Mass Effect 3 – Saving the RPG (Part 4)

New posts on Wednesday! Not all Wednesdays just…when I have them ready on Wednesdays.

Leaping forward a bit in the story and we reach The Citadel, one of only a few places in the Mass Effect series that truly feels like home. I think being grounded in RPGs with a hub is a really good design to bring to the table. The “board the ship and check every character for new dialog” routine is something so done to death in space RPGs that by this point we have parodies of this process.

But the strength of being able to go to these characters that we do not bring on missions allows players to feel like all characters have some sort of a progress across the game’s story (or some don’t because their emotional attachment to the quest is…minimal). We see these ideas even taken to new expanses in games like Knights of the Old Republic 2 where character interactions don’t entirely involve the player (though they may still surround and regard the player in their character’s absence). Sometimes as you board the ship, characters are talking in secrecy to others about card games, routine maintenance, disagreements that you might settle, or stories from their past that they wish to remain hidden from you in particular. This allows the developers to show players that characters might choose to hide something from their avatar, but restrict the player’s ability to understand what those characters are doing, or what their motivations are. It’s also, altogether, a very interesting social interaction that video games don’t explore often enough in RPGs. So often the hero quest means everyone wants to get to know you, everyone opens up to you, you’re not just this action hero, you’re their developmental hero. The possibility that a person around you loathes you, wants nothing to do with you outside their own self-interest, and even conspires against you and questions you behind your back is…very un-gamey in a party-based RPG.

Regardless the “hub” remains the wonderful go-to grounding zone of the party-based RPGs that BioWare tends to make. And with space RPGs it’s the hub is your ship: The vessel by which you pursue your quest. It’s a wonderful design but I feel like this grounding in a place that’s so important feels even more rewarding when it is earned. And that’s why we talk about the Citadel today instead of the Normandy or the Ebon Hawk.

In Mass Effect 1, the Citadel was what Taris worked as in Knights of the Old Republic. The game starts with a small / short mission that gets the story in motion before you and your party join you on a more non-hostile location where the story develops further and you get to know the characters traveling with you. KotOR 1 did this by crash landing the player and 2 allies on Taris while you hid from a Sith army takeover of the planet. Many quests across Taris work towards rescuing one of your two allies, getting to know other party members that will join you, joining a bounty hunter guild, becoming a fighting champion, a podracer, and then hatching a plan to get off the planet safely. The journey involves getting to know the ins and outs of a planet that has a layered socioeconomic society. The rich live in the beautiful city while the poorer and less privileged live in the lower city and the destitute live in the undercity surrounded daily by the possibility of death, eeking out a way to survive near sewers. The end reward of your long journey is the spaceship that becomes your world hub for the rest of the game. It’s by no stretch of the imagination that BioWare developed Taris as a part of the game players would spend nearly 15-20% of their KotOR experience on. It’s developmental for the story, the characters, and the many different quests and deeper RPG encounters that players will experience across the rest of the game. The same is repeated in KotOR 2 on a mining asteroid. And with Mass Effect 1 BioWare gave players time on a peaceful super space station called “The Citadel”. It functions pretty much the same way Taris does. You uncover more of the plot of what’s going on in the main game, prove it to the Space Council so you can be granted Super Space Agent status, gather a team, meet many people who you’ll remember in years to come while learning a lot about the technology and ancient race that predated human and alien civilizations (where the Citadel comes from), and (lastly) get the awesome space ship that lets you do the rest of the game’s quests.

For players of the series, returning to the Citadel in Mass Effect 3 and hearing its musical motifs will be reminded of the wonder and curiosity of the station while they gape in awe at just how huge this thing is. It almost feels like Taris and the Citadel are even meant to LOOK similar just to plant in the players’ mind the concept of “open” and “big”, or even “sprawling” when the core games actually consist of smaller worlds that they just spend a lot of time on doing many things. A location like this early on in the game would help players feel like the world is bigger than it is. And that’s…a wonderful thing to do to players actually. Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are these phenomenally paced corridor shooters but because of the use of vistas after long amounts of time making progress and carrying the player to new places, the games feel like they span an entire country or an entire facility in a matter of 8-12 hours.

