The Gravity of the Situation: Thoughts on the ME3 Demo

Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

If the original Mass Effect attempted to be a sprawling sci-fi epic and the second game was a neo-Western character-oriented action drama, the ME3 demo makes the upcoming third installment look like some kind of interactive Michael Bay movie - and I mean that in both good and bad ways. The most recent version of Bioware's notoriously fluid conception of what a sci-fi action RPG should feel like is clear enough from the demo's storytelling alone, but comes across equally well in the graphics and overall presentation. Whereas the first game distinguished itself by the sheer scale of its somewhat desolate environments and the sequel focused on delivering a slick noir-ish aesthetic, ME3's impressive opening scene has a much less subtle, more muscular emphasis on squeezing in as many polygons as possible on the screen at any given time. In scenes which remind me more of the Covenant siege on New Mombasa in Halo 2's similarily grand introduction than any previous Mass Effect moment, the ME3 demo starts out in a sprawling detailed cityscape with lots of moving parts (many of which are massive and alien in nature) and an equally large and unnaturally unruly body of water cramming an additional layer on top of an already busy and comparatively hardware-demanding background.

As for the writing and actual gameplay, it takes approximately three seconds for it all to reach Wagnerian levels of bombast where it stays for the entire duration of the introductory mission. Exactly what and how much of the full game content of these scenes have been cut down for purposes of the demo download is of course unclear, but in any case it provides a clear enough contrast to Eden Prime's oppressive sense of foreboding and even makes the dramatic space crash/death sequences of ME2 feel subtle and atmospheric by comparison. Within minutes of the demo's non-interactive beginning, ME3Shep starts spewing forth heroically monosyllabic rhetoric in what amounts to a Cliffnotes version of his/her climactic ME2 pep talk; just in time before the Reapers throw everything including the (no doubt exploding) kitchen sink at the Homeland. After that, it's Gears of War-ish traversal through dramatic scenery punctuated by action-filled choke points all the way to the dramatically effective Normandic extraction which ends the first part of the singleplayer demo.

As someone who has played Bioware games for almost 15 years now it's hard not to have mixed feelings about where these celebrated RPG developers have ended up after years of streamlining their gameplay design (which is not necessarily the same thing as "dumbing down", by the way), but at least a part of me can't help but feel some respect for the general path they've chosen to embark upon. As has been evident for years now, they are clearly not interested in catering (solely) to the D&D grognards who want another Baldur's Gate, or even the slightly younger KOTOR converts who don't care about MMOs. Whether foolishly or not, Bioware are hellbent on winning over large swaths of the mainstream/action gamer population which just might be persuaded to invest in a more story-oriented experience than they've previously been known to collectively spend millions of dollars on. And that's the thing; as easy as it is to forget for us oldtimers, Bioware are not merely asking us longtime fans to go out of our comfort zones but also betting on the peanut-crunching crowd to be open to a more multi-layered gameplay concept than merely running from checkpoint A to B to C while artfully killing hostiles on the way (...although Bioware certainly got that bit covered, too). ME3's new Story/Roleplaying/Action system unfortunalety dilutes this potentially radical idea (since such a three-way choice implies that A) all players already know what they want, and B) they are not asked to try something completely new) - but there's still enough daring risk-taking left in the whole project that I think Bioware - and to some extent its comically reviled publisher partner EA - deserves some kudos for the high-stakes game they are playing. However, even after enjoying the sheer spectacle of this demo it's also fair to say that this entry in the series must be the title which makes Bioware consider its future direction carefully. If in spite of all ME3's action movie-esque sound and fury they still can't begin to reach the sales figures of some of the most popular and successful games out there (such as, say, Halo or Assassin's Creed), then maybe they should seriously consider scaling back some of their mainstream ambitions for a while, work on some smaller projects and perhaps even stop trying to be some damn epic all the time.

That last bit doesn't sound too likely, of course, but at least so far I've personally found myself liking the Mass Effect series (i.e. both previously released installments) a lot more than I initially thought I would. Right now I'm on my third ME2 playthrough (first on the PC) and finishing of the great Shadow Lair DLC for the first time and, yes, I sure got ME3 pre-ordered on Origin...

