Because even thoughts need a place to rest.

16th December 2012

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Mass Effect 2: 3rd Session

I figured out about three seconds before it was revealed who Archangel was. And yeah, everyone was right—Garrus is a lot more interesting in the sequel.

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I forgot to mention that I stuck with my Vanguard class. Though I was interested in the engineer class (sort’ve a modernized summoner class), it just felt right to stick to my guns and play what I had in the first game. I’ll probably bring the same attitude to the third game. So far I’ve liked the choice. I really enjoy the charge command and all the possibilities for combos it holds—like mixing it with warp and following with a fire shotgun blast. This game is all about combos, it seems, and about laying on damage in quick succession to stagger enemies. Pretty fun stuff.

I’m still getting used to some of the details. I died a few times in the Archangel mission, mostly because I was approaching the game like Mass Effect 1. A few things I’ve learned so far (remember, I’m playing on Hardcore):

  • use cover all the time
  • focus on one guy at a time
  • save your abilities for the right moments (I’m debating turning off auto ability for my teammates, in fact).
  • create choke points where enemies can’t get behind you. If you get surrounded, you’re pretty much dead

Anyway, the combat is really fun and satisfying, not least because of the character animations that really show guys reacting to your attacks. In Shepherd and co., too—like being set on fire sucks mostly because of all the flailing that stops you from shooting.

Animations have really added a lot to the game this time around. One of my favorite things so far has been how most longer conversations become semi-cinematic, with characters moving around, or leaning on furniture, or taking drinks, etc. Such a little touch, but it makes these conversations so much more interesting. I don’t know how I would ever go back to a Dragon Age orElder Scrolls after this, where everyone stands awkwardly in one place, exclaiming their life’s story with the same bored armed gestures they use to tell you about the time they got shot in the kneecap.

Another cool thing has been all the little scenes and interactions that can occur as interludes to the main story. They don’t requires hours of time or side missions—they are just little scenes that help build the world and the characters and make you feel like you are really directing this show. Like getting Dr. Chakas the bottle of brandy and then having a drink with her—that took about a minute, all told (including getting the bottle and then the scene of drinking)—but was an involving little moment where you get to make the final toast and steer the mood of the scene. Doing these kind of things captures, for me, what was great about old point-and-click adventure games. You got to frame the mood of the scene with the responses you chose to give. This is no different, but on a much grander scope and with a lot more weight.

Next session, I’ll be headed after the Salarian Doctor, and finishing up a few items on Omega. I did try out the scanning system this time and, yes, I do prefer it to the Mako vehicle sections. It’s a fun little mini-game, as are all the hacking games. Well, I’m not so enamored with the “memory” style hack, but I really like the one where you have to match the hacking codes while traversing a scrolling maze of text, some of it good and some of it dangerous.

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

15th December 2012

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Mass Effect 2: 2nd Session

I have another musical interlude for you. This time I’m not the first person to figure it out (I was surprised no one else brought up Myst with Mass Effect 1); I saw a few people had already mentioned this one when I went on to post about it. It’s between Alien and Mass Effect 2.

Alien first (this is the Space Jockey theme, played while they are investigating the derelict ship—you don’t have to listen to the whole thing). Now Freedom’s Progress. Hear it? You can’t do the simultaneous play like you could with the last one, but it’s still a cool reference.

The whole scene is kind’ve a reference to Aliens, as well—checking abandoned trailers, the ominous mood. It doesn’t last very long, which would be a shame if the fighting weren’t so good. I was shocked to see Tali show up so soon. Our meeting was… odd. She seemed more annoyed with me than anything, but then I didn’t know her very well from the first game—I only really formed a relationship with Liara. Garrus and Ashley I had a lot of interactions with on various missions, too. Still, Tali was in my final party so this informal interaction with her had a real coldness to it that chilled my soul.

Just as with the first game, the combat system takes some getting used to. I’m playing on Hardcore and I haven’t had too much trouble yet, but it might be because it’s early. I’m fumbling my way through a couple things. I like all the changes, especially that you no longer have to level up specific guns—which pretty much made you stick with one gun all throughout the first game. Here you have to switch weapons to take advantage of different shielding. You know, for such a simple concept, very few RPGs make you switch weapon types like this. More games should take advantage of it. It might bring a more tactical consideration into even simple RPGs. It was the only thing I liked aboutFinal Fantasy XIII(it wasn’t weapons, but the switching was still an integral part of the game).

The only thing I haven’t quite figured out yet is the different ammo types. I see that I can “power” my bullets to be incendiary and I do it quite often, but I’ve yet to figure out if this is a limited-number-of-shots effect or if it has any downsides that mean I shouldn’t be using it all the time. So far, it seems like something that should always be on.

Freedom’s Progress was short. Enjoyable, but I absolutely loved what it’s led to. The “search out recruits across the galaxy” set up really entices me. It’s a very cool way to start the more open-world aspect of the story and a great idea all around, especially when bolstered by the potential to meet characters from the first game who have been lost. And how cool is it that Garrus just disappeared? Again, no spoilers, but I’ll be curious to see what he’s been up to. Anyway, it puts the player in the mode of “hunter” and all the dossiers are just exploding in my mind as a bunch of cool stories I get to check out.

