Tuesday, November 8, 2011

TUESDAY TANGENT: Mass Effect and Difficulty

My favorite kind of video game is the ‘role playing’ type. Just what constitutes an RPG is open to debate— but to me, it is something that allows me to play the role of a character- to make decisions that impact the world around them and shape the story of the game. However, I am also a fan shooters (first or third person). It should come as no surprise, then, that the Mass Effect game series is one of my favorites. These games combine incredibly well-done storytelling with increasingly more ‘visceral’ gunfighting combat. But if I were forced to choose one or the other, the RPG aspect would definitely come first.

This attitude and the desire to experience the story of these games often causes me to do my initial run-through on very low difficulty settings. In fact, most of my subsequent run-throughs are on the ‘casual’ or ‘average’ settings. This allows me to focus more on the story and worry less about the combat (which is, in my opinion, ultimately peripheral).

That being said, once I have completed the game (usually several times over), I have made a point of going back through on the most difficult setting available- or at least I have done so with both Mass Effect games thus far. I have recently finished doing so with Mass Effect 2 and discovered something quite interesting along the way— a sense of real accomplishment and a whole new appreciation for a game that I have played literally dozens of times.

Oddly enough, instead of detracting from the RP elements, the incredibly difficult combats often made me much more ‘involved’ than I normally am. A case in point is the whole last act of Mass Effect 2- the final confrontation with the villains. The fights were incredibly difficult, requiring me to really make use of ALL the ‘bells and whistles’ of the combat system. I had to think tactically, ordering my companions into advantageous positions. I had to make use of the variety of special abilities that I and my companions had- I couldn’t just shoot bullets into every problem to solve it. I had to always be mindful of my ammo and medical supplies. And in the end, this playthrough really made me feel as though I were part of a ‘unit’ rather than a lone gunman.

For example, there was a part of the game where zombie-like beasts were swarming my small group. We had to keep falling back, until at last we were cornered. Things were looking pretty grim. Then one of my companions- Grunt the Krogan (big brick lizard dude) does his battle cry. “I. AM. KROGAN!” and suddenly charges forward, trampling down and destroying most of the zombie horde. I had heard him use that cry dozens times before. I’d even seen his charge before. But in that desperate situation I actually cheered out loud.

There were plenty of other situations like that throughout the playthrough. More than once, my companions saved my butt (or vice versa) by a well-timed shot or Biotic body slam. And in the midst of actual adrenaline filled combat, those actions had a lot more impact. The climactic string of battles were especially intense- most notably those events that were time dependent. No way I was going to let Tali die in those ventilation shafts!

In short (too late), it was almost like playing a brand new game.

It also got me thinking about my table-top gaming and some of the ‘best fights’ we’ve ever had there. In my Star Wars group, in particular, we have had a LOT of fights. But the ones we really remember were the most hard-fought- where the players really had to pull out all the stops in order to just survive. So yeah. Next time we play, I might crank up the difficulty setting a few notches and see what happens.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Star Wars, Realism and Ion Drives

As always, I tend to overthink things related to the Star Wars movies. One of these things is the ‘reality’ of space travel- or rather, the dangers involved in it. It is one of the things glossed over in almost all Sci Fi films, but which is a huge threat in real-life space travel- namely: Collisions. I’m not talking about ships hitting other ships or even meteors or asteroids, but the idea of micro-meteors and other tiny bits of matter that could be traveling at incredible speeds. Just one hit by one of these fragments could seriously damage even a large ship. And when you think of a spacefaring culture like the one shown in Star Wars, there would likely be all KINDS of space junk floating around. How is it, then, that ships in the Star Wars universe aren’t just torn to shreds on a regular basis- to say nothing of trying to navigate a battlefield with all kinds of debris flying around.

One could say that the whole issue is simply avoided by ships having ‘shields’ and that these shields deflect any such incoming matter. That's fine. I’m good with that. But what about all those ships out there that don’t have shields. Like TIE fighters, for instance- though there are several other examples (at least in expanded universe continuity). How is it that TIE fighters and other unshielded ships can fly through battle-zones likely FILLED with deadly particles and not get destroyed.

