The Mass Effect, Part 2

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Design.

Playing a 40+ hour game to get my mind off of the limitations of having to get around on crutches due to a cast on your leg, was not my only reason for playing Mass Effect 2. I was also interested in the mission / level design of the series for a long-suffering design feature I’ve been working on. Something that I think you’ll find in good designs is that there is a repeating pattern of a sorts. Kind of a rule of three. Primary, secondary and tertiary gameplay and/or missions.

You can find this in all kinds of games, but primarily, you’ll find it in RPGs – or at least it comes through the most clearly.

All good games will generally offer you a primary, secondary and tertiary gameplay experience. Whether it’s a different style of mission (stealth compared to assault) or perhaps as part of a mini-game (find resources in order to research and unlocked tech). In RPGs however, it isn’t just about styles of gameplay but also styles of mission – or quests to use the traditional RPG parlance. As missions has a lot to do with story.

So put simply a primary mission is the backbone main story thread of the game – they must be completed to complete the game. Secondary missions are usually a series of missions that strung together tell a sub-plot of a game story – they’re generally optional. Whereas a tertiary mission, is something that’s not really to do with either and is usually a once off mission or a mission that repeats indefinitely – they definitely are optional. Their purpose, is to show that there is more to this game world / universe than just this story alone as they are usually unrelated to it. They help create the illusion of depth to this universe, in that there is more going on than just what the player is caught up in – saving the world and/or galaxy from destruction and/or subjugation.

Some games try and make do with just the primary missions, and sometimes, with the odd secondary mission(s). Rarely, are tertiary missions an option – even if they may actually have primary, secondary and even tertiary gameplay incorporated into their title. And though this may provide enough, generally, you come away with a feeling that you’ve just experienced the surface of whatever story they were trying to tell – actually, you may even come away with a feeling that the story was simply tacked on as an excuse for the repetitive (solely primary) gameplay. Without the secondary and even tertiary missions, the story ends up feeling like it lacks depth of meaning. It doesn’t have the subtle details that these would provide so as to create a rich universe for the player to experience – to become immersed in.

Mass Effect 1 & 2 has primary, secondary and even tertiary gameplay and mission types. However, you could argue as to how well the secondary and tertiary missions types were implemented. Not that it was entirely bad, it’s just that I feel that they missed an opportunity to exploit these to their fullest or offer a style of play that they currently aren’t offering within the main primary missions. I haven’t played the DLCs but I get a feeling that they’ve tried to use these as a vehicle for providing stronger secondary missions at least. However doing so undermines the core game experience as not everyone is going to buy these; and as a gamer, I would expect these to be present in a solid RPG not something optional to get at an additional cost after already having bought the game.

Anyway, I’ll just focus on what I’ve experienced and explain why I found it wanting.

In ME1 secondary missions came in the form of finding a series of something (Asari Matriarch writings) and tertiary missions came in the form of one off missions (rescue the official from the fanatical biotics). You could argue that they need to be switched around, but, my initial selection is based on “length.” The Asari writings will require you to hunt about the galaxy searching planets for each bit in order to find them all, and in doing so, get fed more of a sub-plot (or theme) backstroy. The one off missions are actually more primary gameplay intensive, but only occur once off. If they were part of a series of similar “one-offs” then you could argue that they are actually a series of secondary missions telling a sub-plot – like those to do with the Cerberus activities. But usually they have nothing really to do with the main story at all.

Personally I don’t care how you cut it, as I think that the ambiguity is there because the secondary and tertiary missions just aren’t that well formed in the title – as is the case for the secondary and tertiary gameplay.

One of the key problems with these, is that they take place on planet’s whose terrain looks like a generated height-map with a buggy you drive about the surface. It feels very 90s in the level of quality even if it is interesting enough in concept to keep you fairly engaged – it’s interesting what you can achieve with some solid gameplay systems working just on physics. But the way the buggy handles is very dodgy regardless, like it’s based on some kind of simple half-completed bargain-bin title.

Then the facilities that you encounter, are pretty much the same facility over and over again. Yes, there are a couple, like the mine-facility, secret research-base, pirate-base, and, the derelict spacecraft. But, the layouts are usually the same, with maybe the odd section inaccessible at times. Yes, the objects placed in these generic layouts differ to a wide degree, but ultimately, the generic layout underpinning this just overpowers – you’ve seen it all before, there is nothing “fresh” about it. And largely, the gameplay ends up being very repetitive for it.

The worst however is the outside of these facilities as they just tend to sit on top of the world’s surface rather than seeming like they are integrated and apart of the landscape. The detail is just too basic compared to other environments to be convincing, as they look like they’ve just been dropped onto the surface along with a few large crates scattered about. I’m also convinced that a modular building set can work quite effectively, and with more work, the whole approach could have been far better executed to be more believable in detail. Something that is evident in the finding Liara mission that occurs on Therum, which has had more work done to it due to it being a primary mission, however, uses many building components found on the planet decent and investigation missions.

