Alpha Protocol: Post 01

Since finishing Mass Effect 2, I finished Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands and have been powering my way through Super Mario Galaxy 2. I also started up Alpha Protocol. I plan to write a single post referencing my thoughts on PoP, but before I get there here are my first thoughts on the Alpha Protocol tutorial in my traditional stream of consciousness style — based on about two hours of play. *spoilers for the first two-hours of the game beyond this point*

  • Ah, character creation. The moment when the game asks you to pick skills before letting you know what the obstacles will be. Here, I’m offered the chance to gain skill with a weapon. I get that there’s a supposed stylistic choice between, say, sniper rifles and assault rifles and martial arts. Rifles work from a distance, fists work from up close. And assaults rifles let you run-and-gun at in-between distances. Assuming I’ve played a game like this before, I should know which style I prefer — even if I don’t know what’s best for this game. But what are the differences, in regard to play style, between shot guns and pistols and assault rifles? And what about the other options? How important is toughness or stealth? What about sabotage? Are there a lot of instances for me to use a tech ability in this game? As can be said of every RPG, it’d be nice if we could at least try out the options before we’re forced to decide. Anyway, to get things rolling I pick shot gun and put all my available points into it.

  • On-screen instructions tell me to press [A] to pick up the fire extinguisher to break out of the opening room, but it looks like an [R] to me. I squeeze [RT] a few times before realizing it’s just a tricky font and that they want me to press [A].
  • A thug attacks me after my escape from the lab but I don’t notice any instructions on how to fight back. I try the usual [A] and [X] and [LT]/[RT] before discovering that the [B] button is used for attacks. I manage to survive a bit of a beat down. It’d have been nice had the game paused and told me what to do before the fight.
  • Everyone is skating (“skating” is when the character’s walk animation is out of sync with its movement speed, so the feet slide against the ground). The animation is jerky. The camera is jerky. This is definitely not Unreal3/ME2. For the record, I’m noticing it now but I fully expect that in 20 minutes, through to the end of the game, I’ll never again notice it or think about it. It’s not that important to me, but I think it’s worth noting.
  • Targeting with a gun is like aiming in a FPS (first-person shooter). That is, there’s a reticule on-screen and you move it with the left analog stick. I love FPS-style when I have a mouse to control the reticule. And I don’t mind it when the reticule moves smoothly and comes with targeting assistance (snapping to a target, larger bounding boxes). But in Alpha Protocol, the reticule moves very quickly and is a bit jerky even on low sensitivity. Compounding things, I move my reticule to someone’s upper forehead, shoot, and they don’t seem to take a hit. But I have it a little left of their leg, and they take a hit.

  • Yes, I died during the tutorial. Fear my elite skills. The game told me to sneak up on a guy and take him out with [B]. In most tutorials where you are assigned a specific action like this, the game doesn’t throw you a curve. In this one, however, I got to within 30 feet of the guy and he spun around and opened fire — alerting another nearby guard who also opened fire. I died before I could close the distance to the first guy. After the reload, I stuck to cover and moved more slowly. I took out the first guy without him spotting me, but his friend immediately opened fire again. I hid behind cover and took him out as he approached. Not quite stealthy like, I assume, the game was hoping I’d be. But it got me past the encounter.
  • Here’s another thought from the “all RPGs do this” category: everyone is running around with guns except for me. I take someone out and look down at his body and see him holding a gun. Too bad I can’t take it from him.
  • I sneak into an office and see a guy at a computer. He spins around as I get close. I hit him a few times and he pops up on top of the computer — out of my reach. He hits me a few times and I can’t do anything about it. I back up and, thankfully, he falls back to the ground. I finish him off. That’s two RPGs in a row (ME2, AP) where someone got stuck standing on a computer. Why not put an invisible wall around the computer and similar placeables that stretches up 100 feet?

  • Continuing that thought, I beat up the aforementioned guy-at-a-computer and there’s not a lot of room for him to fall so he does this awkward bend-in-half collapse. I don’t think yoga masters could have bent like he did. And just a few kills later, I spot someone else perform a similarly-bizarre death sprawl. This game could probably use a few animation limits/tweaks with their rag doll system.
  • How many times does an alarm activate and then get shut off before people ignore the shut-off? OK, OK — that’s another one to throw at just about any RPG with an alarm system. Actually, any *game* with an alarm system, RPG or not. But I find humor in mentioning it.
  • So far I’m finding combat more difficult than ME2, but I think it has more to do with my manual-aiming control than the AI or anything of that nature. The feedback also seems poor (I hit a guy with a few tranquilizer darts but he seems fine. I’m not sure if he’s got a lot of health or if I’m missing) but I’m thinking it might be because I don’t know the cues yet.
  • The alarm system mini-game is very easy but looking at a screen filled with swirls and such make my eyes glaze over. The following screen shot is for the PC version. I believe on the Xbox version, the puzzle is full-screen.

