Bulk Influence III Demo Annotated – Part 1

Good evening, sirs and madams. It is my pleasure to inform you all that the Seventh House is back in business after an extended break, and will, with luck, be resuming regular operations in short order.

As such, I’ll be getting back into the swing (and perhaps the subsequent skull-shattering crack) of things this week with a bit of commentary on a video of the Mass Effect 3 demo which surfaced a few days ago. As a disclaimer, these comments are made strictly off of the classy steam-pressed cuffs I most certainly am not wearing, and have not been researched or meticulously planned out beforehand. As such my commentary may be subject to inaccuracy, personal bias, or hilarity both intentional and non. Obviously I won’t be able to form a proper opinion of Mass Effect 3 until I’ve played the game myself, or at least seen more of what it has to offer.

Onward, then, with the show:

0:14

Ah, the infamous gameplay experience selector. I actually don’t have an issue with half of the things most of the internet seems to be enraged about the new additions doing to the game, as in isolation they seem like perfectly reasonable design decisions. Skipping in-detail character creation isn’t some blasphemous new low for an RPG; I actually wish more of them would dispense with their fascination for minute-level facial feature tweaking and simply give me a bunch of pre-modeled options to choose from (by this I mean whole new faces and bodies rather than preset collections of settings on a single base model). Doing away with conversation choices is totally new and confounding for Bioware, but does not a poor game make.

The problem is fitting all of these options into a single product. Those conversation options that aren’t chosen in Action mode still take full development time because they’re needed in Role-Playing and Story mode; those boss fights and combat-centric segments must be designed even if they aren’t featured in Story Mode. None of the strengths of these new options will be realized because the others exist.

As far as I can tell, this screen is less about customizing the gameplay experience and more about limiting it. Nothing is being added to the game in either new mode – it’s only being pared down in different places. For this reason Action Mode won’t even come close to a directed shooter like Call of Duty 4; Story Mode won’t hold a candle to games like Heavy Rain, Grim Fandango, or LA Noire. Oh, and Role Playing Mode will probably suffer from the resources and time thrown at the new additions. Nobody wins.

Apparently rather than reconcile story and gameplay, Bioware has decided to segregate the two more than ever before. There are combat areas and story areas. Nothing important to the plot can happen in one, nothing challenging to the player can happen in the other. You can play both or you can pick either one, but you can never blend the two into a single experience. Ugh.

One game cannot be a tightly-directed cinematic shooter and an open-ended classic RPG full of options and a compelling interactive storybook/movie/conversation simulator. Many of the best parts of one these three things are mutually exclusive with the best parts of the other two. Bioware seems to be desperately reaching out to appeal to every conceivable audience with this game, and it’s just not possible for them to be everything to everyone.

0:43

It amuses me that this is not the FemShep everyone made such a big deal over with that contest. Sure, she bears some vague resemblance to the Katarina-esque official art, but the differences are pretty striking. I wonder if this is as close as the developers could get using their in-game facial construction tools, or if the engine itself is just too restrictive to replicate the original. The same system certainly didn’t do Miranda any favours compared to her facial model – that ogre jaw and immobile face with its uncanny lighting still give me nightmares.

0:56

I just noticed that each change to the facial model alters a little code at the bottom of the screen which seems like it’s being used to store all of the data for this particular Shepard’s appearance. I imagine you can use this to transfer Shepard’s appearance across any version of the game or over the internet in something as small as a Twitter message without mucking about with digital files and storage mediums. That’s really neat.

1:55

I never understood why female Shepard was given proper hair options and male Shepard had about two dozen variations on either nonexistent or extremely short hair. I get that modern military doctrine requires short hair in a limited number of styles, but then why only apply it to a male Shepard? I find military hair exceedingly dull, overused in the extreme, and just not very attractive, but I could at least accept it if the same rules applied to everyone in the Alliance military. Why do Ashley and FemShep get a free pass, but male Shepard doesn’t? Wasn’t the point of this system to build any kind of character we want and supply our own perceived personality traits?

3:10

Class selection and abilities seem more or less the same as Mass Effect 2 this time around, though I notice each class gets its own specialized grenade type. Naturally Infiltrator gets plasm-I mean-sticky grenades and… Cyro ammo. I think somebody’s fingers must feel very silly right about now.

4:13

Ah, the character background choices return. I envision one small side-quest and a changed line or two for each now that Earth and humanity comprises a significantly larger share of the plot’s focus, but little more than this. Again, these three options are the reason that Shepard can never have a compelling backstory which plays any major part in the primary plot of the game. By design everything must be staged such that all three will still apply to the story at hand with few deviations. It really gets me how little these actually mean in the overall scheme of the game.

Does Colonist Shepard ever empathize with the survivors of Freedom’s Progress, Feros, or Horizon? Does Spacer Shepard care less about the fate of Earth than Earthborn Shepard, or espouse any different ideals towards what makes man’s native environment so special? Nope. One Shepard is just like another – just with a different digital DNA strand of meaningless choices attached.

