Materialism, expectations, and hindsight: replaying the Mass Effect trilogy
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Hi all. The topic of excessive expectations came up on EZA Twitch stream after Nintendo's show. Throughout the show, chat was full of complaints from people upset that Nintendo was using their 'limited time' to talk rather than show, though I was unbothered. Afterwards, at least two of us in chat commented on how people within the vg community often have high expectations of video game companies which are rarely met and even if they are, it is only temporary.
This is, I believe, the inevitable result of materialism. Things, objects, cannot truly fulfill our desires, which upsets us, because we are told they can, and we act upon it. I have long since stopped hoping to be fulfilled by material things, and I believe this has increased my ability to actually enjoy video games. Partly as a demonstration of this, as well as because I hadn't played them for a while, I recently decided to replay the Mass Effect trilogy. ME3 was one of the most obvious examples of a video game being unable to reach expectations, for a variety of reasons. I did not touch the game until three years after it came out, by which time the emotions over it had drained away, and people had moved on.
There is, however, a fairly common narrative that it is the worst game in the series, and that 2 is the best. Occasionally someone will argue that 1 is the real best, but never 3. I was curious to play through the trilogy with an inquiring eye, no longer involved in the story, but wanting to see how well each game does the things we expect a good game to do. Having now done so, I thought it worthwhile to put my thoughts into writing.
World: While I have some complaints about no-one interacting with each other on the Normandy - which makes it feel like Shepard is the only person that really matters - his is small fry compared to the richly detailed world of Mass Effect, a galaxy with a distant, unknown 'big bad' lurking behind a world full of history that goes well beyond humanity's entrance into the picture. Humanity is just a newcomer on the scene, a baby in the face of the adults. The Rachni War, the Krogan Rebellions, the Genophage, the Geth Rebellion, these are all far off, distant things that have an impact on the world Shepard exists in, and that change the way characters react to him. The enormous codex should not go unappreciated here either, particularly because it simply adds detail to what the game tells us, which is how it should be used.
Story: The first game does an excellent job with its story on two levels. Firstly, it is a complete game. If you only ever played 1, you could feel like you had finished the story of Shepard and his crew. This was at least partly due to BW not knowing whether ME would be popular: If 1 was the only ME ever made, it would feel complete, rather than an open ended mystery that we will never see completed. The second is in the way it makes a way for potential future events, which it does by wrapping up the immediate events of the game without concluding the future that the immediate events were all about: the coming of the Reapers. There is so much life to the world of Mass Effect that this could have allowed ME sequels to go in a multitude of different directions.
Characterisation: While it's hardly unusual for the oldest characters in a franchise to be the most beloved, the extent to which that is true in ME should not be ignored. Garrus, Wrex, Tali and Liara are comfortably the most popular characters in the ME universe, and while they all stick to a pretty basic theme - being outside the norm for their species - it works well in creating relatable characters that we want to interact with. Minor characters get big personalities, which is nice, and helps establish the state of the galaxy beyond Shepard.
Battles: I'm not entirely sure why, but battles in this game have a chaos to them that the rest of the series doesn't have. It's fun to work with, even if occasionally a bit frustating, because it feels more like what you would expect a roaming adventurer to be facing as he travails the galaxy. While there is cover, it doesn't have the same obviousness to it that later games have.
Music: The soundtrack of the Mass Effect trilogy draws much of a blank in my mind, beyond the hum of both Normandys. The tracks that I do recall have one thing in common: they're all from the first game. The menu theme (Vigil) is amazing: haunting, hopeful, warm, but warning. This makes more sense when it appears in the game itself, as those are the very feelings that the existence of the Vigil VI invokes. Also worth noting are the star chart theme (which is re-used for the map in 2 and 3), and Virmire Ride, which is used whenever you get in the Mako.