Aside from this, all the new features were thrown at me on the ship, not to mention new crew members and, well, a new ship in general. It was a bit much for me to take in tonight, so I’m putting it aside for next time. I am excited to look at them, though, and delve deeper into the new intricacies of the gaming system. There are even a lot of little things that I’m enjoying. Like, for instance, I never posted about it but the fact that you can’t run outside of combat in in Mass Effect 1 drove me a little crazy. It’s much appreciated here.

Everything is much appreciated here. I’m glad that so much effort went into creating this experience. It is one of the few that is both an experience and a game. I’m going to have to start looking for things to complain about.

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

15th December 2012

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Mass Effect 2: 1st Session

Wow. This is an entirely different kettle of fish.

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I did play the demo of Mass Effect 2 a ways back when it first came out for the PS3. I was a tough sell then—I didn’t know the world or these characters. A lot of Playstation owners played the Genesis comic and seemed satisfied with that, but I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with that. I played the demo because I wanted to check out what I heard was fantastic gunplay (I agreed then and still think so now: it is amazingly fun) but the deeper aspects of the story I simply didn’t have a connection to.

is much more impressive now that I’ve played the first one. Seeing the graphical and sound overhaul was my first big wow.Mass Effect 1doesn’t look horrible by any stretch of the imagination—but that same imagination has to be used to fill in a lot of gaps. You end up seeing the same animations over and over and there’s a blandness to the environments that starts to make the whole thing seem a little dull.

Not the case here. From the start I was blown away by the fluidity of movement and the new focus on mood setting and giving a real grasp of other environments and of space. The game knows it, too—it starts off by showing off with that big explosive sequence in the Normandy. Of course, for me, Liara featured heavily in that segment (and the graphical overhaul on her was enough to make me actually start thinking about what a love scene might look like in this game). Again, her presence and my history with her added a layer to Shepherd deciding to stay on board the ship that couldn’t be had without my playthrough of Mass Effect 1, nor would I have been able to connect with Shepherd’s desire to save Joker. As Shepherd’s body floated in the vacuum of space, I had actual companions to think about—and awakening two years later to find they had scattered had a profound effect on me.

The game’s entire presentation and feel has been touched up and polished. The fighting is better, the cover system is excellent, the tactics are that rare kind where the game seems to understand what I am aiming to do in battle and rewards me accordingly. I have never felt more in control of a third-person shooter.

I also love the new “after mission” reports. In general, I love the way the story is laid out. This time the plot opens with mystery, tension, and conflict—with heavy doses on mystery. You really feel like you’re playing a Shepherd who is compromised, who may be in over her head. That’s quite an accomplishment, because the previous game left me feeling like I had conquered everything with nothing left to challenge me. I was at my physical peak, sure, but also I had bested the bureaucracy of politics, had put together a strong team, and had ruthlessly made my enemies fear me.

This game subverts all that instantly. As soon as Shepherd “died” all the politics went back to ground zero. Your team is disbanded and spread across the galaxy, destroying those careful bonds you worked so hard to create. Your love interest has abandoned you (understandably, they think you’re dead). Worst of all, you are working for one of your former enemies, the Cerberus corporation. And they have you in a very tight spot and on a tight, if invisible, leash. The setup tells you that you’re in a cage, but it refuses to show you exactly where the bars are, or who is holding the key. It’s brilliant.

And Bravo, I say, to the game developers! Mass Effect 1 was a great start, but it didn’t change the way I look at games or RPGs. This one does. What I’m playing, I must admit, may be one of the most polished games I’ve ever encountered. I sped through Mass Effect 1. I’d like to take my time with this one.

That said, I’ve already done a second session tonight. I would combine it into this one, but it’s getting a little long. So check back later for part 2, in which I enter Freedom’s Progress, note the musical references to Alien, try to figure out some of the new combat change, and have an awkward meeting with an old teammate.

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

15th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 15th Session (Final Session)

I pretty much sped through the final stages today. I ended up using Liara and Tali—it was an intense crack team of biotic and tech specialists. Seriously. Most enemies didn’t get a chance to even approach us. The icing on the team was me using the explosive rounds in my pistol—with advanced marksman I could get off about eight carefully timed shots before an overheat. That’s eight shots of pure power. The only time I switched it up was for the final fight against Sovereign Saren—he was simply too fast for me to try and aim carefully. I used Tungstun rounds. Not great, but we still took him down with a minimal of fuss.

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Bagged a ton of trophies this run—including tactician, which I was really aiming for (take more damage to shields than to health). So that felt good.

I also finally closed the loop with Liara and was rewarded with a… well… a 3D porn scene. I’ll admit I didn’t quite know what to think about that. I mean, Shepherd and Liara make a hot couple, don’t get me wrong—but I’ve never really been able to get into the computer model porn. The only game that ever even remotely turned me on with a sex scene was Heavy Rain and that’s mostly because the textures are absolutely ridiculous in that game. Here it was more like watching the color blue have sex with the color pale.

I kind’ve wish Shepherd had stayed dead at the end, because that was a surprisingly intense moment—also I’m kind’ve a downer when it comes to stories, I really like my tragedies. Again, not looking for any spoilers regarding the endings of the next two games. Of course, I do happen to know that Shepherd gets blown up at the beginning of ME2, or at least that’s what I recall from when I played the demo several years ago.

