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Mass Effect 3 Demo Impressions

No High Scores

Like any good FemShep enthusiast, I downloaded the Mass Effect 3 demo last night and took my time on the bike this morning to put it through its paces. I’m not sure why, really, as I have every intention of picking up the game when it launches in March. In fact, my copy has been paid off since before Batman: Arkham City launched as I paid for both of them at the same time. I guess I downloaded it because even though I know I’ll be playing the game when it comes out, I really enjoy playing Mass Effect, so if I get to play some new stuff early, I’ll do it.

At the risk of being incredibly pithy and offering an opinion that has little or no value, here’s my take on the game: it’s Mass Effect.

Again, I know that’s a pretty worthless statement, but at the same time, I once knew a guy who said he’d like Halo a lot more if it contained none of the design elements that made it Halo. I’m not saying that line of thinking makes any sense, just that it’s out there.

Now that we’ve established that Mass Effect 3 is, in fact, Mass Effect, let’s move on…

The demo consists of what appears to be the opening level in the game as well as a mission set sometime mid-game. They don’t waste any time setting things up, nor do they spend any time explaining why you have no powers when, based on how many times you ran Shepard through ME2, you may have ended your last adventure with godlike powers. Maybe they explain that later, but the beginning is all “Reapers! Oh noes! Run! Shoot! Vault!” and then it’s over. Along the way they tell you how to run and shoot and use the abysmal cover system (more on that later) before ending with an “emotional” moment that anyone could see coming from a mile away in the typical ham-handed way that video game writers seem to feel portrays loss but ends up making you roll your eyes so hard they pop out of your head.

I didn’t spend a lot of time configuring Shepard in the facial department, so I don’t know how robust the customization is in the demo. I did like that the demo starts by making you agree to the EA online terms of service even though I don’t have access to the online part of the demo. I figured that going through bullshit online hoops to then be denied online or single player content based on some sort of server malfunction or arbitrary restricting of content would prepare me for the future, if past EA/BioWare online shenanigans were to be trusted. One has to laugh, lest one say “fuck it” and go back to Pong.

Any way, you can pick Shepard’s origins and say who died in previous games, including an all encompassing “There were many losses” or something like that. Me, I wish that choice was titled “Mistakes were made.” If so, I would have laughed my ass off. Alas, there’s no laughing when Reapers are hell bent on destroying us. Once you’ve established which crew member died because of your incompetence, you can pick you class and be on your way. I stuck with my ME and ME2 class, the Vanguard, because I suspected that I didn’t want to play ME3 as this class, what with it being somewhat useless in ME2. I was right, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Before jumping into the story, I took some time to peruse the additional options and found some interesting stuff. For one, you can turn off conversations in their entirety, instead allowing the game to make conversation choices for you. I didn’t see an option to have Shepard lean towards Paragon or Renegade, so I’d love to see how they handle that. I think they should make it random and make it seem that Shepard is completely off her rocker, with absolutely no moral compass to speak of. They also give you the option of choosing how to play the game, aside from the normal difficulty options. You can play it as a story, which reduces the number of combat encounters. You can play it as an action game which has all conversations as cut scenes, or you can play it as an RPG. Obviously I chose to play it as an RPG, but woe befall whoever has to review this game and is forced to play multiple hours in the different modes to see how different they are. I know it’s not going to be me.

You hear that Bill? It. Won’t. Be. Me.

One of the oddest choices I saw, in fact, one of the oddest choices I’ve ever seen in any game, ever, is the option of when Shepard takes her helmet off. You can have her leave it on all of the time, or take it off for “most” conversations. As someone who was forced to watch Shepard not only throw back a drink through her full face helmet, but also make out with Liara through the very same helmet, I have to wonder just who in the nine hells would want Shepard to keep her helmet on during conversations? It makes zero sense. Worse, it’s not all conversations, it’s most conversations, so you know there’s a cut scene where Shepard is eating a Bomb Pop through her helmet and I’m going to get up and kick a hole in my projection screen. Personally, I don’t think they went granular enough. I think they should have had the ability to tick various options and on off so that I can have a Shepard that keeps her helmet on for talking, eating candy bars and licking poisonous toads but takes it off for kissing, catching snowflakes on her tongue and licking envelopes. Come on BioWare, why you gotta hate on choice?

Once the demo gets going there’s all sorts of sturm und drang about the Reapers, because even though Earth is, literally surrounded by ships, the Reapers show up with zero warning and start blowing the city up. So much for planetary defenses. Before the shooting starts, you get to see the new Freddie Prinze Jr. character, complete with stupid pseudo-mohawk and you get to see Ashley, provided you didn’t let her die. Ashley looks good, but I swear she was checking out Shepard’s ass. I don’t blame her. Shepard has a fantastic ass, and the new redheaded “official” Shepard is quite well done, but I don’t remember Ashley playing for the other team. In fact, I know she doesn’t because in ME I tried to get her into bed on multiple occasions only to get shot down. My Shepard’s sexuality is somewhat fluid, having had relations with Liara and Jacob, so I know a little about switching things up. Maybe the animators were going for a look of begrudging admiration, but they ended up with “I am so gonna tap that ass.” Again, I don’t blame her, I am quite sexy, it just came from out of nowhere.

