Playing Catch Up, Mass Effect

If you missed it yesterday, you may want to read the introduction to this series to give this post some context.

After firing up my 360 and installing Mass Effect to the HDD so I didn’t have to listen to the DVD drive, the first thing that struck me about the game was just how good it looked.  That was particularly apparent once I was strolling around the Presidium for the first time.

The last Unreal Engine 3 (UE3) game I’d played on my 360 prior to Mass Effect was Epic’s own Gears of War 2 and I really did not like that title’s ‘sculpted plastic’ look.  (And don’t even get me started on how much I disliked the worm sequence.)

UE3 has never performed as well on the PS3 as it has on either PC or 360 and I was pretty amazed with the look that BioWare had achieved in Mass Effect, a game that was three years old by the time I played it.

After playing around with the few graphics settings available it became apparent that aside from the quality of BioWare’s art and models, for me it was the optional ‘film grain-effect’ shader that had the most significant impact.

Being a galaxy-spanning space opera you spend a lot of time in artificial environments during Mass Effect.  Those stark, sterile environments can look great on film, I’m thinking particularly of some ship and station interiors in 2001 and Star Wars (the real trilogy, not the subsequent three CGI toy adverts).

In games though, because the rendering budget is limited in terms of time and performance, I find those artificial environments can look too artificial, too flat.  Some games successfully exploit that, for example Portal with its deliberately clean lab environment, but I find all too often that in other games the polygons look jarringly flat.

With the subtle digital noise that Mass Effect’s film grain shader adds to our view of the game’s universe, harsh edges are softened and otherwise flat areas of colour are broken up.  It’s a seemingly simple addition that makes a world of difference and for what it’s worth I think it looks better here than the equivalent effect does in Mass Effect 2 on the PS3.

(I haven’t played ME2 on the 360, so cannot make that cross-console comparison.  Running the ME2 demo on my PC, an i7-920 with Crossfired HD5850s, the film grain effect, and the graphics in general, look fantastic but I’d be extremely disappointed if that was not the case and it’s distinctly unfair to compare console graphics to those of a modest gaming rig.)

“I’m wearing an environment suit and I’m still freezing.”

Another area where I found the graphics to be particularly striking was some of the vistas you encounter while trundling around the uncharted worlds in the Mako, Mass Effect’s six-wheeled ‘tank’.  With the artistic freedom to combine varied terrains with different atmospheric effects and colours and then to be able to render that against classic space opera backgrounds of planetary rings, moons, suns and stars results in some stunning views.

It is those uncharted world explorations that have united most of the people I have spoken to about Mass Effect.  They almost universally dislike them.  A dislike that borders upon hatred in a couple of cases, so I went into the game expecting them to be terrible.

As it turns out, I really enjoyed those sections.  Perhaps it was because my expectations had been lowered so much, but I suspect that at least as big a factor is that I can happily amuse myself exploring.  I guess Fallout 3 has demonstrated that much.

I never got bored of watching the Mako landing; a sequence that looks like it was filmed in shaky-cam by one of the crews from the recent Battlestar Galactica remake.  I even had quite a lot of fun driving the much-maligned Mako around.

Sure its handling is somewhat loose and quirky but that became part of the fun.  The Mako didn’t enjoy my driving much though as it almost invariably returned to the Normandy with the front wheel on the driver’s side (right hand side for those of you in countries where you drive on the wrong side differently-sided roads to us in the UK) having a distinctly unhealthy red glow on the HUD.

Driving it up and down the undulating terrain became something of an exercise in applied vector arithmetic as I got used to driving it and doing on-the-fly calculations of momentum, acceleration and gravity when faced with a challenging slope.

Of course it was fun just to barrel around the landscapes too.  My most amusing ‘mishap’ was an inadvertent one and a half barrel rolls off the top of a ridge that was much sharper than expected.  My most damaging one that wrecked three of the Mako’s wheels in one ill-judged landing.

One of the things that stopped the exploration becoming boring was the relatively small size of the explorable areas.  I quickly worked out that the areas measured East-West and North-South were only three times the distance covered by the diameter of the Mako’s radar.  That meant a search pattern in the shape of an ‘S’, ‘5’ or simple spiral, depending on your start point on the map would see the entire area quickly searched.

Some friends had complained about having to visit all the uncharted worlds to find the resources and collectibles for the side-quests.  It’s not like there was a shortage of them though.  I found more than enough of each and I doubt I found every last one so you wouldn’t have needed to be that thorough to complete them all.

Space Monkeys!

