“Review”: Mass Effect 2

This “review” is more of an analysis, really. I’ll split the game’s design into a few parts and do some strange cross-breed between opinion, analysis and suggestions. This time yet another Bioware game – they tend to be fun, come out fairly frequent and be different enough to be interesting but similar enough to feel familiar.

Theme

Before describing the game in any way, some of the differences in theme between ME1 and ME2 should be noted. ME1 plays a lot with an optimistic theme, where “You’re a Spectre, you can do whatever you want” imbued the whole experience. ME2 has a theme more akin to “pretend to be free if you want, but you know who pulls the strings. And you know where you’ll be heading in the end”. I have a feeling many of my criticisms of this game boils down to this change of theme, and perhaps these changes are not technical restraints as much as concious steps to reinforce that theme.

Core Mechanics

For Mass Effect 2, Bioware has taken a few steps closer towards the “Action” in “Action RPG”. Because there’s a lot more action, and a bit less classic RPG stuff. The endless inventory-management of all your companions are gone in favour of buying pieces of equipment for Shepard and upgrades for Shepard and/or all companions. The “talent tree”-like mechanic from ME1 has been streamlined to a handful of trees with 1, 2, 3 and 4 “points” required for each upgrade (where you get 2 “points” per level). The fourth step takes an ability into one of two possible abilities.

Now, with the facts dealt with, let’s analyse a bit. Clearly, the game’s more action-oriented steps are intended to make the combat more fun and varied. These moves are, for instance, abilities that can fire around cover, which means a covered enemy is only a temporary problem. Cover is never destroyed, however – probably to not have you blow up the cover you’ll need later (more on that on Level Design). Enemies come in more combinations than before. For instance, where ME1 had the Citadel species+Human enemies the majority of the time, ME2 let’s you face three different gangs, each having their style. Apart from that, the Geth and Husk forces from ME1 demand their own styles to counter, as do the Collector-forces. This does make the game more varied, and more fun to play (especially if you play several times), although all three are a pain in the backside, so you’d rather just wish them gone. Which, luckily, is just what the game is about – having them gone!

One aspect of the game I find very interesting is their choice of switching ME1’s heat-based weaponry (shoot awhile, stay calm awhile, repeat) with a standard ammo-system. At first this didn’t make any sense – why would they replace a natural, automated re-load that gets longer the more you’ve shot with an old ammo-system which forces you to keep track of numbers and reloading? Why break up what feels like a fairly defensive game (run from cover to cover) with such an offensive mechanic (running forward picking up dropped ammo). The more I think about it, the clearer the answer becomes: ME2 is, at it’s heart, an offensive game which uses the cover to not become a brainless shooter á la Doom. The ammo-packs are dropped by enemies to force you out of cover (and, just as often, forces you forward), the cover-bending spells are there to avoid stalemates where both parts are behind cover, as well as forcing you to move and switch cover. And the reload is simply there to give you one more thing to do beside holding/smashing the fire button. In addition, it encourages you to switch weapons. In ME1, you could upgrade one weapon fully, stick to it and be fine. Ammo in ME2 forces you to change weapons. Ammo for a good, accurate, weapon will deplete fast, while picking up one ammo pack recharges ammo for all weapons. This way, you tend to never run out of real ammo (it’s been close, but it’s never been an actual deplete) – and even if you did, you’d have your abilities to give you something to fire.

Back to the inventory system. As mentioned, it’s gone from changing an armour set and four guns for every character with one to two improvement slots for armour and two-three slots for guns to a system of buying the parts you want (for Shepard) and then switch parts as you wish on the Normandy. This means that as you progress into the game, you’re gradually allowed to unlock customization options for Shepard. And only the parts you want, so you can pass something to buy something else (you’ll actually have to, as money is scarce compared to ME1). The customization also means you can get a Shepard that feels more like you, rather than “some dude/gal in the best piece of armour around”.

Sadly, the customization doesn’t apply to your companions. It could’ve been so “easy” (it probably wouldn’t) as to have them using the same colour palette and patterns as I’ve chosen for Shepard. Perhaps select items on a per-character basis to not equip a soldier in spell-caster gear. The point of this would be to make the team feel like one team, just like foot ball players or (19th century) armies were (or wore) uniforms to tell the world as well as each other which team they’re on. Yes, it would mean more time to customize, but some of us really like that bit (Hello APB!).

