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Mass Effect 2 « Nitpixels

Posts Tagged Mass Effect 2

The Soundtrack


Frankly, a well scored game with a sophisticated soundtrack is infinitely better. Take the exact same game and replace the soundtrack with something inferior, some mix tape you have laying around, and you’ll see a difference immediately. Play the game with the sound off and take note. It really doesn’t matter what genre, the addition of a thematic score works to evoke whatever emotional content the game is attempting to create.  Some games, like EVE Online, put their soundtracks online for you to listen to them. Others can be purchased from iTunes or elsewhere.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Jack Wall is one of my favorite musicians, or that Russell Brower is the reason I enjoyed Starcraft II. (I’m not a big RTS player.) Quite frankly I believe the games industry is overtaking Hollywood as the home for talented composers to come and realize a symphonic musical vision. Games seem to require more orchestration, You can go back and listen to games that came out in the late 90’s and hear it. You can listen to Dead Space 2, or Halo Reach and see the unification of music with setting. The game design takes music and ambiance into account, and when done right, it’s unforgettable.

This leads me to wonder what you, the reader (yeah, you, guy with the towel on your head, I even mean you) would nominate as the best game soundtracks. I have my own votes, but I’ll leave that for a future post. For now, what game music made its way onto your MP3 player? What do you find yourself listening to outside the games you discovered it in?

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The Nitpixels Podcast Episode 6: All roads lead to Dragon Age


The Nitpixels Podcast returns this week with your hosts Alex Ziebart, Matthew Rossi, and Mat McCurley. Mike Sacco is out yet again this week, and I’m starting to doubt his claims of a bad internet connection. I assume he’s just ashamed of being heard in public with us.

This week the Nitpixels crew discuses…

Do you have a question you would like to ask the Nitpixels crew? Have comments about the podcast? Email us at mailbag@nitpixels.com and we’ll answer it on the next edition of the Nitpixels Podcast if it strikes our fancy. You can also tweet any of us your questions — you can find our Twitter handles on the right-hand side of this very page (unless you’re on our mobile site).

You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below, download it directly via the link below, or download and subscribe via iTunesNote: The iTunes store can take an extraordinarily long time to display new episodes on the podcast page. If you subscribe, it will download the episode for you, even though it may not immediately display on the page.

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Sexuality is Not a Game Mechanic

Dragon Age 2, BioWare’s latest RPG offering, allows players to strike up romantic relationships with party members regardless of the gender of the player character or the NPC in question. Basically, if your ideal romantic interest would have to be homosexual/bisexual in order to be romantically compatible with your particular character, they will be. This also means that you as a player may periodically experience flirty conversation from NPCS that might not match up with the sexuality you intend for your character.

After a self-professed “straight male gamer” posted on the BioWare forums complaining that he was getting hit on by male characters while playing as the male version of Hawke, BioWare’s senior writer David Gaider gave a fantastic response: essentially, “get over it.” Gaider affirmed that BioWare is committed to giving players of all sexualities the opportunity to pursure romantic interests in whatever configuration they please, which is fantastic, and a real step forward for video game relationships in general.

Somehow, though, I’m still finding cause for concern.

Video games have been struggling for a long time now to be recognized as a legitimate art form, largely because it’s not been until recently that games have even had the opportunity to have extended dialogue, like books, and voice acting, like movies. The increase in “cinematic-ness” (cinematicity?) has also led to an increase the number of memorable, “real” characters present in games.

To be fair, though, games and movies and books are often all striving for very different things. A fantasy book you read or movie you see in theaters has the aim to entertain you, to tell its own story, to present its characters in a specific set of scenes and situations. Things are a little different in modern role-playing games, especially where BioWare is concerned. While still taking part in an over-arching narrative, you’re given the opportunity to shape the world (and the narrative itself) through your decisions and interactions. And even your main character, normally the rigidly-defined cornerstone of a narrative, isn’t set in stone; you can choose different backgrounds, appearances, and, in this case, sexualities as well.

