Mass Effect flaws, Part 2 – 3rd Person Camera

On February 9, 2008, in Design, Opinion Pieces, by Steffen Itterheim

The first thing to note in Mass Effect is that the 3rd person exploration camera does not rotate automatically with the actor, meaning the actor can even look and walk towards you. Most 3rd person games do allow this during some kind of manual-camera-control mode but otherwise rely on automatic positioning and orientation of the camera. Those auto-follow 3rd person cameras have often been a nuisance in the pioneer 3rd person games because it is amazingly difficult to get this right. But that is no excuse for forcing that burden on the Players who are used to be supported by automatic cameras from most modern 3rd person games.

I am convinced that an auto-follow camera is much better than having to control the camera manually all the time, trying to follow with your character’s movement. This is an additional constant burden that the game forces me to do even though it could well over 90% deliver a satisfactory result without requiring me to adjust the camera angle manually. And as long as i’m still free to control the camera manually whenever i want to, i don’t see any reason why Mass Effect should not control the camera for me by default the rest of the time?

Even worse is that the orientation of the camera determines which interactive objects are highlighted in the game world, not the direction the actor is facing. This took me some time to figure out and i continue to intuitively align my actor with the interactive objects rather than turning the camera. I first found out about this not before about 5-6 hours into the game when i repeatedly was unable to activate elevators once i had stepped into the elevator. I still first turn my actor left or right towards the button before i remember that i’m supposed to turn the camera instead.

This is even more a problem with vehicle controls where the relative direction of the vehicle towards the camera determines wether pushing up on the analog stick means going forward or backward. This has caused me accidentally drive off ledges to my death about 3 or 4 times already after about 10 hours playing the game and would not have happened if the camera’s orientation would have followed my vehicle’s orientation. Why the controls of the vehicle actually have to reverse is a completely different matter altogether, rest assured that this will come up again.

Looking at the camera from a technical perspective, Bioware didn’t do their homework either. The 3rd person camera frequently jerks and jumps when moving through tight corridors or doors and especially when walking on stairs or slopes. This jerky camera motion is so bad it even induced mild feelings of sickness in me at certain locations of the game. Something that only happened to me in two of the most early first person shooters: Wolfenstein 3D and Marathon.

The only other Xbox360 game i know that has similar technical problems with the camera is the mediocre (at best) Sonic The Hedgehog (full-price version, not the Live Arcade games). Mass Effects jerky camera motion really needs fixing, it’s that bad, even terribly so compared to most modern games!

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Mass Effect flaws, Part 1 – Manual-Override

On February 8, 2008, in Design, Opinion Pieces, by Steffen Itterheim

Mass Effect’s manual-override minigame – push the highlighted button within a limited amount of time – is insulting. It offers no real challenge and basically the only way to fail is not being concentrated at that moment.

Admittedly it seems like a minor flaw that i subjectively happen to take offense at and i can’t blame you if you’re quick to disregard my opinion. I admit that not feeling challenged by button-in-time-smashing is a right exclusive to the illustrious circle of hardcore gamers – which i believe i’m a member of – but which aren’t necessarily the main target audience for Mass Effect seeing the success amongst casual gamers (hence the default “Casual” difficulty). But like many others I do wonder why a “Simon” (“Senso” in Germany) game exists in Mass Effect and why solving it has the power to open locked containers. Care to elaborate?

I think this should concern all players, casuals included: the manual-override minigame has no foundation or explanation in the game’s world at all. I find this especially neglectful and harmful to enjoyment in a game that took so much care implementing a thriving universe and immensely captivating storytelling.

Additionally, the manual-override and other similar minigames in Mass Effect painfully violate immersion by presenting you on-screen the colored and labeled buttons of the real-world device that is the Xbox360 controller in your hands. Thus it not only fails to challenge, it is also breaking the feel of immersion each time it appears. Remember: Mass Effect is an immersive role-playing game – it says so on the backcover. But maybe that’s just me, and everyone else is seeing these green, red, blue and yellow A, B, X and Y buttons as some sort of container decryption interface?

