Monday, December 13, 2010

Mass Effect 2

Above: Mass Effect 2 cast members plan their revenge against me for this post.

In advance of turning in my list of the year's top games, I decided to play a little catch-up this weekend. What better place to start, I thought, than with Mass Effect 2, one of the best-reviewed games of the year, and one of my favorite excerpts from this year's "Year in Swooning" quiz?

Despite Chris Buffa's command that I buy it immediately, I skipped ME2 the first time around. You may remember that I hated the original. That's not a word I use often, or lightly. I seem to have a mental block when it comes to BioWare, and it didn't seem fair to me or to them to keep reviewing their games when I'm just going to say the same things over and over. So Maddy reviewed ME2 for the Phoenix and loved it, and I went about my merry way.

Still, with the year ending, people starting to tweet about their best games of the year, and the price having dropped to $20, I figured: what the hell. Let's give Mass Effect 2 a try. I picked it up on Friday and put about six mostly painless hours into it over the weekend. Without question, it is a huge improvement over the original. But I remain baffled by so many of the design decisions, most of which have the effect of making the game hard to play. I don't mean that the game is difficult in the traditional sense, I mean that performing the most basic actions is always twice as complicated as it needs to be.

Over a year has passed since Krystian Majewski's epic three-part dismantling of the interface in Mass Effect 1, and despite minor improvements in this regard, that's still your best resource for understanding how and why Mass Effect 2's interaction design fails. When it comes to maintaining a consistent control scheme, to conveying appropriate information to the player, and making it easy to parse your character data, BioWare doesn't get the most basic things right, not even by accident.

This is but a sampling of the problems I encountered in my time playing Mass Effect 2.

Press A to confirm, or press B to... confirm?

Mass Effect 2 likes to change what buttons do from one screen to the next. By now, it is accepted convention that on the Xbox 360 controller, the green A button means "yes," "accept," "confirm," and so on. The red B button means "no," "deny," "cancel," and so on. Sometimes this is the case in ME2, and sometimes it isn't. When you select a costume for Shepard, the icons helpfully tell you "(B) Confirm." I think this is the first game in history to do that.

In other screens, the game doubles up on functions. At the end of each mission is a debrief screen that runs through your stats. When you scroll to the last menu option, you read "Exit (A)." And at the bottom of the screen, you also read "(B) Exit." That's hardly game-breaking, since it's hard to imagine what else you would want to do at that point. But it's BioWare's approach in a nutshell: never use one button when two will do.

Bait and switch

There are two primary modes of playing Mass Effect 2. Either you're walking around and talking to other characters, or you are shooting other characters. Both modes look exactly the same. They control the same, at least as far as moving your character goes. They transition from one to another seamlessly. Yet, when you move from one to another, certain buttons swap functions. Some things stop working. It is bizarre.

In non-combat play, clicking the right stick will bring up a static map (clicking the left stick will bring up the map, too -- again, why use one button when two will do?). Clicking the right stick again will not exit the map, despite how much sense that would make, but that's not really pertinent to this point. If you have an objective, you can click the right bumper to bring up a little arrow on your HUD that'll point where you need to go.

Once you're in combat, this changes. Now there's no map screen at all, and clicking the right stick brings up your objective arrow instead. This is necessary because the right bumper has been re-mapped to activate your ammo power. Makes sense, right?

The worst part of all of this is that I might have gotten the details wrong, but I would never be able to tell.

If the light is red, move ahead

Games can communicate information in lots of different ways: through text, through color, through sound, through force-feedback. When an interface is designed well, all of these elements work together to tell the player a story in the blink of an eye. When it is not, they will provide confusing or contradictory information to the player.

The best example that I saw in Mass Effect 2 came the first time I entered a mass relay, which is the device that lets you jump to another star system. The screen showed me a zoomed out galaxy map, and I could move a crosshair with the analog stick to select my destination. When I highlighted the nearest star system, I heard a buzzing noise, and a red line appeared connecting that system with the one I was on. "Whoops, guess I can't go here yet," I thought, and exited the map to try to figure out what quest-critical task I had not yet accomplished.

It took me three trips into the mass relay to realize that nothing was preventing me from proceeding, and that a tiny "travel" icon was also appearing at the bottom of the screen, along with the buzzing and the red line. This could have been avoided with a "ding" sound and a green line, don't you think?


