At the end of the day, Mass Effect’s sequel is a disappointment. Believe me, I know I’m swimming against the current here. EA/Bioware gets to put a big trophy on their mantle — a 96% Metacritic. That’s the fourth highest score for a 360 title, ever. So am I insane? Maybe. But as I played the game, too many things stood out as “could be better.” So that’s what this this entry is about: pondering what keeps an entertaining game from being what I’d call great. (One quick note: I’m going to avoid discussion of the game’s morality system. Been there, done that, etc.)
Oh, this counts as your official Spoiler Warning. I’m assuming you’ve either played the game, or that you don’t care if I tell you all about it.
For good or ill, the sequel shifts the franchise from an RPG with shooting gameplay (ME1) to a shooter with light RPG elements (ME2). Nothing wrong with that. Two facts justify it: a larger audience of shooter fans means more sales, and the shooter gameplay needed improvement after the first game. But putting shooter first means that it’s become fair to judge ME2 not just against the narrow competition RPGs have, but against the many well-executed third-person console shooters out there.
ME2 is not the worst shooter to be released in the last year, but it seems middle of the pack at best (and not just for the lack of multiplayer). In its second iteration and attempt at cover-based shooting, ME2 no longer has the excuse of being an RPG in shooter clothing. So why leave out the ability to switch between cover points? Why drop out blind fire and suppressive fire? More importantly, why do I keep shooting my cover object when my reticule is over it? Why do I keep having encounters where I’m up above my targets, but the physics of “low cover” are so high that I can’t shoot over it? Why do I keep getting popped out of cover for reasons I don’t understand? And why do the AIs have problems navigating around and using many of the simple cover points?
More on those AIs. An obvious problem during combat is the predictable and static opponents. I appreciate the hit point system that player and AI characters share: shields, armor, and health. Each of those layers calls for a specific skill, device, or ammo to exploit optimally. But health state shouldn’t be only thing that the player needs to pay attention to, and I think it is. The AI opponents don’t change their tactics in response to the player, and they don’t encourage the player to respond to anything they are doing. They behave the same regardless of what strategies the player adapts. In truth, the game has enough variety in enemy archetypes, between the rocket launchers, the miniboss mechs, and the semi-invisible hunter enemies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a good job of calling attention to the characteristics of these enemies (compare to something like Bioshock), and none of the archetypes demand any sort of special response.
Here’s just a few concepts that are common to shooters today: grenades that make you move, heavy weapons that make you flank, sniper weapons that demand breaking line of sight, environment manipulation that has to be stopped, AI calls for help that result in additional spawns, and enemy healing skills that require focus fire. Each tactic can force a player response, and along the way develop more dynamic, more interesting combat encounters.
Even if the AIs did anything interesting, I’m not sure how the player would know. The enemies of Mass Effect 2 don’t provide us with tells or clues to their behaviors. How about a tip when enemies launch weapons that destroy or go through cover? The only clue we have of AI tactics in combat are when an ally yells: “Krogan charging!” Compare that to the barks of the enemies and the chatter from the main character found in other shooters. The allied sidekicks chime in with quips: “go for the optics” and “executing sudo command.” Nothing wrong with that, but it demonstrates that the focus of Mass Effect 2 isn’t you or your enemies: it’s your sidekicks.
For a game with so much dialogue, why does the world become mute the moment a weapon is drawn? The player can show off amazing shooting skill, biotic powers that theoretically dazzle the world, and technical abilities that do the same. The enemies don’t react except to take damage. The lack of an AI response to player success represents a fundamental failure to reward good play. Why do we never transition — as we did at least a few times in the previous title — from combat to dialogue, and maybe back again? Broken down, ME2 has two game modes: shooting and talking. Combining the two modes occasionally would seem to be a good thing, wouldn’t it? Otherwise we don’t have a hybrid game, we have two games in close proximity. Many of the AI opponents are gangsters, thugs, and less than professional soldiers. Why not hear them talk? Why not have them surrender or flee with defeated? It wouldn’t be terrible if they acted like mercenaries instead of kamikaze zombies, ready to die to the last man.
The gameplay areas of ME2 are formulaic. While every game works with templates, most make more effort to hide the cookie cutter. This science fiction franchise has the freedom to create any interactive objects it can imagine. It can invent new technologies; it can design its spaces to be anything. So where do the epic gunfights of the future happen? Big open warehouses stacked with crates! Crates!
As game designers, we need to make our games approachable, but that doesn’t mean that we should default to cliché RPG tropes. In the first Mass Effect, several enemies demonstrated the ability to create force fields of cover on the battlefield. This was cool. Why remove something that creates futuristic cover without one-meter concrete barricades everywhere? Without stacks of crates filling the galaxy? Just what the hell are the mercenaries shipping in these things anyway?
Compare the scenario design to something like Arkham or Uncharted. Can ME2 surprise you? Not really. It sets up its standard operating procedures very early: Small areas are for conversation, minigames, or loot acquisition.The moment you open a door into a wide open space, you find lots of cover barriers in the middle, and you know you’re about to get into another fight. It’s okay to set up this “standard scenario,” but good games should break from their patterns. When you can predict where the bad guys come from, and that they’re identical to the last wave of bad guys, boredom follows.
To add to the problem, the rewards of combat have been removed. Enemies don’t consistently drop ammo — I’m sorry, thermal clips. They don’t produce XP, so the game has to check our progress with blood gates. Enemies don’t drop credits, so we have to have a hundred little dead end spokes that hide treasure chests. So not only are the same enemies filling room after room, but the player doesn’t have any incentive to fight them except the need to grind through to progress.
Remember the Mako from Mass Effect? It sucked ass. Driving over featureless terrain in a vain search for content wasn’t fun. During my Mako-completist pilgrimage, I found one tiny piece of story-like information (in a text box! that never went anywhere), a few cookie-cutter bases, and a whole lot of nothing. It would have been the best example “addition by subtraction” in game design. Of course the designers at Bioware heard that criticism — I imagine they knew it before ME1 shipped. So the Mako is gone now (though its ruin looked dishearteningly intact instead of rightfully blasted to bits).
And what did they replace the Mako with? A scanning and resource harvesting game. In ME2, you don’t have to drive around a featureless planet to slowly collect resources: Now you can drive around it virtually and slowly harvest resources. Why? Really, why is this in the game? Were the developers influenced by Farmville?
ME2 has evolved into an RPG without hardcore RPG game systems. The game could have delivered iridium, platinum, palladium, and element zero entirely through the game’s third-person gameplay. It could have made any technology that required those resources cost credits instead. Or it could just remove the four additional currencies and tie tech upgrades to game discoveries or character advancement. As it stands, these complications stand out as vestiges of the RPG that Mass Effect left behind. The scanning game is a remnant of the commitment to make an open galaxy game where “you will have the freedom to visit a wide array of uncharted planets.” Guys, harvesting resources is not exploration. Or, you know, fun.
I shouldn’t forget the other two new minigames: hacking and bypassing. I suppose they’re better than the Simon Says button pressing game. There’s nothing wrong with them, per se, other than that they don’t evolve a wit as the game progresses. They become tiresome. Some means of skipping it (purchasable keys, a skill upgrade, etc.) would be nice.
That’s All for Now
This rant has gone on longer than I planned. I’ll pick it up tomorrow and talk about story. Story, after all, is why I think we love games like Mass Effect 2: the choose-your-own-adventure story of the modern age.