Mass Effect's FailuresS

Let's talk about why Mass Effect doesn't deserve celebration for a change, shall we?

Sorry, I had hoped to spend more time on this, but I'm too busy looking for a better job, so I can afford to eat, trying to figure out a way to get up to a mandatory orientation for school this fall, dealing with a tree that split in half during an ice storm, and a bunch of other stuff. I could probably wait and publish this later, but I wanted to do it during Mass Effect week.

This week, Kotaku is celebrating Mass Effect.

I'm still not sure why.

It's not that great a series, after all. Actually, that's why I'm writing. A friend messaged me the other day asking, "why is Kotaku advertising Mass Effect so heavily?" I thought it was kinda funny, but it rang true. Everyone on staff seemed to be all over the series, talking about how great it was, how awesome, blah blah blah, and, like... not everyone feels that way, you know?

A week dedicated to celebrating one of this generation's biggest shortcomings, a terrific example of style over substance and simplification over intelligence, doesn't deserve to be praised! It demands to be criticized. Kirk Hamilton responded to a wry tweet of mine (asking if there were plans to criticize the game) by mentioning that I should do a TAY post about it, so... that's why I'm here. I'm on limited time, and I can't even afford to buy food right now, so this is probably going to read like the post of a time-constrained, starving madman. Still, I hope you find some value in it.

Mass Effect might be one of the biggest franchises of this generation, but let's talk about why it su—actually, wait, let me back up. First, let's talk about why the first Mass Effect was one of the best, most interesting games out there.

It was the advertising that initially attracted me to the franchise. I wanted to post a picture, but I couldn't find one in any of my comics, and a few cursory Google searches revealed nothing, so I'm going to do my best to explain it: Shepard is standing there, looking at the stars, and there are calls for help coming from all over. The general sentiment, expressed by a caption I can't remember well enough to quote, is that there's an entire galaxy out there.

And that's amazing.

The game was advertised on the promise of a bigger universe. Some people had tried doing it before, but Mass Effect brought the concept into the HD era, giving us planets to find and land on, stations to explore, people to meet, things to do... everything. With Mass Effect, the galaxy really was your oyster.

It's not to say that Mass Effect delivered. The plot, more or less, steals everything from Alastair Reynolds' excellent Revelation Space novels. Stealth ship? Yup. Archaeologists? Absolutely. Reapers? They're called Wolves/Inhibitors. The dangers of AI? A core concept of the series. Granted, Revelation Space does everything better—you'll never find a character as interesting as John, or Scorpio, or Volyova in Mass Effect, but that's okay, because video games are a very young medium, and an understanding of how to use gameplay to tell stories (rather than the other way around) is still not a common concept.

When it comes to gameplay, Mass Effect's moment-to-moment shooting is bad, but it has some good ideas, like a genuinely massive customization system for otherwise generic weapons, long cooldowns on abilities that encourage players to try things that might not sound as exciting, and enemies that were defined as much by silhouette as behavior.

But its failures ultimately don't matter, not just because its successes outweighed them, but because it was an early-gen game, and I believed that, as Bioware released sequels, they'd get better at the core idea that drove the game. Mass Effect promised a future of games that let you, with your own space ship, take on the galaxy, being the person you wanted to be. It was a game that promised a future of freedom and exploration—a game that used the power of new (at the time) gaming hardware to do things gamers had never experienced before.

Bioware, I would later learn, would decide to follow a different path.

Mass Effect 2 and 3 are, by and large, contained experiences. Instead of being loosely-framed stories that encourage players to explore the galaxy, to be who they want to be, they're contrived and limited.

There's so much I want to talk about here. I want to talk about how Mass Effect 2 had bad gunplay. I want to talk about how the levels were designed for mid-ranged classes, how combat was ruined by putting all powers on the same timer, how the writing was bad... And I could, and I'm confident I'd be right. But I don't have that much time, and I want to write this before the week's out. I literally just deleted five paragraphs talking about how Mass Effect 2 and 3 failed to effectively convey the threat of the Reapers/Collectors. It wasn't focused enough.

So let's talk about how Mass Effect 2 and 3 failed to live up to the promise of what Mass Effect was.

One of the things I liked best about Mass Effect were its characters. In Mass Effect 2, characters are flat: they have one trait (X tragic element of their past) and one quirk (such as singing or tattoos). Mass Effect's characters are much more subtle.

Look at Ashley, for instance: most people put her down as a "space racist," boiling her down to one simple aspect, but that's simply not true. Spending time with Ashley can help shape the person she is—she can go from a person who resents aliens for screwing her family over to a person who genuinely values the aliens on her team. If you hang out with Garrus, he goes from being a selfish prick/Dirty Harry wannabe to a young guy who still struggles with fantasies of being The Punisher but also recognizes the insanity in that.

By interacting with the people of Mass Effect, you shape their lives (Except Kaidan and Tali, who have always been really flat characters). Actually, that's the beauty of the series as a whole: every aspect of the game treats it as if it's a real place, and your presence has a genuine impact on the world.

