The Mass Effect, Part 1

Being Properly Motivated

Recently I got around to finishing Mass Effect 2. I know, it’s been out for a while but at least it’s not me getting around to playing a title years later after its release. I would have finished it sooner, but a bug caused the game to crash on a load about 6 hours into the game. Trying to troubleshoot it at the time resulted in my Windows 7 profile getting killed. With a bit of effort I managed to get most of my profile resuscitated but it was as much PC fixing and tweaking I had the patience for in one sitting.

Anyway, I was a last minute addition to the Sydney arm of the iFest indie conference initiative of the AIE. Took a bit of effort to have something ready, which meant I was tired going home afterwards. Probably why I ended up fracturing my ankle, and why I finally had a good reason – a cast and crutches – to resolve my Mass Effect 2 bug so that I could get around to finishing the game.

Mass Effect 1 and 2 are both conceptually strong titles. Titles that I would argue do not have much in the way of innovation in any one part but rather their innovation arises from the mixing of these parts together – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So the technology, gameplay, story, art and audio have all been experienced before whether it be in gaming or via some other medium. Just not in the mix that is found via Mass Effect, and perhaps not to such a high standard.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been some “progression” in these individual areas, but it’s not like there is some unknown here like there is in taking an innovative technology, proving that it works and then having to prove that you can turn that technology into gameplay. It’s all been proven to work, so the risk lied in proving that these disparate conceptual parts could all work together in creating a quality title – and experience.

Knights of the Old Republic, Republic Commando and Freedom Fighters

Using Mass Effect’s gameplay as an example – as I believe the underlying technology is the Unreal Engine – it is pretty much the 3-man squad RPG mechanics of Knights of the Old Republic (2003) with the physics based real-time gameplay of something like Republic Commando (2005); keeping to the Star Wars theme – though, perhaps a bit more free-form sandbox like Freedom Fighters (2003).

Sure the various game systems are more progressive, using better technology – graphics: shaders, animation system, physics etc – to make the game a more rich experience. However, it’s not like it hasn’t been “done” before. It’s proven gameplay. Even the more object-based approach to an RPG system that ends up being far more “accessible” has been approached before as well – you can read a previous Deus Ex post for more clarity on what I mean by that if you like.

And though I’ve focused on gameplay here I’m confident you could say the same about every facet of the Mass Effect titles – story for example, has themes and concepts that have been seen before just perhaps not in this particular mix, especially within the interactive genre of gaming. But these elements, these “proofs” put together, creates something far more distinct and innovative. Especially when you consider aspects such as story, art and audio style – the music I’m not sure what “genre” it is but it does subtly add a lot to the game’s atmosphere – which helps make the title what it is and as successful as it is; ignoring the obvious of the talent needed to make such a concept work and to author such strong fiction.

And this is probably the most problematic aspect, as not all developers are going to succeed with such a holistic approach to development. They just don’t have the expertise to address each area of a concept and create a coherent title that has been developed to such a standard of quality. Story (and mission) design, is a rather key failing for most developers – telling a good story is one thing, making an interesting set of missions from them, even harder. It’s far easier simply to focus on gameplay (or technology dressed up as gameplay), and say that you’ve focused on “fun” foremost. And inherently such an approach runs the risk of being very demanding upon the developers in that they need to address the quality of every aspect so as to bring them all together to work together in harmony.

Something that good RPG developers are actually experienced at doing, why it’s more common to see the end-results of such an approach in the titles they develop – and probably why there are actually so few great RPGs. Which is something that Bioware are very good at, creating original even innovative RPGs from elements that aren’t entirely original or innovative. Creating conceptually well-formed titles.

Too Well Formed for its Own Good?

However, perhaps Mass Effect’s game systems and the progressiveness of them have made the game too accessible – too easy. Originally, I expected to find KOTOR style turn-based combat. I was glad to find that Bioware had finally taken the real-time approach as I was certain that it could be done – Republic Commando along with existing action RPG titles. But these improvements made the game more “accessible,” and therefore easier, to play. Granted, it may have been the choice of player class and squad-mates that resulted in the game being too easy for me. But if the game is balanced right – as hard as that can be to do – then this shouldn’t have been an issue.

