10 terrible things from Mass Effect 2: game design hell

Mass Effect 2 had a far kinder critical reception than it deserved. So, in preparation for the release of the demo for Mass Effect 3, I’m revisiting Mass Effect 2 in a four part series. The last post dealt with flaws in the design of the characters.

This post takes a look at some of the awful choices made in the construction of the game and its mechanics. We’ll follow up with a post examining the writing and concluding with the five worst elements of Mass Effect 2.

10: Waking up in a room and fighting robots.

So, you wake up in a room with no memory beyond the brief interactive cut-scene that failed to explain how you survived falling from orbit. Then you get the standard new game walk-through, which involves fighting a bunch of personality-free robots that have, unsurprisingly, gone rogue.

Robots

They can't understand why people thought Mass Effect 2 was flawless either.

Why is there absolutely no value in the beginning of the game?

You have a moral choice simply to teach you about moral choices. There’s a base that you’ll never see again. There are a bunch of robots whose existence makes no sense in the Mass Effect universe. There’s Miranda’s ass which is there teach you about Miranda’s ass. The only thing of any weight in this sequence is the extraordinarily sketchy explanation of how you and your ship came back to life.

Why is this senseless and unnecessary time sink at the beginning of the game? Absolutely no reason.

If you want to teach me how to play the game, do so while I play the actual interesting game. Go talk to Valve. They’ve figured out how to do it. This sort of ‘learn how to play the game’ ghetto is just poor design.

9: A Bunch of Random Collectibles With No Purpose.

Collecting fish and starship models is just that cool huh? ME2 is hardly the first game to do this, but it annoys me every time. Instead of taking the time required to model and place this pointless content, why not make a better game instead? These items give your character no benefit and do nothing to advance the storyline or your knowledge of the universe in a real way so why bother?

Oh, and the fish die off if you don’t feed them? Because what I really wanted in my action RPG was an aquarium simulator.

8: The shrinking Citadel.

Citadel

The area you have access to in ME2 is too small to be found on any image of the Citadel.

The enormous and fantastic Citadel was a signature set-piece of Mass Effect 1. After playing the first game, I’d say that it’s one of the most memorable parts of the ME universe.

It was an amazing creation, a place where I spent a great deal of time throughout the game and was happy to do so. In many ways, the first game was all about the Citadel. It’s too bad it got reduced to three cramped and crappy floors in Mass Effect 2.

While the second game wasn’t about the Citadel, that’s not a good enough reason to render it unrecognizable. There are ways to make a space vast without actually making it vast. There could have been some decent windows, an overlook, something that would have indicated you were in a different area of that same wonderful space from the first game.

Instead, the only reason I understood that I was in the Citadel was because the game told me.

7: Refueling your ship and reloading probes.

A pointless waste of time that failed to balance the economy effectively and served to do little else but annoy. That’s really the entirety of it.

6: Dead Space.

Husk

Space zombies by any other name, do they smell as sweet?

The “Acquire the Reaper IFF” mission played like an entirely different game. Specifically Dead Space. While the rest of the game was action-oriented, this mission felt like someone had kidnapped the mission from somewhere else. There were all the swarms of necromorphs err… husks; lots of things popping out at you; and plenty of other horror tropes.

This could have been somewhat forgiven if the level worked, but the mechanics of Mass Effect 2 don’t really work well with huge swarms of enemies. The combat mechanics in the game simply don’t work effectively in this mission. Not to mention that horror gaming builds from the tension of scarcity, which was completely missing from this level.

5: Zero-day DLC.

This is a thing now, I know, but still. What the hell is the point of this? It detracts from my game, makes me enter a 16+ character code using a joystick, and does absolutely nothing to prevent piracy. In fact it makes me want to pirate the game, just so I can get the GameStop and Amazon pre-order bonuses.

I’m paying for your game, kindly stop screwing me over in a failed attempt to decrease piracy.

Then, to add insult to injury, what’s the DLC you hand us? The Normandy Crash Site.

Mass Effect 2 Crash Site

Some of you paid for this.

BioWare dropped a DLC where all you do is walk around an empty snowy wasteland. The thing is a travesty. You actually sold people an add-on pack to an action game where you do nothing but click things to get text. Not even good text! No. Just no. Stop trying to milk me for money. I’m not a cow.

4: Omega.

There’s a lot wrong with Omega. We can start with Aria who has just one terribly written line after another, culminating with her statement “I am Omega” after which I had to pause the game to finish laughing. Don’t you need a white Persian cat to stroke when you say a line like that? What a waste of a perfectly good actress.

Omega

You look terrible in that combination of red, dark red, reddish purple and orange red.

