Back on Mass Effect

I’ve been yapping on how bad it is. Yet, being quite the achievement whore, I decided to make at least a second playtrough of Mass Effect. And then I just recently started the third.

Something weird happened. It is actually an good example of what my fellow blogger Simon Ferrari wrote – sometimes you can’t really make a judgement of a game if you haven’t played it on hard.

Here is how it went.

  • On my first playthrough I was quite disappointed with the game. There were a lot of things missing and unpolished. There is no tutorial. At the beginning, my character had poor equipment and low stats so I died frequently and there was little I could do about it. Things turned the other way as I learned the basics, leveled-up and bought new gear. I selected the class “Soldier” which makes up for a gameplay similar to a shooter. And if played as as shooter, Mass Effect can’t quite compete with a full-blood title. My general impression was lukewarm.
  • On my second playtrough I chose to continue playing my old character. I vamped up the difficulty to “Hardcore”. But because I had my old top-trier gear and upgraded stats, I hardly noticed a difference. The enemies took longer to go down but I still was never in danger. I got a better appreciation for quite a few alternative choices because I deliberately tried the “Dark Jedi” way of solving things. Still, no real difference over the first one.
  • A few days ago, I started the game a third time. This time I selected “Insanity” for difficulty and created a new character. I chose the class “Adept” which depends on “magic”. Oh boy, what a difference. Suddenly, every encounter is a strategic puzzle to solve. I have low stats and bad gear again. The enemies are REALLY tough now and all I can depend on are a couple of magic tricks and my teammates. Missions I previously breezed trough are now these epic fights I have to do over and over again to figure out how do most efficiently. When casting spells, the game actually pauses so it has a lot of a turn-based feeling. Even equiping characters and leveling up is engaging as each decision affects my survival chances for the next mission.

There are three lessons I draw from this. Fist, it is a nice example on how Archievements really can improve a game experience by encouraging players to experiment with the different possibilities the game has to offer. On a PS2 or a Wii, I wouldn’t bother trying a second playtrough.

Second, sometimes you really need to try different difficulties in order to make a judgement about a game. This – of course – is quite problematic if we talk about the role of a game reviewer. The way I see it, there are a lot of problems with the way are being reviewed now and we should discuss on how tho address them.

Finally, it is a great example on how a challenge can improve the quality of the game. I noticed that in Windwaker as well. Collecting rupies was boring and useless until I found that shop that sold a heart container for an outrageous sum. Suddenly, collecting rupies got fun and important. Similarly, most of the decisions in Mass Effect improve your ability to survive: gaining exp’s, leveling up, equipping characters, using your powers during combat, etc. When survival is trivial, all those decisions seem are boring and pointless. But when survival becomes a big deal, you learn to appreciate each tiny feature to give you an advantage. There is this engaging quality of having very limited abilities and squeezing every bit of effectiveness out of them.

I’m glad I got hooked on the game again. The final takeaway is that my old impressions of the game aren’t invalid. The game is indeed unfinished and the interface is a bloody mess. I just found a different, positive aspect of the game which I previously missed.

I was wondering, have you played a game where a higher difficulty mode changed the experience so dramatically?

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

4 responses to “Back on Mass Effect”

  1. Simon Ferrari

    Oh man, thanks for the reference and the support for my assertion! I saw you playing Insane with an Adept the other night and audibly said “fuck that” in front of my girlfriend. I played Normal as an Adept, and it was probably the most difficult combination for my abilities at the time. Being limited to a pistol and a few sometimes ineffectual magical powers makes for some really intense teamwork and firefighting.

    It makes you wonder though, right? Is the optimal solution to allow a number of fine-granularity difficulty sliders, or a procedural system that gauges the enemy, your team makeup, and your performance to vary up each encounter? The first is decidedly data-intensive while the second is process-intensive (so Crawford and Costikyan would go with the second option), but in practice its really hard to tell if its working properly (like in Left 4 Dead, how smart is the AI Director exactly?).

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Haha, well since I’ve unlocked the assault rifle achievement, I could get a assault rifle skill when I rolled the character so at least I don’t have to stick with a pistol. It’s still very hard. I had to actually give up on one of the side missions because I couldn’t get past a fight. Those damn Turians are nearly invincible! But I can already see how the game gets easier (and less engaging) with better stats and equipment. I later returned to that mission with a better gun and made it on my second try or so.

    To be honest I have no clue how I would deal with that situation as a designer. The problem here is all that strategic finesse is only possible after I played the game for so long and know how it works. Also, I know that not everybody enjoys a challenge as I do. I know my girlfriend gives up very quickly when she gets into a situation where she dies frequently. So it’s a kind of joy that is reserved for experienced and “hardcore” gamers. In a way, I needed at least one playtrough to get familiar with the game so I know it’s rules and how to leverage them… but then, a Tutorial would also have helped ;-)

    The problem is also that it is a RPG where you need to get the impression that the character is growing. If this was a mission-based game it would be easier.

    And I don’t like “rubber band AI” that automatically adjusts. I want a pre-defined experience so I can grow trying to overcome it.

  3. Simon Ferrari

    The weird thing about L4D is that it isn’t a straightforward rubber band. Sometimes it’s too easy, but more often than not it throws a little bit too much at you at once (on Expert that is, Normal is for boys).

    Anyhow, awesome time on Gears of War. I have to admit, the first time I played through by myself I didn’t even use the light beam on the Kryll or whatever they’re called. Just kept trying til I outran them. Was much more fun to work it out together on super hard!

    And now you’ve got me wanting to finish my third and final playthrough of Mass Effect. Damn you!

  4. Cucky Lunt

    I totally agree with your comment… achievements have totally changed the way I play video games, in a lot of ways. Most of these are positive, including playing at harder difficulties which I never used to do but I think playing certain games at the hardest difficulty gives them a considerably longer life in the console and tends to make the experience more worthwhile (specifically Stranglehold, COD: World at War, Ninja Gaiden 2, COD 2, GOW 1 & 2). I also found Halo 3 much more enjoyable at the hard setting makes you hold back a bit considering weapons and tactics instead of just charging in shooting anything in your way. I also like the way achievements allow developers to lead gamers to something in a game they may have not found otherwise (e.g. the singing vortigaunt cave in HL2, Sander Cohen's apartment in Bioshock). Even some of the worst achievements allow great replay value (the terrible flag achievements in Assassin's Creed give me an excuse to run around the cities again jumping from building to building which is great fun but I feel I would never do it if there wasn't something in it, even a measly 10 Gpoints which mean nothing). But I don't like achievements that negatively affect the way you play a game, such as kill X enemies with weapon Y times, sometimes these feel like a chore especially if the weapon sucks and is something you would never use. But I think achievements as a whole have really enriched the gaming experince.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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