Second Opinion: Mass Effect Is A Masterclass In Bad Design

Everything the Mass Effect games do, they do with just a little bit of suck.

This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

So, Mass Effect Andromeda came out a few months ago and…well, it’s fine. It’s a pretty standard third-person shooter duct-taped to a pretty standard RPG with a handful of incredibly frustrating mechanics, and your enjoyment of the product as a whole is going to depend largely on how invested you are in the characters and the worldbuilding. In other words, it’s a Mass Effect game. In the years since the original trilogy’s release, its fanbase has become absolutely cultish, repeatedly insisting that the second in particular is among the best games ever made – “one of the defining videogame franchises of [the seventh] generation.” I mean, it got put in an art exhibit in the Smithsonian, for goodness’ sakes. And while the Mass Effect games are pretty good, they’re certainly not that good. They’re deeply flawed products that have been hyped halfway to oblivion, and it’s time to set the record straight and give these games a Second Opinion.

Here’s my biggest problem with all four of the Mass Effect games: they can never just commit to any one thing. Their stories are good enough that if they just stuck to being competent action RPGs they would have been engrossing enough on their own. Instead, they always have to add stuff, usually bad stuff. The first game infamously had the Mako, the stupid tank thing that was even harder to control than the garbage vehicles in Half Life 2 and for whom the turret’s crosshair was more of a vague suggestion than a way to actually aim. Oh, and a lot of the time while you were driving it around on the planet, getting stuck in crevices and shooting in the general direction of enemies, you’d be interrupted by a thresher maw randomly spawning underneath you and either instakilling your whole party or fusing into a hideous thresher-Mako hybrid, forcing you to reload a save game lest you gaze upon the madness for too long.

Mass Effect Andromeda

And yet, at least driving around on planets on the Mako gave you kind of a sense of scale. At least it helped the universe feel bigger than your small team of heroes and the four races you keep running into by giving you the chance to drive on some (admittedly kinda empty and boring) planets. In my opinion, Mass Effect 2’s replacement was way worse, as drilling for minerals has all of the fun and excitement of drilling for minerals. I still can’t get over that. Which Bioware employee read all the criticism of the Mako being hard to control and decided the obvious way to address that criticism was to replace it with spreadsheets? It’s like playing an RTS without the combat or the basebuilding or the micromanagement of villagers. Couldn’t you have just programmed the car better?

Say what you will about Mass Effect 3 (and don’t worry, we’ll get to that), but in some ways I think it might be my favorite of the trilogy, since it got rid of most of the extra stuff (bypassing, hacking, etc.) and simplified the mineral stuff to the point of being basically nothing (which does beg the question of why they bothered to leave it in at all.) And then, of course, we had Andromeda, where the development team apparently ran out of ideas, panicked, and threw both the vehicle sections and the old, terrible planet scanning back into the game. Because why not.

Now, I know I’m going to get accused of nitpicking for bringing these things up. After all, they’re just side elements to the core gameplay. Except, the problem is that the Mass Effect games don’t really have core gameplay, unless you count staring at badly-animated plastic mannequins. Rather than focus on doing one thing well, they “innovate” in the worst possible way, adding all this unnecessary stuff we don’t want instead of focusing on just making a good game. Oh, you can throw gifts at some of the crew members (but not all of them, for arbitrary reasons) until they agree to have a disappointing sex scene with you? Oh, there’s a weapons crafting system that lets me name my gun “The Chungus-Tingler?” Oh, now I have to raise my Effective Military Strength before I can take on the Reapers? Except not really because nothing matters? Great. Just what I wanted from an RPG shooter.

This lack of focus extends to the story as well. Now, look, there’s a lot that the Mass Effect games do right, story-wise. I have several close friends who love the original trilogy of games and found them very personally affecting, and who am I to take that away from anyone? I mean, a couple weeks ago I talked about the time a game about a dog and a bunny who fight crime made me cry, so, y’know, fiction affects everyone in different ways. Besides, the Mass Effect games were instrumental in pushing the idea that players’ choices could and should affect even a linear story, which I think is incredibly important and which inspired several other excellent games to do the same thing.