#1 Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

If the original Mass Effect attempted to be a sprawling sci-fi epic and the second game was a neo-Western character-oriented action drama, the ME3 demo makes the upcoming third installment look like some kind of interactive Michael Bay movie - and I mean that in both good and bad ways. The most recent version of Bioware's notoriously fluid conception of what a sci-fi action RPG should feel like is clear enough from the demo's storytelling alone, but comes across equally well in the graphics and overall presentation. Whereas the first game distinguished itself by the sheer scale of its somewhat desolate environments and the sequel focused on delivering a slick noir-ish aesthetic, ME3's impressive opening scene has a much less subtle, more muscular emphasis on squeezing in as many polygons as possible on the screen at any given time. In scenes which remind me more of the Covenant siege on New Mombasa in Halo 2's similarily grand introduction than any previous Mass Effect moment, the ME3 demo starts out in a sprawling detailed cityscape with lots of moving parts (many of which are massive and alien in nature) and an equally large and unnaturally unruly body of water cramming an additional layer on top of an already busy and comparatively hardware-demanding background.

As for the writing and actual gameplay, it takes approximately three seconds for it all to reach Wagnerian levels of bombast where it stays for the entire duration of the introductory mission. Exactly what and how much of the full game content of these scenes have been cut down for purposes of the demo download is of course unclear, but in any case it provides a clear enough contrast to Eden Prime's oppressive sense of foreboding and even makes the dramatic space crash/death sequences of ME2 feel subtle and atmospheric by comparison. Within minutes of the demo's non-interactive beginning, ME3Shep starts spewing forth heroically monosyllabic rhetoric in what amounts to a Cliffnotes version of his/her climactic ME2 pep talk; just in time before the Reapers throw everything including the (no doubt exploding) kitchen sink at the Homeland. After that, it's Gears of War-ish traversal through dramatic scenery punctuated by action-filled choke points all the way to the dramatically effective Normandic extraction which ends the first part of the singleplayer demo.

As someone who has played Bioware games for almost 15 years now it's hard not to have mixed feelings about where these celebrated RPG developers have ended up after years of streamlining their gameplay design (which is not necessarily the same thing as "dumbing down", by the way), but at least a part of me can't help but feel some respect for the general path they've chosen to embark upon. As has been evident for years now, they are clearly not interested in catering (solely) to the D&D grognards who want another Baldur's Gate, or even the slightly younger KOTOR converts who don't care about MMOs. Whether foolishly or not, Bioware are hellbent on winning over large swaths of the mainstream/action gamer population which just might be persuaded to invest in a more story-oriented experience than they've previously been known to collectively spend millions of dollars on. And that's the thing; as easy as it is to forget for us oldtimers, Bioware are not merely asking us longtime fans to go out of our comfort zones but also betting on the peanut-crunching crowd to be open to a more multi-layered gameplay concept than merely running from checkpoint A to B to C while artfully killing hostiles on the way (...although Bioware certainly got that bit covered, too). ME3's new Story/Roleplaying/Action system unfortunalety dilutes this potentially radical idea (since such a three-way choice implies that A) all players already know what they want, and B) they are not asked to try something completely new) - but there's still enough daring risk-taking left in the whole project that I think Bioware - and to some extent its comically reviled publisher partner EA - deserves some kudos for the high-stakes game they are playing. However, even after enjoying the sheer spectacle of this demo it's also fair to say that this entry in the series must be the title which makes Bioware consider its future direction carefully. If in spite of all ME3's action movie-esque sound and fury they still can't begin to reach the sales figures of some of the most popular and successful games out there (such as, say, Halo or Assassin's Creed), then maybe they should seriously consider scaling back some of their mainstream ambitions for a while, work on some smaller projects and perhaps even stop trying to be some damn epic all the time.

That last bit doesn't sound too likely, of course, but at least so far I've personally found myself liking the Mass Effect series (i.e. both previously released installments) a lot more than I initially thought I would. Right now I'm on my third ME2 playthrough (first on the PC) and finishing of the great Shadow Lair DLC for the first time and, yes, I sure got ME3 pre-ordered on Origin...

#2 Posted by TimesHero (664 posts) -

Did you try the kinect stuff? I actually enjoyed it in combat. I looked at someone from behind cover and yelled "Liara, Singularity!" She acknowledged and did it, then I said "Garrus, Concussive Shot!" and he shot him down. Incredibly satisfying!

#3 Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

@TimesHero: I don't own a Kinect and primarily played the PC version of the ME3 demo. From what I've read, though, it all sounds like a perfectly valid (if somewhat limited) use of the peripheral.