Then there’s The Patriarch mission, which makes no sense. Why do they want to kill the krogan? Why does Aria care about saving him? Why does she not care at all if you let him die?

There is Omega itself. The base is visually uninteresting, too dark and too monochrome. I suppose they are trying to pull a Blade Runner, but it just isn’t visually diverse enough, which also can make it a pain to navigate.

It’s too small a game space for what it is supposed to represent. The station is supposed to hold 7.8 million beings but it feels like it couldn’t hold more than one or two hundred. The apparent lawlessness and chaos isn’t shown well. It’s supposed to be patchwork, but there aren’t any good visual cues to indicate it as such. Then the base provides an introduction to the vorcha that is just plain half-assed.

Omega is supposed to be some sort of underworld hub, a foil for the Citadel in the first game, but I found it to just be a confusing and underwhelming mess, not to mention a pretty terrible place to start off a player in the actual game.

3: Nil inventory customization

Here is another place where BioWare’s disrespect for their original audience seeps through. After building up significant inventory in the first game and spending hours in deep customization for the perfect load out, not only do you lose your inventory, but you lose almost all control over your partner NPCs’ inventories.

In the face of their promise of ‘carry-over’ from the first game, this is a nasty trick, an unreasonable and unjustified alteration of a core mechanic of the previous part of the series. The beginning of Mass Effect 2 turns out to be, not a continuation of the previous game but, more of a New Game Plus. Yes, the first Mass Effect had a fairly terrible inventory system, but it was still worlds better than no inventory system.

In an article on Pop Matters, Mattie Brice argues (successfully in my mind) that the lack of control in Dragon Age 2 represents a narrative choice. This applies well to the lack of customization options you have for companion NPCs in that game. However, the same cannot be said about Mass Effect 2. ME2’s characters are badly written, and even if they were not, the narrative line of the game has them all following you around like obedient puppies, even when you give them every reason not to. There is no narrative justification for your lack of access to their inventory.

By further limiting interaction with your companions, an inability to customize gear makes it harder to care about squad-mates because you have even less invested in them.

This lack of customization also means that your ability to vary play-style after making your initial character choice is severely limited.  An even more significant problem if you are carrying over a save from the previous game.

2: Presenting genocide as a paragon option.

There were a lot of hard choices in Mass Effect 1. In fact, Mass Effect 1 was about making the hard choices that change the galaxy, often choosing between doing what’s right and what’s safe. Mass Effect 2 is not about this, it lacks impact and this is the best example. While you are fighting to ‘save the lost,’ Legion’s “A House Divided” loyalty mission is really the only quest in the game where you have the opportunity to act proactively.

Renegade Shepard

No matter what you choose, you are evil.

When you get to the end of the mission you’re presented with two choices. You can either brainwash/reprogram the heretic geth or destroy them all.

Legion’s presence in the game, along with a great deal of build up content talking about the geth, is to explain that the geth ‘are people too.’ But the game’s morality mechanic fails to address the ramifications of accepting that.

Legion explains that the geth are not their hardware, but mobile networked software. The bad geth are distinguished by a difference in belief; this is clearly taken as fact, as they are referred to as “heretic” geth, a religious term.

Altering their program is basically wiping them clean. If you wipe all the data out of a piece of software, you’ve reset it, and you’ve destroyed whatever makes that program the program.

So your choices are either to destroy a group who is distinguished by their beliefs or to destroy a group distinguished by their beliefs.

Whatever choice you make, there’s one word for what you just did. What do you call it in history when one group decides to kill off all the other members of another group for something like their belief system? That’s right: Genocide.

Consider what a disservice it is to take this decision and make it a Paragon/Renegade binary.

By doing so, the developers took the weight off the player and allowed them to casually pass it off as a decision about their character build. Instead, if these were the only two choices, they should have both been renegade to truly force players to confront the decision.

I’ve seen the argument that these were the only two choices because the heretic geth are incredibly dangerous and must be eliminated as a threat no matter what. You know what? I remember Mass Effect 1 had a similar conundrum. You were faced with an incredibly dangerous race called the rachni, whose release would put the whole galaxy in danger. You were given a choice then too and, as I recall, one option was to let them go.

1: Useless and Eliminated Class Powers

I’m going to start off with the terribly useless Tactical Cloak for Infiltrators and I could really end with that. However, let’s go on a bit more.

In Mass Effect 1 the ability to modify your ammo to perform different damage types was a function of weapon modifications and not a class talent. There’s a reason this made sense. By creating a number of damage types and ensuring that a smart player could have access to any of those types in any situation it allowed the developers to deploy enemies with damage-type resistances at any point in the game.

