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Mass Effect Fans: Assuming Direct Control?

Fear not, I'm not going to spoil anything.

Ah, fandom. All great series tend to develop a following of people who immerse themselves in that universe, from books to films to...dressing up. These are the people who carry the "purity" of their following through thick and thin and whatever reboot or "reimagining" comes along - just look at the "Han shot first" kerfuffle (technical term) you get with the Star Wars crowd.

Thanks to its diverse characters and well-developed lore, Mass Effect has become one of the great science fiction series of the last few years. Perhaps the end, no matter what is was, could never satisfy the fans who had probably played hundreds of hours of the previous two games...but the end of the series has generated its own particular brand of hate from the fanbase. Personally, I don't have a big issue with the end, but it does go off on a tangent at the very last minute of the game in such a way that is at odds with Mass Effect "tradition".

So what does this all say? Customers and businesses have a power relation - they both need each other, and push the other too much at their own peril. Fans are an interesting bunch - they're dedicated, they're knowledgeable, they're creative and most of all, know what they want.

And considering they're the ones buying the Collector's Edition, the books, the apps...the business has to please them. No success = no money. Now, to some degree this creates the abomination that is the Call of Duty series (and its ilk) that give the people what they want but at the expense of mainly offering the player a chance to shoot people and not much else. But if you're trying to say you're offering a richer experience you have to play along with that game.

The increasingly insane cost of games development needs the consumer on side, and with the campaign to "tweak" the ending of Mass Effect 3 (and the dissatisfaction towards From Ashes) means you want to keep their business in the long term for whatever comes next (be it an extension of the series or something new). The expectation, rightly or wrongly, was that Mass Effect would "play it straight" even if it meant a few NPC deaths along the way - the series wasn't especially original it that regard, even during the rest of Mass Effect 3.

I don't agree with changing the ending of ME3, but Bioware has to realise that it presented Mass Effect as a grand, heroic space opera. The finale of the game belonged in a completely different game of a completely different franchise. Someone at Bioware lost focus, and while ME3 may be massively successful EA and Bioware may find themselves losing business down the line, and after the PR disaster of Dragon Age II there's only so much fan goodwill to go around...

The Big Boob Controversy

Sometimes we all feel that games are getting padded out with meaningless add-ons and DLC. But is that the only thing that's receiving padding? It would seem not - the ladies of Mass Effect seem to have getting some non-biotic augmentation.

Ashley ME1 vs ME3

Liara ME1 vs ME3

Look, I'm all for women in games and hey, boobs are cool, but really Bioware? The women of Mass Effect always felt fairly normal and their armour actually looked fairly practical rather than trying to shout "WOMAN IN THIS TIN CAN".

If gaming is going to be anything other than a man's game, we can't go around inflating every woman's breasts to please the slavering teenage fanboys out there. While ME has always had sex and relationships, it's just slid into a silly childish phase...perhaps it's lucky that the series has come to an end.

Dear developers, keep your nerve. Not every woman has DD breasts. The previous ME games showed that you didn't need big breasts in form-fitting armour to be an awesome game (neither should they be an asexual lump, of course).

Trailer Music

Trailers have awesome music these days, not least the latest Mass Effect 3 trailer -"Protectors of the Earth" from the album "Invincible", After 36s (incidentally also used for a Doctor Who trailer).

I think my obsession with this music started back with the trailers to LotR: The Two Towers ("Requiem for a Tower", 1:36+) and The Matrix: Reloaded (Good trailer, poor film).

Some of it is so good in its own right, regardless of what gold/trash it's trying to hype. The orchestral stuff you hear these days on the TV is excellent and generally makes me want to find it more than I want to watch the series it's trying to get you to watch (with the possible exception of A Game of Thrones).

It has passion, keeps you interested and doesn't have pesky distracting lyrics...the irony is that the short, snappy "Get him OMFGed about the film!" has instead left me seeking the short, pumped tracks that are supposed to suit the medium of trailers.