There were some great things to be found exploring too.  I’ll never forget my surprise when after leaving tyre-tracks across a dozen barren worlds I shot over a ridge on the next and narrowly missed landing on a herd of six-limbed space-horse-deer-things.  Though that wasn’t as amusing as the planet of the kleptomaniac space monkeys where a particular trinket enabled you to access a Prothean artefact that recorded their observations of prehistoric Earth.  (That last was obviously planned to be something more than it was in the final game.)

The exploration sections certainly weren’t flawless though.  Why don’t the Mako’s thrusters include a self-leveling, attitude control system?  Surely it needs that for landing and it would have made them much more useful when on (or at least not far above) the surface.

It’s those sections where I encountered the most glitches too.  Surveying a mineral deposit only to have the survey beacon appear where I was standing, thereby nailing me to the spot and forcing a reload.  Or a Thresher Maw popping up under the Mako flipping it through 360 degrees, which would have been fine had the camera not only flipped through 180!

And speaking of Thresher Maws, what’s with them?  I get that Mass Effect is a space opera and giant space worms are a familiar trope of the genre but the game broadly keeps the more fantastic elements to a minimum or ties them together within an internal logic.  What the Hell do they feed on, there can’t be that many passing tramp freighters?  Why, when the Normandy can spot the fifth metatarsal of a mummified Salarian from orbit, can’t it see a GIANT SPACE WORM?!

“Young males have an unhealthy obsession with my species.”

What better way to clear the air after a rant about space worms then the admission of a thought that is at once surprising, disturbing and embarrassing.  At one point while stood in the Normandy’s science lab talking to Liara I caught myself thinking “she’s actually quite beautiful”.

Now before the giggling becomes uncontrollable let me point out that I see a distinct difference between aesthetic beauty and actual attraction.  I have never knowingly attributed beauty to an in-game model of a woman before and I began to wonder why.

I did not find any of the human women in the game beautiful, even those that BioWare had presumably also spent a good deal of time ‘designing’ such as the default female Commander Shepard.

It was not because I particularly liked or empathised with Liara’s character.  The only character I liked was Tali, regardless of the fact that under her environment suit she may have a face like a cuttlefish.  I think I liked Tali as a character because I identify with her child-like enthusiasm and curiosity for technology.  That and her environment suit-modulated voice always sounded cheerful to me.

Comparing Liara to the other human women in the game I came to the conclusion I am able to find her character model beautiful because with her BioWare have neatly side-stepped the ‘uncanny valley’ – that point where ever more realistic representations of people suddenly become more ‘alien’ because they are so close to human.

With the design of Liara’s appearance I think she is close enough to being a human that ‘normal’ standards of human aesthetic beauty can be applied.  At the same time she is sufficiently alien (blue with tentacles for hair) that she is also recognisably non-human and avoids a subconscious comparison to real humans.

AXBXY  XYBXY  BYYBX  ABYYB  AXYYX

Other than the giant space worms, the one thing that I thoroughly disliked about Mass Effect was all the Quick Time Events that accompanied the hacking of devices or opening of secure containers.

While not challenging, those random sequences of three to eight button presses just felt so at odds with the rest of the carefully crafted experience of the game that they stand out for all the wrong reasons.

I also don’t think they are at all necessary.  Surely your character’s ability to open the crate/safe/whatever should be down to the skills your party possesses and if the skills are lacking then you use some omni-gel.  The QTEs are not only annoying, they seem to serve no purpose and add nothing to the game.

Mass Effect is a brilliant game though.  Good enough that even with my limited gaming time after finishing one 70 hour play-through I immediately played all the way through again.  At its core it is a role-playing game, evidenced by the fact that forming your group from the standard RPG classes of warrior, mage and thief (soldier, biotic and tech in Mass Effect’s universe) is the most capable and balanced way to play it.

However BioWare have also managed to fairly seamlessly blend in the action of a third-person shooter and add an element of tactical play by allowing you to control the use of your companion’s skills and abilities.

Combine those game-play elements with BioWare’s accomplished storytelling, voice acting that does not make you cringe every time there’s a cutscene and decisions that not only impact this game but have significant effects upon the two sequels and you have a game I cannot recommend high enough.

Before I go I’d like to share a few thoughts based on the dozen or so hours I have spent with Mass Effect 2 on the PS3 that have some relevance to some of the things I have mentioned above.

First off, I’m very happy that the Quick Time Events have been replaced by simple pattern matching mini-games.  While I’m still not sure they’re necessary at least they’re better and more contextual than the first game’s solution.

Secondly (and you might have guessed this might be an issue for me) I don’t like all the planet scanning, I’d rather be driving around on the surface.  They’ve felt the need to add in the requirement to purchase fuel and probes to make the scanning more involving.  As far as I can tell it only makes for more back-tracking and prolongs the planet-scanning agony.

