A long Easter weekend gave me some time to reflect on one of my favourite games from last gen, Mass Effect. Not only is this one of my favourite RPGs of all time, it’s also one of the most satisfying third person shooters I’ve ever played.
I suspect much of my enjoyment from the shooter aspect of Mass Effect (at least from #2 onwards) comes from the class I chose to play: Vanguard. The mix of control biotics such as throw and lift combined with the specialized shotgun talents made them a real joy to play. For anyone unfamiliar with Mass Effect, these abilities would basically trap enemies in a stasis field, usually making them float through the air. “Throw” in particular is basically a sort of energy ball you hurl at enemies like a homing grenade. When it hits an enemy, they are trapped in a bubble for a short duration.
I remember discovering the ability to arc a “throw” around cover really opened the game up for me. As a cover based shooter, this ability made me feel clever and allowed me time to gap-close for a CQC knock out. It was a great way that Mass Effect set up rules of play then gave players abilities to subvert those rules. Being able to knock enemies out of cover and trap them in stasis while I run (or warp!) up to them for a shotgun kill felt incredibly rewarding. The class as a whole feels like one of the most fully realized and well developed classes in the game. Being able to pair up with an Infiltrator and a Sentinel makes for the ultimate in team synergy.
It’s a testament to the team at Bioware that the various combat arenas throughout the game can support so many styles of play. By establishing a strong foundation (elements of Gears of War are very apparent, especially from ME2 onward) players can focus on abilities that open up arenas into little sandbox challenges. While the environments are not exactly dynamic (beyond the odd exploding barrel), I appreciated that the level design tends to be straightforward and not convoluted. It would be easy to let the sci-fi setting generate a bunch of contrived spaces (and indeed one of the most frustrating combat environments in the series is one of the more fantastical: the exterior of the Shadow Broker’s ship in “Lair of the Shadow Broker” DLC for Mass Effect 2) but on the whole levels take a back seat to the spectacle of player abilities. In this way, player’s don’t need to wrestle with learning complex environment layouts and can focus fully on playing their class.
Another area where Mass Effect succeeds greatly is in tutorialising its combat. Mass Effect 3 in particular has a great intro that melds cinematic spectacle with intuitive mechanics introduction.
The initial combat encounters are very straightforward, all enemy approach vectors (the direction the enemy travels toward the player) are kept to a minimum (all enemies are on a single plane in front of the player) to ease players in to combat. In fact, the first wave of enemies are “husks” that are mindlessly trying to break in to a building, ignoring the player. This allows the player to get to grips with the shooting mechanics in a controlled, almost stress free environment. (The tempo is kept high with the background destruction vignettes while the tension of the encounter is low enough to allow the player to concentrate).
Another benefit of this encounter is that the player is forced to use their gun, as most biotic powers are out of range for these enemies. After dispatching a few husks, the player gets to try out their biotic powers/melee abilities furthering their tutorial for combat. The game achieves this by “hacking” the weapon ammo to run out just as you open fire on the enemies at the next encounter. A simple trick used to great effect (as a side note, check out all the games that hack ammo in some way right at the start of the game!).
The final encounter in this sequence finally introduces a real threat to the player, allowing them to use what they have learned to overcome a small challenge. This cements their learning process and helps keep the tempo and tension of the narrative flow high. The approach vector of this enemy is still kept simple to keep the challenge at an appropriate level for this stage in the game. The enemy is also given plenty of foreshadowing through its reveal, by climbing up onto a ledge right in front of the player. Had the enemy leaped in from above or had another spectacular reveal, this may have startled the player or distracted them from the task of remembering how to dispatch the enemy.
After dispatching this enemy, the player gets rewarded with an exhilarating cutscene of a reaper wrecking Shephards day by destroying earth.
Great pacing and overall a fantastically crafted third person shooter!