Monday, January 14, 2008

Mass Effect: First hour or so...

Well, I just dropped Blue Dragon's 3 DVD envelope into the mail and am waiting for (hopefully) Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. I'll actually miss Blue Dragon a bit -- and will likely at some point borrow a friend's copy to grind out the last few bosses in order to defeat the game.

But, now I'm on to Mass Effect. I've deliberately set my expectations low for the first few hours of game play based partially on reviews from friends, partially from various Penny Arcade and Zero Punctuation commentaries, and partially from experience with previous Bioware games. I've set myself up for a 10 hour initial experience bar -- no quitting until the 10th hour no matter what.

Interestingly, I don't think I'm going to have a problem getting to hour 10. We'll have to see whether I press on (like I did with Jade Empire) or drop off (like I did with Knights of the Old Republic).

Anyhow, here are my notes on the first hour or so of game play.

First, Bioware did a great job with the initial gameshell experience. The visual and music treatment really set the tone nicely for a SciFi game. The music even made me think of Blade Runner a bit.

Like Assassin's Creed, the game tried to make the UI seem a part of the game fiction. In this case it was during character creation where if you chose a "custom" character you had to reconstruct a personnel data file that had become corrupted by updating various bits of data.

Some of the pros of character creation: Quick-start was emphasized -- which is great for people who want to jump in and start playing. Even if you chose to veer away from the main default character, you were then given a second quick-start option to take either a male or female character. In my mind I would have slightly altered things such that you could have chosen between three options on the main character select page (male quick-start, female quick-start, or "custom") and you could see pictures of the default characters as you highlighted male vs. female. The custom character option would then take you to the more advanced page.

Custom character creation was ultimately somewhat rewarding (I'll refer to why, below) but as an experience it was somewhat lacking. First, I had to choose some biographical and psychological details without understanding what game play effects these would have. Moreover, as I tabbed through the options, the visual representation of my character didn't change at all. This seemed like a lost opportunity given the incredible facial customization available to me later on in the process. It's nice to get visual reinforcement of your choices and this would have been a nice touch.

Thankfully, there were visual character changes when it came to selecting class. Sadly the changes were less qualitative in nature and more combinatorial. In other words, arms and body armor were basically swapped back and forth between the various pure and mixed classes. It was a nice touch -- but under-realized, I think.

Then there was the cool (but insanely detailed) face customization application. Think of Oblivion's face creator -- but where you can actually create attractive faces. For purely shallow reasons I created an attractive female face. I then noticed a scar over the left eyebrow and wondered whether it had appeared on my model as a function of the tough upbringing that she went through (I had selected this as an option as opposed to military brat). OK, that was cool. Moreover, once I experienced first hand how dialog-centric this game is, I'm glad I had a pretty face to look at. It really helps.

After character creation I went into "Options" mode. Yes, there was a "casual" option (which more and more mass market games are including these days) but unfortunately it was not very accessible for a few reasons.

  • Even though there was a ton of screen real estate, the designers chose to hide "casual" in a spinner control with the default set to "normal". There was plenty of room to list all three options (casual, normal, hard) on screen to overtly suggest to users that there were multiple options.
  • The help text for "casual" was written in a rather jargonistic way -- not exactly friendly to newbs to the genre: "All enemies including bosses are scaled down relative to the player's level. Most enemies have no special protections or invulnerabilities."
I think that Bioshock and Call of Duty 4 really handled the wording of these options much better by linking self-selected difficulty setting with self-identified gaming experience (e.g., select "casual" if you haven't played these kinds of games before). We did something like this for Rise of Nations as well.

My other worry is that a "casual" setting that basically nerfs the combat makes it more difficult for players to actually learn the strategic underpinnings of the combat system. While this means that players can move through all the content without getting blocked (a good thing) they won't necessarily get exposed to a really cool element of the game that they might actually enjoy if it were layered on correctly. I think back to Jade Empire and reflect on how the first few combat encounters were so easy that they didn't "teach" the user that there was actually strategy involved in combat -- which left me and a number of my friends high and dry at the first mini-boss battle where strategy was required to win. I persisted and ended up liking the game a lot, but one friend gave up at that point.

