Tuesday, January 15, 2008

More thoughts on Mass Effect...

So, I'm really enjoying Mass Effect for the most part. The "most part" being getting to know my character and supporting cast through interesting and engaging dialog.

Yep. By talking to people. Well, not even people. Scripted/AI bits of code that I can interact with.

It's interesting to reflect back on how attached I (and many others) became to the Weighted Companion Cube in Portal or how shocked I was when the white rabbit died in American McGee's Alice. Yet many "human" game characters with much more realistic graphics fail to spring to life.

Lots of variables come into play, especially in terms of the quality of the writing and immersiveness of the story. However, Mass Effect seems to succeed in making in game characters interesting and appealing in ways that other RPGs have failed to do in my mind. In some ways I'm reminded of Planescape: Torment with its incredible dialog amongst the main characters and the interjections between party members and various NPCs.

Where Mass Effect seems to take it to the next level is in terms of the cinematic quality of the cut scenes. They are shot like Hollywood sequences (similar camera angles, cuts, editing), feature gesturing and facial expressions that approach actual "acting", are recorded by high quality voice over talent, and are well-written snippets of dialog that convey drama as well as information.

In short, I'm actually being entertained by cut-scenes. Whoah.

Not surprising are some additional UI quibbles I feel are worth noting:

  • Map/Journal integration is dismal. Yes, you can quickly go from Map to Journal via the Y button. However, what you really want to do is pick an objective from your Journal and then quickly plot it on your map (which then gets tracked in your HUD). Oblivion actually did a good job of this.
  • Squad selection is painful and error prone. During the tutorial portion of the game you gradually acquire a bunch of NPCs that you can swap in and out. Later on you can swap NPCs at your spaceship hub (which I think was the same in KotoR). Unfortunately, there is no good way to micro your team management in one place (swap equipment, check stats and abilities, etc). All you get in the squad select UI is a big picture of the people you can choose from -- and each NPC is summed up by a single stats bar. This results in the possibility of severe errors in the first part of the game (because there is no way to change squad composition once you exit the squad select screen) and moderate errors for the rest of the game (because you need to select characters, inspect them, then go back to the select screen, lather, rinse, repeat until you get it right). Annoying.
  • The Galaxy Map UI is designed in a way that makes it prone to a variety of errors:
    • Discoverability: I couldn't figure out how to leave the original space station and go to my next location. I walked around and talked to people. I looked at the Galaxy Map. Finally I figured "it's been long enough, I must be where I should be" and walked outside -- only to find out I'd never left the station. Who knew that your default Galaxy Map view was too far in to suggest that you needed to zoom out several times in order to figure out where to go next?
    • Usability: A zooms in. B should back out, right? Nope. X backs out. B quits the Galaxy Map. Let's just say that I exited the Galaxy Map several times by mistake.
    • Usability: No integration of Journal and Galaxy Map. Forget where you're supposed to go? It's a multi-step process to call that screen up (exit Galaxy Map, go to Start Menu, go to Journal, find active quest, exit Start Menu, go to Galaxy Map, zoom out until you find a likely location, zoom in, select location).
I did experience my first vehicle combat scenario. It was about as uninteresting as I'd heard it was going to be. Luckily I figured out that holding the left trigger meant that I could at least see where I was going and aiming. But the combat feedback is so bad (basically you need to ignore all the beautiful scenery and focus on the ugly red health bar) that the whole experience seems rather hit and miss. It's too bad because it really could have been a cool mini game much the way that Kingdom Hearts 2 or Ratchet & Clank had space combat mission mini games during outer map exploration. Opportunity missed.

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