This forces two types of tactical behavior by the player: squad management and item management. It allows the developers to enforce the damage-type mechanic and it sets up a reward for player investigative behavior; if you are paying attention to the game you can determine a way to improve your behavior and act upon it, resulting in a reward (faster enemy deaths).

This is good game-building technique. There’s a reason why the element-vs-element-resistance mechanic is so common, it works and builds player satisfaction.

However, in ME2, the ammo damage-types were relegated to class powers, meaning that there is no way to guarantee that you will have all the damage types in your party. As a result, the developers can no longer use the element-vs-element-resistance mechanic and you end up with a lot of boring shooting.

Even if replacing a decent power with the ammo power was a good thing (it isn’t) the player now has no good reason to use it.

Gone from the game is the Stasis, eliminating your ability to do significant crowd control and manipulate the field of combat.

Also eliminated from the game were defensive powers for every class. In ME2, some have it, some don’t. In some cases you can gain Barrier through a play from the first game, or very late in the game through Advanced Training. As a result, the game can no longer be designed to reward (or punish) defensive behavior, since there is no guarantee that the player will be able to play with that behavior.

What links the shield powers, stasis and the ammo types together that they warranted such ignominious alteration/elimination? All these powers encourage the type of tactical thinking that is a vital part of many action role-playing video games, especially those with squads.

These changes to the game are another expression of Bioware’s abandonment of the very type of play that made me love Mass Effect to begin with. The elimination of these RPG elements is detrimental to the overall game.

 

Join Aram on Sunday, February 5 for part three: Mass Effect 2: the flawed writing.

Enhanced by Zemanta

17 Comments

  1. Ramunas Jakimavicius

    “…horror gaming builds from the tension of scarcity…” – Just wanted to mention that Dead Space, and especially Dead Space 2, IMO fails as horror due to not following this rule of thumb, so your perception of Bioware copying Dead Space might be more accurate than you think.

    • I don’t know if I agree. What difficulty level did you play at?

  2. Pingback: 10 terrible things from Mass Effect 2: the awful characters | Nightmare Mode

  3. AK

    Some great observations here, but the one about the ‘shrinking Citadel’ didn’t make much sense to me. You can see a pretty large area of the Presidium from the balcony of the human embassy, making it pretty clear where you are — even if you don’t get to actually explore it this time.

    • Thank you. That’s true, but you spend most of your time in the three cramped floors that look like they belong in a different galaxy than the Citadel of the first game.

  4. Bobthecat

    I agree with most of your points but there are two which I had a problem with:

    10. Tutorial levels – No value? except you know, actually teaching you how to play and kicking off the story. The reason Valve games need little hand holding is because they are all so simplistic you don’t need a tutorial, Mass Effect is entirely different and more complex. The reason these tutorial “ghettoes” are in quite a few games is because it’s exactly what a new player needs to get up to speed.

    2. Decisions – If I remember the choice it was alter the virus to rewrite the geth and make them peaceful or wipe out the heretics. Now let’s put this into perspective here the Rachni Queen was asking for another chance and atonement, the heretic geth are not asking for anything and won’t ask for another chance, their intention is to serve the Reapers and exterminate all intelligent life. So consider they are prisoners, would you “reprogram” them or just kill them all? Surely giving them another chance at life is the better, more just option. What other paragon option could there be? do nothing and continue to let the heretic geth annihilate people and the non-heretic geth? Doesn’t sound like a paragon option to me, maybe if Shepard was Jesus that would be an option but he is a soldier and knows sometimes you can’t save everyone.

    • El_Nazgir

      Tutorial levels: I don’t think you realise how far Valve goes with its tutorial-ness. Have you played through their games with the developer comments? Every time, the first half – 2/3rd of the game is filled with slowly implementing new concepts, making you think how to solve them and making you familiar with them, and in the last part, you get them all combined. Think of Portal 1. The test chambers are nothing more but to make you familiar with each and every concept which you then have to use when you escape.
      Now, something like that wouldn’t really be realistic for ME, but the main alternative is to actually put story into the tutorial, as ME1 did with Eden Prime, where around every corner a new plot element was hidden, and some mechanics tutorials in between (like the persuasion). In sharp contrast is the ME2 tutorial which is “Wake up, go through this facility while learning, then we’ll start the game.” The only possible story elements in it are your own recreation which you learn from terminals etc (which could easily be put into a more in-depth story/tutorial), and the betrayal of that one guy. I don’t even think we find out why he betrayed us.

