(No spoilers!) Mass Effect 3 came out this week, and I’ve been relatively glued to it. While the production quality of the game is beyond reproach, it still has some particular quirks that I find a bit incredulous at this level of gameplay. And while it’s easy to excoriate a poor game, I think we tend to learn a bit more from analyzing trends that persist in the supposed creme de la creme. So without further ado, 4 things I still can’t believe we’re doing in games:
1. Dealing With Ammunition
Dealing with ammo is tedious and annoying. Unless the game is specifically based and designed around how little ammo you have (like early Resident Evil games), it just serves as a way to very artificially break up the action. Imagine if you were playing Asteroids or Centipede and had to run over and touch a box every time you shot 42 bullets? And imagine said box moved to random locations on the screen every time you did. Sound tedious? It is.
Limiting ammunition in a game that essentially requires unlimited ammo basically causes the game designers to need to litter the battlefield with additional ammo pretty much everywhere, and causes the visual designers, who should be concerned with creating clutter that absorbs the player into the world, to need to design the ammunition containers in such a way that they are obviously there. So you end up with a bunch of glowing dildos littering some otherwise desolate moon.
Such a situation we could chalk up to the needs of realism if this were a war simulator or an ancient sword and sorcery style game, but this is a problem they already solved in Mass Effect 1, and quite elegantly. In Mass Effect 1, it was explained that the guns all had mass effect fields in them, which caused them to be able to accelerate extremely tiny metal particles at extremely high velocities, the net effect of which essentially made the amount of shots a particular weapon had limitless. However, each weapon had its own cool down (time between shots) as well as its own heat issues, which could cause the gun to jam up if it was shot too many times in a row without letting the heat dissipate. Such gameplay also spawned a limitless variety of modifications that the user could make to their weapons and armor to manage this balance. While one might criticize the system on the basis that it required too much micromanagement, the fact is that the control was in the player’s hands (It was entirely possible to configure a gun such that shooting it once could cause it to overheat), and not the designer’s.
Mass Effect 2 and 3 have changed this gameplay, requiring more emphasis on limited ammo, forcing players to end up finishing fights started with a machine gun with a water pistol, and it’s not better for it. It also leads to one of the more inane statements in all of gamedom: “Ammo Full.” When I’m in a war game where there’s a giant purple hand-shaped ship the size of a planet on the horizon, the words “Ammo Full” have escaped my vocabulary. You put them on the ground, Mr. Game Designer. I have every intention of picking them up.
2. My Character Is A Magnet, Apparently
I think it started with WinBack. Some people would say Metal Gear Solid, but I think it was WinBack.
If you can remember that 1999 shooter, which started on the Nintendo 64, the gameplay focused nearly entirely on sidling up to walls, literally attaching oneself to them, then popping up periodically to shoot at enemies dumb enough to still be standing, then rapidly ducking again. Metal Gear Solid had this going on, too, except that you primarily sidled up to walls, and you weren’t trying to get into combat, so the maneuver where you made yourself as small as possible and tried to hide from the guards actually made sense.
Since Gears of War, this convention has been used everywhere. And it’s terrible. Probably the most annoying part of it is the metallic “CHUNK” your player character does thudding into whatever completely indestructible cargo crate they’ve managed to find this time. It’s like the character has an electromagnet strapped to her back that attaches them to random boxes.
If there’s one area where we can give the most credit to First Person Shooters, it’s here. FPS games don’t have this mechanic. If you want to take cover, you need to literally find cover. I was trying to think of how I solved tactical situations in Halo 2, when I used to run through it on Legendary with a buddy, and I remember that we’d have to literally find places to cover each other and make our way toward the enemy, given whatever weapons we had.
What I didn’t do, however, was attach myself to a wall, and then use an external camera to see things my character could never see, to achieve combat results that would be impossible for any human being to do. Doing this actually robs this entire combat scenario of its tension. The entire point of hiding behind something while people are trying to shoot at you is that you don’t know when to look up! That’s the only reason someone might be standing longer than they should. But if you can constantly keep an eye on them while hiding behind a rock, then it sort of defeats the purpose entirely.
Mass Effect 3 is the equivalent of an underwater shooting gallery. When you’re up, you’re drowning. Staying up too long will cause you to die. But when you’re behind cover, you’re sucking on pure 02. Nothing can harm you. Moreover, enemies will stay open and standing there waiting for you to kill them, pretty much until you do. And even more egregiously, YOU can hit enemies who are taking cover, even though they can’t hit you.
I would honestly rather they just slap up an image that says “[Combat]” and play an intermission theme for 3 minutes.
