Looking back over the games I’ve played over the course of 2015 it’s striking just how many big games are present. And I mean big in the sense of time investment rather than production values or sales – although, let’s be honest, we’ve still not emerged from the era where the biggest games tend toward all three characteristics.
At the beginning of the year I played through Shadow of Mordor in what, looking back, is a surprisingly tidy 21 hours (hat-tip Steam statistics). It felt like ever so slightly longer, which I guess means the game was on the verge of outstaying its welcome. My girlfriend and I 100%’d Lego Jurassic World (which is a lot of fun if you like dinosaurs, no matter what AJ says) in 34 hours, and I invested an amount of time between those two figures in the older Prototype 2. I’ve started but not finished Alien Isolation, which I understand can clock in at around 40 hours.
It’s not just big-in-budget games, of course: defeating Black Isle-style CRPG Pillars of Eternity took 65 hours of my time, whilst delightful Syndicate tribute act Satellite Reign entertained me for 29 hours. Nor are long games new, as we all know. I should here acknowledge Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, which I finally played through (30 hours). It’s an interesting game, and I can see why it’s remembered so fondly and has proven somewhat influential, at least among games writers, but let’s be honest: it has rough edges you could impale yourself on.
But none of these have proven to be the biggest timesink. Can you guess what has?
It’s the Mass Effect trilogy! Bet you thought it was gonna be Fallout 4 (123 hours, for the record – guh).
As my diary series acknowledged, I probably spent a little over three months playing through the central Mass Effect trilogy, including every piece of DLC. Each was a big game to begin with, and playing through all the DLC and sidequests available adds a lot of padding. Did I say “padding”? I meant “memorable experiences”, of course.
I intended to write a lot of articles off the back of playing through this trilogy but never did. In retrospect I think I was playing through the trilogy again because I wanted to, and my talk of articles was always a justification of the time investment I was committing too.
So why did I want to play through the games again? Why do I find them so pleasant an experience? Well, first let’s acknowledge some of the core issues of these games first.They’ve generally been positioned as RPGs, but in truth they’re RPGs with pretty much every other system outside combat and dialogue lifted out. If you’re to play a Mass Effect, you had better enjoy both shooting things and talking to things. If you don’t there’s an inherent issue.
This is exacerbated because neither system is particularly deep. The combat is entertaining but, on normal or often on hard, not a great challenge once you’ve got a few tricks up your sleeve – the first game, I think, is the most difficult, perhaps because it features far and away the least polished design and implementation. The dialogue system is largely consistent throughout the trilogy, and is generally beholden to the Paragon/Renegade binary morality system, which is the source of many of its problems. Decisions, let alone human morality, are rarely binary. The crudity of such systems becomes apparent as soon as the player wishes for nuance.
There is also much clashing between the parts of Mass Effect that are eager to function as hard SF (as hard as space opera gets, at any rate) and those that want to provide cinematic entertainment. This can be illustrated by many examples, not least the Codex’s descriptions of fleet combat occurring at distances of hundreds or thousands of kilometres, versus the cutscenes that show spacecraft whizzing right next to each other like a goofy Star Wars space dogfight.
Fortunately for me I can look past internal contradictions, because I like both shooting and talking, and I find the pacing of the Mass Effect games acceptable enough that its shifts between one and the other come as welcome flushes of my gaming palette. Further, I am a big old science fiction nerd, and these games have clearly been crafted by many people with similar interests. Among the themes of the games are evolutionary uplift and unintended consequences, artificial intelligence and the nature of sentient/sapient life, co-operation and empathy versus bigotry and empathy (oops, I got all binary there, sorry guv’nor), and the cyclic nature of history. All of this is explored on a vast canvas, one that successfully simulates a galactic scale and that stretches back first through hundreds of thousands of years of history, and later millions.
Whilst these themes are rarely tied in mechanically with the game, outside of the dialogue decisions you can make within the confines of the game’s largely linear plot, they provide a wonderful backdrop. You will also spend a lot of time pondering these ever-present ideas thanks to the games’ length. The trilogy’s large but often recurring cast also means you will grow to care for, dislike or at least be interested in its characters as they grow and change alongside you. And melodramatic it may often be, but I can’t deny a genuine emotional response to many moments throughout Mass Effect. Its story has its hooks in me, and whenever I hear its soundtrack I’m immediately transported back. I’m talking about nostalgia – an emotion too easily manipulated for crass commercialism in today’s times, but a powerful and pleasant one nonetheless.
My gosh are there many more aspects of these games I could criticise: the weaker characters, the tonal dissonance between instalments, the weird repositioning of gross genocidaires-in-waiting Cerberus for the second game, the appalling sticky cover system of the first game and the transparent environmental design of the second, the over-reaction in removing equipment systems from the second game after its predecessors inventory excess, DLC that hit with all the force of a ‘spicy’ Pot Noodle. The fucking planet scanning! GOD. Not to mention that furor with the ending to the third game, where a combination of players unable to read between lines and Bioware forgetting that players might care about their characters resulted in a retrofitted new conclusion that, er, spoiled the pacing of one of the trilogy’s most intense scenes as a byproduct.
But there are also so many more things, small and large, that I love: the unexpectedly brilliant multiplayer in the final instalment, the way the systems of the first two games were pulled together to form the clever balance of the third, driving the Mako up sheer cliffs because it fucking can, the Citadel DLC with its fantastic fan service, great writing, loving farewells, and genuine wit; the sense of exploration and mystery that so successfully permeates all three games, the advances in game technology and execution of cinematic technique as the trilogy progresses, the visual design of characters, environments and technology, the suicide mission, the building of forces and readiness as both mechanic and progress chart in the third game, and the spine-tingling moments when your preparations play out at an instalment’s climax.
I love these games, warts and all, though I fear what their commercial success means for the future of the series. Thankfully, Bioware have at least had the courage of conviction to eject everything but the name itself for forthcoming instalments – a sign, to me, that they could still do interesting things with their space operatic setting.