I also played the games on normal difficulty, how I always play every game if given the normal setting as an option. Simply put, this is how I (and I don’t think I’m alone) expect it to be played as it represents how the title was meant to be experienced by the developers of the game. Therefore on normal I expect it to be the most balanced. Some sections will be easy enough, maybe needing the odd reload to get right. Others like boss battles, will require a couple of reloads to get through.

Nothing bad about that (having to reload), as the gameplay is clearly providing a challenge. When the game systems and/or level/mission design is lacking, that’s when things end up far too difficult and unbalanced.

An example of this that comes to mind is GTA Vice City (2002). Compared to Liberty City (2001) that had little in the way of strong shooter mechanics and missions that required them – honestly, I hardly recall getting out of the car in any mission in order to finish it. Vice City added a lot of this in the way of missions yet didn’t quite deliver the player mechanics necessary so as to facilitate that gameplay. Simple missions, ended up taking numerous reloads in order to get right – maybe it was my lack of console experience at the time, but that game was a hard slog (100+ hours) testing my patience and interest in wanting to finish the game.

Now compared to San Andreas(2004), where a solid attempt at these shooter mechanics was made so as to make the gameplay more fluid and balanced. Well, it was a tough challenge at times but nothing like the ordeal that was Vice City. Getting back to Mass Effect, you could argue that perhaps these game systems have been developed to a point where they make the game just too effortless. Personally, I only recall a handful of reloads for both Mass Effect titles – more for ME1. It was fun but was too easy, in fact, I’d hate to have played the easy option – I would have been very bored I think.

I think part of this is that your AI squad mates, especially in ME2, are actually half-decent at looking after themselves and taking the fight to the enemy. Unlike ME1, I didn’t need to order them about as much and only recall one or two spots where I felt the need to do so. Which is good, as the command system is a bit buggy and kinda too limited as far as I’m concerned, especially compared to conceptual predecessors.

As an example in Republic Commando “tactical” points are pre-marked on the map so there is less frustration (if less option) in the way you go about ordering your squad-mates about; in Freedom Fighters, you could order one or the whole group to defend (hold) a specific position or attack (suppress) a position (enemy) along with ordering them to follow you about. In the original KOTOR series, especially 2, you could toggle the option to work alone leaving your squad behind. Kinda handy when you want to be stealthy on your own, as though you could trigger all your team to go into stealth mode, not all were “rated” as stealthy (or better) as your own character. You could also switch between squad characters and therefore individual direct each on their own, if in a fairly micromanaged kind of way.

The Mass Effect series lacks this subtility in squad command and pretty much lacks stealth in any form. It may have been clunky, but in KOTOR I could at least sneak about and plant mines in preparation for my attack. I remember a particular mission from KOTOR2 where you prepare a faction’s defences – set mines, make turrets and droids functional, etc – leading up to an attack that you’re apart of. And you had the choice of which faction to “favour” in the outcome as well. Something that I kinda miss from the series, in that I feel stealth could have been added to ME1&2 to increase tactical play in a similar fashion.

I can at least see the reasoning of getting rid of mines and especially grenades – something KOTOR characters perhaps couldn’t be trusted with – and replacing them with various unique heavy weapons for the player to pre-equip prior to a mission as in ME2. But, none of these provide the scope for “tactical planning” as stealth potentially does, with mines allowing you to set up “ploys” to utilize. Basically, I think the gameplay ends up being a little too repetitive because of this and other issues to do with the gameplay. I also think that morally it comes off a little shallow.

