Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The culprit

A site called Magical Wasteland takes a look at Mass Effect and determines that most of its problems probably stem from a hard ship date -- meaning that the game wasn't necessarily done, but BioWare was committed to a November 20 release. It's a fascinating, measured look at the compromises that often must be made in order to put a product on the shelves (and of course the writer loved the game, despite the problems he elucidates). A few of the writer's observations:
There is no loot other than finding more weapons, and these automatically get better (in a completely linear progression: Assault Rifle I, Assault Rifle II, and so on) as you advance. Because they’re the only thing you can find, you’ll soon have piles of pistols and shotguns, which you can sell for cash to buy– what? The only thing you can buy is more weapons.

Not to mention that you can only carry a limited number of these items, but the game doesn't tell you that. Nor does it tell you how close you are to the limit. So all you can do is sell them, or melt them down into omni-gel.

One of the first things noticeable in Mass Effect is the tremendous amount of texture-popping that goes on as the player enters new areas. Occasionally, even just running from place to place results in a loading message appearing while the disc spins wildly inside. It’s clear that the popping wasn’t something the artists knew in advance to work around, since there are often shots in cutscenes that don’t even last as long as it takes for the texture to pop in: by the time the texture has actually loaded, the camera isn’t even on the object any longer.

This last part really bothered me, even though in theory it's the sort of thing that shouldn't matter. Quite often, a camera angle will shift during a conversation or cutscene and a character will be smooth and featureless, and then suddenly his face will "pop" onto his head. For a game that is so largely driven by conversation and story elements, this is distracting. Like so much of what happens in Mass Effect, it's like a developer shouting at you, "Hey! Don't forget you're just playing a game!"

Playing normally, I got stuck on geometry several times, with no way out but to reload an earlier save. I flipped my supposedly un-flippable Mako vehicle. A step that I had not yet taken was registered as completed in my quest log. None of these bugs severely impacted my ability to enjoy the game, but they do affect the "fit and finish" of the final product.

And here, again, is where I seem to depart from most other people who've played Mass Effect. These things do affect my ability to enjoy the game. I want to get lost in the game. I want to forget I'm even holding a controller. Mass Effect does not allow for that possibility.

There's one other point that this article raises, as well. Given that Mass Effect wasn't even finished when it went gold, it casts some serious doubts on the early reviews. Game Informer magazine, in particular, ran an extremely early review that scored the game a 9.75 -- while still making excuses for patchy AI and a terrible interface.

My question is, what was Game Informer reviewing? The Mass Effect in front of them, or the Mass Effect they expected to arrive in stores months later? Were they willing to overlook certain problems to secure the exclusive? Were they willing to furnish a certain minimum score? Do I have any evidence for these assertions? Is that why I'm writing them in an annoying "could it be" style, allowing me to make inflammatory accusations without taking responsibility for them?

The answer to that question, at least, is yes.

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