There’s some combat in the early part of the demo, but nothing significant. That comes in the later mission when you have to help Mordin get a Krogan female off of some Salarian planet while Cerberus tries to stop you. They put the Krogan female in some sort of full body veil, which I thought was interesting in that they let you know that it’s a female Krogan without trying to make some sort of biological differences. After seeing lizard boobs in Skyrim, I’ve seen enough of my share of scaly bosoms so I’m more than happy with this. This just further cements the notion of the Krogan being the dwarves of the Mass Effect universe. They’re gruff, incredibly hardy, go insane in combat and are the only ones that can tell the females of their species apart from the males. I also liked the line about Wrex not being able to resist a fertile female, because nothing wakes one up in the morning quite like the notion of crazed Krogan sex.

I liked that BioWare added a more combat heavy portion of the demo and that they jumped you forward and gave you a bunch of skill points to allocate. The ability to choose between two paths for your powers is a nice tweak, as is the ability to jump between the paths. By that I mean that you can use the Path A choice when you upgrade your power to level 4 and then use the Path B option for level 5. It’s a little more RPGish than the stuff in ME2 which only allowed a choice once you leveled a power all of the way up.

What I didn’t like about the combat heavy portion is how utterly shitty the cover system still is. Cover seemed clunky and twitchy and worse, the game allowed me to keep moving along cover even once the cover ended, causing Shepard to pop up like a Whack-A-Mole only to promptly get shot and killed. Me not remembering how to apply health packs certainly didn’t help, but the point is that if cover stops, you need to give the player a choice as to what they want to do. Let them decide if they want to come up from out of cover or if they want to stay there and reevaluate. Don’t just pop a dude up and get him shot in the face. That’s just rude. Also, the slowing down in the middle of a run because your shield shattered is extremely annoying, especially when you have no choice but to run full force into a hail of gunfire. Oh hey, are you losing health? Here, lose more health!

On a similar note, I was disappointed to see that my beloved Vanguard class is not going to be a viable option for me in Mass Effect 3. The specialized biotic power, the ability to catapult yourself, Cannonball style towards your enemy and stun them, was more of a liability than anything else in ME2 and the trend continues here. Worse is that your submachine gun, one of your close quarters weapons, is incredibly twitchy and inaccurate with an amazing amount of recoil. I spent all of my time rocking an assault rifle in this demo. That shouldn’t happen. A Vanguard should be all pistols, SMGs and shotguns. Maybe if you’re playing on easy or you’re taking the story approach to the game then the Vanguard is a more viable option, but I found myself regretting my class choice more and more as the demo wore on. I guess it’s good that I found this out now and not five hours into the game but still, it’s disappointing. Oh well. If they’re not going to explain why Shepard doesn’t have her powers, I don’t have to explain why she decided to change classes. My hope is that I can import my Shepard, make a class change and have it still count as a run through with a ME2 character for achievement purposes.

All of my gripes aside, I still enjoyed the hell out of this demo as it had all of the things I’ve come to expect, good and bad, from the Mass Effect series. With SSX releasing a scant week before ME3, I can’t guarantee that I’ll jump into ME3 as soon as it comes out, but it will be shortly thereafter. I’m curious to see how the various play style options make a difference, especially for something like an Insane run done for achievements. If the story play style really does tone down the combat, I’m all over that for those achievements. In the end, the demo did what it was supposed to do, namely get me excited for the game. I’m not sure how many people who haven’t played the first two will be willing to give this one a try, so the demo does feel like BioWare is preaching to the choir, but at the same time, Modern Warfare 3 sold more than enough copies to support the idea that a sequel, even a threequel, can bring in lots of new players.

My understanding is that the online portion unlocks on the 17th, so I’ll try and revisit then and see if adding multiplayer to a single player RPG ends up being as bad as an idea as it sounds. Good thing I haven’t made up my mind or anything.

Pondering the Diablo 3 Beta

No High Scores

Note: I uploaded these images full-size. Click for the full-res version.

I’m among the last people to hop on this particular bandwagon, but last last week I finally received a Diablo 3 beta invite and have since put in several hours with it, finishing it once with the Barbarian character class and following that up with another half-completed run using the Demon Hunter. My initial reaction to the game is that it felt underwhelming. I played a disgusting amount of Diablo 2 and, given the success Blizzard has had since then, it’s impossible not to boot this up and want it to blow me completely out of the water with its undeniable brilliance.

It’s possible that’s not an entirely realistic bar.

As I settled into the experience, however, the game continued to grow on me. I don’t see anything here that suggests this game is going to be in any way remarkable, aside from its potential scope and production values, but if you just want to run around with some different character variants and whack beasties over the head, I think it’s safe to say, even at this early point, that you could do a lot worse than what we’re going to get with Diablo 3. That may be faint praise, but it is praise nonetheless.

