Last time I mentioned that Mass Effect jumped from “details first” to “drama first”, and that the resulting shift in focus hurt the series. This new setup either works for you or it doesn’t, but we’re done bellyaching about it for now. Instead let’s talk about…
I like the new combat. I’m not going to say it’s “fun”, but I will say it’s “fun for a cover shooter of this era”. It’s not like I was expecting them to turn the gameplay into Batman, Tomb Raider, or Chime. They’ve tightened things up so it’s clearly a cover-based shooter instead of a “You can use cover and it will help sometimes but your allies might not and they’ll wander into your line of fire during a fight anyway” kind of shooter.
Mass Effect 1 existed in this odd, unsatisfying spot on the gameplay spectrum. It wasn’t number-crunchy enough to let you enjoy radically divergent character builds and tactical gameplay, but it wasn’t punchy enough to be viscerally satisfying. It had a massive skill tree with all these tiny inconsequential bonuses, so you couldn’t ever “feel” the difference of spending skill points.
Mass Effect 2 fixes this by shortening the tree and cutting down on the number of abilities you have to juggle so you have three interesting ones instead of nine weak ones. Love it or hate it, I think it’s good that the game finally committed to a gameplay style. It’s not my favorite gameplay, but at least the series found an identity.
And to be fair, this isn’t just a bog-standard shooter. The biotic powers keep things interesting, the freedom to swap out squad mates keeps things varied, and the visuals have a flair and a punch that was lacking in the first game.
The horrible “trash loot avalanche” of the original has been replaced with something that’s more about making meaningful decisions and less of a “rummage sale” vibe where you scroll through huge lists of crap, trying to figure out what you want or need.
This is all good, since you’re going to be spending a lot more time shootin’ dudes. The Mako is gone. Overall there are fewer conversations in proportion to gameplay, and most of them are shorter than the ones in ME1. There’s less space to traverse between fights and the puzzles between you and your mission goals have been removedNow puzzles are just a way to open optional “treasure chests”.. The loot-sorting is goneNot that many people miss it. and shopping for gear is less of a thing.
For good or for ill, the game is focusing on its central mechanics instead of trying to do a little of everything. But these changes come at a cost. Let’s talk about…
In Mass Effect 1, the idea is that your gun has a large block of mass inside. It shaves a tiny section off that block, the size of a grain of sand. That grain is then accelerated in a mass effect field, launching it at some ridiculous velocity so that the tiny fragment will still carry enough force to harm your foe. This generated some heat, so you had to let off the trigger every few seconds to allow the weapon to cool down.
Thus your weapon can’t ever run out of ammo. It has “practically infinite”Which in gameplay terms means ‘actually infinite’. supply of shots stored inside its casing.
I liked this, because it nicely merged gunplay with science fiction. Yes, we want our combatants to run around shooting each other with space-weapons that make cool sounds, but the universe will feel lame if all these fantastical aliens are running around using firearms with gunpowder, rifled barrels, shell casings, and all the other things we associate with gunfights on Earth. It makes our universe seem like it lacks vision if all the fights look and sound like Call of Battlefield. The infinite ammo weapons were better than Earth-based firearms, they were new and alien enough to feel sort of sci-fi-ish, but they were close enough to conventional firearms that we could still use familiar shooter gameplay. (As opposed to something crazy and new, like a world where everyone has insta-kill guns that can shoot through walls, or sustained beam weapons that makes killing foes as easy as catching them in a flashlight beam. Those would be plausible alien weapons to put in a sci-fi universe, but they wouldn’t lend themselves to established gameplay conventions.)
But the original idea didn’t last. In Mass Effect 2 they added the idea of “thermal clips”, which work exactly like ammo. Yes, you still have infinite “bullets” but you need these packages of heat sinks to keep the weapon from overheating. If you don’t have a heat sink, you can’t fire. So they aren’t bullets, but they restrict your ability to fire in exactly the same way that bullets do.
This is framed as a technological advancement, but it’s pretty obvious that a gun that can run out of bullets is vastly inferior to one that can’t. This is particularly true when you apparently can’t carry very much of this new “not bullets” ammunition and find yourself changing weapons often when you run out.
Aside: “clip” is the wrong nomenclature. The “clips” we pick up are properly called “magazines”. I realize this is a sci-fi game with space magic, but if you’re going to get so macho serious about your firearms, then can you please stop making all your characters talk like a rube having their first day on the firing range?
To be fair, basically all games and movies get this wrong, to the point where it might be easier to change the definition than to get people to use it right. But it bugs me anyway.
But whatever. Thermal “clips” it is.
On one hand, I can appreciate what they were trying to do here. Traditional reload mechanics are a tried-and-true gameplay model. It encourages you to use a variety of weapons to manage your limited ammunition pools. There’s a tiny bit of strategy in deciding when you reload a weapon and when to keep shooting. It fits in with the rhythm of the fight and the way your enemies peek in and out of cover. It lets the main character interact with the weapon, making all those cool mechanical sounds and venting particle effects. It encourages moving around to acquire needed ammo during a fightI guess you’re not supposed to play as one of those sniper classes that needs to stay in cover and engage at a distance., which can encourage the player to make risk / reward decisions about when to leave cover. These are all nominally good things to want in a shooter. In general, all of this moves the game towards mainstream mechanics.
Having said that, I’m not sure the execution here is the right way to go. Reader NaotaDisclosure / fun trivia: Naota is actually one of the members of the Pyrodactyl team working on Good Robot with me. said this in the comments last week:
Thermal clips are a blight, even by normal game design standards. I think it's pretty universally agreed that the idea behind ammo mechanics is to force players to aim more carefully and be economic with their shooting, by tying shooting to an expendable resource. This rewards pre-planning and smart play; if a player stocks up on ammunition and aims well, they won't run out in a time of need.
