Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mass Effect: The (often fun, but sometimes painful) addiction has begun

I'm about 15-20 hours into Mass Effect and I'm pretty sure I'm in it for the long haul at this point. I'll probably stay on the relatively fast track (though I would probably do more side quests if there were a better way to manage location-based journal entries) until I reach the end.

And I'll probably end up liking it a bunch. Maybe even a lot.

Before I get into a litany of usability related complaints, I should reflect a moment on what I do like about the game:

  • The writing. It's great. Humor, intrigue, and even romance seems to work in that awkward "I play a female character and don't want to be hit on by male characters" kind of way.
  • The combat. It can be exciting and strategic and fun. Even the driving combat. This manages to happen often enough, despite my complaints below, to provide some memorable and engaging combat sequences.
  • The exploration. The universe seems big and interesting enough to compel me to wander and explore. As much as I want to move through this game so I can keep moving through my queue, it's going to be exceptionally hard to not grind through some of the side quests.
Next part: The complaints. The infuriating parts of the game that leave me already wishing for a sequel if only it could be taken and given some serious love by an independent developer who shared my passion for making great core game concepts accessible and usable. No offense, Bioware, but your game systems are difficult to penetrate and geared towards the core grognard. A slight shift in vision and your games could find a much wider audience (not that sales of Mass Effect are anything to complain about).

Vehicle Exploration & Combat:
  • I feel like I'm firing at the 2-d targeting indicators on my HUD instead of at enemies because they're too lethal to engage at close range and thus appear too small, too far away, and too hard to read off the terrain. This is a hard issue to solve -- we had the same issues in Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, especially on larger maps.
  • In addition, I feel like I need to stare at the enemy health bar to tell whether I'm hitting my target or not. There was a huge lost opportunity to use audio feedback to indicate hits (full damage, partial damage), misses, and deaths.
  • Lava textures are hard to detect in some rocky environments. This is all the more frustrating because lava = instadeath: The game provides no "get the heck off my lawn" indicators (sound, visuals, health bar depletions, etc).
Autosave system:
The autosave system is inexcusably bad. I have had to play huge chunks of unrelated gameplay after dying in a combat encounter. For instance, I completed a driving mission and left my vehicle behind, then got ambushed while on foot in a completely new location. I lost that battle and had to replay about 10 minutes of driving mission again. Why do players need to backtrack 10+ minutes of game play because they get killed in a battle immediately after completing a quest that advances the story?

I feel like I'm working on a Microsoft Word document where I need to keep hitting "Alt-F-S" to save every few moments because if I forget just one time I'm going to wind up with a Sev 2 failure. What is the point of even having an autosave feature in this game if it's not going to provide sensible checkpoints? It really does remind me of my experience with Metroid Prime (which I quit after the losing the second boss battle and several hours of game play). The original Halflife really innovated in this area and provides a best practices example of how autosaves should work: Checkpoint reached = quick autosave indicator, a change in music, and the obvious beginning of a new sequence to be savored and that can quickly be replayed whether you succeed or fail (I often replayed key battles because they were so much fun).
My squad mates:
  • Note that some of my below criticisms have changed a bit now that I have a squad mate who can cast "Singularity" (which is really freaking cool) and a shotgunner with enough weapon and ammo upgrades to knock enemies flying. The question is: Why did squad mates only start to do cool things after 10+ hours of game play?
  • The default combat AI (I've got it set on "active") isn't that exciting. I don't get much feedback when they do something cool (like use a buffing power) or useful (like take out an enemy I can't see). They don't seem to do cool things by default (e.g., sniper sets up on periphery while melee person dashes in for close quarters combat). This is another problem we faced in Crimson Skies.
  • While I seem to be able to target my squad mates' special abilities on specific enemies, I can't seem to target their basic weapon attacks at all (e.g., if we need to focus fire on a boss or if I need them to hunt and kill a separate enemy).
  • Squad "move to" orders are clumsy. They'd be OK if I had two melee fighters and they always went to the same spot. But I don't want my sniper and shotgunner standing in the same place usually.
  • What I find I really want is something much more like the system in Star Wars: Republic Commando where it's easy to focus fire on enemies, the AI seemed to do smarter and cooler things in battles, AI and level design were integrated to create some cool set piece battles, and there was better voice feedback, too.
Combat challenge progression curve:
There were big bumps in the combat difficulty progression curve. I also commented on this problem with Jade Empire where my experience was: Easy, easy, almost impossible (at the first boss battle), medium, medium, found the golden path, easy, easy, easy.

In Mass Effect I had to replay my first boss battle about 10 times before I completed it which was kind of frustrating. It basically felt like this battle -- which should have been exciting -- had not been properly balanced for my playing ability and squad composition. I had done pretty well in combat up until this point which made the seemingly exponential increase in difficulty frustrating.

That said, there were also some other reasons that make boss battles (that usually follow cut scenes) extra frustrating:
  • After a pre-battle cut scene ends, my camera is usually left pointing in wrong direction (in the sky, at the ground, or otherwise in the wrong direction).
  • As soon as the battle starts I can queue up a few orders, but not enough to get us going in a strategic sense. I find that the only successful strategy is to quickly have my squad mates run to cover and then try and regroup and win the war of attrition.
  • It's often hard to keep my squad mates alive and doing useful things -- especially if they run off screen.
  • I'm left wondering whether it is really necessary for me to die 7-10 times during a battle and have to replay all the cut scenes each time? In some cases this is compounded by the flawed autosave system whereby I can't change my squad's equipment load out in between attempts. Yes, I can press the start button and change a bunch of upgrades and ammo types the moment the battle starts and I regain control, but this is tedious if I need to do this 5 times in a row (instead of just changing the load out to what I want and reloading it each time I die).
The spreadsheet:
I've already referenced my manual save habits when using Microsoft Word. I guess it's also worthwhile mentioning that the actual game system still seems too Microsoft Excel to me. Yes, I used to play pencil and paper RPGs and loved all the stats. I just think that computers should make the underlying systems less in your face to players. I have to believe that many other RPGs (and action adventure/fighting games) have combat systems as deep and robust as that in Mass Effect yet I don't have to care about fractions of a percent changes to combat variables based on what upgrades, items, skills, buffs, and enemy characterstics are being weighed in the final equation.

Even though Mass Effect has a "casual" level of difficulty, I can't for a minute believe that non-grognards will be able to make meaningful choices between whether they should spend their skill point to reduce cooldown time by an extra 2% or to increase damage per second by 1.7%.

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