This established, here’s some general thoughts on the game…

No High Scores

Ultimately, this is still Diablo. It’s moody and beautiful and you’ve got some tres-cool combat animations. There’s a horde of disgusting and vile monsters that you chase after with the aim of reducing them to gory kibbles and bits. It’s jolly good fun. And when you locate Deckard Cain and he does his familiar shpeel about portents and signs and the Lord of Terror, it’s like slipping into comfortable old shoes. We’re not talking about something that’s going to win awards for massive innovation here. It’s Diablo.

I have not played with the Witch Doctor, Wizard, or Monk classes. The Demon Hunter is pretty bad ass when wielding matching hand crossbows. There’s a neat skill that allows her to shoot and automagically flip away from danger when fighting a monster that’s closed in too close. This is a character design that oozes cool factor. The Barbarian, the lone true holdover from Diablo 2, is every bit the melee grandmaster of funk that he was in that game. I still get a charge out of leaping into a group of nasties and yelling, “It’s clobber’n time!” at my monitor. (Note: I do not actually do this, although I might start.) There is no longer a two-weapon fighting skill for him, though. You simply choose to equip two weapons or you don’t.

This, in terms of the design direction, is the aspect of Diablo 3 for which fans of Diablo 2 should be most prepared – there are no character attributes (strength, dexterity, etc.) and no skill trees.

You probably know this already, but let’s talk about the effect of their omission because it’s really rather disconcerting and it’s tempting to say the game’s design has been simplified to play better on an eventual console release. That’s a bit too easy and I’m not laying this at the foot of tired “console tard” cliches. There’s nothing in the Diablo 2 game mechanics to speak of that would prevent it from being workable on a console. If I had to draw a conclusion about the design philosophy at work here it’s that Diablo 3 is simplified for the sake of making it more accessible. There’s a considered effort here to remove overtly redundant or repetitive tasks that don’t add a lot of value to the core gameplay. It’s almost the opposite of what Blizzard did with Starcraft 2, which, by reputation, is every bit as fiddly as the original.

Sometimes this works. I really don’t miss having to manage how many town scroll scrolls I have on hand. I don’t especially miss that feeling of realizing the points I just put into Intelligence are entirely wasted on the character I’m building. I don’t miss having to do umpteen calculations in my head to determine if this sword ultimately does more damage than that sword or which armor best protects me from freeze attacks. Diablo 3 is very slick and very efficient and it generally makes sure you know what you need to know when you need to know it, although the final product does need to be a bit clearer about assigning skills and whatnot. Sure, I like attribute assignment points as much as the next RPG nerd, but let’s be honest: There was an optimum way to assign these points in Diablo 2, based on your character class. All Blizzard has done here is put everyone on the same playing field by having the game manage the most redundant and math intensive tasks for us. Weapons tell you specifically what their DPS is. When you change armor, you’ll see exactly what percentage of damage reduction you stand to lose or gain. While there obviously is an inventory page and a skill page, there is no character sheet whatsoever. There are no attributes that you can see (or that I could find).

No High Scores

Likewise, skills just unlock as you hit their requisite level. Once they do, also based on your level, you have a certain number of skills you can keep active at any given time. This, again, takes a lot of decision making out of your hands because it won’t be the case anymore that your level 32 Wizard can’t use a particular skill -one you chose to ignore or not buff up with skill points- but rather that you simply chose not to use it. So, if you change your mind about how you want to play after devoting 30 hours to a build and now want to use Skill X, there it is ready and waiting and it’s no less effective for your having ignored it all that time. For the player who just wants to sit down and throw a bit of time at the game, this is probably a really smart change.

That established, I really do miss the fiddly bits. My gut is Blizzard missed the mark on this one. I think part of the legs of Diablo 2 lies directly with the fact that character builds are so diverse and you have to devote a lot of time to trying any particular build out. “Hey, I’ve been running a Javelin-based Amazon for forever. Now, I’m going to do a completely different Amazon build that focuses on bows.” Then you restart the game and you go about it all from scratch. I think for a lot of players, that’s a perk rather than a flaw. Assigning attributes and putting points into skill trees may have been a repetitive process that only served to undermine your build should you make a mistake, but it’s just not as much fun not having those choices to make. Perhaps this is the RPG-elitist in me, but I think it would have been more interesting if they had made character building more complicated, rather than simpler. By all means, do more to put the information in front of us and take all the math work out of our hands. Just don’t forget that the real opportunity here is to let the player be creative and make choices.

No High Scores

More and more games don’t seem to think the player is interested in making choices and they’d rather just keep hitting the same feeder bar over and over again. I think that’s a mistake. I hope that, when we get the final produc
t, Diablo 3 will not just prove me wrong, but prove me ridiculously wrong. I hope it’s riddled with choices and novel ways to develop your character’s abilities. This would not be a shock. Those people are incredibly good at what they do. But if the Diablo 3 beta (which is not under any kind of NDA; players are encouraged to write about their experiences) is meant to set the tone for all the wonderfulness to come, I have to say I’m pretty firmly lukewarm to it all. I want to play it, let there be no doubt, but at this point I don’t expect the kind of long-tail experience we got from Diablo 2.

EDIT: More thoughts on this topic here.