Not much else to say about the game right now. The ending sequence was good and fun—and I’m very thankful they didn’t extend the final dungeon out longer than they did. I was dreading them making me go into Sovereign itself for a final enemy gauntlet and very pleasantly surprised when they didn’t do that. The final space fight was satisfying enough and I liked being made a part of both the decisions of that fight and the political designation afterwards. Although honestly—does anyone ever on their first time make Ambassador Udina the council member? Why would you? What an asshole. He doesn’t even bother to pretend he’s not, either. Obama for council member, all the way.

Anyway, that’s it for Mass Effect 1. I’m going to install the second game now, transfer my character and do all the downloads and what not and just play for a very small bit, enough to get a solid save file started. I’ll start posting sessions shortly. 

If you’ve been following the whole time, then thanks for reading my playthrough! If you have any questions about things I didn’t cover here, like what I thought about so-and-so or such-and-such a mission or some choice I made that you’re dying to know about, let me know and I’ll post up my answers. One question I’ll take care of right now, this is what my Shepherd looked like:

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Tagged: mass effect playthrough

15th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 14th Session

Short one this time. Really I’m just tackling those last Geth side quests. This one turned out to be pretty long, as it spans an entire system. It feels right, though. I’m really taking the fight to the Geth. I even had a fun run getting out of my land cruiser and taking on a Colossus on foot. Using Marksman pistols and explosive rounds makes it go faster than you might think—but it’s also very doable with high barrier and rounds of any caliber. Those things don’t turn so well.

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This is the last side mission I’m doing. I know I’ve harped on them a lot here at the end of the game, but that should actually be interpretted as looking more favorably on the main story. I actively desire to get back to the story and the feeling that these missions are distracting me from that has a lot to do with why I dislike them. I’m not excusing their design but it’s also not design that is remarkably bad. It simply doesn’t live up to the standards set by the rest of the game—and when put alongside the rest of the game, that makes it seem fairly unbearable.

… except for the rocky planets. Trying to drive on those planets does truly suck.

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

15th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 13th Session

Bring down the sky. You know, I almost missed this mission entirely?

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I totally didn’t realize that this was a special mission—I’d seen that asteroid X57 highlighted but I didn’t realize it was plummeting towards a planet! As it was one of the few named places on the main map, I sort’ve lumped it in with the main missions. But I suppose this must’ve been one of the downloaded content that came with the Trilogy pack.

It really stood out as a side mission. It was fast paced, relatively dangerous (I am over leveled at this point) and there were at least two touch choices—whether to kill the hostages or kill the terrorist was the major one. Under normal circumstances, I would’ve saved the hostages, but earlier I had talked one of the Batarian lieutenants into making a power play and that was going to fail with nasty results for him if I let the leader go. There were other reasons, too, but that was a big one—I’d never promised to save the hostages, but I’d given my word that the Batarian lieutenant would come out of things okay. Funny how that works in my mind, but my word given to anyone is something I feel I must uphold. I don’t know if this mission has any bearing on future games, but I’ll be curious to see if it does, for sure.

The other tough call (perhaps maudlin compared to the other one) was what equipment to take as a reward. I wish I could’ve seen the items—as it was, I went with the charm option and nabbed an incredible omni tool. Which is a little disappointing for Shepherd, considering she doesn’t use an omni tool—but pretty nice for Liara or Tali. Probably Liara, since I think my final strike team is going to be her and Garrus. I’m tempted to bring Tali, though, because she has such high abilities in both hacking AI and also in unlocking crates. So we’ll see.

One thing that was missing from this mission were the various points of interest around the map, like the anomalies and the mineral deposits. I didn’t miss them. Actually, until this mission, I didn’t realize quite how much I hate them. Little dots on my map that I feel obligated to go to (not to mention searching out the ones that don’t appear on the map automatically) and thus extend a side quest out for no good reason except to play a game of simon says and “collect all the goodies.” Ugh.

Tomorrow I will complete one final side quest. I’m limiting myself to only one more. It was a toss up between an Exo-Geni quest (which I never did get around to exploring those) or the Geth in the Armstrong Cluster. I decided on the Geth and it looks to be a long series of quests. But it felt most appropriate with the timing of the rest of the story and after that it’s on to Ilos and the end of the game.

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

13th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 12th Session (and continuation of design discussion)

You know, every time I start Mass Effect I can’t help but think of Myst. It’s that music! Check it out (and then play them at the same time—it’s eery how much it works):

Mass Effect Title Screen Music

Myst: Planetarium

Anyway, I beat Noveria tonight and the story did what I suspected it would do—a chunk of plot section followed by a final dungeon. Right now I’m doing what I said I would and am tackling a couple last side missions. I don’t know how many I’ll do—I’m getting pretty ready for the game to end.

Noveria was a mixture of complete disappointment and surprising satisfaction. The Rachni storyline was very well worked into the game, though it felt like it borrowed about a thousand cues from the Ender series. I saved the Rachni Queen; just couldn’t bring myself to completely eradicate a galactic species. Much like Ender. Kudos to Mass Effect for actually putting me in Ender’s position. Ashley didn’t like my decision.

