Bioware’s Open Environments Have Failed (Pt.2 ME2/ME3)

As we read in my first installment, Mass Effect used linear pathways, deep conversations and codex entries to build a world that did not need vast open environments to succeed.

Same Old New Thing

Mass Effect 2 was delivered promptly in February 2010 for PC and Xbox 360 (sorry PS3 folks for the delay) to rave reviews and news of promising DLC to follow.  Having enjoyed ME1 immensely, I was into the world of ME2 on day one.  Those of you who have played this gem will know that your prized character Shepard, whom you can import with your first-game save file is killed in the very early moments of the game.  Gasping for breath, falling into the atmosphere of some planet.  And then, the title: Mass Effect 2.  I was in love from that moment on.

Oh noes, my oxygen.

Bioware wanted to capitalize on its first installment by providing fresh new takes and further insights into the alien races and political conflicts started in ME1.  It does this by having Shepard rebuilt as a pseudo-cyborg by a humans-only radical named the Illusive Man.  While the first game spent a great deal of time introducing you to aliens, it was quite the departure to initially be told that you’ll be working for the Human-first likes of Cerberus.  Cerberus was only tangentially mentioned in side-missions of the first game, but die-hard players knew exactly who they were.

In this second game, Bioware — now a part of EA *cries tears of anguish* — wanted to listen to the fans a bit by entirely scrapping the Mako from existence and not making any sort of vehicle-based exploration mandatory.  It only appears in one or two DLCs that are pretty uninteresting.

Closed World, Yet Easily Digestible

Instead of having open environments like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Bioware further streamlined their content optimization into small manageable chunks.  I’ll admit that at times in the first game, missions went on too long and in a sitting I may not be able to finish one in its entirety.  ME2 fixed that completely, yet to use a food analogy, it all felt processed.  Oftentimes missions felt like picking up a chicken sandwich from your local fast food joint on the way to work rather than cooking yourself up a proper meal the night before.  The ease-of-use factor for EA Bioware became its focal point.  Anyone can play, anyone can enjoy.  

Missions, similarly, are get-in-get-out as they get.  Story, action, story, action, story, done.  It’s a pretty decent formula that you may not notice if you’re playing the game in your free time, but for those who play the game over the course of two-to-three 12 hour sittings, it’s pretty noticeable.  Oftentimes the content which is even more linear than the first game will come across as reading 20 separate novellas on Mars instead of one great novel.

It’s All Optional, Jim

Giant cockroaches, I’m tellin’ ya.

Companions missions were optional and somewhat hard to notice in ME1 and only tangentially necessary if you’d like to keep your buddy Wrex around, and yet in ME2 they became optional/mandatory; I’ll explain.  You don’t have to do them, and no, I didn’t do any of them in my first play-through.  I thought I could skim the surface of the story the first time through and delve deeper the next time. Yeah, nope.  I won’t ruin that for you, but it’s a really bad idea and one that most games don’t really ever present you.

ME2 continues the tradition of the universe being as large as you’d like it.  You really don’t have to do very much at all to finish the main story line.  It may only take you eight hours too.  That’s exactly how compartmentalized the game has become.  The vast majority of the game is entirely optional and much of the world-expanding earth-reckoning content is gated behind DLC. I assume that many players who touched ME2 didn’t really see very much of the universe at all, instead opting to focus on the companion missions for their favorite conversationalist and finishing the game with a few pock marks on their roster.

In many ways, ME2 felt like a lore addition spin-off of ME1.  I’ll admit, my first impressions of ME2 were “Oh my god, this is better than ME1!” but that’s me being blinded by the better combat and more streamlined process.  This is my hardened critical opinion after playing through ME2 in its entirety six times.  It really isn’t its own solid entity.  Sure, you have new companions and a new boss to answer to, but the visceral intensity of the Reaper conflict is somehow far away and you’re stuck doing an entire game full of side-missions.  Take Jacob’s mission for example.  You’re going completely out of your way to investigate a downed ship on a random planet.  You’ll find out later some deep revelations about Jacob’s father, but not after an hour of blasting through bots and talking to drug-addled primitive humans.  Even the final revelation, however you decide to handle it, means absolutely nothing in the long run.  It simply ensures Jacob’s loyalty which is not something I wanted in the first place.  He’s the least interesting companion Bioware has ever come up with, and I’m including Andromeda.