Design decisions like this would be a fault if BioWare didn’t recognize it and support it the ways they have. In Mass Effect 3, the Citadel feels similar. We’ve escaped Earth, done a mission on Mars and now, for the first time, we explore layers/floors of small side quests, have many different conversations and get an idea of where we’ll be going in the game next without being given the urgency to go there NOW. It’s a chance to catch your breath, get your bearings for the absolutely dense stack of quests you’ll get before too long (too dense in Mass Effect 3, but that’s another entry).

The Citadel in Mass Effect 3 practically serves as a secondary hub as we return to it again and again. We watch characters overcome their losses, find ways to mingle and relax during the brief times they get shore leave, meet family members from their past for the first time, and players get to comprehend how the war is progressing. There’s entire floors dedicated to refugees where you overhear conversations about planets being entirely wiped out (poor Batarians), even some of your party members join the refugees to help their own species that have been run off planets. Meanwhile the political-based floors still have espionage and spy work ready for you to pick up. Even some missions that end on other worlds start at the Citadel as everyone knows it’ll be the last great place of defense in the galaxy, so refugees are going there first. People looking to join the war effort are leaving from there, and in many ways it is this gigantic central hub of communication.

I think this morphed hub that we return to across the game is something BioWare consciously decided to focus on in the game. We watch Kaiden as he rests up from his injury and is granted Super Space Spy status or sit next to our dying friend Thane. With Mass Effect 2 and other RPG titles of BioWare’s, the team was always small, elite, and performing a mission that wouldn’t involve an entire army. It fits with the designs of RPGs where parties and small teams are the foundation of the design (it’s an RPG, not an RTS). And so in the past players have always understood or perceived the scope of what they were doing through the lens of the small transport hub, the campfire that the whole party huddles around or the Ebon Hawk’s many comfortable and quiet rooms as it travels through the dark and silent space. Mass Effect 3 though is a mixture of the experiences. All out war is happening across the universe while Shepard continues to gather his private team of fantastic soldiers and act in the shadows of the same fight for the universe.

In simple terms: You, Shepard, and your team, are reminded of what you’re fighting for every time you return here.


Mass Effect 3 – Saving the RPG (Part 3)

Mars, Kaiden Alenko, and Character Talks

Earth left behind after its sudden invasion, and we get a call from everyone’s side-quest initiator: Admiral Hackett. Boy does everyone love Admiral Hackett. No complaints about him either. In Mass Effect 1 and 2 he heads up the entire Alliance fleet and doles out missions to the Normandy when necessary. Oh, and his voice is really cool.

Hackett says there’s some super important research that has been uncovered on Mars so the game immediately sends us there. Meanwhile we get all huffy and puffy with new human crew member James Vega as he throws a fit that Captain Anderson stayed behind and then we throw ourselves onto the surface of Mars with Kaiden Alenko (from ME1) or Ashley Williams (and James of course).

Okay, before I go any further I suppose I should address this:

How many people actually picked Ashley Williams to survive in Mass Effect 1?

I mean I did, on one of my Mass Effect runs, just to see if anything was any different but jeez if there’s anything anyone seems to universally agree on in Mass Effect, it’s not who is the better OTP for your commander Shepard, it’s that alien-racist-Ashley dies in Mass Effect 1. No one thinks otherwise. I almost want to see an end-of-episode statistic poll on that one.

And no I’m not defending Ashley, literally just curious if anyone has found her character has some redeeming qualities. I guess I’ll find out whenever I play that Shepard again.

Anyhoo, Mars is darn pretty.


