05 August, 2010

Design comments on Mass Effect 2

This post is long, so I'll briefly say that I liked Mass Effect 2 overall. BioWare continues to do good things. As a player, I enjoy their products; as a designer, I think they are doing good things for gaming and interactive storytelling.

Things I liked:

Character interaction: I am a sucker for backstory (I actually read all those encyclopedia entries) and by the end of the game I felt connected to my crewmates. In talking to them, I got to know them as people and not just extra guns with legs. Thane and Samara were my favorites. While extremely capable and powerful individuals, they still have flaws. (This is something BioWare is very good at. To my knowledge, there are no Mary Sues in their stories.)

Dilemmas: There were a few points where it actually felt like my decisions affected more than just the little blue and red paragon/renegade bars on the character screen. In particular (no spoilers: the dilemmas of Tali and Legion, and the choice you’re faced with at the very end of the game were all defining moments for me.

Things I disliked:

Disjointed science fiction: Sci-fi is established when the story world exists outside the “real world,” with enough connection to be believable or accommodated by suspension of disbelief. (For example, Star Trek characters eat and drink regular food that is impossibly constructed atom-by-atom in a few seconds.) Two examples from Mass Effect 2: the salarian GameStop game shop clerk on Ilium who talked to me about DRM, and the chain email I received at my personal terminal on the Normandy (as in "forward this to five people or you'll be mauled by pandas" chain email). Immersion was broken for me both times.

Inconsistent dialogue patterns: Normally, the left-most conversation option opens branches with more information (the “Investigate” option.) Once you are finished in that branch, you can resume the main thread and progress conversation. In a few instances, some of those Investigate options move the main dialogue thread forward. It’s rare, but frustrating.

Mystery meat design: *SPOILERS AHEAD*--------- There are a few people out there mystified by the ending choices [1] [2] [3]. When I myself lost two of my team members during cinematics, I almost put down the controller without finishing the game.

I thought I had been so thorough, pairing what I knew of my squadmates with the bio information in the selection screen to choose the best person for each job. Anthony Burch sums it up well in his Destructoid article: “[They] died not because I'd made difficult choices that indirectly led to their deaths, nor because I'd specifically chosen to save one person over another. No: they died because I chose the wrong answer to a multiple-choice question.”

I was especially frustrated when Grunt was killed by stray bullets coming through the door. Grunt’s loyalty mission teaches the player that Krogan are the toughest fighters in the galaxy with redundant vital organs and physical regeneration, with Grunt himself being the “ultimate Krogan” (i.e. the one creature in your group that can’t be killed by a few stray shots.)

I respect the drama and finality that the designers wanted to put into this part of the game and I can't wait to see this refined and expanded in Mass Effect 3. However, this time I was left feeling like my team members were killed not by our mutual enemy, but by bad design.

(Next commentary, Kayne and Lynch 2: Dog Days)
(Previous commentary, Red Faction: Guerilla)

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