Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Theory of Parallel Evolution

I just finished Mass Effect 2. I think it's good enough that I'm going to try not to spoil it for you. Daydream Believer remembered that the last time I had played a Mass Effect game I had decried it as somewhat ineffective. And I still believe that, although the ability to import your character into the second game does add some value to the first title (it's worth something in narrative and gameplay terms, so some props to bioware are due).

Some of my problems with Mass Effect are still there, but some are gone. I expected to hate the removal of the inventory system - which I thought was a cop-out compared to fixing it - but you know what? It works. Shepherd started the last game wearing the worst armour...which is kinda dumb when it's the STANDARD ISSUE for human troops, and you find better armour lying around in space barrels. In RPGs where you start life as a nobody, your peasant burlap really would make sucky armour, and this is absolutely OK, but we're talking about the Executive Officer of Humanity's most advanced prototype space frigate here! Mass Effect 2 has "fewer" guns, but they feel more distinct. I think that if nothing else, this is a lesson RPGs might want to learn and learn well: a worn rusty shortsword is not actually all that different from a pitted dirk of the badgerlord if all you do with either of them is click-click-click stab-stab-stab anyhow. When you aquire a new weapon in Mass Effect 2 it seems at least to behave differently (ie. Semi-auto versus bolt-action sniper rifle*). Rather than fishing armour out of space barrels, Shepherd can now augment her (yes, her) armour with components that you can buy around the galaxy, but these are 5-10% bonuses to complement your playstyle and not entirely better bits of armour that space pirates have and the alliance navy doesn't. It works, and since there weren't any items in Mass Effect 1 besides armaments, you don't miss anything. Omni-Gel is gone and no one cares, and there's no healing and only resurrection of your party with Medi-Gel (which wasn't part of your inventory proper in ME1 anyway, and is tracked the same way in ME2). It brings the gameplay and narrative more in-line, and I for one like the consistency.

*Yeah, the guns have "thermal clips" instead of overheating like before. A necessary gameplay convention perhaps but probably they would not be loaded into and ejected from guns in quite the same fashion as present-day ammo. Also beef: why "clip"? Modern guns don't use clips, they use magazines**...and "thermal magazine" is probably more correct anyway. Or just "heatsink"

**The clip is specifically a "stripper clip" which is a metal strip into which the bullets fit at one end so they stay together and can be loaded into the weapon, which (I think) has a spring inside it to push them up. A magazine has the rounds stacked inside a box with a spring mechanism at the bottom to feed them into the gun. I think "thermal magazine" is more correct not necessarily because I think the weapons in Mass Effect 2 use anything quite analogous to either clips or magazines mechanically, but mostly because of the other meaning of "magazine" ie the place where you store ammo on a naval vessel. Semi-logically a "thermal magazine" is where you would keep all your heat?

Mass Effect 2 is not without problems, of course. I think Shepherd (especially male Shepherd whose voice actor sounds like he is being paid 10 cents the hour to dictate inter-office memos) is now one of the weakest characters in the cast. Frankly, it's because Shepherd is a blunt instrument whose power is heart; that's just not the interesting person to be when you live in the future. Yes, Shepherd had to be a soldier to set up the plot correctly, and yes fully-voiced dialogue means that you don't necessarily get to have as many options as you might in another RPG, and yes the target demographic of this game is probably frat boys who don't like pontsy RPGs with's still irksome. Shepherd was not limited to being just a gun-wielding jarhead: she could be a tech expert or a biotic (read: telekinetic), or any hybrid of two of the three skillsets. In-fiction, Biotic abilities are rare in humans, so biotic Shepherd is not rank-and-file military, rather she'd be spec-ops - as might techie Shepherd. Yet still Shepherd's limited dialogue options make it hard not to sound like a knownothing. I sort of expect that if someone is at the vanguard of humanity, she should perhaps have recieved - you know - ANY prior education about the other species present in galactic politics. Techie Shepherd would presumably have risen up the ranks as an engineer of some kind, maybe aboard ships? She is definitely of a commissioned rank, and therefore presumably possesses some kind of military-sponsored degree? The few moments in Mass Effect 1 and 2 where Shepherd actually speaks or acts as though she knows more than I personally do are really actually quite satisfying. I don't expect the writers to do ALL the work for me, but it makes for a more interesting dialogue if both Shepherd and her conversational partner can be engaged in educating the player about the universe. Witness:

Shepherd: "Pilgrimmage? That's when young Quarians leave the flotilla and make their own way in the galaxy, right?"

Tali (a Quarian): "Not exactly. You see, we're not just out to see the worlds*** - we have to find something of value to the fleet and bring it back."

Shepherd: "I've also heard that the Pilgrimmage is related to your marriage customs. How does that work?"

Tali: Well, you have to understand that Quarians marry outside of their birth vessels to ensure genetic diversity. When we get married, we move to the vessel of our spouse - or they to ours. Of course, when a captain takes on a new passenger, he or she needs to be sure that they're useful, and committed to the well-being of the fleet"

*** Important pluralisation when your universe has more than one of these.

As compared to what happens in Mass Effect 1, where (as I recall) Shepherd basically asks questions as though she has only recently come to terms with what a Quarian is. I know that not every character I roleplay has to be intelligent to the point of genius. All I'm asking is that Shepherd talk a little more like she has actually lived in the universe she inhabits. To boot, Mass Effect 2 introduces a lot of sharp, intelligent characters...and it really makes Shepherd seem quite dull in comparison.

On the shooting front, I think they have their cover-shooter mechanics more or less done right. I think the regenerative health AND shields are maybe a bit much, and that Halo, for all its flaws, got it right with it's hybrid of resource-management health with a nice recharging bar of forgiveness overtop. Enemies can also have three layers of defense (barrier/shield, armour, health) and it's weird that you can't seem to have armour that can soak damage like they can. The powers from the first game are back, and they're useful enough. But since every character has fewer and certain defenses preclude the use of certain powers, it doesn't feel as though you have as many options in combat as before. I think the developers should have seriously considered ripping off BioShock's handling of a shooter with guns and magic powers, rather than keeping a holdover system from when they were making an RPG with guns rather than a shooter with exploration and dialogue.

Recently, I've heard that Dragon Age II will be getting "The Mass Effect" treatment in terms of dialogue and story; you'll be able to play only male/female versions of a single protagonist, you'll have the dialogue wheel that instead of giving you full-text responses lets you declare your character's intent (actually, as one Kotaku poster put it, borrowed from Alpha Protocol...)...and I don't think I'm happy. Even if I like Mass Effect, I don't think it makes for a very deep RPG. I do like the idea that action games can have a narrative and characters and not be just one linear path from start to end lined all the way with ablative meat...I REALLY DO! But taking an RPG and "advancing it" by 1) making it more like this franchise you already have and 2) eliminating the one actually nifty feature of your first game (the distinct origin stories for different character types)...seems like a bad idea. I think Mass Effect 2 is actually a perfect game for introducing people to PC RPGS if they tend to be first- or third-person shooter fans. I know I have had a lot of trouble getting into games like Morrowind from a cold start, because at some point I just want things to go boom. Games like ME2, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, and to an extent even Fallout 3 are good because they sort of bridge the gap: they have less all-the-time shooting and more character interaction, more world exploration...but they also have BOOM. I don't think Bioware needs two franchises to straddle the divide between action and RPG. On Kotaku, someone said that Mass Effect was "dragging the RPG into the 21st century", and I don't think I like that notion because it sort of expresses the ideal that games should be flashy and showy and cinematic but at the cost of depth and character and player choice. I don't like that. I think that Dragon Age could and should evolve, but not in this particular direction.


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