Lastly, having played the first game on the 360 and started playing the second on the PS3 I, obviously, haven’t been able to import my save game.  While the interactive comic helps to a degree it doesn’t come close to carrying over the supposed 700 pieces of information that are imported from the save game file if you play the sequel on the same platform.

Though I’m only a few hours in there have already been a number of jarring differences, such as the fate of Captain Kirrahe, between the universe I left behind on the 360 and the one I find myself in on the PS3.

It may be that the differences are so stark because I have played the sequel straight after playing through the original twice.  I miss the consistency in the universe though so while I will complete ME2 on the PS3, hopefully the 360 will see a ‘Classics’ edition of ME2 that includes the DLC and I’ll continue my Mass Effect adventures with that.

The obvious extension of that intent is that when the three-quel appears at the end of this year on both consoles simultaneously it’ll likely be the 360 version I buy.  Maybe Mass Effect’s console-exclusivity will continue to pay off for Microsoft after all.

Alternatively, I may pick up the games on PC and start my Mass Effect adventure from scratch with far superior graphics (and a lower software price point).  Whatever platform(s) I end up playing Mass Effect 3 on, BioWare have already done more than enough to guarantee a sale.  I just hope I find time to play it before it gets too old…

Thanks for staying with me during my meandering Mass Effect musings.  As Tali would say, “See you later”.

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37 Comments

  1. Great read. I only have a PS3 but will definately be picking up ME2. Shame about the importing of save game for us PS3 only users. Oh well

  2. Great read, look forward to the next.
    Am i the only person who turns off the film grain effect? If i could i’d turn it off watching blu rays as well, it doesn’t look ‘HD’ with it on, for me anyway :)

    • I turned it off on my PC after a while.

    • I turned it off in the first ME because I personally thought it was a tad over the top; they went a bit too far on it. I thought they did a better job with it on the second game, so I kept it on during that.

  3. Great read, just started playing ME2 on PS3, loving it so far.

  4. Great article Greg. I have only ME2 on PS3 to go by so i don’t really miss not playing ME1as ME2 is proving to be one of the most engrossing games i’ve ever played. In fact i’m off to play some more right after this.
    I’m possibly the odd one out but i turned off the film effect quite early on as i felt it took from the visuals.
    The scanning can seem a bit of a chore but i’ll usually try and scan the local unexplored planets when i’m in the area on a mission so as to reduce the need for too much back tracking later on.Plus i figure that when i’ve played the final story mission, even though i can continue playing, i would prefer to gather as many resources and upgrades as possible before arriving there.
    32 hours in, i still have a few team members to collect, ntm gaining the loyalty of each of them, numerous assignments and missions still to do and loving every minute of it.
    Right then, i’m off to tackle one of the Overlord missions..

    • I find the planet scanning/mining quite soothing.

  5. Just treded all my CODs in and got Mass Effect 2 and ACB for my PS3 – really looking forwrd to it :-)

  6. So that’s two of you so far who turn off the film grain effect. I wonder if it’s a generational thing. I’m 36 and having grown up with film grain I appreciate it as an effect when it’s used in an appropriately artistic manner in modern games and films.

    Let’s have a little poll in the comments.

    If you’ve played ME or ME2 and made a conscious decision to have the film grain effect on or off and don’t mind giving us some idea of your age (round to the nearest 5 if you don’t want to reveal your actual age) reply to this comment and we’ll see if a pattern develops.

    Tell us which game (ME/ME2) which platform (360/PS3/PC) film grain on or off and your age.

    • I turned it off in ME1, but only for performance reasons. Same for L4D and L4D2…
      However, were I able to use it, I’d have it on.

      In films, and with BD transfers of old films, I appreciate a bit of grain, but sometimes it can get a bit much. Ghostbusters still looks good on BD, but boy is there a lot of grain! A good mix between lowered grain and great levels of detail is a must. When handled right, a film from the 70s and 80s can look simply fantastic.

      I’m plenty under the age of 25.

    • ME2/PS3/age 21

      I’m liking the film grain personally. Don’t know why, I just like the effect it has. I think as the article says it makes the image less harsh.

      • I also turn on Theatre Mode on my Bravia when I play ME2. Haven’t really tried it with other games though.

    • I turned it off after a while in ME1 (because it was the standard setting and first I thought it was normal…) and got rid of it from the get go in ME2. I’m 22 and was playing the PC version.

    • ME1 on 360 – OFF
      ME2 on PC – OFF
      18 in five days

    • I have it on as i just CBA to turn it off and it doe miake it seem more cinematic. 17 but i shall be 18 in 3 weeks.:D

    • I’m not sure if it’s a generational thing – i’m around the same age as you Watchful – i just prefer the ‘cleaner’ look of the graphics with it turned off.

    • ME2, PC, 18, grain on. Like blurring your eyes to make a game look more realistic, only with no lack in detail.