With a bit more work these tertiary missions could have been likewise better in quality as certain missions I think deserved it. In a way it is similar to the anomaly missions that replaced these in ME2, where upon scanning the planet’s surface you were presented with a mission to undertake. Though these mission environments were better, I can’t help but feel that they should have been more like the Therum mission where you had to travel about on the planet’s surface and investigate structures until finding the source of the anomaly. Otherwise the missions ended up playing the same as the primary missions whereas these should have been an opportunity to mix things up more in play style.

The thing with really good secondary and tertiary mission and gameplay design, is that when it is done well it actually offers gameplay that is quite different to the main (primary) gameplay found in the rest of the title. In ME1 this gameplay wasn’t all that different. Moving on with ME2, the odd tertiary mission where you do a one-off “anomaly” mission on a planet you search for resources, also has this problem but at least Bioware introduced mechanics so as to try and put another “spin” on it – you have to destroy to mechs before they destroy the cargo containers, you have to battle the clock and stop the missiles launching, etc.

Then there are the secondary missions, which the closest that I found in ME2 (or comes to mind) are those dealing with the player winning their squad-mate’s loyalty – which unlocks bonus powers and a new look for them. Not sure you’d call these “sub-plots” exactly, however, the characters are an important part of the game – and in at least Jack’s case, they do at least deal with Cerberus. However, many of these aren’t terribly involving or much different from the primary gameplay you already experienced. For example, the Drell assassin Thane where all you do is follow the target from above making sure to keep time. In the end, it all boils down to some dialogue choices. Kinda interesting but not entirely engaging or even complimentary to the primary gameplay.

I don’t know, it seems that you can actually finish ME2 without having to acquire every character, so, perhaps these in themselves might be considered “secondary” missions – but honestly if you’re like me, you’d consider getting all of your team and unlocking their abilities as part of the primary mission set. Then there are the DLCs that I’ve already touched on, which seem to be stronger versions of secondary mission sets – taking perhaps a couple of hours rather than less than an hour. However, they come at a cost.

All I can really say, is that at least Bioware could see how the first title wasn’t really working in way of secondary and tertiary gameplay and missions. Like the “resource” collecting buggy gameplay being switched to a high-level mini-game where you search and “probe” planets for resources that you then use directly for researching technology – am I alone in thinking that it would have been nice to be able to sell some of those resources for credits? Bioware were willing to change these along with a bunch of other mechanics that did and didn’t work in order to make for a better gaming experience.

I can appreciate that kind of dedication to your craft when so many developers wouldn’t have deviated away from what they had – simply so as to cash in.

A (Un)Forgettable Ending

The ending for ME2 was a bit of a let down and I’m not simply talking about an end-game boss that came off a little too “Saturday morning cartoon.” It had pretty much the same gameplay as the rest of the game if you don’t count that end-boss. What’s interesting to me about it, is that there was an opportunity to provide the player with a primary, secondary and even tertiary options in way of mission to accept.

The player was presented with options of who would take on two roles, the first being who would lead the secondary assault team into the facility. The second being who would be a tertiary agent to infiltrate the facility via venting in order to aid the two teams, with you leading the primary team. This would have been an ideal opportunity to allow the player to choose whether they want to lead the primary team playing as the main character, or, whether to lead the secondary team or infiltrator as another character. Something that the Knights of the Old Republic (2003, 2004) games periodically did to add variety to play, but ME2, doesn’t do beyond a weak sequence where you control Joker in order to escape an attack on the Normandy. These two options to play, could have provided very different mission types to experience with characters who’s abilities are different to the character they’ve directly controlled for the most part.

For instance, the primary assault team would take the most direct path into the facility, one that has the most (and specifically) “Collector” enemies. The secondary assault team would take a longer route that perhaps has key obstacles to overcome and more in the way of “Husks, Abominations, Scions and Praetorian ” enemies, however, perhaps it’s a more stealthy route as the enemies are merely reacting to your presence rather than being there for the explicit intention of protecting an entrance. An example of an obstacle that would differentiate play, is how in the following section to all this you need to select a biotic to protect you from the Seeker swarms. Something similar could have been done to differentiate the play yet still make it “difficult” on par with the primary assault team’s straight-up combat.

The tertiary infiltrator, would need to be more stealthy and perhaps hack a bunch of security consoles whilst dealing with enemies on their own – security drones or something. This mission would be more about timing and using your skills at the right time. Perhaps not as “worthwhile” without adequate stealth mechanics, but still, it would be interesting to control a character like the Drell assassin Thane directly. Plus, you could have introduced a new power ability or expressed an existing one differently to provide a more “steathier” mode of play. Or simply had marked sections of the level that are in dark spots to allow for the character to hide within, with an enemy awareness bar that let you know that you were being detected or not – GTA: San Andreas (2004) and The Warriors (2005) did similar things. These are quick fixes, however, you could have taken it a bit farther and replaced this bar with a full-screen shader effect along with better stealth mechanics – The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004).

