Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mass Effect 2 and the Broken Promise of DLC

It occurred to me, as I was wrapping up the final quests in Mass Effect 2, that there was something odd about this game. It wasn't anything to do with the story or gameplay itself; rather, I suddenly remembered something unusual about the "Options" screen. Hadn't there been, I asked myself, a whole section in the control setup about binding keys to control a vehicle? And yet, I had nearly completed the entire game without driving any vehicle; was it possible I had missed an entire section of Mass Effect 2 where I could drive across a planet instead of laboriously scanning it with my mouse?

This was, of course, one of the biggest complaints about the sci-fi sequel. Whereas in the first game, you could (optionally) explore strange new worlds by dropping down onto them in your six-wheeled "Mako" assault tank, in Mass Effect 2 you never got to see the surface of the planet. Rather, your explorations were limited to a tedious mini-game depicting the planet's surface. Pixel by pixel you move your mouse across that surface until a sensor indicated there was something interesting beneath it. Click the mouse and a remote probe goes and picks it up; the only visual change, however, is that the numeric values indicating your ship's resource store goes incrementally up. Then you repeat the process... over and over again.

Initial reviewers wondered why such a boring time-sink was added to what was otherwise a decent game. Were the developers, Bioware, simply trying to stretch out the game? It seemed an unlikely tactic for such veteran designers and, in any event, the game was long enough already. And it still didn't explain those unused "vehicles controls" in the Setup screen.

Well, it turns out, Bioware/EA intend to release some DLC that will include a vehicle and the necessary maps and missions with which to use said vehicle. In other words, the DLC will be adding the functionality we already had in the first game and which was replaced with the most monotonous mini-game ever thrown into an RPG.

One of the big worries expressed by gamers when publishers started playing around with the concept of downloadable content was that the publishers would use it as a method to gouge their customers. Rather than sell a full game, they'd sell a program that was almost complete, and then require the purchaser to further shell out their hard-earned cash to buy DLC so they could have the full experience. The publishers, of course, assured us they would never do such a thing (even as they incrementally moved in that direction). I have to wonder if Mass Effect 2's DLC is the first indication of gamer's fear come to life.

With its dodgy controls and terrible maps, driving the Mako in the first game was never anybody's favorite part of the original Mass Effect game. Still, it did add an element of size and openness to the game that was otherwise confined to fairly linear and small levels. Nobody expected the Mako to disappear entirely in the sequel; nor did they expect the horrible scanning-game they saddled us with. Asking gamers to pay what should have been in the game in the first place is what they expected least of all. In fact, I have to wonder if the scanning mini-game was intentionally made as tedious a placeholder as it was in order to encourage people to buy the DLC. Certainly, as made evident by the control options in the main game, vehicle segments were intended from the start; they were not a late-hour design addition. They were purposely kept out of the game in order to sell later.

It's unfortunate that such a respected development house as Bioware has decided to resort to such scurrilous tricks, betraying their own reputation in chase of the almighty dollar (it's par for the course for EA Games, obviously). Unfortunately, I fear it's only the start of what will soon become common practice, despite earlier assurances to the contrary by publishers.

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