Consider Mass Effect 2 and 3, where choices stopped mattering. Garrus became the one-note Punisher wannabe (he was improved somewhat in ME3, fortunately), for instance. It was as if the series' new head writer, Mac Walters (ME2, ME3) hadn't learned anything from Drew Karpyshyn (ME). When I look at the newer games, I see characters written from the perspective of someone who was unable to see the way characters grew in the first game. "Oh, I see here that Garrus wants to be a rogue, renegade cop! We'll run with that!" \

Yeah. Sure. Ignore how Garrus grew throughout the game, will you?

Ignore my impact on the game's world, will you?

Huh. I said it was about the potential to explore a big universe and be who you wanted to be, but I'm realizing, as I write this, that I'm frustrated about more than that. Mass Effect's problem isn't that the universe became smaller, it's that choice and consequence—and that includes things like the choice to be an explorer, or the choice to build a character that could take a hit from a Geth tank, and all that other good stuff.

I laugh when people talk about how bad Mass Effect 3's ending was. Of course it was bad, but Bioware had gotten away with it in Mass Effect 2, and none of us complained about it then. What, exactly, were you expecting? Go back and play the beginning of Mass Effect 2. Tell the Illusive Man you won't work for him (because you saw what happened to Admiral Kahoku and his men in the original game, perhaps—you KNOW Cerberus are a bunch of evil bastards).

Do you know what he'll say?

"YES YOU WILL."

Do you know what you'll say?

"kk."

There's nothing else you can do. Your choice—your presence—no longer matters. It gets worse in Dragon Age 2, but by Mass Effect 2, it's already pretty bad. You're going to ride the roller coaster Bioware's set for you. The characters are no longer impacted by you. You can't explore the galaxy.

Combat's been redesigned so you must spend time in cover. Map sizes have been changed to cater to the bulk of the game's playerbase, meaning that they're almost entirely established for medium-ranged engagements, making the primary weapons of engineers and infiltrators somewhat useless.

You don't matter.

Shepard doesn't deserve the praise he or she gets. All Shepard did was the only thing Shepard could do. Shepard can't fail—you can't fail. Neither you nor Shepard want anything but to 'save the galaxy.' It's impossible to have moments like the Major Kyle confrontation in Mass Effect 2 and 3. The franchise has become little more than a series of endless fight tubes with moments of poorly animated sexual intercourse or obvious Star Trek 2011 space battle ripoff cutscenes.

Mass Effect 2 had half the number of quests as Mass Effect, and half the number of planets to visit. Sure, you may say "but everything looked the same, and the Mako drove poorly," but... so what? Finding an Asari space pirate in the middle of nowhere was a lot more interesting than following a two-foot wide path on the wreckage of a crashed space ship just to press one button.

Talking down the leader of a biotic commune on a planet with a photograph of Mars in the skybox and a map that was identical to the one with the rogue lunar VI didn't matter, because it was still far more interesting than landing on a platform, shooting a couple guys, solving a puzzle, and leaving. Being a crappy shooter (Mass Effect 2 was also a crappy shooter, though) doesn't really matter when you can be so many different things.

Like I said, the future Mass Effect games were more constrained.

And why?

For a subpar narrative? I could go on at length about how Mass Effect 2 utterly fails to be The Dirty Dozen—which is funny, because that was a codename Bioware used to describe it. The Dirty Dozen is good, because like any heist/squad movie (Guns of Navarone and Ocean's 11 are two great ones), it's focused on how all of the characters interact with and affect each other, impacting the outcome of the story. Mass Effect 2 goes: "get your squad, do some loyalty missions, kk, now find the base and take it out." There's no character arc.

I could tell you about how the Collectors as a lesser threat than the Reapers was an ineffective use of story. I could tell you how letting Earth survive to be saved negatively impacted the "race" to take on the Reapers. We could talk about how silly it is that Earth seems a lot more important than the other planets being impacted by the Reapers. There's so much bad plotting and writing that we can talk about. I seriously have no idea where to begin. Did stopping the Reaper in the first game or taking over the Collector base mean anything?

Bring Down the Sky was a more focused, purposeful piece of storytelling than anything else post-Mass Effect, and it was just a random piece of free DLC!

Mass Effect 2 had the potential to be a game where a group of different people got over their differences and coalesced into a capable team that took on a bigger threat that came before. Mass Effect 3 could have been more than just a game about meeting everyone you spent time with in the last games and telling them goodbye.

Mass Effect could have been a series about being human—about what it means to be a person who has an impact on other people. They could have used interactivity, the unique element of video gaming that makes it a worthwhile art form, as a way to help us better understand that our choices have consequences. Good art teaches us what it means to be human, and Mass Effect 2 and 3 didn't. Bioware chose, instead, to tell a cliched, as-boring-as-Michael-Bay's-Transformers, poorly-written little story about how a bunch of plucky but shallow characters took on a bunch of robots and beat them.

I would have liked Mass Effect 2 to be like Mass Effect, but without the broken cover system, crappy inventory, unfocused skills, and the godawful Mako missions and recycled content greatly improved.

I didn't want what I got.

Maybe one day, and indie dev will make the kind of game Mass Effect promised it would become. And maybe it'll have great writing, too. That'd be nice.