    • ME2 – PS3 – 21

      Turned the film grain effect off straight away when I seen it. Just thought the graphics of the game looked much better without it on.

    • ME1-360 then Pc both off,ME2-360,then Pc,then Ps3 all off.
      I’m way to fast approaching 40 for my liking.I do appreciate lense filters and grain in some movies but not all.With gaming i prefer sharpness,i’m still not happy with even a high end Pcs rendering of anti-aliasing for example.
      Very enjoyable article btw but you didn’t mention the use of ‘that’ room for each and every side quest or planet exploration,my main complaint with all of Me1s side quests and anything that isn’t a story event (including team mates quests and your level 20 class quest,they all end in that same damn room:)).
      Very much agree with you about Liara,also for me is what made the ps3 version not having access to the first game a little easier to accept,Liaras story just felt right being in the release game as opposed to being stuck on(held back?)with the other platforms.

  7. I completed ME2 the other day on PS3 and am on my second run now, this time as a guy. Both Paragons – playing evil sucks in RPGs. I wish ME would come out on PS3 but I know it won’t – will get it on PC though when I’m done with 2. My brother saw me playing on my PS3 and the same day got the first one for £7 at GAME on 360.

    Absolutely stunning game. Loving every second.

    • Although I would like that damn patch to come out already! Haven’t had much trouble myself but I don’t like having to quit every 2 hours and backing my saves up.

      Plus they need to fix the audio sync and new game + weapon retaining. Mainly the audio sync though – it does put a dampener on an otherwise engrossing story.

      • I’d completely forgotten about the corrupt game save problem some people had been having.

        I’ve not had any problems (yet!), and that’s playing at least 4-6 hour long sessions at a time.

        Need to remember and backup my saves before I start playing tonight.

        I also think I remember something about some people having a problem carrying over a save to another playthrough, but I might just be imagining that.

      • On re-reading your comment I might be thinking about the “new game + weapon retaining”.

  8. I didn’t even notice the film grain effect, may just turn it on and off now to have a gander.

    • Nice to see that I’m not the only one!

  9. I only played them at the start of 2011, too! I found Mass Effect 2 to be grand – I played it on my PC and it looked much better than what I had seen of the 360 version.
    I had the same problem with my save, but downloaded one from a website and it’s quite similar. They’re still both great games and I can’t wait to get the third one… on PC.

  10. I just finished ME2 on the PC earlier today. I got ME1 in preparation for ME2 on the PS3 but I just couldn’t wait for the release and downloaded it from Steam. Also, I liked the idea of importing my career and starting off from where I left.
    Both are great games and while I enjoyed ME1 a little more than the sequel I’m looking forward to ME3 to find out how the story unravels.

    Things I didn’t like about ME2 in comparison to ME1:

    You had to pick up ammo, instead of only having to worry about not overheating your weapon.

    Planet Scanning… While I did it on every chance I got, it just felt like a chore after a while. I finished the game with almost every upgrade and still had 200k+ worth of every material except Element Zero (50k). Guess I could have saved me the trouble on some occasions…

    Story focus: I just think ME2 focused too much on the stories behind your team. It felt like all I did was recruit some people, got them loyal and then went on a single mission to save the universe. There are three missions aside from the Suicide Mission that actually had something to do with the main plot that I can remember.
    (**SPOILER ALERT**)
    (**SPOILER ALERT**)
    There was the first encounter with the Collectors where you came too late to the party.
    Then the second encounter, where you got to fight back.
    And then you had to get the IFF.
    (**SPOILER END**)
    In ME1 it just felt like you were constantly doing something that had an effect on saving the galaxy.

    Hacking: While it was bothersome to always do the same procedure over and over again in ME1, I still had the option to skip it by sacrificing some Omni-Gel. This option simply didn’t exist in ME2.

    Equipment choices: In ME2 you didn’t really have that much of a choice when it came down to choosing your weapons or armor compared to ME1.

    This is quite a list of things that I thought were a step back from ME1 but I still enjoyed every step of the journey that was ME2 very much.

    • To add to both my list and yours of things that are worse in the sequel, I didn’t like how the number of abilities for each character is reduced. It felt like you could get a lot more creative in the combat first time around.

      Like you say ME2 is still great, just not as great (so far) as I had hoped/wanted it to be.

      • Good point! I forgot about the limited list of abilities per character.

    • I do agree with all your points but replaying Me2 is an absolute pleasure whereas Me1 can grate,the beforementioned planets aren’t alot of fun 2 plus times round,the equipment choices are great except it amounts to you having ugly armor and a shotgun,aesthetics take priority because the game becomes very easy even on insane.
      But these things i found only due to me playing them far too much so to complain is moot.

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