Mass Effect and bigger thoughts

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Mass Effect 1,2 and 3 have all been huge successes for developer BioWare, single handedly putting them on the gaming radar. Despite a lot of criticism over the ending of Mass Effect 3 there is slated to be a Mass Effect 4, which will almost certainly break BioWares sales records once more. So, what is it about Mass Effect that’s made it so successful?

Choice

Choice is the real ace that has made Mass Effect stand out from the crowd, and ultimately sell like hot cakes. The premise is that you are given choice at every opportunity, choice that affects how the game progresses. Ever conversation element will have upwards of two options, some obviously evil choices, some obviously good choices and every shade of grey in between. These add up into what made Mass Effect something special, you could play it twice and it would be a total different game. You could talk to your friends about it and have totally different tales to tell.

Or, at least, that was the idea. The huge criticism that Mass Effect 3 drew was because, ultimately, all of these tiny little choices added up to nothing.

*Huge Spoiler Warning*

At the end, although the game gives you three choices of how to deal with the final showdown, the end is always the same. Essentially, the entire world blows up. All of the time you invested in the world, doing side mission after side mission, ultimately meant nothing at all as it all vapourises in seconds – regardless of how you played the game. In the end Mass Effect gave the illusion of choice, and that is indeed better than the railroad experience of Call of Duty, to name but one example, but is it all that special?

planetside2Choice is something that all games have been striving to include, but can a console game ever really include it? Even massively multiplayer games such as Guild Wars 2 have struggled to create a world where every little player choice changes the fabric of the world around them. Yet, when playing Mass Effect through I never really felt I had all that much choice. I guess I saw through the illusion. Real choice does exist in games and its games such as Planetside 2 where that can be found. I found Planetside 2 at around the same time as I started the Mass Effect series, and if anything found it to be more engrossing. There’s no story as such, and what there is on forums off the game isn’t all that stellar, but there is choice all the time. That’s because Planetside 2 is just a big world, with multiple maps where three factions are left to slug it out in a never ending contest, much like Guild Wars 2’s World vs World. If you really want choice in a game, where the world changes around you by the choices you make, you have to go to massively multiplayer games such as Planetside.

Mass Effect really tried to include player choice, and for that players loved it. However, on a console game its something almost destined to fail, when everything must eventually come to a conclusion. Only massively multiplayer games, where there is no conclusion as such and that gameplay is the the be all and end all of the game can there really be player choice making a difference to the world.

Setting

The setting and story were something that made Mass Effect a blockbuster. Space has always been a good setting for a game if done well. Add to that a story with some real effort put in to it and you begin to see another draw of Mass Effect.

asteroidsSpace as a setting for video games began all the way back with Asteroids in 1979. Since then space has been used on all sorts of games, from real-time strategy Star Trek branded games to stand alone first person shooters like Halo.

Mass Effect and Halo have been big stars of this generation of consoles. This generation of players are comfortable with the setting, and yet Mass Effect’s space was a little different. In Mass Effect you could travel the galaxy at relative leisure, visiting an uninhabited planet to gather its resources and then saving a far outpost from being over run. I had this feeling with Red Faction Guerrilla, and open world game in a space setting (granted it was set solely on Mars rather than around the whole galaxy). But this is something special that is missing from a lot of space games, and which only Mass Effect has successfully done on the galactic scale so far.

Space is a huge place, a huge and empty place for the most part. Far too many games begin their adventure and railroad the player through the vast, beautiful and empty scenery giving you mere glimpses of it as it shunts you along the path. Mass Effect allowed you to just wander off and explore, something that everybody going in to a space game wants to do. It’s something that’s very rarely done and for that I salute Mass Effect.

Bigger Thoughts

So what has made Mass Effect sell so well? The story had effort put in to it, but ultimately ended on a bad note when the central element of player choice resulted in no impact whatsoever. The space setting was very well done, and everybody loves a space game. But what it essentially came down to was that the gameplay was fun. You could take cover and shoot, shoot smoothly and with an interface that had clearly been refined down to something clear and concise. The gameplay was good and polished, but was it really all that fun?

I never had that much fun when crouching behind cover and shooting at less than averagely intelligent AI that had a tendency to kamikaze you. There wasn’t all that much variety to it either, and for this I refer to Planetside 2 where there are choices in the combat. There is no sticky cover, you work with friends in all sorts of vehicles and with all sorts of specialisations to overcome the enemy. The shooting is fun, and just like the gimmicks of Mass Effect’s biotics which gave you interesting powers, Planetside has unit types that can fly small distances (essentially satisfying that same part of your brain that likes to see something special, unique and quirky).

Essentially, Mass Effect sold because of the setting, the fact that it played smoothly and thI-Had-Fun-Once-It-Was-Awfule illusion of a story driven by choice. Did any of that make it fun as such? Not to me, I realised this near the end of Mass Effect 2, I wasn’t enjoying it. I had enjoyed exploring the galaxy on my spaceship, but had done everywhere in a couple of hour’s gameplay, and was left decidedly unmoved by the repetitive combat. I didn’t find myself having fun, so I stopped playing.

That’s the bigger thought that Mass Effect has reinforced to me. That gaming is about having fun in our spare time. If a game is promising fun sometime in the near future but you’re left grinding until you get there, you’re not having fun, so stop! Your time is too valuable to be grinding until the ‘fun part’ that might never actually appear (I made this mistake with Assassins Creed III). There’s plenty of other games out there that you will have constant fun on, such as the free to play Planetside 2 which will drop you straight in to the exact same world that you will be playing in in months time, and you will have fun.

Remember that important lesson when gaming, gaming is about fun, and don’t let the developers get away with dangling the fun carrot in front of your nose constantly.

Digital Salad – https://lifeasadigitalsalad.wordpress.com

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