Apologies regarding my long absence – everything from the final week of the skiing season to the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy ruining a full-featured update (it really was that bad!) has kept me occupied lately. These things have tied me up long enough that I ran out of pre-planned buffer content, and for this I can only beg some measure of forgiveness. Notification, at the very least, should have been in order. These past eight weeks have been something of a familial event singularity for me, running the gamut from birthday gatherings to (alas) funerals, and so Seventh House has gone relatively neglected whilst I donned unbefitting shirts, feigned well-adjusted normalcy, and occasionally even woke up before noon. Unpleasantries and obligations one and all.
Regardless; the seven-kin have been satiated, I am back in business, business is good, and today I talk about the worst video game experience I have had in a very long time.
In light of what seems like the entire internet having already beaten this deceased equine into a fine paste, I had hoped to spare you all of more Bioware/Mass Effect-themed content at least for the near future. However, this “battle” was an absolute failure of design so far-reaching and insidious that I honestly couldn’t help but talk about why. The number of things wrong with the sequence in question is absolutely staggering, like some unholy amalgam of everything which should not be done when designing an encounter.
Barring of course the appropriate response to poorly-planned writing (ravenous stoats tossed through office windows in the dead of night; also impotent ranting) I had never expected to find myself here purely on behalf of game mechanics. Bioware titles have never exactly been the shining jewel of innovative design; I’ve always been bothered by their uninspired level layouts and awkward navigation, but “frustrating and broken” are not the words which spring to mind when I think of them. Their gameplay tends to take a back seat to the storytelling, and thus rarely risks pulling you out of the experience by taking centre stage. This formula works well for them. Most of the time.
If partial spoilers about Mass Effect 3 still concern you (I’ll be talking about the final battle on Rannoch – the Quarian homeworld), this is the opportunity to turn away and keep those rosy theories and preconceptions veiled in delicious mystery. Lord knows, you’ll need them to fall back on when the time comes. Where we go, only the bitter and disillusioned may follow. I am speaking, of course, about this:
In the final few minutes of the Quarian/Geth conflict on Rannoch, Shepard abandons common sense to fight a Reaper on its terms, effectively solo (the Flotilla is doing the shooting, but Shepard has the gun – it’s as contrived as it sounds). Everything is wrong with this encounter. It was stupid in-character, stupid out of character, stupid thematically, confusing, unintuitive, buggy, shallow, punishing, tedious, and frustrating. It threw out everything you had learned about the gameplay up until that point, yet it still hinged on a cheap gimmick rather than player ability to win the fight. It was the worst boss fight I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing.
Allow me to set the groundwork:
That doesn’t look so bad, does it? Think again – not pictured are the many times this person almost certainly had to die just in order to intuit the basic rules of the encounter. What you’ve seen is a practiced, perfect, entertainment-quality run; now allow me to paint you a picture of what it was really like to play this for the first time.
Whereby Doth It Falter? Let Me Count The Ways
Death Sucks, Then You Die Again:
Death is the only failure state. If you err in any way (and there are many, many, many ways to err), you die.
When you die, you load. On an Xbox 360 you load for 40-60 seconds minimum – long enough to sabotage muscle memory and actually forget what you did the last time. You load the same tiny area you were already in. It takes just as long every time even though nothing has changed except the positions of Shepard and the Reaper. Why does resetting the fight take as much caching as it does to load the entire level from scratch? Why is instant death the punishment for failure, and repeated failure a planned part of the encounter, when the developers know that the player must spend a whole minute staring at a loading screen every time it happens?
What you did wrong is not made clear. What you must do right is not apparent. It’s actually possible to pursue what seems like an effective tactic (eg. rolling just before the laser hits or sprinting straight right/left away from it) and be rewarded with success for the first few stages of the boss fight only for the increased speed/proximity of the beam to render the very same method completely impossible later on. Worse still, because there’s no feedback you may try this same strategy two or three more times because you aren’t sure if it was simply a case of bad timing or human error.
Dying and reloading confuses the continuity of the fight. I still do not know if this boss had mid-fight checkpoints at all, let alone how many there were. Every single stage of the encounter begins and ends the same way: Shepard targets the Reaper while dodging its only attack from a tiny, restricted plateau of rock; the Reaper is locked in; the Quarian fleet opens fire; the Reaper takes no damage whatsoever, then steps forward and the process repeats.
I have no idea how many times this happened. Was it three? Six? Twelve? The only indicator is how close the Reaper is to you, and between all of those interminable loading screens it’s easy to forget how far off it was at the start of the fight, skewing your frame of reference. You can’t even entertain a temporary feeling of progression or accomplishment because you have no clear idea how far you’re being set back when you die.
There Is No Feedback:
The Reaper beam is inscrutable. As it approaches, the only thing you can see is a massive, noisy, perpetual explosion with no easily distinguished directionality or area of effect. Because the camera is situated almost parallel to the ground with no sense of depth, there’s no effective way to tell how close it is or what its angle is relative to Shepard. Sometimes it seems to almost go right through him without dealing damage, while others it will kill him from what looks to be easily out of range right up until the last second. It’s easy to die without ever knowing what you did wrong.
