Monday, June 18, 2012

Babble: All things Mass Effect 3 Part 1 - Look, Gameplay and such

The whole Mass Effect 3 Babble:
Part 1: Look, Gamplay and such
Part 2: #Solcomms
Part 3: Plots, Subplots and related commentary pt1, pt2, pt3
Part 4: The Extended Enging and Wrap Up

Finally... I've decided, not having played Mass Effect 3 in months, now might be the time where I have enough emotional distance from the game to actually talk about it in depth. And by depth, I'm saying that I'll possibly be splitting this into a couple of posts - the first talking about general stuff (first impressions, look and feel and game play in general) and then about the story itself. So, no spoilers in the first, uberish-spoilers thereafter. Got it? Good.

Here we go.
First I have to give credit where it’s due. Some of the critique I give here comes from the youtube post ‘Where Mass Effect 3 went wrong’ . It isn’t an emotional video about the story but rather a somewhat objective commentary from a game play angle. Logical and well thought out. But I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t finished the game yet.

Note: I have not played Multiplayer – in fact, I don’t have the ability to do so. So I’m going to make some speculations in here that might not be accurate at all.I'm mostly going to talk from the perspective of one who can only play single player. I'm not going to sit and do the research for a portion of the game I'm probably never going to play. I'm lazy like that.

What’s the gist?

Shepard finds herself (Femshep! Whoo!) in the precarious position of not being trusted by the Alliance, as she worked with an unsavoury group of people before, and all her jumping up and down about the Reapers doesn’t seem to have helped much either. And then the Reapers pitch up. No one is prepared for the baddies’ invasion which takes place rather quickly and without any resistance. Or rather, all that humanity can throw at them has zero effect.

It is again up to Shepard to save the day by uniting the races across the galaxy, regardless of how much they distrust and/or hate each other, and strike back in a desperate attempt not only to retake earth but to save everyone. Because, if humanity falls, the rest of the galaxy is doomed. We’re cool like that.

The Look and Feel

I can’t say I’ve always been blown away by the scenery of Mass Effect games. Oh, they had some moments of pretty. The scenes in which you enter or leave the Citadel, Omega, Illium, etc; and then the Citadel itself and the feeling surrounding the Citadel of tranquillity are all masterfully done. But there was rarely a moment for me within the actual gameplay where I inadvertently said ‘Whoa! That’s spectacular’…maybe with the exception of Eden Prime when you see Sovereign leaving the planet.

Mass Effect 3 doesn’t have that problem. The designers went out of their way to show you how small you are and how big your opponent is. Beyond that, they also really went all out to give you those marvel moments.

You start off your game in Vancouver and the first thing you see as you go outside is a big-assed Reaper blowing the crap out of buildings a couple of miles from you. You literally have to stop and really appreciate the scale of what you’re seeing – ships buzzing overhead, explosions everywhere, debris falling from the sky. You’re horrified but enthralled. The look is a lot grittier than any of the other games in the series. I have to admit that I haven’t seen any pictures of Vancouver. I don’t know what the place looks like at all. However, given the level of detail, I think someone who has might be even more blown away by 1) how they developed it 2) how the Reapers destroy it.

I was really surprised by how awesome they made Tchuchunka and its… native fauna ;) Some of the most breath-taking moments in the game take place there and the scenery and look of just everything that happens there is really well done.

And the scenery does play a big role in terms of the story. You realise that this fight is bigger than you; that you’re fighting for more than your crew, and Hackett with his ships, and the Citadel and its stupid council. This is a galaxy-wide threat you’re fighting against… and you’re losing – which is always a really good place to start a game.

Chakwas ME2
With regard to the characters, there’s definitely been an upgrade to their features – some for good, some not so good. Joker looks like he’s gained weight and just recovered from a skin condition. Dunno what happened there. Also, Chakwas’ hair went from grey is to a white grey I’ve only ever seen on my 70-year-old grandmother. And the style… Look, I’m not the girly type at all. If I start complaining about hairstyles then you know something is wrong.

Chakwas ME3 (six months later)
Ashley looks awesome, Liara looks like she’s had a breast lift (at least she doesn’t have the problem that Samara has where they keep wanting to fall out, poor thing), Anderson looks older but somehow better, Udina still looks like a shmuck (but that can’t be changed by cosmetics). I have to also say that I REALLY like the default femshep’s look. Yes, she does have ‘harsher’ features, but maybe it just works for me because I can relate. Plus, in some way, her flaws make her all the more real and that makes her beautiful. Miranda looks awesome, but then she is Miranda and she’s genetically engineered to look awesome so no surprise there.

