These first few entries might be a little dry. We’ll get to the good stuff eventually, but we have groundwork to lay before we can cover that.
Even though I do this planet first, it feels like a bad place to start exploring this particular universe. It’s short on expensive content like characters, dialog, cutscenes, and detailed environments. The combat can be kind of newbie-unfriendly at low levels, and the mission ends with a fight against a Krogan that can be ridiculously hard for some classesOh, you’re an infiltrator that specializes in sniping at a distance? Well enjoy being locked in a confined space with a charging Krogan that can kill you in five seconds. Also enjoy the fifteen seconds of un-skippable cutscene leading up to the fight.. The brown rocky landscape is monotonous the moment you lay eyes on it, and it only gets worse as the mission drags on. This is the kind of stuff developers usually save for that late-game slog.
On the other hand, the interface shows the the player’s squad is still one member short, and it’s natural to expect they will be eager to come here and complete the team. On the gripping hand, I’m not sure the player has enough information to know or guess that Liara will be the final squadmate. Basically, I’m really curious what the designer’s intention was, and how people responded. I can’t remember my first play-through. Did people understand Liara was going to join the team, and did they make a beeline for Therum to get her?
I love how Mass Effect uses the ‘Star Trek’ approach to civilian clothing. Everyone wears tight jumpsuits with random geometric color patterns. I bet this sort of stuff will look as hilarious to the people of 2040 as the miniskirts of original Trek look to us today.
As far as I can tell from squinting at my monitor, almost all Asari use the same base model, which is basically a Barbie doll: A nude figure with no surface features. (I assume this is for budget reasons.) So you can’t have cuffs, popped collars, capes, hats, tails, loose trouser legs, or anything else that changes the shape of the character. You have to accomplish all of your costume design with bump maps and textures. From one model they managed to give us night club dancers, commandos, scientists, and civilians. I admire when artists can do good work under difficult constraints.
It’s a really interesting choice to enable the player to choose when they get Liara. She’s really important to the story. Unlike Garrus, Tali, and Wrex, she’s directly tied to the overall goal of learning about the Protheans, and she has a lot of dialog dedicated to the subject.
There’s special dialog if you happen to bring her along to fight and kill her insane / mind-controlled mother on Noveria. The developers created extra work for themselves, and created a lot of content you might miss. If you visit places in the order of Noveria, Feros, and then Therum, then you’ll miss most of her dialog and her interactions with her mother. It really does feel like you should get Liara as early as possible, but the writers allow you to delay it.
On the other hand, the writers have really pushed their luck with regards to linearity so far. Forcing the player to Therum directly after the Citadel probably would have felt smothering. Really, at that point they might as well make the entire game linear.
Therum stands out as an oddball in our three locations. The other two locations begin with an initial site of talking and roleplaying, then there’s a Mako section to take you to the secondary site where you have another talky bit mixed in with some heavier combat. In contrast, Therum has basically no roleplaying or worldbuilding at all. Aside from Liara, there aren’t any locals to meet. There’s no dramatic arc. It’s just a long, combat-heavy Mako ride, followed by some shooting, followed by the most shallow puzzle in the gameAnd that’s saying something!, followed by a “everything suddenly explodes just as you fly away” finale.
The codex talks about Therum being an active human colony, but we don’t see a single worker. We see no living spaces. No mining equipment or vehicles. No place for supply ships to land and bring provisions to the colony, or carry away the minerals they’re supposedly digging up. At the very end we reach some mine entrances with some generic empty metal structures around, but that’s it. There’s not even an indication of where Liara was living. Presumably she wasn’t sleeping on the rock and digging with her hands, right?
When designers get lazyOr low on budget, or pressed for time… they usually half-ass it with some audio logs from the former residents, explaining to themselves why they’re no longer around. But Therum is barren, story-wise.
Since driving is such a big part of this mission, let’s talk about…
Some people loved driving the Mako. Some people hated it. It handled like an inflatable bounce castle on wheels, it was prone to getting caught on trivial bits of scenery, and your targets always seemed to be about five degrees higher than the turret could reach. Love it or hate it, the Mako bits were certainly unique among videogame vehicle sections. I wasn’t really a fan, but the later games made me realize that the Mako fulfilled an important purpose in defining the world.
