Welcome to a new segment of this blog. It…doesn’t have a category name as of yet. I think I might drop the whole double-letter standard for my other sections.
One constant inevitability concerning videogames is that if a title reaches a certain level of success, a sequel soon follow. Usually followed by another, and another, and so forth. Usually, the second game ends up better than the original, as developers get a better grasp of their technology while addressing the unanimous criticisms of their debut titles. I say “usually” because there are a few disasters that result from experimentation rather than just fixing what’s broken (Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Xenosaga: Episode II, Final Fantasy II, and depending on who you ask, Super Mario Bros 2 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link).
But even if a certain title is considered a classic and beloved by many, there’s always room for improvement. That’s how technology works. So with this column, I’ve decided to express my personal criticisms regarding games that are soon to have an extra addition to their family franchise.
With Bioware’s big space-faring sequel just a couple of days away (marketed to such a degree that even I’ve been roped into the hype, counting down the hours until I get to experience the “game of the year”, and it’s only January), I’ve decided to kick off this new feature by looking back at:
10 Things I Hate About Mass Effect
Mass Effect and I have a bit of a funny history: I had bought the game the day it launched on the 360, taken in by the pre-release hype while eager to quickly expand my new console’s collection (I hadn’t owned a 360 until 2007, which just happened to be a landmark year for big exclusive releases).
In less than a week, I shelved the game after about 3 hours of playtime, and never looked back. It wasn’t until 2009 that I gave the game a second shot, via a $10 Steam sale. Perhaps my tastes had expanded, or I perhaps I was taken in by the huge difference in performance that the PC version delivered, but having finally completed the first game, I can say it was an enjoyable experience.
But I didn’t froth over it like most fans. Much like Assassin’s Creed (another title I plan to talk about, even though the sequel’s been out for a good couple of months), I enjoyed the slick visuals, the interesting story and the unique aesthetics, but due to numerous issues, I can’t say I was always having fun.
Those issues include, in order…
10. Janky Controls
Mass Effect is an RPG that pretends it’s a shooter (similar to Fallout 3, although the latter’s results weren’t nearly as bad). It tries to borrow elements from other successful third person shoot-em-ups like Gears of War, such as taking cover and sprinting (or the “trailer run”, as it was coined back then). Unfortunately, the controls weren’t nearly as fluid as the games that served as inspiration. Un-sticking your character from cover was stiff and often a chore to do, while sprinting during a fight felt out of control and resulted in your character getting fatigued in less than a second. Maybe they should have installed a gym in the Normandy rather than an elevator…
You knew this was going to get brought up, didn’t you? Despised and maligned by even the most diehard fans, the poorly disguised alternatives to loading screens have remained in infamy. It was especially annoying having to take an elevator on your own ship whenever you wanted to chat it up with your alien buddies or visit the shop. As annoying as they are, I never considered the elevators as the worst thing about Mass Effect, since loading is something that affects nearly every game.
8. The Galaxy Map
Now what possible issue would I have with the navigation map, you may wonder? It’s pretty, it has serene music, the naming scheme for the different worlds and stars are creative, and being able to instantly travel between galaxies delivers the kind of thrill you’d get from Disney’s Epcot Center. The problem I have is that the galaxy map has both too much and too little information.
If you have a sidequest that requires you to visit a certain system and world, the information isn’t displayed, usually forcing you to back out of the map and bring up the quests menu and hope that you memorize which funny-sounding planet on which funny-sounding system you need to warp to. Then there are the filler planets which serve no purpose whatsoever besides adding an unnecessary amount of fictional lore, as well as waste your time to click it. And if you actually found the information on those planets interesting, do yourself a favor and work toward an Astrology major instead.
7. Conversations that drag on, and on, and on, and on
Like any Bioware title, Mass Effect is a talkie game. A game with a lot of talking. Most people prefer it this way, and the way you can respond to each conversation is quite interesting, even if most of the dialog choices boil down to “be a nice guy” or “be a douchebag”. But often the game bombards you with ex-positional dialog, with characters rambling on for so long you regret ever asking about their history or back story.
Even though both the voice acting and writing are of a high quality, it still feels at times that characters are basically telling you details that could be summed up in a few words, rather than minutes upon minutes of conversation. Pray for anyone who asks Tali about the creation of the Geth…
6. Liara T’Soni
Despite her lengthy conversations and kangarooster legs, Tali is still a more interesting female character than your other two recruits. Ashley Williams is an alien-hating Michelle Rodriguez (and I don’t mean the “hot punky girl who gets naked” from The Fast and the Furious, but the “trigger happy bitch who almost ruined the series” from Lost), but she’s still more interesting than the blue-colored, sponge-headed Liara.
Utterly bland and boring, Liara’s plot-centric dialog reeks of convenience, with her only saving graces being her biotic powers as well as engaging in female on alien female intercourse.
