Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mass Effect Revisited

I am a good chunk of the way through my second play of Mass Effect--maybe a third to half of the way done, and one big thing that has been standing out for me as I play is just how different a gaming experience ME is from Dragon Age. I mean, sure, they are two completely different games, of course they are different experiences, but they are from the same company, there is some overlap on the teams. There are many points where clear similarities exist, certainly. But the actual way in which the game is played is amazingly different to my relatively noobish eyes.

Now, it is entirely possible that the differences can be completely attributed to the fact that ME is a science fiction shooter, while DA is a straight up sword-wielding, magic-slinging fantasy. ME is the only "shooter" I have actually played (and it is likely to stay that way). But it is intriguing to me to see how one company came come up with such differing methods of game play. Today I thought I'd share with you some of the differences that have really stuck out for me. (Bear in mind that these are from ME itself and not ME2, which I have not started replaying yet and so can't really use for comparison at this juncture.)

Party Configuration. This is a fairly obvious difference, of course. In DA you bring with you up to three other members of your party on any quest, plus yourself. In ME you only get two people plus yourself. So you are running through the galaxy a man down, at least from my perspective. I think it is also interesting that when you are selecting your squad in ME, you get a breakdown how how your "strength" adds up with your party configuration. Basically, there are three kinds of prowess in the ME universe: biotic, tech, and combat. Most characters either split their strengths between two of those fields or put it all into one of them, and when you are on a quest, your strength in a field is that of whichever of your party members ranks highest in that field. So when you pick your party, you get a little screen showing how your strengths are ranked in that combination.

Squad Selection Screen.

Along with the other party changes I've mentioned, there is also the issue of control of each character. In DA you can assume full control of any character in your party--you can run around as that character and act as them while your actual character, if still alive, will go on autopilot dictated by the tactics in place for your character. You can set up tactics for every character in your DA party, including your own, dictating what actions a character should take in any given set of circumstances. There are default tactics in place, of course, if you wish to never fiddle with that (or just never find your way to that screen), and that is fine for the most part. Though once you get the hang of using the tactics, I have found they are pretty darn useful. If your player character dies in a battle but the rest of your party is still standing, you can just switch to one of them and keep going. That has come in handy for me in many a fight--I can't even tell you how many times I finished a battle out with only one NPC left standing. Compare all of that to ME, though. There are no "tactics" as far as I have discovered. (I could have just totally missed them though, but the lack of direction toward that part of the game, if that is the case, is a big lack indeed.) During combat, you can pause and issue "orders" to your companions--deciding which target that person will attack next and what attack will be used, but that's about it. You can't click on, say, Tali and walk her over behind a stack of crates for cover, yourself. There is a way to order your party to move to certain points, but I still haven't figured out how the heck that works, so it is a useless feature for me. Also, if Sheppard, your player character, dies in battle, it doesn't matter what the rest of your party is doing, it's game over. Grr, argh.

Maps. I really, really, don't like the area maps in ME, y'all. I just don't. You get this little round scanner circle in the bottom of your screen, and it is more or less directionless. If there are enemies within that circle, they show up as little red triangles, and there are orange icons for plot points or points of interest.

Note the scanner in the bottom--the compass does indicate North, but that is all but useless if you don't know what's where.

If you want a more "detailed" area map, you have to go to the full map screen, and all you get is an outline of the area you're in. There's nothing to indicate what you've already explored (DA gives you the option to leave the map blank until you've been in a space, so you can see if you have hit every part of it). You can place a little flashing arrow at your intended destination, and when you go back to playing there will be a flashing arrow on your scanner, but it is crazy easy to get turned around even with that kind of guideline. I think my basic problem with the maps in ME is that they don't encourage exploration. I am one of those who likes to "finish" the map--run around in every corner of an area or level to make sure I didn't miss anything interesting (or important). ME isn't really set up for that way of playing.

When you are exploring a planet, this is the kind of map you get.

Navigation. So in ME you are flying around in a spaceship, yay! That means, as I am sure you would guess, star maps. I'll admit, the star maps I like.

Welcome to the Normandy's galaxy map.

You open up the Galaxy Map in your ship and it shows you the planet that you are currently in orbit around. You can click on the various planets in the solar system, and most of them you only get a little information blurb about. The blurbs are pretty interesting, actually, though it is very easy to get bogged down reading them if you're not careful. For some planets you have the option to "survey" them, which might yield an alien artifact (worth credits, whee!) or a rare mineral or gas deposit. Only a few planets give you the option to actually land--those are the planets with quests on them. Zoom out to get to the solar system screen.

Planet screen.

Solar System Screen, your current location is indicated by the ship.

If you want to leave the solar system, zoom out and you will be taken to the "cluster" level, which shows you all of the nearest solar systems.

Cluster Map--You are where the ship is, move the cursor and click to travel.

From there you can travel to another system or zoom out again to the galaxy map and choose between all of the clusters. Click on a cluster or solar system to travel to another part of the galaxy.

Galaxy Map--Each blue circle is a cluster, your location is marked in orange, plot points are labeled in blue.

This part isn't so bad. It is annoying that there is little to no indication of which clusters/systems contain your active quests (only the main plot quests are labeled on the map). You have to be sure to check your journal to find out where to go if you have a specific quest in mind that you want to tackle. But the annoyance factor on that is minimal, because this actually does encourage exploring. If you wander into a random system with a possible quest you'll get a message from one of your bosses asking you to investigate something in your area, and surveying all of the planets helps you to fulfill some of the optional quests. No, where the problems with navigation in ME come in are when you actually land on a planet.

