Effected

With the impending release of Mass Effect 3 next week, I’ve been doing what every logical, right-thinking gamer would do. I’ve been playing Mass Effect 2 again, and I’m about 15 minutes away from completing it entirely, for the third time. That’s probably not very uncommon for Mass Effect fans considering that about half of the people who fired the game up finished it and that at least a couple of people have played through the game 30 times or more; this according to statistics released more than a year and a half ago and at this point criminally out of date.

The thing is, I’d lost the save files for my last two Mass Effect 2 playthroughs, and the thought of playing 3 with some generic Shepard was anathema. Totally unacceptable. And so, I’ve invested another 30 or so hours into this latest playthrough, happily and without a second thought on the matter. Somehow, the game completely fails to become stale to me.

I realize that saying Mass Effect 2 is a pretty good game is hardly an edgy stance of a critical contemporary issue. So let me spice the deal up a bit. At this point, I feel like I can talk about Mass Effect 2 in the same breath as games like Ultima 7, Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. In fact, I’d dare say that from where I’m sitting, it’s the best game BioWare has made.

I’m actually pretty surprised how much I like Mass Effect 2, because I was, all things considered, fairly tepid on the first Mass Effect. It was a decent enough game, but the pacing for it never felt right to me. The combat mechanics always seemed like they were in conflict with the way the game seemed to want to be played. Like many of BioWare’s games, I was driven to completion more because of the story than actually enjoying the game itself.

Mass Effect 2 is something different entirely. The simplified and more dynamic action styling of the game was, to me, a night-and-day improvement. It was one of those games that just clicked on a fundamental level from the first day and never lost its shine.

I try not to be too quick in proclaiming something among the best ever, though. And I try to be practical about some of the flaws and hiccups that exist in Mass Effect 2 as well. Planet scanning is a bothersome and unavoidable chore. The game is missing a strong antagonist that centers the game the way Saren and Sovereign did in Mass Effect 1. Customization seems limited with the oversimplification of inventory management; there are very few interesting choices to be made beyond aesthetics about how you outfit yourself and your crew. And the final boss battle has always felt a little forced — if not openly silly — to me.

I don’t deny any of those points, or like a half dozen other criticisms that can be legitimately laid at the feet of the game. Doesn’t matter, though. I imagine all of you, like me, have had moments where you play a game and it just fits. To borrow from Queen, it’s a kind of magic. The game just seems to know how to keep you happy, how to turn your head from the flaws. It becomes more than a game to you; it becomes part of your gamer identity.

Of course, I realize this sets me up for absolute, crushing disappointment with the impending conclusion to come in Mass Effect 3, but at this point I'm all in for better or worse. I can't not experience how the over-arching story concludes, to say nothing of how the choices I’ve made — including some choices that I think now I would go back and choose differently — resolve in the final act. This Shepard goes into the final game with a stake in game and a complex past that hasn’t actually turned out exactly as I’d hoped. And that makes me like her (yes, her -- there is only FemShep) all the more. She is, in my head, a character that has defined herself as much as being defined by me, and that is a rare thing. An act of what feels almost like creation that exists the same way in no other media.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to convince you this is a great game, one of the best ever made. I’m not proselytizing here. I’m not even trying to tell you that the story, which could reasonably be described as decent but not particularly ground-breaking space-opera fluff, is something to put up on a pedestal as a triumph of the form. I realize there is usually a gulf between that for which an argument of historic significance can be formed and that which is my favorite.

I point all this out, because even as I storm into the final few minutes of this third playthough, I’m thinking in my head of the alternatives missed and wonder what it would have been like to play through with an Engineer instead of an Adept. What if she had made this decision on Tuchanka or Illium instead? What if my relationship with the Illusive Man had been different, what stage would that have set? What if I hadn't held onto that pointless torch for Liara? Then I wonder if maybe I could squeeze one more playthrough in before March 9th. And that, my friends, is the sort of thing I never think to myself.

Comments

Mass Effect: Romantic Liasons in Ilium Dating Sim?