  • I found a guy running in place, stuck against a ladder. I watched him for a bit then hit him in the chest with a tranquilizer dart to see if his path finding was broken or if he was truly stuck. He kept running, so I figured he was stuck and put another couple of darts into him to put him out of his misery.
  • The story so far… A plane crashes, thanks to a missile that splits up into smaller missiles — each striking the plane. I wake up in a lab and must beat up guards to escape. Near the supposed exit, I’m told that this has been a test that all their agent recruits go through. I wonder how they extracted me from an exploding plane, and if that didn’t seem entirely too risky a manner to procure an agent. I’m later told the plane crash took place in the Middle East and it’s my mission to investigate. If that’s the case, then how did I get here and why don’t I remember arriving?
  • There’s a mini game for computer hacking that looks like a word-find puzzle — except that almost every square is rapidly cycling through bunches of letters and numbers. It took me a while to realize I’m looking for a string of six characters that aren’t moving (surprisingly difficult to notice considering everything is moving but them). It also took me a while to realize I controlled the left and right sequences separately; I kept targeting the right code with the left analog stick and then pressing the [RT] to select it (which returned an error). I admit the game told me that information, but I was still trying to grasp the concept of the puzzle when that information was revealed.

  • Appearance customization is limited, but I’m not disappointed and I like that I have a reasonably attractive character that I can’t mess up, like other games with their more extensive customization systems. Plus, it really allows for an “iconic” appearance that still has your flavor.
  • I’m in a room practicing using grenades. During the sequence I’m given a ricochet challenge. The game tells me to bank the grenade off the wall at the target, but I have no clue where the target is. The only interface information I see is pinpointing a location very near to where I stand. I assume it’s where I need to be to initiate the challenge (which is right), but I’m at a loss as to the target’s location and so I grenade myself. At least I didn’t die.
  • Later, I’m told hostiles are en route and I should set a trap with mines. Where are the mines in my inventory? I seem to only have grenades. Where are the guards coming from? Are they coming all at once or do I need to work my way through a level? How long do I have? What. I drop a few grenades near a door and run into a room. Three guards run in through the aforementioned door, uninjured. I beat two up before dying under heavy fire. I’m then rewarded with $20 grand and told I did well. I’d try again but there’s no option.
  • During the stealth challenge, I see a guard walking away from me. I crouch and sneak up behind him, but he spots me well in advance and gets a few shots off before I take him out. Am I doing something wrong?
  • Continuing on through the stealth sequence, I come to a zip line. There’s a guard below, looking up at me. I have no idea if I should risk the zip line or not. He runs for the alarm while I zip down overhead. I think it’d be cool if I could drop down on this guy but that doesn’t appear to be an option. He triggers the alarm, I beat him up, and then I disable the alarm. That seems like the incorrect sequence for a stealth challenge.

  • I’m graded each time I finish a challenge. At first I have no clue what the range is but I think it’s a typical 100-scale test. I ace the stealth test (???) with an 80-something. But my shooting test scores me a 51. I re-try it, taking extra effort to not miss and feel confident about my effort. Every time I hit [RT], something is dropped. I get a lower score.
  • It looks like I’ve finished the opening because a guy has been talking to me for the longest while and he won’t shut up. I’d tell him to shut up but RPGs have me well-trained to know that the longer he speaks, the more likely I am to be rewarded. He tells me that I can tell him to shut up, and he tells me how it can be useful to tell people to shut up, but I keep him talking and notice new rewards (like perks) popping up on the interface. I doubt if I’d be rewarded for telling him to shut up, being as that he’s the tutorial guy right now, but I suppose I should check that on a subsequent play through of the opening. Assuming I’m not rewarded, telling me I can skip dialogue while rewarding me for not skipping dialogue is mixed feedback to the player.
  • A few times, my player response pops up as “yes” or “no” while he’s talking. My timer is running low and he still hasn’t asked me a question. Finally he spits out the question and I’m left with about one full second to decide. It seems like there could have been a little extra time there. It’s not helpful to give the player his options early without also showing him the context.