Well, I have a theory- entirely made up, of course, and no doubt riddled with scientific impossibilities, but a theory nonetheless. I am also borrowing bits of pseudo science from Star Trek (and likely other sources I don’t know about).

In any case, Starships in the Star Wars universe are described as having ‘Ion Drives’ as their primary means of sublight propulsion. Like most Star Wars tech, the exact functioning of such devices is purposely vague.

Well, what if these Ion Drives weren’t simply thrusters that propelled a ship, but ‘generators’ as well- something that created an ‘ionized bubble’ around a starship (a-la the ‘warp field’ utilized in the Trek universe). In effect they surround a ship with a field of energy that ‘streamlines’ the ship from bow to stern, perhaps even functioning like a ‘slip-stream’- both pulling and pushing the ship through space. This ion-bubble would divert micro-meteors and other small space debris- instead of hitting the ship, they would just ‘flow around’ it. To me, at least, this is a tidy little way to talk around at least one of the real life hazards of space travel.

It might also explain why some vessels (like the X-Wing) seem to have forward facing ‘intakes’ to their engines. Perhaps these are not intakes, but rather the forward ‘projectors’ of the Ion Drive. I don’t know, but again, it works for me.

And on a slight tangent, I am of the opinion that the ‘solar panels’ on the TIE fighter are NOT solar panels at all, rather they ARE the ‘Twin Ion Engines’ of the craft (not those two little red dots on the back of the cockpit pod). Instead of conventional ‘thrusters’, these engine panels use an ionic charge to both draw and push the fighter through space. The large size of these ‘engine panels’ would certainly help explain the speed of the craft relative to its size.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Interesting Star Wars Quote

I was recently going back through some old Star Wars DVDs I had- a 'home made' collection of the various Star Wars TV specials that have aired over the years. I wound up watching one that must have come out in the era between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. This particular behind the scenes special was narrated by Mark Hamill. During the show, he made a couple comments (scripted or not) that I found interesting. The first was regarding the Force:

"More people ask me about the Force than anything else. And I don't like to be too specific when I answer. Everyone has their own ideas about it. And if none of them is exactly right, none of them is necessarily wrong. Ultimately, the Force is what YOU make of it."

Wow. If only they'd continued with that outlook in the prequels. I mean, of all the things that did NOT need more explaining, the origin and nature of the Force was one of them.

Another, more telling, statement came in the closing moments of the special:

"Special effects are the purest form of movie making. With them, we can create visions that owe nothing to any other form of artistic expression—and which no other art can possibly duplicate. We now possess a technology that places anything man can imagine within reach of the camera. There's no place, past, present or future it cannot go.

But if we possess this new technology, we mustn't allow it to possess us-as so many of this century's great inventions have come to do. For in the end, a special effect is just a special effect. If it isn't surrounded by people we care about- if it doesn't serve a story that moves and involves us- and if (above all) it doesn't help us to grasp some larger imaginative vision, then it is just a trick- a gimmick."

When I look at the special effect-laden prequel trilogy, I find this whole statement rather ironic. The prequels were gorgeous to look at, without a doubt, but with 'wooden' acting and writing they (to me at least) lack the impact of the original movies. Anyway, I just thought it was interesting.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I am by no means a designer of video games. But I would consider myself a fairly experienced player of video games—at least of the RPG variety. Admittedly, most of my experience in this area comes from Bioware games—starting with Knights of the Old Republic. But I feel that this actually adds to my ‘credibility’ in what I am about to talk about.

I would like to start by saying that I think Bioware is an excellent company. They’ve given me hours of fun- hell.. days and weeks of fun, even. But they aren’t perfect. One needs to look no further than Dragon Age 2 to see that. As much as I would defend the game to others, I have also come to realize that the ‘little faults’ of the game have finally added up to an overall disappointment for me.