The Reaper takes no damage. Only the final killing blow inflicts any visible damage on the Reaper, while the rest just cause it to move closer to Shepard. Doesn’t this infer that the shot was completely wasted, possibly because the player did something wrong? Success here actually feels like failure and there’s nothing to tell us otherwise.
The targeting laser is even more inscrutable. For the first 20% of the lock-on process there is no visual feedback that you’re accomplishing anything by holding down the trigger. Depending on what you’re aiming at and whether or not you’re moving it locks on faster, but there’s no change in sound, colour, reticule, or shape to confirm that this is happening. There are so many hidden requirements with no feedback that to the uninformed the targeting speed just feels completely random.
The controls suck. Even for a cover-based shooter ME3’s controls are awkward, slow, and clumsy. Shepard steers like he’s riding a psychotic Segway at the best of times, and nearly every action is punctuated with a long delay and a protracted flourish which takes away fine control. Sometimes the camera swings 90 degrees after a roll for no reason. A wrong button press can send you careening to your death, and a right one is nearly as likely to, considering how roll, slide, sprint, climb, and take cover are all bound to the same button. Shamus Young pretty accurately explains what state of mind the designers were in when it came time to decide Mass Effect 3’s control scheme with this image:
When your controls are just barely adequate (yet still endlessly frustrating) for a slow-paced, context-heavy cover shooter, why design a battle entirely around graceful movement and split-second evasion which they absolutely cannot provide?
The battlefield sucks, and the camera makes it worse. You battle this Reaper on a tiny shelf of rock walled in on three sides and maybe five metres deep. Short of an open washroom stall this is literally the worst possible place to take on such an enormous foe – it’s not only small, but uneven, jagged, and devoid of cover with no clear escape route. You are forced to look at the boss at all times to make progress, but you can bump into something you cannot see and get stuck, resulting in – you guessed it – instant death. Oh, and because there are no objects in the foreground to orient yourself with, there’s no way of telling how close you are to trapping yourself against either boundary wall. Again, instant death.
Everything Is Counter-Intuitive:
All established game mechanics are thrown completely out the window. Nothing you have done or learned about the game up to this point has any bearing on the outcome of the fight. You cannot use abilities, switch guns, or issue squad commands. Your health, shields, reputation, stats, and character build are absolutely meaningless. There is no cover at all in a previously cover-based shooter, leaving you with awkward movement controls extremely unsuited to a boss which would feel more at home in a DMC-like brawler game. This is the only section in the game where you’re required to do anything even remotely similar.
The rules of the fight are not explained. What’s worse than discarding everything the player has previously learned for one encounter? Giving no explanation of the new mechanics which replace them. This is the nightmare-stuff which Battletoads is composed of. Imagine that I’m a standard Mass Effect player seeing this boss for the first time:
I’ve been deposited on a tiny rock plateau and a Reaper is closing in. There’s nowhere to run or hide. My weapons are taken away and I’m given a target designator which makes noise when I pull the trigger but has no clear progress indicator at this time, so I’m not sure where to look, how to use it, or if it’s doing anything at all. Should I wait for some cue to begin targeting? Does the laser keep its progress if I stop shooting or do I need to get it all in one go? Do I fire all the time and strafe away from the laser? Do I roll away at the last second? Do I stop shooting completely and sprint out of danger? If I get any of these wrong I’ll die and have to reload again. Which is it?
I finally work this out get the Reaper locked in once. The fleet is shelling it but doing no damage at all! Shepard says that the Reaper is only vulnerable when its main gun is firing. Does this mean I have to time the targeting laser to trigger while it’s shooting at me? If I do that, I’ll have no time to dodge out of the way! Should I risk several minute-long loading screens to find out for sure? The Reaper gets closer every time the fleet bombards it and it doesn’t die. Does that mean I’ll lose if it gets right on top of me? It’s coming closer! Is this good or bad? Am I winning or losing? What should I be doing?
Even now, as I am looking up content for this post, I am still stumbling onto new rules I wasn’t aware of. Standing still speeds up the laser’s targeting, but there’s no feedback to indicate this and it’s not enough of a change to be immediately obvious, plus this is a boss where the only goal is outrunning a giant death laser. Unless specifically told to, why would anyone stand still? Aiming right at the Reaper’s cannon speeds up the targeting as well. Again, there’s no confirmation that this is happening – you naturally aim for the red glowing area at first, but once you realize that the laser works anywhere on the Reaper it’s easy to stop because you assume it’s all the same, and a bigger target is more attractive. This boss was designed either for or by aliens who have never seen a human being assess an unfamiliar situation. I am not certain which.
