Posts Tagged ‘Bioware’

Dragon Age was a good game from a story perspective. And I liked the NPCs.  However, some of the game mechanics drove me batty.  The most annoying one was probably how each NPC might be happy or mad at you based on what you did on your quests. This was, in my view, a micro-management nightmare and an almighty pain in the ass. I have a character who would, if played to her role, do X. But if I do X, I get negative faction with half my party.  So now I have to decide. Do I want to lose faction with my party over and over, or do I want to forgo playing my character “right” and “game the system?” Worse, you can work your ass off with a character only to gain +1 or +3 faction with them, and then make a seemingly innocent remark and lose -20.  What the hell is THAT?  IMO, the whole character faction system of DA was done almost as a way of the devs griefing the players.

Unfortunately, although much of the moment-to-moment gameplay of DA 2 is pretty good, and in many ways superior to DA 1, this theme of the devs seeming to do things to grief the players has been magnified to such an extreme that many nights, long before it’s time to turn off the Xbox and go to bed, I shut the game down in aggravation and annoyance.  DA 2 has continued the annoying issues with the NPCs and even magnified them.  But worse, you the game lets you completely, totally screw yourself over and doesn’t do a thing to stop you. (more…)


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Why do gamers shoot themselves in the foot?

One of the most highly anticipated MMORPGs slated to launch this year is Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic (TOR), an MMORPG derived from the highly successful single-player CRPG, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), which came out in 2003 or so.  Star Wars: TOR will be Bioware’s first foray into the MMORPG class of games, with all their previous offerings being either solo CRPGs (KOTOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect 1 and 2, and Dragon Age), or designed for a small group playing on their own local server (Neverwinter Nights).  Bioware’s previous offerings have all been smash hits, and the company has built up a reputation with gamers that is very rare in the computer game industry — a reputation for quality products.

Bioware’s RPGs have become more and more sophisticated over the years, with increasingly good animation, cinematics, and voice-overs. At their heart, however, all these games follow the same basic paradigm.  They have very strong stories that are unveiled little by little through the dialog.  They have strong companion NPCs. They have cinematic sequences and theatrical cut-scenes.   The Bioware games feel almost like you are playing a character in a movie.

This paradigm is deliberate, not accidental.  The games have been hugely successful because of these characteristics.  The majority of people who have played Bioware’s RPGs have reacted positively.  People buy Bioware games to have the very experience described above — that of playing your own character in a movie. (more…)

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Game Review: Mass Effect

Looking for a new game to enjoy while still on summer break, I selected Mass Effect, about which I had heard many good things.  It’s a Bioware game, and I have always loved their games.  I did worry a bit that as an “action RPG” it might not be up my alley (I am not a huge fan of action games that are based solely on reflexes).  However, again, it’s Bioware, and I trust them… I know they are good at making RPGs, and they have never let me down before.  I played the game for about 10 hours over the course of four days, which says something right away.  Most other Bioware games had me so addicted that I’d easily play twice that much in an equivalent period.  I played 50 hours of KOTOR in the first week I owned it, for instance (over a holiday vacation).  This game, however, ended up frustrating and annoying me to the point that, after 10 hours, I gave up and installed a different game. I have not gone back to it in the two weeks since, and probalby won’t for the foreseeable future.  This of course means that my review is based on experiencing probably less than 10% of the actual game content, but I still stand by the comments I make here.  I don’t believe that any further game play would change any of my opinions, as they are based, not on the content, but on the fundamental game system, which I found that I did not like very much.

Graphics 9/10

The graphics of Mass Effect are quite good.  Character design is realistic and top notch, and you won’t find much better visuals in any game on the market.  Special effects look good, and the models are well designed. There’s not much to say here other than that the graphics are excellent, with one tiny little complaint — the lighting is a bit too dark by default.  I had to keep inching the gamma up and up to get the lighting right, and even then it was never quite right… Eventually I hit a point where any more gamma would saturate out the colors and kill the contrast, but the images were still a bit too dark. This happens a lot on your space ship, which is supposed to be moody and dark, of course — but still, it needs to be bright enough and contrasty enough that I can see the facial expressions on the characters.  Otherwise, why use up all that CPU energy to generate facial contortions that I can’t see clearly in the first place?  However, other than this minor issue, the graphics in this game are quite good.