#4 Posted by Praxis (257 posts) -

I think BioWare has demonstrated in recent years that they value interactive storytelling more so than they do role-playing mechanics, and as easy as it is for guys like us to lament the bygone days of Baldur's Gate, if they continue to produce strong narratives with characters that are interesting to interact with, I don't really see any problem with it, as that's still a lot more than most games can offer. I can't really begrudge a company for not wanting to make the same type of game perpetually, and whether or not I agree with all of their decisions, I certainly respect them for feeling strongly enough about them to make changes that might alienate their past fanbase. Companies like Bethesda have shown the economic and critical viability of simply sticking to what you're good at, so seeing BioWare evolve from a party-based RPG developer into a story-based action game developer shows a willingness to reinvent themselves that I feel too many people fail to appreciate.

#5 Posted by Jimbo (9775 posts) -

Good read. I appreciate they're attempting to broaden the appeal of their games, I just don't think the middle of established franchises with ongoing storylines is the place to do it. It's kinda dickish towards the people already invested in the franchises, and I don't think it's a great idea from their perspective either. They aren't giving themselves a fighting chance.

#6 Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

@Jimbo: I understand wherre the criticism about "changing existing franchises" comes from, although I think it's also fair to say that the ME series as a whole has been one giant evolving experiment with different ways to approach a more action-oriented, cinematic experience. Still, there's always the problem of how exactly you bring in people who have never played the series before when there's a "3" at the end of the title and you're also spending a lot of time hyping your anmbitious system of save game imports from previous installments...

#7 Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

@Praxis: I think you're right that Bioware likes to focus a lot of their resources on storytelling these days. One of the problems for me is that their writing and plots have often been very uneven (admittedly not so much by video game standards but certainly when compared with most books and movies), with ME2 being the most consistent and impressive example of good pacing, cutscene direction and dialogue. DA:O was mind-blowingly good in some of its parts but Bioware have a tendency to drag their games down with lengthy story exposition and lore for the sake of lore.

As for the "financial stability" part, I'm not quite so sure that Bioware's turn towards telling crowd-pleasing stories on a larger scale isn't at least partially the result of necessity rather than merely playing to their strengths. As I alluded to in the blog post, RPGs are very expensive to make and as far as I understand it they still don't seem to make nearly as much money as some of the pure action games out there. Especially since Bioware joined forces with EA, the focus seems to be on reaching a mass audience which can in term justify the time, effort and money spent creating branching story paths, writing enormous amounts of dialogue and hiring those big actors etc. I'm sure those underlying ambitions to tell good stories in the first place is still a big part of the explanation, but I don't think it's the whole story about how this developer became what it is today.

#8 Posted by Zacagawea (1584 posts) -

Cool, but...I really...Uh...Would you mi...Tell me t....Fuck it, I just want to know the gravy of the situation.

HAHAHAHAHA.

#9 Posted by endaround (2138 posts) -

@Egge said:

@Praxis: I think you're right that Bioware likes to focus a lot of their resources on storytelling these days. One of the problems for me is that their writing and plots have often been very uneven (admittedly not so much by video game standards but certainly when compared with most books and movies), with ME2 being the most consistent and impressive example of good pacing, cutscene direction and dialogue. DA:O was mind-blowingly good in some of its parts but Bioware have a tendency to drag their games down with lengthy story exposition and lore for the sake of lore.

As for the "financial stability" part, I'm not quite so sure that Bioware's turn towards telling crowd-pleasing stories on a larger scale isn't at least partially the result of necessity rather than merely playing to their strengths. As I alluded to in the blog post, RPGs are very expensive to make and as far as I understand it they still don't seem to make nearly as much money as some of the pure action games out there. Especially since Bioware joined forces with EA, the focus seems to be on reaching a mass audience which can in term justify the time, effort and money spent creating branching story paths, writing enormous amounts of dialogue and hiring those big actors etc. I'm sure those underlying ambitions to tell good stories in the first place is still a big part of the explanation, but I don't think it's the whole story about how this developer became what it is today.

Except it hasn't worked. Mass Effect 2 was a sales disappointment. DA:O sold much better than expected and they gutted that and while DA 2 sold well, its in the FFXIII sold well area (though by no means those numbers) in which most realize it wasn't that good. This is not to say ME 2 sold poorly, it just didn't match either of the new Fallouts. And Bioware seems to be flailing a bit to get a 5 million+ seller.

#10 Posted by Dtat (1623 posts) -

@Egge: Is that the entire demo? That video?