  • We jump to a new location and the game saves en route. The guy starts yammering on again and I’ve decided that since the game just saved, I can reload later on to get this mission briefing. So I tell him to shut up so I can go to the menu and select “quit” but the games saves anew. Drats. Have I lost my mission briefing lessons? I guess it doesn’t matter if I’m going to re-play the opening.
  • Like usual, my observation may sound generally negative but I’m enjoying the game — especially since I’ve read, frequently, that the game picks up once you’re several hours in. It’s very similar in play style to Mass Effect: run down a hallway shooting things and using cover, hack some stuff along the way, and then chat up your friends for a while before repeating. I’m looking forward to putting some more time into it.

Mass Effect 2: Story

I’ve written everything I’ve wanted to write on Mass Effect 2 (or so I thought). But after finishing playing and writing out my thoughts, I decided to read other reviews to see how everyone else thinks. The biggest surprise to me was the view on the story.

Personally, I felt it was fine but I don’t tune in especially hard to the big story details while I play. Items that irk everyone else usually register as nothing more than little blips in the back of my brain that I largely ignore. I’m more about the fun and the moment. But then I read Twenty Sided’s three-part assault on the story. Here are the links: part one, part two, and part three.

I’m not going to respond in full to the criticism but I will quickly say that a majority of his points are right on; I’d guess only a few could be debated. The sections that resonate the most with me are the Reboot, the Illusive Man, and the Final Boss. As for the Reboot, I have to admit that BioWare missed a great opportunity to have Shepherd dying at the end of game one in a sacrificial manner to set up the intro of ME2. I think that might have felt more seamless.

Speaking of sacrifices, while reading reviews and comments I came across one that wrote that the more you care about your henchmen, earning their loyalty and upgrading them, the more likely they will all survive and that stretch of the game’s story will come off as a little flat. The less effort you put into the henchmen and their stories, the more likely they will all die (perhaps Shepherd included) — but you won’t care. Phrased like that, the end sequence comes off as a bit of a failure on BioWare’s part, especially when placed against ME1 and its Ashley/Kaidan decision.

And speaking of loyalty itself, one person wrote that BioWare should “make loyalty harder to get. Make the things you have to do to gain loyalty much more distasteful, like Zaeed’s one. Less loyalty translates into more death in the end game, and that’s good.” Another person added, “And there should be conflicting goals of your companions. To gain loyalty from one might very well mean losing loyalty from another.” I think that ties in with the idea of the ME1 Ashley/Kaidan decision, and represents a better solution to a potentially flat end sequence.

Thinking on these comments makes me realize that we’ve just been introduced to “loyalty” and that BioWare games of the future will likely both incorporate and evolve this system. That’s a good thing.

One thing I have to say as I jot down this post, ME2 sticks with you — just as Dragon Age and ME1 stick with you. I don’t think any of these comments would exist in relation to a lesser game.

Mass Effect 2: Post 07 (finale)

Victory! The threat to the galaxy is once again stopped. I really enjoyed the title and mostly loved the ending. And like Dragon Age, I’ll happily fire this one up again after all the DLC is bundled (though I’ll probably start over in ME1 with a very different character to pick up on more of the differences). Here are a few extra thoughts to close down this series.

(Although it should be assumed that every post contains spoilers, here’s a reminder: don’t read this post if you don’t to be spoiled about the game’s ending.)