I mean, I didn’t mind the recycled environments or the ever-present ‘second wave’ of enemies spawning in after every fight, or the fact that the kinds of enemies you fought started to become very repetitive by the end of the game (wow. More demons. Really?). Taken individually, these things can be forgiven (by me) if there is a good story to tell. And for the most part, there was. But that’s the problem- it was just a ‘good’ story, not a GREAT one. That’s the problem for a company like Bioware. If ‘excellent’ is the norm, then anything ‘average’ stands out like a sore thumb. And compared to most every other game they have produced, Dragon Age 2 was just ‘average’ for me.

Now, I do NOT have a lot of the problems with it that other folks do. I liked the faster-paced combat. I liked the streamlined inventory and skill system. I didn’t care that my companions dressed themselves and chose their own unique fighting styles. In fact, I liked that. Overall, I didn’t ‘have a problem’ with the story, either- except that it was less focused than Dragon Age: Origins. But when you combine that with the aforementioned ‘little’ problems, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. For me, DA2 fell apart not from some single game-breaking item, but rather a collection of little things “I wished they’d done differently”.

And that trend seems to have continued (for me at least) in one of their Downloadable Content packages- namely the “Legacy” add on. Overall, it was a fun-enough sideline. I especially enjoyed the fact that you get to know your character’s father- and it was nice that if you brought your sibling along, they were impacted by it as well. In fact, I was really LOVING the content right up until the final act.

Here, you have to face an incredibly powerful enemy who makes you run through an increasingly lethal maze in order to finally confront him. Essentially, you’re running in circles, constantly destroying ‘power sources’ that your enemy is using, all the while dodging spawned in creatures and a maze of obstacles. It is a very difficult fight- and it seemed to me to be set up especially for PC gamers- in that in order to successfully get through the maze, you had to constantly tell your NPC companions EXACTLY where to go in order to keep them from being destroyed by the wall of fire that was constantly chasing you through the maze. Now, on the PC you can ‘zoom out’ from the action more than you can in the console. Likewise, you can select your team as a group and have them all move together. On the console, neither of these options seemed to be available (if they were, I sure as heck couldn’t find them). This meant that I had to try and run this gauntlet by constantly pausing the game, switching from one character to the next and telling them where to go. I literally played this battle for HOURS and finally had to RAGE QUIT for a while to calm down- Because every time you died in this final fight, you had to start all the way from the beginning- including a cut scene and the SAME dialogue over and over.

That marks the first time I have EVER had to RAGE QUIT a Bioware game. Ever. And that says something.

To me, this end battle was just a huge FU by whoever designed it. The game gave me helpful hints like “If you’re having a hard time, switch to a lower difficulty level”. Unfortunately, I had already SWITCHED to the lowest difficulty setting and still, after hours of playing, could not get through it. Things were made worse by the fact that without direction, your NPC companions would die within five seconds.

Ultimately, I beat the battle by buffing my main character and allowing all my companions to die (within five seconds). I was just BARELY able to beat the main bad guy. For this, I got the Achievement ‘Conductor’. Evidently a joke on the fact that in order to beat this particular battle, you have to be able to ‘conduct’ (orchestrate) your entire team. Well, if that was the goal, I failed horribly. And when I was done with this DLC I was in the strange position of NEVER wanting to play it again. Sure, the story line was interesting enough, but the thought of having to go through that battle again just makes me ill.

Yes, you could make fun of me for not being as good a gamer as most folks- and I don’t claim to be. But the end result was, that even on the lowest difficulty, I was having no fun. And that is the worst result you can get from any game design choice.

In the end, this really tainted my view of DA2 overall. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This failing was made all the more noticeable by the fact that I was simultaneously playing Mass Effect 2 and its downloadable content. I am currently in the process of trying to beat that game on its highest difficulty level (Insanity). It is tough. Very tough. Very challenging. It is occasionally frustrating and sometimes scares the crap out of me (i.e. the ‘threats’ presented really are that). But the design is such that I have (so far) not had to quit the game in a rage because of a design choice. The challenges are VERY hard, but I can find my own way through them- apply tactics and strategies that work for me in that particular situation. I am not simply a rat running through a maze in the ONE particular way that the designer intended or I will die.

In short, I feel that ME2 was much better designed than DA2. And that seems to be a function of time- in that DA2 felt rushed- which is really a shame.