Where Noveria fell flat was in its level design. The main city/complex especially; where it felt unfinished. There simply weren’t enough NPCs populating the area and I always feel a little silly when a game stages two big areas right next to each other. In this case it was the offices of some kind of administrator (which was made up of literally just his office and a secretary’s desk out front; again, there’s that unfinished feeling) and then the science building he’s robbing…

… which is literally a thirty second walk across the compound. It’s just one of those things that breaks my immersion, when everything is a little too close together. Even in older RPGs, I always appreciated the ones which gave me a feeling of scale. For instance, Earthbound,which persevered against very limited graphics to still make every city feel large. I mean, Fourside, for all that you can probably only go in about four buildings, still seems huge—because those four buildings aren’t right next to each other. Even Beyond Good and Evil, which was very limited in its scope, made things feel somehow distant from each other. KOTOR did a pretty good job of it, too—the worlds were cleverly designed so that you felt they were much more expansive then they really were.

Anyway. I did take Liara on this mission. I somehow feel that few people don’t—the game even tells you that it would be nice of you to take her along and meet her mother. For all that, the scenes between her and her mother were fairly predictable. The fight was annoying—twice I had to restart it because I got stuck in the floor or walls. Just more glitches. Twice after that I died and I thought this was going to be one of those annoyingly tough fights placed right after an unskippable cutscene—but then I discovered that the right side of the room is pretty much undefended. Guys do run in, but one casting of lift takes care of them.

With Noveria over, there was a nice little plot twist (being grounded) to propel me into the next section. I like everything about how this panned out. The little moment I got with Liara was perfect; as was Keith David’s (going by voice actor here—might as well call him Goliath) knocking out the ambassador to hack me into the Normandy. I wanted it to happen, and then it did.

So now we come to the end of the game and I’m itching to just go ahead and finish it. The side missions have finally worn thin for me and I’m not really enjoying them any more. The stories of the are cool and I like seeing how everything pans out. There’s usually some twist I’m not expecting.

But the missions themselves are pretty, well, bad, on a lot of levels. The Mako has outlived its welcome by this time. It’s not the driving itself which bugs me. It’s just that there’s not a lot to, uh, do while you’re driving around. Very few enemies and when they are there, they are either too hard to stand and fight or way too easy to kill (though I never get tired of running into guys and seeing them fly for a mile).

Worse, though, is when you’re on foot. The “dungeons” set up in the side missions are really just the same three or four room configurations with different kinds of cover and enemies thrown in. I’ve seen the bunker and lab layouts so many times that it’s become pretty boring. The mission is always slightly different, but really the approach is the same: run in, use lift, use throw, anyone who isn’t dead by now kill with Marksman. The layout just doesn’t change anything substantially.

And even if it did, I would still be tired of looking at the same colors and rooms by now. I had this realization recently while replaying Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana that part of what made these old games great was their diversity of location. It’s what made games like Illusion of Gaia and Earthbound really feel like world journeys. No two places were alike! And it made some games which had their share of problems, like Secret of Evermore, stand out in my memory. Really, Evermore outdid itself in terms of where you actually went, from the Jurassic period to Space and a ton of fantasy locations in between. Or, to bring up an example from earlier: Myst. That was kind’ve the point and is pretty much the only thing which has aged well—the Ages themselves.

My favorites in every category did this: Goldeneye, Metroid Prime, Zelda: Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country 2, Banjo Kazooie, Starfox 64, Mario 64—it’s the locations that, even years later, I want to return to in those games more than the gameplay or the story. I want to trudge through the snow on the way to the Sverjna bunkers; I want to revisit the four seasons of Click Clock Woods; I want to explore the aquatic world of Aquas; ride the roller coasters in Kremland; want to find my way into the Swamp of Despair. Kudos if you know which games I’m talking about.

It was a lot easier to do this kind of diversity when you weren’t working with complicated 3D graphics, which is why I think we rarely see it as much these days. It’s a shame. I may love Fallout: New Vegas, but I’m also exhausted by it. It’s hours and hours of the same gloomy scenery. You can travel the whole of that map and feel like you’ve been nowhere. It’s why many of those games I feel have a really fantastic start—where you’re getting the most out of the setting—and then a bitterly boring middle section where you’re actually exploring and realizing you’re seeing the same thing over and over.

I give Mass Effect credit for having come up with some great variety in its planetscapes. But ultimately it has a similar problem. It fights it well and manages to distract from it with fun gunplay and fantastic writing. It also took care to differentiate the settings of its main missions, which was a well made decision. So, for the most part, you can play it without feeling this issue. But when you tackle a string of side quests, you start to see it more and more clearly.

Tagged: mass effect playthroughMyst

13th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 11th Session (and design discussion)

Last night I was surprised to realize that I’m almost done with the game. I wouldn’t be surprised if after Noveria there is only more main mission to complete. Again, I’m not looking for spoilers if there’s some big twist that’s gonna blow the game right open. But you can tell me if I’m right ^_^

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I’m basing this assumption off of a few things.

Stats: Shepherd is in her thirties, level-wise, and full up on a couple skills now. I assume that points will start to slow down, yet there’s simply not much better she can get unless another class specialization shows up. I’m already wiping the floor with every enemy and boss on Veteran mode. Also, the big “level” trophy is for level 60.

