Category: Gaming

The Mass Effect Effect

I play a lot of games. And while I enjoy many of the games that I play, it has been a long, long time since I really loved a game. Since I’ve been so into a game that I obsess over it with every free thought in my head. I originally thought this was just a by-product of getting older. The child-like glee from a new game or toy that I could still feel in my 20s, was no longer a function that my brain in it’s 30s was possible of recreating. I was wrong. Maybe my tastes have refined more or it takes more to impress me. Whatever the reason, my brain was just waiting for the right game to completely obsess over. That game, that series, even, is Mass Effect.

To be honest, I was a little late to the party with Mass Effect. I didn’t play the original until December 2010, more than 3 years after it was released. I have to admit I was a little scared to play it because it’s a Bioware game. I had played 2 Bioware console games previously; Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. I liked KOTOR, even though I really didn’t enjoy the battle system. Jade Empire I truly loved. While it would be very hard for me to make a list of my Top 10 games, I think Jade Empire would be in it. So, given that I did enjoy, even love, my time with earlier BioWare games, why was I scared to play Mass Effect? The common thread between the three games is how the world and story are presented to you. BioWare doesn’t create a game and set it in a world. Bioware creates a world and sets a game in it. There is tons and tons of dialog. Tons and tons of backstory. In both KOTOR and Jade Empire, I found myself getting tired of all of the dialog and story about half-way through. I just wanted to finish. I was afraid I would get about a ways into Mass Effect, get tired of all the dialog and options, and end up disliking the game. I wanted to wait until I felt I was truly ready for a BioWare game before starting Mass Effect.

Even though it took me more than 3 years to play the game, I had owned it for nearly 18 months. I found the game for only $15 on sale and grabbed it without thinking twice. I had several friends that were practically begging me to borrow their copy of the game. They all loved it so much and wanted me to play it myself. With such high recommendations from three friends with rather different tastes in games, I knew I needed to bite the bullet and buy it. Still, I didn’t bite the bullet and play it. Time went by and the sequel came out and I had yet to play the original. The sequel dropped in price to only $20 and I bought it on faith, as I still had not started the original. I didn’t know when I was going to. I was still apprehensive to start that journey.

For the first time in 7 years, I was home in Wisconsin with practically no plans for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I knew I was going to play lots of games. I ended up finishing the game I expected to play for most of my time off on December 26th. With almost the entire week to go, I stared down my pile of games and couldn’t decide what to play next. I went to my laptop and looked at the day’s gaming news. I saw that downloadable content for Mass Effect 2 was on sale and I took it as a sign. Whether I was ready or not, it was time for me to play Mass Effect.

It didn’t take me very long to like the game. It didn’t take me much longer that that to fall in love with it. After a few marathon play sessions, I went out to the Xbox dashboard and bought most of the DLC for Mass Effect. This act is really saying something. I almost NEVER buy DLC for a game unless it’s for some multiplayer experience. When I play games, I almost always play only the main story. While I have played a bit more in the GTA games, even then there are things I just don’t do. But it was different with Mass Effect. I wanted to experience everything. No stone was going to be left unturned. Even now, I’m considering going back and getting the Pinnacle Station DLC for Mass Effect, even though I know it’s not that good and probably the only misstep the Mass Effect development team has made.

Without even realizing it, I spent 52 hours playing Mass Effect. When I finished, I wasted no time starting up Mass Effect 2. I had originally planned to wait a few months so that I wouldn’t have a crazy long wait between Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, but I couldn’t do it. I had to keep that story rolling. I bought the DLC and dived right in, amassing an impressive 86 hours in a short period of time. In the span of 6 weeks, I had spent 138 hours in the Mass Effect universe and I wanted more.

Next, I played the original Assassin’s Creed and hated it for the first 15 hours mainly because it wasn’t Mass Effect. I eventually came to like it, but thost first 15 hours will forever be soiled not because anything the game did. I next played Halo: Reach and my distance from Mass Effect was now enough that I could enjoy the game on it’s own merits. Still, I rather would have been playing Mass Effect. I’m now playing Dragon Age: Origins, another BioWare game because it’s as close to Mass Effect as I’m going to get for now. Of course, I’m loving it. Not like I love Mass Effect, but quite a lot.

I enjoy the Mass Effect series like I’ve never enjoyed a series before. I purchased a rather expensive hoodie that mimics the armor that the main character in Mass Effect wears. I try to wear it only once a week, but I would happily wear it every day if society didn’t frown upon that behavior. I then did the unthinkable and bought a matching hoodie… for my Xbox Live Avatar. I hate that Microsoft charges money to dress up your avatar and I promised never to do it. But that promise was made before I knew what Mass Effect was.

