Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mass Effect 2 (PC)

After a mighty 37h I have finished Mass Effect 2 on the PC and it was a pretty damn good game again, compared with Mass Effect 1 there where however quite a few questionable design choices, so here goes the review:

Lets start with the good stuff, as its predecessor, Mass Effect 2 blends RPG/adventure elements with shooter elements, thus you get a lot of good dialog along with some pretty intense action, a mix that is still pretty unique in the gaming world and Mass Effect 2 managed to pretty high quality in both of these elements. There are only a tiny few games that lets you sink in 35+ hours and have you entertained from start to finish.

The dialog system in ME2 is pretty much the same as previously, but the dialog is now a little more interesting thanks to characters moving around a bit more naturally and some more dynamic camera angles. The dialog system also got quick-time-events integrated, that allow you to quickly interrupt the dialog in a few places. Its a nice addition that adds choice in intense situations that couldn't be handle via the normal dialog wheel.

The graphics have been improved a good bit, nothing earth shattering, but it looks noticeably better and and runs maybe even a little bit smoother on the same hardware as the previous game. Sound and especially the music are still awesome.

The shooting in Mass Effect 2 has been changed a bit. One of the better changes is that you now have to collect ammunition for your weapons, instead of having unlimited firing power. As ammunition is plentyfull, you don't have to worry about running out of, but being limited forces you to switch weapons a little more often then previously, thus you get to learn and use a more variety of weapons. A really bad change is however the squad control, you can no longer direct your teammates into defense or to attack a specific enemy. You are limited to activating their special abilities and telling them where to go, which however never really works, as they run all over the place anyway. Your healthbar is now also basically gone and has been replaced by a FPS-like duck-in-cover-for-recharge mechanic. Healthpacks are thus useless and in turn have been merged with the Unity power of the previous game, which is there to restore fallen teammates in the mid of a firefight. I hardly ever needed to use that. Grenades are also gone and have been replaced by a more traditional rocket launcher. All those changes combined make the combat pretty much action focused, removing the tactical element almost completly. Speaking about combat, another change is that running, using and taking cover are now all an the space-key, which at times feels a little much for a single key, I preferred the previous setup where running was on shift. In addition to that the ability to duck to increase your accuracy is gone as well. One thing that is a bit weird with the new mechanics is that you now can jump over cover, which in itself is ok, but its used in quite a few situations to actually climb on a ledge, which makes things kind of awkward, as you have to go to cover first for no reason to be able to jump over it. A separate jump key or a way to just climb directly onto the ledge would have been nice.

The Mako, the vehicle with which you could drive around in the previous game is also gone. You can no longer explore huge planets in the vehicle, that part of the game has been completly removed with no real replacement. You now can scan planets for resources, which are needed to leveling up your weapons, but that is a very basic GUI mini-game. The elevators are also gone and they have been replaced with classic loading screens and a much more simple flat level design. The Presidium of the Citadel for example has been reduced from a huge explorable area to a single tiny room. Same is true for basically all locations in the game, it all feels very small and linear, lacking the verticality and connectedness of the previous game. Another example for this is the Normandy, in the previous game you could reenter it whenever you docked somewhere, that is now no longer possible, if you enter it, you automatically fly away from the planet. The feeling of flatness in the locations is additionally enhanced by the new cover mechanics, which results in a lot of conveniently placed crates all over the ground, a problem that Mass Effect 1 didn't have.

One of the really weird changes of the game is the galaxy map, instead of being able to just click on stuff where you want to go, you now drive a tiny little spaceship around on the map to reach planets. When you drive outside of a star system you now even need to manage fuel. It just looks ridiculous and adds basically nothing to the game. Not quite sure what they where thinking here, considering that most of the other changes where might to simplifying the game.

The squad selection screen also got a downgrade, instead of being able to just click on charaters, you now have to select them and then click a separate add-button, not a big deal, but feels completly useless change and it was much better handled in the previous game. Overall the GUI feels a little ugly and generic, which is especially noticeable as you will see it more often, as using an elevator will bring you to a full GUI screen, instead of some more modern overlay over the main game. And weapon select is handled by pretty much the same GUI. Proper keyboard control for the GUI is still missing, you can navigate it a bit via the cusor keys, but not with your normal WASD movement keys for some reason and you can't confirm choices, so you basically have to use the mouse, which is a little inconvenient in a few spots.

The RPG aspects of the game have been almost completly removed. The loot you can collect is basically reduced to just money and resouces. New weapons can no longer be found by normal looting, instead you get them via upgrades or every now and then on missions, but this basically means that the number of weapons of a certain type is as low as two or three over the course of the whole game. XP gathering is now limited to quest completion and the number of abilities to which you can level up is also much smaller then previously.

Your main characters armor is now customizable in pieces, so you can mix different chest plates and helmets, but thats mostly cosmetic, as again, there is no real loot, so the number of available helemts and stuff always stays rather small. The ability to customize teammates armor on the other side is completly gone, they will run around in the same cloth for the whole game. Your only ability to change that is an alternative costume, that you get when you complete their story mission, but thats basically a palette-swap and has no impact or even a story explanation.

A cute addition is the ability to customize your cabin a bit, you can by souvenirs like model spaceships, fish or even a hamster, which then end up in your cabin. Not exactly useful for anything, but still neat.

