Mass Effect 2 Disappoints

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.

Cov­er Shoot­er
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?

Arti­fi­cial Unin­tel­li­gence
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.

Big Pile of Hit Points

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.

Crates, Crates, Every­where

Lev­el Design
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?

Force Fields > Crates

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.

Mako: A fea­ture with­out a rea­son to exist

Minigames
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?

Scan Results: No fun, Com­man­der

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.

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