Bioshock has showed that one can implement a simple yet challenging minigame for “unlocking containers” and they also tied it well to their skill system. Their “Pipe Dreams” minigame is far from being innovative, and has actually been at it’s core a commercial puzzle game about a decade ago. But it blends in perfectly with the game’s world and mechanics. You could even imagine how the protagonist is hacking the systems by reflowing their energy wiring – however you see it, it just makes more sense when put into perspective with the game’s world than Mass Effect’s detached manual-override system. Sure, Bioshock’s minigame may not seem like a big step forward and has also received criticism, mainly for being too repetitive and being simplistic. Oh, wait, what exactly is manual-override then?

Bioshock raised the bar just enough for any future game design to shy away from such uninspired, non-integrated minigames that is Mass Effect’s minigames. I even feel uncomfortable classifying these as “minigames”, they are actually nothing more than uninspiring and repetetive gameplay elements that have no right to be in a triple A roleplaying game.

Simply put: Mass Effect’s minigames are a shame, and insulting because we know (if only by playing Mass Effect) Bioware can do better than that and that other games offer much better “put-my-hacking-skills-to-use” minigames.

UPDATE: see also some of the user’s comments over at the Bioware forums.

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You encountered a greater ban elemental

On December 19, 2007, in Business & Industry, by Steffen Itterheim

Microsoft is banning users from their Xbox Live online service for having their consoles modded.
In most cases this involves opening the case and flashing the DVD drive with a firmware that allows to play backup copies of retail games.
Now word has it that Microsoft has also banned unmodified consoles and some people were able to get them unbanned.

There’s something about this whole Microsoft vs Modders thing that i find fascinating, and it’s not David vs Goliath. I see a lot of the elements of a “4th Generation War” as defined on Wikipedia at play:

  • High Technology (the Xbox360 hardware and the Xbox Live online service)
  • Terrorism (hmmmm, Modders calling Microsoft Tech Support?)
  • A non-national or transnational base (Microsoft)
  • A direct attack on the enemy’s culture (Microsoft banning the Modders, plus apparently collateral damage)
  • Highly sophisticated psychological warfare, especially through manipulation of the media (withholding information, maybe active misinformation, countless banning theories)

Now you might not actually see the Microsoft vs Modders thing as a war but there’s something intriguing to be noticed: a lot of people try to come up with theories about how Microsoft detects modded consoles. There’s a lot of uncertainty, even more speculation and no one knows for sure. But one thing is for certain: Microsoft does not want the Modders to find out what criteria they use to detect them. This is the last element at play: psychological warfare.

Contrary to the Xbox Microsoft now bans Xbox 360 consoles in waves, meaning a lot of people get banned on the same day. But they might have been banned days, weeks or even months before that date, the ban just didn’t go live until that very day. Which makes it very hard for the community to figure out what is causing the bans, and when they get banned it’s already too late for countermeasures. Microsoft might even  let a small percentage of banned consoles still go online on purpose. They will get banned on one of the next waves, making it hard for Modders to judge if the now-in-place countermeasures are actually working. It is no longer as simple as “I replaced my console’s hard disk with a bigger one today, and the next day i was banned.” and then trying to find a fix for that. There are numerous theories, such as Microsoft might be able to log playing with backups even when not connected to Xbox Live, or Microsoft being able to read the DVD drive’s firmware or even detecting the absence of the DVD drive during the flash process.

Fact is, no one knows for sure. But there’s one thing i find noteworthy: Microsoft doesn’t catch all modded consoles. This can mean one of two things:

  • Microsoft is unable to catch them all.
  • Microsoft doesn’t want to catch them all.

The latter point may sound odd, why would they even allow Modders to go online? Especially if they had all the resources to ban them all? Because there are some positive effects as well:

  • Word of mouth. The modding community has a strong voice, they could even be the opinion leaders.
  • More hardware sales. Modders do tend to break their consoles, and more casual modders are more likely to buy a console if they don’t have to pay as much for the games.

In the end i believe that Microsoft is merely trying to keep the balance with their so called “banhammers”. They probably don’t care enough to ban all of the modded consoles but they do want to keep the uncertainty because that is enough to keep most users from modding their console. All the others will just go out, buy a new console and mod it again anyway the instant they get banned. For them it’s just like buying another game or two or three (price difference between new console and selling the used and banned console).

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