  • Statistically speaking, I clocked in with 41h56m invested into ME2. Good value. My paragon, female Shepherd is level 27, and I flopped back-and-forth between hardcore and insanity difficulty. I started a new game to hit level 30, and did so at 1h03m en route to recovering Mordin.
  • Almost everyone in my crew had a few unused talent points. That’s disappointing, considering how valuable talent points should be. I know the implemented system makes it impossible to account for every single point, but that is one of the flaws (albeit minor) in the progressive-cost skill system for ME2, versus ME1’s 1:1 costs.
  • Color me (happily) shocked. I can’t think of a single moment in a single BioWare game where the game tells you to act now and you actually need to act now. Until ME2. Your crew is abducted by the collectors, and the game tells you that in order to save them you need to act now. I was like, “sure, sure. I’ll get to it.” Miranda, especially, was persistent. But I ignored her since, you know, I had a few loose ends to wrap up — maybe doing a little gambling with the krogan or some such. Alas! My poor assistant, Kelly! I’ll always remember that night you hung out in my quarters. :p
  • I was really enjoying the run-through to the end of the game until my group had to fight the Reaper embryo. Yes, it may be a “six-of-one/half-dozen-of-another” comment, but I’d rather watch large chunks of health fall away from the embryo — and then have it climb down, heal itself, and return — rather than unload with clip-after-clip as tiny pixels of health are grudgingly given up. It makes me feel a little impotent — the opposite of how I should feel as the galaxy’s savior. I had the same complaint with the NWN: Hordes of the Underdark boss fight. The difference is I was the QA Tech Lead back then and convinced the designer to change it.
  • I really liked the final major decision: save or destroy the Collector base. I liked it because it was a tough decision. ME1 was straight-forward: do you want to see a diverse civilization including humanity, or a xenophobic, human-dominated civilization? In ME2, it’s much more gray; I’m playing Paragon but it’s hard to argue against the value of all that technology. I wanted to save it, but I wasn’t willing to make a Renegade decision. If I had not been clued in which was Paragon or Renegade, I likely would have kept the base around. That said, my party seems to be happy with my choice. I’m really curious to find out how this plays out in ME3.
  • And while I also liked all the different ways you can save or lose your henchmen, I’m at least a little bothered by the ambiguity. For example, how do I know which defenders are the ones that can survive the final assault? I felt compelled to read along at the Mass Effect wiki as I played to make sure I didn’t lose anyone.
  • I hate losing control of my actions during a cutscene. I like impressive cutscenes, true, but I hate that my character pulls off these amazing feats that I cannot do in the game. Or that something drastic happens during a cutscene that I have no control over. I wish more companies, BioWare included, would do something to keep the player from putting down the controller during those moments. Similarly, I wonder if BioWare gave thought to letting the player volunteer himself as a specialist during the end-game sequence. For example, when I had to pick a tech specialist to manipulate a door — why couldn’t I volunteer my Engineer? Or when Samara was struggling to hold up the biotic shield, and Jack was in my group, why couldn’t Jack help out?
  • Looks like BioWare’s QA department has gained a new testing team since I’ve left. Back then, we had QA Design (the game itself) and QA Tech (the systems and tools that make the game). According to the game’s credits, we now have a QA Story team complementing the aforementioned. Cool. I’d say the expansion has paid off.

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway: Mass Effect 2 is a great game and a strong sequel to Mass Effect 1. In fact, when I’ve said that video games are an arena where sequels are wonderful (as opposed to Hollywood where it feels more like a cash in), this is a great example of why; the designers are less focused on waiting for tools to arrive and more focused on getting content created with pre-exisisting tools with which they are already familiar, using art assets and such that are already created. It makes for a much better gaming experience.

If you haven’t played this game yet, and you enjoy RPGs, you need to give this one a chance.

Site Index

Here is a link to my Designing a Better RPG series. And here is a list of my reviews to aid in site navigation (my tags are messy so this is not perfect).

:: Alpha Protocol :: Assassin’s Creed :: Assassin’s Creed 2 :: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood :: Bully: Scholarship Edition :: Dragon Age: Origins :: Dragon Age 2 :: Dragon Age: Inquisition :: Fable 2 :: Fallout 3 :: Grand Theft: Auto IV :: Mass Effect :: Mass Effect 2 :: Neverwinter Nights 2 :: Pillars of Eternity :: Prince of Persia :: The Saboteur :: Saints Row :: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood :: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed :: Torment: Tides of Numenera :: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines :: Wasteland 2 :: The Witcher :: The Witcher 3 ::

Mass Effect 2: Post 06

I’m getting close to the end of the game and don’t have a lot of new things to say. I figured I’d lay down the remaining unrelated observations all in one post, and then maybe wrap the series up in a few days with an after-I-beat-the-game post.

