Tuesday, August 31, 2021

What Should Mass Effect 4 Be???

What Should Mass Effect 4 Be?

 By: Patrick Morris

The final world premiere to round out the night of the game awards 2020 was one that nobody saw coming. A new Mass Effect game that judging by the trailer looks to be a sequel to the original Mass Effect trilogy is one that holds a huge amount of potential. Despite my enjoying Andromeda significantly more than it seems most other people did I'm excited to be headed back to the Milky Way.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, Mass Effect is the best science fiction property since Star Trek: The Next Generation and this continuation of the story in the Milky Way galaxy is a pivotal moment that will define the direction of the series moving forward.


For the most part there are two ways to write a story: you can either craft an interesting universe and populate it with characters or create interesting characters and write about the events of their lives essentially forcing the universe in which they exist to revolve around them.


It's no secret that Mass Effect has taken a lot of inspiration from other sci-fi properties, but none more than Star Trek. There are a lot of things that make Star Trek generally great, but if I had to nail down the single thing that the creators did right and continue to do right it's the fact that the universe has always been most important. Star Trek takes place in a universe that was created, then populated with interesting characters allowing for nearly infinite expansion. The fact that there isn't any one "chosen one" type character means that there can be significant stakes across multiple stories simultaneously. This one decision that was later expanded on significantly in the 1990's led to amazing subseries like TNG, Deep Space 9, Voyager, and even the Kelvin Universe, all providing their own unique flavor of Trek allowing fans to enjoy more than just one group of characters and stories. 


Star Wars on the other hand appears to have had a significantly lesser influence on Mass Effect, which in my opinion is a good thing. From the outset Star Wars revolved around one family of characters and their immediate acquaintances. Because Anakin Skywalker was literally "the chosen one" we as the audience have become inherently conditioned to believe that nothing anyone else in the universe does can be of any significant consequence. And yet, after 45 years of that conditioning Disney has purchased the franchise and is aggressively expanding and I'm the one that is somehow in the wrong for not being interested in something I've been taught has no potential of having even the slightest impact on the larger universe. 


So now moving on to Mass Effect. Despite the upcoming sequel being what looks to be a follow up to the original trilogy of games this is actually the fifth Mass Effect game. The seed of a spinoff series called Andromeda was planted back in early 2017 and unfortunately turned out to be a tremendous failure both critically and commercially. But playing the game for the first time four years after it launched I've actually really enjoyed the 10+ hours I've played at the time of writing. Andromeda is built on the amazing concept of exploration for the preservation of humanity that does a superb job of distancing the game from the original trilogy without appearing as though they're doing so for any negative reason. And the foundation laid with the Andromeda initiative is one that is ripe with possibilities for further story telling in that galaxy establishing a solid framework to build off of in subsequent sequels in the spin off series. 


But with all that said what should the upcoming Mass Effect game be?


The single most important decision Bioware has to make in the development of this game is the fate of Shepard after the original trilogy. There is one ending in which Shepard lives and the temptation to bring Shepard back from the dead once again for a proper Mass Effect 4 is undoubtedly tempting but would be a huge mistake. By bringing Shepard back Bioware would be elevating him or her to a "chosen one" type character that from now on must be involved in anything of any importance in the galaxy. What makes Mass Effect great is the lore and how it is intertwined and exists without the help or necessity of a Christ figure. If Shepard must return then I hope it is in some extremely minor way that is either referential or a cameo at most. 


From a story perspective I think it would be ideal if Bioware were able to find a way to start a new story similar to how they did with Andromeda but following the events of the galaxy after the Reaper war. Creating new characters and allowing them to grow with new objectives occurring in the wake of the Reaper war but still very different from the past games would do wonders for cultivating the potential of the series. And if possible it would be great to see a compelling story that isn't an apocalyptic dire situation, one more focused on exploration than combat. The possibilities are endless and one that I would love to see would be the connecting of the milky way and Andromeda galaxies and by proxy both series. 


