Interrupting the Game Flow = Annoying as Hell

I just started playing Assassin’s Creed, in which you play as Altair, an Assasin who is doing his Business around 1191 in Jerusalem and other middle eastern medieval cities. Unfortunately, Ubisoft almost ruined the game experience totally, as the first 20 Minutes are pure frustration. The game starts like many others: You got some sort of Intro, then a tutorial. All good until this point, but then the first mission starts and you are constantly interrupted. Walk three steps – bang, tutorial popup. Climb a ladder – bang, tutorial popup, explaining how to draw a weapon. Guys, making a stealth kill was covered in the tutorial 5 minutes ago! You then make 3 more steps and bang, cutscene. 2 more steps, cutscene. 4 steps, cutscene.

Where is the fun in that? I want to play the game, not being interrupted twice per minute! Cover the basics in the tutorial and then introduce new elements in a way where it does not interrupt the flow all the time. Luckily, this gets a bit better during the game (I first played it at a friend, so I can see how good this game really is), but it’s the first impression that sells a product usually, and the first impression of Assasin’s Creed was horrible so far, because there were no 10 Minutes of consecutive game play.

Assasin’s Creed is not the only game guilty of this “Tutorialitis”, it’s just the latest example that I’ve played. I don’t really understand why game developers are doing stuff like that. If you have a Tutorial, why does the first “real” mission need such popups all the time? Make the first mission easy enough to finish, but there is no need to explain stuff again that was explained 5 minutes ago, that’s just interrupting the flow and fun.

Mass Effect – Hiding rough edges under a shell of awesomeness

I’ve bought Mass Effect for my Xbox 360 about 3 Weeks ago. For those who do not know, Mass Effect is the newest RPG from Bioware, creators of Baldur’s Gate or the first Knights of the old Republic. Warning: This post may contain Minor Spoilers. I try to keep it clean, but details of some of the side quests may be given.

And speaking of KotoR: From the very first moment I started playing Mass Effect, I felt like the first time I was playing KotoR – I just could not stop playing it. And after I finished it, i still could not stop playing it. I’ve now done every side quest and finished it the second time, only to start a third walkthrough. Two effects are working together here: First, the story is absolutely compelling and awesone. And second, it has Achievements, those addicting little “Gotta catch em all!” things that Xbox 360 Games have.

True, it looks stupid playing Mass Effect a third or fourth time just to get some achievements like “Kill 150 Enemies with a Shotgun” or “Use Lift 75 Times”, but it also a very welcome excuse to actually try out some more dialogue options. I tend to be the Paragon Guy, so I am usually nice to other people and have a sense of law and morality. But heck, it’s just fun to be mean to the council (they to deserve it, to be fair), or to see how Mr. Bhatia reachts if you choose not to help him. Oh yeah, and beating up that reporter, now that’s one deeply statisfying reason to be Renegade for sure.

The title of this posting is “hiding rough edges under a shell of awesomeness”. The games dialogue and story is this shell of pure awesomeness. No matter if it’s Ashley’s “They have Flashlights as Heads, ma’am” comment when talking about the Geth, Joker’s “That never gets old” if you keep disconnecting the council or pretty much all of Wrex’s Dialogue, including “Don’t piss in my ear and tell me it’s raining”, the dialogue is smart, fun, often unexpected in a positive way, and very well voiced, at least in the English version (I did not check any other language version). Combined with fact that there are many different choices at time, it’s a pleasure to talk to pretty much anyone and anything in the game and just have a good time listening to what they have to say. (For some more examples of good and fun dialogue, look at this forum post. But warning: it contains major spoilers!)

