Mass Effect ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_Effect ) has consumed my week. I started playing Sunday, and I just finished the game tonight. Aside from playing, I’ve done very little. That certainly means that it was a good game, and I enjoyed it immensely.
The developer is…Bioware, a canadian company known for making high quality "Western" RPGs (as opposed to JRPGs, Japanese Role Playing Games, which have some significant style differences). I’ve played previous products from Bioware, including KOTOR and Jade Empire. So while I can say without reservation that Mass Effect is a good game and Bioware an AAA developer, I feel they didn’t stretch as far as they could have.
For one thing, their vaunted and revolutionary conversation mode isn’t. Instead it’s almost exactly the same as Jade Empire’s. The whole Light Side/Dark Side thing from KOTOR is reused, too. And the Warrior/Mage/Engineer class system. But my biggest gripe is with the parts of the game I liked best.
What did I like best? Tearing across alien worlds in my moon buggy, discovering lost artifacts and ancient mysteries! Man, that just never gets old for me. Every world, from an airless moon, to a frozen blizzard, to a dustball bathed in the harsh red light of its mother planet. They were all beautiful, and I wanted to explore every inch of each one. In fact, after I had investigated every marked point on the map, I’d sometimes just jump back in the buggy and drive, hoping to find another outcrop of Thorium to survey.
I also LOVED the sector view on the galactic map. SO beautiful. The first time I saw the Horsehead Nebula, I almost cried, it was so well done. I would have been happy flying through nebulas and driving around on planets, that’s all I need.
But I could tell that all those planets, and nebulas, and conversations, and missions, and characters, were all hand-made and expensive. And this leads to my gripe. Where’s the Procedurally Generated Content?
Everyone knows that I’m a big proponent of procedurally generated content (PGC). I fully expected that things like the planet surfaces and the tunnels of the side-missions would and could be made with PCG, but NO. Every time I entered a mine, or a building, the layout was exactly the same! Hallway, small room, turn left, hallway, big room and battle, small room and plot resolution. The only differences were the crates stacked in the big arena room. I bet part of Bioware fully intended to make more interior layouts, and just ran out of time. But PGC would have solved that problem.
And the planet surfaces were always bounded by a big square ("You’re going outside the operational area, Commander. Please turn back"), plus there were several terrain features that worked with the story, so that was all hand-crafted too. Sure, I bet the art team had a Maya script to generate the rough draft of the surface, which was then hand-edited. But PGC would have broken out of the box, I could have driven the entire surface of the planet, and they could still have specific terrain features. Oh, and the disk footprint would have been smaller, too.
In 2001, I attended the first PS2 Devcon. The final keynote was from Sony’s chief engineer, who showed a game demo of rolling hills under moving clouds. He told us all that the demo was completely procedurally generated, no pre-made art at all. Then he told us that Sony saw PGC as the wave of the future, and implored us to take this message back to our companies. I certainly did, but to no avail. Everyone whines about the expense of next-gen artwork, but nobody’s embracing PGC, even six years later. 🙁
Aside from PGC, there are a few more gripes to share. First, they had some freaky body self-shadowing, which really looked bad. It used a really small shadow mask, and didn’t update every frame, so it looked shaky and blocky and weird. If I was in charge I’d have simply turned it off. It really detracted from the rest of the beautiful art.
Second, they connected everything with elevators, so they could load new maps while you were traveling in the elevator. This is a cool idea, except that the game was still rife with loading screens and big hitches during disc access, so what was the point. Also, you were stuck in the elevator until the level was loaded, so some elevators were absurdly slow (http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2007/11/16).
Despite its few flaws, Mass Effect is a great game. Possibly the greatest re-make of Star Control 2 ever made. Move over. I’m drivin this buggy.
PS. On one planet, I found the skull of a giant creature. What was it? Where did it come from? What did a living specimen look like? These questions remain unanswered, but my curiosity still burns.
Easter Egg! Check out the shifty looking cow, which follows you and steals your money! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nqdw1FrbA4s