Difficulty and balance: There are some really weird leaps in difficulty that aren't particularly player friendly, most notably when saving Liara. If this is the first of the big missions you undertake - which it should be given the importance of Liara to the story - you will spend a lot of time being killed on the mission, particularly by the boss krogan. There's nothing wrong with a mildly difficult game (which is certainly more than 2 and 3 can offer), but the random spikes and drops in diffculty are a bit disconcerting. Furthermore, once you reach a certain level, nothing else can really match you, leaving you feeling like you've passed the last hurdle long before the end of the game. The sidequests are necessary to get your character levelled up early, which adds to the dilemma of that last hurdle. To be fair, they do help build up the world, but at the same time very few of them add anything noteworthy to the main plot.
Battle mechanics: I realise I said earlier that battles are fun, but that is true despite the way their mechanics work. Every battle is the same: encounter enemy, throw as many of your powers at them as you can (unless there's one you need to wait for the right time to use), start shooting at them until your powers recharge, repeat. There's not a lot of depth to it, and powers don't really interact with each other with interesting side effects, which you would expect them to given what they are supposedly doing. This is meant to be science fiction, after all.
Graphics and engine: While clearly a step up from Jade Empire, this is not an especially pretty game to look at. This is understandable given the sheer number of worlds to create, and for its time it isn't terrible by any means, but it doesn't hold up well compared to ME2, which came out a mere three years later. A shortage of animations also makes itself pretty obvious while having conversations after only a few hours of gameplay. And for the world they were trying to create, one wonders if BioWare wasn't a little ahead of their time. Despite the depth of the lore and the quality of the characterisation, there is a sparseness to the world of Mass Effect that goes beyond the deserved emptiness of the worlds you explore. The Citadel and the Normandy both feel far more empty than they should, and it affects the players ability to feel like they're doing something really significant by stopping Sovereign. The Wards are dull rather than 'vibrant', and the Presidium is somehow overly large and much too small. One exception: Virmire. Wowee.
Genre: Yes, BioWare made its name with RPGs, and Mass Effect - at first glance - looks perfectly suited to being an RPG. But the RPG parts of Mass Effect are inferior, and often annoying. Electronics and Decryption skills to complete a mini-game that gives you goodies, way too many weapons to sort through and unknowable morality barriers are all attempts to do something that would add to the game, but end up being the opposite. ME3 demonstrated that the 'shooter with RPG elements' actually works perfectly fine for what the game is, so it would have been nice if they'd known that from the start.
The first Mass Effect is a good game with flaws. These flaws will crop up pretty much everywhere you go in the game, but none of them are so deep that you're likely to spend too long thinking about them.
Mass Effect 2
Characterisation: With the sheer number of squadmates in the game, it would've been understandable if some of them weren't very interesting. Somehow, they avoided this. Sure, some characters are disliked by a significant proportion of the fanbase - Jacob and Miranda probably get the most flak - but this is rarely to do with the characters themselves, and more to do with the world around them (see below). The loyalty missions are especially excellent ways to flesh out the motivations and attitudes of each character, allowing us to sympathise with them and appreciate them. Furthermore, squad recruitment and loyalty missions account for the majority of the game, which means you'll be spending a lot of your time in game getting to know these mostly well-written characters. Please note, however, that most of their characterisation will come in their specific missions, and in their conversations with you on the ship. When the plot comes in, they are all interchangable (mostly). There is also an asterisk next to this in the form of Liara, who is a completely different person, and the Virmire survivor, whose one interaction with you is nonsensical.
Battle mechanics: Thank you for changing the way powers work in this game. ME2 sets the scene for the truly great mechanics of three by making powers simpler, but more effective and different from each other. And, you know, explosions, which should have been there from the start. The addition of chest high walls everywhere reduces the chaos, but the battles flow well enough.
Graphics: This was a good looking game when it came out, and it passes muster seven years later. Dem EA dollars came in handy for something, at least. The design choices for each of the planets you can explore are good, and all contrast against each other quite well.
