Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mass Effect 1 Retrospect

A review from a game design perspective

So a little while back I promised that I would play through ME1 with my designer cap on. I would evaluate the game not on the limitations of the engine as I too was developing on the Unreal engine at the time and know what came easy and what did not. I would look at the intentions of the designers and point out what really worked, and what really didn't. 

I do need to mention that I do respect the work that Bioware and EA have done, and not just because I have friends on their development teams. I also should mention that I will not warn of spoilers. The game has been out for years. Vader was Luke's father. Rosebud was the sled.

Well I finished a full playthrough and here's what I noticed.


Since no two playthroughs of this game are identical (which I do find a huge plus to the design), here are my initial specs of my Shepard:

- Male
- Earthborn
- Ruthless
- Infiltrator

Content issues and the UI

The biggest hurdle in creating an RPG is the content. Most games need to follow a bible just for creating a linear experience. Once you branch the experience, or allow for sandbox play, you are quite literally creating a world of content, and all of it must be seamless.

Somehow, UI design is usually one of the last items developed. How are we to know what goes into the menus if we don't know the content yet. UI tends to follow behind everyone else, which is also why the last big bugs and heaviest crunch falls on these guys near the end of development. People tend to ignore UI when it is flawless, and are relentless about it when it is not.

Though there are other articles online (like this one) about the specifics of UI flaws in ME1, I really find the issue to be a disparity between presenting a vast ocean of content from the very first screen, while keeping the stuff on screen still somewhat digestable. I feel ME1 came close, but was off enough to cause issues.

For example, the character creation assumes quite a bit from the player. If I pick an Adept, the games tells me that I am the ultimate biotic, with starting talents of barrier, throw, and warp. Great! What's a biotic? What's throw and barrier in terms of this game? Are they good choices? Do they fit with the character I have already built in my head before starting the game (for me it was Malcolm Reynolds)? I haven't a clue what I'm going into, but I need to make these very important choices before any content exposure, with no chance of going back. If I don't like the choices, then I have to go back and recreate everything from scratch and begin again.

Is Psychic a choice? 'Cus it should be.

This disparity between content and UI I feel is one of the biggest detractors of the game. The first time I played through back 5 years ago, I stopped after I became a Spectre and earned control of the Normandy. My issue then was the game switched from a guided experience to a sandbox (with some direction). I was not ready for the sandbox, and looking into the galaxy map the first time, I just went "Whoa". I picked a planet at random, landed, and was promptly destroyed by a Thresher Maw. Rinse and repeat a few times, and I was done.

In Star Trek Voyager, these distances would have taken 75 years to travel. That's a long way to go to Panda Express at Warp 9.

In this playthrough, I was gone from beginning to end. I've realized there are pointers to help guide you through the space now, which is a nice touch but not enough. I also had a series of combat powers, that even after finishing the game, I'm still not sure what they do. I do know that sabotage and damping had more significant effect on killing off geth, but I could not tell you what those powers did. I haphazardly blasted powers in the direction of enemy bots rather than use any real strategy to combat.

Terrain and the Mako

I find the Mako experience kind of a fascinating one, mostly because I imagine what the paper design and execution was like. We want the player to land on alien worlds with harsh environments. We want to give them a vehicle that can traverse difficult terrain. Then the execution process must have been a tennis match war between the vehicle team and the terrain team on who could be more absurd.

I see the terrain team looking at the terms "alien", "difficult", and "harsh" and just running with it. This is actually a good thing. Frequently in game development, the devs try to create the most accurate feature they can, only to find out they need to rebuild it because it was not what the Director or EP was thinking. Sometimes it is better just to go to 11 with the feature, and then you can tune it back down. And if we are bothering with scientific accuracy, alien worlds do tend to be very cratered and spiky. There isn't a lot of weather on other planets eroding away the harsh edges. Mountains on other planets are razor sharp. It was clear that the terrain team did their homework.