The game even has dialog moments in the core missions where characters talk about something and you’re prompted into pressing a button, the camera wheels out, turns, shows you what the topic at hand is referring to. It’s great, it’s this optional thing that lets you focus on what’s being discussed here and it typically points the players at something gorgeous in the game anyway.

And Mars was a wonderful test bed for this that paid off in my opinion. Sure the whole tragic Earth destruction scenes have their share of these moments too but Mars is something we as human beings today see as our current space frontier. So, seeing Mars as this established space base that deals with the storms and something that even has a built-in tram system to move from station to station, and we even walk around it and inside it, yeah the Mars mission are really where I started to get involved in the game a bit more.

Interestingly enough the beautiful Mars mission is something that leans the series more towards a semi-scripted adventure instead of an open world game. I’ll explain more but first I need to explain Kaiden Alenko a little further.

So while the world may have hated Ashley Williams from Mass Effect 1, Kaiden Alenko was one of three romance options in the first game. He’s a decent character, well written and even has enough backstory as he’s a human that has an older-style biotic implant, went to an academy where biotic kids were treated like crap, he wrestles a bit with the rules and…yeah, he’s likable enough to be someone you don’t mind talking to plenty in the first game. But in Mass Effect 2, Shepard is kinda roped into working for a shady company that does really evil twisted stuff (Cerberus), Kaiden Alenko (or Williams I guess if you saved her) finds out and doesn’t want to see you ever again or want to believe that some hero that killed a Reaper could side/work with someone so shady.

Fascinating to me is that someone can believe that their commanding officer was given visions by an antenna / beacon, and that the visions foretold the coming of a sentient race that will wipe out the galaxy every once in a while, follow that commander’s quest for the reapers to the ends of the galaxy, save the day and then immediately give up on that same person who came back from the dead and told you another sentient race is going to wipe out the galaxy. If you ask me, the sudden shift in Alenko/Williams’s loyalty in Mass Effect 2 is odd and a little misplaced.

What felt even more misplaced that Kaiden is constantly complaining about me working for Cerberus in Mass Effect 3 as well. It’s the focal argument of the Mars mission. I should inform you that at some point during Mass Effect 2 Alenko/Williams send Shepard an e-mail trying to be more rational.

“Then I saw you, and everything pulled hard to port. You were standing in front of me, but you were with Cerberus. I guess I really don’t know who either of us is anymore. Do you even remember that night before Ilos? That night meant everything to me… maybe it meant as much to you. But a lot has changed in the last two years and I can’t just put that aside.

But please be careful. I’ve watched too many people close to me die — on Eden Prime, on Virmire, on Horizon, on the Normandy. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you again. If you’re still the woman I remember I know you’ll find a way to stop these Collector attacks. But Cerberus is too dangerous to be trusted. Watch yourself.”

And yet when Kaiden and Shepard are working together in the Mars mission, he just constantly brings it up to argue with Shepard. Cerberus was right: Collectors were a problem, now they’re gone, Shepard’s left Cerberus, and yet that’s not enough from where Kaiden is siting. Weird, right?

As offputting as it is, it adds drama and tension. Less “Kaiden doesn’t understand me” drama and more “wow Kaiden’s being a real a-hle about this for no apparent reason.”

Across the mission players are reunited with Liara (yup, Liara was my first Shepard pairing and I wanted to do at least one plotline where my pairing never shifts or changes, Liara is that pairing). Some plot-things happen but every pause for talk, it’s either kinda setting the mood for Liara and Shepard (whether or not the relationship should be continued sorta thing, or plot details) and Kaiden v. Shepard’s arguments.

Then something really cool happens.

Mass Effect 3 gets a pretty decent chase sequence. It controls well, the character you’re chasing is in decent sight the whole way, explosions happen, you’re forced to take other routes, and beef-head James shows up and crashes a shuttle to stop the chase. All the parts leading up to this chase are still pretty linear by design, we’re not choosing where next to go on the galaxy map, the corridors are pretty straightforward and the fights are nice and open for tactical design. The chase is the most linear part of the Mars mission and then this cyborg lady beats the crap out of Kaiden oh no!

