Mass Effect: Looking Back

You may recall I mentioned that I was following my overdue completion of the original Mass Effect by playing through the rest of the trilogy in order while making different choices. I’ve now completed the Great ME Play-through, and I’ve decided to do one more post to sum up my remaining thoughts on the series.

Choices:

Ilos in Mass EffectI’m not going to go through my feelings on every major choice within the story — I’d be here all day — but there are a few that I’ve only gained a full appreciation for after playing through the series more than once.

One is whether to save Ashley or Kaidan. I’d always gone with Ashley, so I had no experience with Kaidan until I played the original and decided to keep him alive for the subsequent games.

But as much as I tried to keep an open mind about Mr. Alenko, I think I prefer Ashley. Kaidan’s a very likable guy — but that’s the problem. He has the same problem that Jacob and Liara do, albeit to a less obnoxious degree: He seems to have been designed to be a romance choice first and a person second.

Kaidan just doesn’t have any flaws. He’s the perfect noble romantic. I tend to prefer characters that are very likable, perhaps unrealistically so, but after a while, Kaidan just feels like an ideal created for female fans (and 10% of the male fans) to drool over.

Ashley, on the other hand, is a bit more rough around the edges, but ultimately more endearing. She’s angry, rigid, and borderline racist, but that’s just a nice balance for her courage, loyalty, and sense of honour. She’s likable, but she also feels like a real person.

A tense stand-off during Miranda's loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2I like both options, but Ashley just makes for a more interesting story. That said, it’s a win on Bioware’s part that I wish I could keep both alive.

The other choice that seemed to have a really interesting impact on the story is whether to kill or spare Wrex, though that’s not apparent until you get to third game.

I really didn’t like how the genophage story was handled in ME3 with Wrex alive. It was incredibly one-sided with Eve, Wrex, and Mordin all arguing for a cure, and no real argument being made for not curing the Krogan. It felt like a guilt trip, and although I think curing the Krogan is a really bad idea, I always picked it.

But this time around, I killed Wrex, and things got much more interesting.

Wreav is a psychopath. Giving him an infinite army of angry Krogan can’t possibly end well. The Salarians’ concerns seemed much more well-founded. It became a true dilemma.

On the one hand, we have Eve arguing for the good and potential within the Krogan. On the other, Wreav reminds us how dangerous the Krogan can be. Whether to dispense the cure becomes a very difficult choice, not a foregone conclusion.

The Illusive Man in Mass Effect 2And paradoxically, I found making the cure a less desirable choice made me more inclined to feel sympathy for the Krogan. When I actually had to think about the issue instead of swallowing the game’s predetermined choice, I found myself thinking the Krogan might deserve another chance after all.

This strengthens a belief I’ve had for a while that letting consumers draw their own conclusions about a story’s morality is better than just telling them what’s right or wrong.

Lasting complaints:

There are a few issues that bugged me all through the series, so I might as well get them off my chest.

One is the combat. I’ve said it before, but the gameplay feels like an afterthought in the Mass Effect series. It’s not bad, but it is incredibly forgettable and underdeveloped.

On this play-through, I came to the conclusion the problem isn’t the underlying design, but merely a lack of ambition. The fundamental system of combat is sound — at least after ME1 — but they never bothered to get creative with it.

Confronting Harbinger during the Arrival DLC in Mass Effect 2Every fight plays out the same way. There are hardly any unique enemies or bosses. There’s no random element. There are rarely any special mechanics to shake things up, and most of the ones that do exist don’t really make any difference. For example, the shockwaves in the Geth ship in ME3. The counter to the mechanic is to stay in cover, which is something you should always do anyway.

The handful of times they did bother to shake up the core mechanics — like the car chase on Ilium or the fight with Shadow Broker — the game actually got very fun. Even something as simple as the time limit while helping your crew member through the ducts on the Collector base made things infinitely more exciting.

Things could have been much more fun if they’d just tried a little harder.

Another thing I never quite got over was how bland most of the alien species are. This is a problem a lot of sci-fi has: The aliens aren’t cultures; they’re archetypes. There’s Angry, Chaotic Aliens; there’s Angry, Militaristic Aliens; there’s Brainy, Socially Awkward Aliens; there’s Sexy, Empathic Aliens…

I take particular issue with the Asari. As an entire species of adolescent sexual fantasies come to life, they’re nothing but shameless pandering. In another game, that might be tolerable, but considering how progressive most of Mass Effect is, stumbles like the Asari stick out like a sore thumb.

The only aliens who actually feel like people are the Quarians, and even they’re admittedly little more than a giant Battlestar Galactica homage.

The Reapers demolish Vancouver in Mass Effect 3Finally, while the ability to steer the story with your choices is Mass Effect’s greatest strength, it nonetheless falls flat on its face far too often. It’s far too easy to make the wrong choices simply because the consequences aren’t properly explained.

By far the most egregious example was picking your specialists for the attack on the Collector base at the end of ME2. It’s hard to figure out which choices are correct, but what’s worse is that it’s not even immediately clear that choices can be right or wrong.

When I first played that mission, my interpretation of the (incredibly vague) instructions was that certain roles would result in crewmember death, and I was simply choosing who lived and who died. There was nothing to indicate that your choice of squad member for each task mattered. As a result, I got most of my crew killed and had to do it over again so I wouldn’t have an empty ship in ME3.

I know a lot of “serious” gamers will sneer at me for wanting things dumbed down, but I will never accept obfuscating the player as good game design. Difficulty should like in overcoming challenges, not in understanding what the challenges are.

Final thoughts:

I may have many complaints about the Mass Effect series, and I don’t think it really achieved greatness until ME3, but don’t take that to mean it doesn’t enjoy a fond place in my heart.

The Normandy on approach to the CitadelThere is something indefinably special about the ME games that few others can equal. They suck you in, and I can now finally understand why people get so obsessive about them.

They may be flawed, but there’s nothing else quite like them, and they’re not games I’m likely to soon forget.

And I will say one thing: I think Mass Effect is good for the industry. I think it’s good that they’ve proven smart, story-driven, progressive games can be both artistically and financially successful.

What I’m really hoping to see is other game companies taking the best aspects of Mass Effect — rich character development, deep player involvement in the story, mature and progressive attitudes — and pairing them with deeper gameplay, better world-building, and a more lively game world.

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