Now, contrary to what sitcoms and movies would like you to believe, “homosexual” is not a personality trait. Neither is “bisexual” or “asexual” or “only sleeps with big disfigured metal space bugbirds” (don’t judge me). But it is part of a character, of a person. Sexuality shapes interactions both personal and public, and lots of other facets of a character. Which is why BioWare’s choice concerns me.

Let me give you some perspective. I liked Final Fantasy VII just fine, but I didn’t love it like I loved Final Fantasy IX. In FFVII, with the exception of some small stat differences, all characters behaved fundamentally identically in battle thanks to all of their skill assignments being handled with Materia, useable by anyone with no restrictions. Anyone could do anything, which was a far cry from the highly specialized characters of FFIX. If I needed brute force, I knew to use Steiner. In FFVII, anyone could be my brute-force guy (or gal).

Now, perhaps it’s fallacious to use game mechanics as analogues to “real-life” traits. In fact, I know it is, and I’ll get to that. So I’ll put it in a different way. In a BioWare game, like in a good movie or book, I can expect a character to generally act a certain way. I know Garrus will have a deadpan one-liner for lots of situations. I know Miranda will choose (and suggest that I choose) the most pragmatic option in most circumstances. These are the ways these characters work, the way they react to things. They’re integral parts of their character.

So what’s not integral? Stuff that relates to or works with game mechanics. Is Miranda a fundamentally different character if she uses submachine guns instead of pistols heavily in my game as compared to my friend’s game? No, she’s still a femme fatale ice queen. Her choice of gun has an effect on gameplay, not narrative — two very different things. It affects how I experience the narrative, perhaps, but not the narrative itself. That krogan was going to meet his end regardless of the weapon used, and Miranda would still shrug it off because that’s who she is. And so is her sexuality.

Essentially, by making it something that can be adjusted, changed, deleted, what’s happening is that BioWare isn’t treating sexuality like a character trait. They’re treating it like a game mechanic. And in an oeuvre that includes games in which “relationship” has historically (and unfortunately) been defined as “a minigame with sex as a reward,” that’s actually not that surprising. In fact, I’d argue that the best way to please players of all sexualities would be to give them a handful of relationships meaningful outside of the pursuit of a PG-13 sex scene, not give them access to a large number of ultimately trivial ones.

If it sounds like I’m condemning BioWare’s decision, I truly am not. I don’t envy BioWare in their effort to please people of all sexualities, and envy them even less in trying to legitimize an art form. In fact, I don’t even think this is a bad solution to the heterosexual male-dominated “gaming culture” that thinks elves are “gay” even when they aren’t. It’s just that there’s still a long way to go if we want games to be societally progressive and a legitimate art form, and part of the latter is not just continuing to sacrifice the building blocks of a character in the name of game mechanics when there simply must be other ways to do it. Even if we haven’t thought of them yet.

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The story/game disconnect in CRPGs

Spoilers for several games, past and present, including Dragon Age II abound in this post.

Computer RPGs excel in many, many ways. They can present a unified visual, with voice acting, immediate character visuals, and fantastic locales all realized for your playing convenience. Think of how hard it would be for a game master to create the milleu of Mass Effect through his or her voice alone.  But one element of the tabletop RPG that has always been nigh impossible for CRPGs to present is the ability to make shit up on the fly. To give an example, imagine you have the same scenario in both an RPG and a tabletop dungeon crawl – a boss fight that requires the players to fall into a trap behind one of two doorways. If this trap is necessary to set up the scene, the easy thing to do is to set it up so that no matter which door the party opens, that’s the door with the trap.

The problem here is that in a CRPG, there are things like save games and replays, so the players will learn fairly quickly that the game cheated, and that either door presents you with the trap. In a pen and paper game, there’s no replay and even if the suspicious players go and check the other door, a GM can blithely lie to them and have there be no sign of a trap. Yes, in each case you were railroaded. But in case A, you can easily find out, because the game can’t cover its tracks.

