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My Summer Traveling Through The Galaxy
by claudio scolastici on 10/29/12 05:59:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

What follows here is the third and final part of a detailed survey about the evolution of the Mass Effect franchise I wrote.

I specifically focused my analysis on the squad management mechanics of the game and how they changed from one installment to the next of the series.

My point was to take this specific aspect of the games of the trilogy, which is a very important element of the overall experience, to come up with some conclusion on each game as a whole.

If you are intersted in understanding how I got to my conclusions, please read the complete survey (PART 1 & 2) available at:


http://cscolastici.weebly.com/great-games-analysis.html

 

And please, comment and email me. I like to share opinions.

Enjoy!

 

the mass effect trilogy


Before I unveil my conclusions, I would like to state some general considerations.

The Mass Effect series is a great collection of games. It is a complex combination of role playing and 3rd person shooter elements, with a great story built around interesting characters, in a fully developed world that shows beautiful environments and an encyclopedic background of knowledge.

It's no surprise if not everything is perfect and that there are issues here and there. But the scope of the project is huge and I think it is one of the best franchises for the actual console generation.


Mass Effect 1

In my opinion, the first ME is a game that it's perfect in theory, but doesn't work as well in practice. Every design decision seems right, but once the player experiences it through gameplay, issues arise.

Let's make some examples with regard to squad management, as we discussed throughout this survey.

It is reasonable that you can loot crates and safes only if you have a squad mate able to perform this kind of action. Ask anyone who role-plays and he will agree.

But once you land on a planet with the Mako, climb an impossible mountain, find a probe and discover you cannot access its content because the team you assembled lacks a skill, will you still consider that reasonable?

The dedicated player could go back to the Normandy, pick another team member, climb back the mountain to get to the probe again and finally access the loot. But what about the normal (read: people who can't spend all day on games anymore) players?

Another case. You dock to the Citadel, enter a shop and find a very good Turian armor. Unfortunately you didn't bring Garrus with you, so there's no way to check if the armor you found is better than the one Garrus is already using. The armor costs a lot and it can only fit Garrus. Will you deplete your money on a bet?

The dedicated player could go back to the Normandy, pick Garrus and go back to the shop, check if the armor is worth its price and maybe buy it. But, again, what about the others?

Equipping the team with the lockers in the Normandy is a pain as well. Tons of numbered gun models that basically work all the same, infinite lists of weapon, ammo and armor upgrades that force the player to go back and forth with each team member locker to answer questions like “should I give Ablative Coating VII to Wrex and Energized Wave VI to Ashley so to keep Kinetic Buffer VIII for Shepard?”. Who, if not the most enthusiast players, would do that?

screen shot of the inventory manager of mass effect 1

So, this is my opinion: the first ME main flaw is that it overwhelms players with too much information and too many choices that don't always repay with an evident advantage the time it took to get to those decisions.

The leveling system is flexible and allows different development paths, but it's not always clear how much difference those ranks make.

You can issue movement orders to team mates, but at the same time you are forced to sacrifice the freedom of assembling the squad as you please.

There are lots of weapons to equip, even if squad members aren't capable of effectively wield them.

It looks to me like a a clockwork with too many wheels: it works somehow, but the same result could be reached with less cogs.

Which is exactly what they did with ME 2!

 

Mass Effect 2

I wrote that ME 2 was some kind of hysterical reaction to ME 1. My opinion hasn't changed, but I also want to make it clear that I consider ME 2 the best game of the franchise and one of the best games for this console generation.

Yes, they maybe took away too much from the first episode and basically turned the game into a third person shooter with branched dialogs. Fighting apart, there is not very much else to do and you got minimal control over the the equipment and development of your characters.


Sure, I would have liked more weapons with different firing behaviors.

Sure, I would have liked to choose an armor for my squad members.

Sure, I would have liked more flexibility when leveling them.

But sure, I enjoyed this title as a whole more than any single feature I had to give up from the previous episode!

Fighting works better, because squad members can be effectively deployed on the battlefield and the cover system has improved.

Looting works better, because it is not subjected to characters' skills anymore, but only relies on the ability of the player to solve the mini-games.

minigames screenshots from mass effect 2

Weapon upgrades are easily managed, because, once researched, they apply to all weapons in a category, for all team members.

Leveling takes no time, because the number of skills has been reduced to those really useful in combat, with a direct advantage in the use of powers during a fight.

And then comes a plethora of further improvements.

Better characters, with better stories, better developed. They are even more in number!

Better navigation inside the Normandy, without need to take the elevator back and forth from Engineering, to equip characters, to Command Deck, to jump into a mission.

Better ammo management, with the possibility to change ammo type on the fly during a combat, regardless of the weapon wielded.

Better, better, better.

Mass Effect 2 it's a must have, trilogy or not. Period.