…but thermal clips are not expendable, and can't be planned around. The damnable things are scripted not to appear unless the player is already low on ammo, and magically poof into the surrounding environment. Thanks to the small capacity for spares, they're needed constantly.
So… the only time you can find more bullets is after you've run out of them, and must flail around awkwardly in the midst of battle looking for environmental cues. You cannot go exploring to stock up ahead of time. But rationing your shots is pointless, because once you're spent the clips will reappear infinitely. We wouldn't want you to actually run out of bullets, after all â€" just to experience the same annoyance over and over with no way to mitigate it.
This is a system designed specifically to capture the biggest downside of ammo-based shooting mechanics (having to dumpster-dive for bullets halfway through a boss battle), while eliminating all of the upsides with precision that borders on the immaculate.
Game design is part of my job. I've built a competitive FPS. I could not make a more horrible mechanical framework if I tried my hardest. Thermal clips are a true marvel.
(EDIT: To be clear, I’m not 100% endorsing the tone of this comment. I’m actually trying to keep this series as low-key and non-personal as possible. Naota posted this as an off-the-cuff comment without knowing it was going to appear in the series. But I wanted to include it here because he noticed several aspects of the system that I’d completely overlooked and this seemed like the best way to include his thoughts.)
To be fair, I had no idea the world worked this way. I always play as a Vanguard, and Vanguards are constantly leaving and running back into cover because of the charge ability. So these magical appearing clips got lost in the chaos. If I ran out, I usually assumed I had been bad at spotting ammo between fights.
But regardless of whether this works on a gameplay level or not, it’s pretty clear that it makes no damn sense within the established lore of the world. If I’m dumping heat, then why am I throwing away these clips? In Mass Effect 1 I had guns that could fire for fifteen sustained seconds, and cool off in just five. Why can’t I drop back to that firing mode if I run out of clipsI’ve read a rumor (I can’t find the source now) that the guns did work this way during development, but playtesters found it “confusing”.?
The logic problems get worse when you find yourself fighting enemies that have been isolated for decades or centuries, yet they drop these same newfangled clips that were invented just two years ago.
More nonsense: The ammo pickups seem to work a bit like Team Fortress 2, where a single pickup will have just a few rounds for each of your weapons. So I go into a ruin that hasn’t been opened in centuries and inside I find a mook who shoots at me with an assault rifle. I kill him, and he drops this little cylinder-shaped “clip”. And when I pick it up I get 4 pistol bullets, 50 submachine gun bullets, and 3 shotgun shells. I don’t care what sort of excuses you stuff into the codex, that’s crazy bananas.
I really think it was a mistake to attempt to address this in-world. Maybe it would have been better for the game to simply present this change without comment.
I realize this sounds incredibly hypocritical after going on about “details matter!”, but here we’re dealing with a simple business decision and gameplay conceit. There is no way to explain this within the gameworld that will fit, so any attempt to justify it is just going to spread out into more frustrating unanswerable questions.
I think players are generally willing to meet the game designer halfway on stuff like this. In the first two Witcher games, Geralt’s equipment was ageless. The armor never broke, and his sword never got dull. But nobody ran up to Geralt at the start of Witcher 3 and said, “We’re using this awesome new alloy that makes swords more effective, but now you need to sharpen them!” The game didn’t try to explain why you suddenly needed to repair your stuff, and that was okay.
By presenting the change without comment, it allows the player to file the inconsistency into the mental folder where they keep all the other gameplay contrivances: You never have to eat or relieve yourself, you never need to sleep, you can reload the game when you die, you can see someone’s name over their head when you look directly at them, fat tomes never contain more than a paragraph of text, you can eat an unlimited amount of food in the middle of a swordfight, and so on.
I understand if people want to argue that they don’t like the new gameplay and just wanted the old system back. But if we accept the change as a simple design necessity then I think the best way to deal with the inconsistency would be to downplay it.
In fact, this is what they did with biotics, and I don’t see people complaining about thatAs much. Obviously if you look you can find complaints about almost anything.. Biotic powers got a major overhaul in terms of mechanics, and they didn’t try to explain any of it in conversation. It’s simply presented without comment. The change to biotics is nearly as radical as the idea of adding “bullets” to this bullet-free universe, but people didn’t mind as much because it was accepted as a simple gameplay change, without involving the setting.
On the other hand:
In a game where so much of the lore was re-written, twisted, abused, or ignored in the first hour, the people who care about details are already likely to be really annoyed. They won’t see this as a design decision, they’ll naturally assume the introduction of bullets is just one more sign that the Mass Effect 2 designers didn’t know about or care how the world of Mass Effect 1 worked.
This is just one more area where the bungled opening of the game comes back to hurt our immersion. The player doesn’t have any more room in their heart for hand-waving and letting little details slide, because that goodwill was burned up when the writer blew up the setting and replaced half the codex with little sticky notes proclaiming “PLOT TWIST!”
 Now puzzles are just a way to open optional “treasure chests”.
 Not that many people miss it.
 Which in gameplay terms means ‘actually infinite’.
 I guess you’re not supposed to play as one of those sniper classes that needs to stay in cover and engage at a distance.
 I’ve read a rumor (I can’t find the source now) that the guns did work this way during development, but playtesters found it “confusing”.
 As much. Obviously if you look you can find complaints about almost anything.
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