While we are on the topic of the Reaper's it's worth saying that I would love to see them make a return in a smaller role. I think it would be foolish to somehow continue to utilize the Reaper's as the game's primary antagonists but to encounter one in a side quest just to establish that there are still Reaper's in dark space would make for a really fun threat looming in the distance. 


With four possible endings to the original trilogy Bioware will undoubtedly have to choose one to be canon as they wont be able to continue with the hundreds of possible permutations and the ending they should choose and based off the trailer I think they will choose is the destroy ending. Making the destroy ending canon would not only tee up a big reveal of more Reapers later on but also could set the stage for wiping the slate clean on the single most interesting concept in the Mass Effect universe which is the idea of synthetic life. If the destroy ending were to become canonical then it would have huge impact on the entire galaxy. Some people like Joker would be devastated but others like councilor Tevos would be thrilled as it was previously illegal to even research artificial intelligence much less develop it. While the other endings could bear some fruit the most potential is without a doubt in the destroy ending. 


Overall Mass Effect 4 is a game that is near the top of my list of games that I am most looking forward to. If Bioware leans on the wealth of lore that already exists in the universe and respectfully distances this sequel from Shepard. Bioware needs to firmly establish this game as the first in a new subseries of Mass Effect to expand the universe of game's and make the franchise more akin to Star Trek than Wars. 

The DualSense Sucks!

Hot Take: The DualSense Sucks!

 By: Patrick Morris

Since the release of the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X something that has been repeated over and over again is that the DualSense controller is the most "next gen" thing about the ninth generation of consoles. Before using the DualSense I would say that if Microsoft would just make an Elite Series 3 with the haptic feedback, resistive triggers, and gyroscope of the DualSense that would be the best controller of all time, but my mind has been changed. After getting my PS5 several months ago and using the DualSense for more than a hundred hours not only do I disagree with the positive consensus but I would even say that the DualSense is the worst new controller since the Dreamcast. 


Quick disclaimer, I know that my feelings on and complaints about the DualSense are almost entirely subjective based not only on my feelings about the controller but also the shape and size of my hands. If it works perfectly for you making it your favorite controller ever that's great. But basically all reviews are subjective so let's just keep that in mind moving forward.


The DualSense is jam packed full of pretty advanced features but unfortunately the long list that is the feature set is almost entirely subpar. The touchpad that was almost never used on the DualShock 4 makes a return on the DualSense and thus far has proven to be nearly equally as useless. The built in speaker is another returning feature from the DualShock 4 that is proving to be just as pointless as it was in the controller's predecessor. The size of the speaker driver is constrained by the fact that it has to fit into a controller and the quality of that driver is compromised by the cost of production and the MSRP of the controller itself resulting in an obnoxious sound that always feels more gimmicky than additive. 


Two of the headlining new features of the DualSense are the haptic feedback motors and the resistive triggers. Haptic feedback is great in theory and could be great in practice but even first party studios have been unable to shake off the heavy handedness required to communicate information with a traditional rumble motor that they have become accustomed  to over decades of game development. As a result the finer feedback made possible by precision haptic motors placed throughout the controller is completely lost making a feature that should feel truly next gen feel more akin to a traditional rumble motor. 


Resistive triggers were the prominent stand out when the new and returning features of the DualSense were detailed. In theory the potential that resistive triggers bring to the table is enormous, regrettably it seems as though that for now that potential remains theoretical. Trigger's are one element of every controller in which Sony has always struggled to compete in any meaningful way, but the triggers on the DualSense are excellent. Sony has clearly learned over the generations what it takes to make a great trigger; their shape cradles your finger, the travel distance and path are both finely tuned to be not too long but also not too short and to guide the finger in the perfect curve upon the pull. Where the triggers run into problems is in the resistance. Developers are able to implement different levels of resistance at different points of the pull but what final result ends up being is a well made and well executed trigger feeling significantly worse than it actually is by over complicating something that has been refined for decades. It's yet to be seen whether or not developers will be able to fine tune the way in which they use the resistive triggers to make them more effective but as they stand now they're an underbaked feature working in the detriment to the overall experience of the controller. 


