Wednesday, September 23, 2015

That Damned Elevator: Mass Effect

I've been catching up on another older game that gets mentioned a lot in the Replica Props community; "Mass Effect," that of the prominently used "N7" logo. It is a 2007 third-person shooter with strong RPG elements from Bioware, with a version distributed by Steam that runs quite well on a Macintosh using Wine. (The only two glitches are some dialog audio getting cut off, and the selection cursor sometimes being missing, and neither is a platform or emulator problem as they happen with the PC version as well.)

So what's to say? Thematically, it is a sprawling space opera (with surprisingly hard science behind much of it) with a certain homage towards trends in 1980's science fiction films. Play-wise, it gives roughly equal time to combat and interaction (primarily through dialog), plus the usual RPG side-tasks of shops, upgrades, and inventory management. Story-wise, it is also very smart (in the Bioware tradition) with a complex and nuanced universe filled with intriguing aliens and featuring difficult ethical questions and tough choices.

And these choices matter, which makes this game nearly unique among the games I've reviewed here. The overall flow of the story is conserved as are many "beats" -- especially key moments such as the confrontation with Wrex on Virmire or the Kaiden-or-Ashley choice -- but otherwise the story is multi-branched, with your actions causing changes from the very small (a Human representative seeking help for his stimulant addiction problem) to the outcome of the game itself.

Compare this to Bioshock. In that game, the only functional choice you have is made each time you find a Little Sister; do you Rescue, or Harvest? However, not only is this only reflected in which cut scene plays at the end, the negative choice can only be made once. Watch that first step on the road to Hell; it's the big one. In the various Half-Life games, the only nuance you can add is attempting to preserve the lives of the various hapless NPCs who chose at one moment or another to "Follow Freeman!" The first game in particular presents -- quite effectively -- an atmosphere of existential isolation, and no matter how many survivors you may encounter in the wreckage of Black Mesa, Freeman's journey is made alone. The later games give you Alyx, but every other NPC has a half-life shorter than Darmstadtium-267.

The important thing to remember when interacting with Bioware's (in)famous Dialog Wheel is that it describes deeds, not words. The short phrases describing each selection can be misleading as to what your character will actually say, but that is because you are choosing not what you say, but the flavor of the choice you are attempting to made.

Which is made clear in some examples; "Can't we talk?" or "Kill them!" are not both dialog choices. In the first, you attempt to talk your way out, using whatever words seem most appropriate to the situation. In the second, you draw. (Or, in the case of Wrex on Virmire, shoot).

My main quibble with the wheel is that rotary controls are ill-suited for mouse. It is awkward to manipulate. I assume there is an option to map it to a scroll wheel, at least in later games!

The organization of the dialog wheel is connected in intriguing ways to two other mechanisms operating in the game. One is Paragon and Renegade points. Unlike The Force in the various "Jedi" games, these are parallel and independent, not ends of a single meter. And there is no requirement to be consistent; you can take the "Paragon" approach to some problems, and the "Renegade" to others. Like so many things in the game, it is nuanced -- like Ashley, who is an honorable soldier, a good friend (and perhaps more), and a humans-only bigot. Or main antagonist Saren, who is at least a well-intentioned extremist -- and whose mind may not be, in any case, entirely his own, making him as much a victim as those he hurts.

As a general rule, Paragon tends towards solving problems without violence, but also obeying authority to a somewhat suspect degree as well as adherence to an overly strict moral code. But again, you don't have to always make Paragon choices; even my prefers-to-talk-her-way-out-of-it Femshep resorted to the Renegade option more than once to achieve her goals.

Renegade maps generally to "get the job done at all costs" but it also includes selfishness, up to an including an extremely mercenary attitude. The far end of the Renegade outcomes for the game move strongly into human-only bigotry as well. However, in dialog choices that are more commentary than functional (aka, "Go on with what you were saying" sorts of lines) the Renegade end of the dialog wheel seems to work out mostly as, "Be an asshole!"

Add to this already interesting mix two skills; Persuasion and Intimidation. Both of them unlock additional options on the dialog wheel -- if you have sufficient points in the skill in question, that is. So having just a few points in Intimidation means you almost never get the chance to use it. Having a lot of points gives you another way out of some situations. They sort of map to Paragon and Renegade, but really you get points in these based on the conclusion of an encounter.

For instance, one of my Shepards ran into a couple of rent-a-cops with guns drawn. I chose the "Intimidate" option, and told them, "We just killed twenty heavily armed mercenaries outside. What do you think we're going to do to you?" They surrendered, and I got Paragon points for avoiding bloodshed.