And yet…for a series of games about saving literally all life as we know it, the story really has a hard time making the stakes feel very high. And to be honest, part of that’s because of all that side stuff. THE FATE OF THE GALAXY IS AT STAKE except we have time to fall asleep in front of the slow-ass mineral scanner. WE’RE EXPLORING NEW WORLDS and then running a bunch of pointless errands for the inhabitants. And most infamously, EVERYTHING RESTS ON YOUR SHOULDERS except it turns out that no matter what you do you’re going to get the exact same ending at the end of the third game. The other games do this, too – you might get to choose who dies at the end of the second game if you know what you’re doing, but somebody’s still going to die.

You know what else really doesn’t help me care about the plight of the plot? How slow everything is. I’m not just talking about the slow-moving spaceship in Andromeda or the horrible loading times (although, y’know, that certainly doesn’t help.) But so much of Mass Effect is just talking and TALKING and TALKING and TALKING. When I think of great storytelling in videogames, I think about games that actually make the storytelling a part of gameplay, something like Undertale or The Search or The Stanley Parable or Portal. Something that tells an engaging and interesting story that could only be told in a videogame. Mass Effect isn’t a videogame. It’s a series of 450,000-word audiobooks, not counting the ridiculous journal logs. They like to brag so much about Mass Effect 3 having 90 minutes of cutscenes – maybe they should’ve just strung those together and released them as a movie so we could enjoy the good story without the terrible cover-based shooting and pointless endless side quests about doing nothing.

Still, by far, the worst part of Mass Effect’s story is the Paragon and Renegade system. Most moral choice systems were bad, which is why they seem to have gone the way of the Kinect in recent years. Even at their best they’re shallow substitutes for actual moral choices that often feel forced. But the Paragon/Renegade system is a special case, in part because Mass Effect as a series relies so much on its story. The problem is that all of the good end-game gear requires you to have gone either full Paragon or full Renegade, which means that those choices the game otherwise handles so well aren’t about what you actually believe or what you want to do, but what toys you want to fight the final boss with. You’re either going to be Mother Theresa or Benito Mussolini, and that means that you can’t care as much about the main character and by extension the plot as you would if you could actually make those decisions by your own metric a la Deus Ex.

So the story doesn’t have any real stakes, and the gameplay is similarly all over the place. Why would you keep playing? For the combat? Hardly. It’s bog-standard cover-based shooting that also feels very dated and extremely unsatisfying. It’s slow-moving, insufferably repetitive, and the millions of nearly-identical weapons you pick up (or craft in Andromeda) all feel slightly less powerful than a squirt gun. It doesn’t help that many of the games’ fights, particularly in the second and third games, are based around “ambushes” that are insultingly obvious. Did you just enter a big room with lots of conveniently-placed chest-high walls? Chances are you’re about to get attacked.

Mass Effect Andromeda

In the end, the Mass Effect games really aren’t bad. Like so much of what we cover on this show, they’re perfectly serviceable, 6-or-7-out-of-ten games that do a few things well and are treated like God’s gift to videogames because of a mix of nostalgia and people’s love for Bioware. The characters are likeable and interesting, and the writing is epic and immersive (if way too slow-paced and wordy), but like with Persona 4 last week, the question I keep coming back to is: why should I care? There’s different character classes, but why should I care when combat is boring and the game’s so easy you’ll win no matter what you do? The story’s fairly interesting, but why should I care when I can’t play my Commander the way I’d really like to and I’m going to get the exact same set of endings no matter what? There’s lots of things to do, but why should I care when they’re all so half-baked and boring?

If the games clicked for you, that’s fine. That’s good. I’m glad you found something you connect with. But when you look at them with a critical eye, the Mass Effect series of games are an absolute masterclass in bad game design.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct with years of experience writing for and about games.

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