Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Digital Space (Mass Effect)

    Yesterday, BioWare launched Mass Effect 3, the much awaited conclusion to the Mass Effect trilogy.  For those unfamiliar with the game, it is an amalgamation of first person shooter and roleplaying set in space.  Humans have discovered the ability to move faster than light through the use of "mass effect fields", which also explain pretty much everything else futuristic in the game.  As it turns out, humans are not alone in the galaxy, and though we have entered into an uneasy alliance with the majority of other spacefaring species, there exists a threat to the continued existence of all life in the galaxy known as the "Reapers".  If you're interested in knowing more about the background of Mass Effect, you can try the Wikipedia page, or you can browse through the Mass Effect Wiki.  Or you could buy the game, i suppose, but that's just crazy talk.
   Great, now that the intro is out of the way, let's get down to brass tacks.  Shepard spends the majority of his/her time aboard the SSV Normandy when he's not blasting his way through hordes of bad guys (let's just assume Shepard is male for this blog post).  The Normandy is an experimental stealth frigate, which makes it somewhere in the small to mid-size of spacefaring ships in the Mass Effect universe.  There have been two and a half versions of the Normandy -- the Normandy SR1 was destroyed preceding the events of Mass Effect 2, and the SR2 receives significant revision for Mass Effect 3.  If you're totally lost at this point, let me explain a bit more visually.  All screen capture images are property of BioWare and are reproduced here under fair use for review purposes.
The original SSV Normandy SR1 (as it appears in Mass Effect 2)
Cerberus Normandy SR2 (Mass Effect 2)
   The updated design of the Normandy from ME2 to ME3 doubles the size of the vessel and introduces new functionality.  The destruction of the original Normandy provides the suspension of disbelief necessary for the player to accept these differences in gameplay.  However, between Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, the Normandy SR2 survives, so there are certain restrictions the game designers must acknowledge to maintain continuity.  For some games, this sort of continuity is unimportant, but storytelling is a major part of this franchise so that sort of oversight would be unacceptable.  Still, game developers felt it necessary to make some changes to the ship's design in order to facilitate new game dynamics.  These are largely explained by the change of ownership of the vessel from the organization known as Cerberus, which designed the SR2, to the Systems Alliance, which designed the SR1, and by ME3 controls the SR2.  Because the Normandy SR2 is nominally the same ship, let us investigate the differences between games and how those affect gameplay.
Normandy SR2 (as it appears in Mass Effect 3)
   The Normandy is divided into five decks numbered in ascending order from top to bottom -- that is, Deck 1 is highest, while Deck 5 is at the bottom of the ship.  Let's start from the top.

Commander Shepard's Cabin (as it appears in Mass Effect 2)
Commander Shepard's Cabin (as it appears in Mass Effect 3)
   Other than minor cosmetic changes to the display, the Captain's Cabin remains unchanged.  It includes a bed, armor locker, personal terminal where you can check your messages, and an aquarium where you can forget to feed your fish after a mission...and find them dead later.  Let's move on.
Combat Information Center Map (as it appears in Mass Effect 2) 
Combat Information Center Map (as it appears in Mass Effect 3) 
   There has been major renovation to the aft of Deck 2.  The lab, armory, and briefing room have all been removed to make space for a "war room" which allows the player to track the readiness of the various parts of the galaxy to face the Reaper threat.  The desk previously located in the briefing room has been relocated to the starboard (above the elevator, in this image), which i find to be a charming detail.  A new briefing room is tucked into a pocket opposite the war room.  Finally, some kind of checkpoint has been installed between the war room and the CIC, which makes moving between the two spaces somewhat slower.  Overall, the Systems Alliance seems to be less concerned with design aesthetic than Cerberus, especially in the lighting department.
CIC (as it appears in Mass Effect 2)
CIC (as it appears in Mass Effect 3)
The new War Room (as it appears in Mass Effect 3)
   I also wonder how the Alliance compensates for having an off-centered war room.  It seems like that would destabilize the ship.
   Moving down the ship, we find ourselves at the crew quarters level.  Like the Captain's Quarters, this level has seen little change.
Deck 3 (as it appears in Mass Effect 2)
Deck 3 (as it appears in Mass Effect 3)
   The engineering deck has undergone minor change -- although the starboard cargo appears to be inaccessible in the ME2 screenshot, this is a cosmetic error.  There's only one deck to go, so let's take a look at it.
Engineering (as it appears in Mass Effect 2)
Engineering (as it appears in Mass Effect 3)
   Deck 5 does in face exist on the Normandy in Mass Effect 2, but it is not directly accessible.  There are two stairwells from Engineering which lead to the bottom of the ship, but they do not directly connect to the shuttle bay, which is something of an oversight.  Near the end of ME2 you do find yourself in the cargo and shuttle bays, but the transition is preceded by a loading screen and cutscene, so it's never really clear how you got there.  It's not necessary to be 100% accurate about everything in the game, but the omission of one door strikes me as lazy design.  Of course, i'm speaking from an outside standpoint, and it's entirely possible that there were implementation issues of some mysterious kind.  I'm happy to grant the benefit of the doubt, but since this is a critique...
Shuttle Bay Map (as it appears in Mass Effect 3)
Shuttle Bay (as it appears in Mass Effect 2)
   Aside from the removal of the industrial fans on the floor, the shuttle bay layout remains similar from ME2 to ME3.  The UT-47 Kodiak shuttle is visible on the left wall.  The major change between these spaces is that the armory has been moved to the fore of the shuttle bay -- which, as the chief requisitions officer will tell you, makes a lot more sense than having it by the CIC.  After all, you ought to need your weapons before leaving the ship for a mission.  This is also a throwback to the first Mass Effect game, which is appropriate, since the main character is again working for the Alliance.
Shuttle Bay (as it appears in Mass Effect 3)
   On that note, it's time to return to actually playing Mass Effect 3.

No comments:

Post a Comment