Level Design

My general impression with the level design of Mass Effect 2 is that it feels incredibly linear. This isn’t always a bad thing. Linearity makes it easier to pace a level and direct the experience. Besides, I never criticised ME1 for being linear (or Half Life 2, for that matter). But that’s because they didn’t feel linear. ME1 and HL2 uses certain tricks, such as sending you on a side-course to some place and back before progressing or splitting the level in two roads which merges ahead, which ME2 does perhaps once or twice throughout the game. (but if it does, I sure haven’t noticed it). But most of the time you’re headed “forward” in one linear corridor. There’s even an arrow on the mini map constantly pointing at the direction you’re intended to go rather than using maps as ME1 did. This all adds up to take away the feeling of freedom both ME1 and HL2 managed to fake pretty well.

This could just as well be a matter of reinforcing the theme.

Interaction Design

So, this bit is really bugging me. Playing on the PC, it’s painfully obvious the game has been intended for consoles – or at least for a game pad. You need to single-click an icon to select it and then single-click the “select”-button (Enter doesn’t work, double-click doesn’t work – heck, single-click the button should be enough!). Steering Normandy across the galaxy map requires the player to hold the left mouse button while navigating space, while a Diablo-esque click-to-move would’ve been easier and more intuitive (like how you click a desktop icon to select it rather than steering the pointer to it with another pointer). The “scan a planet” mini game requires a button to be held while moving the mouse in a repetitive and tiring pattern with one hand and not doing anything with the other. And the convenient hot keys to the squad, journal etc. ME1 had are gone in favour for accessing them through the main menu on Escape. And it’s not even (natively) playable on PC with a game pad!

One thing is better, however. The “space” button. It’s very contextual. It skips dialogue (like ME1), it sprints if you hold it, it takes you behind cover and it interacts with every item you can interact with. Which is very consistent and saves a few buttons. The only downside to this is that there’s no fail-safe for it, so you might by accident skip a dialogue while all you wanted was to pick up that med-kit and the dialogue started at just that same moment (that happened to me). A short locking-timer would’ve done the trick.

The Main Game HUD is also better than before, with a lot of elements fading out when not needed (such as the health bar while at full health) and presented in a way easy to understand (although I still haven’t figured out the companions’ health bars, which seem to fade from white to purple to red or something). The icons for doing  paragon/renegade interrupts is, strangely, not that obvious. They should be, as those icons for paragon and renegade has been used fairly frequently and are showing up in each corner as well as being colour coded and are consistent throughout the game, but it still takes a second to register whether the suggested action is a paragon or renegade move. Perhaps it there was an audio-alert when they show up, and different sound queues for paragon and renegade interrupts, it would go faster? These are things you’d rather do on reflex, and sudden sound cues are good at triggering the reflexes.

The Living World

You know how I mentioned not being able to customize your team’s outfits? Well, being able to in the first game had a neat advantage in building a believable world. Because any companion could be wearing a lot of different suits, the team was equipped with a “casual uniform” on board of your ship. Perhaps it was to speed up loading times within the Normandy, but whatever it was, it gave an impression that these guys are not on a planet-side mission right now, and neither are you. In ME2, they wear the same outfit on the ship as well as on missions (Shepard can choose between a few pre-made “casual outfits”, though – perhaps to speed up loading), which make the companions feel more like tools than a ship full of casual soldiers. Adding to this is the fact that they’re in one room each, never leaves it and only once has an interaction with another team member (when you’ve completed both their loyalty missions). If you look at Kotor 2, you’ll see a much more believable team, which played politics against each other behind your back.

The game, in contrast with Mass Effect 1, feels a lot more like a series of unconnected rooms. You’re no longer exiting the doors to leave the ship for wherever you are, but always go to the map and press “Dock”. This makes sense most of the time, since you dock with a shuttle, but you stay docked at a handful of planets, and there it would be nice to look outside, see the planet and walk out the doors. The transition after the following loading-screen could’ve been better (like ME1), as well. The short clip when the Mako lands on a planet may be short, and repetitive after awhile, but it does bring the impression of being connected to the planet. The post-release DLC Firewalker for ME2 also showed off that a small sequence before the mission where Shepard and chaps enter the shuttle can tie it together with the Ship-scene. It’s costly, yes, but it’s not like this game has a tight budget (or that my other suggestions would make it cheaper).

