The BioWare Effect

In my opinion, no company is sacred. A proven track record of good products is likely to attract me to a day one purchase but it only takes a single misstep to lose that trust. I’m not asking for spectacular games, just games that don’t make me regret paying full price. BioWare gets a lot of credit in the industry. Too much credit if you ask me, but they make solid games. The key word here being “solid”. Yet they can’t help but meddle with their own success. I’m often stunned that BioWare gets a pass for design decisions and gameplay mechanics that would push a game down as “mediocre” in most reviewers eyes. Only BioWare could get away with massively slashing a sequel down to bare bones simplicity and be considered genius for it.

When it comes to party-based RPG’s, BioWare is the master. Of this there is no doubt. That kind of system is so complex and difficult to manage that rising above mediocrity is a huge barrier to overcome. Yet I remember Might of Magic VI, the Mandate of Heaven, which essentially rebooted the RPG genre and made BioWare’s accomplishments possible. What happened to 3DO and the Might and Magic series? If you don’t remember or weren’t around the answer is simple. They became victims of their own success.

I think BioWare is working overtime not to become victims of their own success, but they don’t seem to stop and ask what works and what doesn’t. When I first heard about Dragon Age I had this picture of Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) ported into a fantasy setting. That’s not a bad thing. Aside from being the long awaited Star Wars RPG that many gamers had been waiting for, what really set KOTOR apart was that it was great in every way. However, it’s greatest triumph was its least appreciated feature. The controls of KOTOR were incredibly easy to grasp and use. There was complexity there, but you didn’t have to use it. Directing my characters in combat was a piece of cake. Navigating the many menus and statistics was easy. Quite an accomplishment considering I was also playing this on the XBox. The brilliance of KOTOR was that, like any RPG, it was essentially spreadsheet gaming without throwing the spreadsheet in your face. You were able to enjoy the story, the combat, the RPG tropes (new equipment, levelling, etc.) because the interface never got in your way.

Dragon Age is a lot like KOTOR in that it’s a party-based RPG, you can control the individual characters, and you can pause (sort of) combat to issue orders. Unfortunately, the spreadsheet is in your face. The difficulty settings in Dragon Age are “Easy”, “Normal”, and “Hard”. The translation of these difficulties is “Cakewalk”, “Pointless Micromanagement”, and “You don’t play games for fun, do you?”. I started Dragon Age on the “Normal” difficulty, only to find that I spent every battle carefully watching everyone’s health and mana. There are these great battle animations that play out, far superior to even the thrilling battles of KOTOR. I was completely missing the battle and instead carefully monitoring everyone’s status like Lt. Gorman in Aliens.

You can futz with “tactics” if you want. This is where the game really breaks down into pointless minutia though. I don’t want to get into that level of detail in the middle of battle. I want my archer to shoot arrows, my mage to rain mystic death, and my warriors to wade in with big swords and their swinging cods. Furthermore, the “tactics” I’ve selected and the actions of their characters on screen seem to line up only loosely. This is always my complaint about real-time battle systems. Look, either I’m in control or I’m not. If I have to take individual control of each character then let me just pause the entire battle while I adjust each person individually instead of the “switch-pause” tango you have me doing.

My impression is that Dragon Age is adequate graphics, decent story, horrid gameplay mechanics. I finally just put the game on easy so I could get through missions. I’m trying to decide which is worse now. The utter insipidness of the game on easy, or the ridiculous micro-management of normal. Neither mode is hard, but neither is particularly fun either. That’s what really surprises me. Once I peeled away the combat system I find the rest of the game is, well, good. Just not super great. Not “A+++, Perfect 10, 99.5%” or whatever reviewers are doing to fellate BioWare right now.