When it comes to over story and quest Mass Effect 2 feels a little to simplistic. The main quests themselves are good when seen in isolation, but they feel a little disconnected, missing the sense of discovery and accomplishment of the previous game. The whole game consists basically just out of collecting 11 squad members and then a "big" final mission in the end, which is actually rather short an simple. There are no real big plot twists or discoveries. The whole underlying story structure just shines through a little to much, missing an organic feel and it also feels a little recycled from the previous game, as the structure is very similar and you meet quite a few old characters again. On top of that the game now features a "Mission Accomplished" result screen, which just doesn't fit into a game that should feel open-world'ish, adding to the simplified and linear feel of it.

One really nice addition to the overall game is that you now can return to the Normandy after you have finished the game and explore uncompleted side quests. This is a simple, but really great addition that was missing in the previous game and made it unnecessarily cumbersome to finish the whole game. The game now also features proper and plenty reset points, so dieing in a fight is not much of an issue. On the downside you are now limited to 50 save games, a limitation that seems completly random and totally useless as the savegames are very small and I don't think that limit was present in the previous game.

On the DLC side the game comes with no less then three free downloads right out of the box, this is done to reduce used game sales, but its really quite annoying to have to go through all the login, authentication and downloading just to get the whole game. The game also is rather bad at telling you which add-ons are already installed, adding some more confusion to if the installation actually worked. Speaking of the DLC itself, there is the Inferno Armor, which is a preorder bonus, and basically useless, doesn't look good and doesn't really add anything. Next DLC is the Normandy Crash Site mission, which is basically just you collecting 20 dog tags, probably the weakest "mission" of the whole game. The final DLC is Zaeed, an additional squad member, it is a solid addition and nice to have it for free, but if you would need to buy it separately it is not worth the $15 that access to the DLC cost you. Not sure if there will be additional DLC that would make it worth it.

Overall Mass Effect 2 is still awesome, but I can't shake the feeling that they went a little overboard with their reaction to criticism on the first one. Driving the Mako was not always great, but what I would have liked would have been better Mako missions and controls, not simply no Mako missions at all. Same with the elevators, sure having faster elevators and less loading times is welcome, but just having loading screens instead of elevator rides really doesn't help, it reduces the open world of ME1 to disconnected collection little rooms and breaks the immersion. Also the whole combat here feels to much simplified, its basically down to take-cover, shoot-dudes, repeat. There really isn't anything to mix it up and it can get a little old at times, ME1 was quite a bit more interesting here. But in the end Mass Effect 2 is still awesome and there just aren't many games that can keep you entertained for 35h, while being actually fun to play at the same time.

Edit: Some corrections to the above: Healthpacks can still be used on yourself once you upgraded them, they seem to cause your shield to be instantly refreshed, but as your shield refresh after a while automatically its a little hard to spot that effect, so I missed it on my first play through. Attack specific enemies is also still possible, it works with the same keys as moving the squad (Q and E), but as the function as been removed from the pause screen and its not immediatly obvious that move and attack are bound to the same key I missed that too.

Update: Finished the game now a second time, I started at Insane difficulty, but that got a little tedious, so I switched down to Hardcore difficulty. The problem with Insane is that all enemies turn into bullet sponges, which isn't much of a problem when you have enough room to fall back to, but the game has a few situations where you can't do that, so you basically have to depend on luck to survive, which is annoying. Hardcore suffers from this too, but its less of an issue and thus for most part not all that difficult as long as you stay in cover and stay away from the shotgun, which is completly useless.

One really annoying thing with this play through was that I didn't get enough Paragon points, I played basically the same as on my first playthrough, so I am not quite sure what went wrong, but I ended up not being granted a few dialog choices, which screwed up the loyalty of the team members and the game doesn't provide a way to fix that as you simply run out of missions before you can max out your Paragon points. ME1 suffered from this too, but at least there you could work around it by leveling up the right skills, here you seem to be screwed unless you go for a 100% Paragon play through.

In terms of story not much new stuff happened, a few dialog sequences here and there showed up that I missed before, but for most part the game is as expected rather linear (you can tackle the missions in mostly random order, but the missions themselves always stay the same).

Overall I still had plenty of fun on my second play through, but it doesn't quite hold up to Mass Effect 1, that game just had the better overall story and more interesting gameplay. Now its time to wait for Mass Effect 3.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

German Wikipedia

I spend the last two weeks digging a bit through the German Wikipedia, which is known for its elitist and rather useless ruleset, so here a few experiences I made:
  • it is still possible to create new article without getting an instant delete request, I managed to produce ten so far
  • the de.wikipedia doesn't accept stubs, so it is best to start an article in your user namespace and move it when done, instead of starting to write it in the main Wikipedia namespace directly, as that will lead to near guaranteed trouble unless you are really fast
  • a lot of rule-compliance seems to be done for pure rules-compliance sake, not because the people like the rules
  • so far I still have not heard a single good argument for the notability criteria
  • getting an article undeleted is a little badly implemented, as you have to ask the original deleter first, before an other admin will even check the deletion, its not a show-stopper, but it slows things down a lot
  • users can only rename article, but not copy articles, this makes splitting articles quite difficult and time consuming, as you are not allowed to just copy&paste as that would kill the history, waiting now for two weeks on my article-copy request
  • getting past the 200/400 edit hurdle to just have the right to vote can take quite a while
  • the discussion system totally fucking sucks, nothing new, but when you actually try to follow a discussion you notice just how unusable it really is
  • it is pretty hard to find the right place where a specific Wikipedia issue is discussed
  • most of the time there is only a very limited number of people involved in a discussion or decision
  • the computer games section especially has some gigantic holes in it, so if you need something to write about, thats a pretty good place to start
Update: According to current de.Wikipedia rules all video game studios are non-notable (as companies need >1000 workers and even big studios don't go much beyond 100, publishers like Blizzard aside).