For those who are still playing catch-up, this is…
In the transition from the era of the PlayStation 2 to that of the Xbox 360 (and their respective counterparts), the message was clear: online was the future. A prediction that I think you’ll all agree turned out to be correct, for better or worse. There were some things that made the generational leap a bit more attractive, though. Like the introduction of a system for tracking specific accomplishments across your entire gaming library - assigning each one a value depending on their requirements - and sharing them with your friends.
Today, Achievements mean different things to different people. To some, they appeal to our inner magpie (the same one that’s kept the Pokémon franchise going for so long), the desire to collect everything for no justifiable reason. To others, they pose as bragging rights; a form of competition between friends and siblings.
I once saw Achievements (and Trophies) as both of these things. Now, I see them for what they really are; the trinkets of an omnipotent presence, silently persuading you to play the game his way. A little over-dramatic, perhaps, but since the day that Trophies were introduced, I forgot that games were about the journey, not the prizes at the end. It took one very special game to help me come to my senses.
That game was Mass Effect.
While the world waits with bated breath for the conclusion to BioWare’s epic sci-fi trilogy, I’ve only recently finished Commander Shephard’s first adventure. Looking back on it, I don’t think my opinion of a game has oscillated so much as it has with this one. Perhaps it’s a tad more difficult to judge by today’s standards, but I’m pretty sure some aspects of it that are unacceptable today would have raised just as many eyebrows back in 2007.
Let’s outline the pros and cons: Mass Effect’s strongest aspect is its rich in-game history and intricately detailed universe; the encyclopaedic Codex is brimming with information on the game’s races, technology and historical events, all crying out for expanded universe material (which it got). It also spins a good yarn; the plot tries a bit harder to be more than just standard sci-fi fare, with a few twists in the tale towards the end. The principal cast is well-acted and well-written, never without anything at least mildly interesting to say. And while this is often an exaggerated line, in this case it’s 100% true: I cared about my crew.
Chatting with them in between missions revealed intriguing backstories and opinions they’d usually keep to themselves. Their banter during missions made them more than just NPCs, though it certainly didn’t improve their combat awareness. From Wrex’s tales of his days as a bounty hunter to Liara’s…in-depth…description of asari mating rituals (guess who I chose for the Paramour achievement), I was surprised to realise by the end of the game just how much emotion I’d invested in them.
As I mentioned, however, there are a few abnormally large nits to pick. Besides technical issues like frame-rate drops and texture pop-in, most of them can be traced back to the sidequests. Quite simply, they are no fun. Those that don’t take place in the Citadel are carried out on various worlds throughout the galaxy, and they follow the same letter to a degree that would make the Power Rangers jealous. Land on the planet in your space buggy that could moonlight as a bucking bronco, drive around looking for arbitrary debris to fulfil the monotonous ‘collection’ side quests, then pull up at the bunker/warehouse in the middle of nowhere (possibly guarded by rocket turrets), clear the building of enemies, find a MacGuffin, leave the way you came in.
These sidequests don’t expand on the game universe as much as you’d think - definitely not as much as the story missions - and so they contribute nothing to the game’s strongest aspect. The gameplay can only carry the game so far; provided you play as a biotic or tech class, it can be fun to mess around with all the unique powers, though the radial selection wheel breaks the flow of combat constantly. Score 1 for the hot-key system on PC. Mixing your squad up keeps things interesting for a bit longer, and if you’re strategic enough you can combine their abilities with yours to great effect, but the game discourages you from rotating out your allies regularly.
And that’s where the achievements come in.
Mass Effect’s combat can seem dull at first, but there’s some depth to be found.
If you want to fill out Mass Effect’s achievement roster, you need to play through a minimum of three times. Most of the achievements are tied to skills that only certain classes have, such as using a certain biotic 75 times. I quickly entered a pattern of encountering enemies and then spamming each biotic I had one after the other without much thought for tactics, barely relying on my pistol. Needless to say it made the combat much duller than necessary.
Others, like Paragon, Renegade and Charismatic, force you to stick religiously to one of the two moral alignments throughout most of the game. In the latter case, you must ‘use Charm or Intimidate to resolve an impossible situation’. Obviously this insinuates that you’ll want to max out your Charm or Intimidate stat, even if you don’t want to. But since you have no clue about what makes an ‘impossible situation’, you’re forced to choose the specialised options in each conversation on the off-chance that convincing a civilian to testify in court might be regarded as ‘impossible’. An example of an occasion where the better option would have been to make the achievement secret.
Then there are my least favourite, the ally achievements. ‘Complete the majority of the game with this NPC’. One each for all six. Again, not only is it coy about how much the ‘majority’ of the game entails, but like I said earlier, it discourages gameplay experimentation. With a game that can clock in at around the 30-hour mark, you want to keep things fresh, not adhere to routine. It also makes a lot of the loot you collect (emphasis on the word ‘lot’) redundant. If you’ve decided to roll Garrus and Ashley out for every mission, that fancy pants Krogan armour you found for Wrex is just going to go to waste.
I kept up this needless obedience for around 15 hours. Using Wrex and Tali on every mission, maxing out my Charm and selecting every Paragon dialogue option, trudging through sidequest after boring sidequest…I was ready to call Mass Effect overrated. I let it gather dust for a while. At least, as much dust as a Game on Demand can gather.
The mission on Virmire is undoubtedly the game’s highlight, with twists abound.
But then a few weeks ago, as the hype for Mass Effect 3 grew (and mindful of the fact that my copy of the supposedly angelic Mass Effect 2 was still unplayed), I decided to drop back in. But this time, I told myself, I was going to do things my way. I would do what I wanted, say what I wanted, and roll with who I wanted. It’s a role-playing game, so why not role-play?
Those final 10 hours flew by. As I approached the endgame, I was forced to make tougher, more consequential decisions. And since I knew they would carry over into the sequel, they felt consequential, in ways that games like Fallout and Deus Ex couldn’t hope to match. I was so compelled by what I had witnessed, so utterly immersed in the game’s world that I did something I haven’t done since Ratchet & Clank on the PS2.
As soon as the credits finished rolling, I hit ‘New Game’.
I put together a female Shephard and jumped right back in at the bottom.
Which brings us to today. I have finally started Mass Effect 2. I haven’t even looked at the achievement list, to avoid falling into the same trap as before. And while I’ve only played a couple of hours, I can already see some changes I love, and some I don’t. We’ll save that discussion for another time. But there’s a moment early on where Shephard’s new boss, the Illusive Man, tells you that your old team has all gone their separate ways and (with the exception of Tali, whom I’d already been reacquainted with) would not be joining me on my mission.
I felt my heart sink.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t turn your gaming experience into a routine. Treat it as an adventure, and not a checklist. You’ll find that it can turn what may initially seem like a sub-par product into something you’ll never forget.