Mass Effect 1 & 2: Storytelling vs. Mechanics

In preparation for Mass Effect 3 I recently replayed the first two games. (on Insanity… infuriating at times, but easier than I thought it would be.)

When it was released I played the first game a lot. I mean, for a long game, I actually completed it several times, and not just for achievements, but because I enjoyed it. On this recent playthrough I did a full playthrough, you know, everything, every side quest, every planet, every conversation. And it didn’t feel like a chore, it didn’t feel like filler, it didn’t get annoying. OK, so tootling off to some random system to look for some guy’s missing brother may seem a little like a waste of time when the galaxy hangs in the balance, but that’s RPGs for you.

Before this Insanity playthrough I had played Mass Effect 2 once. One time. I started a second playthrough, but don’t think I even got through the opening mission. I did a full playthrough again this time (except for some of the Firewalker DLC), and it solidified some of my ideas about the games, and why I think Mass Effect is a superior game to its sequel.

A lot of people I’ve spoken to prefer the second game, citing the shooting mechanics, the more varied missions and scenery, calling it a more polished game.

Well, yes, those things are better in the second game, for the most part.

I’m going to mention the Mako, too. I liked the Mako sections, I liked rambling over all those planets, and however much you disliked it, you can’t tell me that ridiculous scanning mini game in Mass Effect 2 was more fun; it was dull, repetitive and annoying.

The other complaint levelled at Mass Effect was the re-used assets for the missions: one spaceship, one bunker, one building, with a few changes in doors and boxes to alter the layout in small ways. Its a fair complaint. But if that meant they got to concentrate more on the story and throw in more missions I don’t really care. I noticed it, sure, and no amount of suggesting they would use prefabbed buildings can explain away every single one being the same, but I didn’t care… I was enjoying myself.

For me the meat of the matter is the storytelling. In the first game you have the big threat, Saren and the Geth. In typical part one of a trilogy style, there is a vaguer, worse enemy looming, but they are not as immediate until the climax. It’s great, I love the structure, the fact you need various clues before you can go to the endgame and then you fight the bad guy. In the second game you know the reapers are the threat, but they introduce the Collectors and you have to build your team to fight them.

Its the whole ‘building your team’ business that bothers me. In the first game the process seems much more organic, everything feels natural. I collect my team on the way, I can do sidequests, or I can just go straight ahead and do the urgent, main mission. The second game feels much more modular, or episodic.

In Mass Effect if I choose to just hunt down Saren and follow the urgency of the mission I can. But if I do that in the second game it might impact on my endgame. I have to do all the missions to get all the weapons/ armour upgrades instead of just picking up better armour if I go straight to the later missions. I have to get all the allies (or specific allies) to upgrade the ship and so on. It feels like I’m being forced to do all the sidequests, which takes some of the random ‘wandering around the galaxy, righting wrongs’ fun out of it.

Mass Effect 2 feels like a lot of short stories. Some really great shorts, sure, about the individual characters. It’s as rich and deep as the first game, but because each of these stories feels almost like a separate thing, and they’re almost as big as the main storyline, it detracts from the import of the main storyline, whereas the first game feels all about the same thing. It’s more focussed and, I think, a better game for it.

And because Mass Effect 2 feels so structured and forced at times, it sometimes feels more like I’m going through a checklist making sure I have all the ticks in all the boxes than it feels like a natural narrative.

So, don’t get me wrong, I do like Mass Effect 2, and I am looking forward to Mass Effect 3 a great deal, but I think the first game, for all its faults, was a more enjoyable, more immersive experience. The second game is more polished from a gameplay and mechanics perspective, but it feels more like a duty than an adventure… it does not sweep you up in the story the way the first game did.

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