      As for the Geth dilemma: It’s not so much as giving them a second chance as brainwaishing them, forcibly changing their opinion, and basically whole way of life. Yes, they have to be stopped anyway, genocide IS the only option, but it’s ludicrous to play it off as “good genocide vs bad genocide.”

      • Chrispy

        I agree with the tutorial comments you make completely and apply them to the rest of the game. I was annoyed because all of the plot is told in between the “recruit some guy” missions and not during, making 90% of the game feel forced and unnecessary. I mean, sure, you need to put a party together, that’s fine, but in ME1, you put your party together while exploring the plot, not as side quests to the plot.

  5. Pingback: 20 terrible things from Mass Effect 2: the flawed writing | Nightmare Mode

  6. Jake

    This is one of the smartest series of articles I’ve read.

    They perfectly encapsulate why I feel abandoned by Bioware.

    Worse than no sequel is a sequel that doesn’t respect its own choices and its fanbase.

    Their will never be a Mass Effect 2 that truly satisfies me. Instead we have this “wipe the slate clean” nonsense that is a blaring bit of pandering to newcomers.

    In a story and character driven game I should not be able to pick up number 2 or 3 and follow along.

    I think that’s what hurts most of all. It’s not that the series is bad, I’m still going to play ME3 and enjoy myself but there will never be another Commander Shepard game that gives ME1 fans what they want.

    Really, very excellent article :)

  7. Chrispy

    You list number 10 because it feels disjointed to the game. I use it as a perfect example of the entirety of the game. The entire game is about getting a team together because the Illusive man says so. That’s it. He doesn’t even give you an end goal to shoot for once you get said team together. Each mission is a stand-alone experience that has little or nothing to do with the final plot of killing reapers. Instead of getting plot while doing the missions, the IM merely gives you the info every three or so missions to FORCE the story along. And then you kill some stupid final boss. There is no all-encompassing narrative. Bioware has been forcing this game plot structure for a long long time now, KOTOR being the most obvious I remember, and this game just felt like they crammed it into the mold and then never went back to add the cohesive threads to bring it all together. That is why I was disappointed in the game’s plot as a whole.

    • Chrispy

      Also, I just went back and read the “Terrible Writing” article and realized that #6 is pretty much what I just wrote…

  8. It’s been a while since I found a good gaming blog and I’m happy to say that I have finally found it! Besides just getting the basic news and updates aka Kotaku (don’t give me wrong I love the Kotaku) but this blog is solid and awesome!

    I agree with a lot you said here. Some small things I didn’t agree with but they are just small. The majority here is right on point.

    I have to say if they give us fish to buy that’s pointless other than to see fish in your Captain’s quarters, why do we have to feed them? Let me just look at them. You didn’t have to feed your Space Hamster, which I actually enjoyed getting because I thought back to Baldur’s Gate…anyone get that reference? 😀

  9. Pingback: The 5 worst things from Mass Effect 2 | Nightmare Mode

  10. Eric

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the really flawed power system: Using one power causes all of them to go on cooldown, and also, a lot of the really cool powers can’t be used on enemies with shields, armor, or a biotic barrier. By the time you can affect them with that power, you’ve already whittled down 2/3 of their life total, so why bother? I was able to find use in the “pull” ability after modding the game to allow enemies to regenerate their shields like you do. Modding it so that powers affect shields is a bad idea, because it makes it too easy, what with pull being an “insta-death” ability in some areas. Shockwave is pretty useless. The “Jack” character is hyped up to be this super-powerful biotic, but all her biotic powers are from this set. She’s shown as being really powerful in cinematics, wrecking things with her powers, but in actual gameplay she’s kind of useless. Its weird how in cinematics she suddenly doesn’t have to follow the rules of the game. You get another powerful biotic character later, who’s actually useful, which seems redundant to me from a story perspective, it dilutes the whole point of Jack in the story.

  11. whineykaiden

    1) the robots had a purpose they are security mechs, nothing offensive there why wouldn’t there be automated security in an isolated secret station better than guys you have to give leave to who would likely get drunk on the money you have to pay them and blab about your secret station and they weren’t malfunctioning they were hacked(granted they were hacked by a traitor who seems to betray people for shit and giggles and has no real motive beyond….shut up that’s why).
    2)husk are a central part of mass effect lore created by the reapers(those specific husks were part of a Cerberus science team, I don’t know how you missed that)the fact your complaining that theres a mission with them in it seems..well silly
    did you play mass effect 1 do you know the story and the lore cos it doesn’t seem like it

  12. OsamuN7

    Dont blame the wrong company, when microsoft hand over the game to electronic arts, bioware were only in charge of the story line. All these awful gameplay changes was made by EA to give the game “more action”.