Mass Effect 2's icons make no sense. When you're in combat, you can give your squadmates orders by pulling up a wheel that is studded with icons representing everybody's special powers. It is impossible to tell just by looking what any of these powers are. Even when you point the cursor at one of them, it's still not easy to tell because they all have sexy names that don't reflect their actual function. (Why is the command to heal your squadmates called "unity" and not, you know, "heal"?)

So in order to tell what anything does during battle, you have to scroll around reading fine print, most of which is hidden from view until you highlight a specific part of the radial wheel. This is a stunning feat of communicating as little information as possible to the player, while still taking up the maximum possible screen real estate.

(Just to rep Krystian's article again, he did a much better job of demolishing Mass Effect's iconography than I ever could.)

Ordering off the menu

Trying to navigate the menus in Mass Effect 2 feels like you've stumbled into an M.C. Escher painting. They never go where you expect, and they're full of extraneous information that doesn't help you accomplish your goals. You can read detailed paragraphs about your weapons, but you can't compare their stats side-by-side when you're selecting your loadout. That's the most important function I could imagine these menus serving, and it's just not there.

Or take the process of making upgrades. You access a console on your ship that brings up a top-level list of available upgrades, broken out by category. But the top menu item isn't selectable, and it isn't an upgrade. It provides a general description of what upgrades are. It looks like a menu option -- it just doesn't behave like one.

As you scroll down through the menu, detailed descriptions of each category display in a box to the right. I get that a lot of people who play games like this are interested in lore, so I'm not too bothered by so much of the screen being taken up by information that seemed superfluous to me. But guess what happens when you select one of the categories: in the next sub-menu, the first highlighted option is, again, a description of that category, which tells you nothing you didn't already know. But it does take up the first spot in the list, despite not sharing the same function as the other items below it.

Once you make an upgrade, you are booted back out into the ship, and must re-enter the console. You can't go immediately to the next upgrade you wanted to make. Which makes sense. Who would go to the upgrade console wanting to make upgrades?

That really got out of hand fast... I think Brick killed a guy!

Whoops! This was supposed to be a short post. I didn't even cover every problem I encountered, and remember, I only played for six hours. As with other BioWare games, I felt like I was playing a video game that was made by people who had never played a video game before.

This is probably a good time to go for the deathbed salvation and say that, despite it all, this time I can at least see what other people like about Mass Effect 2. Visually, it's a massive upgrade over the first, with vibrant alien worlds to explore. The storyline seems like pretty standard space opera stuff, but there's nothing wrong with that, and various individual scenarios I played were well paced. And the characters and dialogue trees remain the game's best achievement. Unlike in the first game, I started this one as FemShep, and I don't regret it. It's really nice to be able to play as a female hero who isn't defined (confined?) by her gender.

Will I keep playing Mass Effect 2? Maybe. I hear it gets better as you go along.


Andrew said...

For both of the ME games I've enjoyed them in spite of their mechanics. The story is strong enough - at least for me - to allow me to overlook how terribly implemented the games (especially the first) are.

As a PC player, I find it interested that Bioware managed to cock things up on the control scheme so badly in the XBox version of ME2. On my PC I found the controls consistent and intuitive.

I heartily agree on the combat skills! I ended up just not using them, aside from Unity, and letting people go where they wanted and shoot whoever they pleased. I concentrated on Shepard alone.

I love these games in spite of their flaws. It's probably too much to hope that ME3 won't also be a buggy mess.

MCRayRay said...

For someone who's really interested in UI design, this is great! I can't remember how I felt about the UI when I played ME2, though. Kind of tempts me to go through it again on the hardest difficulty...

Nels Anderson said...

I know you're more of a console fella, but I'll second what Andrew said and say the PC version feels pretty good. Obviously some stuff isn't different, like the poor iconography, but in general is sounds more manageable than the console version.

ME1 had the PC version done by Demiurge, and no disrespect to them, but it was a bit rough. ME2 BioWare did in house and it definitely shows. If someone hasn't played ME2 and is on the fence about which version, I'd definitely recommend PC.

Kirk Hamilton said...

It really does seem as though BioWare is still struggling with the herculean task of getting complex nested PC menus to work on a console controller.

While the difficulty of that task seems pretty evident, it did surprise me to see some of the issues you mention. I, of course, loved ME2 and had no trouble overlooking them, but in particular the "A or B to proceed" thing just seemed really confusing, as did the layout of the upgrade menus.