Back to the rest of the options: I also noticed that the target assist setting was set to "high" which made me worry that aiming was simply not going to be a fun part of the game.

Then the game, proper, began with some cool cutscenes. Way, way better than Kotor. Excellent voice acting and visuals. And it was cool how the VO reflected the choices that I had made in my background details. It really made me feel like this was a story about me. Moreover, the visuals that ended up in a screen with scrolling text made me think of the opening of an epic sci fi movie. Well done.

The basic exploration camera and controls were similar to those in Kotor. Moving around was decent, but my character did feel a bit rigid and sluggish. The interaction UI was also similar to Kotor in that relevant things for me to interact with called up a HUD element. New, I think, was the fact that an "A button" indicator only flashed up enabled when I was close enough to actively interact with something. This actually worked reasonably well.

The first few moments were dialog heavy. I must admit that I really do like the conversation mechanic. I can explore as deep or shallow as I like -- and the dialog is written well enough that I find myself actually curious to hear what my character has to say. The system is similar to (but more complex than) the Bard's Tale system -- but instead of just having a smiley or frowny face to choose from (and then the Bard says something witty and cool that reflects my sentiment) I have the standard dialog tree of options that Bioware is known for. Again, glad I chose an attractive female model because I do stare at her face quite a bit.

On the downside, Bioware continues to use the outmoded tutorial hint strategy whereby tips popup on screen in ways that are minimally contextually relevant at best. They catch me at times where I just want to move around and fiddle with basic controls so I quickly ignore them. The key missing component is tying learning to game play situations in entertaining ways that support actual player behaviors. Don't give a bullet point list of things to try. Set up a variety of interesting situations for players to solve and help them along with a hint or two when needed. In addition, the pacing of the hints was too fast -- which left me in a position either to quickly ignore them so I could actually play the game, or to pause and try and read and commit them to memory so that if I ever needed that information in the future hopefully I would be able to recall it.

The one time I did follow the hint explicitly was for a "self heal" by pressing the Y button. I know that something happened, but I wasn't sure what because I had no idea whether I had actually taken damage or how much had been healed because I hadn't even been oriented to the health bar UI.

Combat was OK. It seems to be mostly ranged at this point. I didn't realize I had leveled up for about an hour of game play (whoops -- I think this happened in Jade and Kotor as well) and so didn't realize I actually had some cool powers I could use. Well, I thought they were cool, but they didn't seem to do anything. That is to say, I wasn't presented with combat opportunities that would have encouraged me to try them to observe cool results which would in turn make me think that combat could be cool. Remember, I am a newb here. It is permissible to design encounters (and hints) in ways that get me to learn about the cool features of the game.

I failed several times to figure out the "open locked container" mini game. I may eventually have to go to Gamefaqs or some such because I keep wasting whatever fluid is required to attempt to open locks in vain attempts to do so. Again, quick text pop ups the first time you try to do something new won't generally help. If I fail, I'll need to be given reasons -- and ideally an additional chance to try (which I couldn't because I kept running out of fluid).

The few Gears of War combat features felt cool but ripped off (charge forward with camera blur effect, grab cover). Moreover, the main alien species I encountered seem like creatures from GoW. Weird.

And, as expected, the Inventory and Squad control UI screens are an intimidating mess. I could probably spend a blog post or two on this topic alone -- but I'm sure some of my good friends at MGS have done so already.

Still, I am attached to my character and have a quiet confidence that if I just stick with the game for a few hours I'll actually be able to figure out what makes combat cool enough to find it interesting. As I'm not a huge sci fi fan (I like action-adventure movies and games that set in a sci fi universe, though) I'm not sure what expectations I have of the story. But, I hear it's great so I'm curious to see where it takes me.

I'll need to post more on combat at a later date. I'm trying to figure out the big wheel of interface that forms the basis of my squad-based combat controls.

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