Story: the story of ME2 takes place within a set of decisions that are, once examined from the outside, odd. Shepard's death and the existence of the Collectors are both entirely unncessary. The Collectors are not even hinted at in 1, and yet here they are, a straight up replacement for the geth, who are now not so bad as you thought. The Reapers aren't actually super-synthetics that believe they are intrisically better than organics, they are actually organic-synthetic things that are quite happy to use organics as their underlings. Their existence means they have to be stopped, and because Shepard died, Cerberus rebuilds him and he is forced to work with them. Even worse, if you skip straight from 1 to 3, you haven't really missed anything in the big picture. Shepard and his crew are the only ones who believe the Reapers are coming and are trying to stop them. That's true at the end of 1, and it's true at the end of 2. So, what was the point? ME1 did a great job of setting up the universe in a way that would make the Reapers believable and maybe, just maybe, beatable. ME2 throws it away, to replace it with a different story that finishes at the same point, but with less capacity for beating the Reapers.
World: The galaxy of Mass Effect 2 is a tiny little thing that revolves around Shepard. There is, apparently, some other galaxy out there as well that happens when Shepard isn't there (such as Liara becoming an information broker and Wrex the king of the krogan while Shepard was awaiting his resurrection), but it's entirely irrelevant to the world you play in. You don't get to explore any world, you just head straight to where the mission-shooty bit is, or you go through a small detour first (Citadel, Omega, Illium, Tuchanka) to get to that bit. It's too busy deconstructing the world of 1 to replace it with anything equally spectacular, hoping instead that you will focus on the excellent characters that you will spend the majority of the game with. Somehow, you manage to encounter a whole string of people you met in 1 in the tiny proportion of worlds you get to 'explore'. Sure, it's nice to see how Gianni Parasini and Shiala are faring, but putting them within two minutes of each other on the same world is a bit absurd. This happens constantly. Furthermore, things just happen without explanation in game, and Shepard has to just go along with them because, well, that's what happening , and you aren't allowed to explore beyond that. This is not how to build a rich world that Shepard is an active participant in, especially if whatever's happening is a direct contradiction of what you would expect from 1.
Weapon mechanics and difficulty: Apparently the world of ME2 isn't immune from the effect of nonsensical mechanics decisions, because while they fixed up the way powers work, they inexplicably decided to remove infinite ammo from the game, despite it having a well explained reason to exist, and replaced it with an inferior technology that appears in places it shouldn't and runs out when you need it. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Perhaps this was thrown in to make the game seem at least a bit more difficult, because otherwise it is far too easy, even on the toughest difficulties. Heavy weapons are fun but not needed.
Atmosphere and genre: I think this game is trying to be darker and edgier than 1, but it doesn't really pull it off. The atmosphere of 1 actually allowed it to creep you out, because you were some guy with a small squad, facing the great unknowns of the galaxy. The smallness of the world creeps into the atmosphere, which tries to compensate by making the spooky places (eg. the Collector ship) look far greater than you. But the chest high walls prevent this from having any real, lasting impact, and the music doesn't stick with you like this does. In fact, I'm not entirely sure what this game is trying to be, and I don't think it knows either. It certainly isn't trying to be 1, but it seems to recognise that it can't just be a completely different game to 1 altogether given it's, you know, a sequel. The result is a confusing mess that you thankfully don't have to spend much time paying attention to, because the game distracts you with the squadmate missions, which are great. In fact, if you removed the major plotline, and made this all about Shepard meeting these interesting characters while searching for a way to stop the Reapers, this game would have been better.
Mass Effect 2 is a good game with flaws. These flaws are not as wide-ranging as in 1, but they go deeper, as you can tell from the amount of time I spent on them compared to the good stuff. Because the fights are smoother and most of your time will be spent with the interesting characters on their decent-to-great recruitment and loyalty missions, you can overlook the flaws for most of the game. But they are always lurking, and will come to the foreground whenever the plot plonks itself back into your otherwise compelling adventure about meeting various interesting people who will fight with you.
