Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Across the Traverse

Since I'm only six months behind in playing Mass Effect 3, as opposed to the four years behind on Mass Effect 1, I'll indulge myself and be a bit chattier while playing, instead of waiting for the end to do a standard summary.

The first thing that struck me, and hard, was how incredibly great the game looks. ME2 had much better character models than ME1, but ME3 is an order of magnitude better. No, it still isn't life-like, but it's darn good. I'm most in awe of the people, though the environments are great as well. The Citadel's evolution has been particularly neat to see throughout the series, from the sprawling but very flat Presidium of ME1 to the clearly torus-shaped (though non-reachable) Presidium of ME2 to the lush, detailed, vibrant Presidium in ME3. Space combat has looked awesome in all of the games, and is at its best here.

I would have thought that the vastly improved graphics would translate to even longer load times, what with having many more polygons per character model and higher-resolution textures. Nope! I've been astonished by how darn fast the levels in ME3 load. With ME2, I would pick a destination, then walk to another room, brush my teeth, check my email, play Fallen London, and wander back to the PC around the time it was ready to let me play. In ME3, none of my load times have been longer than a couple of seconds. I'm not sure how Bioware pulled this off (maybe more intelligent on-demand loading?), but I'm very impressed at the results.

They've revamped the gameplay yet again for the third installment, but it's a more natural evolution on top of ME2, unlike the drastic revision from the first entry to the second. My powers carried directly over to the new game. You can re-set your powers in the med bay, for free the first time and for 5000 credits afterwards; I took the free reset, mostly because at the end of ME2 I had put two ranks into Cryo Blast, and I don't think I'll be pursuing that tree in ME3 - in the short term I'm working to reach the new 6th ranks of my bread-and-butter skills of Combat Drone and Incinerate, and I'm more interested in checking out the new powers like Sentry Turret than Cryo Blast. They did largely reset my Paragon score, which I expected; I'd maxed it out around 2/3 of the way through ME2, and had filled maybe a fifth of my Renegade bar, so at the start of ME1 I had one full segment of Paragon and no Renegade. So far, I haven't had the chance to make any Paragon or Renegade dialog choices, but there have been a couple of Heroic Action opportunities.

The actual controls are very similar to ME2, with some welcome improvements. You can no longer get tired while storming, so you don't need to alternate between turning it on and off. (You also now storm much faster in combat zones than in settlements, which is probably realistic, though it would be very welcome in cities since you're often retracing your steps many times.) The thing that's been most challenging for me has been the lower visibility given to actionable items. I remember now how weird it had felt in ME2 that you could be standing on the opposite side of an enormous cavern, and an object would light up when you moused your viewpoint over it. ME3 seems to go too far in the other direction: you need to be within a few paces of the object to see the circle that shows it's interact-able, and practically on top of it to see its name. That makes it a bit of a pain to find interesting items, which makes cities a little more time-consuming, and adds a lot more anxiety to missions: like in ME2, you only have one chance to pick up an item, and if you miss it, it's gone forever (as far as I can tell). So, in addition to killing bad guys, I not only need to sweep each room, but actually walk over all of it to make sure I'm not missing anything. (I think I'm going to give myself permission to let this go. The fast-paced parts of the game are too much fun for me to slow it down like that, and the map designers seem to at least be pretty reasonable about putting most items in places where you're likely to pass them.)

My biggest complaint is with the journal, which I think is actually worse than in either of the previous two games. Missions don't update as you make progress, and will always say something like, "Find the Prothean artifact in the Hades Gamma cluster, and return it to Dr. Rigel in the Citadel Hospital." If you're juggling a dozen quests at once, like I am, you won't be able to tell from your journal whether or not you have already located the Prothean artifact, and so must spend more time running around. (That's one downside of not having an inventory: there's no place to see what plot-related items you've found.) I find myself badly missing the excellent journal system from Dragon Age: Origins. In DA:O, the journal would always update with your current objective, and you could choose to "activate" a particular quest, which would then show an arrow pointing in the direction of your next goal. I'm pretty surprised that they couldn't do something like that here, especially since the two franchises feel fairly similar and DA:O came out several years before this game.

On a positive, if minor, note, ME3 gives you the option to hide Shepard's helmet, either in dialog or in all scenes. I actually avoided some useful helmets in ME2 since they obscured her face, instead sticking with a cool-looking holographic viewfinder that gave me a mostly-useless bonus to headshot damage.