Which leads to Mass Effect. At least it doesn’t pretend you’re in control of your squadmates. You can direct them to use powers or have them switch weapons, and that works well enough. Sure, it’s a radial menu, which seems to be BioWare’s addiction lately. At least Mass Effect and its sequel don’t have radial menus that open up other radial menus (ARGH!!!! I’m looking at you Dragon Age!) Mass Effect had a neat system going, but it probably was too complex and usually poorly presented. I want to sell off some armor, when I go to the store I can’t see what the armor looks like. I get a colored box that the armor might have come in. Which one was that? Was it the black kickass armor I want to keep or the green camo crap that was worthless? Actually, that was Mass Effect’s other problem. Too much crap. You’d think it was a loot drop grind the way they kept picking up the same worthless pistol or upgrades. There was actually a point in the game, on the first playthrough no less, that if you meticulously sold everything that you didn’t need then you would never lack for money in the game.

Mass Effect 2 keeps “simplifying things”, but to what end? I think they’ve cut too deep. The game feels oddly generic. It’s all about the story now, but this just displays how mediocre writing in videogames still is. It’s not a bad story, it’s just not great. I think it would actually be more interesting if I didn’t have everyone telling me how awesome I am all the time. Hey, I get it, the guy effectively saved all sentient life before. They don’t even talk about that though. It’s a never-ending praise parade of how awesome it is to see me in action. How over the top is Mass Effect 3 going to be? Women spontaneously ripping their clothes off when Shepard walks into a room? They’re not far from it now.

In a lot of ways I think that is what gets BioWare it’s legendary reputation in the gaming media. They provide the ultimate in geek wish fulfillment. You’re not just a Jedi in KOTOR, you’re a secret amnesiac badass who brought worlds to their knees. In Dragon Age you are the last and only hope to keep the world from literally going to hell. In Mass Effect you’re the only individual in the entire universe that can save the entire universe. The Campbellian theme of the “Hero’s Journey” is tossed right out the window. We start at the end of the journey and proceed from there.

Mass Effect 2 First Impressions

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Since I’d rather be playing Mass Effect 2 more than typing about it, I’m going to make this somewhat short. So on to some bullet points:

  • First things first: I am loving Mass Effect 2. It’s taken most everything that was good from Mass Effect and made it better. And no elevators!
  • I love the look and feel. Mass Effect 2 really has a look of a mature next generation game.
  • The role playing game elements have been streamlined and become almost transparent. This is both good and bad. I like the streamlined skill set (simplified compared to the first game). I’m not a huge fan that they’ve largely removed the loot aspects of the game. No more weapon variety or modifications or armor. All of these have been streamlined, again, with a reduced number of weapons that are almost completely devoid of “stats”. You no longer see how much damage the weapon does or what modifications adds to the weapon. Now you’re just told if it’s “effective against shields” or “weak against synthetics.” Everything is available to everyone (that can use it) and upgradeable through your science officer. I’m getting used to it, but I liked being able to “min/max” my equipment and distribute new stuff to each of one of my guys.
  • The lack of planet exploration has been replaced by a scanning mini-game. It’s tedious, but I suffered through hours at a time of mining in EVE online, so this is practically Sonic mining. I don’t mind it.
  • I love the little details, the nods to the first game and the decisions I made. These little touches are a like Little Debbie snacks. Zingers. Raspberry Zingers, specifically.
  • I have just started “gaining” the trust and loyalty of my teammates and I can see that this process of gaining people’s loyalties become contrived. So far so good, but it is potentially on thin ice.

So this won’t qualify as a full review, but I can wholeheartedly recommend Mass Effect 2 to the Buttonmashing masses.

It’s Mass Effect 2 Eve!

It’s my favorite time of the year, the hours before a new, highly anticipated title is launched. Ever since finishing the first Mass Effect (two years after it was released), I have been anxiously awaiting the sequel to drop. I came home to the most awesome email ever:

(My Gamefly Ninja move has worked again. I could keep Mass Effect 2 for 45 bucks right now. I am a Gamefly Ninja!)

For whatever reason, I avoided most of the pre-launch info with a righteous zeal. I’m not sure why. I’d peep the occasional screen shot or watch a video, but I ignored most coverage the various sites have had. Was that a mistake? I wanted to avoid all spoiler talk and go into the game “pure.” This is actually something I’ve thinking about (spoilers) lately and hope to talk about that more in a future post.