I've got my pre-ordered digital deluxe version downloaded and waiting to unlock on the 6th. Sadly, that's inventory day at work, so there will be no taking a personal day to play it, but I am planning to get up early that day so I can get some time in. I played through ME1, imported my Shepard into 2, and am getting pretty close to finishing 2. I'm very much looking forward to finishing 2 and having a save ready for 3. And with some luck, I should have that by the end of the day tomorrow...

Oh, and my ParaShep is a guy, and I make no apology for that. I find Mark Meer's voice acting to be fine. He sounds much more kind-hearted and empathetic than Jennifer Hale, who always seems to be sneering. If I was playing a renegade, I'd probably use Hale, but I'm playing a paragon.

LarryC wrote:

Mass Effect: Romantic Liasons in Ilium Dating Sim?

@LarryC

I guess I'd like to see more the Mass Effect universe revealed casually through gameplay rather than in-game text. Gaming is after all an interactive medium.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Bioware had created reams of background material which they used to create their universe, and then couldn't bear the idea of players not seeing just how much hard work they'd put in. 15 years ago this sort of content would have been provided in game's manual (how I miss those things, by the way). Nowadays it either doesn't appear anywhere or it gets swept up in a Guide.

But the one place I think it shouldn't be is in the game itself. If one wants to know more about race X or phenomenon Y, one shouldn't have to stop playing and start reading (in-game) to do it.

And it doesn't help that very little of the information in the Codexes is useful to the player in terms of actual game play.

The other thing I'd change is the mining mini-game. In ME2 - which is the only one of the trilogy that I've played - mining required no skill and could be carried out with almost no cost, which in my view means that it has no place in a video game.

detroit20:

There'a fair amount of game that can't possibly be revealed in things that you would call "gameplay." For instance, a lot of "gameplay" in classic adventure games and in some modern RPGs is just exposition by NPCs - not really different from reading it in a Codex entry except sometimes you can't just speed through the content if you don't care about it. Moreover, most of that stuff is narrative in nature, and is nonessential to the things you would call the "gameplay" parts of games.

Examples of lore:

In Mass Effect 1, guns are powered by mass effect fields, and "bullets" are tiny slivers of metal shaved off a huge chunk energetically, and then accelerated to light speed fractions through an eezo mechanism.

How in the blue blazes are we supposed to incorporate that bit of lore into a game that won't bog down the ME game into yet even more boring minigames?

When you get right down to it, reams of expository lore is a poor, poor fit for an audiovisual medium of any kind because it takes too much time to impart the information compared to just presenting the text. I think that it's one of the main strengths of games as a medium that it can present audiovisual information and text information at different times, and still have it be interactive, or framed in an interactive manner.

While I broadly agree that games should not strive to mimic movies or books in toto, I don't agree that games cannot employ techniques already perfected in those media to its advantage, or that they cease to be games simply because they do not adhere to an adversarial or achievement model of entertainment.

LarryC wrote:

While I broadly agree that games should not strive to mimic movies or books in toto, I don't agree that games cannot employ techniques already perfected in those media to its advantage, or that they cease to be games simply because they do not adhere to an adversarial or achievement model of entertainment.

That's where I'm at too. I'm struggling to think of how you could tell the type of stories ME does if you did keep it more tightly confined to gameplay. How would you efficiently (and without boring the player) relay the justicar background of Samara or catch up on what happened to Garrus without the many/multi-media approach used in ME2? Another example would be Half-life which isn't quite as 'in your face' about it, but still presents information fairly passively.

I'm not going to say it's perfect, just that care needs to be taken not to put gameplay in a back seat and forget about it, the balance Bioware have found works for them however.

@LarryC

I don't think we're disagreeing about the principles of applying the tools and techniques of one medium in another medium. I think we disagree about whether or not ME2 applies them well.

In my view, the Codexes simply contain too much information for it to be presented the way that they are.

However, the main problem with the Codexes is that they make the actual game look incredibly shallow. The universe described in the Codexes is incredibly rich and detailed... but - in comparison - the one the player actually experiences is actually pretty sterile and bland.