The missions themselves also reflect this. Going solely on the primary missions of ME1, they often began calmly with you landing on the planet and finding the mission objective step by step (Noveria is a great example of this, so is Feros). After the mission reached its climatic end, you headed back to the Normandy for a debriefing with all collected companions. ME2 has this once. It’s the briefing with your whole crew before the last mission – and it’s great! Because, with the exception of that scene, you almost always know the mission objective from the start of the mission, pull it off, and then you’re done with it as if nothing happened!

Yet another thing. In wishing to be an action game rather than a living world, every completed mission ends with a “Mission Complete” splash screen. Sure, you know the mission’s over, but did you have to break the immersion to tell me that? (non-MMO) Role-playing games are usually pretty good at this, simply talking to someone (often the mission dealer) to receive a reward and that’s it. Instead, the same info is displayed alongside a summary of stuff I’ve picked up during the mission – information I don’t mind having but have already been told when I picked it up and thus don’t need to be pulled out of the world to know again.

Story and Characters

I’d prefer not to write about this part, as I’m not as well-versed on dramaturgy and character design as many other seem to be. That, and it would be interesting to review a Bioware game without mentioning their biggest strength. However, I guess I’ll have to. Potential spoilers, or hints at spoilers, ahead!

The story – or, rather, the play-structure – in ME2 is a bit different than other games, especially earlier Bioware games. You can divide the game into acts if you want, where the first act would end after Freedom’s Progress (where you first hear about the collectors) and the third act begin when you enter the Omega 4 relay, which takes you to the “suicide mission” the whole game prepares you for. That means Act 2 is pretty much the whole game, where you recruit your companions and once-in-awhile encounter the Collectors. This part, however, can become a bit tedious. Because it’s very, very long. There’s 8 (possibly 10, counting current DLC) characters to first recruit, and then do a loyalty mission for. That’s 16 (or 18, as the DLC characters doesn’t have a recruitment mission) primary missions to do! After recruiting 4 and 6 of these characters, a special mission with the collectors are required, whereby new recruits and loyalty missions are unlocked.

There’s good bits and bad bits about this. Good bit is that the developer dares take a few steps away from their formula. The bad bits are that the Collectors feels like a shoe-in to get some attention once in awhile before being blasted to hell. Sort of like Team Rocket in the Pokémon animated series. Another bad bit is that I usually want to recruit my team before taking on the main quest and then explore the characters throughout the plot of the game. That way I get to know my companions pretty well before the culmination of the plot. Now the recruitment is the main quest, and when recruitment is over, the game goes on to its grand finale!

Each level tends to be a story in itself. You enter the level, and the circumstances are established. You enter a key plot detail, which marks the beginning of the second, longer, act. Then there’s a plot twist beginning act three of the level, which is usually a boss fight. Then the plot is resolved. In either the twist and/or the resolution, there is a moral choice. There are many variations to the structure, which keeps them feel fresh, but it becomes easier to figure out you’re reaching the end of the level when you can feel there’s a boss nearby.

I guess I’ll have to finish this “review” with the strongest bit of the game, and sadly the part I’m worst at analysing: The characters. They’re good. Some are great, even. They often seem to follow an archetype with a twist attached. Jack is “the scared girl who does everything to hide it”, Tali is “the quarrian” (seriously, the races of the Mass Effect universe, and most fantasy/sci-fi worlds, are often narrow enough to be stereotypic) with political influence. Garrus is “turian” plus “dirty harry in space”. They’ve all had a story build supporting, giving nuance to and explaining the character, and then written a few shields of privacy they’ll let you through as you progress in the game. Or something. I really don’t know enough of this to be analysing it.

Conclusions

Mass Effect 2 is a really good game, make no mistake about it. I’d just like it to have been a little more Mass Effect than “look, we can do action games, too”.

Marketing, Indie development and other various links

I recently stumbled upon a handful of links about marketing/PR and indie development, so I thought I’d sort of bookmark them here for future and public access.

It all started with this article from Gamasutra: The Real Cost Of Marketing Your Game With Social Media. It turned up to be a follow-up article to the article Listening Is Your First Step: An Online Game Marketing Audit Primer. Both are really worth reading if you’re interested in social media marketing.

If you’re not, then maybe Haunted Temple Studios’ First Indie PR Tour – Lessons Learned will be of interest. It might be a new trip, but it deals with issues such as “how much work is selling a game to webzines, anyway?” and “how much does it cost to park a car in San Fransisco?”. And that’s just some anecdotes!