  • I like the new ship. The old Normandy felt huge and empty. The new Normandy is at least twice as big, yet is filled so much more satisfyingly. And believably. There’s a crew’s quarters. There are bathrooms. There’s a med bay. There are research stations and weapons lockers. There are storage rooms. There’s a captain’s quarter. The ship has it all. And there are people in every corner of the ship. It’s a fully realized stronghold.
  • And, like Assassin’s Creed 2, you can upgrade your stronghold — though apparently the upgrades to the ship impact how the end-game plays out. I cannot fully comment on that yet since I have not finished.
  • I love the henchmen loyalty quests. After a while, a henchman asks you to help them in some matter — something like a 30-minute one-off mission. Instead of each one requiring you to shoot a bunch of enemies in generic fashion, they’re crafted in a manner appropriate to the henchman and filled with interaction with that henchman — kind of like the BG2 stronghold quests. One mission requires you to seduce someone. Another requires you to spy on a politician. Very cool.
  • But that’s been the best part of ME2 versus ME1: the level of polish. Every level feels unique. Nothing is filler. And the story contains a lot more moments of “showing” versus “telling”. For example, in ME2, Jack asks you to take her to the lab where she was tortured and abused. You get to see first-hand where she has been, and listen to her as she responds to various in-level stimuli. ME2 shows the developers’ personality and love for the franchise, and also may hint at a little more wiggle room in the schedule this time around.
  • I like walking into a new city location. Lots of people. Advertisements. News. Ambient conversations. It feels busy and more like a living city than locations in ME1. It’s not to the level of Assassin’s Creed 2, but AC2 had the benefit of centralized locations whereas ME2 is all about world-hopping.
  • The continuity provided by the loading screen graphics is a huge improvement and helps provide a greater level of immersion. And what I mean is that when you complete a mission in ME1 you jump from the middle of a swamp to the comm room of the Normandy with only a spinning Mass Effect relay in-between. In ME2, there’s a loading screen where you see your skiff lift off the planet and fly straight up to be intercepted by the the Normandy on its way out of orbit. In ME1, elevators were long and painful. In ME2, longer elevator rides are masked by a load screen showing a graphic of your location and the moving elevator. It definitely makes a seamed world feel more seamless.
  • I bet I could out-run Shepherd, and I’m not in optimal shape. She runs 20 feet and then she’s heavy breathing for a while. Really?
  • In ME1, I spent a lot of time running around the ship talking to every henchmen only to learn that most of them never wanted to talk to me. I felt so rejected. In ME2, my assistant kindly tells me that Grunt or Jack need a talking to, and off I run to do it. Much more efficient. She’s also nice enough to feed my fish for me and let me know when I have new e-mail. And speaking of, I love the mails themselves. Instead of wondering why I never had a scene with so-and-so, as was often the case in ME1, in ME2 I’ll spot a new e-mail with an update from so-and-so. And they’re cheap, from a development perspective. Designers don’t need to craft a scene with camera angles and VO and so on when they can write up a quick e-mail.
  • Is it just me or are the “husk” levels awfully buggy? I’ve managed to fall out of two different husk levels. My henchmen are constantly disappearing for long stretches before reappearing in random locations, or just straight up teleporting. Or dying and returning to life in the same combat. And husks are dying without playing the proper animations. Or they’re standing still while I stand next to them unloading bullets into their face. Etc. ME2 is not a buggy game, so it’s surprising that these levels are as buggy as they are. While I applaud the unique style to them (husks swarm you, thereby preventing you from staying hunkered down in cover. Instead, you have to strafe in circles or go for the fire-and-retreat strategy), I’d applaud them more if they worked properly.
  • I had to use the web to verify this, but it turns out the credits available in the game (approximately 1,150,000) balance out almost exactly to cost to buy everything (approximately 1,250,000). In other words, if you do everything, you can buy almost everything. So at the very least, you’re not going to exit the game with a giant wad of cash and nothing to spend it on (like ME1).

GamesRadar on ME2 put up a pretty good piece, almost post-mortem-ish, on Mass Effect 2. They kick the piece off with a comment noting that scanning/mining wasn’t popular:

“The mining?” asks BioWare dev Christina Norman, “everyone hates the mining.” Yep, the mining was Mass Effect 2’s one mistake, and even then it was a small one, made worse by the sheer bloody amount of probing you had to do just to become competitive.

Later, in a reference to the in-development Mass Effect 3, project Producer Casey Hudson adds:

“The scanning minigame…” says Hudson. “I think the overall approach was fine, but we could have made it faster, more rewarding, and less critical to progression. We’re already working on adjustments to those aspects.”

Also in the article, they talk a little (not enough for my tastes, but enough to whet the appetite) about switching from unlimited ammo to limited heat clips, requiring player skill instead of character skill when aiming a weapon, tweaking the biotic system, tracking 700 player decisions made in ME1, and overhauling the inventory system.