We manage to shoot / knock out cyborg lady (though the sequence where we’re expected to shoot her several times is awful and I had to replay it twice because the margin for error is stupid slim) and rush Kaiden off to the Citadel’s hospital.

In retrospect and thinking on the Mars mission, I realize that Telltale games released The Walking Dead, their conversation adventure game magnum opus, in the same year that Mass Effect 3 came out.

And this just throws us into the discussion of story, presentation, player agency, and this weird design:


Yeah, this post is actually about story and how EA mucked around in Mass Effect 3. See I think this design here, splitting up how players control the game was a failure. Story mode makes the combat easier apparently, action mode removes the custom characters models you can build and plays out the conversations without your input, and role playing mode gives you everything. It was a mass market appeal design that I think ultimately no one cared about. People probably were up in arms about this when ME3 launched, which is funny because people who played Mass Effect 3 still got what they wanted. What’s wrong with other people being able to play the thing? There is something wrong I’d say in taking a product that clearly has a dedicated playerbase and trying to make it appeal to so much more than that dedicated market. Growth is fine, trying to be as big as Call of Duty or Minecraft is…unrealistic. And yet with this horrible thing that EA did to BioWare in ME3’s development I feel like…Telltale and BioWare would be able to make something cool together. I think Telltale need some real lessons about writing, their writing in games is most of the time just kind of run of the mill (save for a few outstanding games) and their engine is crap by this point, but there’s something there that might be really interesting in a video game.

A non-Mass Effect BioWare / Telltale game is something that might be pretty awesome if done right. Consider the dialog wheel, having to live with consequences. I feel like one of the greatest challenges the Mass Effect games face is that players have save slots and entire wikis that tell you how not to mess up your run that is meant to save certain characters, romance others, and have X certain ending. And sure, people do this because they’re going to invest 30-60 hours in this one BioWare RPG and don’t want to waste a second of it (that’s what I do). But approaching games these ways avoids the real concepts of consequences. Jeez remember the pride people had for not killing Wrex back when Mass Effect 1 was newer? Or if you’ve been playing games for longer than me, remember how awesome it was that you could save your brother in Deus Ex if you did things right? And in the context of the Mars mission, think about the chase sequence, before that the arguments with Kaiden, it’s oh-so very Telltale done right. I was having too much difficulty arguing with Kenny to agree with me in the moments of The Walking Dead (S1) to the point that I just kinda resented the guy for it. I didn’t want to hear more from him. That’s real emotion, backed with real thinking processes that are there in that Mars mission. Kaiden was being a pain, for very little good reason from where I sat, and even my best efforts at keeping him on my good side didn’t magically change the way he thought about my character. He just kept being a jerk.

Telltale games, like Souls games, in their autosaves and constant movement, prevent players from being able to sub-play the game’s systems. It keeps them in the moments. And when it comes to narrative or story, the very thing that should be engaging the player so well into the experience, wouldn’t that be better to keep the players in the moment? Just imagine going through Mass Effect without multiple save banks…

Mass Effect 3 – Saving the RPG (Part 2)

Introductions are out of the way now, so let’s move on to the actual game. That opening sequence is really cool, right!?