There are, for example, no planets to explore; only planets to visit for specific purposes. And there are no real places on those planets; instead there are sets interlocking rooms in which the player (1) engages in dialogue with NPCs, (2) obtains items, and (3) fights.

I never really had a sense of place as I moved from location to location, and that - for me - is a real weakness of ME2. I can read about the difference between one system and another, between one planet and another, between one culture and another, but I can't see, hear or feel it when I'm actually playing the game.

detroit20:

That's one of the things that got cut in the transition. I recommend playing ME1 on PC if you have the time for it (should cost trivial now). The Mako was widely lambasted for poor control, but it actually controlled fairly well provided that you stuck to relatively level ground - finding a path of level ground to your objective was a valid (and IMO, better way) to play the Mako traversal game, rather than going straight as the crow flies by unpredictably bouncing around with the jets.

For good or ill, ME2 is simply not a sandbox type of game. A lot of people (maybe including you) will criticize it on those grounds, but the simple fact is that it's not even trying to establish a sense of place. It has no exploration gameplay to speak of (speaking of which, shouldn't exploration not count as gameplay to you , since you can neither win nor lose exploration?).

ME2's experience and narrative is character driven rather than place-driven. There are books and movies and plays of like focus, and I don't think anyone thinks of them as being inherently inferior to event-driven or location-driven media.

I would not describe it as "shallow." That's a non-information description, usually used by a critic who's looking for something that just isn't there, usually because it wasn't meant to be there. Diablo's character customization (even Diablo 3!) is virtually nonexistent. You can choose gender and class - that's it. Is it fair to characterize Diablo as shallow on those grounds?

Similarly, Skyrim's melee combat often devolves to some variation of "I bash you, you bash me." There's not really much of a fighting system there. Is it a shallow game, too?

The Codexes inform the events of the game by relating and describing places that the main game's focus does not seek to cover. In that sense, it's an efficient design because they are not redundant. It would be redundant to describe Ilium in ways that would be immediately obvious by traversing it, if ME2 had an exploration game to it.

That's a non-information description, usually used by a critic who's looking for something that just isn't there, usually because it wasn't meant to be there.

Once you're arguing intentionality, criticism becomes entirely subjective. The problem with this type of discussion is that you aren't talking about the game systems directly -- instead, a layer of abstraction about whether the game and its systems are "doing what they are supposed to do" has been layered on top of the discussion.

Imagine, then, that ME3 removed the shooting mechanic, the ship, and the game in favor of a card game. It's a great card game; it's the greatest PC card game ever, in fact. In between hands, you get interactive dialog scenes -- but that's it. These Alternate Card-Universe Bioware Devs talk about their intentions for a great card game, with meaningful dialog; they surely nail it, and that, then is ME3. Does that make Mass Effect 3 a "good game"? Does it make it a good Mass Effect game?

I think the objection that I (and perhaps others) have raised is hinged on the same problem; Mass Effect 1 tried to combine narrative, shooting, and the traditional systems of an RPG (inventory, exploration, etc.). Mass Effect 2 stripped away many of those mechanics, and in doing so left those of us who enjoyed them with something rather different, and in some cases, less enjoyable. Instead of an iteration, the game became something else: a corridor shooter with some neat dialog. Whether or not corridor shooters are more or less "shallow" than RPGs is open for discussion, but hand-waving away a reductive shift in gameplay on the grounds of (presumed) intention is an apologist's argument.

Overall, I felt that ME2 moved in the right direction in going back to basics in terms of loot conceptualization and implementation. ME1 felt a little lost in that regard. It wasn't Diablo, but it wasn't D&D, and it wasn't a shooter. It didn't know what it was and it suffered as a result. ME2 knew that it was a shooter, and it parceled out loot accordingly.

I think this is where I disagree, mainly because you preface your original argument about the two games by suggesting that one consider ME2 vs. ME1 in terms game intention (that is, you say that the comparison of RPG to corridor shooter is fundamentally an empty comparison, and only subjective preference can be applied once you're heading down that path), but then you turn away from the subjectivity argument to make a qualitative assessment of ME2 ("the right direction", and the benefits of a specific loot system).