Weapons: the guns I’m buying now are getting close to max stats.

Trophies: As mentioned, there’s the level trophy, but in general I’ve collected most of the trophies now (or have missed certain ones permanently for this playthrough). I just got the Paragon trophy last night.

So anyway, that puts me at about 35 hours for completion.

I’m not disappointed. Actually, I think that thirty-forty hours is a sweet spot for video game rpgs that is too often grossly missed these days. My love for Final Fantasy VII and X not withstanding, the best-paced RPGs that I can think of are around thirty hours—Final Fantasy IV and VI, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG (that one might be 20 hours, actually), Earthbound. I’m sure others can think of more. Even Final Fantasy VII, if played at a less leisurely pace than I tend to, ends up with a story around forty hours.

There are many good RPGs that don’t follow this rule, such as the Persona series, but they also struggle to maintain my interest and often feel in need of heavy editing. Thirty hours feels like the perfect length for a story told in this medium. You have to figure, in a good RPG of this length, gameplay makes up the majority of this. Actual dialog and story probably only make up about two hours of the game, if played all at once with all the gameplay skipped. Certainly not more than five hours, which is the length of two epic films, or a trilogy of more modesty paced films.

A lot of math and careful calculation goes (or should go) into the creation and design of a video game’s plot progression. How do you balance plot exposition with dungeon length? At what point in the game is it best to ramp up the dungeons and tone down the plot?

For ages, games worked off of the Link to the Past model (and many still do), wherein the majority of the plot was given up front and the dungeons consistently ramped up. In fact, the 3-7 dungeon model that was employed for that game’s Light and Dark world would be copied by many RPGs, with a shift in tone and plot occurring after the third dungeon, and an introductory dungeon beforehand serving as a place to give almost all of the back plot (and to serve as a tutorial dungeon).

Mass Effect really falls into this Link to the Past category, though shortened, with a clearly established first dungeon on Eden Prime where most of the plot is described, a recruitment mission on the Citadel, and then a three world run (with Vimire appearing as a surprise fourth world); I assume from the design model that this will be split by a big plot surprise and then there will be a very long final world mission (or maybe two).

The bane of this model has been the addition of non-linear side quests to RPGs. Think about it. You’re on a race to find Saren before he can find and activate the conduits. It is literally a race—time is very much of the essence. And what do you do? You jump all over the galaxy exploring for minerals. It completely destroys tension. It’s one of the reasons why I think JRPG series like Final Fantasy traditionally put their side quests at the end of the game, where the plot has more or less resolved itself and the bad guy is in hiding, waiting for the final confrontation. No one cares at that point if you want to go breed Chocobos—you got time.

Final Fantasy VI was maybe the best example of this because the villain won. Kefka destroyed the world. You could literally turn the game off after the midpoint and consider it the end of the story. Even the characters in that game are constantly debating whether to go on—so any time you spend not fighting Kefka can be interpreted as a continuation of their personal debate.

In Western RPGs, games like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate put an emphasis on non-linearity which is now considered some kind of design requirement. And a lot of gamers like the “choice” of being allowed to break from the main storyline and explore more of the setting. But how much of a choice is this? Inevitably, completionists of these RPGs will attempt to do every side quest—it’s not like that really represents a choice.

Mass Effect does choice right in its dialogs and tough decisions it forces players to make. It does work in its side quests to a degree, by having them forge relationships that I’m sure will come up again in later games. So, in this way, not doing a side quest does have a choice-like effect. As a result of this and stellar gunplay, I have had a lot of fun with Mass Effect’s side missions, but they have also posed a threat to its pacing that I have felt tickling at the corners of my appreciation for the game—usually while I’m running around the Citadel scanning the Keepers or helping someone gamble while Saren wipes out another race… theoretically.

And while I’m doing this I can’t help but wonder: what would this feel like if Saren actually was wiping out another planet while I gambled?

In most ways, Mass Effect has passed the design test amazingly well, with a great balance of plot and exploration, of side mission and main quest. I still am drawn to the FFVI model of having side quests come after the plot is more or less resolved; or maybe I’d like to see new games take a different approach to side quests and cut down on the number of them that can be completed each run through. Tackle the Cerberus side quests? Then you lose out on the Dr. Saleon side quest cause he gets away. Want to track down those biotics holding out with Major Kyle? Then you’re going to lose the opportunity to investigate Geth activity on the outworlds. It would be interesting to be able to tackle two or three side quests at each plot break—you could mix and match—and then be forced back to a main mission.

Those kind of scenarios would really make me think and bring me back to choice. Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes a gamer think more than the choice between giving up one series of missions over another (unless its the decision to give up a bad-ass weapon or a bad-ass magic spell). It drives completionists like me into a frenzy of anxiety, makes us start planning our replays of the game, and (most importantly) it does more than just let us explore a world—it lets us have a stake in that world.

Tagged: mass effect playthroughGame Design

11th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 10th Session

This is really just a quick one: I decided I wanted to get some gaming in to relax and so took on some side missions, despite my last post.

