than the ones in the old game, and there are less of them.

The missions themselves are pretty depressing. You spend a LOT of time looking for hostages, and with the exception of one most of the people I found were dead, or were actually the criminals I was searching for... so... dead.

The computer's A.I. doesn't make playing the game any easier, either. I'm not talking about the player's squad (I've already griped about that) but rather the enemy A.I. In other squad-based games like Halo (say what you will, it has helper characters and they do follow you around) and Ghost Recon, enemies will try to find cover or snipe you from a hiding spot. Mass Effect's bots seem to have three settings:
a) Run up and shoot the heroes point blank before my life runs out (by far the most common)
b) Find enough cover to show that I'm looking for cover but leave myself exposed.
c) Use biotics powers to keep my opponent down until my friends can shoot them.

If the player's own control wasn't as uncomfortable as it is, there would be little problem with beating the enemies - they're just that stupid, but given that it is nearly impossible to find cover with nearly every single enemy in a level rushing you at once, getting near a wall leaves you not just vulnerable but also a very clear target.

All in all, I find it sad that the video game reviewers everywhere have agreed unquestionably that this game isn't just good, it's great! I'm only playing it because I'm ashamed to admit that I wasted $30 and some coupons from BestBuy to play it, and that I bought it on hype alone. Given that the core of the gameplay is having conversations with other beings (again, not significantly different than KOTOR other than the fact that your character talks back and that they don't use the same sound-bytes for the aliens over and over), that must mean that talking heads are the new gameplay sensation! I'm looking forward to Bioware's next big game: Presidential Debate 2008: Egos in Space! "This time, it's inter-personal!"
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