Mars will eat your car's tires

At this point, the Mako team probably caught wind of the terrain teams work, most likely through a producer. This is exactly the kind of trouble we producer cause. They went back to their Mako variables and then set them to 11 to handle whatever the terrain team could be making. What resulted was a tank that could drive over anything with an almost Spider-man-like ability to climb up walls. It had cat-like reflexes so that it never turtled. And most importantly it had rockets just in case.

Here's where I question the design. Why make sprint the same button as rockets? As a natural reaction as a player, I want to give the Mako a little extra gas to get up the hill. Instead I fly back off the hill wall and have to restart.

Then this mix got into the hands of the level designers, who rightly put hard to find objects across the map. But this whole combination is a cocktail to frustrate the player. The first planet is interesting, but the facade quickly breaks down on retrieval quests. Throw in almost impossible to traverse mountains in the way and a vehicle that can somehow crawl up them and someone is not evaluating this level's gestalt. There is a difference between making the objective of a game difficult with clear and harsh obstacles, and making objectives difficult through no-though tedium.

Cinematics and Story

This team had to create so much cinematic content, I'm actually impressed that they fit it onto one disc. Seriously. I have no problem that animations in most conversations tended to have the same head bobs and shuffles. I actually was able to suspend that nitpicking and really enjoy the story this time through.

Back when I first tried ME1 and quit at the galaxy map, my fellow developers told me I at least needed to keep going because the story was worth it. My personal feelings at the time (and still is) is that games are not an effective narrative delivery service. If you want to tell a good story, make a movie or write a book. In a game, the player becomes an active participant, and they are going to ruin whatever you had in mind. This is a good thing in games, but rarely do I buy into a game for the narrative.

But the ME folks did a really good job. I felt that they led me in the overall narrative when necessary, but allowed me to go off in any direction I wanted. Creating a non-linear narrative means you will need funnel points so that you can keep the overall direction together. Otherwise you would hit a branch in the story and then have to load a new disc (remember those PC gaming days?).

The ME1 story followed the classic cowboy narrative. A lone gunman encounters a corrupt sheriff, and in turn becomes the new sheriff. A motley crew of misfits that didn't fit with the old ways system join in with our hero, some reluctantly. In the end there is a gunfight between new and old law. Most likely some reveal about how the sheriff was really just protecting folks from a bigger evil. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, go out and rent Unforgiven or any movie by John Ford.

When you leave a man at the Ilos Conduit, you better make sure he's dead.

It would have been nice to see the pre-story story that you select to help sell your version of Shepard, but again I understand that this game had to ship too.

So well done Bioware. And if you can translate John Wayne's character in the Searchers into ME4, then I would be impressed. And I'm still not sure whether that character killed his own niece in the canyon or not, but I'm sure he did. I'm also sure Shane died at the end as well, though they never showed it.


This was the largest point of frustration for me. Main narrative events seemed to be sprinkled with occasional automatic saves, but few too sparse. Other planets only saved when you landed, in the hopes that you could do everything and leave before you need to save again.

But Unreal bots with rocket launchers have a tendency to be a little cheap. You can mow through a 100 bots without issue, only to have a rogue geth knock you out in one hit. Then you go an hour of gameplay back. That's just not right.

And yes I am aware there is a user save option when not in combat. After the first few hours lost, I spammed this option like a bunny in heat. Not an ideal play condition when I feel my time invested is constantly at risk.

Here's an example. The Thorian's Lair, which has a handy save point just before the entrance. As a player, you enter and engage in a cut-scene dialogue tree. Then some combat. Another cut scene. Combat, cut scene, combat, final cut scene of Thorian dying. There's even an achievement for this moment. But if you leave this space and are killed by a rogue geth you left on the planet and did not save, you go all the way back to the entrance to the Thorian's Lair.  It's like the neverending portal slide, only less awesome.


I really enjoyed this game the second time around, much more than what I gave it credit for back when it first came out. There are quite a bit off issues, but there are for the first game of any IP. Any diehard COD1 players out there? There is a lot of forethought in the first game and you can buy into the vision for future (now past) endeavors. I'm picking up ME2 to see if they fixed the issues above, because if so, I'm sold.

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