Really, a key to marketing – and a bit of everything, really – is about knowing the right people. So how do you get to know the right people? Well, there seems to be guides for pretty much everything these days, and I happened to come across one for this topic! It’s called Effective Networking in the Game Industry and could be great. No promise, though – I haven’t read it myself yet (I told you these were bookmarks).

This is on the “Indie dev”-side of the article. From Develop 2010, “5 Things Big Publishers Don’t Understand About Small Games”. It’s an interesting piece, especially if you have interest in independent development and wouldn’t like a publisher minding your business (that weird pun wasn’t intended).

And it really would be unforgivable to miss Wolfire’s GDC-speech about internet marketing in a context like this. Thankfully, I didn’t miss it, it’s right there <—.

Happy reading! :)

Level Design Articles

I just read a feature series on Gamasutra about pre-producing level design (and, as a consequence, atmosphere, presentation of story etc.) The first part deals with the layout of a level and how the character’s motivations can align with the player’s to create a strong motivator to achieve the intended objective. The second part emphasizes the importance of research and giving all the space within a level an in-world reason. The third parts puts all these levels in perspective to see how levels can be chained together. Well worth a read!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

On the topic of pacing, which is sort-of-the-same as the third part of the articles above, a former student at the University of Skövde’s game development program got an article features on Game Career Guide with what I believe was his thesis. It’s about how to pace a level.

Link

These articles really complement an old article series I know I’ve linked before, but it was a good read (I should read it again some time). It’s about multiplayer level design, and frankly I can’t remember much more than that.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Yes, it’s a lot to read – good thing you’ve got all the links right here, no? :)

What makes a “smart” AI?

For a few weeks now I’ve been studying about AI in computer games, wishing to know what makes it so difficult and perhaps learn what makes a “good” AI opponent/side-kick. Turns out the course was all about the programming of it (which I should’ve known, as it was a programmer course called “AI programming for computer games”), but after some scratch-the-surface research (ask people and ask google) I found no course (at least in Sweden) about the subject. So I started googling if there was anything released on the topic, and did find a few worthwhile sites to read. I’ll try to not make it another Link-Tips, even though it’s very tempting (and way easier and faster).

The first impression of this quick research is that computer games AI is a fairly programmer-dominated area. Most of the links appearing gives the impression of code-related tasks, such as techniques here and there and stuff. But just a few links away and I started to discover some really interesting things. First off a page I read a long time ago and been trying to find again ever since – a very design-oriented piece giving 7 ways to make the AI opponent smarter. Although it only scratches the surface, it gave a good overview. Use some scripting for entries and exits, make sure the player is aware of what the AI is doing, don’t make them shoot (if they shoot) really inaccurately, make it robust, design the levels to utilize the strengths of the AI and, lastly, if you have a good AI, increasing their health will make them seem smarter as they’re alive longer to show their smarts off.

Just a bit of searching later, I stumble over an old GDC session about the AI of Halo. It seems like they learned some of the things the former link mentioned, but they seemed to have a very methodical approach – design the characters so they map between visible character and AI in an obvious way (“if it’s not too obvious, it too subtle”), increasing toughness will give the illusion of smarter AI and play test, play test, play test to make sure the intention of the AI’s design gets across.

Another article that gives a good, although theoretical, picture of how it’s done is at bittech.net. Although not giving practical game design-lessons on AI, it says a lot about how the programmer-design of the AI affects the final outcome. And sheds good light about why AI can become so very complicated. Take this quote, for instance:

Chris Jurney, a senior programmer for Relic, offered the example of the state machines in its RTS, Dawn of War 2, to illustrate this. “The AI for Dawn of War 2 has roughly three main layers: the computer player, the squad and the entity,” says Jurney. “The squad and the entities are both hierarchal finite state machines, and we have roughly 20 states at the squad level and 20 at the entity level. The states at the squad level pretty much map directly to orders that can be issued by the user.”

The article then goes on to explain how much of what we percieve as AI is in the proper animations at the right place and how dynamic terrain makes it even more complex.

Then, when I’d started to think it’s all about animations, some links turns up which ties it in to game-play, as well. In their pre-panel discussion about AI and designers, Soren Johnson et al mentions that the strenghs of the AI should be taken into consideration when designing mechanics that would give players an unfair advantage (which they’ll already have by being humans, anyway). And on ai-blog.net, where the authur Paul Tozour argues for navigational meshes as replacement for waypoint graphs, the question appears why no FPS:es are mentioned in said article, with the following reply:

The problems are still there in many first-person shooters, but they’re harder to spot due to the nature of the gameplay.