Character Design/Development – 8/10
I like the basic way they have the character design set up.  There are classes, and each class gets access to certain types of weapon, certain armor, and certain “class skills”.  Not all skills can be learned by a given class, which some might see as restrictive (to be honest, I do). However, this is counter-balanced by the fact that there are more possible skills to learn than skill points to allocate.  Indeed after the early levels you only get 2 skill points per level, even though you will often want to allocate as many as half a dozen at the same time — which means you have to be very careful what to specialize in.  I also like that they allow you (for once) to pick your background from amongst a few choices (though these are still relatively narrow in range) and to pick your gender and so forth.  This is great stuff.  I only wish they had gone all the way and just given you the whole list of skills, and skill points, and let you specialize in whatever you wanted.  Realistically they give you enough choices with the classes and hybrid classes that you can almost do this anyway, so it is a good character creation system.  This seciton would get 10/10 if it were not for the limited looks of the characters.  They give you a lot of sliders to play with, but to be honest the sliders don’t seem to do a whole lot. And for the female models, I utterly despised almost every hairstyle they presented me with.  What is it with Bioware and hair?  I don’t think I have yet played a Bioware game where it was possible for a female character to have hair that came down past the top of the shoulders. When this happened in Neverwinter Nights I let it slide, since it was one of the first “3D” type RPGs I had seen. But this is 2008, people… there are dozens of games on the market with long hair possible, from the Sims to most MMORPGs.  Why can’t they put in some long hair options with this game?  The other problem with the look is typical of most loot-based RPGs, of which this is definitely one — the look of my character is determined by what has good stats, not by what looks good on her. This is always frustrating to me.  So, these guys get a 9/10 for stat customization, and 7/10 for look customization, which I’ll average out to net them an 8.

Game system – 6/10

The game system of a CRPG is the equivalent of a table-top game’s combat and adventuring (as opposed to charcter design) rules.  This is things like how to-hit is resolved, how damage works, and the like.  There are some things that I like about the system, such as how sniping works, which I found to be relatively cool.  On the other hand, I found the pace of battle to be just too fast.  Things (including you!) die in a couple of hits, which means that most combat is “bang-bang-you’re dead”.  They give you all sorts of potentially interesting tactical control choices, such as moving your team into cover, crouching behind crates to fire from cover, throwing and detonating grenades at the enemy’s hidden position, and the like.  This all sounds great, and I guess if you have the reflexes of the Amazing Spider-man you would be able to enjoy it all.  Unfortunately, at least with my reflexes, which are not Spidey level, though they also aren’t Grandpa level, things happened way too fast for any of this to matter.  By the time you get your team into cover, if you’re taking fire, they’re dead.  By the time you maneuver into grenade position and toss it and detonate it, you could’ve just sniped the guy.  Combat happens in a whirl of chaos and rapid-fire damage that really does not leave sufficient time to make tactical decisions.  Now, it is true that the game can be paused, but I for one get tired of constantly pausing and re-pausing the game to make tactical decisions and give orders.  Also, I am not a fan of “your reflexes matter more than your character’s stats” sorts of games, and this one is teetering on the brink of that boderline.  It’s not all the way over into the realm of pure action, but it’s barely on the RPG side of the line.  Your stats do supposedly help with accuracy, which probably means how close your crosshairs have to be to the center of the target in order to score a hit, and that kind of thing, and they do help with damage mitigation. But do not be fooled here — more of your success will depend on your own personal reflexes than on the stats listed on the character sheet.  I know many players will prefer this, but as an RPG purist, I do not like it, and I prefer games that let me lock a target and tell the character to use his stats and abilities to defeat that target.  The system is therefore a little to action oriented for me.  Nevertheless, some of this could have been mitigated by the interface, which instead is clunky and, in my opinion, hard to use.

The game system doesn’t include just combat, however, and about half of it is conversation and investigation.  This end of the game is quite well done, as it is in most Bioware offerings.  The combat itself may be hyperactive, but it is punctuated by long periods of thinking and dialogue. You get charm and intimidate skills that will open up conversation options for you, allowing you to get more done without having to fight all the time.  This part saves the game system, in my view, for without it I would have rated it much lower.

Role-Playing – 10/10

For a single-player computer RPG, you will not find one that has a more sophisticated and interesting role-playing element.  You get to make all the important choices for your character. Their conversation interface is quite nice — a modification of the old system Bioware used to use. The old way, you would be presented with numbered options showing exactly the text your character will speak.  In Mass Effect, instead, you are given a circular “dial” where a very few words summarize what you will say, and then the character asks the question in a more verbose manner.  For example, an option might be “ask about job”, and when you select it, your character would say something like, “So what do you do on this space station, anyway?”  I like this better than the old system, because it allows you to be entertained by both your character’s statements, and the NPCs’ statements, since you don’t know exactly what the words will be.  Also, there is far less “text clutter” on the screen this way, and the game plays much more like a movie than the older Bioware games did.  Clearly, as with any CRPG, you’ll mainly be following a pre-set path, but you do have choices all along the way, and those choices affect how your character is seen by others.  They have two progress bars similar to the “light” and “dark” side bars in KOTOR, called here “Paragon” and “Renegade”, and the game will track your decisions and score you in each area.  Making choices that are illegal or morally questionable will raise your “renegade” score, whereas making choices that are ethical and legal will raise your “paragon” score.  Thus, you get to choose whether your character is a rule-follower, rule-breaker, or somewhere in between, and the game adjusts as you  make these decisions.  Once again Bioware has created a game with excellent roleplay potential for something that is a solo game.  Nobody does it any better than these guys, and that’s still true today.

