Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Mass Effect 2 Impressions – No Spoilers

I finally got Mass Effect 2 on Monday, which had quite the averse effect on my Star Trek Online gaming time. (Read: I haven’t touched STO since.) I know quite a few of you don’t even have the game yet, or haven’t had time to play it, so I won’t post any story spoilers yet. The day will come when I do, but I will make sure to warn you first.
Not spoiling the story means not talking about the story, so what you’ll get instead are my first impressions of the gameplay mechanics and some technical bits and pieces. This post may sound more negative than I feel about the game. I’m having a lot of fun, it just happens that most of the fun is in the story that I can’t talk about yet. So please don’t use the text below as your only point of decision for buying the game.

Combat

The basics of combat in ME2 are identical to those in the original game. Mass Effect 2 controls are still shooter-like, allowing the use of a variety of weapons to gun down enemies. Pressing the shift key (a big step for Bioware, used to be the space key in their games) pauses the game and opens a HUD that you can use to switch weapons or select powers to use. As in Mass Effect, powers depend on class and skill point distribution of the character and can be both offensive and defensive in nature. New are combinations  – if I have my biotic lift enemies in the air and I subsequently hit them with my warp power, they will take a lot of damage and explode, damaging nearby enemies as well.

From the (pseudo-interactive) intro. In-game combat doesn't look quite that impressive.

This is a general paradigm shift in how powers work in ME2. In the original it pretty much didn’t matter which powers you used as long as they did a lot of damage and/or controlled the enemies well. In ME2, different kinds of protection react differently to different powers and vice versa. The levitating power I mentioned before, for example, can’t be used on shielded or armored enemies. You first have to break those defenses before you can use your (very powerful otherwise) levitate. The tech power overload on the other hand is very good at damaging shields and mechanical enemies, but pretty much useless against armored and unprotected foes. As far as I’ve played so far, it’s always been possible to break down these barriers using gun fire as well, but not as efficiently.

Instead of the old overheating mechanic, guns now use limited ammunition. At the normal difficulty level, ammunition for your normal guns is plentiful and the limit really only affects the amount of shots you can fire in a single combat encounter. Usually, defeated enemies leave enough ammunition to fill your reserves up again. Ammunition for heavy guns is another story though. Those guns come in a variety of designs, be it grenade launchers, flame throwers, or laser rifles, and are very efficient killing tools. The amount of heavy gun ammunition you can carry is low, however, and new ammunition isn’t easy to find. This adds a nice element of resource management to the cover-and-shoot gameplay, though it doesn’t even get close to Fallout 3 style bullet scrounging.

Cover is extremely important – most enemies will tear you to shreds if you approach them without cover. Fortunately, cover is spread conveniently around all areas that you have to fight in. If you see an area without cover, you can be pretty sure you won’t find any hostiles there. The re-purposed space key can now be used to enter and leave cover, no longer do you have to bother with Shepard sticking to walls as if somebody had opened the locker with the mercenary-issue goober guns. Explosions can knock you out of cover, which is nice, and enemies actually try to flank you instead of just sitting behind their own cover, waiting for you to shoot them. Speaking of enemies, there’s a variety of scripted boss encounters in the game, complete with environmental changes and the like.

Goober Rounds. (image: schlockmercenary.com)

Items & Inventory

My god, the original Mass Effect inventory system was terrible. Terrible, terrible, lemon terrible. The new one is better, but not due to better UI design but because there is pretty much no inventory to manage. You can find a couple of different weapons, sure, but never will you find one that’s an actual upgrade. You don’t get to change your Mk 2 Sniper Rifle for a Mk IV one, but you could decide to switch the rifle for a submachine gun. Weapon power is instead improved through technology upgrades which you can buy from merchants or research in your ship’s laboratory. Spend some money and, wham, all your assault rifles now have 15% more oomph. I’m torn about this system. On one hand it is very convenient. You don’t have to bother with crowded inventories or selling junk to NPC merchants. You especially don’t have to bother with keeping your whole squad’s equipment up-to-date which was a pain in the ass in the original game. On the other hand it feels like there’s something missing and the weapon selection screen that comes up whenever you leave your ship for a new mission (as well as at conveniently placed weapon lockers) feels pretty unnecessary. Sure you can switch your flame thrower for a grenade launcher, but couldn’t that just have been in the game UI instead of these tacked on inventory screens for a game that doesn’t have an inventory?

Research & Mining

Scanning for resources in ME2.

Surely you all know about how game designers make MMO content last longer by making the player grind for hours? Apparently Bioware thought that would be a great idea for single player games as well. Researching a new upgrade costs you one of four resources – iridium, palladium, platinum, or the rare element zero. These can be found in very small amounts in refined form when you are doing missions, but mostly you get these by mining. And let me tell you, mining is terrible. What you do is this: You buy some probes at a fuel depot and fly to the next unexplored planet. There you start your scanner, hold the right mouse button pressed, and slowly move a scanning reticle across the surface of the planet until your sensors indicate a metal deposit. Once you’ve found such a deposit, you hit the left mouse button, which launches a probe and gets you the resources. Lather, rinse, repeat. Have a look at the screenshot to see how it works, but if it looks good to you, think about how you would like doing it over, and over, and over again. It’s worse than fishing in World of Warcraft – at least you could watch a movie or something while fishing – and fishing wasn’t mandatory. Ugh.

The scanning mechanism has replaced the cumbersome vehicle exploration missions of the first game, meaning that you can also find anomalies, crash sites, enemy outposts, etc. while scanning. Once you’ve found one, you send down your landing team for another ground mission. The catch though – I’ve never found a surprise ground mission yet. Either you have been told to go to a planet to find something, in which case the scanning process is pretty much redundant, or you won’t find anything but metal on the planet. Why give us a huge galaxy (and it is huge) to explore, if there’s nothing to find but resources? Maybe this changes later in the game, but for now I must say that the game would be better without this tacked-on “sandbox” part. I much prefer some well-designed rails to a crappy sandbox. Compared to this, the original game’s exploration was incredible entertainment.

Graphics

Surely such a hole in the head must be fatal?

Mass Effect 2 runs on the Unreal Engine 3, just like the original game. That means that it also looks a lot like the original game, which is fine by me. At least by not jumping to a new technology, I can be sure my system will still run the game. It does, and nicely so. There’s one thing I can’t stand about the Unreal Engine 3 though, and that’s the lack of anti-aliasing. I don’t mind polygons much, but the stairs left by the lack of AA are just insulting to my eyes. Now, modern video drivers allow the user to override a game’s video settings, so naturally I did what I always do in such cases: Fire up my driver tweaking utility and turn on 16x AA. That worked, stairs were  pretty much gone and the game looked a lot better. Until I entered a brightly lit area, that is. Apparently, light sources are subject to AA as well, which leads to ridiculous see-through effects. A character standing in front of a light source often gets see-through at the edges. In some cases, such as the screenshot on the side, light sources don’t get properly occluded at all and body parts go missing. How you can use an engine without AA in this day and age is beyond me. If you do, at least tweak it so that it works fine with forced hardware AA. This is just unprofessional and kills the otherwise great immersion.

  • I’ve got the Mass Effect 2 DVD sitting on my desk waiting to be installed on the weekend 😀 I’m kinda excited! 🙂
    .-= We Fly Spitfires´s last blog ..Where’s My Box? =-.

  • As you should be, it is a lot of fun, even considering those odd game design blunders. Enjoy it 🙂