– Most AIs don’t live long enough to let you spot the flaws in their pathfinding.
– AIs will usually stop and shoot the moment they have line-of-sight to you, so their paths are a lot shorter.
– In many single-player FPS games, AIs don’t move very much, and will attempt to snipe you from a relatively fixed position.
– A lot of modern FPS games provide AI sidekicks who will kill the enemy AIs so quickly they don’t have time to move very far.

Conclusion

So, what’s the conclusion of all this? Well, pretty much that a “smart” AI isn’t supposed to be smart, but rather the dumb guy showing off all the smart things he does and makes a big scene of being defeated when you triumph him, so you felt you out-smarted someone smart. To create the illusion of smartness, the following can/should be done:

  • Consider the AI’s ability when designing mechanics. What is the AI’s strength? How can the mechanic play at those? Will this mechanic make the AI seem dumb?
  • Make everything the AI does give visual or audible feedback so that the player knows what the AI is doing and why it is doing that.
    • If the AI reacts to something, make an animation and/or make it shout something to say what its doing (“grenade!”, “suppressive fire!”, “cover me!”).
    • If there are different kinds of AI opponents, make it obvious which one is what. “If it’s not too obvious, it’s too subtle”.
    • What the game chooses to portray can affect how much is demanded to make the AI believable. We expect less of animals then of humans, and you can get away with more of aliens or robots or something then with humans.
  • Adapt the level-design to play at the AI’s strengths, just like how you did with the mechanics.
  • The longer an agent lives, the more visible its strenghs and weaknesses will become. If the AI isn’t that smart, it probably should be killed off pretty quickly by either the player or a side-kick (which then must feel smart). If the AI is smart as it is, making it live longer is more likely to give the player the impression of the AI being smarter.

Last, but not least, actually the most important of all: The AI isn’t there to be smart. It’s there to make the game more fun.

“Review”: Mass Effect

Mass Effect is the best movie I’ve ever played.

Many would read that as insulting (still having the “interactive movies” in memory), and I would mean it as insulting due to lack of interactivity in many other cases, but this is only in a positive way. From camera angles during dialogue sessions and the dialogue itself to the scenery, level-design and art direction it all goes with a very movie-like feeling, but it never takes the power away from the player.

The Dessing

Story

The following section will contain spoilers, so skip it if you haven’t played the game.

The movie, considered as such, is perhaps not the best I’ve “seen” from a dramatic perspective, yet still very engaging. Act one starts out as a fetch-mission turned battleground, following to an investigation to convince the council (the board of the galaxy) to accept one of their top agents is the enemy, which then lets the player become such an agent. Act two then follows several clues of the enemy’s presence, cleaning up the chaos he’s caused. This ends up in a frontal assault on one of his bases, the big plot-twist and the first encounter with the enemy himself. Act three then starts with a chase with the enemy which leads to some surprising revelations and sort of goes full circle with act one as the citadel you’ve learned to be safe and out of harm’s way suddenly is the battle ground and the road up to the last boss (which I was surprised, and a little bit disappointed, to convince into suicide). It all ends with a massive save-the-world and I’m-so-heroic sequence.

Which, as you can hear, goes from a pretty interesting detective story to a pretty conventional save-the-world story. The marketing was talking about letting you choose to destroy it, as well, but with a sequel promising to use your save-files that sounds very unlikely. It does really have an interesting dramatic level where the acts goes into one another, but that really drops by the middle of the first and second acts. Oh, and the side-quests drops that interest close to a zero, as they’re more a “I want more XP”-thing then interesting drama.

Okey, spoilers are over, you can keep reading here.

World

For those who jumped the last paragraph, I mentioned the story to be pretty engaging, and a lot of that is thanks to its setting, scenery and characters. Mass Effects takes place in a futuristic future (now *that* must be the dumbest phrase I’ve ever written) where the humans during a trip to Mars found some spaced-out tech, reached for the stars and found a federation of alien species and joined them. Humans, still being new-comers to an order that’s existed for several hundreds or thousands of years, constantly have to prove themselves in the eyes of the others and work their butts off to do so. These species all have their histories, cultures, religions and such, all unlocked throughout the game in an in-game encyclopedia.