Jack looks breath-taking. Oh my word, was it a surprise to see her! I was SO proud of her and that was just because she was less bald! :-P Guess that’s not too much of a spoiler.

Your opponents in this game – from the Reapers’ side – are very creepy looking, but each distinct and you can sort of understand why they look like they do. However, whether it is by players’ demand or Bioware’s own designing choice, the husks weren’t nearly as creepy as they had been in the other two games. Oh, they’re still creatures you don’t want to have near you, but they’re a lot easier to kill  and they’re not quite as terrifying. They always used to freak me out, especially in ME2 with those zombie-like moans they made, but not in ME3. In fact, they kinda move like they’re on roller blades…

As for the human enemies you encounter, they made some really strange choices that didn’t quite make sense. Ninja enemies? True, they are very difficult to kill, very quick on their toes (literally) and deadly with their Japanese swords (I’m assuming? Apologies if I have that bit wrong). But they also totally pulled me back to reality every time I saw them and I had to wonder about Bioware’s choice every time. That’s not something you want the gamer do while playing.

I’m assuming it’s to sort of match Kai Leng so that he doesn’t stand out… but I think it would have been better if they just made him unique. I don’t know his backstory but it just would’ve made more sense to me.

The soundtrack for Mass Effect 3 is amazing – as most of the music in the series has been. The final instalment really is an emotional rollercoaster simply by the fact that it is the last one and the fans are really attached to the series as a whole.  The music stays with you every step of the way and it does a great job in capturing every moment.

The Normandy

I was horrified to see what the Alliance did to the Normandy. While I understand the need for some key room changes and I do like a couple of the ones they put in, I did feel that they could’ve done a little bit more in at least not making it look like the Hulk walked into the CIC level. Here too, things felt a lot grittier, but almost needlessly so. There’s at least a six-month gap since the Alliance got their hands on the ship. The least they could do is get the wires off the floor.

As I’ve said, there are some room changes and additions that I really liked. I liked the shuttle bay area. I felt that it does give the Normandy a bit more of a ship-like feel to it – no, I can’t really explain it better. The one thing I have an issue with – which was also pretty much an issue with the other Normandy versions – is that I still don’t have an idea of how large the crew is. It’s a big ship, how can the crew deck not have more beds. I don’t want to be able to walk and count every bunk on the ship, but I’d like to have an idea that there’s more than one room which has only something like 12 bunks in it.

I liked the war room – specifically the communications room that leads off of it. It felt more ‘right’ to me than ME2’s communication/meeting room – even if you had that cool effect of “oh hey, now I’m in the Illusive Man’s office all while I never turn around to see what else is in the room and I just cross my arms and glare at the man”.

The war map is also an awesome idea, but I’ll babble about it a little later.


A lot of attention was given to combat and it definitely shows.

The cover system was enhanced so that your Shepard could roll or run from cover to cover and also nip around the corner of your cover without having to be exposed to weapon fire. I have to say in terms of cover, it took me quite a while to get my hands to be as light on the buttons as they needed to be. I would have Shep in cover, have her run up to a box, crouch and take cover there, but in the end I would press some button that makes her stand up right as she hit the box. And then I’d get frantic and try to get her to crouch and end up with her getting shot repeatedly before the wench finally ducked down. This I can only ascribe to my extreme button pounding and it happened quite a lot.

I used the features of running or rolling quite a bit. I didn’t use the feature of moving around the corner of cover except for the tutorial section where you had to. The reason being that it was even harder to convince my Shep to keep her ass down. I’d rather lose my cover for a second, get her where I needed her and have her duck, then trying to get her to turn a corner and stay down. Plus it probably saved my controller a tad (though not much since it conked in May, but that’s another story).

Where before, when enemies came too close to shoot at, you could strike at them with your gun or elbow. Here the omniblade comes in. Your omnitool now has a blade of some sort that you can stab enemies with. It’s handy with some of your enemies – like husks – but I found that most of the enemies you encounter later in the game were simply far too powerful. Where the omniblade did become useful is for stealth kills, where you could creep against a low wall until you’re behind your enemy and then pull him over to your side and stab him. You could also do the same thing if your enemy was using the opposite side of the same wall/container for cover.

An interesting design feature they brought in with the omniblade is that it looks different for every class you play. Some have blades for both hands; others’ blades are rather wicked looking. My favourite has to be the vanguard who doesn’t strike with an omniblade at all but whose hand glows with biotics as they strike out.