Perhaps you have an (unrecognized?) preference for corridor shooters and simplified in-game systems, a la ME2, vs. the (broken, but more complex) shooting and loot systems of ME1? If that might be the case, I think it's easier to simply state that up-front, rather than trying trying to make a meta-argument about game quality based on intentionality.

I think there is productive, interesting, and deep argument to be had if we leave preference at the door, and instead talk about ME1 as a literal thing, with formal systems we can look at and measure in terms of effectiveness and compare to ME2. Abandoning them because they weren't easy to get right in ME1, at least to me, comes across as disingenuous -- much as the hypothetical card-game ME3 would.

This is an interesting discussion.

@LarryC

Yes, character and relationships are important to the Mass Effect experience. But I disagree that ME2 is not trying to establish a sense of place. (Indeed, given that they don't serve any gameplay purpose, aren't the Codexes pretty much all about helping to establish a sense of place?) I just don't think it does that ME2 does 'place' very well once one moves from reading the Codexes to playing the main game.

I also disagree with your point about exploration. Granted, ME2 is not a sandbox game, but there is a suite of side-missions that can be discovered through exploration. I came across a number of the N7 missions (I think) because I was exploring in search of minerals. Again, the problem for me is that ME2 does not do this very well.

@TheHipGamer

Your point about perils of defending a game using an intentionality-based argument was very well made. I cannot put it any better.

I think part of the codex presentation issue is that it's squished into the ME UI. I really like the modified Skyrim model, where I was able to stick all the book texts into my Kindle.

TheHipGamer:

Once you're arguing intentionality, criticism becomes entirely subjective. The problem with this type of discussion is that you aren't talking about the game systems directly -- instead, a layer of abstraction about whether the game and its systems are "doing what they are supposed to do" has been layered on top of the discussion.

Either you're just reading the part you quoted, or the entirety of what I mean isn't getting through clearly. Please allow me to clarify.

I'm NOT arguing subjective intentionality. It's not okay for any game maker to characterize every shortcoming and bug as a "feature." This is not what I mean.

What I mean is that to objectively critique a game, you have to know or intuit what it is it's gunning for. For instance, Sessler's review of Amalur was remarkably bad, and everything he says in his critique is perfectly true. Amalur would be a bad game if it were trying to be Skyrim. By that reasoning, SMG2, Gears of War series, Pokemon Black, and Tetris are all even worse games, because they are even further from Skyrim than Amalur is.

Reviewed as an RPG, Muramasa is absolutely terrible - it's barely an RPG. It's fortunate that it's actually a technical 2D brawler with RPG elements. Reviewed as a shooter, Diablo is even worse - it's isometric, there are no different hit locations on various targets, and there are no guns.

It's important to review a game in context of what it is and what it does well - to intuit the thrust of the entertainment and rate it as that sort of entertainment. It does no good to say that a horror film is a terrible movie because it's not as funny as The Mask. It isn't trying to be funny at all.

Perhaps you have an (unrecognized?) preference for corridor shooters and simplified in-game systems, a la ME2, vs. the (broken, but more complex) shooting and loot systems of ME1? If that might be the case, I think it's easier to simply state that up-front, rather than trying trying to make a meta-argument about game quality based on intentionality.

Not at all. Borderlands is a open-mission FPS with tons of loot and loot-chasing ala Diablo. I love that game to bits. If anything, I prefer games with loot chasing as opposed to limited equipment choices.

However, it's important to differentiate between what ME1 purports to do (what it means to be) and what it actually does (how it succeeds at its intent). Once you're done with the first playthrough, ME1 is essentially a one-gun game - you never have to change from Spectre class weapons, ever. All those guns littering your inventory are pointless. During the first playthrough, there are, at best, only three relevant varieties, since a fair number of the manufacturers are clearly inferior across all stats to better versions doing the same thing.

ME1 wants to be a game where managing inventory is important, but it does not succeed at this goal. You only ever have three varieties of a particular gun (if that), and any interest you have in loot is in pure upgrades of the weapon along its upgrade path. If you want to be minmax-y about it, you only really need pistols, since they're the best DPS and performance guns in the game anyway; it's a waste to put points in any other gun skill other than for flavor purposes.