Due to not keeping up with the previews and coverage leading up to launch, I don’t know exactly what changes have been made to the sequel or what to expect. So here is my short Mass Effect 2 wish list:

  • Let’s get this one out of the way first: no more elevators. Duh. The shorter the loading waits, the better. Early in the original game, there were dialog between the characters during the elevator rides, which made them bearable. If I have to sit in an elevator, I need more of these.
  • Make the side-quests mean something. I was never really interested in doing in any of the side-quests in the original because there wasn’t any real compelling reason to do so. I started finishing them near the end, which unfortunately turned out to be too late in some cases. I hope the new side-quests will enrich the main story and flesh out the new characters.
  • I loved the first person conversations from the first one. I’m not a big fan of how the main character in Dragon Age never talks. I hope Mass Effect 2 continues the great BioWare tradition of meaningful conversations.
  • Finally, I hope I can bring over my saved character from my finished game but use Shepard’s original model. I tried to make a “new Shepard” but he ended up looking like an extra from Planet of the Apes. I’d really like to revert back to the original Shepard. I did notice on today’s Penny Arcade post that Tycho mentions that there will be a way to maintain your character, even if you don’t have access to your save file, so it’s good to know I’m covered. Scratch that, reverse it.

As a service to you, fellow Mass Effect 2 fans, I posted a bunch of screen shots on Flickr to prime the pump. This game looks great. I’m hoping it is great

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Dragon Age First Impressions

Now that I’ve spent a little time with Dragon Age: Origins, I thought I’d post a few impressions.

Initially, I didn’t think Dragon Age: Origins was going to do it for me. Things started out really slow. I didn’t care for what at first glance appeared to be a rather generic story. Some of the graphics were distracting. Controls didn’t feel right. I was not impressed.

Now that I’m about five or six hours into the game, I’m happy to admit things get much better. The story, now that I’ve read some of the background (via the Codex) has me buying in to what’s happening. I quickly became comfortable with the controls.

Graphics are still a bit of a disappointment. It’s probably nit-picky and petty, but some of the character models look really bad. I know the game has been in development for a long time, but it’s surprising that Mass Effect, a game two years older, looks just as good (if not better) than Dragon Age. Maybe that’s due to the fact that this game was obviously designed for PC first, consoles second, but some of the models are very distracting.

I had read in more than one place (Josh most recently) about how Dragon Age had a potentially steep learning curve but I thought I was good enough to start the game at a higher difficulty level. WRONG. After an hour of dying needlessly I set the difficulty back to normal and moved on. I don’t know why I have this need to do things the hard way but I’m getting better. I’ve decided that after I gain a few more levels I think I’ll give the next difficulty up another try now that I’m getting the hang tactics system and my guys aren’t as squishy.

And one last thing. Normally with BioWare games, I’m almost always go with the “good” options. In conversation I say the “right things” and when offered a moral choice I “do the right thing”. This game, I’m trying to be a “bad guy” or at least not a knight in shining armor. It’s hard. On more than one occasion I’ve felt a twinge of guilt as I send an orphan packing or see a “-10 Alistair” after I make a decision. If nothing else, that’s got to count for something in terms of emotions in a video game.

Set your DVRs

Got this note from EA’s PR peoples and figured some of you would be interested. I know I am, but I’m also torn. I’ve been avoiding any and all info about Mass Effect 2 to go into the game pure and unsullied as possible. I have seen a few of the teaser videos for the game, so maybe I’m already corrupted. Either way, check it out:

Tonight the SyFy Network will debut the special TV documentary, Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect 2 , featuring celebs, creators, and experts discussing 2010’s first blockbuster videogame, Mass Effect 2 and its place in the sci-fi pantheon. Tune in to the Sy Fy Network for the premiere airing on Tuesday January 19th at 11 PM EST/PST and 10 PM CET. The show takes an in-depth look at both the science and fiction of Mass Effect 2, and features interviews with in-game voice talent Tricia Helfer and Yvonne Strahovski, Sci-Fi fan favorite Wil Wheaton and journalists Jessica Chobot and Adam Sessler among others.