The only nitpick I have to make here is that when Shepard is not in cover and uses the strike, broshep gets to do a full on punch where femshep apparently needs to swipe at her opponents. I know, I know, not a big issue, but it did bug me somewhat. I didn’t play a femshep vanguard, so I don’t know what they did with her when she strikes with biotics, but if they did the swipe thing, I would have been severely unimpressed. Everyone knows you can’t do a badass biotic strike as a backhand. Everyone does! Ahem.

Enemy and squad AI (or VI if you want to get technical) has been upped quite a bit too. Your squad actually works with you now instead of just randomly trailing behind you. They fight with you all the way. They also have the brains to take cover when they’re being shot at and to take -decent- cover – not like in ME2 where they stood like idiots behind ineffective ‘cover’ while they were being shot to pieces.

Talking about being shot to pieces, this is probably a good place to talk about their revamped health bar. So instead of having a single 'line' for your health now, the health bar has been devided into sections. Given a change to regenerate, your health does not go back to full, but rather heals up the section that it was in. An interesting idea which makes the game a little more challenging. I haven't decided whether I like it yet.

I did feel like, when it came to powers, they weren’t as keen on using their own initiative. I don’t know whether I just never gave them the chance and kept giving them instructions like the control freak I am or whether there was a setting somewhere that enables them to use it more freely, but it was something I noticed.

I have to say that the special abilities did get a lot of attention as well. Every ability was well thought out and useful. And they were given a lot more punch. Liara’s singularity is incredibly epic – but those who played ME2’s DLC Lair of the Shadow Broker would already know that. The Carnage ability is a lot more potent than I’ve seen it before – I used to ignore it completely. The vanguard’s Nova ability is my favourite combat ability in the game. You basically use your biotic barrier to cause a biotic explosion around you. It is awesome if you use Biotic Charge to land amongst a group of opponents and then Nova. It’s risky; you really have to decide whether those guys’ health is low enough that they’re not going to get up after you struck them with that because otherwise you may find yourself knee-deep in trouble.

How can you concentrate with this going on?
One piece of critique I can give (totally stolen from ‘Where Mass Effect went wrong’) is the fact that the beginning of the game throws everything at you at once and while that can be potent story-wise, it’s not for the standard tutorial mode that is in every game. The Vancouver scene is really potent and important both to the story and setting as well as to the gameplay. When you finally finish that bit, as a new gamer you’ll most likely feel more overwhelmed than anything. The youtube vid makes a really good comparison to between the beginning of ME2 and ME3. In ME2, though the introduction is kinda lengthy, the player gets (re-)introduced to the Normandy. The story comes first and sets up the big trigger to future events. Your actions are limited only to movement and dialogue. Later in the game, you have your space station sequence which initially starts off very light on story and where you’re introduced to the combat mechanics. With ME3 you get both the story introduction and the combat mechanics thrown at you at the same time. Also, all your powers are available to you – which might be nice if you’ve played the other games, but could also be a bit of the WTF moment for those who are trying to (re-)acquaint themselves to the game.

Space! And mini-sidequests.

Space travelling in ME3 is... similar to ME2 in some ways and sorta not. You still have your mass effect relays taking you to various clusters throughout the galaxy and the ability to go from planet to planet and sector to sector – if you have enough fuel. The galaxy map shows you clusters which have a strong reaper presence. If you’re in a cluster where there are reapers about, they’ll pick up on your scanning (will explain this in just a moment) and eventually rush in to try and kill the Normandy. Mostly they’re pretty easy to avoid, but don’t let them surround you. You now also have the ability to scan a cluster which will show you if there is any useful debris about or whether a planet might have something useful on it. It’s kind of like sending out a sonar pulse. It doesn’t cover the whole solar system, so you have to do it a couple of times to cover the whole space. The more you send out pulses, the more aware the reapers become of you. This scan feature is important for the mini-sidequests.
Basically the mini-sidequests are started when you walk around the Citadel and overhear someone whine about something. “Oh we’ve lost this book”, “Oh this was so important to my people”, “Our men are low on morale because we don’t have this piece of cloth”… that type of thing. In essence, a mini-sidequest can basically be explained with “Fetch doggie! FETCH!” It tends to have no meaning to you whatsoever except that it adds to your war assets. You’ll go to the sector that was mentioned in the conversation, send out pulses until a nearby planet lights up, then you’ll go to it and probe.

For those who have played ME2, you’ll remember the mining feature was a pain in the butt. You needed the resources to upgrade and so you’ll go from planet to planet and spend quite a bit of time mining resources by sending out probes based on what that particular area is rich in. ME3 uses a watered down version of that to find the item you’re supposed to find. So you’d go to a planet, it brings up the probing screen, you’ll whiz around with your scanner and send out a single probe to pick up said item.

