Late to the Game: Mass Effect and other stuff

Good day nerdlings; Big Al here.  I’m bored at work and felt like writing something for you – but that’s ancillary filler because I was never very good at introductory statements.

I’ve never been much of a gamer.  My family was pretty poor growing up, so I didn’t have a console until a few years after the SNES was released, and even then I only had a handful of games (Link to the Past, Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, Star Fox…the good stuff).  And I didn’t get a computer capable of running games more complicated than Space Math until the mid-90s when my father upgraded from a 486 to his first-ever Pentium.  Thanks to my tech and cash limitations, I was the kind of gamer who played one game over and over again for years to the point where I could almost recite the dialogue trees from memory.

For me, that game was Eidos’ masterpiece Deus Ex.  I got a Game of the Year edition from a friend a few years after it came out, and I was hooked after ten minutes of game play.  I’ve always been a fan of RPGs but I’d never played a proper action RPG before – the FPS games I had previously played were of the ID variety, and the RPGs were early, badly-rendered Might and Magic titles.  The genre splicers typified by the likes of Deus Ex were like a prayer answered to me, so I spent the next ten years more or less becoming JC Denton.

In the last two years or so I finally invested in a machine capable of running games only a few years out of date (as opposed to eight or ten years), so Sean set me up with a Steam account and I started testing the waters of a gaming landscape that at least approximated “modern”.  After fiddling around with the likes of Borderlands and Torchlight for a while, I started looking for something with more substance – something that would help recreate the immersive, exciting experience I shared with Deus Ex for oh so many years, and that’s when I began my very serious intimate relationship with BioWare.

Before you start lighting torches, I want to make it clear that I am aware I am a fanboy.  I never thought I’d be one, but it turns out I am the walking incarnation of that one-trick gamer pony who likes what he likes and rarely steps outside his box.  But you can give me the benefit of the doubt, O Veteran Gamers of the Internets, because I’m a neophyte and fantastically late to the game.  For example:

Mass Effect (part one!)

I just finished playing this engaging romp across the galaxy last night, and as much as I got a kick out of it, my “late to the party” theorem holds true here – I couldn’t help but compare Commander Shepard’s first adventure to BioWare’s truly outstanding 2009 release Dragon Age: Origins.  I know it’s not fair for me to compare an earlier game to a later one, but it’s a human reaction when one plays games according to the advice of the coked-out monkey that lives in my head rather than, say, release dates.  That said, I also found ME:1 somewhat lacking even compared to the much earlier-released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and now that I’ve completely alienated all of you, I’ll try to explain myself out of this hole.

KOTOR was the first BioWare game I’d ever played, and indeed was my first foray into action RPG since the aforementioned Deus Ex. To put it plainly, I absolutely loved KOTOR.  Sure, I could go on and on about gameplay elements that irritated me, or the limitations set up by the strict nature of the morality system, but all of my niggling little arguments pale in comparison to the sheer scope and immersion the game offered me, as an action RPG virgin (well, I wasn’t exactly a virgin, but I was the gaming equivalent of the guy who dates one girl from ninth grade through to the end of college and winds up getting dumped for somebody successful).  What I loved most about KOTOR was how big the universe felt and how many choices there seemed to be.  The storyline was linear, but there were lots of entertaining character- and story-building exercises to partake in (or not) along the way.  While I balked a bit at the time-consuming animations between interplanetary travel, the fact that I had to hop back and forth from Kashyyk to Dantooine to Manaan to complete all the side quests really gave me a sense of “being there”, and the fact that I was allowed to complete the main quests in whatever order I felt appropriate was also a huge selling point.

This is part of what immediately attracted me to ME:1.  For one thing, the universe is extremely well-realized.  With KOTOR they were playing with someone else’s intellectual property – a property already fleshed out by thirty-plus years of existing content – so they didn’t have to sell their fantasy world to me.  ME:1 didn’t have that luxury, and I’ll admit I am extremely critical of science-fiction IPs because so often they get it wrong.  I was thrilled to see BioWare take the time and commitment necessary to create a lush, full universe that actually felt like “real” science fiction.  I’m one of those weirdos who love reading ancillary text in games to get the most out of my experience, so apart from shutting down the sound during those annoying codex voiceovers, I delighted in reading all about the culture and politics for which ME:1 is so well-known.  An aside: I’m a stickler for “how things work” in sci-fi, so I was especially impressed that ME:1 went the extra mile to explain some of the technologies at work on board the Normandy and elsewhere in a way that had more in common with Asimov or Heinlein than Roddenberry or Lucas.