The sad thing is that it never actually gets into the final films or games. I was disappointed that Requiem for a Tower wasn't in TTT, it suited the battle at Helm's Deep perfectly. I've probably spent more time listening to those tracks than I ever spent watching the films.

That's the power of music, eh?

PlayStation Network - The Case for an Open System

If the recent hacking of PSN proves one thing, it proves that putting all your eggs in one basket is a bad thing. In computer terms it's a centralised system, and it's the only choice you've got if you're a PS3 user. PS3 users have a simple choice - you either use PSN...or you don't - There are no alternatives for the PS3 and as the current situation proves, once it's down you're stuck without online connectivity until Sony fixes it.

Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft prefer a closed system for the consoles, the hardware itself is a closed system; firstly it ensures they have a steady revenue stream over the lifetime of the console, particularly if there are subscription fees as you get with PSN+ and XBL.

But does it suit the user? I would say not. As a user you are entirely beholden to the company - they set the prices, they control the distribution and what gets on the system. Microsoft, famously, only allows one free DLC pack per game...much to some developer's (such as Valve) annoyance. While there is competition between the consoles, there is no competition within each console "arena". Price and quality of service are driven by competition - without it the owner is free to do what they like...within reason.

Open platforms are the most resilient and most competitive - Android, Windows, Steam (and its competitors), the World Wide Web itself are all open platforms or operate in a competitive environment in the case of Steam. They all have to react to market forces if they want to survive, although Google is increasing its grip on Android as the phone makers try to offer something unique to their users and to make themselves stand out.

If one part of an open platform falls, one of two things will happen:

  1. There will be an alternative service available
  2. In the case of open source, a fix will become readily available

The choices and influence of the users are always a significant factor. Every retailer in the Digital Distribution market probably could charge some sort of membership fee for some, or all, of the services they provide, but they know they would be crushed overnight as users choose one that is free. Gmail is a classic example of offering everything its main rival at the time, Hotmail, did for an additional cost...and Gmail went on to dominate and even change the business model of Hotmail.

Choice drives up quality and keeps the market in check. It would be a brave choice for the console makers to take, but choice could save them from a lot of the troubles that have plagued Sony and are an ever-present spectre for Xbox Live and Nintendo.

He's not short, he's small boned.

What's the biggest issue in gaming currently? Stolen PSN details, Valve desperately re-using the Source engine in an era of CryEngine supremacy or the next Nintendo system to hit the block?

Well, none of them. Really, everyone seems to be complaining about how long games are...or more likely, how long they aren't. I must admit, I love a game with good value - you use it for hour after hour and you still come back to it begging for more.

Bolo Santosi

You'll be back for more, regardless of the dodgy accents

But sometimes the "It's too short!" argument gets a bit easy to use. Yes, there are some games that are too short, but that doesn't mean that every game that lasts about 10 hours is a hideous waste of money. I see this levelled at Portal 2 and have to plain disagree - having played through the single player campaign, I don't feel short-changed in any way. The humour is perfect, the challenges are carefully constructed and nothing outstays its welcome (unless I'm being particularly dimwitted. It happens).

GlaDOS

It's been a long time...

It's a game that could be longer, but it's doubtful we'd see any benefit from it, particularly when it's trying to tell a story. A couple of extra hours doesn't stop the other 10 being pleasurable, and from a technical point of view just means more testing and development (which means higher costs...and thus higher prices...).

Crysis 2 is much shorter than its esteemed predecessor, but should we feel cheated? I say no. A lot of the original Crysis was just running from point A to point B, while that added an air of "realism" the sequel didn't have, at times that got a bit tiring...even if it was all very pretty to look at.

Which brings me back to Just Cause 2. It's definitely one of my favourite games of the last year or two (along with Mass Effect 2, maybe the number 2, not sure there...) thanks to its excruciatingly perfect B-movie plot and acting combined with repetitive, but never boring, action. I've played a ridiculous amount of this game, to the point I'm just running around every once in a while to blow some stuff up. It's a sandbox game that just keeps on giving.