Mass Effect’s main campaign is a solid action epic with (mostly) good pacing, but if you only stick to the main story, you’ll be done with the game in less than 12 hours. The good news is that there are hundreds upon hundreds of sidequests and missions that could quadruple that length easily. The bad news is that, with the exception of the DLC, these extra missions don’t hold a candle to the campaign, either in length or level design.
When you’re not helping out whiny aliens and humans settle their dispute with other whiny aliens and humans, the majority of the interstellar sidequests have you visiting a random world that consists of one specific weather pattern (ala Star Wars), driving to a research facility/lab/space station, explore around repetitive-looking hallways and take down a small group of enemies. The lack of variety in both the quests and the level structures feel like you’re just grinding the same missions over and over.
4. Performance Issues
In still shots, Mass Effect looked to have the best graphics yet seen on the next-gen consoles, but it seemed the Xbox 360 wasn’t able to handle the ever-troubling Unreal Engine. Numerous issues hampered the revolutionary visuals, including texture pop-in, an unstable frame-rate, hideous screen tearing, among several other glitches and bugs. The PC version improved tremendously over the hideous console edition, but still had its own share of problems such as popping in the audio, and characters getting stuck on rails, debris and whatever else happened to be in their way.
3. Item and Equipment Management
There’s nothing I hate more in an RPG, Western or Japanese, than a clunky interface menu. If I find a cool-sounding gun or sword from the corpse of my enemy, I want to be able to use it right away. If there’s one advantage that most Japanese RPGs have over Western RPGs, it’s the bare-bones interface for weapons and equipment. Just tell me if the item is stronger than what I’m carrying now, and let me equip it. Mass Effect mostly sticks to this concept, letting you compare items to see which one has the better stats, but several hurdles keep this from being a robust management system.
When shopping, weapons and armor aren’t arranged by category, and instead dumped on your lap like a box of toys from a garage sale. Worse still is that when shopping for squad members that aren’t in your party, you’re unable to compare their currently equipped gear to see if that expensive piece of armor is better or worse than what they’re already carrying. And once you do head back to your ship to manage your group’s gear, you can’t merely equip everyone in one go, but have to choose their individual lockers.
Oh, and did I mention that you’ll be collecting about twenty of each item, which will quickly fill up your meager inventory space? And for the final kicker, should you happen to open a chest filled with awesome looking items, but have reached your 150 limit, you can’t just back out and get rid of your older junk. Nope, you have to destroy the contents of the chest you just opened up. Wave goodbye to that Turian assassin armor, Garrus.
2. The Mako
You would think that with the overflowing market of games with cars in them that developers would have driving controls down to a science. On paper, the Mako seems like a cool idea, an all-terrain vehicle that makes traveling a breeze while letting you blast huge Tremor-like aliens to hell and back. Reel back in horror, though, as the Mako is, without exaggeration, the worst vehicle of all time. Using the analog sticks to steer the vehicle should work in theory, since the Halo series did a good job of it, but there should have been an achievement for being able to keep this crappy car in a straight line for more than a minute.
Apparently somebody forgot to adjust the anti-gravity engine on this thing, because just a slight veer in any direction causes the Mako to spin and bounce out of control, as if each planet was a gigantic Moonbounce for a kid’s birthday. You’ll spin out of control, you’ll get stuck on rocks, and you’ll toss your controller/keyboard across the room every time you fall into a pit of lava or three feet of water, resulting in an instant death. Oh, and you’ll be using this piece of shit for 80% of the game’s sidequests.
1. The Citadel
And now we come to the ultimate fumble of the Mass Effect universe, The Citadel. For all the new players out there, did you enjoy that introductory half-hour sequence? Enjoyed exploring a barren planet while fending off against cool looking robots and zombies? I sure hope you did, because for the next four to five hours you’ll be wandering around a stupidly huge city while performing hundreds of fetch quests for lazy aliens and humans, and wondering when the hell you’ll get to resume playing the game again. Truly the ultimate example of mis-matched pacing, the Citadel crams too much exploring and information for players just getting used to the controls and combat. What is the point of having you agree to an interstellar sidequest if you’re unable to explore that planet yet? Why are you suddenly given access to dozen of shops when you don’t even have enough cash to buy a basic health pack? Why did they think no one would be incredibly bored and ultimately turned off by this stupid city?
Had your first visit to the Citadel resulted in a set path, where most of the city was closed off and eventually made available as you progressed toward the game, it would have been much more manageable. Instead, by tossing me in the middle of nowhere with no set destination (oh, you’re told where to go, but not how to get there. Perhaps if you followed the hundreds of arrows while resisting the urge to talk to that weird jellyfish alien), I instead shelved this game for several years before finally returning in 2009. Considering how smoothly paced and action-packed the remainder of the main campaign is, you have to wonder if the Citadel was some sort of test to separate the strong-willed from the week. Or maybe it was just the result of bad game design. Real, real bad game design.