Except for people who maybe didn’t play that DLC in Mass Effect 2 where you saved everyone by blowing up a planet and preventing an early Reaper invasion. The context of this is just barely written in for those who don’t know about it and makes for a confusing introduction to the experience. We start off with Shepard going to a hearing because planets are just going dead silent on the edge of space and his old friend and mentor Anderson wants Shepard there to tell everyone for the thirdteenth time that “IT’S THE REAPERS YO”. So the Arrival DLC that people were intended to play at the end of Mass Effect 2 lays this groundwork of Shepard supposedly buying us time to prevent the Reaper invasion but really it just lays the groundwork for Shepard to not be a Spectre and be stripped of his office as a part of the Earth Alliance. It also just makes it easier for Shepard and his gang from Mass Effect 2 to split up and not be a part of Cerberus anymore. All this groundwork is what we call plot convenience because at the meeting more outposts go dead silent and then the Reapers invade Earth making all that setup completely useless (so much for buying time) except to have Anderson put Shepard on the remodeled Normady that he gave to the Alliance, leave Captain Anderson on Earth, and fight the Reapers while Shepard goes off and finds a magical way to destroy the enemy. Here’s where this DLC logic fails: DLC introduces imminent Reaper threat that forces Shepard into sacrificing lives to delay Reapers. Shepard gets stripped of position and surrenders Normandy to Alliance but he has bought everyone time. NOT HAVNG DLC means Shepard still quits Cerberus and gets stripped of position and surrenders the Normandy to the Alliance and this need for more time just doesn’t exist from the player’s eye. And it doesn’t matter or affect the 3rd game, it just adds in a blank hole in the story for your hard earned cash. Truly it was a DLC meant to lead into the third game since the writers needed Shepard & Co. working for the good guys again but it showcases difficulties of game production, writing, and the dreaded DLC monster.

Oh, and Shepard witnesses a child get super slaughtered by the Reapers along with hundreds of millions of other people trying to escape the planet, giving the start of Earth’s destruction a poetic scale to emotionally attach players to Shepard’s long fight with the Reapers. This would actually have been a really effective scene if the entire series had given Shepard any depth beyond the player’s own perceived / custom preferences for certain party members and their potential romantic interest in the series.

There’s even a nice tutorial sequence with Anderson and Shepard shooting their way across a war-torn Earth with a brief pause talking up how exhausting this has all been: Uncovering the Reaper threat, getting people to listen to you, killing Sovereign, fighting the Collectors, and now the war is here. Later in the game this child’s death comes up again in dreams and in conversations with characters like this long struggle has been haunting Shepard. And it probably would haunt anyone who lived to see those horrors. But Mass Effect as I’ve heard it put before is a game in which you’re practically interviewing the other characters in the game as they pose for the game camera and you act as their bartender as they tell you life’s problems. No one cares about your problems, you’re the Commanding Space Hero! And maybe it’s a flaw of the series across its development and maybe it is a part of that grand question that I mentioned before, “What would Mass Effect be like if it launched in today’s video game market?” But this is a thing (so far at least) of too little, too late. Reapers are here, it’s not time for Shepard to have an emotional breakdown. It’s time to kick-ass!

Next post we talk about extended intro sequences, the MARS MISSION, and Kaiden Alenko. OOOOOOOO.

Mass Effect 3 – Saving the RPG (Part 1)

So I think we can’t really start talking about Mass Effect 3 without first addressing the bigger elephant in the room. No, not the EA-shortcomings (that’s to be addressed LATER). First there’s something far more important to get out of the way when approaching Mass Effect 3. That gigantic colossus achievement that came before it.

Seriously, flip your video game pages back across the years and land back in early 2010 and think for about 10 seconds what a insanely refined experiment Mass Effect 2 was. Sure the squad and action mechanics were by-the-numbers mixtures of Gears of War and Mass Effect 1, the planet scanning was stupid boring and panned player time needlessly, and the expanded world and main questlines and sidequests were lackluster for developing a world like previous BioWare games would. But that’s because a lot of the world was already developed in ME1. ME2 did the daring and insanely smart thing by deciding to hone in on character interaction and writing more than ever before (to be honest Mass Effect 2 could be grounds for arguing that BioWare should be making those Telltale games instead of action-RPGs). In fact, they made these fundamental “care for your team” requests so important that if you didn’t do enough of those well-written character stories, YOU DIE AT THE END OF THE PLOTLINE. Metaphorically speaking, BioWare was essentially making a big grand statement that if we don’t stop to help each other (even when the galaxy is at stake), NO ONE WILL BE LEFT TO SAVE YOU. Talk about breaking the action RPG mold of hero-quests where you win so long as you kill the end boss. And BioWare has that hero quest formula nailed down so well that by the time I saw it copying itself from Knights of the Old Republic onto Mass Effect 1, I was skeptical. When they did it again in Dragon Age: Origins I just flipped my computer desk because as cool as it was, I was getting tired of BioWare doing anything BUT Knights of the Old Republic II or The Witcher in terms of worldbuilding (BioWare are great writers, but their world depth is hard to compete with others IMO).