CRPGs have to balance a very careful line, leveraging their assets to make you forget that in the end, the story is by necessity on rails. Even when a game presents you with options and choices that can determine the outcome, it can only present you with so many because the story has to end somewhere.  There’s only so much room on those game discs or in that file download for variation, much as if you were ultimately reading a choose your own adventure book or using a flowchart. The game’s goal, therefore, is to make you forget that. It does so with all of the bells and whistles at its command, ultimately, and by making use of as many ‘non-choice choices‘ as it can get away with.
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The problem with hacking minigames

BioShock. Mass Effect. Fallout 3. Oblivion. All of these games are generally accepted as pretty damn awesome. You (and I) may disagree with how awesome they are, but the general consensus is that they’re great games. All of them have one thing in common that really bugs me: hacking minigames. “Oblivion doesn’t have hacking minigames!” you say. “It’s a medieval fantasy game! What are you even hacking!” There is a lockpicking minigame. It counts.

Hacking minigames are unfortunately common in AAA action/adventure titles, and the success of games such as Mass Effect and BioShock are likely to make them even more common as other developers try to learn from BioWare and Irrational Games‘ example. Just so we’re absolutely clear: I hate hacking minigames. Allow me to explain why.

They take you out of the action

To some degree they take you out of the action intentionally, with the developers fully aware of it. Hacking minigames pull you out of the explosions, gunfire and soaring magic and give you a cooldown period. You get a break from the point and shoot, even if the break is point and hack instead.

The problem is that in some parts of these games, most notably in BioShock, you are pulled away from the action too often. The hacking becomes tedious. As you get deeper into the game, you no longer want to do it at all. You start to dump all of your resources into being able to skip it or make it faster and easier, just so you can get through it. Using these minigames occasionally can certainly enhance gameplay, but when you walk into a room with 4+ hackable turrets that you either turn on your enemy or waste ammunition or EVE (mana/magic points) to kill, it doesn’t feel fun. You don’t feel clever for hacking that turret and turning it on your enemy when you do it four times in a row. You would really rather just get back to killing splicers.

They’re disability-unfriendly

The average gamer doesn’t think about it much, but there are people with disabilities that love video games just as much as everybody else. Why wouldn’t there be? Players with injuries or other disabilities want to play the same things that everybody else does, and generally they can. Maybe they won’t be as competitive in StarCraft 2 or Counter-Strike, but they’re perfectly capable of playing games like BioShock and Mass Effect, even if it means they need to keep the game difficulty quite low.

Then you throw hacking minigames into the mix. These minigames usually require stellar hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes to meet the time requirements. In the original Mass Effect, the typical hacking minigame requires you to carefully move an object through a series of concentric rings with moving obstacles. Already, that is more difficult for players with a limited range of motion than the game’s actual combat. On top of that, you generally only get 10-15 seconds to complete the challenge. Not likely. Luckily, the original Mass Effect offers an option that allows you to bypass the challenge completely. You can break down your spare, useless items into omni-gel and can spend it as currency to skip the challenge.

Mass Effect 2‘s minigames are not identical to those of the first game, but it’s the same concept. You have a short period of time to complete a reflex-based challenge. In this game, however, you don’t have the option of using omni-gel to bypass the challenge. If this only locked you out of bonus items or credits (currency), that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. The problem is that there are places where an inability to complete these minigames can stop your progress through the game entirely. For those familiar with the game, there is a gate in Grunt‘s recruitment mission that you need to hack to get through. If you can’t complete that minigame, you cannot move on with the game.

What was gained by gating the story progression with a hacking minigame? Does that gain outweigh locking disabled gamers out of an otherwise disabled-friendly game? It’s certainly something that should be considered when implementing these games.

If I wanted to play flash games I would go to Kongregate

Despite these games being high-budget releases, these hacking minigames are glorified (and sometimes simplified) flash games — or maybe something far older and simpler. BioShock‘s hacking minigame is an updated version of Pipe Mania, a puzzle game from 1989 developed for the Amiga. Pipe Mania is a classic, but it has also been copied, rehashed and reproduced so many times throughout gaming on so many platforms that BioShock‘s hacking system strikes me as incredibly uninspired. It most certainly did not make me feel like an awesome hacker. More like a  plumber.

