Friday, August 12, 2011

Brief Analysis: Mass Effect

With the passing of the most recent Steam summer sale I have been left with an intimidating backlog, and one of the games on that list that I am currently trying to knock out is Bioware's space RPG; Mass Effect. The concept of the game is appealing to me; a heavy science fiction atmosphere, action RPG gameplay, and a large universe to explore. Back when the game came out in 2007 it was met with critical praise and admiration, especially for its approach to narrative.

I am now playing the game four years later and I am a little confused as to why the game was given such high regard. I have not yet finished the experience, so maybe some of my notes make less of an impact when the experience is taken as a whole (which is often the case for a game that focuses heavily on story). Currently I am playing in hour to hour an a half intervals, since I can only play so much until I get disgruntled by some element of the game and outright quit.

The single most infuriating part of the game design is by far the overly simplistic and uninteresting dialogue wheel component. There are two major issues with how it functions. First, the "good", "neutral", and "bad" selections are always obvious due both to how they are written, but also due to where on the wheel they are placed. This really trivializes any attempts the developers make to have the player's conversational interactions meaningful or interesting. Second, the player's character, Commander Shepherd, will always paraphrase the responses chosen by the player on the dialogue wheel. So, for example, I select for Shepherd to say, "Get out of here! I'll handle this situation." But what he actually says in the game is phrased so differently from this at times that it gains new connotations and sometimes even causes something to happen completely contrary to what the player was hoping for. Unpredictable, random, and even unfair results from player decisions are not bad, in fact, they should be encouraged, but when the player chooses to specifically do something, that thing should happen. Does Mario only sometimes jump when I press the jump button and other times run? No, because in such an unstable system as such the player's ability to make meaningful decisions is hindered greatly.

Most of the dialogue falls flat from just being personality-less and at times unbearably formulaic. While the game must certainly have an extremely large script, taking into account such things as NPCs, quest events, mid-battle chatter, mid-elevator chatter (I am not going to go into technical issues in this analysis since they are more a failure of the early UE3 and the game's first in a series status than bad game design decisions on Bioware's part), and codex entries, there should be plans to approach such ambition properly. The dialogue's inability affects the story and characters, making them harder to immerse in.

And finally, the shooting is just bad and the inventory is unnecessarily tedious to operate. These points I am too lazy to elaborate on.

The sound design, and in particular, the soundtrack, are fantastic however. The synthesized electronic music that features throughout the entirety of the game is both atmospheric and unique. One of  the better moments of the game is just simply pressing "start" on the front menu. A crisp image of earth fills the screen, and when the player presses start a beautiful electronic note chimes as the camera pans to deep space and fades into the menu.

I also like where some of the art direction tries to go. The alien races, while most are humanoid, aren't as embarrassingly dull as the near human races found in other science fiction series (Star Trek in particular is the main offended I am afraid). The environments and the objects within are also pleasant designs, mostly playing off of the clean, white future promised by Apple.

Though I was at first surprised and upset that I had united with my whole party very early into the game, looking back I think it was an interesting and risky move on Bioware's behalf. What if the JRPG tradition of acquiring new party members along the long journey was put aside for a static cast of characters who would all get equal development and screen time thanks to being introduced all in the beginning? Game designers and their games need to be far more open to this breed of subversion.

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