I don’t have a lot to say about inventory so in lieu of a full post I’ll make a quick comment here: I don’t miss it at all. I’ve played games like Oblivion, Diablo, and Baldur’s Gate. I know all about managing an inventory. But I don’t think of managing an inventory as anything more than an unnecessary time killer.

Anyway, go read the article.

Mass Effect 2: Post 05

As we all know, BioWare games focus on shooting and talking. We’ve gone over the shooting enough for a pretty decent look at the system. Let’s dig into the talking.

Conversations are largely the same as ME1. There’s a wheel. Requests for more information are on the left. Options that move the conversation forward are on the right. Upper options are paragon responses. Lower options are renegade responses. The system wasn’t broken and I’m happy with it. However, they added a couple tweaks that improve the experience from ME1, and I’ll outline them here.

  • For one, people actually move about during a conversation. I’m not talking about moving their hands through the same three styles of gesturing. I’m talking about walking away, stopping, looking back over their shoulder, coming back, sitting down on a sofa, leaning forward, then standing back up again — all while doing the same three styles of gesturing (heh). Definitely feels more natural and gives you more to look at.
  • For another, there are now actual interruptions — the type promised, but not delivered, in ME1. While in a conversation, or cutscene, you occasionally see a [LT] (paragon) or [RT] (renegade) icon pop-up on the screen, quick-time-sequence-esque. If you press [LT] or [RT] during these moments, your Shepherd will do something fitting.
  • For example, I was talking to a lone woman on the outskirts of a settlement and spotted some armed thugs approaching us, preparing to fire. As they aimed their guns, [LT] popped up on the screen and I was sure that I would save her in some way if I hit the button. Indeed, when I pressed the button I threw her down behind cover and saved her life. It made the scene much more exciting and let me feel like I’m an active participant.
  • Even better, on this playthrough I’ve been choosing every paragon dialogue option without thinking. But as the camera lingers on a crate swinging overhead of the about-to-be-combatants with whom I’m speaking, [RT] pops up on the screen. I hesitate for the briefest of moments before hitting the button, unable to resist the renegade points that come with releasing the crate. In other words, it’s easy to consider the paragon/renegade points and make a reasoned choice. But this new pop-up system really challenges how you want your character to act.

Aside from the system itself, I can say that ME2 is definitely more wordy than ME1. There are more dialogue encounters and more words per encounter, I’d guess. And I certainly believe I’ve spent a lot more time speaking with my henchmen than I did in ME1. In terms of feel, I’d say ME1 had a ratio of 75:25 for combat:talking. ME2 is more like 50:50. I think it’s a pretty good blend. To be honest, I’m happy either way but I’ll admit ME2 is closer to my preference with the pacing. As for what’s being said, I’m saving that for a future post — after I finish the game.

The Humble Indie Bundle

It”s probably too late to mention it now since the HIB (humble indie bundle) is only available for another 3 hours (shuts down at 4pm EST), but if you haven’t grabbed it yet I’d suggest taking a gander over at the website.

You get six independently-developed games that work for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and you can pay any price you’d like for the entire bundle. Not only that, but you can divide your money between the developers and their charities. Of course, we all know how much independent developers could use the money to keep making the games we love. Right? 🙂

As for the games themselves, last night I played World of Goo and Gish. Candice played Aquaria. And we both played-and-finished Samorost2. We still have Lugaru and Penumbra to look at. Anyway, check it out while there’s still time.

[Update] The HIB has generated a million dollars. Wow! As a result, the projects are going open source and it looks like everyone has another 4 days to check this offer out. The timer now shows a finish time of, it looks like, Saturday at 5pm EST.

Mass Effect 2: Post 04

Continuing the theme of rolling updates, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about ME2’s economy, of which there are two types: minerals and credits. Minerals are what you gather from the harvesting of a planet’s resources. Credits are what you earn as you complete missions. Minerals are used for upgrades and research. Credits are also used for upgrades and research (and a few other odds-and-ends) — but via shops.

Most RPGs have a pretty simple resource curve. There are few things to buy at first, and you’re able to save some money even after buying those items. Then there’s a long stretch where even though the money comes in much more rapidly, there are far more items to buy and the costs for objects soar; as a result, you must pick-and-choose. Near the end of the game, thanks to hours of adventuring and, usually, establishing and fully upgrading a stronghold, you’ve bought everything and the money is still pouring in. Obviously by that point the economy has collapsed.