 

Mass Effect 3

So we finally got to the third and last episode of the trilogy. I advise you: this is going to be a long chapter, for I need to explain how the best of three games from a technical point of view delivers the worst gameplay experience of the entire series. Let's begin.

To me, ME 3 is like an intruder between two brothers. The first episode is the diligent brother, who likes to study and learn. He can be boring sometimes, but he is definitely interesting due to his well developed knowledge that spans in many fields.

The second episode is the sporty brother who spends all his time training and getting ready for action. He maybe can't help you dealing with astrophysics, but at least he knows good stories and a lot of chicks.

The two brothers are quite different, still you can see they come from the same family: they resemble each other, even if they have different characters.

The third episode, on the other hand, looks like the impostor who tries to conceal in the family. Like the Carpenter's Thing, he can look like the others at a first sight, he is even better than his brothers in many ways. But as you get closer, he definitely doesn't smell like them.

I understand it is a hard metaphor, so I'll try to explain my point.

Let's pick weapons, to begin.

In ME 3 the player can choose among different types of weapons, each model with its distinctive behavior. This is a very good solution, the best achieved in the entire trilogy, if you ask me. Each weapon model can also be upgraded paying a price, so that players can choose which models to spend their money on to improve them. And that's good, too.

So, can someone explain me why if weapons are upgraded inside the Normandy, the shooting range to test them is located in the Spectre office on the Citadel? Does it seem reasonable to travel to the Citadel to test a weapon before deciding whether to upgrade it or not?

weapons specs from mass effect 3

We mentioned the Normandy, so let's stick with it.

We all know that small enterprises tend to act smarter than larger organizations, mainly because it is easier, for a small company, to employ people on a meritocratic basis, rather than for bureaucratic reasons. When Cerberus built the Normandy for ME 2, its architects made a series of smart decisions about the disposition of the relevant locations (armory, research labs, rooms), in order to maximize efficiency (read: reduced backtracking and use of the elevator).

In ME 3 they changed this and opted for the former configuration, which forces the players to use the elevator again to move from the Armory to the Command Deck. My opinion is that the designer of ME 3 wanted to show players the drawbacks of having rejoined the Alliance. If you have other explanations, please email me!

These are mere examples, but they are important to explain how a great potential went wasted with the last installment of the series. From a technical perspective, ME 3 improves much from its predecessors: better characters development system, better weapons and ammo management, better galactic map exploration, better enemy AI, etc etc.

Nonetheless, it lacks something on the soul side: it looks like they forced the game out of the necessity to develop it to complete the trilogy, rather than because they really wanted to make it!

As you play the game, you get the impression they didn't care to really involve players in the game world anymore, preferring to relegate them to the role of third-class observers, rather than the heroes. It's hard to explain, because, technically, all the features of the series are in place, and the players is offered the opportunity to achieve great goals with ME 3: curing the genophage, making peace between Turians and Krogans and between Quarians and Geth.

But, despite the achievements and the dramatic story, it seems the developers didn't expect very much from their players: important elements of the game are simply forced onto the player and, most of the time, success is achieved with minimal effort. The same can be said about lesser game elements.

Looting for example: in ME 1 to crack a safe there were both a requisite to be met and a skill test to be passed. In ME 2 they only kept the skill test. And ME 3? Well, in ME 3 things to be looted are simply left on the ground for the player to pick up. With no trial, what is the loot the reward for? For playing the game? For buying it?

There's more. I didn't take notice of time, but I'm pretty sure that ME 3 has the longest cut-scenes of the series. To not speak about auto-dialogues or the dreaming sessions.

Single planets like Tutchanka and Rannoch contain 3\4 missions in a row, like, all of a sudden, they became the center of the galaxy. I agree that important things happens there, but was there no room for other locations, too? Beloved characters from previous episodes that re-appear with apparently no reason, like Jacob or Miranda, or even Ashley. To not speak of the Journal, that does its best in not helping the player fulfilling the side missions...

Maybe this is exactly the meaning of the “BETTER WITH KINECT” writing on my X-Box 360 game box. ME 3 is designed having the average Kinect player in mind!

 

FINAL

So, to put and end to all this, I'd like to summarize the following way. To me ME 1 says to its players: “Look at me, I am Mass Effect, a game with a huge scope that will put you in a beautiful sci-fi environment with a great story”.

ME 2 goes like “Welcome back! I am sorry for the mistakes I made, but I will show you I learned my lessons and now I am ready to involve you even more”.

And what does ME 3 says? My opinion is that it is “Hi, you still there? You know, I was once a very good game, but now I am tired of all this, so let's try to make it quick! But in the meantime, let me indulge in celebrating myself and what I once was”. Not a very good speech, isn't it?

 

Thanks for your time. Hope you enjoyed this survey and please, email me if you'd like to share your opinions on this great trilogy.

Bye!


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