In the original Mass Effect‘s hacking game, you’re a small sprite advancing through lanes of obstacles and moving objects. Apparently to hack a computer console, you must play a circular version of Frogger. Once again, this minigame struck me as being uninspired. It didn’t feel much like hacking either, just like BioShock‘s hacking didn’t. It was a minigame for the sake of having a minigame. Mass Effect 2 improved on giving you the feeling that you were hacking something — the game actually used a technological aesthetic instead of brightly colored squares and triangles prancing about. Aesthetics help.

Okay, that’s what makes them bad. How can they be used well?

Let’s recap. I think there are a few important things to keep in mind when designing and utilizing hacking minigames.

  • Does this minigame make sense as a hacking minigame? BioShock‘s Pipe Mania does not feel like hacking. Mass Effect‘s Frogger does not feel like hacking. Mass Effect 2‘s “match the circuits” game (seen at the top of this post) did, in my opinion, feel like hacking. It was a simple matching game, but the aesthetics and tasks associated with it were clearly technological.
  • Do not make these games mandatory! They are an excellent tool for offering bonuses or even shortcuts. But if someone cannot complete the hacking minigame (whether it be due to lack of skill or lack of motor skills due to injury), it should not stop the game/narrative dead. Minigames are not the core of your game. Minigames should reward success, not punish failure.
  • Diversify them. It’s okay to have multiple forms of hacking games. It does not need to be a new game every time the player touches a console, but two or three different ones adds spice. Not every shootout in an action game plays out the same way. Why should this? Mass Effect 2 used two different hacking games and I feel that worked very well. It reflected what sort of work you were doing.
  • Use them sparingly. Don’t do what BioShock did and put several hackable turrets and cameras in small spaces. It becomes tedium. Spread these encounters out. It will make them more meaningful.
  • Don’t add minigames just for the sake of adding minigames. Do they add something to your game? Will your game be lessened by a minigame’s absence?

TL;DR

Okay, maybe I don’t hate minigames. I just hate bad minigames used poorly.

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Mass Effect and combat diversity

It is extremely hard to deny that Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games currently on the market. Personal taste will determine where it falls on your gaming hierarchy, but it’s still undeniable that it’s a wonderful game. Mass Effect 2 worked very hard to improve its combat system over the first Mass Effect game and cut out a lot of the unnecessary fat, and while it did a good job at this, there were a number of things the original Mass Effect did very well that didn’t make it into the sequel for one reason or another.

My personal grievance is the loss of some of the most thrilling opponents from the original game. Mass Effect 2’s cover shooter gameplay is on the whole more exciting than the combat of the first game, but the enemies themselves aren’t particularly meaningful — each enemy that pops up feels like little more than more meat being thrown into a grinder with very few exceptions — the Scion enemies force you out of cover temporarily and the melee opponents that flank you do the same, but their appearances are rare outside of the core, mandatory missions against the Collectors. Beyond that, combat is essentially: enemy sticks their head out, enemy dies.

Personally, I see a few ways they could mix up combat again in the upcoming Mass Effect 3.

Bring back the Geth Hopper

The leaping, wall-crawling son of a bitch at the top of this post is the stuff of nightmares. The unit is pitched as a “cyberwarfare platform” in the in-game universe and it does its job well. Not only does the hopper scramble your on-screen radar while it’s present and blind you to your enemies’ locations (assuming you don’t have the appropriate upgrades), it also adds additional dimensions to the combat. When the geth hopper is involved, you can’t just look straight ahead and take a headcount of what you’re fighting. The hopper could be on the ground, but it could also be overhead or on the walls, taking cheap shots at you while it scurries out of the line of fire.