It's better value (132 hours for me!), but it's not necessarily any more entertaining - what makes a good game is its build quality. I don't count the hours I play a game, but think about whether I've finished a game feeling satisfied about it, be it the comedy and pathos of Portal 2 or the adrenaline surge of Mass Effect 2 (or the "How more bizarre can this get?" of JC2).

Gaming (~£3 an hour for a 10 hour game) is still better value than a cinema ticket (£4 an hour...or worse) or chart DVD (£5+ per hour), and assuming your game has replayability (e.g. SC2, ME2, JC2, DA:O/DA2) that "price per hour" can only ever drop.

So don't ask devs for longer games...ask for better value.

The Illusion of Choice

Choice is all the rage in games currently, or at the very minimum causing all the rage about video games - from Crysis 2 to Dragon Age 2 or anything with a "2" on the end, the lack of choice in many RPG and FPSs has become a large issue.

But is it such an issue, and are we just kidding ourselves that we have any form of choice in a piece of software?

Let's take a look at a few examples.

Crysis - Maximum Freedom

Ahhh...Crysis, full of so many choices there are times when you aren't even sure what choices you have. Seriously, there are times when this game gets so vague in its mission objectives you run around the map for 30 minutes until you find that cliff you disregarded forty minutes ago was your route out. But there's no point whining like it's 2007, let me get to the point.

Crysis has the same number of choices as the sequel.

Yup, that's right - the jungly awesomeness of the first game is just as limited as the "consolised" sequel that many have come to hate. Let's take the Assault mission as an example:

Three routes in the Crysis Assault mission

We came, we saw, we got shot to pieces

It's open, but really you have three choices - sneak down the left flank and jump over the wall, go in guns blazing through the front entrance, or go around the right flank and either jump the wall or swim in. Either way, you still have have to get to the AA artillery and blow it up.

Your choices are illusory - while there are many different points at which to jump over that wall on the left, it doesn't make a huge difference.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room - Crysis 2, the red-headed stepchild of dear-departed Nomad.

Crysis 2 - Dead Man Walking

Maximum Controversy/Moaning/Bad nanosuit jokes...

Crysis 2 had the PC gaming crowd up in arms over its streamlined design - consolisation to some, a brutal betrayal of its PC gaming heritage to others. There's still only 3 choices here (the 4th one here is resupply, not exactly Montgomery or Patton). Crysis 2's cardinal sin here is perhaps that it tells you what your options are (at least you don't get lost for 30 minutes), rather than just saying "Get over there" and leaving you to it. Much like Crysis, you've still got to get to your final objective (the door at the bottom right)...no matter the choice, you've still go to get there.

But it's still consolised! you might cry. Well, maybe...but no. About 20 minutes or so after infiltrating that port in Crysis I'd killed a few guys and got some weapons...I hadn't even seen the AAA yet. For an FPS, there wasn't much shooting going on. It's a bit slow...particularly when you're not being stalked by flying killer aliens (which always help ratchet up the tension, see the original AvP and AvP2).

Crysis is a wonderful, slow burning, adventure; while Crysis 2 is a spectucular cinematic experience. If anything, Crysis borders on being an "RPG lite" with all the running around, something its successor puts aside to put both feet into the wild and CoD-infested world of the FPS.

Speaking of RPGs...

Dragon Age 2 - Rise to Power by any Moans Possible

I must admit, I'm not a hardcore RPG fan. I've been around pen and paper RPG people (I'm a wargamer, personally) for around 10 years...and they're strange folk with all their D10s, enormous charts and people shouting in silly accents (but then it would be a pretty poor role play if you didn't).

