Mass Effect 2

Remember when you saw that movie? It was awesome, and full of quirky and amazing things you still think about fondly? Sure, it had its flaws, but you and your friends all really enjoyed it? And talked about the vast, fascinating world it created? A world you felt you could explore forever?

And then the sequel came out.

It had a higher budget for SFX, and it was still pretty good, but all the quirky things had been sanded off by focus groups, and the amazing story now seemed kind of linear and predictable. And despite the huge budget and grand set pieces, the vast world didn’t seem so vast anymore.

That’s how Mass Effect 2 is for me. Bioware got it wrong.Now, this post isn’t about how they got it wrong for everyone, though I’m amazed that every review is so glowing. I’ve finished the game as a paragon with (near) maximum trust. This post is about how *I* think they should have done it, how *I* would have done it differently, which boils down to one thing.

Procedurally generated content.

You know I’m a big fan of PGC, and when I played Mass Effect 1, I felt it cried out for PGC. The most fun I had in ME1 was blasting around alien worlds in my moon buggy, finding lost colonies and giant fossils. But the limits of the content were soon apparent. Instead of driving around entire continents, I was limited to a tiny square area of each planet. And every single moon base and mining operation was exactly the same map, with some different crates piled in the (same) main room. I know driving around the equator of even the smallest moon would have taken a lifetime of realtime play, but just knowing it could be done would have been awesome.

ME1 also had huge spaces for your human avatar to explore, most notably the Citadel, which was vast both in what it was supposed to be (a frikkin gigantic space station) and in the actual playable space. I spent multiple play sessions just exploring every nook and cranny of that huge multi-part map. The sense of scale was incredible.

These things could have been much bigger and more expansive using PGC. Let’s be clear; the various planetary surfaces WERE PGC, they were just generated by the art tool near the start of the production pathway, and tweaked and twiddled as though they were hand-drawn geometry (if I’m wrong about this someone needs to be fired). If they had been generated at run-time (not hard to do), then the planets could have stretched on forever AND been cheaper to create AND would have taken up less disk space. And PGC would have worked for the mining tunnels and Citadel corridors, too. The Citadel was supposed to be home to 13 million beings! Imagine being able to walk past every one of them!

Now, I’m sure that the good doctors would rebut me by saying that games are not about vast amounts of content, but about MEANINGFUL content. And they’re right, PGC is good for making lots of fairly similar things. It’s not about generating a ’57 Chevy. But this leads into another, deeper well of dissatisfaction I have with Bioware’s decision makers.

Games are NOT movies (as I’ve ranted many times). As Wil Wright has clearly said and demonstrated, stories in games can be IMPOSED by the authors, but ultimately the stories that count are the stories the players tell using your game. Anyone who thinks the story they have to tell is sooooo great, go make a movie or write a book. Story has a place in video games, but story isn’t the reason for a video game to exist.

Now we see what I loved about Mass Effect 1. Telling my own story of being a galactic explorer, always climbing the next hill and poking my head down the next dark tunnel. I wanted to See What Was Out There. And in hindsight, I was enjoying that aspect of Mass Effect 1 despite Bioware’s efforts.

ME2 is all about fighting. It’s really a step backward toward Doom and Quake. ME2’s "missions" are really shooter levels, and are poorly integrated into the world (compared to games like GTA and inFamous). Each has predefined areas full of crates and explosives, and when you turn a corner and see such an area, you know monsters will spawn there when you get close enough. Rinse and repeat. Yawn.

Each of your companions are served up to you in standard packages. Play a mission to meet them. Play another mission to unlock their super power (gain their trust). Move on to collecting the next companion. It was actually kinda fun to blow my Trust mission with one companion by being too nice. Wish it had happened more often.

So now you can see why I’m so disappointed by the "streamlined" design of Mass Effect 2. Bioware was listening to other voices, people who thought the moon buggy was lame, people who were just annoyed by the scale of the Citadel. Going online, I’m apparently quite alone. Those other voices are everywhere.

Now, I’m not bagging on the story itself. It would make a great, epic movie. I love the various alien races (but not in that way) (although the game wants you to). I love the concept of the Citadel and the Reapers, and ME2 advances the plot and gives the player more, answering questions and posing others. And the branching nature of navigating the story keeps you wondering if some of your questions weren’t answered, except you didn’t choose that path or missed going to that planet. Which is cool.

So, to wrap this up. In my opinion, Bioware needed to expand its amazing universe with procedural planetscapes and play spaces. It did exactly the opposite, and disappointed me in the process. I probably won’t play Mass Effect 3; I’ll just read the spoilers and watch the ending on YouTube.