#11 Edited by ArbitraryWater (11487 posts) -

I think people complaining about Bioware trying to appeal to a mass audience forget that they have been trying to do that for 10 years now, except now they're actually trying in earnest. Neverwinter Nights was a RPG with only one controllable character with a heavy emphasis on multiplayer, KotOR used a popular license and used an extremely watered down variant of 3rd Edition D&D, while Jade Empire and the first Mass Effect were clearly attempts to put their games in a more action-oriented direction. Dragon Age Origins is the exception that proves the rule, despite also selling more than its fair share of copies, most of them the decidedly inferior but still totally ok 360 version. I wouldn't make such a big deal of this if the criticism of Bioware turning its back on hardcore RPG fans hadn't been repeated ad verbatim on these forums ever since Mass Effect 2 was released and even moreso since Dragon Age II was released. Are they vaild? Perhaps, though I'm almost as much of a Dragon Age II apologist as you are at this point (I haven't made the mistake of saying that it's better than The Witcher 2 yet, partially because I'm having trouble mustering the will to get through the back end of The Witcher)

Oh, the demo was ok too. Having become somewhat jaded about the direction of Mass Effect 3 after reading those leaked spoilers (and they are really BAD), I was still pretty unsurprised at what the game seems to be. They've clearly tightened up the shooting a bit and added more explosions, but it's clearly a logical progression from Mass Effect 2. I'm not sure if I'm getting it day 1 or not though, as Street Fighter x Tekken also happens to be coming out that day, and I inconveniently am a bit low on cash. Either way, we'll see.

#12 Posted by Floppypants (798 posts) -

@Dtat: The demo consists of two missions from the single player campaign (the opening sequence and another mission later in the game), and a taste of the online multiplayer co-op.

#13 Posted by Sackmanjones (4652 posts) -
@Zacagawea said:

Cool, but...I really...Uh...Would you mi...Tell me t....Fuck it, I just want to know the gravy of the situation.

HAHAHAHAHA.

Someone should stab you. I nominate myself.
#14 Posted by Praxis (257 posts) -

@Egge: I definitely agree that BioWare's transformation is not entirely of its own accord, and the effects of EA's involvement have been discussed to death elsewhere, so I won't delve into that here, but I think in spite of the circumstances the games they produce are unmistakably their own. KOTOR happened long before EA became a factor, and that's arguably the beginning of their current trajectory. That being said, I'm sure even their initial entrance into the console market was a sales-driven decision on some level. Looking back at my previous post, I'm not sure exactly why I brought up Bethesda, because as you and others have said they are in a much more privileged position than BioWare is. Bethesda's last three games have all been blockbusters, so they have the luxury of a not having to convince anyone that their games will sell. It's funny to think that a developer with such a venerable back catalog is in a position where it feels it must overtly posture toward people who don't play these types of games.

And on the story front, BioWare games are indeed pulp through and through, and have their fair share of naked exposition and trite power fantasizing like most video games, but when BioWare states that it's goal after Mass Effect 3 is to plumb the future of interactive storytelling, I can't help but be somewhat encouraged by that, regardless of what game eventually forms up around said story.

#15 Posted by Jimbo (9775 posts) -

@endaround said:

@Egge said:

@Praxis: I think you're right that Bioware likes to focus a lot of their resources on storytelling these days. One of the problems for me is that their writing and plots have often been very uneven (admittedly not so much by video game standards but certainly when compared with most books and movies), with ME2 being the most consistent and impressive example of good pacing, cutscene direction and dialogue. DA:O was mind-blowingly good in some of its parts but Bioware have a tendency to drag their games down with lengthy story exposition and lore for the sake of lore.

As for the "financial stability" part, I'm not quite so sure that Bioware's turn towards telling crowd-pleasing stories on a larger scale isn't at least partially the result of necessity rather than merely playing to their strengths. As I alluded to in the blog post, RPGs are very expensive to make and as far as I understand it they still don't seem to make nearly as much money as some of the pure action games out there. Especially since Bioware joined forces with EA, the focus seems to be on reaching a mass audience which can in term justify the time, effort and money spent creating branching story paths, writing enormous amounts of dialogue and hiring those big actors etc. I'm sure those underlying ambitions to tell good stories in the first place is still a big part of the explanation, but I don't think it's the whole story about how this developer became what it is today.

Except it hasn't worked. Mass Effect 2 was a sales disappointment. DA:O sold much better than expected and they gutted that and while DA 2 sold well, its in the FFXIII sold well area (though by no means those numbers) in which most realize it wasn't that good. This is not to say ME 2 sold poorly, it just didn't match either of the new Fallouts. And Bioware seems to be flailing a bit to get a 5 million+ seller.

Well said.