I've played DA2 and Dragon Age: Origins. While DA:O was a game with impeccable standards...my god, was it a slog. I quite like RPGs, but there comes a point where there's so much running across town and so many random encounters for a minor step forward in the plot that it gets a bit wearing. In the middle of a massive, world-ending invasion you're trying to stop, apparently only ever on foot, it seems quite impressive you can criss-cross a country of several hundred miles...but I digress.

As we all know, RPGs are the epitome of choices. These boys have decision trees in spades...a veritable arboretum, no less. But let's be honest, the decisions you make are generally quite limited - you either please some people, just about please both sides with a hideous "I want the shiny sword" option, or annoy one side enough to make them kill you (which generally happens anyway).

Hawke, from DA2

Dragon Angst 2?

DA2, of course, lacks the scope of Origins. Like Crysis 2, it's much tighter and cinematic than its predecessor. But are you really getting any more choice? Origins saw you install your preference for King of Ferelden on the throne, which came down to three choices. Different stories, different length, different scale - but the choice available in both games is still pretty much the same when it comes to making decisions (value for money, on the other hand, has to go to DA:O).

I liked DA2 - it was trying to be a computer game instead of an RPG. It was an entertaining shadow of Origins. Origins was War and Peace - massive scale massive story; DA2 was Oliver Twist - small scale character story.

Give them the ol' "Mass Effect Point", Shepard!

Look, I'll show you some videos. That always goes down well (You might want to avoid these if, for some crazy reason, you haven't completed Mass Effect):

Saren: Renegade ending

Saren: Paragon ending

Listen to Saren's dialogue in each - oh sure, you are getting all conciliatory/threatening, but Saren is giving the same dialogue each time. Now that's what I call an illusion.

How does this end?

In this case, you don't get a choice...it's a blog, after all. Games are designed to give you an illusion of choice - that what you're doing actually makes a difference to the outcome. It can do up to a point, but really you're going to be restricted to the handful the designers want to give you. You threaten a few people and put some guy on the throne...and that's about it (slight oversimplification) - the end result is still going to be highly scripted.


Freedom, on the other hand...is something they can give you. Crysis has freedom (up until you need to complete your objective), C2...doesn't. Neither Dragon Ages really give you any freedom - it's a bunch of paths through a town/forest/mine (or the same town or forest or mine in DA2) so you can complete the next quest for the King/Elf/Witch/Witch King.

What do we want? Freedom!

Will we get it? Sort of...

It is all an illusion, after all.

Damn it, Jim! I'm a sequel not a reboot.

So. Starcraft II.

It's either the best RTS in years or a recycled piece of old tat from the 1990s with some fresh make-up.

Are the criticisms of SC2 fair? I'm not convinced.

Been there, done that.

To young eyes, SC2 isn't innovative. If you've played the original Starcraft then SC2 isn't dramatically different. To some, that's bad - 12 years later and we're playing virtually the same game? Crazy!

But why change it? Starcraft is a winning formula - few games are played and loved by millions more than a decade after they are released. Starcraft is one of those...so why change it?

Those of you that are really old (or marketing students) will remember New Coke - there was nothing wrong with "old" Coke, yet they went ahead and changed the formula. It turned out to be a huge disaster for Coca Cola...and they had to change back as the public revolted. I'd expect Starcraft to be no different - Millions would be up in arms (RealID, anyone?) if they messed with the core gameplay mechanics.

Viva la revolucíon!

Change is good. Since Starcraft we've seen development of some truly great RTS games - the Total War series, Dawn of War, Dawn of War II, Company of Heroes (I feel like I should just say "Relic's back catalogue"). I'm not going to include Supreme Commander - although it does the zooming in and out, it's still just 1997's Total Annihilation at its heart.

Change is good. Dawn of War encouraged players to get out of their bases and play aggressively to take and hold ground, Company of Heroes then built on that by making it even more focused through the different types of resource points to hold. The Total War series has brought realism and simulation to a genre that has been typified by games that often avoided realism the further back in time they went.