Despite ME2 being kind of an amalgamation of dozens of smaller stories, it’s still generally effective at telling this story without requiring open free-flowing environments.  The largest environments function like hubs.  I’m looking at you Omega.

I’ll always remember ME2 as the “one where Martin Sheen proved that nicotine addictions are still a thing. Oh, and the one where I could kill off Jacob because reasons.”

*Sigh*

And Then We Have a Third Game Too

While ME2 streamlined everything into small, enjoyable chunks that often felt like sampling ice creams at Baskin Robbins, ME3 once again learned from their perceived failings and wanted to create another space-epic like their first at-bat.  In the opening moments, you’re called back into action after you’re under house arrest (no explanation unless you played ME2 DLC, go figure) and OMG EARTH IS BEING DESTROYED BY GIANT SENTIENT MACHINES.  Cool.

Bioware obviously wanted to strike you with the sense of fear and scale that seeing Sovereign attack Eden Prime in ME1 afforded.  ME2 did not have that, as your primary enemy were essentially mind-controlled giant cockroaches.  The Reapers are here, and they’re going to fuck you up, son.  That’s world building, that’s immediacy.  That’s immersion.

From those opening moments and the research stint on Mars, the beginning sequence can last for several hours depending on your speed.  It’s not even that dawdling takes time, it’s the sheer amount of dialogue, cut-scenes, and action that happen all at once.  The game doesn’t ever really come to a proper stopping point until after Mars, but that’s a good thing.  Not everything needs to be boiled down to a 30-60 minute maneuver like ME2 did.  Sometimes it just takes time for a story to be told.

Tuchanka is always such a mess.

How ME3 Tells a Proper Story Without Open Enviroments

At every stage in the game, especially through ambient dialogue — some as simple as the checkpoint Shepard must cross to get to the bridge of his/her ship — keep the immediacy of the Reaper invasion top-of-mind.  You’ll never have a chance to ignore that something absolutely horrible is happening, and that’s a good thing.  Shepard is the Hero of the Citadel, the Defeater of the Collectors, and now must also be the Bane of the Reapers too.  It’s a wearisome job, to be sure, and that’s probably why Shepard delivers so many one-liners.  So tired.  Words hard.

Never, while on the Turian Moon Menae, or on the Asari homeworld or even back on Tuchanka does the world ever feel small or constrained by the linear nature of Bioware storytelling.  ME3 is a larger world than any Mass Effect to date and has hundreds of interesting NPCs to interact with and some of the best DLC in any game I’ve ever played.  It never feels like there’s anything missing, even if the endings were initially botched.  They patched it sort-of, get over it.

If anything, I felt the ending was just a magnificent culmination of everything that happened in all three games.  Boiled down to three final choices — four if you’re being picky — that feel a lot like real life.  Rarely in life are there any choices that don’t also have some negative consequences.  Depending on your “Galactic Preparedness” you’ll have access to all the endings.  I recommend at least watching all the endings on YouTube if you’re too lazy to play them all.  Even the best ending doesn’t have a storybook end.  It’s more complicated than that.  Mass Effect is more complicated than that.

Nostalgia.

ME3 understood that the main story line needs to be larger and with more depth than any individual side-quest.  They also understood that as a universe expands with lore it also becomes vastly more complex.  I am grateful to Bioware (not you EA) for giving us a reasonable final installment to the trilogy without open environments.

I’ll always remember this as the “one that let me destroy all humans”

Next, onto Mass Effect: Andromeda….huzzah?

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