As the galaxy has a lot of planets, the scenery has to reflect this, but as a rule of thumb the main-plot planets are pretty linear but beautiful levels while the side-quests are what appears to be randomly generated rocks on a small squarish area with a few points-of-interests on. But it will be the main plot levels that will stay when you think about the game afterwards. I just have to mention, without spoiling anything, that the last level is just amazing in both scenery, feel and dramatic tension. If I’d allow myself to spoil, I would, but I won’t.

A note worth mentioning is the elevators. The elevators of Mass Effect is basically a cleverly hidden loading-screen, but thanks to being an elevator,the side-kicks may start to talk to one another or a radio message may announce things that may or may not be related to the player’s adventures in the galaxy (although often it is related). Some people have complained that the elevators take so long to get where they’re going, but it’s a great way of not showing a loading screen that ads depth and believability to the world.

Characters

The characters of the game is a step forward since Kotor and Jade Empire, although not with as much incentive to explore and “get to know them” as Kotor 2. They all become involved in the story before you get them in your party (unlike, say, Jolee Bindo in Kotor that just joined up in the middle of the jungle), and you can choose how far you want to follow their story-lines. But this story-line is pretty much given to you if you only play the game, and that’s what feels like a step back from Kotor 2’s characters (which, I know, was developed by Obsidian) which damanded you to get to understand them to really get their full story and character,which had quite a few depths. Mass Effects characters do have their histories, but they’re too quick to spill it out, and engaging in them gives no real reward in the end (the sex-scene is infamous by now, but what I mean is game-play related).

Aestethics

The aesthetics of the game is another part which makes it interesting in the noise of sci-fi universes, blending clean and futuristic designs with modern-age uses for them. Although this is typical for all science fiction, there is all too often a wish to make spaced-out things that doesn’t make sense, and although Mass Effect has a few of those (such as “Virtual Intelligence”, which is basically a computer terminal you talk to), next to everything feels like something you’d expect civilization to have a few hundred years down the road. The human designs also has an iconic mixture of squares and curved lines to really nail a unique visual style.

Game Mechanics

So, to the bones of the game, the Mechanics. I’m going to write several paragraphs on this, in order of Combat System, Leveling and Experience and the Morality System.

Combat System

Combat in Mass Effect is a combination of a Third Person squad-game and a RPG. You aim and shoot like a Third Person Shooter, direct squad mates like a squad game and you have a bunch of spells and weapon proficiencies depending on your class (“weapon”, “psyonic” and “tech” plus hybrids). This all builds a very direct combat where you’re very much an active part of a battle rather then just picking abilities and waiting. Here’s the nice bit, though: You direct and shoot like a shooter, but then damage is evaluated based on stats in the background. There’s no accuracy-modifyer or anything, but items still has stats to improve along the way, which makes a really fun blend of skills and stats.

On the downside, it’s a bit of a shame the game throws the same enemies at you the whole game instead of demanding more co-ordination and ability-usage towards the end, as you can pretty much carve through them like a hot knife through butter at the end, but it’s great fun to fight, something I’m rarely saying of either FPS:es or RPG:s. It’s also a tid bit confusing to know what ability does what and how they work in practice.

Dialogue system

When you start talking to an NPC, you enter the dialogue mode, where your character and the NPC stands and chat. As the NPC is about to say its last line before yours, your coming dialogue-options become visible. All options are shortened to the core of what they mean to make them easy to read and Shepard’s reading more interesting to hear. The options are also placed in a very logical manner – they all fit into a circle of six choices, three to the left and three to the right. The left-most side is reserved for investigation to get more information about things, the right side to bring the dialogue towards its conclusion. The upper choices leans towards Paragon, or are Charm-options, and the lower toward Renegade, or are Intimidate-options. Charm and Intimidate are two special kind of answers unlocked by the player’s skill-points put into them (more in the next paragraph about that system). Being very special, they are colored – charm in a light blue and intimidate in red. This order makes it very easy to start picking choices based on desired result instead of figuring out what the lines might mean. For instance, if I want to know more, I make sure to hover on the left. If I wanna be a good guy, I’m almost clicking the top-right before even reading it. This all makes for very fluid dialogue that only stops when you have to think (for, like, important decisions) or are away from keyboard (which happens a lot in these games). So even if a timer would make the dialogue more fluid, it would take away a lot of breaks (but could cause impulse-decisions, which are as close to the player’s True Character as it gets).