See, your ship, the Normandy, apparently doesn't do landings. Instead you load your team into the Mako, your little tank (pictured above), and the pilot air drops you somewhere on the planet's surface. Then you have to find the point of interests on your map and mark them so you can drive the Mako there (hoping you don't miss any mineral deposits along the way, which aren't marked on the map and which you can only see on your scanner as you get close to them). Driving the Mako is a pain in the ass. I know of no nicer way to put it. The controls are crazy touchy, it is super vulnerable to attack, and it makes the entire process of getting from point A to point B planetside more annoying than anything else in the whole game. I am consistently boggled that a game as amazing as ME has such a horrendous mechanic built in to it. Granted, I have hated pretty much every "driving" level or mini-game in every game I have ever played ever (this may be why I gravitate toward games like DA where there is nothing for you to drive), but the Mako is pretty universally hated. I actually think the big problem is that the design team went so above and beyond with creating the atmospheres of the planets. The terrain is crazy detailed and realistic, which is great, unless you are trying to drive over all those freaking mountains.

Leveling Up. Most RPGs in my experience level up your character basted on traits and skills. The traits (strength, dexterity, cunning/charisma, constitution, magic, willpower, ect.) affect how much damage and what kinds you can deal out and withstand in combat, as well as how well you perform your chosen skills (and which skills you can choose). I have just finally gotten the hang of how to level up with this system, so of course I come into my ME replay and am reminded that it is completely different here. Sigh. It's not bad, don't get me wrong, it is just totally different.

This is a level-up screen.

With ME it is just all lumped in together. Depending on your class, you have a specific set of skills available to you. Each time you level up you get a certain number of points to invest in those skills. The more points you invest in a skill, the better you are at it. Also, as you reach certain levels of proficiency in some skills, new ones are unlocked. It is a fairly simple system, overall. I am still not sure if I like it or not, to be honest. It does feel easier than DA's leveling engine, I will admit, but with that ease, you lose the level of fine control available in the more complex system.

Inventory. One definite bonus of ME over DA? There is no limit to your inventory--you can pick up as much loot as you can find (though you can only carry a limited number of medi-gel packs and grenades). The downside to that is that there is decidedly less loot to be found in this game. Unlike DA, you can't walk into an area, press "Tab," and see all items that can be interacted with (or looted). This has left me constantly feeling sure that I have missed something really important, but the truth is, there isn't all that much important to find by looting that won't be just shoved right in your face in ME. You don't even need to search bodies after a battle, the loot of anyone killed by your team is automatically available to you via the equipment screen as those people die. The types of loot are also pretty limited as well.

Inventory Screen.

Every character wears armor of some sort and carries with them the following: an assault rifle, a shotgun, a pistol, and a sniper rifle. Depending on your class, you might also have a biotic amp (a tool that allows you to focus your telekinetic type abilities if you have them) or an omni-tool, which hackers and tech experts use to help them manipulate and interface with computers and whatnot. Sheppard carries grenades and medi-gel packs (i.e., health potions) as well. In theory, any character can use any of the standard weapons, but each character is only trained in using a few of them--training has a big influence on the effectiveness (accuracy, damage, ect.) of your weapon. But even if you aren't trained in a weapon and never want to use it, you still have to carry the darn things around with you. This annoys me greatly.

I digress. For each type of weapon, there are a few manufacturers, and as you progress through the game you'll find better versions of each manufacturer's weapons, so you can be sure to equip the best weapons you can find (or buy). Each gun also has upgrade slots, one (or more) for the gun itself, and one for the ammunition. This can allow you to specialize your weapons for specific situations or enemies if you so choose. Upgrades are also available for your armor and grenades. So basically you end up with lots of multiples of the same thing in your inventory. This is not that unique, but given the limited type and number of items in ME, it is a matter of course rather than the infrequent occurrence it is in DA.

One bonus of items in ME over DA is that if you decide to destroy an item rather than sell it, you don't screw yourself over. Destroyed items in ME are converted to omni-gel, which you can use to repair the Mako or to hack into safes/computers/lockers if you don't feel like doing (or fail) the little hacker puzzle. That's kind of nice.

Stores. DA stores definitely have an advantage over ME stores. In ME stores, everything is either a) all lumped together in a list that is a pain to sort through, or b) too sorted, meaning that one vendor will have two or more separate stores--you have to exit out of one and start up a new dialogue with the vendor to go to another, rather than just clicking a tab to get to that other list of items. Grr.

I know it seems like I have a lot of complaints about this game, and some of you may be wondering why I play it at all. But the thing is, the story itself? AWESOME. Just pure, epic win. It sucks you in, and even some of the distractions of the game mechanics aren't enough to derail you, at least not in my experience. Also, a lot of this stuff you get used to as the game wears on. It just requires an adjustment when coming to it from such a different type of game as DA. I know a quite a few of these issues get...I don't want to say addressed or fixed, let's go with changed, in ME2. I will be curious to see how the changes stand out to me this time around when I get to ME2 for sure.

I have seen quite a bit of discussion that ME is bascially a role-playing game disguised as a shooter and dumbed way down so that the shooter fans will play it. I will say, there is some validity to that argument that I can see now after having played DA so many times. The big differences do very much seem to lie in the game components that would be much more complicated in a regular RPG. It helps for me to just look at each game as a very different entity. As much as I enjoy ME, I do think it is way more for the story and the atmosphere than for the gameplay, as opposed to DA, where the gameplay is very much a part of what I love so much about the game.

It is definitely food for thought.

For now though, I'll just keep on playing. Because you know what, different as it is? It is still a heckuva lotta fun.

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