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18Jan/102

I Hated Mass Effect… And I Will Buy Mass Effect 2

Okay, so I didn't hate Mass Effect, but I did have a lot of problems with it; enough problems, in fact, that I never finished it, and it left a rather foul taste in my mouth (I like sour things too much to use the usual expression).

At the time, I was worried that Bioware had completely lost their touch, and one of the last great cRPG makers would now fade into obscurity, leaving nothing but a wasteland of dumbed-down, twitchy action RPGs where once there was a rich bounty of sprawlingintelligent, tactically satisfying games for me to gorge myself on.

Thankfully, my worries were alleviated when Bioware went on to release my favorite game of 2009, which is actually one of the best RPGs I'd played in a decade, let alone just last year.

Now, Mass Effect 2 looms just over the horizon, and to celebrate this fact, I present to you: what I hated about Mass Effect, and why I will buy the sequel anyway.

Things I Hated About Mass Effect

The Combat

In battle, Mass Effect was a third-person shooter built on the Unreal Engine. That means that its closest analog would be Gears of War, and therefore it makes sense that it felt like a really crappy version of Gears of War, with a terrible cover system, impotent weapons, and boring levels. I'm not very good at shooters on a console, I much prefer mouse and keyboard, but I always enjoyed Gears of War because it did just about everything right: an awesome, tactile cover system, big, easy to hit enemies, and a very enjoyable cooperative experience.

Mass Effect had none of these things, and the RPG trappings applied on top of a weak Gears of War clone only hurt the experience more, by making you very ineffective at shooting until you leveled up a skill, and giving you a bunch of magic (I mean... biotic) powers that were a pain to use and left you exposed out of cover while you cast them.

This is a game where even though you could go into "combat mode" by simply aiming or shooting your weapon with either trigger, they still wasted a face button (X, to be exact) on "entering combat mode" and another (B) on "exiting combat mode." In the meantime, you could only bind one spell or ability for quick use, and had to use a radial menu to use any others. Idiocy.

The "Exploration"

Most RPGs feature a point where the world "opens up" and you are free to explore, and do the rest of story in a semi-arbitrary order. Certainly, all recent Bioware titles follow this model by at one point opening up a handful of story locations which you can visit in any order, but must clear if you want to beat the game.

Mass Effect also has this point, and on top of the couple of planets you have to visit to finish the main quest, they give you a Galactic Map with a whole ton of planets you can choose to visit and explore, or skip entirely.

I am a completionist (meaning I want to do everything in a game, never mind that I barely ever keep it up long enough to beat the game itself), and if you read my post titled Why We Play, you'll note that one of my main motivators in playing a game is seeing new content, so there was never any doubt that I would visit all of these optional planets and see what they have to offer. That is exactly what I did, and having visited every single side-planet in the game, I can tell you that these planets have less than nothing to offer.

These are empty, lifeless stretches of terrain, with slightly different textures and environmental effects, and you drive your bouncy, stupid space-car around a square mile or so before finding some scrap metal or killing a few generic enemies, and then returning to your spaceship disappointed. I tried to explore each of these planets fully, which took a lot of time, and gave me neither tangible nor emotional rewards.

By the time I was done with this exercise in self-loathing, I was so sick of the game that I put it down and never picked it back up again.

The Dialogue System

Mass Effect introduced an "innovative" dialogue system where your fully-voiced character would act out lines that you chose based on a short blurb. For instance, your choice as the player might say simply: "Geth?" while your character's dialogue would be a line about how "the Geth haven't been seen outside of the Veil in 200 years!" This is kind of cool, in that it establishes that your character isn't an idiot, and actually knows about what's going on in the world, but it's also not all that innovative, as it's merely a way to obfuscate your choices in the more traditional dialogue system where you would choose the exact sentence your character would be saying.

Furthermore, this system was undermined by the simplistic Paragon/Renegade mechanic in the game, which was just another way of dressing up the usual boring morality systems in these games which largely consist of choices like "Pay for the child's college education" or "Murder his parents, burn down his house, and sell him into slavery."

Okay, I exaggerate, no games these days have the balls to let you sell anyone into slavery. Sorry about that.

So the dialogue choices weren't any more compelling than previous games, and since you chose them by moving your analog stick to one of 6 positions on a circle, they even made your choices more obvious and straightforward by always putting the Paragon choices on the top half of the circle, and the Renegade choices on the bottom.

Now granted, it annoys me that anyone called Mass Effect's dialogue system revolutionary (and boy did they), but although it's not innovative at all, it wouldn't bother me enough to list here if not for one glaring fatal flaw that turned it from boring to infuriating. Your choices in conversation would show up before a person finished speaking, but it would often still be pretty late into their voice-over. By then, I had already finished reading what they were saying, and since I didn't care to keep listening to them talk, I wanted to make my choice and move the conversation along. Sometimes, the choices would come up just in time, but other times it wasn't soon enough for me, or there was another "page" of dialogue they had to go through before the choices came up.