Mass Effect 1 places a lot of importance on visual continuity. You can walk from C-Sec, ride up the elevator of Eternal Time-Wasting, and arrive at the bay where you can see your vessel docked. You can then seamlessly transition to the inside of the ship, fly away, cross the galaxy, and exit the ship on a foreign world. You can make that entire journey without any spatial cuts. The camera might cut away for the jumping-through-the-relay cutscene, but when you take control again Shepard is standing right where you left him. I really appreciate this sense of continuity of movement. Yes, the loading screens disguised as elevators and bio-scanners were flow-breaking frustrations. There was certainly room for improvement. But the lack of teleporting loading screens was something that made the game more immersive.
The Mako was part of this. Feros is comprised of two major sites: The colony and the ruins. I suppose you could have a cutscene to move between the two, but then they would have felt disconnected and unrelated. It would have deprived the player of a sense of scale and distance. They could also have allowed you to make the journey on foot, but then you need to move the sites very close together (which contradicts the events of the story) or you need to walk a long distance.
The best way to establish the distance between the two locations is to have the player jump in the Mako and make the drive themselves. In Mass Effect 2 and 3, there are parts of the game where you get in a vehicle and are taken to some other gameplay zone via a time cut. You’re deprived of a sense of distance, time, and scale. How long was the drive? How fast were we going? What did we see along the way? Paradoxically, removing the Mako made planets feel somehow smaller, even though the time-cuts could theoretically represent much larger distances.
Part of this might be an unfortunate side-effect of the conventions of cinema. In a movie, if the characters travel a long way the director will usually give us some sort of travel montage: The character driving. Long shot of the car driving into the distance. Shots of landmarks. A close-up of the driver’s face. Shot of the character stopping for food. Back on the road again. The sun goes down. The longer the montage, the longer the presumed journey in the minds of the audience.
The Mako gave the worlds a sense of scale. It wasn’t perfect and not everyone liked the driving mechanics, but removing it from the game deprived the designers of an important tool for making worlds seem large and diverse. Without the Mako, worlds are reduced to a single location.
If we could jump ahead to Mass Effect 2 for a bit, I want to talk about the Mako’s replacement, the Hammerhead.
While there are Mako fans out there, a non-trivial segment of the playerbase really hated the damn thing. So I understand why BioWare felt the need to “do something” about the Mako. Sadly, the Hammerhead feels a bit like curing the disease by killing the patient and then using a trebuchet to fling the corpse at the bereaved.
Someone at BioWare looked at the Mako and assumed it was in the game because this is a shooter and shooters need vehicle sections in the same way that Superman needs those little red underpants outside his costume. Which is to say: Not at all, but it’s always there anywayIt turns out that the “underpants on the outside” costume design is a holdover from the days when some characters appeared in black-and-white. People were worried that without the underpants, the character might look nude.. So the Hammerhead was designed to be a better vehicle section. However the more important function of providing a sense of scale and geographical continuity was completely lost. The Hammerhead is only used in locations designed specifically for it, and those locations feature no other gameplay. So while the vehicle itself might be more fun to driveYou mileage may vary. I didn’t enjoy it any more than the Mako. it was now completely disconnected from the rest of the game.
Case in point: The first time I played through the game, I didn’t download the Hammerhead DLC, and I didn’t miss it at all. I don’t mean I didn’t mind not having it, I mean I had no idea the DLC existed or that I was lacking anything.
 Oh, you’re an infiltrator that specializes in sniping at a distance? Well enjoy being locked in a confined space with a charging Krogan that can kill you in five seconds. Also enjoy the fifteen seconds of un-skippable cutscene leading up to the fight.
 And that’s saying something!
 Or low on budget, or pressed for time…
 It turns out that the “underpants on the outside” costume design is a holdover from the days when some characters appeared in black-and-white. People were worried that without the underpants, the character might look nude.
 You mileage may vary. I didn’t enjoy it any more than the Mako.
Programming Language for Games
Game developer Jon Blow is making a programming language just for games. Why is he doing this, and what will it mean for game development?
A horrible, railroading, stupid, contrived, and painfully ill-conceived roleplaying campaign. All in good fun.
The Best of 2011
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.
The Biggest Game Ever
How did this niche racing game make a gameworld so massive, and why is that a big deal?
A Star is Born
Remember the superhero MMO from 2009? Neither does anyone else. It was dumb. So dumb I was compelled to write this.