But then, there are some rough edges. Some of the more obvious are on the technical side: Mass Effect uses a streaming mechanism, which means there are only very few loading times while playing. But the DVD is constantly spinning, which is not a pleasure for the ears, given the loud Xbox 360 DVD Drive. (Even though you might argue that this is just a welcome excuse to turn up the volume of the speech in game). Another side effect is that loading screens are replaced by elevetor rides, which gained some fame on their own. At least during such an elevator ride, your 2 other party members will usually engage in a conversation or something will be played on the elevator radio. Also, the textures pop in at times. Textures are loaded like a progressive JPEG File, i.e. there is first a very low quality version of the texture, and then the high quality texture shows up. Most of the time, you see the high quality textures, but also quite often you see low quality textures and then the better ones pop in. That looks plain ugly. Also, there is slowdown at times, when there are many enemies and effects going on. There is one scene on Noveira in a Lab where the frame rate sometimes drop into the “seconds per frame” region. These technical flaws are very noticable, but luckily, they are not stopping one from enjoying the game. And then there is that bug on the extra “Bring down the Sky” mission, which is also not a show stopper, but leaves a bad feeling in my gut.

The other rough edges are on the gameplay side, namely on the sidequests. Usually, the side quests follow this sheme: Land on an ugly planet, look on your map for 3 to 5 points of interest, drive to them, participate in a little senso-like minigame to survey minerals, recover artifacts or unlock doors, then drive to the main point, kill everything that moves, and move on. Usually, this is accompanied with some nice story bits, which means you may not notice that this does get kind of repetetive, but once you are left with the stupid “Collect X of Y missions” (Recover Asari Writings, Find Minerals, Find Turian Insignias, Find Sings of Battle) you actually do notice it. Dear Bioware, maybe one such mission would have been enough. Also, the leveling curve past Level 53 gets unneccessary steep. Sure, the only reason to level to 60 is to get the “Extreme Power Gamer” Achievement, but really: 200.000 EXP to go from 59 to 60? In my second playthrough with my Character, I did every single side quest, and I still only went from 43 to 58 in that Walkthrough. But well, I made the decission to get all Achievements in that game, so i’ll manage to get the missing EXP as well. The last rough edge is – ironically – a major flaw in the story telling: Lack of Empathy. At some point of the game, you have to make 2 decissions, and depending on a number of factors, these decissions are going to have a huge impact on your party. The only problem: No one really seems to care, including you as well. In retrospective, I was suprised that a game with such a neat story would miss out on that point.

The game itself is also rather short if you focus entirely on the main plot, but let’s be fair: Who plays a RPG only on the main plot?

Overall, Mass Effect is one of the best games i’ve played since Knights of the old Republic, because it has so many memorable moments and characters that easily cover up for the technical faults.

I am looking forward to Mass Effect 2, especially since it is developed within Bioware, so I have good hope that flaws like on Knights of the old Republic II (which was developed by Obsidian instead of Bioware) can be avoided.

“Krogan testicles go for 10,000 each… thats 40,000 for a full set!”

UserProfileManager is actually enumerable

I was looking for a way to get a list of all user profiles within Sharepoint 2007. The UserProfileManager only has functions to retrieve a single user, but no function that retrieves all users.

The solution is simple, although a bit hard to see: UserProfileManager implements IEnumerable, and it already contains all user profiles!

So you can just do this here:

using Microsoft.Office.Server;
using Microsoft.Office.Server.UserProfiles;

ServerContext ctx = ServerContext.GetContext(SPContext.Current.Site);
UserProfileManager upm = new UserProfileManager(ctx);
foreach (UserProfile u in upm)
{
DoStuffWith(u);
}

to iterate through all profiles.

Bring down the Sky – Blank Name Tags

Bioware’s Mass Effect is possibly one of the best games ever made, at least since the first Knights of the old Republic. Despite some technical problems (slowdown and texture popup), the story with some rather nice twists is just compelling.

There is one optional Mission available on the Xbox Live Marketplace, “Bring down the Sky”, for 400 Microsoft Points (or M$, as I call them for short). Now, I got my Xbox set to German, with a UK Version of Mass Effect and a Gamertag that has France as origin country. I was offered both the FR and EN Version, so I picked the EN one. But there is a problem: The Name in the “Downloadable Content” Submenu is blank, the name of the system is blank, and you do not see the “Land” option when you go to the planet on the Galaxy Map.

The solution? Set the Xbox System Language to English, and it works fine. Stupid Bug though, maybe Bioware should do some proper QA on multi-language systems. This is the year 2008 after all, a sloppy quality assurance for the European market with it’s different languages is simply unacceptable, especially when you charge an extra fee for the content.