There’s no time to think, yet failure is severely punished. What’s worse than getting thrust into an encounter with no knowledge of its rules? Being forced to learn them while under the constant pressure to act quickly, then punished with instant death and an interminable wait for making a wrong decision. The entire engagement demands that you dodge a laser every five seconds or die, meaning that you only have that long to experiment on the first few attempts. It’s entirely possible to spend 5 seconds scrambling to figure out what to do and 50 waiting for a loading screen two or three times in a row on your first attempt.
Success and failure are binary. You either win this fight unconditionally or you die and restart. There’s no room given to make even the smallest mistake. There’s no creativity or innovation. You will die repeatedly until you learn exactly what the designer wants you to do, and in the process you will probably waste more time swearing at loading screens than you will actually playing. A classic and terminal case of Do It Again, Stupid.
The victory condition is a simple gimmick. Throughout all of these mistakes, misconceptions, false choices, and frustrating DIAS moments, what you’re supposed to intuit about the Reaper’s beam is that it follows a very peculiar tracking algorithm which becomes more precise the longer it’s fired for. For all of the reasons mentioned above it’s very difficult to tell that the beam is correcting its aim at all, but once you work this out a tactic presents itself which renders the whole encounter absolutely trivial. If, abandoning all common sense and reason, you charge straight at the oncoming beam at first and then reverse direction, it will swing away on that first course and never even threaten to hit Shepard. The last tactic anyone is likely to try… is the key to effortlessly winning the fight.
Context & Plot:
Shepard’s own actions are just as imbecilic in context as they are out of it. Shepard takes on a Reaper singlehandedly, without notice, on foot, and actually tells his squad to “stay down” rather than help him in any capacity. Why pull over when you can target from the speeding transport? Why hold the line when you could be backing away from the planet-slicing murder-lasers? Why choose to fight on a barren 20-foot ledge protruding from a cliff? Why does the Reaper, a machine of supposedly unfathomable intelligence, keep exposing its only weak spot while shuffling incrementally forward rather than merely stepping on Shepard like an offending gnat? We are talking about one guy challenging THIS to a staring competition:
It carves through skyscrapers like tissue paper, shrugs off every gun in the Quarian Flotilla with nary a scratch, blasts whole planets clear of life… but it cannot kill a single man-sized target in equal combat.
I get it, I really do. This was supposed to be one of those classic scenes where in a moment of need the main character does something so risky and audacious that everyone onscreen responds with “You’re insane!” or “You’ll never make it!”, only to be astounded when the hero dodges death and pulls through by the very skin of their teeth, usually with a cheesy comment about how they weren’t even all that sure about the idea themselves. We can admire the protagonist’s sheer ballsyness and revel in it because in a movie we don’t have to actually see this suicidal idea fail or deal with the consequences. Characters in film don’t enter into a “This may be crazy, but it just… might… work!” moment only to die in some humiliating fashion and doom the universe as a result – if they fail at all it’s usually done for comedic effect and carries no lasting weight.
But this is a video game, not a scripted drama. The only thing that sets a daring gambit apart from a moronic lapse in judgement is its success. Here the player is a participant rather than a viewer, and failure is a very real possibility. The Rannoch fight is like watching Shepard tear off his helmet without warning during a space section because it’s “weighing him down”, then after the cutscene we’re forced to navigate this maze on a time limit to simulate him holding his breath (and defying decompression with the power of sheer manliness) – it’s an objectively stupid idea in a situation where better options are available, and the player is the one forced to deal with the consequences. The section of gameplay I just described might even be fun if it were easier, but when we’re dying over and over again because Shepard keeps running out of air, it feels like we’re being punished for his poor judgement rather than poking fun at it. In a section designed to demonstrate how a player character will leap into a seemingly suicidal situation without provocation, the very last thing you want is for them to hit a difficulty wall and confirm how idiotic a plan it actually was.
The targeting laser is a hackneyed plot device. I seriously believe it was only written in to allow Shepard to defeat a Reaper by himself with only a gun-shaped object and his raw machismo. If it were anything else, a single lock-in on this massive, nearly stationary target would have sufficed, and the player would not have needed to literally abandon common sense (and a squad of loyal and trusted allies) to play consecutive rounds of chicken with a world-melting death laser. The intentions of the writers are clear – this is not a clever strategy to unexpectedly direct artillery fire, but a very thinly disguised ubergun thrust into Shepard’s hands at the last moment to give him and him alone all of the agency in determining the outcome of the conflict. He does this not with wit, insight, or charisma, but with big explosions and a lot of angry yelling.
Even Independence Day made it clear that President Thomas Whitemore didn’t simply shoot down the big bad all by himself. Even Battle for Los Angeles had the good sense to depict a whole team of soldiers aiming the targeting laser at an inert enemy command ship from heavy cover, and only needing to do it once. This is not a scene out of a smart, moving, character-driven space opera, but a juvenile power fantasy where the hero saves everyone by running at the bad guy and shooting him with a really big gun until he dies. What a horrible waste. I miss Tuchanka already.