Archive for February, 2010

Mass Effect 2: great game writing builds depth and richness

February 24, 2010

As noted before, Mass Efect 2 is a game that deserves its high ratings despite some notable flaws. It clearly needs a patch for greater stability and to fix characters getting stuck in various maps. My party also likes to let me handle a lot of big fights solo, as they patiently wait outside a room. I can tell them to go into the boss room all I want, they will wait outside the door and let me handle the boss all by myself.

What sets the game apart is the writing. There are moments with both main characters and minor ones that are stellar examples of the art of game dialog. Two come to mind as standouts. When you find them in the game, don’t rush through. Listen and learn how to build a scene that appeals to the higher sensibilities of an RPG player.

The first one has a minor spoiler, so be forewarned if you haven’t played through the game yet.

It involves the Solarian scientist on your ship:

http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Mordin_Solus

You learn through the game the role he played in reworking the Krogan Genophage to prevent the Krogans from developing a resistance to the original version that largely sterilized their race. He defends his actions as needed to prevent war with the Krogan and perhaps their complete destruction. If you follow the Paragon path, doubts begin to form in his mind.

You undertake a mission to find his former assistant on the Krogan homeworld. Along the way you discover that he is experimenting with the Genophage, seeking to modify it. Just before you come upon the assistant, you find the body of a Krogan female who died while undergoing voluntary experiments to try to cure the sterilization.

Mordin has a long dialog tree as he contemplates the dead Krogan and his doubt now comes to the forefront. He bristles at the accusation that he has used medicine as a weapon, but sees that his actions played a role in the death of this Krogan. He prays over her, and this sets the stage for the final confrontation with his former student.

The student is conducting unethical experiments to undo what he now regards as a crime against the Krogan race that is destroying them slowly. Who is the greater monster, he suggests?

Mordin, with your advice, will later decide whether he will seek to undo the very viral sterilization he helped create.

It is a simply marvelous piece of game writing.

Another gem involves an NPC, a simple Asari bartender. She is an Asari Matriarch and her dialog is funny, poignant, wise, and memorable. She notes that a feature of living for a thousands years is that you see too many wars. She relates a family history of parents who fought on opposite sides of a war many centuries ago, but didn’t know it. When the truth is finally uncovered, it set in motion the end of both of them.

Also, keep an eye on her for a hilarious bit she does (spoiler alert) when you confront Conrad Vernor and he talks about his Spector costume. It is short, but the look she gives is priceless.

Oh, and do be nice to Conrad. He is simply your biggest fan and there is no need to hurt his feelings or get him killed. Go for the Paragon choices.

This was just a minor character standing behind a bar. Yet, her life story carried the game forward and strengthened the larger dramatic themes of Mass Effect 2.

There are other instances. One Asari merchant has a group of human colonists in a contract that is legal, but unethical. She holds a grudge against aliens (like humans) for the wars they are involve in that killed her close family members. If you ask her to tell you about the family she lost, tears form in her eyes. There is quiet, and she finally decides that there is already enough misery in the galaxy and she doesn’t need to add to it. The contract is amended.

Some of the best moments in Mass Effect2 don’t involve gunfire. Take the time to find them and savor how well a story can be moved forward via character interactions.

Game gripe: key codes on downloaded games

February 22, 2010

I buy a lot of games off of Steam and marvel at the need to enter key codes to play them. Hey, the Steam services MUST know these are legal copies, because they sold them to me! Also, why make me copy a code to the clipboard and cut-and-paste it into a slot. If you must have a silly code, then let the game itself look for it upon first launch. Ditto for all of the other codes needed for DLC for games like Mass Effect 2.

Mass Effect 2 impressions

February 14, 2010

I finished ME2 early this morning. I generally concur with the 90% Editor’s Choice award that PC Gamer gave it.

What I didn’t like was the stripping of most of the standard RPG elements (trading, lots of weapons and armors to choose from, etc.) Also, the use of the “cover and shoot” strategy was waaaaaaaayyyyyyy overused. It got silly after a while how many waist-high barriers you found at each level. It was also funny how they tried to introduce ammunition scarcity back into the game. See, in ME1, guns never ran out of ammo. However, they could overheat and this required a cool-down that to the rest of us was just like a reload. You could upgrade the firearms in the game with various items to reduce the heat buildup and extend the firing time before cool-down.

In ME2 you still have unlimited ammo, but you now need to use “thermal clips” to absorb the heat from a certain number of rounds (28 rounds for the assault rifle I used, as an example). So, after 28 rounds, you had to “reload” another thermal clip to be able to fire the weapon again. Thermal clips were scattered around the levels or dropped by enemies. While fairly common, you could run out of them for a specific weapon and need to switch. Some levels made the clips scarce and forced you to use alt-fire weapon powers, biotics (magic), engineering-based attacks, or even melee.

The clips fit any weapon other than your one “heavy weapon” in the inventory, which used a different ammo.

It was a convoluted way to reintroduce limited ammo back into the game after making such a big show of taking it out in the first one.

My biggest knock against the game is that it is buggy. It is a bit crash-prone (hey, this is Bioware, so that’s not unexpected), but I fell through the maps roughly a half-dozen times on a single-play-through. I would end up with my entire party stuck floating above everything on a balcony, railing, ledge, etc. This is simply inexcusable. I have heard (sarcasm turned on) they have people called “testers” in the gaming industry who get paid to find things like this so developers can fix them. Bioware (and Bethesda) seemingly outsource this function to the people who buy their games to perform. If I am going to beta-test their games, I want listing in the credits!

