games

Mass Effect 2: a Few Steps Forward, and a Few Steps Back

me2header Mass Effect 2: a Few Steps Forward, and a Few Steps Back

Mass Effect 2 has been out for a few weeks now, and everyone seems to be raving about its improvements over the original. The framerate is smoother, the graphics have received an overall upgrade, loading times have been reduced, dialogues can be interrupted with paragon/renegade actions, the combat is better, etc. Most of these claims are undeniably true, although some are a bit subjective.

miranda 02 p Mass Effect 2: a Few Steps Forward, and a Few Steps Back

At least one of the female characters got a hair-upgrade.

For example, I enjoyed the first game’s combat quite a bit. Its weapons contained unlimited ammo but were always in danger of overheating, giving the action a certain sense of rhythm. The characters’ powers/abilities such as Lift and Stasis also provided tactical options and visual “oomph” that’s a bit lacking in the sequel. Of course they’ve been offset by other additions to the gameplay, so it’s not a simple downgrade.

The game actually feels closer to Gears of War now — not as many variables to juggle, manual cover, more visceral feedback, etc. Both systems are good, though, just different, so arguing about them is a bit of a moot point.

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The creepy husks are back! I always thought that they were underused in the original, both gameplay and story-wise.

There are other, smaller changes that didn’t sit well with me (such as controlling the dinky spaceship model on the otherwise impressive galaxy map), but what I see as ME2′s major failings — especially when compared to its predecessor — are its story and narrative, and the overall homogenization of its gameplay.

The actual story of ME2 is composed of three main points: bad aliens show up, a MacGuffin is retrieved to combat the aliens, the aliens get blown up. That’s it. There’s very few revelations, very little progression, and the aliens’ motives — and the end battle — are pretty ludicrous. There’s just not enough meat on the bones here, especially for a game that’s 20+ hours long.

The main reason for this is that ME2 is structured around a “suicide mission” akin to that of The Dirty Dozen. This premise works well for the movie as a concrete plan is hatched and the recruits have a clear motive for signing up: they’re all convicts fighting for their freedom. ME2 follows a similar structure, but only one of the characters — a scientist who can research the aliens’ technology — has a logical connection to the story. The other 10 (or 11, depending on how you look at it) are mostly badasses who sort of tag along.

Maybe it’s because they somehow know that the player will spend the majority of the game running around solving their personal problems (usually with guns) while awaiting the go-ahead to save the galaxy?

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Of course there's still sex in the game, but now with even more clothes on.

Either way, the mission itself is vague, revolving around a harebrained scheme to somehow strike at the enemy’s homeworld. There’s quite a few logical plot-holes here, and the whole thing comes across a little forced.

ME2 also lacks the interesting NPCs of the original. The Council and Captain Anderson don’t seem too concerned that their privileged commando is not dead and has actually joined a terrorist group, and there’s no equivalent to Saren and his villainous cronies. Instead, the galaxy turns out to be a very small place where numerous characters from ME1 make perfunctory appearances. It’s neat at first, but eventually wears thin as the player wades through a perpetual stream of serendipitous run-ins.

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Commander Shepard's return to the Citadel proves very anti-climactic.

The gameplay changes fare better for the most part.

A large portion of ME1 has been been cut down and streamlined, and there are plenty of general improvements (although the UI is still pretty bad). The new approach to missions and progression is so consistently predictable, though, that it gives off a vibe of exploring a game rather than a world.

Each major location has a safe, single-map hub from which the combat missions are accessed. The player is never in any danger while exploring these areas, and the missions themselves are generally shorter and even more linear than in the original. For the most part they also revolve around recruiting new characters and gaining their loyalty, but lack the gameplay and aesthetic variety found in the story-centric quests.

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Mass Effect 2 focuses more on the legally dubious areas of the galaxy. They look pretty enough, but generally lack the aesthetic variety of the original.

The completely optional side-quests have replaced the Mako-exploration, and are even shorter. They usually involve some rudimentary puzzle-solving and provide extra variety, but are very hit and miss. The bigger problem is that they’re all the same length and don’t offer anything special. The Mako-exploration from the first game was flawed, but at least it created a great sense of scope and exploration that’s missing in the sequel.