It’s going to be a long wait until the holiday season. Currently, that’s when Mass Effect 3, the final game in the series, is expected to be released. I have preordered the game, only the second time that I can remember doing that. 9 long months before I can take on the role of Commander Shepard and try to save the universe. 10 long months before I can start over and do it all again as a different version of Commander Shepard. I’m hoping that BioWare’s Dragon Age and it’s very soon-to-be-released sequel can help me fill that time. I’m sure they will, because these are quality games by a quality developer. Still, they’re not Mass Effect.

A few months ago, the bestest friend in the world, Erik, said that BioWare was his favorite game developer. I respected his opinion, but told him that I didn’t agree. I would like to take these next few ones and zeroes to formally retract those statements. What Erik said should maybe be taken as more than opinion. It could be fact. BioWare is amazing and quite possibly the best developer out there. They can do no wrong.

The Press X Carnival

I’m a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series of video games.  While I didn’t actually play one until the 9th game was out, they quickly became my favorites and redefined the gaming hobby for me.  How I played games changed drastically after I was exposed to those games.  I even played Final Fantasy XI, my first of several MMOs, because of FF.  It should go without saying that I was very excited to play Final Fantasy XIII.

I typically don’t read reviews of games that I’m going to purchase no matter what.  If it’s a must-have for me, I really don’t care to know what a reviewer thinks.  I don’t need to be swayed to purchase it.  I don’t need to have any lingering curiosities resolved for me.  However, in the days leading up to the release of FFXIII, I became so excited that I had to read some reviews.  I wanted to read as much non-spoiler information about the game as possible, even though I had pre-ordered my copy months ago.  It was through these reviews that I learned that the game starts out very slowly.  For 8 – 10 hours you don’t do much more than press X.  I have faith in the creators of Final Fantasy titles, so I didn’t worry too much about it.

I started the game and immediately fell in love with the characters and the world.  The graphics are incredible.  The music is perfection.  The story is quite confusing and a bit challenging, but it works great.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I truly was not doing anything more than pressing X, but I was okay with it.  Knowing, thanks to the review, that this eventually changed made it a lot easier to deal with.  Plus, I was still deeply in love with everything else about the game.

Fast-forward a few more days and I’m now 12 hours into the game.  I’m several hours beyond when the “Press X Carnival” was supposed to end, but that’s still all I was doing.  Another hour goes by and I’m still just pressing X and easily beating anything the game threw at me.  Despite loving the game and wanting to see the story through to it’s conclusion, I was seriously becoming bored with the gameplay.  I finally reached a point where this was no longer an issue.

I was beat over and over again by a tough boss.

No longer able to easily win by only pressing X, I was forced to take a much closer look at the battle system.  It was then that I truly discovered the joys of Paradigm Shift.  Paradigm Shift is when you change the jobs of the characters in your party to preset formations.  Instead of having all attackers, you can switch to one attacker, one healer, and one buffer.  Or one physical attacker, one magic attacker, and a healer.  Or any other combination that you can come up with.  In the tutorial on Paradigm Shift, the game presents it as something to do when you need to change the course of the battle.  Need to get rid of that poison?  Paradigm Shift!  Encounter an enemy that is vulnerable to magic attacks?  Paradigm Shift!  Want to buff up at the start of a tough battle?  Paradigm Shift.  It’s too bad that the game didn’t truly explain what Paradigm Shift is used for.

Using Paradigm Shift also the ATB gauge of the party.  When a character’s ATB gauge is full, they can execute a command.  Paradigm Shift fills the gauge of much more quickly, allowing the characters to do things more often, such as attacking.  Attacking more often fills up the enemy’s Chain Counter more quickly.  A filled Chain Counter causes the enemy to stagger, making attacks against them hurt exponentially more.  Instead of using Paradigm Shift occasionally to get one need addressed, I began using Paradigm Shift constantly to control the flow and pace of battle.

All of a sudden, the game opened up to me and I started to have fun with the battle system.  Arguably, it’s still not as complex as previous entries in the series, but it’s no longer just an exercise in pressing X.  Purists will still probably have a problem with the system, but I can appreciate what the developers did.  They aren’t afraid to take risks, even with their beloved, flagship series.  I wish they would have done a better job of explaining just what Paradigm Shift is capable of, but maybe they wanted us to discover it on our own.  I find it ironic that many game journalists criticize the developers for making a too accessible battle system where you do nothing but press X, yet, you won’t be able to finish the game until you explore this battle system on your own more than you ever had to with previous Final Fantasy games.  It makes me wonder if game reviewers even finish these epically long RPGs, of if they just play 10 or 15 hours and throw together their review in order to meet deadline.  But, that’s a discussion for another time.

With my worries around the battle system gone, I’m now back to enjoying the game and what it has to offer.  And wow, does it have a lot to offer.  The story has had several jaw-dropping twists in it and I’m only at the 20 hour mark.  I can’t wait to find out what happens to my group of l’Cie friends and what happens when, and if, they complete their Focus.