While the majority of the newly added features to the DualSense are all subjectively good or bad one stands out as anti-consumer. Adding a built in microphone to the controller not only makes for a worse pack-in chat experience but also the way that it's been implemented is Orwellian at best or both Orwellian and invasive at worst. Upon powering the console and controller on the microphone is on and listening by default. It's possible to change this behavior for the microphone to be off upon powering everything on but the fact that it's on by default requires action that a lot of player's wont take. Just in case you have a PS5 and want to change this setting, here's how you do that really quickly. Sony released a system update in October of 2020 after which players were met with a message that stated:

 "We want PlayStation Network to be fun for everyone, which is why we have a Community Code of Conduct. Please be aware that voice chats in parties may be recorded and sent to us by other users. By participating in voice chats, you agree to your voice being recorded. When behaviors that violate the Community Code of Conduct are reported, PlayStation Safety will review the reports to check if there have been genuine violations. These recordings will be used only for safety and moderation purposes by PlayStation Safety."

To be clear I don’t foster any delusions of grandeur, I am in no way under the impression that Sony has any interest in the goings on of my life. But if they are to be believed the best case scenario would result in Sony policing the speech of the users on their platform that will almost certainly be enforced by AI review which as we all know never leads to stifling of the discussion of important issues or mistaken suspensions or bans. And worst case scenario all of that is true and additionally Sony is data mining conversations to sell that data to advertisers. The DualSense's integrated microphone is the single most disturbing part of the controller. 


One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when implementing major new hardware features always becomes third party support. Regardless of how good any hardware feature is if it specific to one platform the odds of third parties embracing it are slim to none. As the industry grows publishers are increasingly looking to provide a standardized experience across all platforms. That combined with the fact that developers would have to invest money in developing minor platform specific features that wont radically change the experience leads me to believe that these features will be largely ignored by third parties in the same way the DualShock 4's touchpad and the Xbox One's haptic triggers were last generation.


Features arent the only problems the DualSense has, ergonomically the controller is a bit of a nightmare. I've been playing video game's literally since before I can remember but based off a lack of ergonomic design and radically different controller shapes my grip wasn’t solidified until I was playing the Nintendo Gamecube day in and day out. As a result of this my natural grip that I have to this day is with one finger up on the shoulder buttons on the left and two fingers up on the right. This was never a problem for me with any subsequent controllers until the Xbox one with the aggressive carve of the trigger. Fortunately the asymmetrical stick layout combined with the angle of the handles were able to overcome the difficulty of adapting my natural grip making for a very natural feeling hold…the DualSense doesn’t fare so well.


For a very long time the argument between symmetrical and asymmetrical sticks was seen as a personal preference but after nearly two decades the general consensus seems to favor the asymmetrical layout. While they may have been a PlayStation mainstay since the 90's, by continuing to insist upon the symmetrical Sony appears to be stuck in the past and unwilling to adapt. Giving the most naturally prominent position to the directional pad, an input that hasn’t been used as the primary movement system since the middle of the fifth generation, as opposed to the left stick Sony set the stage for ergonomic difficulty. The result of this decision is one that strains the left thumb to reach the stick rather than placing the stick in the place where the thumb naturally falls. If the dpad and left stick were to trade positions the thumb on the stick would be able to naturally work with the palm and fingers on the back to hold the controller more securily allowing the right hand more freedom to move between the right stick and face buttons. 


Had the sticks been asymmetrical the handles wouldn’t have been a problem, but as they were symmetrical it made the handles suddenly stand out as a weak point. Historically controller handles are never either perfectly round nor do they have any hard edges. The handles on the DualSense are mostly round but where the tips of the fingers rest naturally there is a seam that is not rounded but instead features a sharp edge, and that sharp edge continues down the inside of the handle all the way to the bottom where it digs into both the palm and the pinky making the controller very uncomfortable to hold. Gone are the continuously round dull ended handles of the DualShock 4 replaced by something that is a significant step down in both comfort and functionality. 