Seriously. Every time I walk around a corner and see a bunch of conveniently positioned boxes, I just know that 3 or 4 minutes of my life are about to be eaten up in a scenario that I won’t be losing in. Fast forward.
3. It’s All Eventually Zombies
As a series ambles on, the probability that it includes zombies approaches unity. Look at Left 4 Dead 2…
Halo has the Flood, Mass Effect has Husks. I think the reason this happens particularly in sci-fi is that sci-fi is, particularly, about distributed humanity. In Mass Effect there are something like 15 sentient races, some of them with more power and more humanity (in the sense that we like to see ourselves) than humans themselves. The only way to provide a contrast is to give an enemy entirely bereft of humanity, down to the husks of their bodies.
So yeah, I get why zombies are in the story. It still doesn’t make them fun.
The problem with zombies is that they essentially undermine any tactics your game had going for it. The primary reason why an army of 1000 men can lose to an army of 100 is that the army of 1000 consists of 1000 individuals each concerned, on some level, with their own self-preservation. This is what ends up attaching said army to the walls I just ranted about, so that they don’t die. But when you throw in an enemy that doesn’t care about dying (and I applaud the concept of it), it ruins the gameplay that had been set up prior to that.
It’s all a bit too deus ex machina to me. If I were telling a story that hinged on a nuclear détente on the Korean Peninsula that was a story about 50 years of tense relations and aggressive posturing, having a third country come in and indiscriminately nuke everything tears down the foundation of the story that had been built up. This has no bearing on whether it’s possible or likely, just that it’s poor storytelling.
But even from a gameplay perspective, it doesn’t fit. Mass Effect’s gameplay is, to be kind, sort of held together with duct tape and chewing gum as it is. The somewhat schizophrenic relationship Bioware has to platforming and true real-time combat continue to confuse me, but, whatever, that’s their style. However, whatever’s there, in all of its WinBacky glory, still doesn’t really support enemies that rush at you in every direction, careless about their own survival. If you were playing Metal Gear Solid, carefully trying to sneak around a guard, and a troupe of 15 zombies started running around biting everything, it wouldn’t fit there, either. Left 4 Dead, a game that’s all about zombies rushing at you, is set up for it. Everything’s faster. The field of vision is more complete. It’s balanced for people to cover you. It makes a bigger deal about being swarmed. Etc, etc. All I get is the sense that the level designers unionized and decided they were tired of laying out box after box in square room after square room, and the negotiation they got with management was “just throw some goddamned zombies in it then”.
Finally, that these games tend to hinge on zombies essentially robs the main villain of its agency. Why are the zombies trying to take over the galaxy? Because they don’t know any better. Oh, okay. Maybe they can just ring a bell when they want me to stop asking questions?
4. Shepard, Save The Galaxy… with a HERRING! *dramatic music*
Even absurdity has its limits.
At this point, I’ve been playing Mass Effect with the exact same character since 2007. My Shepard (ME2 Spoiler in-bound) has died and been entirely reconstructed once, has had her ship destroyed and entirely reconstructed twice, has had an entire armory that would make the Death Star look like a slingshot twice over, yet I start with the worst possible weapons in the galaxy. Sure, I’m a Spectre and also the most decorated commander in the history of commaderhood, but that doesn’t net me anything in terms of, say, a minor arms shipment.
So my charge is to save the galaxy from the aformentioned giant purple hand race and I’m given exactly nothing to do it with.
Look, I get it. I know you have to start somewhere, but my character already started at level 26, with little to show for it. I always thought the entire point of a sequel was to pick up where you left off, not to replay the same powers and weapons progressions you played through in the last game. And as the climax to a 5 year long ride, this game should be the culmination of how badass my character has become. I shouldn’t be opening doors, they should be crumbling before my feet. On the rare occasions where I die, it should be epic, not routine.
Otherwise, I’m just some ordinary soldier. But the entire story has been oriented around the pure fact that I am not.
I’d rather extensive time had been spent in the interim two years since my last foray with Commander Shepard on figuring out either a.) a new set of advanced ordinance and advanced enemies that would take up the bulk of the combat gameplay (alleviating problem #2 listed here), b.) Crafted a story where Shepard is isolated from her resources so that she does have to start from nil, or c.) added another layer to the combat, such as space battles, where the player could feel they were legitimately building something from scratch because they are entering an arena where they haven’t really had to test their skills yet. The problem with the current story and progression is that I don’t just have the sense that I’ve been there and done that, I already literally have been there and done that, twice now.
At this point, my character should be such a battle-hardened warrior that she eats grenades for breakfast, and someone handing her a gun would be as ridiculous as handing Bill Gates a dollar bill. In fact, if I was writing Mass Effect, they wouldn’t even be called “guns.” They’d be called Shepards.