Naturally, like all RPGs with a lot of dialogue, there was an option to skip ahead. Hitting the X button made the next "page" of dialogue begin, and if it was the last one the character had to say before choices came up, pressing X would make them come up immediately. Unfortunately, hitting X inexplicably also selected a choice if the list of choices was already up, and since they showed up on their own sometime near the end of the character's speech, there were a ton of times when I would hit X to skip to the choices just as they were coming up, and accidentally choose something I didn't want to, usually the choice to end the conversation. This was a big deal because a number of NPCs wouldn't talk to you again, or at least not about the same subjects, and I would be missing out on something deeply important to me: story, lore, and dialogue.

This is terrible, idiotic UI design, and the single thing in the game that made me burst into rage while playing it. I love RPGs with deep dialogue trees, and I enjoy picking exactly what my character has to say, and how she acts. Mass Effect already denied me the latter, by obfuscating my choices, and then proceeded to make it hard for me to choose which choice I wanted just because I have a decent reading level and don't want to listen to voice acting for something I read 5 seconds ago.

In what world does making the button for "skip dialogue" also choose dialogue choices seem like a good idea? This is basic stuff, people.

Why I Will Buy Mass Effect 2

Tom Chick has an interview with Casey Hudson of Bioware over at Fidgit, and they talk about some of the changes that the team have made in Mass Effect 2 to deal with criticisms over the first game. I had already hoped that my complaints above would be addressed, and this interview gives me hope that my hopes will not be shattered next week. Give the article a read, it's good stuff.

So, why will I buy Mass Effect 2?

The Lore

The one aspect of Mass Effect that I though was superlative was the world created by the writers at Bioware. Mass Effect was the first Bioware game to include a Codex, an in-game encyclopedia of game lore, which detailed even the tiniest and most mundane of details about the Galaxy depicted. Being an original IP, I was incredibly impressed with Bioware's world-building, and there were times when I kept playing just to find out a little bit more about this alien race, or that speculative technology, or some facet of future-Earth's history.

This universe created by Bioware kept me going even when the rest of their game did its best to make me stop, and I can't wait to see what they do with it in a good game. Hopefully Mass Effect 2 will be a good game.

No More Empty Planets

I had already assumed that Bioware would not make this horrible mistake again, but the interview above pretty much confirms that. Whereas the first game had a bouncy space-buggy and empty planets, it looks like Bioware took this criticism to heart and identified that people wanted to explore cool unique planets, not generic wastelands. And to this end, Casey says:

We wanted to make sure to better fulfill that fantasy, so we took the opposite approach on this game. Instead of building those expanded universe pieces out of lighter content, we took the opposite approach. Everything you discover up there really needs to be a unique stretch of gameplay, or a unique storyline. Something different. Something exotic that you couldn't otherwise do in the main game.

Bingo! That's exactly what exploring a planet should be like. Let's hope that they delivered on this aspect, and I for one will be a happy camper.

Improved Combat

If Mass Effect is going to remain a shooter, it should at least be a competent one. From the interview and other sources I've seen, it sounds like they've done a lot of work on that aspect, which makes me pleased. While I'd still prefer a more traditional RPG combat system (and in my dreams, a turn-based one), I can hopefully at least take some joy out of the combat sections in the new game, if they are more competently executed.

One other thing to point out here is this line from the interview:

But not only that, the power screen allows you to map the powers to the controller.

Hey look! Another of my complaints above addressed. Good work Bioware! I guess there are some sane people working on this franchise after all.

Let's hope that at least one of them noticed how stupid it is to let you skip dialogue and select dialogue choices with the same button.

In Preparation

I'll be getting Mass Effect 2 next week, and I'll be able to report if I hate it any less than the original. In the meantime, I've decided to replay Mass Effect, and maybe beat it this time, so that I know where the story's picking up, and so that I can compare them more closely.

So far, my new playthrough is going pretty well. I still hate the stupid way you can skip out of conversations, and I still hate the combat system, though I've decided to take it easy and set the game to the casual difficulty, so while the combat is still clunky, at least it's not frustrating.

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. “Okay, I exaggerate, no games these days have the balls to let you sell anyone into slavery. Sorry about that.”

    I must have just been imagining things then when I kidnapped complete strangers and sold them into slavery in Fallout 3. Let’s not forget selling out an entire busload of children as well. Pretty good rundown of some of the faults of Mass Effect, though they won’t stop me from buying Mass Effect 2 either.

  2. Stop pointing out my mistakes! Can’t you see that you’re making me look bad?

    Can’t you see??!

    In all seriousness, I realized after the fact that you can enslave people in Fallout 3, but I decided not to sacrifice a perfectly good snarky aside for the sake of something as silly as facts.


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