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I was planning on just doing the Dr. Saleon mission, but that went so unexpectedly fast that I moved on to do a Cerberus mission as well. Really, Dr. Saleon’s ship was only three rooms and only one had enemies. It was nothing against Garrus, Shepherd, and Ashley.

Destroyed all the Cerberus plants, at least the ones I know about. I was stoked to see the Rachni back—I’m not looking for spoilers, but I hope they end up playing a bigger role. Maybe it’s just that I saw Starship Troopers as a kid or maybe it’s Starcraft’s Zerg, but I have a fondness for fighting giant alien bugs. They creep me out in such a good way.

Anyway, Cerberus ended with a call from one of the Shadow Broker’s men. I… didn’t take him up on his offer. A part of me wanted to, but I like to know where my information is going to and with the Shadow Broker, you never do know. I really wonder how that decision will play out. The man was not happy.

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

11th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 9th Session

The Normandy is a somewhat subdued vessel these days. Two crew members failed to return alive from Vermire, Ashley blames herself (and Shepherd) for Kaiden’s death, Shepherd and Garrus have hatched a plan to kill Saren rather than capture him, and Liara has stopped responding to Shephard’s advances. With this mood, galavanting off across the galaxy in search of side quests feels… inappropriate. I think I may continue on to Noveria directly and finish up what I think is the last of the beacon missions.

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On another note, Virmire turned out to be kind’ve glitchy. Twice I got stuck and had to reload.

The first had to do with a door that wouldn’t open. This is at the point in Virmire where Kaiden/Ashley calls in and says they need help. Ashley says she’ll work on the bomb and I’m supposed to go to the AA tower. There’s a big door which looks like, on the map, where I’m supposed to go, but I couldn’t see a way to open it. There was a button near the door, but no command associated with it.

Or maybe I just ran to the wrong door. In that case, this wouldn’t be a glitch so much as poor directions. I have had that problem several times throughout the game, where I just don’t know where I’m supposed to go or how to clear an area. This was the only time I actually reset my game to deal with it—the other time was when I was trying to find Major Kyle in the Biotic Commune out on some ass-end planet. The guy who gives you directions to him says “he’s in the back.” Naturally, I assumed this meant the back of the building we were in, NOT the other building which had never been mentioned and I didn’t know existed. I spent fifteen minutes looking in the bunker for him before finally checking a FAQ.

Another glitch to share with everyone, and this one’s a real Glitch: if you return to the AA tower to save Ashley, it is possible to get stuck. There are those little Geth drones that look like tiny floating spheres and I suppose they count as enemies (though I don’t know what they do). It is possible for the drone to get stuck behind a door or inside a box and be undefeatable, preventing you from clearing the area and triggering the Normandy’s arrival. A reload cures this.

It’s actually possible that those little Geth things are glitches themselves. I’m in a discussion at gamefaqs about it right now—they may be Tech Mines. But do Tech Mines show up on radar as enemies? I don’t know.

I have encountered a fair number of graphics glitches, too—mostly character animation related or in the conversational cutscenes. Nothing too noticeable, except for (again) at Major Kyle’s base. This one was pretty funny, because it was a biotic chick who was FLIPPING OUT. She was stuck in some kind of half jump and was spinning in the air with her arms flapping madly. You could talk to her like normal, she would say: “Other people think we’re crazy because we’re different from them.”

No, lady. I think you’re crazy because you’re doing an aerial impression of the exorcist.

Nothing’s been game-breaking and I don’t expect anything will come up that is. I keep three game saves just in case: one on the Normandy before each mission, and two alternating throughout a mission. Between that and the online copy of my save, I think I’m fairly well insulated.

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11th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 8th Session

The first hour of the session was spent back at Citadel. Goddamn that place takes up an inordinate amount of time. I picked up a slew of new quests, of course, and finally finished the “Scan the Keepers” quest (the last one was hiding in the docking bay. Also, some “fan” took a picture of me holding my gun, which seems HIGHLY suspicious. I sense no good coming of that decision.

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Wrex just got himself killed. Or, maybe “got himself” is the wrong spin on this. More like Ashley blasted him in the back of the skull several times when he pulled his gun on me. For which I was impressed, but I couldn’t help but reprimand her. After all, I care about what happens to many of the incidental NPCs, let alone a character I planned to make a part of my final assault on Saren.

I liked Wrex as a character and I appreciated what he was fighting for. I even wanted to find a way to help reverse the genophage (though, from other Krogan interactions I’ve had, this would probably not be a good idea). But yeah, I wasn’t expecting him to die. Not at all. I see with intimidate there may even have been a way to save him, but I guess I’ll find that out on a subsequent playthrough.

Maybe not a death on the level of Aerith, but still very surprising and almost as sudden. Things got bad fast.

It’s good game design that, immediately following this, they ask you to give up another of your characters. You can pretty much hear gamers screaming “this one’s not gonna make it either!” The choice was between Ashley and Kaiden. You might guess that I chose Kaiden. You’d be right. Ashley’s on the “Shadow” team, with Shephard and Tali. I couldn’t risk Liara.

I’ve done a good part of that mission but haven’t finished it yet. It’s a very epic set up, though, and I hope the pay off is just as good.

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

10th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 7th Session

This session is entitled “Death on Luna; oh my god, Death on Luna.”

