Monday, December 13, 2010
Mass Effect 2
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.