And, yes, you are going to want something else explained here. Besides the branching story lines, you can also tailor your character. You pick gender and tailor appearance (within reason) and you chose one of three birth options and one of three defining moments. Both get brought up in conversation now and then (I shudder to think of how many sessions the voice actors had to go through to cover all the options!) and generate a unique side story for each.

So a lot of players go through the game more than once to explore different options in the various story branches, and as part of it try out different backgrounds as well. My first Commander Shepard was born in the slums of Rio (Rio is my head-cannon; the game just says, "some big city on Earth"), has a dark complexion to go with the tight curly hair I fell in love with as soon as I saw it pop up on the hairstyle choices, and was sole survivor of the massacre of the rest of her unit during her earlier military career.

But she was also of the Engineer career path. These are options similar to the "fighter, mage, thief" specializations of the old Fantasy RPGs. Engineers and Adepts are the Crunchy Wizards of the Mass Effect world; awesomely powerful later in the game, but liable to get slaughtered in the early stages. And I was unfamiliar enough with the mechanics to be getting killed way too often.

So I started up a second Commander Shepard as a Soldier, and chose Renegade options as much as possible until I got tired of insulting everyone just for the sake of being an ass (or so it felt). Plus I agree with the majority of reviewers; the "Femshep" voice actress is incredible but male Shepard lacks something. He's a neat guy, and has done some good things in his career, but to me it sounded uncannily like a young Marc Singer, or perhaps a little Mark Hamill. Which would work for an Isaac Clarke but doesn't suit the muscled, grizzled, thick-neck Male Shepard avatar.

With that possible exception the voice acting is great overall, with memorable performances by Seth Green and Marina Sirtis among others (Matriarch Benezia is one tough lady!)  Which brings up another odd point; there are a lot of strong female characters, and perhaps none of them are "strong" in the cliched way (as in, wears tight clothing but shoots a gun a lot). Standouts are the Matriarch, crime boss Helen Blake, and Tali and Liarra from your own shipmates -- both are adorable, geeky scientific types in their own way, but emotionally tough enough to confront their fear, xenophobia, secrets of their own pasts...oh, yes, and especially when they level up a little, they kick serious ass with their tech and biotic powers respectfully.

This is undercut slightly by some of the other members of the production team; the background action and even sound design at Quora's bar made my Femshep quite uncomfortable, the Consort plotline is just weird, and the less that is said of Benezia's costume design, the better. (It is, however, a spectacular outfit, even if it does emphasize that the Asari must nurse their young.)

(As do the Quarrians and even the Salarians -- many of the races could be described as well-done rubber-forehead aliens, in that a Turian or Asari would be fairly easy to pull off in cosplay -- even a Volus, if you had the right body type. On the other hand, Rachni and Hanar and Elcor are extremely non-human, with only the later having even a tetrapod body plan. And there's a dozen or more races actually shown in just the first game alone.)

(The game also gets points for avoiding the, "Aliens learn to be more like humans" trope. If you manage to talk some sense into Garrus, for instance, it is really to make him act more Turian -- his problem was he was acting too much like a Human -- of the more renegade persuasion, but still.)

In any case, by the time the game is near the middle you've upgraded both combat skills and the equipment you and your squad carries to the point where even the tiny pistol which is all starting Engineers are allowed to handle is a hellishly effective weapon.

Which brings us to some of the flaws. Biggest among them is an overly elaborated inventory. Mass Effect has the typical PFS set of four; pistol, automatic weapon, shotgun, sniper rifle. You also have combat armor, and depending on specialty a biotic amp or a multi-tool. All of these can be traded up to a better model, even more, they have upgrade slots. There are some twenty different named brands for pistols alone, which in a brand from the same company will be offered in ten different power levels; but a "Katana-III" will outperform an "Avenger-V" in almost every way (and is clearly superior to an "Avenger-IV."

It just isn't possible to remember all the names and variations, and I think I was constantly throwing away good weapons because I needed quick cash and the inventory system made it too difficult to tell which one was which. And this has another dampening effect; sure, you can see that great little pistol in the store, and save up until you get it...but five minutes of game play later you find a copy free in a random locker or upgrade it with a different model. There's no identification, no "Oh, I like this armor -- I'm going to be using it from now on."

Weapons drops are everywhere. You can't walk through a room without finding a weapons locker to raid. The classes roughly track your current inventory, meaning if you hit the same seedy criminal bar late in the game the safe will contain "Storm-IX" and so forth. The stores as well, although the stores seem to fall a few steps behind and in my experience are rarely worth shopping at.

In fact, the balance is all off on the upgrades. Early in the game, you could use a better pistol and there is one in the store, but you haven't anywhere near enough money. Closer to the end of the game, you have money to throw away; you are finding better stuff then is in the stores anyhow.