I have not been playing long enough to know if ME2 follows the curve to the end, but I can say the first two parts have held true to form. I was buying everything and saving money for a while, but now I’m penniless, despite every store giving me a discount, and unable to buy enough to satiate my hoarding tendencies. I’m trying to make mental notes of all the shops where I’ve had to leave stuff behind so that I can return when I’ve stashed up some more credits.

Even though I’m poor, credits are fairly easy to earn and come as a by-product of playing the game. I have no complaints here. Minerals, on the other hand — well, scanning sucks. Not in a “broken” way, but in the “boring” way. There, I said it. And having said it, I’ll be honest and admit that, yes, boredom be damned, I’ve scanned many planets into oblivion. Even though I find the scanning system tedious and dull, I’ve definitely put some time in on it and I will continue to painstakingly do so in order to earn more upgrades. One of my four bars (iridium, I think) just cleared 100,000 units. From memory, I think palladium is just about to 100,000 units, platinum is in the 50,000 or 60,000 range, and element zero is lagging behind — maybe around the 20,000 or 30,000 range.

At this point, if you were to ask, I’m not sure what I’d say in response to a “how could it be better” type question. Maybe I’d suggest finding ways to minimize the time spent on the activity. Make the scanning circle five-times larger. Make less active nodes on a surface; drop it from 25 to, say, three. Make the scanner move at the same speed whether or not you’re scanning. Let me get in and out of a resource planet/moon in thirty seconds. But slowly moving a little radar circle up-and-down, back-and-forth across the entire surface of a moon/planet, hoping for a spike so that I can launch yet another probe and mine a few hundred or a few thousand minerals, content that has little to do with the core pillars of ME2, is not my idea of fun. I know many people enjoy it for its Battleship-esque game play. I am not one of those.

I recently posted a link to an interview with Patrick Plourde, the lead designer for Assassin’s Creed 2. In it, he said that the big difference in their philosophy between AC1 and AC2 was to center their activities around their game’s mechanics. AC is about parkour and fighting, so all the activities you engage in are parkour and/or fighting related. ME2 is about shooting and talking. That means I expect a significantly large percentage of my time to be spent shooting stuff or talking to stuff. And while there are some happy exceptions in ME2 (i.e. the two hacking mini-games are neither shooting nor talking but they are brief), I’m sinking an awful lot of time into moving a little circle in order to progress my research and upgrades. I’d say that’s a direct contradiction to the gaming wisdom that Plourde espouses.

So don’t do it, you’re telling me. It’s not a requirement for the game, you say. It’s a time waster with some in-game rewards, like hacking, and not required. But the thing is, I want to play the game. I want those rewards. I want to upgrade my ship and weapons and so on. This isn’t the same thing as playing Pazaak in SW: KotOR — where you have a time waster that earns you credits. There are many ways to earn credits. But the only way to get minerals in ME2 is to distract myself from the game for long periods of time by scanning surfaces. And I don’t think that was a good idea.

Mass Effect 2: Post 03

If I were to guess, I’d say I’m about 15 hours into the game — fifteen hours that would break down as: five hours spent picking up on differences between ME1 and ME2, and ten-plus hours since spent completely absorbed by the title’s level of quality. Fifteen hours is enough to have a fairly accurate feel for ME2’s big pillars, which are talking and fighting. Let’s chop one of them pillars down today. Let’s go for the fighting.

  • I have to start by saying that I greatly enjoyed playing through ME1. But ME2 makes the ME1 experience feel like a straight-forward stroll down a nondescript hallway shooting whatever happens to pop up in front of you. What a difference. Well-placed cover points, hiding spots, bridges, explosives, and door ways all work together to create built-in surprise and strategy to far more ME2 encounters.

  • But it goes beyond the layouts. In ME1, a great majority of the time you were marching forward, constantly blitzkrieging bewildered opponents. In ME2, some levels require you to push forward while some task you with holding a location. I love the addition of defense to the mix. It completely changes your mind-set.
  • And then we add AI to the mix. Opponents don’t meander down hallways to your location allowing themselves to be picked off. They hide behind cover. Or some of them hide behind cover while their friends sneak around to your flanks; there has been more than one time where an enemy slipped past unnoticed and took out my group from behind. Or they send animals or giant mechs or krogan running to your location, and take advantage of the chaos. There were a few tough battles in ME1 where I had to stay in cover. But I never had a situation where I had to flee from my cover while taking fire, as in ME2. It definitely adds some needed tension and the necessity for quick thinking to the battles.

