Mass Effect and Engagement

I remember when I first played Dragon Age: Inquisition, on the recommendation of a friend, and that friend told me that the devs had had to tell people to move along from the first section to advance the plot, because there was such a huge volume of side quests in the first area that people were hanging around there and getting frustrated that the story wasn’t advancing.

When I actually played the game, I could sort of see how people were getting caught up. I think the only thing that saved me from having to spend hours and hours grinding sidequests in that level is my extreme aversion to anything even remotely difficult, so I ended up heading to different areas once I’d run out of level-appropriate quests, thus advancing the plot. However, I did also spend approximately three months finishing off as many side quests as I could between the penultimate and final quests, so it probably all evened out in the end.

Mass Effect: Andromeda, on first glance, might have had a very similar problem. It’s a very large game – Bioware games do seem to be getting longer and larger the more they release. This makes sense – that’s sort of what engages their audience. The target audience for a Bioware game wants a large game that they can explore, with plenty of chances to engage with side characters, history and setting. One of the ways that Bioware has done this in the past is to make side quests that open up conflicts between side characters, including adding special companion side quests for the team that the player character recruits along their journey.

However, this runs into a problem with engagement, because the other reason that Bioware fans play their games is because they like the narratives, and want to feel like they’re part of an overarching story that affects the world. So, really, what a Bioware game needs to do is hit a balance between offering plenty of extra content, which preferably adds depth to the game without necessarily being critical to understand the plot – or even worse, critical to actually passing the game. I ran into this problem, personally, with Dragon Age: Inquisition when I played that. After running up against the second-to-final boss and getting utterly creamed for about three hours running, I went to complain to a few friends who had played it before. In the course of these conversations, they determined that I really hadn’t cared enough about Cullen to finish all of his side quests, especially because it seemed to be a trivial fetch quest, and told me to immediately go do that.

After completing the trivial fetch quest, I was rewarded with a second part of quest, and then a third, which culminated in me finding a set of armour that greatly increased my chances with the final boss, and according to some forums, were pretty necessary for beating the boss unless you’d managed to find a couple of power combo exploits that made any fight ridiculously easy. Bioware, in this case, was relying on me caring enough about all the characters to complete all of their quests, even one that was less than engaging on the surface, in order to have a significant chance of even making it through to the final boss.

Thankfully, I didn’t encounter that sort of thing in Mass Effect: Andromeda. That’s not to say I didn’t encounter trivial fetch quests – there were many trivial fetch quests, but that’s rather to be expected – but at least this game seemed to know when they could and couldn’t rely on their players to be engaged even through a tedious task.

A little background on me before we get too far into this: I’m somewhere on the ‘completionist’ end of the sliding scale. I can, and frequently do, give up on the last few side quests in order to get back to the main plot when I’m feeling unengaged, but I do like to make an effort to finish all the side quests I pick up. Usually this ends up somewhere along the lines of me finishing off all of the companion quests, about 80% of the side quests and just plain giving up on most of the ‘exploration’ quests – anything that involves either “explore all areas on a particular map” or “find all of Object X in the game” (think the Turian medals and the Matriarch’s writings from Mass Effect 1), then I’m most likely to just end up skipping straight over that.

The problem I did find that Mass Effect had were mostly with repetition.

The goal of Mass Effect: Andromeda, for those not particularly familiar with the game, is to find a suitable planet for the people from the Milky Way galaxy to settle. However, when you get there, you learn that there is something making previously quite liveable planets uninhabitable.

Very slight spoilers to follow: On every planet you can possibly inhabit, you’re expected to locate three of these monuments of alien technology, and get them back in working order in order to reverse the intense environmental destruction afflicting each planet. On every planet that you set up a colony outpost on, too, you’ll find a gigantic creature named an ‘Architect’ – whose design is frighteningly similar to the Thresher Maws from the original trilogy.

The first time I did each of these things, it was breathtaking. I spent most of my time in the first Remnant vault making soft gasping noises and screaming to my friends over text that everything was so gorgeous. I freaked out when I first realised that the designs were probably based on ferrofluids because HOW COOL ARE FERROFLUIDS?!!? I read every scan result and tried to scan pretty much everything whether it said it could be scanned or not, to eke out every possible piece of information about the environment.

By the time I was looking through the fifth one, it had sort of lost its charm. Everything was the same every time (spoilers for how to complete the vault quests follow). You go to monuments that are designed fairly similarly, with some differences in how many prongs they have and how buried the area is depending on the planet. You find on average three (sometimes four) glyphs, which are pretty much always in one of four or five common spots on the monuments, and then you solve a sudoku and move to the next monument.

When you’re done, there’s a vault that opens up. You go underground, encounter one or two more Sudokus, and a puzzle involving raising and lowering platforms. You unlock doors in sequence until you get to the right area, then sprint to the exit. The enemies are mostly annoying – they seem to occupy a space of difficulty somewhere just above the sweet spot of ‘distracting, but not resource-consuming enough to be truly aggravating’ and just below the sweet spot of ‘challenging enough to add to the difficulty of the overall area’.

I will note here, though, that they do have one thing that I appreciate about the vaults: They do have a fetch quest linked to them: you can find rare Remnant tech at most of the locations. However, in order to get that, you often have to solve the puzzles slightly differently, and take a different route (warning: spoilers in the end of this sentence) through the vault to the exit, often meaning a longer route that requires more precise timing and greater speed to keep ahead of the massive death-cloud that chases you to the exit.

Sorry – two things. The non-Sudoku puzzles in these sections did build on previous vaults, and there were interesting differences in how the vaults were put together, so you couldn’t memorise a map and be done with it. So that did a lot to alleviate the boredom with the format.

There also isn’t much extra information that you get about the Remnant from the later vaults, compared with the early ones. You don’t gain more information about the bots you find there, or about the structures in general, and there isn’t anything really to be found from the tech you pick up. Even the fetch quest tech you give to a squadmate and don’t get any further information from (you might at the end – I didn’t finish that quest. So if I’m wrong let me know, but as far as I know they don’t yield extra info about the Remnant).

The Architects are very similar (and ye be warned, I’m about to discuss these fights in depth). There are five total in the game, and the first one was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. The appearance of the Architect was very similar to the appearance of the first Thresher Maw in Mass Effect: That is, sudden and terrifying.

But again, I very nearly didn’t do fight number four. They weren’t plot relevant, and by that point, they just weren’t fun. They were still stressful, but don’t take that to mean they were difficult. They also took a long time to beat, but again, don’t take that to mean they were difficult.

Full disclosure: I actually quite like how the Architect fights are designed. There are so many ways that those fights could have gone horribly wrong.

The Architects are defeated by shooting out their three legs and then their head. In between this, there are periods when they raise the armour on their legs/head and send other Remnant bots after you, and they also have three attacks they can make themselves.

They have quite a good balance, I feel – you can target the head at a few points, not just at the last section of the battle, so you don’t end the fight with a full health bar on the head, which makes it feel a lot less like a slog. They don’t spawn too many other Remnant – you’re never fighting the spawned bots for more time than you’re fighting the actual Architect overall, which does a lot to reduce frustration. The terrain provides obstacles and cover in fairly equal proportions. They’re also one of the only fights that really got me to use Andromeda’s movement-while-fighting mechanics to their full advantage. The Fiends are the only other enemy that really made me do that.

However, the attacks are fairly  easy to avoid, and by the time you get a couple of Architects in, you’re probably high enough level that the spawned Remnant aren’t too difficult to deal with. It never makes you split your attention between the spawned bots and the Architect, as the Architect’s armour is up whenever there are spawned bots in the field (except for a brief overlap just before the last bot or two dies), and the fight is designed to be a long, drawn out slog.

In the end, I think it could have done with one less limb. After the mad panic of the first one, you’re not really in any danger as long as you don’t make a mistake while dodging the Architect’s attacks, and even then, there are usually enough resources on the battlefield that if you’re quick about it, you can recover. On one planet, there was also a twist that it was so cold outside that you couldn’t stray too far from certain heated areas during the battle or you would die rather quickly. This is another way they could have added more interest and engagement to the battle as well, by taking the base battle and then building onto and into that.

I feel this is a pretty good cross-section of the engagement issues with Mass Effect: Andromeda. I think the only reason to run 100% completion on this game is for the simple fact of having 100% completed it – not because you’ll enjoy every quest, or because it even adds much depth to the story, after a certain point. Just because you want to 100% complete the game.

That’s fine – if that’s the way that you like to play games, then there should be games that cater to that.

But I do find myself a little bit confused about the side quests that Bioware games end up putting in. A lot of them feel like busywork – I can understand having findable items to encourage the players to explore, but there seem to be more of those than are strictly necessary. By the time you get enough of the quests in the game to get the hours of gameplay content that the devs seem to be going for, it’s just too many to make them all plot relevant and enlightening about the world at large. It’s just not feasible, with a project this large, and a timeline so tight. I wonder why the devs felt the need to include so many quests – was it just to make up a certain amount of playtime hours, which seems to be a thing that people judge games by these days, particularly AAA titles? Was it to make 100% completion that much more of a bragging right for the players? I’m not well-read enough into the industry to figure out another reason why it sheer number of side quests might be important to a game’s experience.

Personally, I feel like the game has too many side quests for the players to do 100% of them and still remain engaged with the plot. By the time you’ve done all the side quests, the pacing of the main quest is pretty much irretrievable, and I feel like fatigue would have started to set in by that point. But then, I don’t play for 100% completion, and I may be missing part of the appeal. Still, I don’t actually see anything wrong with the side quests as a plot extender and to add engagement with the setting, since the player can pretty much choose to do or not do the side quests as and how they want. Essentially, it’s a good way to let players customise their own experience and engagement, and if they’re doing too many side quests and ruining their experience of the main plot, well, they can always stop and move back.

I think a lot of the problems I have with the game were that nothing really changed. Not all the side quests added extra information about the story, and a lot of the time they had a base template and didn’t add to or build on those templates enough as the game went through to keep the engagement, particularly in quests that were relevant to the main plot.

One final thing.

Don’t read this section if you don’t want ending spoilers because I’m about to spoil the heck out of the ending.

You know how, above, when I said there were five total Architects in the game, but mentioned that the fourth was tedious?

That wasn’t an error.

The fifth Remnant Architect catapulted right back up into a brilliant boss fight, when it appeared in the final section. I’d need to replay the game to figure out why, because I was too busy screeching and being convinced I was about to die to really analyse what was going on in the final battle, but I remember being very impressed that my first thought when it showed up in the final battle was not “ugh this thing again”, but rather “oh god oh god I’m going to die help”. This was a creature that had been reduced to the video game equivalent of filing your taxes, and for some reason, because of the frantic energy, because it was surrounded by different enemies and the tactics had changed, or just because of the sheer adrenaline that was already flowing through my body because of all the HOLY SHIT FINAL BOSS BATTLE  moments that I’d encountered in the five minutes before this thing showed up. Whatever it was, that final Architect battle was an incredibly tense experience that only the first Architect battle had been before that.

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