The character model looks really good. In ME2, I wanted to use the casual wear outfit that looks kind of like space peasant overalls, but I got so horribly distracted by what was going on with her neck - that texture did not mesh at ALL above and below the neckline, leading to really weird artifacting - that I switched back to the rolled-up-sleeves semi-uniform-looking thing that she wore in ME1. I want to try it again in ME3, though, since it seems OK on other NPCs. There's also the option of a cocktail dress, which I was highly amused by at first, but ended up needing to return. It's pretty awesome, but just feels way out of character for my conception of Shepard.

(While looking up an image for that outfit, I stumbled across a sweet Mass Effect fashions tumblr. That's not my scene, but I'm so happy that it exists!)

Vaguely along the same lines... I don't think I've ever mentioned this before, but one of my favorite parts of the atmosphere of the Mass Effect games has been the nightlife. Each game has a couple of clubs where you can go, drink, chat, and dance. The music is surprisingly good in these (at least for my tastes, I'm sure people who are less happy with electronic music would disagree), and I get a kick out of being able to dance in them. There's usually a bunch of broadly grinning Asari pulling off some fantastically limber moves, some human females swaying and gyrating... and a few males of various species standing around awkwardly, maybe shifting weight from foot to foot. ME1 even had a Volus on the dance floor. It was incredible. The only club I've found so far in ME3 has been Purgatory, and its dance scene isn't nearly as good as Afterlife in ME2, but the music and lighting are fantastic.

ME3 has dramatically improved the resource-gathering aspect of the game by basically eliminating planet scanning. Instead, you have a sonar-type ability as you fly around that points out anomalies. If there's an anomaly on a planet, then you will need to send down exactly one probe to claim it. No more spending multiple minutes patiently spinning a globe and firing off a dozen probes! Other anomalies are in space, and can be claimed immediately. Instead of being a time sink, Bioware has actually made this kind of interesting and challenging. Many systems are under attack by the Reapers, and each time you scan a system, there's a chance that they will notice you and start chasing. This leads to some fun hit-and-run strikes, and quick risk/reward analysis: is it worth trying to find the third artifact in this system now, or should I leave and come back after things have cooled down? (Oh, that's yet another thing that Bioware has done right: they add a counter that lets you know how much stuff is left to find in the system, so you don't need to comb over every square inch to make sure you've found everything.)

As far as I can tell, there aren't really any "resources" any more, either. You can directly find credits, and some quest items, and other assets. Instead of finding, say, 2000 units of Element Zero, you might find an Alliance cruiser, which then gets added to your War Assets.

War Assets have been controversial enough that even prior to playing ME3 single-player, the discussion about them had penetrated my self-imposed blackout. ME3 has a variety of endings, and the quality of the ending you receive primarily depends on the number of assets you can acquire. You get some starting War Assets based on the actions you took in the previous games; you gain many War Assets while completing missions in ME3, particularly optional side-missions that help strengthen the alliance of species opposing the Reapers; and you also can gain War Assets by playing the multiplayer game long enough to promote a character to Level 20. Tied to that is "Galactic Readiness", which is improved when you play multiplayer matches, but decreases by several percentage points each day. Basically, Bioware wants you to play multiplayer in order to get the best single-player ending, but supposedly hard-core completists can still get this by maximizing every other aspect of the game.

Thanks to my sessions with Andrew earlier, I've already managed to promote two MP characters to Level 20. My Galactic Readiness had decayed to 50% (of COURSE it did), but I've been able to jump back into things, and am having a blast... yeah, I miss having a level-headed brother who understands how to defend a position, but on the plus side, all the single-player ME I've been doing lately has made me a LOT better at controlling and playing well; I'm no longer somersaulting into walls and trying to melee Banshees. I'm sure it also helps that I've picked up some good upgrades over the last few months; I use a rare Geth Plasma SMG with an ultralight mod and heat sink, and have worked out a really nice personal routine with my Combat Drone and Incinerate powers that, combined with judicious use of cover, lets me survive all ten rounds even if the rest of the squad is goofing off. Anyways, I've been planning to keep hitting MP periodically while I play ME3 with the hopes of getting my readiness up to the 80-90% range by the time I finish the game, but it's fun enough that I find myself voluntarily squeezing in extra sessions when I can.

Fundamentally, I think I'm discovering how much I really like co-op online gaming. This is the first time I've done co-op for any action game; the last time I played action games online was with the original Half-Life back in 1999-2001, and that was almost always deathmatch. Back in those days, I was playing that FPS enough to actually get decent at it - I was rarely on top of the score charts, but on my favorite maps (especially the warehouse one) I could get into the top quarter. I had a few moves I particularly enjoyed: strafing with a pistol, John Woo-style, and the old sneak-up-behind-a-sniper-and-whack-them-with-a-crowbar maneuver. That never gets old! After I abandoned Windows and became a pure Linux user, I was no longer able to keep up my Half-Life play, although I did host a fairly permanent MP server, the original Timmy's House of Sprinkles.