4:30

Apply pretty much exactly what I’ve said about the player background options to these psychological profiles, only these are even more irritating! I’m supposed to be inventing my own mental image of Shepard and applying it to the boring blank canvas which is reality, right? Then why are you asking me to define my Shepard’s personality as an option, knowing full well it won’t fit his or her personality in the actual plot of the game?! All Shepards are Ruthless Sole Survivor War Heroes no matter what you pick here, and at the same time none of them are in any way that the plot can use to any dramatic effect.

4:48

Numerous losses? Exactly how numerous are we talking?

“Shepard lost his friends, his family, and in a drunken stupor aboard a cheap Hanar taxi vessel, his dignity.”

Seriously though, judging by his reactions up to this point, Shepard cares more about store discounts and disingenuous assertions than the death of anyone in his squad. Like the psych. profile this is a pretty textbook example of the developers telling us that a character is one thing in a bit of early exposition but never following through by showing us it for real in the gameplay or storytelling. I had the same issue with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – the briefings alluded to a dramatic shift in character that was not present anywhere else.

I don’t see a broken or begrieved commander tormented by the loss of friends and comrades in Shepard – I see an inhuman blob of disparate conversation options without any arcs or consistent development. You can tell me the loss of Kaidan or Ashley or Wrex matters to Shepard all you want, but until I actually see evidence of it in the story proper this is no more than hot air; a smoke screen that makes him out as something more than he is.

6:35

Obvious Star Wars comparisons aside, there’s isn’t really too much to say about this opening bit of exposition other than to wonder why it’s here. I think it’s a pretty plain indicator that Bioware expects a lot of players to be buying this game who didn’t pick up either of the previous two, and to its credit this intro does a good job of bringing them up to speed without much wasted time or excessive verbiage. The question of the day is whether or not Bioware will be right. The third and final installment of a very story-driven series is an exceptionally odd place to pick up new players from new places.

7:00

Is that a child? In Mass Effect? Most peculiar. I think this is actually the first one we’ve witnessed in person in the entire series, human or alien. It’s an interesting (and deliberate) directorial shift of some sort, though I’m worried they’re just putting this kid here because we’re intended to care about him by default. Also, this little cinematic seems oddly detailed compared to those used by the game in the past. I suspect it was outsourced rather than done in-house, which might explain the differences in style.

7:17

Good lord, it’s Corporal Muscleshirt! I haven’t seen roid-raging bulk of this magnitude since I crouch-ran my way through Gears of War. Please tell me I get to mock him in-character.

7:21

Big McLargeHuge.

7:28

Bulk VanderBeef.

7:33

Dirk HardPec.

7:43

Smoke ManMuscle.

8:33

“You’ve been there… in the trenches.”

The trenches that we haven’t used since… 1914. The trenches which would be totally useless against massive intergalactic super-ships which destroy entire planets. Man, Anderson really sucks at using appropriate figures of speech.

9:28

Geared up in your Transformers cosplay, Ashley? I guess now we know why Kaidan was wearing the poorly-endowed white and pink grandma armour in Mass Effect 2.

10:52

“This isn’t about strategy or tactics.”

I laughed, then I imagined a Mass Effect tactical game and it occurred to me that nobody makes those any more. And instead I cried. Profusely.

Still, I hope “being more badass than the Reapers can handle” is not the solution to this particular problem.

11:21

The moon! No! How will Alliance soldiers choose their sub-classes now?

11:36

Imperial Guard Sergeant! Don’t throw your life away! We need your squad bonus!

12:36

Is it just me or are the Reapers much faster this time? The one on Eden Prime took hours to float down and work its evil sonic brain-melting into the populace. It didn’t need armies of soldiers or ground weapons – it was above conventional ground combat, elevated beyond hope of direct opposition as any ancient machine-god should be. That helpless fear of the unknown is long gone. These days they’re really no more than a generic omnicidal alien fleet that happens to have better odds of success. We already did this in Halo 2, guys.

12:43

SOUND EFFECTS BY MICHAEL BAAAAAY! Has anyone seen my eardrums? I lost track of them somewhere over Tunguska.

3 Responses to Bulk Influence III Demo Annotated – Part 1

  1. Yay! You’re not dead! Oh crap, this means I can’t just ignore ME3 until EA decides the unwashed Steam masses are permitted to get their license from a company they trust. :(

    I’m not quite sure what the internet’s/your issue with the “game mode” selector is – seems to me ME has always been about segregating story rooms and fighting rooms, and I haven’t seen anything to suggest that this would have to be worse off by being able to skip either half of the game. I can see “story mode” being nice for replays, on the other hand (though action mode seems bizarre – how hard is it to press up? Why are you making conversations that are so boring that people want to skip them manditory?).

    Pretty much everyone looks freaky (to me) in-engine in ME2, and it looks like in ME3 as well – I think it’s their environmental light mapping that makes everyone look like they’re not in the same place as everything around them? Can’t say I care too much about Mrs. “default female” Shepard, though amusingly, I notice the default custom (if that’s not a contradiction in terms!) is the old default. I’ll need to look harder later to see if there’s the same quality drop between default and custom as there was with male Shepard.