In the KOTOR2 example, it had a kind of moral “greyness” to it that though is there in ME1&2, it doesn’t seem to have the depth of “detail” (or choice) to it. In fact I find the morality scale of Paragon (good) and Renegade (evil) to be somewhat black and white as well as arbitrary. I was surprised to see that some actions were considered “good” whilst others considered “evil.” However, this does rely upon the dialogue system that may give you options to select from but fails to deliver the emotional context of that dialogue option.

Without that what someone says can be interpreted any number of ways. It’s why in novels you not only get the words of dialogue the character speaks, but also, a description of the intent of the meaning behind them. So you as the player may choose a piece of dialogue with one intention but since the intention of the dialogue wasn’t made clear to you, you end up selecting the wrong intention. Which is practical, in that no one wants to read blocks of text before choosing which one to go with when a short summary of it will do.

However, it doesn’t help that the dialogue option you chose is not what is actually anything like what is said by your character. Especially in ME1 where clicking any of the options will result in exactly the same piece of dialogue spoken. Which kind of defeats the point of having dialogue options I think ;). But in Mass Effect’s defense  they’ve tried to be as progressive as they can be in way of “karma” and dialogue. And most if not all games that use such mechanics, have similar problems due to the limitations of the interface – keyboard and mouse, or, controller.

The Regenerative Blight on Gaming

I can’t help but feel that a big reason why the game seems too easy, especially in ME2, is how your various stats regenerate. Health is visually portrayed on the screen with the damage creeping in from the sides of the screen in darker veiny red until you die – a more progressive form of the venerable HUD health bar. However, all it takes is seconds for it to regenerate back to full health.

So, just duck behind cover and wait a short while to get your health back.

Then there is the various shields. I picked a certain class (Sentinel) which had a tech-armor ability but, I think all the classes had pretty much their own version of a shield. It could take some punishment, and as long as it wasn’t depleted, I’m pretty sure it would regenerate quite quickly back to full strength. If it didn’t all you had to do was duck back into cover and activate that ability again to get it back once the power cool-down period for it was over with. Simple enough. That class also had access to a biotic shield power, but quite honestly, in ME2 I probably only used it once or twice – if I recall correctly in ME1 I used it far more often as there wasn’t as many shields to protect you with.

On top of all that is the underlying shield, that if I’m not mistaken, all your team members had along with you. So, it’s not like you were out of options for “protection.” Though it may of been a case of overkill, however, perhaps all it need was tweaking to get the balance right. In my character’s case his class didn’t need the basic shield so why have one? Also, I would have had given the player more health points to begin with along with a longer time for this health to regenerate from damage. This along with the base armour for my class, perhaps would have been enough to make it feel more balanced. You could also do the same for the various other classes, giving them varying degrees of base health, armour and shield effectiveness (or a special ability shield to make up for the difference).

Then you can also factor in medi-gels (medikits) that can be utilized in the game. In ME2 I only recall ever using them a handful of times; mostly, so as to revive a fallen squad-mate in the middle of combat – out of combat, they just get up revived anyhow. It kinda seems to me that there are far too many redundant systems here for the player to get back to full strength. Either some have to be removed, or, some or all need to be rebalanced.

In the latter case, you can actually do this based on what difficulty level the player chooses to play the game. With easy you regenerate health and have a bonus shield. Normal has no bonus (default) shield and regenerates much slower. Hard has no bonus shield and health doesn’t regenerate or not back to full – just the current block of 20% of health. Personally, I think the “hard” option here should be the default normal mode of play, as it then makes the most of the various game systems in place, like medikits – it feels right to me.

At the end of the day, I think there are always going to be issues with regenerative health systems in particular – especially for “action” games, even if they’re RPGs or adventure games. There are positives to using it but you do run the risk of having a game that feels like it lacks in way of offering an actual challenge to the player. Whether that’s an issue depends upon how you implement it and how strong your other systems and underlying concept is in creating a compelling enough experience for the player for them to actually care.

I don’t recall reading about how gamers have complained about it, so, it seems like a non-issue for the time being.

Make sure to read: The Mass Effect, Part 2

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