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Seriously, it was a pretty serene session, just a quick one meant to get a little gaming in, until I reached the moon. First of all, it felt very cool to be playing in a galaxy I can relate to. I enjoy the planet descriptions, but I don’t often remember them. For the Sol system, I really dug into the descriptions, trying to see what ME’s vision of our future is, a little closer to home.

Then I died on the moon, like, seven times (and, if you haven’t realized already, I have a  habit of not saving). Those robots are damn hard and they like to swarm you. In the end, it was a combination of Tal’s hacking and Shephards Marksman skill that won the day. Marksman is pretty outrageously powerful.

That mission led me to a new specialization option: Nemesis (which boosts your offensive biotics) or Shock Trooper (which seems more of a defensive thing). I was tempted highly to go Shock Trooper (it’s hard to pass up more health and defense) but I knew I’d be kicking myself later for not grabbing the chance to boost Lift and Warp, which are two skills I use ALL THE TIME. Especially Lift.

I may have taken a wrong step in my relationship with Liara; we had another conversation and she suggested that things be put on hold till after we stop Saren. That makes sense, I suppose. Don’t try to have a relationship while you’re tracking a hardened killer out to destroy the galaxy, but I was amused to note how disappointing it still was to me. I haven’t been able to bring up the subject again, so I’m going to do another story mission and see if that changes things. In any case, Liara was on my team throughout the moon missions; her and Tali. I may go with an all human squad for the next story mission, though. I haven’t used Kaiden since Ctiadel.

I said last time I was going to discuss the council calling and figuring out the cover system. I’ll keep it brief. I like the council calling. I also liked figuring out the cover system.

The trick to the cover system, I found, is that you have to let go of the movement controls entirely and just use fire and aim. It actually works pretty well once you learn it, but it feels unintuitive alongside other third person shooters where you tend to want to be able to move along your cover in order to get to a better position for aiming.

I also said I would talk about selling off my inventory and I should at least mention that it took me thirty minutes to do it, today. The big problem with it is the scrolling system, which is incredibly slow. I need to either be able to up the scroll speed or I want to be able to see more items on the screen at once. Also I wish I could order them by weapon/armour/upgrade. I like that it tries to sort them by which are the weakest, but that doesn’t always translate to what I want to get rid of. Not being able to sort by type means I occasionally come across a gun buried amidst some upgrades and sometimes it’s even a gun I want to keep. It also means that if I see a lower level upgrade and can’t remember if I have the higher level, I have to slowly scroll through to the later items to see if I have the higher version of it. It just slows the process down.

I also don’t like not being able to compare weapons to what people have equipped who aren’t in my party. Usually I do my selling on the ship, which means I only get to look at Shephard’s equipment. It’s hard to remember if I should be keeping this or that armour for Wrex or for Garrus when I can’t see what they have on them. Again, slows the process down.

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

10th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 6th Session

Tonight was a good night.

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The first thing that happened was that I met and defeated the Thorian. You’ve played the fight, you don’t need me to walk you through it. I will give you one highlight, though.

The fight began with that green Asari chick falling out of the plant and attacking. She instantly incapacitated my teammates, Lisari and Garrus. I dodged to the side and starting unloading with the shotgun, but it hardly seemed to faze her. The Asari turned to me and attained the tell-tale blue shift that meant she was about to summon some biotic power. I responded faster, casting throw. I simply meant to knock her off balance before she could cast her “spell” but instead the throw (which I have leveled fairly high) tossed her about thirty feet backwards off the platform and she fell to her death.

I’m so used to stupid invisible walls in games that this came as a total shock to me. And a pleasant one. I encountered her several more times, but none ended quite as satisfactorily as that.

Some quick check in with choices: I did manage to save the colonists, though Fai Dan (excuse me if I’m butchering the names in these posts) shot himself. I think that has to happen. I also got a ton of side missions from various consoles and what not in ExoGeni. And, like I mentioned last post, I killed Ethan Jeong. The biggest choice, though, is to follow.

I’ve grown very close to the team I used for the Ferros missions. It was Garrus and Liara. I know I said Garrus didn’t interest me much at first, but I’ve come to rely on his sense of practicality and unflinching desire for justice. And Liara. Well. Liara

Like a good novel, Mass Effect laid the hints of the potential romance between Shephard and Liara early on—in fact, before I’d even met her. The notion of an all female race which bonds through a higher spiritual connection was intriguing to me from the start and I was already waiting for it to come back in. When an Asari joined the team, someone in the crew commented on it again—and then, after Ferros, a mind meld did occur. And though it was a benign one, it was clear that interest had been sparked in Liara.

It made it feel very natural to fall into that relationship. I’ve been paying attention to the script and choices as much as the game has allowed me to and I see that the design is pretty excellent and cleverly allows the player to really build and connect with their Shephard. For instance, Kaiden was hitting on me in his own way (very different from Liara’s) and I can see how, if I was interested in his character, this would have led to the same feeling of natural romance. Instead it just felt a little off putting (as I really don’t connect with him). Shephard turned him down a little harsher than I intended to. But those charm points must have paid off, because not ten minutes later she was making the first romantic connection with Liara. It was well played out enough to give me that little bit of dramatic adrenaline rush you get when your two favorite characters in a book finally come together.