So what’s the problem with that? Well, it’s completely pointless. In this case they could’ve just as well have gone with ME1’s method of going to a planet and simply activating a scan. You’ll get the feedback that whatever object has been found and you can move on. There’s no real reason to jump to the mining feature at all as you’re basically doing it to find a single thing that you know you’re going to find without any limitations such as time or probes.

I’ll be talking about quests and sidequests in the next post as that’s more spoilery.

What are war assets?

This gets a heading of its own because it’s almost something of a philosophical question. Something like ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ where everyone will have a different answer.

Oh come now, why the mystique?

War assets are basically what they sound like they should be. As said above, Shepard’s main mission is to pull the races together so as to take on the Reapers. So you progress through the game and you do your quests and make your choices and do your mini-sidequests, and so on. All of these things add to your score of war assets you have gathered. Some of the choices you’ve made the previous games can also add of detract from that score – some in unexpected ways. One would think that some Paragon actions would give you a higher score, but there are instances where, in fact, it does the exact opposite.

You can find your score on the war map located in the war room.

Which brings me to the whiny part of the whole war room/war assets thing.

My theory is that the guys at Bioware had this awesome idea. It was awe-inspiring. And then someone took that awesome idea… and flushed it down the toilet.

Firstly, the war map looks pretty awesome, but serves no point whatsoever in the single-player game. It shows the galaxy broken up in sectors and if you shift around between the sectors it shows you percentages of Reaper dominance. You’re given this idea, this expectation that it’s going to play a role somehow – because why else have it there? Those percentages never changed at all. It made no sense to me why I should be given that map view. It clearly is for the use of multiplayer but then don't put it into single player mode. That's just dumb and lazy. You're not supposed to be lazy. You're supposed to be Bioware, for goodness sake!

There is a similar issue of not having any use with regards to the war assets. From what I have gleaned, if you’ve gathered enough assets, there is some kind of reward. I just don’t know whether the reward that they decided on giving you is really sufficient for the amount of effort you put in. And again, I think someone had a brilliant idea that got flushed.

What I don’t understand about all of it is why the traces of unfulfilled ideas are still present in the game.

DLC gaps

Which brings me to my last bone of contention: DLC gaps. What do I mean by this? I’m going to use a comparison to a situation in ME2 so as not to spoil it for you.

So you know in ME2 how you encounter Liara in her office? Pre-DLC, there already are some changes you note and some character interaction that take place. Seeing how Ashley/Kaiden treated you a while before and how Wrex (if he survived) has his responsibilities to see to; it’s a shock but still acceptable that the asari isn’t going to drop everything to follow you. You can resent her for it, but part of you will eventually accept that she’s a wench and move on.

The DLC for Liara therefore might not be such a surprise, but it’s not an obvious setup. You don’t go in pre-DLC thinking “hm, they’re going to put something here, I can see it”. You can suspect, but you can’t know.

Fast forward to ME3 and you have shameless setups. Holes and character interaction that just screams “watch this space!!” Now some people will be excited to have that particular DLC come along (not me since I don’t have internet to link my xbox to – hence no multiplayer). It’s an awesome character or potential side-quest; definitely going to be an awesome story; yadda, yadda, yadda. But really? I find myself seriously unimpressed. Let me speculate, don’t let me know. Let me like with Liara, think that that would be a perfect spot to put a DLC. Don’t let me see that as the only reason you’ve put the character there. Especially given the reason that you do interact with them pre-DLC has no effect on the game whatsoever. That’s just annoying. You buggers.


Alright, I admit it. After writing this, I can see that I don’t have the emotional distance I thought I had. And that’s a shame, because Mass Effect 3 is actually a fantastic game. Its creators made some really strange choices but you can’t really blame the child for the parents’ actions, right? When I get into the story bit, you’ll really see me light up. I will be avoiding some parts I’ve talked about before and just focus on what I thought made this game pretty darn impressive.

To summarize this part:
-         Look: Amazing. Supports the storyline and impresses upon you the epic scale of the game.
-         Music and sound: Awesome. You really find yourself captured within the emotions and energy of the game. Also, the sound they came up with for reaper blasts is the best thing I’ve heard.
-         The Normandy: *trips over cables and gasps at the sight of her CIC* WHAT HAVE YOU DONE??????!?!!!!! Ooh some rooms are nice, ooh hello cargo bay!
-         Combat: Brilliant. Damn it Shepard! Get your ass behind that crate!
-         Enemy AI: Impressive. Stop flanking me you bastards!!
-         Space travelling and mini-sidequests: Meh. What’s the point?
-         DLC gaps: Grrrr.

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