  • Speaking of added tension and requiring quick thinking, I think I now understand why BioWare switched from overheating weapons to weapons that require bullets. At first glance, the shoot-pause-shoot pacing for guns with bullets and guns that overheat is identical. So why change what already works? My guess is that because a gun can only hold so many rounds, resource management becomes an extra concern. In some of the tougher, longer fights I’ve almost run out of bullets. But there are always ammo clips scattered about a level — teasing you, just out of range and away from cover. It’s quite the rush to dash out from cover to grab a clip and hope you can jump back to cover before dying.
  • In ME1, I can think of very few instances where I did something aside from press forward, but there have been many missions in ME2 where I had to backtrack or move back-and-forth through an area a few times or deal with enemies coming at me from a branch in the path. It has more of a first-person shooter feel to it. That is, instead of always moving through new space, you stay in an area longer and gain some familiarity with the map. It’s not only a more efficient use of resources, but it creates a stronger attachment to the location for the player.
  • In ME1, when I think back on it, I have trouble remembering fighting much of anything aside from geth. But there’s a real diversity to the opponents in ME2. I’ve come across a few different alien mercenary types, i.e. salarians. And robot types, i.e. mech bodyguards. And creature types, i.e. verran and robo-verran. And giant mechs. And geth. And armatures. And, of course, there are humans. It’s quite the mix. Some of the diversification affects strategy. Some is only meaningful aesthetically. But it makes each situation feel that much more unique.
  • And adding yet another layer to everything mentioned so far that makes combat more exciting, some of these guys have armor and barriers and other protections that you have to work together with your teammates to whittle away. And while you’re working their shields, they’re using guns and biotic powers or firing missiles at you. It’s a really big tool box from which the designers can challenge the player, which forces the player to pay attention and make liberal use of the power wheel. As I referenced in an earlier post, I probably used the power wheel a half-dozen times in ME1. And never to give a command to one of my henchmen. I’ve surely used it three or four times, per fight, in every fight in ME2 I’ve been in so far — for myself and my henchmen.

  • I had written that it felt like very little improved with your character as you played, but I was at least partially wrong. True, the characters themselves are more limited in their level-up gains, but you can do research to improve everything for your squad from damage to health to shields to biotic duration. So it isn’t that BioWare stripped out that level of customization; they merely pulled out the stuff from level-up that applies to a larger cross-section (like gun usage) and re-direct it into the research and upgrade stations. I’m OK with that. It actually seems a bit smart since it taxes the economy system (more on that in an upcoming post).
  • I mentioned earlier that I felt rather inept with the pistol as an engineer. Since then, I’ve found a one-handed machine gun of some sort that has definitely made me much more deadly. I really liked the way the pistol felt in ME1, and this doesn’t feel like that, but it works. So while my engineer powers are my preferred, and most efficient, method of taking out foes, my gun is now making a lot of noise.

And that brings us to… my lone criticism of combat.

  • Even after a few play sessions I’m finding cover to be slightly flawed. There have been times where I’m nestled in safe-and-sound and, after turning too far to the side to target an opponent who is attempting to flank my group, I stand up away from cover and am promptly riddled with bullets. There have been times when I accidentally jump forward over the cover I’m hiding behind, exposing me to the opponents. There have been times where I tried to run down a hall away from opponents and accidentally jumped into cover the wrong way, with my back exposed to the following opponents. And there have been times where I think I’ve jumped into cover yet I stand there next to the cover getting shot. These moments are few and far between (unfortunately, much less rare are the moments where my henchmen refuse to use cover or follow my orders for more than a second or two and are quickly put down. *sigh* Jacob and Grunt seem especially fond of shirking cover entirely). But they do happen and, while they’re usually not “game over” mistakes, they do raise the tension a little more than the situation might otherwise warrant.

And that does it for my experience with combat so far. Until next time.

(For those who’ve played and are curious where I am in my playthrough, I’d guess somewhere between a quarter and half way. I’ve recovered the first batch of henchmen: the Professor, Archangel, and the Convict. I visited the Citadel and hung out with my old pal Anderson. And then I grabbed Tali, the Warlord, and the Assassin. In between acquiring cohorts, the aforementioned have been taking turns informing my assistant that they each need a favor of me. So I’ve also been earning some loyalty.)