Performance 3/10

On my system, which is a 3 year old former top-of-the-line gaming rig, the performance of this game is abysmal.  I’ve got 2 GB of RAM, a 3.2 GHz single-core processor, and a 256 MB GeForce 7800 GS graphics card.  This system has run every other game I’ve played as smooth as silk except for Vanguard at launch, but Vanguard at launch was a slug with memory leaks that caused trouble no matter what system one had.  I have never had any issues with the system before, but with Mass Effect, I felt like I was back trying to play Star Wars Galaxies with 256 MB of RAM and a 32 MB graphics card.  It’s quite clear that the graphics are over-done on this game.  Sure, all those polygons make the terrain and characters look incredible, but they also chew up resources like a squirrel chewing up a cache of acorns.  The result is sporadically choppy game play.  Often, all I needed to do was engage the map, and when I returned to normal view, the game would freeze for between 1 and 45 seconds.  The first time this happened I thought I’d had a crash, but luckily I was patient enough to wait it out, and the game resumed.  This might not be so bad except short 0.5-1 second freezes happen during combat, which usually means that you’re dead and have to re-load.

But all of that would have been relatively minor without the incredibly horrible, ultra-frequent “Loading” messages.  At points just walking along a corridor from one level to another causes repeated “Loading” messages that freeze the game for upwards of 30 seconds.  I can understand loading as I go from level 1 to level 2, but loading twice more in between levels 1 and 2, when all I’m doing is walking along a corridor, is incomprehensible.  And then there are the elevators… take an elevator to another level in most games, and you just get a “loading” screen and teleport to that level. But oh no, not in Mass Effect. We must be ultra-realistic here, so you get onto the elveator and have to stare at your party for a good minute while the elevator travels to the next level in a very accurate simulation of a real-time elevator ride.  You’ll get the loading message when you get onto the elevator, then you will listen to some radio music or news (which sometimes gives you a mission, to be fair), and then you’ll get another loading screen when you want to get off.  The clear impression is that I had to wait for a full load screen just to watch a 30 second conversation between my NPC followers or listen to a 30 second news report.  Surely this type of information could be conveyed by other means without forcing me to wait through 2-3 load screens.  Often just walking from one end of a level to another — even when the entire level is visible on your screen — will force a load, or even several loads.  Whether this would improve on a machine with more than 2 GB of RAM, I don’t know — perhaps. But can Bioware seriously expect their average customer to have that much better a system than mine is?  My hardware is not all that out of date, and how many people (even gamers) have more than 2 GB of RAM at this point? Surely not the majority.

I’ve gotten about 10 hours of gameplay in to this point, and I would estimate that at least one hour of it (i.e., 10% of it) has been sitting through either the “leave the map” screen freeze or (the bulk of it) through “Loading” messages.  This combined with the other choppy performance (which has caused at least a couple of deaths) has been frustrating enough to make me stop playing the game.  I’m planning on soon getting a new, faster, better PC, and I might just wait until I get it to play the rest of Mass Effect — rather than having to suffer through abysmal gameplay.  Of course, if I get the better machine and the game still won’t play right, then I’ll come back and turn this rating into a 1.

Sound 8/10

The music is excellent, and the voices are, as usual in a Bioware game, well acted.  I was thrilled to find that they finally gave the main character (your character) a voice as well this time — in the past,your character was the only silent one, which seemed odd to me.  However, there is some sort of a problem with the way voices are done out of conversations.  When you just click on someone and they emit a one-liner without starting the conversation interface, you can hear that they’re saying something, but not what it is.  I’ve tried both hardware and software sound and neither one seems to improve the situation.  This would not be too bad, except that sometimes as you finish a conversation, it will exit you out of the conversation “zoom” window, and the last line of the converstaion spoken by the NPC will be drowned out.  If this contains important quest information, you’ve got a problem.  I’m not sure why it did this, and again it may be just my system, but I marked them down for this problem.