@ArbitraryWater said:

I think people complaining about Bioware trying to appeal to a mass audience forget that they have been trying to do that for 10 years now, except now they're actually trying in earnest. Neverwinter Nights was a RPG with only one controllable character with a heavy emphasis on multiplayer, KotOR used a popular license and used an extremely watered down variant of 3rd Edition D&D, while Jade Empire and the first Mass Effect were clearly attempts to put their games in a more action-oriented direction. Dragon Age Origins is the exception that proves the rule, despite also selling more than its fair share of copies, most of them the decidedly inferior but still totally ok 360 version. I wouldn't make such a big deal of this if the criticism of Bioware turning its back on hardcore RPG fans hadn't been repeated ad verbatim on these forums ever since Mass Effect 2 was released and even moreso since Dragon Age II was released. Are they vaild? Perhaps, though I'm almost as much of a Dragon Age II apologist as you are at this point (I haven't made the mistake of saying that it's better than The Witcher 2 yet, partially because I'm having trouble mustering the will to get through the back end of The Witcher)

Oh, the demo was ok too. Having become somewhat jaded about the direction of Mass Effect 3 after reading those leaked spoilers (and they are really BAD), I was still pretty unsurprised at what the game seems to be. They've clearly tightened up the shooting a bit and added more explosions, but it's clearly a logical progression from Mass Effect 2. I'm not sure if I'm getting it day 1 or not though, as Street Fighter x Tekken also happens to be coming out that day, and I inconveniently am a bit low on cash. Either way, we'll see.

Personally, I don't really mind what they're trying to do (I think ME2 was just straight up a better game than ME1 for example), I just think how they've gone about it has been really hamfisted. Trying to turn Dragon Age into Mass Effect was unnecessary and backfired badly for example.

Like the guy above said, I think they badly want a 5 million seller (which they probably deserve, tbh), but they are kinda flailing around trying to get it. It's really hard to grow a story based franchise to that extent, no matter how hard they try to make the gameplay appeal to everybody. This is only compounded by how messy the launches have been (delayed releases on some platforms, no release on other platforms etc). They need to start a new franchise and get all of this stuff right from game one - not try and bodge it together as they go along.

#16 Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

@endaround: I mostly agree, and the "except it hasn't worked" part was definitely on my mind when I wrote in the blog post about Bioware needing to take a long hard look at its current trajectory if ME3 is not a massive unqualified success on a much larger scale than ME2 and ME1 ever was.

#17 Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

@ArbitraryWater: I very much agree about Bioware having been focused on mainstream success ever since they reduced the amount of party members between BG2:ToB and NWN1, which marked the beginning of a long period during which I was lukewarm at best about the company's efforts in general. DA:O was a mixed bag for me and it was only with the unexpectedly coherent, confident and polished ME2 that I got genuinely enthusiastic about the developer again. At this point, the Baldur's Gate series could probably be objectively described as a curious outlier in Bioware's ludography, but for those of us who grew up with BG1-2 it's of course always very difficult to own up to such painful truths.

#18 Edited by Tennmuerti (8010 posts) -

I don't really have much to add besides most people here already mentioned. 

The original ME was a game after my own heart it spoke to me on a whole other level, like Egge said it was: "If the original Mass Effect attempted to be a sprawling sci-fi epic and the second game was a neo-Western character-oriented action drama,". No one had ever done anything like it before or since in all my life playing games, someone finally made a single player rpg space epic of my dreams. If i had to choose a word to describe my feelings towards that game it would be closer to "love" then  just liking it a lot. It spoke to my nerdy love of sci fi books, Dune, Foundation, Nights Dawn. When the trilogy was announced nothing could make me happier.
 
ME2 was not that, it was a good game with great characters and improved machanics. But it lacked so much I enjoyed about the original, story, scope, planets (yes im one of those people who loved the Mako), the sense of wonderment and exploration, digging deep into the rpg mechanics and exploiting them. Arguments will be and are made back and forth about which was better, about Bioware's direction. ME2 was a great game i played through it 3 times. But my feelings are what they are, objectivity can go take a hike, I loved ME1, I liked ME2. And that was dissapointing after the original.
 
I don't want to pre judge ME3 untill I have finished it and Bioware had a chande to tell their story, say their piece.
"Time will tell." (cue Albert Einstein winding his watch)

#19 Posted by Oldirtybearon (4602 posts) -

@Egge: Good post.

In regards to the whole "ME3 needs to sell boatloads" thing, I find myself wondering just how many people out there were waiting for ME3 to roll around to get to ME1 and 2. I know more than a handful of people who have seemed interested in ME, only to balk when I told them it was a trilogy. Now that ME3 is rolling around, I see those same people showing real interest and even purchasing ME1 and 2 in order to get ready for March 6th. If I've seen this behaviour with half a baker's dozen people, it makes me wonder how many people are in the same boat.

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