A quantum leap over ME1 (which if I remember correctly at one point literally flipped the in/out buttons on the map screen, causing many an accidental map-leave), but still, no small room for improvement.

It should come as no surprise that I recommend making it to the end, if only because the loyalty quests are all so very well-written and engaging. But also, I'd like to know what you think of the full game, since you're not nearly as swayed as I am by BioWare's brand of universe-building, storytelling magic.

(Side note - I will never, ever tire of reading Krystian's ME Design-Fail post. Never. It remains one of my favorite blog posts of all time.)

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Stephen S said...

The Call of Duty: Black Ops multiplayer menus are similarly painful to navigate. Often a menu only uses about 20% of the width of the TV, and be nearly impossible to read. If multiple awards are won during a match, only 3 are displayed. Contracts are still displayed as "completed!" in the end of round summary, even if they were completed many rounds or even days ago.

Someone (hint hint)should do a series of articles on this topic.

Maddy said...

Ha, this was so fun to read. You reviewing Mass Effect 2 instead of me would've been fun, too, but I suppose I did all right. I know you hated the first one, and I remember looking for your review of it and never finding it. Was your hatred too awful to put into words?

I too tried to play the first ME and was so disgusted with the controls that I gave up after an hour or so. The second one was getting such a good buzz that I figured I should give the franchise another shot. I remember the controls feeling less idiotic, but perhaps that was because I was going into the game with the mindset of "I'm reviewing this, I have to finish it all," which allowed me a higher level of patience and investment. Like Andrew (first commenter), I mostly just let the other characters do their own thing and focused on the shooting, but if I hadn't played as the soldier class, maybe I couldn't have managed that.

There were also so many things to like about it, enough to help ignore the annoying bits. Jennifer Hale voicing FemShep was fantastic; almost all of the voice actors were really strong. The narrative has some issues -- I'm not a fan of this "you can either be EVIL or AWESOME, and being in the middle will get you nowhere at all" thing games keep doing nowadays -- but I like that ME2 does unusual things like having your romantic options be a hot black dude or an alien ... or, even more scandalously, letting you be a female character whose gender isn't remarkable and doesn't need some sort of weird canon justification. I wish those things weren't remarkable, but they are, and they made me smile.

Mitch Krpata said...

Maddy, here's the ME1 review:

As I recall, I got to a point in the game where I was unable to proceed, for whatever reason, but because of the checkpoint system I was also unable to go back. So I kept playing the same scene over and over again, and failing, and combined with all the other problems I'd been having it made me want to fly to BioWare's offices and punch someone.

You're definitely right about the game's good qualities, though. In fact I do find myself wanting to go back to it, and may just do that.

Mitch Krpata said...

And by the game I will go back to, I mean ME2, not ME1.

Frederik said...

Damn, I was thinking of buying this game when it releases for PS3. But this post really changed my appetite for it...

MVenturelli said...

While I am not by any means defending the atrocious UI designs of Bioware games, and while I played ME2 on the PC rather than the Xbox 360, your post has some points that I strongly disagree with.

"When you select a costume for Shepard, the icons helpfully tell you "(B) Confirm." I think this is the first game in history to do that."

Actually, the "B" button is used to go back to the previous screen, saving the changes that were made. While it is possible to argue that this wasn't the best choice of a structure, labelling the "B" button as "Confirm" is way better than the alternative, "Back", which could cause confusion. It happened to me while playing Demon's Souls on the PS3.

"But it's BioWare's approach in a nutshell: never use one button when two will do."

Actually, this is one very basic usability guideline: redundancy. Please care to explain how the use of two possibilities instead of just one could hurt your efficiency.

Apart from that, a very good post. Just don't let the bad UI ruin your experience with a great game. If you played it until the end and did all the missions, I am quite sure you enjoyed it, no matter how grumpy you sound.

Mitch Krpata said...

I did finish and enjoyed the game overall. That definitely counts for something.

Gotta disagree on the redundancy issue in this case, though. It's one thing in a game like Sonic the Hedgehog, where there is only one action available to you, to have every button do the same thing. In Mass Effect 2, there are dozens of different things you can do from screen to screen, and the lack of a consistent underlying reasoning to the button assignments makes these redundancies more confusing, not less. I would expect the B button to disregard changes I had made to my costume, not return to the previous screen with changes intact.

In that case, is it even possible to cancel your changes with the press of a button, or do you have to manually change them back?