So, for all its pretension at inventory, you need one gun variety - pistols, and the Spectre class one is the only one you'll ever use.

Even compared directly, doing the thing that ME1 purports to do, ME2 is a better inventory system because you can actually choose between different viable guns, and they all have roles that cannot be filled by other guns satisfactorily. The "loot" in ME2 actually matters, for realsies.

detroit20:

Yes, character and relationships are important to the Mass Effect experience. But I disagree that ME2 is not trying to establish a sense of place. (Indeed, given that they don't serve any gameplay purpose, aren't the Codexes pretty much all about helping to establish a sense of place?) I just don't think it does that ME2 does 'place' very well once one moves from reading the Codexes to playing the main game.

By that measure, even SMB 1 is trying to establish a sense of place and it fails even worse. Many games have written lore to provide backstory for their conceits, without their intending to create a location-driven experience.

I also disagree with your point about exploration. Granted, ME2 is not a sandbox game, but there is a suite of side-missions that can be discovered through exploration. I came across a number of the N7 missions (I think) because I was exploring in search of minerals. Again, the problem for me is that ME2 does not do this very well.

By "not doing this very well," do you mean that ME2 is not a sandbox game? Because I thought that we already granted that. If you mean something else, then please elaborate.

When Metroid Prime came out with it's cool scanning feature for lore, everyone seemed to love it. If you just wanted to play Metroid, you could run, shoot, collect items, and ignore all that stuff. But if you wanted to dig deeper into the background and every bit of story you could scan the hell out of everything.

Seems ME is similar. You can read every codex entry you want, or you can just ignore the thing and pew pew pew. Best of both worlds.

What I mean is that to objectively critique a game, you have to know or intuit what it is it's gunning for.

1) Objectivity doesn't exist.
2) Any writing about a game that is premised on a certain understanding of what the game is "trying" to be is going to necessarily be beholden to that expectation. Better to stick to what a game is, or admit that it's about personal expectations being met or not.

wordsmythe:

A certain amount of objectivity exists. For instance, if game A does X, and game B does X just as well, but also does Y, then we can say with some objectivity that game B is a better game, for no other reason than that it's doing everything game A does just as well, but also does Y without compromising X. For instance, if they were released at the same time, the Orange Box would have been a better product that any of its components alone, priced the same as itself.

Any writing about a game that is premised on a certain understanding of what the game is "trying" to be is going to necessarily be beholden to that expectation. Better to stick to what a game is, or admit that it's about personal expectations being met or not.

"What a game is," is simply another way of saying what I'm trying to say. We can't critique Galaga on the basis of expecting it to be a point-and-click adventure. That simply doesn't make sense. It's not a point-and-click adventure, it's a space shooter. You'd think more people in gaming presses would abide by this principle.

LarryC wrote:

"What a game is," is simply another way of saying what I'm trying to say. We can't critique Galaga on the basis of expecting it to be a point-and-click adventure. That simply doesn't make sense. It's not a point-and-click adventure, it's a space shooter. You'd think more people in gaming presses would abide by this principle.

You're still forcing Galaga into a framework of genre. Galaga is a game where you control a plane in space, moving horizontally across the bottom of the screen and shooting enemies. Enemies fly above and past you, sometimes shooting or firing a tractor beam to capture you.

That's not to say that genre conversations aren't interesting, but they are fairly distinct as a subject.

LarryC wrote:

wordsmythe:

A certain amount of objectivity exists. For instance, if game A does X, and game B does X just as well, but also does Y, then we can say with some objectivity that game B is a better game, for no other reason than that it's doing everything game A does just as well, but also does Y without compromising X. For instance, if they were released at the same time, the Orange Box would have been a better product that any of its components alone, priced the same as itself.

And this is still making a number of assumptions that spring from your point of view. For instance, "more" is not objectively "better."

wordsmythe:

You're still forcing Galaga into a framework of genre. Galaga is a game where you control a plane in space, moving horizontally across the bottom of the screen and shooting enemies. Enemies fly above and past you, sometimes shooting or firing a tractor beam to capture you.