Mass Effect 3
Battle mechanics: The way they design power use here is excellent and innovative, there are a large variety of weapons that do different things, the 'weight' mechanic is clever and fun, explosions are great, it's all good. Makes you wish they had it from the start, and because you spend most of this game doing shooty things, the way you fight needed to be fun.
Characterisation: I was really impressed with how well ME3 does the little things. The decision to make characters move around on the Normandy after each mission, chatting with each other, is one that should've been done much earlier. Having most of Shepard's interactions not enter a new screen is actually a good move, because it prevents you from entering a conversation multiple times to hear the same things over and over. Any caveats in this category are, as in ME2, the fault of the plot. (Also, Citadel DLC pretty good. Why so little time spent with some characters, though?)
Genre: Having now understood what it's meant to be - a third-person shooter with RPG elements - ME3 does it well.
Graphics: Improved again over ME2.
Story: Everyone knows about this, so there's little need to go over it. If I did, this post would be much longer than it already is. The writers were given nothing to work with from 2, and did even less with it.
World: The Citadel is the only saving grace here, as it gets mildly crowded as the war goes on. But ultimately everything revolves around Earth and humanity, which is the exact opposite of how ME1 established the galaxy to be. Furthermore, pretty much all your ME2 squadmates show up as a result of total coincidences. If the leaked script was true, then it wasn't meant to be like this, but that's what we got, and it makes the galaxy revolve around the Only One Who Can Save Us. I don't like that world so much, because the Shepard of ME1 isn't really that guy. Yeah, he's great, but he's not The Messiah. It's like the extracted Liara's worship of him in 1, took away the reason for it (all the information that he processed because he worked for it), and used a galaxy-wide shroud to cause everyone to develop this worship of Shepard. The world established in 1 doesn't exist in 3, and there isn't really a proper replacement for it.
Atmosphere: I'm in the middle of a galactic war against an unstoppable force and never really feel in danger because I'm Commander Shepard. I'm meant to feel sad about all the humans dying, which are represented by some kid I don't know and who refused my help for no apparent reason.
The difference between 2 and 3 is much like that between 1 and 2. The problems are actually less again, it's just that they are even deeper than in 2. You can ignore them, just like in 2, because you spend a lot of your time doing the good bits (fighting and interacting with known characters on the Normandy). But the plot comes back to bite in crucial increments just when you'd forgotten about it, and eventually finishes the game.
Altogether, I would argue that you can make an argument for each of these three games being either the best or worst in the series. It is hardest to argue that 1 is the worst, because none of its flaws are deep enough, but it can be jarring to go back to if you're used to 2, or 3 especially.
There has been a lot written about why the faults of ME3 exist (though not so much about 2, which there should be, because 2 set 3 up to fail). I don't want to go over them. I would prefer to look at why it is that so many people played a game that was still, on balance, a good game, and thought it was genuinely terrible.
I suspect it comes down to this: when we enter a story that we are paying money for, we expect a degree of satisfaction from it. The more we pay, the more we expect. The more others expect, the more we expect. The more money is put into the story, and to telling us about how good the story will be, the more we expect. It is tough to see how any game can live up to those expectations. Some do, but they are the exception, rather than the norm. Games have faults, because they're made by humans, who have the habit of making unwise decisions. The more humans you add to the mix, the more potential faults (even if they can also overcome more faults than they could on their own).
By the time of Mass Effect 3, that's a lot of people making a lot of decisions at various levels that are going to change how that game turns out, and how it's received.
The problem is not really in well thought through, critical reactions. Far from it, as such things are necessary to ensure others don't fall into the trap of high expectations, by detailing how good games and bad games alike get it right and wrong. The problem is in immediate, visceral reactions, which come from a different place. They show where people's hearts are set, and the string of people complaining about how much talking was going on in the Nintendo Spotlgiht (which wasn't actually that much) looked a lot like people expecting to be given the world.
ME3 is appreciable when the world is not expected of it. Might we not be better off if we take that approach to everything we can buy?