Aside from all of the issues with the feature set and ergonomics the DualSense has other shortcomings as well. The light bar introduced in the DualShock 4 was originally intended to work in tandem with the PlayStation camera for quality of life improvements like split screen orientation based off where players are seated in the room. No developers implemented those quality of life features or anything similar that used the light bar in any meaningful way, as a result it has been relegated to a thin strip of light surrounding the touchpad. While the sentiment around this change was sensible it is still a feature that is consuming battery life while providing no improvement to the end user experience. The PlayStation d-pad continues to be one of the worst d-pad's on the market, and the analog sticks still being not entirely concave means they still fall short of the Xbox sticks, also the ridges of the sticks could be much better. And finally the battery life is atrocious. 


But the controller isn't all bad, there are a few good things to discuss and even a few things that are undeniably better than the competition. The share button has been significantly improved from the previous generation making screenshots easier for the masses and gameplay capture significantly more approachable and accessible. An internal battery is still the best way to go, while it may degrade over time it still will create less waste than disposable batteries and less hassle than recharagable's over the life of the controller. USB-C is reaching critical mass and charging via USB-C is something that, at this point, shouldn’t be praise worthy but I will continue to do so until every single device is charging via USB-C (looking at you Apple, Logitech, and Steel Series). And every single controller ever made from this point forward should have a gyroscope.


Despite how incredible everyone has been saying the DualSense is I cant help but feel as though it's one step forward and three steps back. Sony may have fixed a few problems with the DualShock 4 but they've created more problems than they solved. As the DualSense has fallen flat in so many ways I can only hope that Sony is working on some sort of analog to Microsoft's Elite controller that will fix these issues, I'll be there to buy it day one just to stop having to use the DualSense. 

LegalSpeak Nepotism in Good Job!

Good Job: A Commentary On Corporate Nepotism

 By: Patrick Morris

In the rat race that is corporate America established practices have been perpetuating and increasing the severity of many institutionalized problems for decades. On its surface the game Good Job appears to be a fun wacky workplace comedy game without any significant depth. But when looked at more critically Good Job is much more than just a throwaway game. At first glance Good Job appears to be a silly game meant to entertain for a few hours but beneath the surface is a powerful commentary about nepotism in corporate America and how success is not determined by what you know but instead who you know. 


The premise of the game is simple, the player character or characters (the game is playable in co-op) is the son of the CEO of a corporation working in the mail room. They are then given menial tasks that amount to nothing substantial with no oversight or time frame for those tasks to be completed in. As the player goes about completing their tasks the game keeps a running tally of the total cost of destruction to company property caused by the player. Despite this tally being kept throughout each level it never yields any results either negative or positive. And after every three levels the player is promoted and told to report to the floor above regardless of how they actually performed, the only determining factor being whether or not they completed the tasks assigned to them.


So how does such a silly funny game have so much more to it? From the moment the game begins it is clear that the player character was only hired because of their relation to the CEO. While it's unclear whether or not there was any interview process it is made very clear that the player really has no standards to meet and is encouraged to complete their tasks by any means necessary. The tasks the player is given are made up of stupid meaningless things like fix the internet, setup the projector, and gather everyone for a meeting. None of what the player is assigned is anything that would be considered productive work in a normal office environment but the player is given nothing but positive feedback when completing those tasks. All throughout the players career at their fathers company they are not only not warned against it but actively encouraged to show a total disregard for their coworkers and company property. Showing what is undoubtedly physical abuse to your coworkers is never reprimanded and strictly rewarded. At the end of each level regardless of their job performance the player is always given the highest grade possible and regularly promoted for, once again, doing the bare minimum of the world's easist job description. 


Good Job makes for excellent satire of the current state of corporate America. All over our country bosses younger relatives or relatives of friends are benefiting from gross displays of nepotism despite constantly proving their own incompetence. While the tasks, reactions, and rewards of the game are meant to be hyperbolic it's a sad state of affairs when a cartoonish game is a much closer depiction of the real world than any cartoon ever should be. Good Job stands as a perfect example of how video games can bring to the spotlight issues that would otherwise be considered taboo to discuss and does so in such a irresistibly charming way that surely even Jeff Bezos would be disarmed.

LegalSpeak Sony's Director's Cut Problem