[one_third]Just how successful was BioWare in its addition of a stealth section to the final DLC for Mass Effect 2?[/one_third]
When attempting to introduce diverse styles of play into a game with well-established mechanics, it can be challenging to avoid having the resultant experience feel unsatisfying. The final implementation of the new stuff is often too far removed from the strengths of the old stuff, and can simultaneously fail to fully exploit the potential offered by the new direction. Though not entirely successful, the approach BioWare took when adding a stealth section to Mass Effect 2 fared better than expected.
Extending on the direction of the loyalty quests in the main game, BioWare used each new piece of DLC for Mass Effect 2 to explore how far it could push, or build upon, the game’s basic mechanics. Some very simple changes to level layout and encounter design in The Arrival turn Shepard’s infiltration of a Batarian prison facility on Aratoht from what could easily have been a standard combat scenario into one where Shepard has the option to complete her primary objective entirely undetected.
Asked to rescue an Alliance deep cover agent, the introduction to The Arrival sets the tone for what is to come. The briefing dialogue itself is subtly different from that which Shepard is used to. The description of the mission and the events that triggered it is littered with terms like “infiltrate” and “discretion”; a marked changed from the usual free operational capacity Shepard is given.
Dropped outside the facility in the pouring rain, Shepard is not even given the ability to select her companions. Until she can reach her target, she is on her own. Entering through a series of crumbling subterranean passages, the only way to reach the surface levels of the Batarian facility is to bypass a series of environmental puzzles.
Other than the occasional attack by wild Varren — a particularly vicious dog cum lizard creature — the first encounter with humanoid NPCs comes not in the form of combat but as an overheard conversation. Beyond a locked door, a pair of Batarian guards can be heard discussing the capture of human. Moving up a set of interior stairs, these two can be observed standing out in the rain, their backs to Shepard.
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The simple act of allowing Shepard to locate hostile NPCs before directly engaging them changes the power balance of standard encounters. She is used to making decisions after combat has been initiated; to being reactive. Hostile NPCs attack immediately, and the only chance to study the space in which combat occurs is either in the middle of the fight or once the space itself has served its purpose.
The level design of The Arrival grants Shepard the ability to be proactive; to decide not only how to engage enemies, but whether to engage them at all. Putting her in control, allowing her to operate from a position of superior information — if not necessarily superior firepower — is one of the cores concepts of good stealth design.
However, choice without the means to execute upon it is no choice at all. The second manner in which the level design of The Arrival promotes stealth play is by allowing Shepard to exploit her increased situational awareness to take a route through the level that avoids combat encounters, if she chooses.
Without adding any new mechanics, The Arrival uses the existing movement options (those originally designed to allow Shepard to take and move between cover during combat) to provide her with this stealth route. By taking cover against an object, Shepard can then press the cover button again to vault over or on top of that piece of the environment. In the case of larger objects, it grants her the ability to clamber onto them and gain a height advantage.
Adjustments to the position and orientation of such objects within the level changes their utility from cover to concealment; from objects than can give players an advantage in height over their opponents, to ones that serve to provide a new path through the level. It’s feels intuitive and natural for Shepard to want to keep walls, benches and other solid objects between herself and any enemies throughout this stealth sequence.
There are occasional moments where Mass Effect 2’s nature as an action game are difficult to hide. Though most NPCs are positioned with their backs to Shepard’s likely path, in some instances it can be difficult to accurately judge what areas may or may not fall within their vision, or which actions may provoke a reaction. In an attempt to mitigate this, hostile NPCs within the facility have a tendency to talk loudly as Shepard approaches, making their position clear while also revealing useful plot and mission specific information. Readability of AI behaviour is a problem common even to some games that exclusively focus on stealth. While the steps taken to alleviate this problem in The Arrival are simple, they manage to work for the most part.
By allowing Shepard to observe hostile NPCs before she herself is spotted, and by using the standard movement options to provide new paths through the level, The Arrival creates a simplistic but effective (and largely frustration-free) stealth section by avoiding the traditional approach to stealth undertaken by most action games. Instead of requiring players to actually be stealthy, The Arrival tweaks its level design just enough so that the path you take feels like a stealthy one, despite the lack of genuine stealth mechanics.
It’s all smoke and mirrors, but within the context of a stealth-less shooter-RPG hybrid, the illusion is strong enough that, for those five minutes spent infiltrating Aratoht, you’ll feel like a sneaky bastard.