Kaiden didn’t take this very well, but I don’t really care.

Anyway, lots of little stuff I didn’t talk about tonight that I probably will comment on next time, such as the “council is calling” interludes and how I finally figured out the cover system. Also, I have too much stuff in my inventory because it’s a pain to sell items.

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

9th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 5th Session

Winter break has started in a flurry of activity. Celebrating the latest group of graduates at Ooligan Press (part of my second master’s program), hiring for my school job (since I’ll also be graduating soon), and hanging out with family and friends. Not to mention the continuation of the creatively lucrative script writing business. With all of that I’ve only had time to play Mass Effect in short bursts.

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Right now I’m in the Zhu Colony and, currently, enjoying this more than any other part of the game. Running through collapsed underground ruins with Geth around every other corner is a great mood setter, while the mystery of what’s causing the colonists on the surface to act strange (and the truth of the matter) creates a disturbing backdrop to the whole thing. The Thorian was a great idea, right out of classic sci-fi horror films and I can’t wait to actually see the thing.

In addition to the mood, the game is just fun. I see where some of the clunkiness is present. As I’ve already mentioned, the cover system is not perfect. Shephard has trouble sticking to cover unless crouched. A button which set cover mode and could be hit again to leave it would have been a big help.

But it’s not enough of a problem to keep things from being fun or to stop me from getting tactical with the situations. Today I actually turned up the difficulty setting to Veteran from Normal because I was finding myself outsmarting the computer quite often and just murdering it. Now at least, they are a little more shielded, which leads to some real firefights.

I’m pretty leveled, I feel, for this part of the game. I don’t know how much “a lot of levels” is for the Ferross world, but I’m somewhere between 21-23 last time I checked. Based off of the skill points I’ve been getting, I’m calling it about a third of the way to max level. That actually feels right for the game, too: I feel about a third of the way in.

And so far loving it. Mass Effect is the most immersive western RPG I’ve ever played and this is because of an equal mix of a great battle system and a fantastic story. In other words, it is both fun and a payoff.

As far as story, today’s big payoff was getting to shoot Ethan Jeong. With intimidate I probably could have talked him down, but I have all my points in charm… which has yet to come in handy at all, I think. At least, I can’t recall seeing any options which felt “charmed” but maybe I’m selecting and just not noticing them.

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

7th December 2012

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Mass Effect: 4th Session

This session started with finishing my first Mako run. I must have been tired last night or maybe third time’s a charm because I had no trouble surviving this time. I suppose I had lots of practice. Killed the crap out of those husks.

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A lot of people say that the Mako stages suck and are the worst part of Mass Effect 1. I have actually been really enjoying them, now that I’ve done a few. Right now, I think the Mako quests are serving as good side quests. I much prefer them to running around the Citadel, solving everyone’s problems. These feel much more in line with a sci-fi experience and I feel I’m really getting a sense of the size and scope of the galaxy, especially as there are many reminders that “this is just a taste of what’s out there.” Mass Effect is more than just a game world: it’s a game universe.

The only complaints I currently have about the Mako stages are that (1) the Mako is slightly too slow and (2) there aren’t enough enemies to fight en route to objects of interest.

Anyway, my last Mako run was on Tremur (I may very well have the name wrong—it’s where you find Liara T’soni) and that went pretty well. Every time I play I seem to take notice of another game mechanic. Today it was barriers and shields. I finally figured out that they are the bars next to your health (or an enemy’s health) and just how important they are to keep up/drain from the enemy. I had a good team for straight-forward combat: Wrex and Ashley. It was a good time to learn about barriers.

For each character, I’ve been giving them a basic spread of abilities and then a ton of points in one or two areas. Most everyone is getting their “class” skill developed. Wrex I’m building mostly as a tank, focusing in on Fitness and Combat Armor. Ashley I’ve gone with gunner, boosting her assault rifle and sniper rifle skills. I’m also working on her armor.

Garrus I’ve played with the least; I don’t have a build for him, yet. Kaiden I’ve gone with a medic feel, giving him high first aid. Tali is the full on robot killer and support character, with high sabotage and AI hacking (I wish she’d been with me on this last one, there were so many Geth!). I just got Liara so I haven’t even checked out her class, yet.

As for Shephard, her highest ranks are in pistol and throw. I really like the sound of the lift ability and I just unlocked it today, so I’m eager to check it out the next time I play. Pistols mixed with marksmanship are almost unfairly good; I’ve been getting one shot kills on a ton of tough enemies. It’s becoming a fairly standard strategy for me to use throw to knock the “boss” of a group of enemies down, and then use marksmanship while he’s down to quickly finish him off. It’s how I beat the Krogan on Geth—though I did die a few times because I didn’t realize he healed so fast. I thought he was dead until I got a bullet in the head.

That was the only annoying thing this session: when you die in certain situations, like that one, you have to redo a couple scenes before getting back into battle.

As a side note, I also did that mission where biotics take a chairman hostage on a ship. He didn’t make it. I keep investing points in charm, but I guess not enough in intimidate. I haven’t gotten any charm options yet (or if I have, I haven’t noticed them) but plenty of missed intimidate options!

Tagged: mass effect playthrough