They also do some of the classics of dumb game design, like:

• Setting saves before tough fights BEFORE a cut-scene with dialog options. If I get killed, please don’t make me replay the long dialog tree with the NPC before trying again – especially if the choices impact the plot outcomes, so I can’t just jump through them. Set the auto-save for AFTER the cut-scenes!
• Respawning enemies in certain levels. The idea is that you have to reach certain map points, then the respawn moves to the next spot in front of you. Respawn is BORING, as you fight the same three-four enemies over and over again. It works against characters who snipe and draw out a battle and makes you too dependent on simply being a tank. It also wrecks the immersion in a game when enemies simply appear ahead in a sealed room. It screams, “It’s a game! It’s a game!”
• Enormous ramp-ups in difficulty on some sequences with no ability to quick-save at any point. They have spots in the game where the odds of getting killed go sky-high and you almost need to be very lucky or extremely skilled to get through. I get bored having to fight the same stuff over-and-over again to get back to the place I got killed before and try something new this time. Some sequences, especially the timed ones (I hate timed sequences) get frustrating when you battle all the way through to the end and then make a mistake in the computer hacking task that ends the mission. Let me be able to save the game!
• Fights where simply getting lucky plays too much of a role in surviving. A great firefight has a way where certain tactics, weapons, squad placement, etc., shift the odds of survival greatly in your favor. One sequence near the end seemed to just require getting lucky after a lot of tries. I finally beat it with a high-powered shotgun with fire rounds. Maybe that is the way to do it that shifts the odds, but by then I was too frustrated to replay it to find out.

What gets the high score for the game from me is that it is stunning to look at, the firefights (even with the over-reliance upon one tactic) can be astounding, and the writing and voice work is as good as it gets. It is an “adult” game in that the character interactions run as deep as the gunplay. Each companion has a story to tell, a quest that is worth doing, and is fleshed out better than the a lot of their TV and movie counterparts would be. There are no one-dimensional characters in the game. One memorable character is an assassin in his last year of life. He tells you of his philosophy, regrets, and hope for atonement via assisting in your quest. His side-mission is to prevent his estranged son from following in the assassin trade. Another is an Asari Justicar, a member of a religious order who seek out evil and destroy as sort of free-lance knight/samurai. She has spent four centuries seeking one particular serial killer – her own daughter.

I have already started a replay, this time with an imported ME1 female character. I will play her through and then have both a male and female ME2 character available to recycle for other replays. The NPC interactions do vary based on gender. The game also does have “romance” options, though this one has no nudity if you achieve it (at least it didn’t in the one involving the Quarian). ME1 get a bit of heat due to some tasteful nudity (mostly from the back). So far, my grandson hasn’t had the patience or luck to find the nude scene in ME1. He just wants to run out and blow stuff up.

Even the romance options are fairly adult, especially the ones involving the alien races. Humans and alien do hook up in the game. Indeed, one race (the Asari) strongly prefer non-Asari mates to diversify their genetics. They are a mono-gendered species (all female) and can basically mate with anything (male or female, any sentient species) to gather the genetics (and memories) they need to procreate.

The game gets much easier if you import an ME2 character in, as you start out at your current level and weaponry. It makes it a bit of a cake-walk for the first few missions. You can’t change the character name, gender, or back-story, but you can change their combat specializations, face, etc.

Some other random thoughts:

It NEEDS to have weapon hotkeys. It is cumbersome to use the scroll wheel to cycle through multiple weapons or use the left-shift to stop the action. Hotkeys are standard on other games, so why not here.

It also has the game cliché of lots of explosive containers right where enemies will congregate. Doesn’t anybody ever ask themselves, “Hey, why are we leaving all these exploding containers everywhere? We could get blown up!” Nope…

I haven’t found a way to heal my own damage yet. I can bring back dead team mates to life from a distance, but not use the healing packs on myself.

Oh, be on the lookout for a funny short side-quest involving a love-struck Krogan resorting to poetry to try to woo his Asari sweetheart back after a breakup. Do the Paragon path and get these lovebirds back together! You will be rewarded by seeing them later in an encounter that I found pretty funny. The sight of a Krogan (the ultimate warrior race) calling out love poems is a treat not to be missed. Hey, his big reptile hearts (Krogan have more than one) were breaking…

Installing nForce RAID drivers in a Windows XP install

February 3, 2010

I am rebuilding a Abit K8N SLI system I picked up for dirt and wanted to have two spare drives in a striped RAID array. Windows XP asks for RAID drivers as part of the install (hit F6, then S later on). I had them downloaded drivers from Abit and copied them to a floppy. However, no matter which of the four available drivers on the disk I tried to install — XP could not find my drives later to install Windows.

It took some hunting, but I discovered that you must install two drivers off the disk: one for the RAID and one for the nForce Controller. The options are to have SATA only RAID or SATA+PATA. I went for the latter choice and installed both drivers. The install then found my RAID drives and seems happy enough.

This is different than other RAID systems I have worked on, which typically only wanted one driver.

One plus: Windows 7 64 bit also seemed to come with the RAID drivers installed for three rebuilt systems where I upgraded operating systems. It found the RAID drives just fine during the installation without me loading any additional drivers.