So what does that leave BioWare to do with the third in the series? Mass Effect 1 is starting the BioWare franchise anew with a proper good hero quest in a Star Trek-tinged universe that hasn’t really developed past racism, war, and good ol’ political struggle. Mass Effect 2 does a 180, kills the typical sequel design and decides to try something radically different…so what do you do with the third game? Blow up the franchise so big it gets a failed RTS project? Play it safe and just do another Mass Effect 2? Instead build a game that somehow magically links to the universe of Mass Effect and thus extends the universe life of Mass Effect while the developers work out #3? (That’s a Portal reference, btw)

This is literally the type of question that plagues Valve software and the people trying to imagine what an almighty Half-Life 3 might be and what paradigm-breaking gameplay designs it’ll have. Those areinsanely huge boots to fill in terms of BioWare trying to keep up the standard of “Mass Effect” now that the sequel was so good it transcended their own typical gametype.

And from the good 6-10 hours of Mass Effect 3 I’ve played so far…the answer is: Refinement (and secretly acknowledge sometimes you can’t constantly outdo yourself).

It actually seems to be the answer Valve had for Half-Life 2 in which they took a formula that worked extremely well (Half-Life 1), and made the focus on refining and polishing and cutting the designs of what made the first game great with a few innovations. Here, this visionary “Super Space Agent RPG Game” concept that has been stewing since 2008 has been given a few key innovative elements to create just enough new things to make it…well a Grade A sequel that also is conclusive.

It might just be the literal 8-year experience talking here (especially since I’ve played Mass Effect 1 and 2 three times each with three unique Sheperds) but the refinement design of Mass Effect 3 works extra well when it’s the end of the trilogy. Things coming to the conclusion, everyone realizing war is here at last (and it sucks and everyone’s dying), everyone being in an extra divided and extra repressed scenario only further encourages thinking back on the previous two games and the good times had in them as we rally the heroes we know and fight the good fight. We’re not just talking about the characters and relationships formed though, we’re talking about literally game designs that worked in the past sharpened to meet the needed design of the game. Mass Effect 1 was about the quest effort, Mass Effect 2 was about the team effort, Mass Effect 3 is about the war effort.

And that war effort design is actually the three or four KEY LOCATIONS/PLACES TO TRAVEL in the main plot it seems. Yes this may be a bit cut and dry and easy to point out in BioWare games but it works, okay? We’re shortchanging the three or four major Prothean Beacons / plot points in Mass Effect 1 for all the diplomats we want to collect for our Reaper-Fighting-Political-Board. Where BioWare borrows from Mass Effect 2 is in progress. So sidequests don’t beef up your team, they beef up the war effort meter, with main quests being the very visible “PROGRESS HAPPENS HERE, BE READY FOR IT” marker.

Jeez I’m just barely scratching the surface here, not even getting down to the mixed space-travel designs (a few shortcomings there), the action-gameplay mechanics and the queues taken from ME1 and 2, and most importantly how seeing Thane made me nearly weep till Thane told me to not be sad for him.

But I’ll save that for the next time I want to sit down and type for a while. For now, reflect on this (paraphrased) text I shot a friend of mine who also loves Mass Effect the other day:

It almost feels like Mass Effect was released a generation early. Just imagine Mass Effect 1 being released on modern technologies and designs today with everything people know about building games like this.