    The face code has been in there since 1, I think. Definitely in 2.

    Oh god the hair! You can say female had more diverse options than male, but at least the short hair didn’t look like someone wearing a construction-paper hair-hat. There’s a reason pretty much every FemShep out there used either the default split or the swept back hair – they were the ones least broken by the lack of alpha and specular detail. Very glad to see that fixed.

    As you’re a modeler, I’m surprised you didn’t bring up why (developers say) we don’t get good hair – it’s hard! “Long” hair has multiple problems rendering well – it should have physics, alpha, a high-frequency texture, and it should look “deep” – all of which are somewhere between very hard and nearly impossible to do fast, let alone well. You’ll notice the only transparent parts of the new hair are over the forehead, so they can ignore transparency sorting, and they’re all “heavy” styles – either tied back or otherwise expected to hold together (the default style is pushing it, but Hollywood has abolished messed up hair).

    I’m going to play the optimist card here and hope that if the first game was where Bioware figured out how you put shooting and RPGs into the same game, and the second was where they figured out how to make the Shooty good, this is the one where they figure out how to make the RPGey (whatever the heck that means) bit good. If there’s no more Shepard games, then they might be OK with making some more irrevocable outcomes? Man even I don’t believe myself now :(

    Oh man, they can boil down the “survival mission” to “Numerous Losses”? I don’t like the implication that the only effect of that is whether Shepard cries in act 2. Still, they defaulted a heck of a lot in games started in ME2, so hopefully this is just a compromise between “Go play the last game(s)!” and a list of 12 checkboxes. Not that it fixes the problem that the difference has just come down to a couple of lines from an NPC before.

    I mostly really like the direction of this whole sequence – but someone needs to get in there and start chopping out all those 1/2 second pauses between lines, it’s driving me insane! Oh and Shepard still acts worse than I do (see “Did I leave the oven on!?” when the reapers blow out the window). They should figure that out some time….

    The writing, on the other hand? Ohhhhhhhh boy. Well, the side quests should still be good right? On that note, I think the Vega hate is a little premature: he seems pretty much like another Jacob to me, and Jacob was fine.

    I’m really glad they told me that was Ashley, I’d swear it’s Miranda otherwise. She’s just not the same with lipgloss and a chin! And in a bright room without a lens-flare behind her, too!

    Also: Stupid Hollywood timelines. Things occasionally happen in more time than it takes to go get a coffee, guys! Show us shots from colonies if you need to make a point to the council, then when the fleet shows up in week or two the Reapers show up and fuck ‘em all. Is that so much worse?

    To be fair to Bioware, I believe they were doing those sound-effects before Bay was. Still doesn’t mean it sounds less stupid :)

    • I actually thought the opposite about the two modes – Story seems redundant when you can just dial down the difficulty, while Action does obvious things to reduce the amount of exposition and conversation management for players who just want to shoot things. But this isn’t a game about shooting things, and shooting things has never been its strength. The shooting mechanics and level design in the last game were just adequate on their own (but miles better than ME1) and were pitifully flat compared to a straight FPS/TPS. So really, I just don’t see either option as necessary because one of them exists in every game and the other takes a big nasty bite out of the best part of any Bioware game: the writing. I don’t think they’re seriously harmful to the experience fans like us want, but I feel very sorry for anyone who’s lead into picking them on the first playthrough. That, and I’m extra bitter about all the resources they threw at their typical thousands of impact-less choices only to turn around and give people an option to skip them entirely.

      Oh damn, the plight of creating good-looking hair for characters would have been a great point to make in this video. I can only guess it slipped my notice because I’m primarily an inorganic modeler. If their guns had obvious smoothing group issues like the rifle stock that was over Shepard’s shoulder in EVERY CINEMATIC of ME1, I’d have caught it for sure. Without an automated system (as demonstrated to beautiful results in Alice: Madness Returns) hair is damn hard even on the artistic side – it’s like goddamn trees with all of the opacity masking and placing of planes in all the right places. SpeedTree is an entire third-party software package dedicated to creating trees for game developers, and you see it in the credits of just about every big-budget video game :P. I think it’s time some enterprising tech firm developed SpeedHair and saved us from the dreaded rock-solid video game beehive/mullet.

      I don’t really have anything against Vega; I just find him hilarious to behold because he’s so preposterously ripped that his standard uniform is a close-fitting muscle shirt. He’s the kind of ultra-archetypal character I would have so much fun subverting the obvious tropes with if I was given control of him in a story. This may well be what Bioware did as well, though I doubt they would go as far as to make his personality not match his physique at all. He probably won’t be characterized as flatly as Hollywood would write him either way, so that’s always a plus.

      Finally, those sounds near the end aren’t even that bad taken one at a time, but between the volume, the timbre, the added effects, and the extreme overlap they blend together into a cacophony of random noise that just completely overloads the senses. That’s not what this explosion would sound like in real life, yet it deafens my speakers in a final appeal to realism. It would actually have been less ridiculous (and more merciful to the listener) if smooth jazz erupted out of nowhere after that initial blast.

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