Leveling and Experience

Like all RPGs, you gain experience for killing enemies and completing missions. Enough experience gives you a level-up. We all know that stuff. When you level up, you gain a few “feat”-points which you can place in lanes, each representing a weapon, ability or other class-feature. These lanes improves stats and unlocks improved version of these abilities, and often another feat-tree. As I’m quick to compare to recent MMOs I’ve played, it gives a pretty shallow impression. In theory, it shouldn’t, but it felt like you could get pretty much everything you used maxed out and leave the rest be. This might be related to me playing a hybrid class and not understanding most of my spells, though, which filtered it out to what I did understand. Perhaps I change my mind after a few more play-throughs.

Morality system

The morality system of Mass Effect has one major difference from earlier games – getting “good” points doesn’t negate the “bad” points and vice versa. Although this sounds like a reasonable step on paper, it doesn’t quite work out in practice. As both meters are visible as something you can fill up, you’re initially tempted to balance it to fill them up evenly. You may later realize that it doesn’t matter, and just pick something as you find funny. Another difference is that the point of your morality doesn’t seem to have any gameplay-implications. The KotOR-games both gave you a penalty/bonus on your spells’ force-cost, all visible in a neat table-like form, but if there’s any such implications from Paragon/Renegade it’s implicit and as such not very much used as incentive. Either way the morality doesn’t feel like the central feature it was in kotor. But it does deserve credit for not using obvious “good” and “evil” terms, instead picking “be diplomatic” and “use brute force”.

User Interface

It’s worth noting on this segment that I’ve played the PC-port of the game. Thus some things may be different then the console-versions has.

The Heads-up Display of the UI is really nice, in a minimalistic way always showing me what I want and nothing more. I just wished I could hide the action-bar for weapons and abilities hidden when unused, as I paused and used stuff manually anyway. As with targeting, the PC version behaves a bit wierdly as it doesn’t always select what you look at but something behind or beside it, most likely a result from the console way of changing targets through a given order.

As with menues, the Galaxy map works greatly, and the world map works great with just one exception. When you hover an elevator or gateway to another part of the map (most notable in the citadel), it is displayed where it leads. Clicking on it takes you to the journal instead of the map the icon refers to. The quest journal is nice with all quest having a root-tree with every objective branching from it, but for some reason only down in one level. Several levels would be a great way to show parallel objectives on. Also, it often mention clusters and locations without a link to hint you in the right direction. With a game with so many systems with strange names and loading times for every system you enter, it would be a great time-saver to not needing to remember “[cluser x][system y]” for the quests you wanted to play.

Lastly, the encyclopedia makes the game world very believable. Perhaps because a lot of people takes a lot of unknown information from Wikipedia, which this has a lot of similarities to. I think it the encyclopedia could have gained even more believability to the game if you could search everything from the get-go. I believe this is a consequence of learning-curve and a wish to keep some exploration-awards, but for such an optional-to-use system as this I don’t understand that thinking. This is a bit be like me having to visit, say, France to browse France on wikipedia.

Conclusion

I’ll end the review the same way I started it. This is a game that combines the fun and interactivity from games with the dramatic interest and feel from movies. Which is a great combo. Give it a try if you like movies, RPGs, squad games or shooters, and you might get curious about the others. If you like all those… well, where’s your closest store?

Link Tips #6

Back from another Stockholm-visit, so this article got a bit late. And it doesn’t have many links, which is a shame.

The must-haves: Article and Papers.

On gamecareerguide, a thesis about Adaptive Audio

On Gamasutra, an article about.. I think it’s supposed to be learning stuff from games, but it took a while to get to the point. And an article about expressing a mechanic with graphs.

Anyway, summer’s almost over, and I’ve got a few things to do so these won’t be as regular – perhaps I’ll actually post some of those things I said I should, then! That is, unless I’m working my butt off doing what I’m supposed to, which I bet I will be.

Link Tips #5

There weren’t any Link Tips last weekend, as I was away. As I have decided to not talk about my life in this blog (unless the extreme cases), I won’t delve further into the why. To compensate, I’ll add last week’s Sunday papers and GI.biz article.

I’m not entierly sure, but I suppose this is the GI.biz article (here called “editorial” to my confusion) about The Free Trade. And last weeks Sunday Papers. And also this week’s article and papers.