I'm just using genre terminology as a shortcut. I'm not forcing Galaga to be anything other than what it is. I'm just saying that we shouldn't be criticizing it on what it's clearly not.

And this is still making a number of assumptions that spring from your point of view. For instance, "more" is not objectively "better."

That's delving into the very fundamentals of how we look at games. At some point we need to have common assumptions or a conversation is simply not possible; forget objectivity, there simply wouldn't be discussion.

If your point is that we need to establish common assumptions before a logical discussion can be had, I fully agree; that's just a basic rule of rational discussion. This doesn't necessarily mean that objectivity doesn't exist, unless you don't want to agree to any assumptions, in which case nothing exists, which only incidentally includes objectivity.

LarryC wrote:

I'm NOT arguing subjective intentionality. It's not okay for any game maker to characterize every shortcoming and bug as a "feature." This is not what I mean.

What I mean is that to objectively critique a game, you have to know or intuit what it is it's gunning for.

This is the root of our disagreement, I suspect.

Yes, you do have to know what the game is trying to achieve overall (as far, of course, as that is ever possible). But that doesn't mean that the elements that contribute to it achieving that goal - however, incidental or tangental those elements are - cannot be criticised.

Otherwise, pretty much any criticism can be rejected using a simple formulation:

Reviewer 1 suggests that game A does X badly.
Game developer argues that game A isn't actually about element X; instead game A is fundamentally about element Y.

To use your movie anology, it isn't fair to dismiss The Devil Inside as a terrible film because it isn't as funny as The Mask. But is perfectly fair to dismiss it because the acting is poor, the pacing is leaden, or the effects unconvincing.

To answer your specific question, I wasn't saying that ME2 doesn't do sandbox well. I was saying that it doesn't do exploration well. Again, the reason for this is that I found it a sterile experience.

Edit: Don't get me wrong though. ME2 does some things very well indeed. The squad-based combat is well-executed. And some of the characters are among the best that I've come across in video games.

However, in my view there were elements that weren't executed anywhere near as well.

detroit20 wrote:

Reviewer 1 suggests that game A does X badly.
Game developer argues that game A isn't actually about element X; instead game A is fundamentally about element Y.

With this modification, I don't take issue with that.

Reviewer 1 suggests that game A does X badly.
Reviewer 2 argues that while game A may not do X well; viewing game A as if it were about Y makes for an interesting and entertaining experience.

detroit20:

Well, now that we're on the same page, I have to question whether ME2 is even trying to do exploration well at all. I agree that it does not do it well. Lots of games don't. SMG2, Legend of Zelda, Amalur, God of War, any number of games do exploration terribly to a greater or lesser degree.

You're saying you found it a sterile experience. You and I can point out specific aspects that we can say lead to this shortcoming. Let's be blunt about ME2's limitations. It's a corridor shooter, just like God of War is a corridor brawler. Given this nature, what about its exploration game is not within expectation for games designed in similar ways (Call of Duty, Crysis, etc.)?

Not really Mass Effect 2 related; but I have wondered for a while now how one would criticize satire without taking into account authorial intent.

detroit20:

Is it okay, do you think, to continue this conversation here? I find it extremely interesting and would like to talk more about it; let me be clear that I'm only referencing your critique of ME2 as a point of departure. Mistaking one game for another is common enough in gaming journalism that I really think that it deserves its own thread. What do you think, RoutineMachine?

LarryC wrote:

detroit20:

Is it okay, do you think, to continue this conversation here? I find it extremely interesting and would like to talk more about it; let me be clear that I'm only referencing your critique of ME2 as a point of departure. Mistaking one game for another is common enough in gaming journalism that I really think that it deserves its own thread. What do you think, RoutineMachine?

Oh, I'll follow the conversation wherever, probably won't wade in too deeply though. Feel like I'd want a bit more grounding before making bold assertions.

RoutineMachine wrote:

Not really Mass Effect 2 related; but I have wondered for a while now how one would criticize satire without taking into account authorial intent.

You can attempt to read anything as satire or as earnest. Sometimes a piece will work well both ways.