Battle Royale

But change has to be necessary: Let's compare the Dawn of War series to the Supreme Commander series. In their original incarnations they were both very "traditional" RTSs - gather resources, build a base, build units then attack the enemy - while they both had unique selling points, at their hearts they weren't that new.

So let's consider their respective sequels. Relic could have easily made DoW2 more of the same - DoW was an excellent game that was very popular, particularly as it was the first GW licensed game to have critical and commercial success (Fire Warrior, anyone?). However, they didn't - they utterly changed it into a RTS/RPG hybrid, whose only real connection to its predecessor was the universe in which it was set. Why risk having your sequel getting lost amongst a sea of other RTS games?

Yet, DoW2 was a top quality game, and if anything, more of a sequel to Company of Heroes than Dawn of War. They took a successful game system (CoH) and mixed in bits of DoW with the 40k setting. At its heart, Relic was playing safe with the mechanics of the game.

But let's move on to Supreme Commander 2. On the surface, it's nearly the same as Supreme Commander and Forged Alliance - Big armies, simple resource gathering, plenty of destruction. Yet, they had changed nearly every mechanic in the game: units were researched/upgraded, not tiered; the economy/construction tweaked to make the player work within their means; the special units were made cheaper and less powerful (arguably less special) - All these little changes fundamentally undermined the successful core mechanics of Supreme Commander. Individually, any of those changes would not have been too bad, but as a package they thoroughly wrecked the game.

Safety first

In conclusion, a game needs to work with an underlying mechanic that is going to be successful. Sequels do not have to usher in sweeping changes if there is no reason to do so. Blizzard may be playing safe, it may get looked down upon by many, but it works.

Futurologists of the world unite!

So I was just getting into the shower thinking about where PC gaming could end up in the future, particularly given the current pre-eminence of the various consoles. This gives a good analysis of what has happened over the past couple of decade or two, but I wanted to indulge in some wild speculation.

The PC has two problems:

The hardware

Damn it, we're so cutting edge it hurts. Our multiple gigabytes of RAM laugh at PS3s and Xboxes alongside all the pixel shader DirectX 10/11 fun. Of course, fall off that edge and you're in a wasteland where you hardware is condemned to old games and Microsoft Office.

And the basic hardware isn't all that. I like keyboard and mouse as a default control system, but some games really do call out for a controller/joystick/steering wheel. PCs just aren't quite as flexible without spending extra cash on controllers you'll use for 1 hour out of every 10 you play on it for.

The image

Xbox. PlayStation. Wii.

Personal Computer.

The first three suggest either mystery or entertainment. The PC suggests a guy in a suit with a calculator. PCs have an image problem - For PC gamers they're an awesome piece of gaming technology, for the rest of the world they're something they do work on and suffer with in an office - Very few people sit down at an Xbox as part of their job. Some sexing up would be nice...or just plain necessary.

PCs also don't tend to 'scale' very well. You want to play with other people you'll either have to be in separate rooms or hotseat (which only works with a handful of games at the best of times), which is usually in a room that is ill-designed for more than two people. The console often gets pride of place on the home TV while the PC lives shamefully in a bedroom somewhere. A console will have more than one controller, A PC...won't.

The conclusion

How can the PC survive? Well, taking over would be a good start - Blitzkrieg those tacky imposters out from under the TV. The input devices are going to have to change, the experience is going to have to be less 'personal' and more 'social' when it needs to be (without plying it with alcohol). I suspicious of those media centres you see Microsoft trying to come up with, but perhaps with a bit of that, a hint of console control and good old fashioned mouse n' keyboard the PC can retake centre stage and show everyone what good quality gaming is all about.

The thorny issue of the 'bleeding edge' remains, but if the right hardware is selected (preferably by the manufacturers!) the lifespan can easily be that of the average console. Then all they'd have to do is solve the degradation of performance Windows suffers over time...and not even my crystal ball know hows that can be solved...