I was just about to think this post would only be the articles and papers – I haven’t found much this week worth linking – but just in the nick of time I find this: An article on edge-online about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

That was… short. And I’ve still got a bunch of games to write about – why don’t I?! (Answer: I dunno, there’s no good reason)

Link Tips #4

Yay, another week of link-tips! And this week I actually posted an opinion in-between. I might actually have the momentum I want from the blog now… although I could do more (but now I *want* to, last year I felt I *had* to due to self-demand). Anyway, you’re not here to hear my ramble about my blog, but to get some nice links – and here are some!

As always, gamesindustry.biz’s weekly article and Rock Paper Shotgun’s Sunday Papers (the latter is actually the only link I put here *before* I read it myself. There’s just always something good in there).

On Gamasutra, there’s an opinion about Infusing Games with a Moral Premise. and a cute poem called Gameplay and Story: An Ode To The American Junior High School Dance.

Another on gamasutra, a piece on satirical games. And then two such satirical games: Upgrade Complete and Steamshovel Harry. Not to forget Achievement Unlocked! And, no, I won’t describe them: It would ruin the point. Besides, two of three are self-describing. And, just before posting, I found this through the Onion.

Yet another on gamasutra – damn, if I keep up like this I’ll have to call it “gamasutra links” – Designing games that don’t suck. Describes the way a user or player goes from saying “I should do this” to when s/he consider him/herself successful or not, and what designers have to do along the way to make the transition go as smoothly (and, in most cases, quickly) as possible.

From edge-online, a fine piece about Eternal Darkness. If I would’ve had more time on my hands to plan my old “review” a bit, it would probably be closer to this (but not just like it – me mention things I didn’t even notice!).

This is a source to keep a hold of: Sloperama’s advice section. It’s for anyone who have thought about working in the games-business, with sharp, witty and funny comments along the way. You learn a bunch and have a good laugh doing it (why can’t all teaching be that way?).

There they are! For those who worry I post everything I get my hand on: Don’t. I do read a lot more then this, and I do think “is this something worth hinting about” when reading things. These *are* tips, not “what I’ve read this week”.

Link Tips #3

I see I haven’t made any real updates this week. Which is strange, because I’ve been reading and playing more stuff then usual. I guess I should start making myself some opinions and get writing! Anyway, I made sure to make the Link Tips-posts less a sad thing then they’ve been before, and took a new strategy to build them (that is, throwing all links in and edit a draft during the week). And, lo and behold, it seems to have worked!

As always, Rock Paper Shotgun’s Sunday Papers and Gamesindustry.biz’s article Depth Changes – and a Eurogamer-blog article about Gaikai turned up while I was searching.

On Gamasutra, an opinion called Can Games Become “Virtual Murders”?. I’ve always had a worrying feeling about the “shoot people in the face”-focuc of gaming (as some earlier posts goes through), so this is really refreshing to read – but it seems like the post gets the same sort of opposition I tend to get while speaking about it aloud. I hope it’s the first step in realizing things, denial, but it could just as well be a defense of the established, home-blindness or plain “I want my guns!”. Anyway, great article.

Eurogamer has an interview with Rob Pardo, talking a lot about Blizzard’s design philosophy. There’s a quite a bit of good stuff to remember in there.

A gamasutra compilation of Expert Blogs posts, including weapon balance, questioning if frustration is all bad, what makes a good game story and more. These Link-tips are starting to become a compilation-compilation!

From Edge-online, an article series about making “Non Fun”-games. Here’s the last of four linked, the earlier three is up to you.

From MMORPG.com, a column about accessibility. Not much that should be new to anybody, but still worth reminding yourself of once in awhile.

Link Tips #2

Yes, I know I didn’t post any last week. But here’s one!

First off, the returning Sunday Papers and Gamesindustry.biz article.

Also, a gamasutra feature about Dramatic Play. And another gamasutra article on Infamous’ pacing.

Some marketing-posts: First off Dev.Mag’s Zero budget indie marketing guide, which links to Kieron Gillen’s How to Use and Abuse the Gaming Press and How the Gaming Press Wants to Use and Abuse You (and, yes, I do think I found that thanks to RPS). Finally a edge-online post by Introversion’s Thomas Arundel called Selling to Customers.

I think that’s enough for this time. Embedded links makes these posts seem shorter then they are, or if it’s “not longer then they are”…