A close friend of mine, one of the rare few that disliked Mass Effect 2, describes its combat as “hiding behind conveniently placed boxes while spraying bullets down a hallway.” That’s an extreme oversimplification of the game, but it’s true in the most basic sense. There are very few enemies and encounters that force you to pay attention to what’s going on anywhere but directly in front of you. The reintroduction of the hopper (or new enemies similar to it) could change the dynamic of combat in a big way.

Geth in general are also less intimidating in Mass Effect 2, largely because the cover shooter gameplay makes them feel less intelligent, less predatory. The geth could be downright terrifying in the original Mass Effect, employing snipers in high, hidden nests while throwing shock troops, armatures, and colossuses at you. The geth are supposed to be scary opponents, but in Mass Effect 2 they were a mild inconvenience, even in Tali’Zorah‘s recruitment quest wherein you actually are put up against a colossus. Unfortunately, the single colossus you encounter is completely stationary and poses no real threat whatsoever while you funnel the geth ground troops through a single pathway of your choice.

Bring back the hoppers, bring back the armatures and the colossuses, and let’s make the geth scary again.

Bring back the krogan

Oh yeah, there were krogan all over Mass Effect 2, but did any of them ever strike fear into your heart? Krogan in the original Mass Effect were dangerous brutes that, if you let them close to melee range, would completely ruin your day. There weren’t very many of them, but the ones you encountered were damn mean and damn meaningful.

In Mass Effect 2, the krogan are plentiful. There are encounters where you kill them by the dozen, and one of the recruitment quests specifically throws weak, mass-produced krogan at you — almost like the game is fully aware that these giant, imposing berserkers are no longer notable. Throughout the game you also encounters the krogan-led Blood Pack mercenaries, made up of the monstrous krogan and the diminutive vorcha — the universe’s sentient vermin. In encounters with the Blood Pack, it’s rarely the krogan that sets you on edge. You see it, gun it down, and move on with your life. The vorcha with their rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and insane health regeneration that demands no less than a headshot to put them down are far more frightening.

Mass Effect 3 needs the krogan of the first Mass Effect, not the glorified moving target of Mass Effect 2. When a krogan charges me, I want to be worried.

More flanking, melee enemies

Mass Effect 2’s husks are one of the few enemies in that game that make you realize how vulnerable Commander Shepard and his/her teammates can be. Until you’ve acquired a significant number of upgrades, a husk rush can swarm over your team, drag your allies to the ground in an instant, and force Shepard into a terrified retreat. That’s a good thing. The husks (and to a lesser extent the fishdog varren) flank you, flush you out of cover, and suddenly you’re under fire from all of the enemies you were safely hiding from behind a box.

These enemies were used to great effect in the few core missions against the Collectors, the game’s primary opponents, but very rarely beyond that. The rarity of in-your-face combat in this game (unless you played a vanguard, of course) not only made combat very repetitive after awhile, it also made some of your teammate options less attractive. The only time you would want your allies using shotguns is when they were equipped with the DLC shotguns that turned them into long-range weapons. They had no opportunities to use these weapons up close, so a large aspect of those characters was essentially useless.

In Mass Effect 3, I would like to see some more short range and mid-range combat that forced you to adapt to the situations and use your teammates that specialize in that kind of combat. Use your tough, tank-like characters, use the characters that are strong short-range fighters, build a perimeter and hold out against the swarm.

To sum up

Mass Effect 2 is one of my all-time favorite games, but the transition from Mass Effect 1’s engine to Mass Effect 2’s engine definitely carried a bit of the “baby and the bathwater” issue with it. If BioWare builds Mass Effect 3 up using what they’ve learned from both of its predecessors, we’re in for one hell of ride. I don’t want them to ignore the great things that weren’t carried over from the first installment of the series, because there’s still a lot of potential there waiting to be used.

Mass Effect 2 fell into the trap of assuming that because different enemies use different spells, that must mean combat will be diverse. That’s not true. You need variety in aesthetics and motions as well — the first Mass Effect nailed that, but the sequel fell short. Mass Effect 3 has an opportunity to integrate the strengths of both games and I hope they achieve that.

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