ME2′s side-quests contain no hidden characters, no special weapons, and no significant surprises of any kind. Just like with the game’s other missions, you soon learn exactly what to expect instead of being awed by the wonders of alien worlds.

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Although Shepard now has many more customization options, the other characters' outfits no longer change based on their equipment.

Of course there are other things to harp on, but the overall game is quite good. It’s just a shame that during BioWare’s sprint to fix the complaints of the original game, the company forgot some of the things that made it notable in the first place.

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Framerates Matter

fpsheader Framerates Matter

A while ago I was reading up on Starblade, one of the first commercial polygon-based games. What really struck me about the game was just how smooth it was compared to its spiritual successor, Starfox (granted the above links are YouTube videos that don’t accurately reflect framerates, but the differences are still quite noticeable).

It’s an extreme case, but one that nicely demonstrates the importance of rendering speeds.

smb Framerates Matter

Despite having animations that consisted of only 2-3 frames, many classic games ran at 60fps. This granularity helped to smooth out movement, including Mario's beloved jump.

Of course no one ever complains about games being too smooth, but the debate of 30fps vs. 60fps continues to pop up. What’s more, the 60fps side keeps losing ground, often to the argument that humans can’t really detect more than 30 frames in a single second.

And that is completely untrue.

It’s an inherently flawed statement as humans are not digital machines. The human brain is always on, always receiving input. Light hits our eyes as a wave, and the information it carries is almost instantly transmitted to the Visual Cortex. The brain analyzes this data, focusing on changes brought on by motion and fluctuations in intensity. Displacement is interpolated via motion blur and identical input is discarded to avoid extraneous processing.

The “decoded” image is further analyzed by various parts of the brain, but the overall process — as complex as it is — is quite fast and versatile. Much faster than 30fps. Faster than 60fps, in fact.

So where does the myth of 30fps come from? Well, film and TV for the most part, but the framerates of those media are not analogous to those of videogames. Others have written extensively about the topic, so I won’t go too deep into it. What I’d like to talk about, though, is why high framerates are important to games.

unrealtournament3 Framerates Matter

The Unreal Tournament series has been known for letting its players set very high FPS benchmarks.

As a preface, different titles obviously have different requirements, and some suffer more from a low FPS than others. Also, the reasons for Insomniac’s decision to move away from their 60fps standard were completely understandable, if a little painful to accept.

With that said, here’s why I think high framerates are important:

1). Granularity

The framerate of a game is usually directly tied to the processing of its logic. As a result, action games that run at 30fps cannot have the same granularity of movement as those that run at 60fps. This might not matter much for turn-based strategy titles, but it makes an awful lot of shmups technically impossible to do at lower framerates.

2). Input Lag

Games are inherently an interactive medium, and as such the response times for input need to be virtually instant. On the hardware side this is rarely an issue, but a stuttering framerate can reduce the response times and greatly detract from the overall experience (especially in “twitch” titles).

3). Consistency

30fps isn’t bad, but what most people fail to realize is that it’s often the “ceiling” measurement, i.e., the best case scenario. Unlike TV and film, games are dynamic, and the processing required to render any given scene can fluctuate quite significantly. As a result, 30fps games actually tend to run at a rate of 20-30fps. These sort of inconsistencies can be very difficult to avoid, but they’re much less noticeable with higher benchmarks.

motionblur Framerates Matter

Motion blur at its finest.

4). Motion Blur

Motion blur is the biggest reason TV and film get away with smaller framerates. The phenomenon of motion blur relies on the human brain’s ability to stitch together a series of blurred images into a single, smooth animation. Until fairly recently, games had absolutely no motion blurring, and even these days it doesn’t have quite the same effect. The reason for this is that post-process blurring is not always accurate, and in many cases purposely exaggerated to create a distinctive visual effect.

To properly accommodate for all these factors, a high framerate is a must. And when it’s there, it creates a certain synchronization between the player and the game; a smooth flow that more developers should strive to achieve.

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