User Interface – 5/10

I’m going to be honest. I am not a fan of the “you have to press keys to execute special moves” style that games seem to be moving to these days. I much prefer the old style where I could use the mouse to hover over and click on a hot-bar item.  Mass Effect seems to be trying to pretend to be part first-person shooter, and those require button presses rather than mouse-over-clicks, and so that’s what you get in the game.  I am glad that Bioware as usual provided a “pause” feature, so that I can pause it and look up at the hotbar and get my finger over the key to press the right one (if I have to do that in real time, I’m dead, in any game I’ve ever tried that requires it, which is probably why I hate it so much).  However, this has the undesirable effect of breaking up the combat.  I fail to see the point of all this super-fast action-jaction when I have to keep stopping it to assign commands to my team mates or to figure out what button to push.  I find a game that just lets me click buttons to be much more seamless, because I don’t have to keep stopping it.  It seems to me that a simple expedient like leaving the bottons/interface up and using the SWG method of pressing a key, like CTRL, to activate the mouse cursor (and stop turning your aim around) would have worked here.  I could have hit CTRL, clicked special move, hit CTRL again, and gone back to shooting stuff — all without needed to pause the action.  The way it is just seems to be the worst, rather than the best, of both worlds.  I really think developers need to make a choice here: if you want an action game, the controls need to be simple enough that I don’t have to click 20 different keys or keep pausing the game to deal with the interface.  Make it simple and fast.  If you want a complex game that requires some thought and has more RPG elements, then stop trying to make it an action game! This whole “action RPG” genre just really does not work well, in my book.

Another major issue I had was with the Mako, the stupid ATV that you drive around outside.  This was supposed to be a big selling point for the game, but after trying it for a little while, I completely hated it.  One of the things I do with WASD games is that I use W to “drive forward” and the mouse to turn my character. This is how I like to play them.  I have a very hard time controlling where I want to go if I can only turn using the A-D keys.  This game, like Half-Life 2 before it, has unhappily decided that, although you can control your character with mouse turning and W as a “drive forward” key, you can’t control your vehicle that way.  Instead, turning the mouse turns your gun, and you can only turn the vehicle with A-D.  This unfortunately forces me to turn the vehicle with my left hand, and I am just not good at all with my left hand — even more so than most right-handed people.  My left hand is good at holding “W” while my right hand does the work, and that’s about it.  Trying to control a fast-moving vehicle with my left hand only is pretty much a non-starter for me.  Yes I can cope, and fight my way through by doing quicksaves, dying a lot, and making incremental progress, but I don’t find that to be any fun.  I confess I’m not sure how else they could’ve designed the interface, since you do have to be able to aim the gun as well, but I just find myself not having fun at all with the ATV.  After getting killed in it right away a few times and forced to go through several loading screens each time, I finally gave up the whole game as not being fun enough to proceed. One reason is that I know the Mako and the ATV sections are a huge part of the game (it was one of its big selling points). So it’s not like this will be a 10 minute section of the game and never repeated – I’m going to have to deal with this for many hours.  No thanks.

Fun – 6/10

There’s no doubt that Mass Effect has the skeleton of a good game here. Unfortunately, when I combine the frustrations of the interface with the intolerably bad performance (at least on my system), I have not, after my first 10 hours of play, found it to be all that much fun.  There are an incredible number of “time sink” elements to the game that I find frankly shocking in a Bioware offering — they’re usually really good about not wasting my time.  But things like having to walk all the way through a space port (with the requisite 4-5 load screens each way) for several minutes just to go back to the ship so I can change squad menbers, ended up killing what little fun I was having.  I mean, who the hell puts time-sinkish elements like fetch and carry quests into a damn single player game? And yet this is what they did, repeatedly (“Take 5 minutes to here, talk to this guy for 30 seconds, then come all the way back” — wasting 10 minutes of my time to click one conversation option).  I think the problem is partly caused by how big and amazing they tried to make their physical world elements, like the Citadel.  If they’d made things more on the scale of KOTOR, the performance would not have suffered, we wouldn’t have seen load screens every 30 seconds, and even “fetch and carry” quests would have been less annoying.  As the game stands, however, a lot of poor design decisions have led to a game that is fun enough when one is actually playing it, but forces one through too much “overhead time” in between short bursts of the fun.

Overall – 7.1/10
When you average all the scores, we end up with a C- for this game — 7.1 out of 10.  This is probably the lowest I’d have rated any of Bioware’s games, if I’d been running this blog and writing reviews while playing them.  I consider NWN, KOTOR, and Jade Empire to be “must play” games.  With all the performance and UI issues that frustrated me in Mass Effect, I just can’t say the same thing about it.  This isn’t a terrible game, but it’s not really worth my play time at this point, and I would not recommend it.  Personally, I’d say you’re better off finding a copy of KOTOR or Jade Empire than playing this one.

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