In the middle of the game, however, you are spending a frustrating amount of time trying to micro-manage, checking every member of your squad to see if they have the best equipment in your growing inventory, and then trying to identify the less-than-best to sell back to a store or turn into omni-gel. And you can't really opt out; you need the gear to win at the fights, and you need the cash from selling off the gear you don't use. I spent a while raiding every locker I could find to convert the contents into omni-gel because dropping a hundred points of omni-gel was a lot easier than playing the Towers of Hanoi mini-game you otherwise need to in that particular episode.

Combat is also overwhelming at first, with multiple weapons options, powers options if you opted for a character class with them, management of your Shields and First Aid, and giving directions to your squad. And I still regret letting Tali learn "Singularity," because either I have to hand-manage everything my biotics and techs do from moment to moment in battle, or live with her tossing a micro-black hole right in the middle of the melee -- at the most ill-timed moments, too.

The enemies scale with progress in the game. This means if you take a lot of the side quests, you come back to the main story-line significantly buffed and encounters tend to the one-sided then. There's another in-built unbalancing aspect to progression; skill points are accrued basically to number of enemy dead (as well as, thank you! significant skill points from non-combat actions.) This means as you get more skilled, you gain points faster, meaning your progression starts slow and then increases geometrically (always assuming there are targets to go after.)

In a continuation of the same, the hacking mini-game is not fun at all, and you have to do it constantly to keep combing through lockers for new gear. Or face even more time laboriously converting one item after another into omni-gel (which allows you to skip the hacking mini-game).

The Mako -- a six-wheeled armed transport you use to explore planetary surfaces -- is a bugger to drive but cool enough that I forgive it. The maps are essentially open at all levels; both various story lines and even the room-to-room fighting of some episodes does progress more-or-less linearly, but you are given a lot of option throughout the game to go in whatever direction you feel like.

The designers did amazing work in predicting and working around most of these choices. If you put off looking for Liara until after Virmire, there is some twenty minutes of unique dialog triggered from her (as she has been suspended in the security field long enough to start hallucinating). If you randomly decide to turn over the incriminating evidence to the corrupt executive, there are complete scenes of various characters reacting to this.

And they remember. If you cut the Council off during a radio transmission, they'll comment on it the next time you contact them. And if you do it again, they'll start getting really angry!

They can't get it all -- I hit one of the subsidiary labs first in one episode and my squad mates kept going on about "Now Haslet's soul will rest easy." Err, who? Oh, right. You find his body when you hit the main base. But this is remarkable work and contrasts almost more than can be described with the cruelly meticulous lengths the Tomb Raider 2013 designers went through to make sure you play the game only the way they meant it to be played, and in the exact order.

(Invisible walls weren't enough for the Tomb Raider designers. They actually block off your movement controls and even camera control to make sure you walk where they wanted and look at what they wanted to show you.)

Yes, the weapons balance issues are a problem. The cover-based mechanism is primitive and has the now-familiar problem of getting you stuck on scenery (your character insisting on hugging a wall instead of going through a doorway). The dialog wheel options are not always clear as to what they will entail ("That's not what I thought I was going to say!") And as mentioned above the inventory management is an exercise in frustration.

(And don't get me started on the ridiculous loading screens, disguised as the worlds longest elevator rides. I've even got one of the damned things on my ship. Why? Why would I put it there! Did I enjoy the ones in the Citadel that much? Well -- at least the Citadel had Muzak in theirs.)

But the story is genuinely thought-provoking (even if many of the ideas are familiar currency to the science fiction fan), the universe deep and detailed (it is a universe with a long history; cycles after cycles of civilizations rose and fell but there are epic savage wars within the memories of some of your team mates, and wreckage in orbit with many a tale to tell). It is a lived-in universe to an astounding degree, with all sorts of barely-glimpsed side stories (what was up with that Salarian making a harried phone call to his brother?) And they knew their science -- the planetary surveys reveal an understanding of planetary geology that is at least equal to my own, and include subtle references to recent discoveries about bodies in our own Solar System. Even if the science is abused for the sake of spectacle or game mechanic; BEC's are "cool" (literally!) and very real, but they don't make a Freeze Ray possible.

The character (and alien) design is strong and the voice acting very nice. And I think the fact that you are interacting in conversation -- that you can do more than space-bar through the cutscene, but actually influence the direction it goes -- largely bridges over the Uncanny Valley. I found myself treating more of the characters in this game as "real" than I did in, say, Half-Life2. Superior graphics isn't everything.

All and all, I'd call it still well worth playing. And playing more than once, to explore some of the different options.

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