Since then, I've periodically returned to action gaming - most recently with Deus Ex - but I've completely eschewed the online form. To be honest, this is probably mostly out of pride: I doubt that I would hold up well against today's young gamers, and would rather test myself in single-player than complete against others in multi-player. However, co-op provides a great solution. I almost always end up ranked as the third player in a list of four, and feel great about it: as long as I feel like I've helped the team more than I've hurt them, then I view it as a success. And there's something fundamentally satisfying about working together to achieve an objective. When you're on a good team who gets it, and all players huddle around a hacked terminal to make the upload go faster, or people cover a corridor so a carrier can make it safely to an extraction point, it makes the victory all that much sweeter for being shared.

A few random thoughts about the early part of the game follow!

MINI SPOILERS (for ME3, probably counts as mega spoilers for ME1-ME2, with the disclaimer that my ME experience may be very different from yours based on my plot choices)

I do love what they've done with the character models, but I'm not a huge fan of Ashley's makeover. She seems way too... glamorous, with extremely glossy lips and long hair and sizeable bust. She was attractive in the first two games, but also seemed like a soldier; here, she just seems like a complaining romantic interest. I am looking forward to getting her back on my squad, but I kind of wish that they'd updated her design instead of changing it.

I'm not a big fan of James, the new "male grunt" crew member. He's way disrespectful of Shepard, and a pig, too. I'll give him a chance to improve his attitude, but so far I've been mostly Renegade-ing with him.

It feels great to have Liara back on the team! I'd missed having her around for most of ME2. In this game, it feels like she's finished the path she was on in ME2, and ended up in a happier place than where she started, but still much more mature and a bit sadder than in ME1. It looks like the relationship is going to rekindle, which is cool. I'm a little curious if the game throws any other options into the mix; it could get a little awkward if Samara showed up. Anyways, thanks to what we saw in ME2, it actually doesn't seem totally crazy for Liara to be the most powerful information broker in the galaxy and running a vast spy network and information processing system from a closet on the Normandy.

The EDI show is awesome. The EDI+"Jeff" show is amazing! I hadn't realized until the end of ME2 that Tricia Helfer does EDI's voice, and the more I think about it, the more impressed I am. She can't express any emotion in her voice since she's portraying an artificial intelligence; starting about 2/3 of the way through ME2, though, she's an AI who is evolving, discovering a sense of humor, and making an effort to relate to humans. Tricia's lines are hilarious, even if she needs to deliver them in a near-monotone. Anyways... EDI's new body looks great, and I love playing matchmaker between her and Joker. (I have to admit to being curious if the game will present EDI as a romance option... but if Joker's interested, I'm not going to stand in the way of true love.)

Garrus is back, and I'm still really liking him like I did in ME2. I appreciate that the game lets you see another aspect of his role when you run into him on Palavan; he's grown into a very capable leader. I also love the conversations his presence sparks on the Normandy. Joker has a line like, "I'm glad Garrus is back, there's a whole lot of [dreck] out there that needs a bullet between the eyes. Plus, we might need something calibrated." And Liara tries to convince him to not sleep in the missile bay.

In the early portion of the game, my award for "Most Improved" goes to Jack. I didn't particularly like her in ME2, but really enjoyed seeing her again when rescuing the Academy. Her hair is better, she's wearing some clothes, which makes the tattoos look better, and she's still violent and abrasive but has discovered a sense of humor that she channels while browbeating her students. After all that, I'm a little disappointed that (from the looks of things) she won't be joining my team, but I'm glad to see her in that role.

Man oh man, that opening was awesome! I love the intense kineticism of the whole opening sequence, from exiting your cell through jumping onto the Normandy shuttle. Experienced players (or people, like me, who had been playing ME2 less than 48 hours previously) can fly through it, while still feeling part of a pretty epic story.

And, on the downside, I'm already sensing why some people are bummed about this whole thing with Shepard having nightmares about the little boy on Earth dying. It just feels like a really sloppy technique from Screenwriting 101. Since I'm playing with the Extended Cut expansion, I'm hoping that they make that sequence fit with the reality of Shepard's situation.


I'm still early on, but between the game's technical improvements and the quality I've seen from the plot thus far, I'm excited to see where it goes.

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