And, at least initially, it felt big.  The breakdown of planet/system/cluster was dynamic and fun to navigate, and lent the same sense of distance and scope I felt in KOTORs gameplay.  But herein we locate the epicenter of the three big problems I had with ME:1 because they’re all interrelated.

First of all, I said the game universe felt big, and that held true until about five hours in when I really started exploring the galaxy and quickly realized that, for some unknowable reason, the layout of every facility and spaceship was strikingly similar (if by “strikingly similar” I mean “identically”, which I do).  I’m not going to harp too much on this issue, because I have a loose idea of just how much work goes into building physics engines and rendering and all that sort of thing (so it’s at least a bit excusable on BioWare’s part), and I’ve never been one to complain about game dynamics like this if the game is still fun and engaging (hell, I played over a hundred hours on Borderlands and a game would be hard-pressed to get more samey than that).  However, it really did start to stretch the bounds of credibility for me, and took away from the fun of exploring new areas when I knew (at least geographically) where I was going.

But at least getting to these samey locations would be diverse, I thought, upon noting the mechanic that allowed you to drive around planetary surfaces looking for minerals and discarded alien medals of honour and whatnot.  I liked the fact the MACO was a wheeled vehicle instead of some sort of Lucasesque landspeeder deal (in fact, I enjoyed the curious mix of modern day and far future scattered throughout the game’s aesthetic, even if it came perilously close to Halo territory for my liking at times), but I enjoyed the vehicle sections less and less as the game required me to engage in combat and navigate terrain that made the Adirondacks look like a freshly paved freeway.  Yahtzee over at Zero Punctuation compared the MACOs handling to that of a fat man on a unicycle, and I don’t disagree, though I will note the fat man would have made a far bigger mess if he spent as much time flipping ass-over-teakettle through the air and dashing himself off the sides of mountains as I did trying to navigate in the stupid thing.  I’m willing to concede my issues may have stemmed partly from my ludicrously-underpowered graphics card, but trying to get the MACO from point A to point B before forgetting what I was doing on the planet to begin with, all the while training my finicky guns on the various Shai-Hulud (sorry, “Thresher Maws”) and Cylons (sorry, “geth”) that kept popping up, was an exercise in smashing my head against a brick wall.

And this brings me to my final gripe (finally).  As I mentioned, I finished up my first playthrough of ME:1 last night (though I’m anticipating another since I made the rookie mistake of making a male Sheperd and therefore missed out on Jennifer Hale’s apparently exceptional voice work), and when I looked at my final save point I was shocked to note my total play time had come in at just over thirty hours.  For reference, my first KOTOR playthrough was roughly four times that, and even my first DA:O runthrough was almost eighty hours.  Now, I’m by no means a veteran gamer, and it’s entirely possible I may have missed content and side quests, but the thing is I don’t think I did.  I talked to everyone I could find and sat through their often painfully-long dialogue trees because I genuinely wanted to get everything I could out of my ME:1 experience.  When I stop to consider the fact that an inordinate amount of that thirty hour playthrough involved me fucking around with the MACO mechanics trying to get from place to place, not to mention reading the codex (though I’m pretty sure that counts as pausing the game), I walked away feeling kind of gypped.  Surely, I thought, a game that came out a solid five years after KOTOR and boasting what appeared to be a much bigger playing field should have taken me at least two-thirds as long as KOTOR did to complete.  If any of you veteran action RPGers out there can tell me what – if anything – I did wrong, I’d really appreciate your thoughts.

At the end of the day, though, if my biggest complaint about a game is that I wanted to play it longer, I’d say it’s a pretty lame complaint.  After all, there’s a whole sequel waiting on my Steam account at home for me to leap back into my powered armor and proceed to fight, fly and fuck my way around the galaxy, and when I’m done with that I’ll only have to wait until the end of the year for the third installment, so I can’t really bitch about a lack of content.

All in all, Mass Effect did what I figure it was supposed to do – it got me invested in their universe, made me care about the characters, and provided me with a solid thirty hours of spacefaring fun I wouldn’t have traded for a lesser game.  If everything I’m hearing about Dragon Age II is to be believed, I think the fifteen bucks I spent to get ME:1 from Steam was probably a far wiser purchasing choice. My BioWare fanboy status remains strong and consistent regardless.

I’m going to try and write more regularly in the coming months, and a lot of it will probably be musings like this one, so when you come back (if you come back) I’d recommend making a pot of coffee beforehand.  Or, if it’s your thing, a pot of bourbon.

Thanks for reading, nerdlings.


~ by Nerds with Guitars on March 23, 2011.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: