Mass Effect 3 is a series of boring choices
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 April 2013, 2:28 am
One of my favorite quotes is Sid Meier's "A [good] game is a series of interesting choices", because I very much agree with that definition. I am currently playing Mass Effect 3, which I got for free from EA as compensation for having wasted my money on SimCity. And when I write that phrase, I wonder if "playing" is actually the right verb. I'd need something which is half "playing" and half "watching", because a lot of the time I am either just watching some events, or I am technically in control of my character but whatever choices I make still end up with the same result. Maybe "experience" is the verb I'm looking for.

Now many people will protest and say that Mass Effect 3 is the game that has the biggest number of choices to make during the game, and one of the few games where those choices have an influence on how the story evolves. Which is true, but only to the degree how much you actually care about the details of the story. Do you care whether Ashley lives or dies? Do you care whether the genophage is cured and the Krogan can repopulate and potentially overrun the galaxy some centuries later? If you do care, Mass Effect 3 is the game for you, because you can make decisions that determine those outcomes.

But if you don't care about the details of the story, and just want to play and win the game, you quickly realize that your decisions don't matter. Many, many dialogue choices come down to "Either say something nice, get paragon points, and something happens; or say something intimidating, get renegade points, and exactly the same thing happens". Then of course anybody who ever played any game with an alignment point system knows that it doesn't matter whether you are good or evil, as long as you are consistent and always choose good or always choose evil to maximize the effect of the accumulated good or evil alignment points.

A much smaller number of choices actually effect winning or losing the game. And that ultimately comes down to a single number, your effective military strength, which determines how exactly the game ends. The higher your score, the nicer the end. And so curing the genophage is not just a moral decisions, but also affects that score, because it makes a difference whether you get the support of the Krogans or the Salarians. While the effect on effective military strength is complex (as it depends on what you did in Mass Effect 2, as well as some decisions later), you can "minmax" all your decisions in Mass Effect 3 to get the highest possible score at the end.

Ultimately all dialogue decisions in Mass Effect 3 basically just determine what cut scenes you will get to watch. They don't effect gameplay in the way that the decision "should I wield a shotgun or a sniper rifle?" does. Which ends up being the most interesting choice you can make in Mass Effect 3. The rest of the game plays a lot like Dragon's Lair, you press a button and see what happens in a limited tree of possible outcomes. Overall the course of the main story doesn't change, whatever choices you make, you only get to influence some details and the score for the ending. And doing a lot of side-quests consisting of picking up stuff in missions or doing a boring mini-game of planetary scanning is ultimately having a much bigger effect on your final score than any decisions you can make in this game.

I'll try to "experience" Mass Effect 3 to the end, because it is mildly entertaining, but I'm not a huge fan. Too much passive watching of events, combined with the annoying inability to skip scenes or to save the game when they are running. Not enough interesting choices.
Tobold's Blog



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