The soul of the party - "How my RPG character lost his voice and lived&quot

So, I've been playing a few games over the last few months...as you do. And what's stood out as one of the big deal breakers? Characterisation.

Let's just run through the games I've bought in the last 6 months:

  • Dragon Age: Origins (and soon, Awakening)
  • Mass Effect 2
  • Supreme Commander 2
  • Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising

There are two groups here I'm looking at - the games with "passive" player characters (DA, Chaos Rising) and "active" characters (ME2 and SupCom 2). By passive I mean your character doesn't actually say anything, sure you direct conversations, but he/she is actually mute; active, of course, sees your character getting to the point.

I'm not actually that keen on the passive style - I really like the original Mass Effect, and when I started playing Dragon Age I was more than a little crestfallen when my warrior kept his mouth firmly shut. But after a while you learn to forgive - Morrigan, Alistair and friends lend their voices to making an excellent atmosphere (although it's a bit odd being in an argument where you say "nothing").

DoWII:CR is similar, a hardy bunch of Space Marines with you, the strong silent type in charge. Once again, you're saved by the various heroic stereotypes looking to bash some Chaos scum back to the Eye of Terror.

SupCom 2 botches it, of course. Your own character...who actually has a character (and thus a voice) is not much more than a wet fish. Your commander is a shouty numpty and one enemy is far too camp. Whiney criticism aside, nothing makes you buy into your character's predicament.

So what do the first two do right that last one doesn't? Investment. Primarily through stat and equipment tweaking, but also in the way you want to play. You can be a psychopath in both DoWII and DA, even though you sa nothing. You build the character through the various plot actions, not have them served up to you on a plate. Chaos Rising manages this in a campaign that is ridiculously short...SupCom 2 just falls flat on its face.

My point? The player needs to be involved in the plot and actions (which is the point of an RPG, but I'm talking generally, not just about RPGs) not just as a spectator to a bunch of stuff going on where thousands of people die because the plot demands it.

I wasn't massively keen on DA in the beginning, but eventually the emotional investment paid off. I found SupCom 2 a nightmare to play, and the largely irrelevant characterisation just killed it utterly. Games are interactive...so let us interact!

Sequels - When 2 become dumb.

Sequels, they're fraught with difficulty. What do you do? More of the same and people get bored; revolutionise and you alienate the reason people liked it in the first place.

A short run down of the sequels that worked (from no medium in particular):

Alien and Aliens

Mass Effect

Star Wars Trilogy (4-6)

A shorter run down of those that don't:

Police Academy 2 onwards.

Alien 3 and Resurrection

Neither arbitrary grouping follows either set - some give more of the same (mass effect and Police Academy), others revolutionise (Aliens and Alien 3/Res). Being very different helps (Aliens), but being part of the "bigger picture" makes the key difference. Each episode builds on the last, offering the player/viewer something new but reassuringly familiar.

Of course, I'm missing one from those that don't: SupCom 2. The original SupCom wasn't perfect - you could be utterly reckless with your armies in pursuit of victory and the game itself would bring most hardware to its knees, even the plot was quite thin ("We want to beat the others to a pulp, let's rock!"). But it was enough for the "fate of the galaxy" to be in your hands with a vast army of robots crossing enormous distances on a strategic scale. Despite its flaws, it worked.

SupCom 2 doesn't. It has tried to go a bit Starcraft with the personal plotlines, but you're still ultimately chewing through a large army of soulless mechs. And nothing makes me want to care about my Commander. The maps aren't that large and aren't particularly "realistic" compared to the original. In theory it follows on from SupCom, but somehow fails to capture what the first achieved.

So to sum up, the two games are like a wine glass - SupCom was a fine drinking vessel, something you kept clean and used to entertain guests. SupCom 2 is the same glass...after you've dropped it on the floor. All the pieces are there somewhere, but it's never going to be usable again.

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