GTA San Andreas Stealth The Warriors Stealth screenshot_chronicles_of_riddick
Basic to Advanced Stealth: GTA San Andreas (left), The Warriors (middle), Riddick (right)

Regardless, you would have 3 distinct mission options to proceed with. It’s unlikely that most developers would do this however, in that it means that there are two missions that the player may not ever play. Kinda like the tertiary missions uncovered as an anomaly on a planet you’re scanning for resources, may or may not get played, even if the player still has the option to do so.

I know that they already have a lot of “replay” value and variability in ME1 and 2. That they’ve gone with a much more high-level approach of basing certain events on what the player has or hasn’t chosen to do in the previous titles. However, the player doesn’t necessarily directly experience this. Something along what I propose, is a more active way for them to do so and may have added something to the ending of ME2 that would make it a bit more memorable.

Mechanics of Good Storytelling

Moving onto the story, I kind of feel that it is missing something tangible. It’s hard to pin-point, in that what you effectively have with a trilogy is acts 1, 2 and 3 as separate titles. So experiencing what is only the beginning of the story is problematic, as there are loose ends and threads and themes that haven’t been fully fleshed out. The message hasn’t been entirely delivered.

You also get that in film when you have that format. People will scratch there heads after seeing the first title and think that it is utter crap – Star Wars prequels or Kill Bill Volume 1, even though it’s not a trilogy. And it can end up that way if there isn’t enough planning of the story arc and it’s themes and threads upfront, or, enough attention to simply telling enough of a good “complete” story with your first title. You can end up with a series of titles that aren’t as strongly cemented together as you’d like. Especially if you give your audience a chance to criticise in between titles and allow yourself to be swayed by it – they may know what they like and are vocal about what they don’t like, but gamers, can’t really tell you how to make your title better for you, especially when they’ve only experienced the first installment of the “whole.”

So, I kinda wonder at what “messages” will strongly come through to the audience in the final title. I know that Cerberus plays a part in the Mass Effect universe, and is an opportunity to make a social commentary on humanity’s nature – most good sci-fi does this. Something else is the Geth, which raises questions about what it means to be an individual, what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, and, what is humanity’s destiny not only in the world but the greater universe – but, I guess that is more for the Reaper element of the story to reflect upon as well.

But since Cerberus was an element of ME1 and played such a large role in ME2, this is the logical vehicle for any social commentary – at least in my eyes. However, I wonder if the opportunity to do so has been lost in that Cerberus is made out to be some rich man’s powerful (James Bond) organisation that does rapid on-the-edge technology development into radical practical applications.

Personally, I think I would have explained the roots leading to this which may very well be the developer’s intent with the final title. I would make it a reflection on modern day examples of private firms doing military work. Like Blackwater – now known as Xe Services. Basically a private firm though established in order to promote human interests within the galaxy, initially started out providing security services as an Alliance contractor. They then naturally evolved into an intelligence service provider – as these firms have evolved into – which would then naturally evolve into technology acquisition – securing alien artifacts from remote hostile sites, stealing them from rival alien races, etc. This would then evolve into the final stage of Cerberus being a powerful (well funded and resourced) private black projects R&D contractor – rapid applications development of technology without the red tape and outside oversight to get in the way, as is clear in ME1 and commented about in ME2.

You could then make a commentary about how this all came about, the black projects. You might think of the US when that comes to mind – though I’m sure they aren’t entirely alone. But the model for this kind of development originated with the Nazis. Via programs like Operation Paperclip (of which I’m sure all the allies had their own version) this model was then absorbed into the US – along with all those Nazi scientists and the occasional war criminal. Such programs meant that the winners of the war and writers of history, were able to benefit immensely. However, it also meant that the sickness at the heart of the Third Reich was incorporated right into the heart of their own societies. So, there was a long-term “cost” in doing so.

I mean Cerberus with their uniforms, questionable research projects, and, racial policies. Do come off with a strong neo-fascist streak after all. So Cerberus provides a means of commenting on this cost to our humanity – something that various remarks made primarily by Legion, depending on what end option you go with in ME2, hint at.

At the end of the day, I can gripe about how the Mass Effect failings – if you really want to put it that way – could be improved upon. However, Bioware haven’t shied away from addressing these like replacing the planet scout-buggy with a high-level resource scanning mini-game for example. And though this may not be a completely satisfactory replacement, they are sure to make changes like this again with the final installment of the trilogy – to experiment with Mass Effect conceptual formula.

And though I think they haven’t quite nailed the nature of RPGs – something feels lacking, perhaps due to the titles being a trilogy. The concept is too strong to be let down by that and Bioware too capable in bringing a concept to life and to market to a high standard. So, my “gripes” aside, I’ll still be buying and playing Mass Effect 3.

Make sure to read: The Mass Effect, Part 1

3 thoughts on “The Mass Effect, Part 2”

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