Mass Effect is beginning to bore me.
I realized that yesterday afternoon as I tore through yet another series of missions, blowing away Geth troopers that were unable to so much as pierce my party’s shields. Shepard and her squad have not been in peril since the earliest segments of the Noveria mission. Now we’re in the sky-towers of Feros, single-handedly exterminating a Geth invasion force. If it weren’t for my interest in Mass Effect 2, I think I might have pulled the plug on this by now.
What’s getting to me is the bogus inventory management I have to do and the fact that I have absolutely no meaningful choices in combat. It’s too fiddly and generic to satisfy on the same level as, say, a hack-and-slash loot-fest like Diablo or Torchlight, but it’s too idiot-proofed to match something like Deus Ex’s or System Shock 2′s balance of RPG / shooter mechanics.
Every character has the full complement of weapons: pistol, shotgun, machine gun, and sniper rifle. Now most character are good with one, maybe two of these weapons. They will never use anything else, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to try. On the other hand, none of these weapons have any real disadvantages. Not when you have a squad of three people helping each other out. So the sniper rifle might be slow-firing, but a trained sniper only needs one or two shots to kill a healthy target. The shotgun is slow-firing and short ranged, but it is also a one-hit kill weapon at times. The assault rifle is kind of inaccurate, but it shoots so fast and puts out such high damage that it doesn’t need to hit reliably. It wears its targets down. The pistol… well, it’s not too good but the characters who rely on the pistol tend to have other powers to make up for it.
And since engagement ranges always tend toward short or intermediate, every single weapon I named above manages to be useful in every situation. Under attack from snipers? Run twenty feet and murder them with your shotgun. Is a big space lizard charging you? Step aside and tag him with the sniper rifle as he comes. Just make sure to max out your chosen weapon, and you’ll never need another.
That doesn’t mean I wont have to go into my inventory and tediously upgrade from one gun to the next. It won’t change anything, since all the weapons look the same and shoot essentially the same, but I have to do it to make sure I’m doing all the damage I can. It provides a nice little illusion of progress. But I have never really noticed much change.
What Bioware missed, I think, is that good shooters are really about improvisation and opportunity. Having the right tools can make a job boring. It’s more fun to take down a squad of enemies when the right weapon is down to its last dozen rounds, and the only other thing you’ve got on hand is a pistol and a couple hand grenades, than it is to simply machine-gun them. Those are the moments that let us invent strategies on the fly and play efficiently with inefficient tools.
Opportunity comes during what Lange calls “Fuck Yeah Levels”, when the game gives you a period of super-empowered grace and the incentives to enjoy it. The amazing weapons for which ammo has been scarce in previous levels are suddenly stocked. The most interesting enemies in the game are present in droves. The level design keeps the action fast and dynamic. It’s the lobby scene in The Matrix. Think of the climactic sequences in every act of a Max Payne title, or the street battle in Japan in Kane and Lynch, the church in Uncharted, or the scene where Sander Cohen tries to kill you in Bioshock.
In the same way a story uses the dramatic structure to vary the tension as it builds toward the climax, a shooter must vary encounter structure. If it doesn’t, the tension ultimately flatlines no matter the intensity of action. Whether I’m fighting three guys or 300 won’t really matter if my actions never change. That’s where I’m at with Mass Effect. Approximately 1/3 of the game fluctuates between dull and pointless.