The Opening Arcs of Three Mass Effects

I know I haven’t reviewed Mass Effect 2 properly yet, and I intend to do so, but as I’ve already started playing Mass Effect 3, I’ve become interested in comparing various elements that the games share.

Each Mass Effect game has an opening arc across three to five hours of play—more or less up until the point that the player gets control of the Normandy and can fly around the universe.

The opening of Mass Effect is excellent. It drops the player into a situation that the characters are encountering for the first time along with the player, while simultaneously educating the player about the story and mythos surrounding the current situation.

Within the first half hour, the player is introduced to the Normandy and its commanders, learns about the Alliance, meets a Tourian spectre, sees a Reaper, meets the main villain Saren by way of him killing the Spectre (so we already know he’s a bad dude), learns the mechanics of both conversation and combat, and gets the first taste of the game’s gorgeous visual design. All of this is done with just the right balance of exposition and action—you couldn’t ask for a better opening chapter to a game.

The Eden Prime mission continues to establish a whole slew of mechanics, and actually has some challenging sections. It’s decently long, so it feels like more than just a tutorial level. By the end, it gets the ball rolling straight into the game’s central storyline, and facilitates the player’s arrival at the Citadel.

Depending on how the player handles the Citadel, it may give Mass Effect the longest opening arc of the three games. I for one spent about four hours in the Citadel doing every single quest I could find before leaving. This, however, was not good for the pacing of the game, as established in my review of it, because it meant that I didn’t have any more missions to break up all the planet-hopping later on.

Regardless of how the pacing eventually turned out, I can’t fault the opening arc for being so engrossing. There should’ve been other mission hubs later on and fewer missions available from the start on the Citadel to even things out.

Mass Effect 2 starts off with a hell of a bang. The Normandy is attacked, and Shepard actually dies. This scene is intense, because the player is deeply connected with the Normandy and its crew from the first game, and it’s quite a shock to watch them all possibly being obliterated.

Shepard wakes up, having been reconstructed by Cerberus for the past two years, and finds the facility she was rebuilt in under attack. Like the Eden Prime mission, the Cerberus facility serves as both a tutorial level and an opening chapter, but it isn’t nearly as interesting as the Eden Prime mission, nor does it establish as much.

The player is introduced to obligatory human companions Miranda and Jacob, who are more interesting than Ashley and Kaidan from the first game, but then so is every character in the entire franchise. There’s a one-off traitor guy who was responsible for the base attack, but he seemed rather pointless, and no actual villain is established until later, which is a big part of why the Collectors don’t end up having nearly the kind of impact that Saren had on the first game’s story.

Another mission follows immediately, which seems intended to acquaint the player with the mechanics of squad-based combat. It’s a decent mission, and re-introduces Tali’Zorah to the game, but it still isn’t very exciting compared to the Eden Prime mission. It establishes the Collectors as the villains, but again, the Collectors aren’t really characters or anything, so their presence isn’t as felt.

After this mission, if I remember correctly, the player is given control of the Normandy, but the game nonetheless designates the Omega station as the only place worth going to, and since it’s the first mission hub of the game, I would consider it analogous to the Citadel.

Omega alone is enough to elevate the Mass Effect 2 opening arc over the first game’s. There are enough quests to engross the player for a few hours, but it doesn’t hurt the game’s pacing, because there are other quest hubs later, and there aren’t as many quests available from the start on Omega.

Instead of a couple brief shootouts in the course of recruiting early characters, Omega has entire levels to play through in the course of recruiting Mordin and Archangel. It introduces two new races, and represents an entirely different side of the galaxy—whereas the Citadel was pristine and clean, Omega is a hive of scum and villainy, filthy and twisted.

I think it’s fair to use Omega in comparing the opening arcs of these two games, because the time between starting ME2 and the end of Omega is about the same as the amount of time between starting ME1 and finishing the Citadel. And besides, the only missions available at that point are in Omega, so the incentive to go there is virtually absolute.

The Eden Prime mission is brilliantly constructed, and easily more memorable than the first missions of ME2, but between ME2’s amazing opening sequence and the entirety of Omega, ME2 wins the comparison. It also helps that ME2 is altogether a better game in its construction, so it kind of naturally exceeds the first game.

Mass Effect 3, however, regresses the trend. The game opens in a big way, with the utter destruction of planet Earth at the hands of the reapers, but it doesn’t have the same impact as the destruction of the Normandy at the start of ME2. The player never even gets to see Earth throughout the franchise until it’s being destroyed, whereas the Normandy and its crew were the core constant of each game. Of course, it’s true that the player actually lives on Earth and probably has some connection to it; and it’s also true that Shepard and the rest of the humans care a lot about Earth. It’s just that the games have only told us this, and never showed it. The player has never seen Earth, nor heard Shepard talk about it at all to establish a connection. Hell, my Shepard was a spacer anyways—I don’t know that she’s ever been to Earth before the start of Mass Effect 3.

The opening scenes play out as a tutorial, and definitely a more exciting one than the Cerberus facility was, but it’s also very short and simple. It’s not exciting by way of game mechanics, but by way of set pieces happening around the player. There’s a lot of Shepard jumping gaps, and stuff being destroyed around her, while huge, glorious skyboxes are visible in the background. I find these events disengaging, as they continuously direct me and take control away from me to show me shit that really isn’t that exciting, like Shepard sliding down a slope or something. Mass Effect 2 experimented with set-piece sequences in some of the side missions, but it never took control away from the player, and was more effective for it. The side mission which had Shepard navigating the skeleton of a ship teetering on the edge of a cliff was more tense and exciting than similar scenes at the start of Mass Effect 3.

After this mission and a hell of a lot of cutscenes, Shepard’s team is sent to a base on Mars, for a mission more along the lines of the Eden Prime one or the second mission in ME2. The mission on Mars is fairly exciting, and a lot more difficult than the early missions in ME2, which was nice. It still had some unnecessary set-piece sequences and too many cutscenes breaking up the action, but it was a good level nonetheless.

Mass Effect 3 then diverges from its predecessors by not sending the player to a quest hub, but instead directing them to the next mission. It’s especially odd because the game does take the player to the Citadel, but there’s barely anything to do there at the time. After a series of cutscenes, the player isn’t left with much to do but fly over to the next mission to defend a Tourian moon. Because of the similarity to the Omega missions at the start of ME2 in how they’re all that’s really open to the player, I will consider the Tourian mission to be a part of the opening arc.

This is a more standard mission, but a very well put-together one. Like the others, there are set-piece moments, but they are a lot fewer, and at this point the game proves just how solid the combat is. It’s clear from the beginning that ME3’s combat system is far more polished than that of ME2, but in this level, the depth comes to life. For the first time in the franchise, I felt the need to think on my feet and use real strategy to get through the levels in this area.

With all that said, though, Mass Effect has never been as much about the combat as it is about the dialog and decisions that come from doing quests. After the Tourian mission, there are multiple quests for Shepard to do, but an alarming number of them are on the Citadel, which seems to guide the player to return. Upon returning, there is way more to do there, from questing, to listening to people, to buying shit.

I don’t know if this return to the Citadel can still be called a part of the opening arc, but since I was drawn to go there for the same reasons I was drawn to do all the quests in the early hubs of the other games, I might as well talk about it. I don’t like the Citadel as much in this game as I did in the others. It lacks the open, stylish design that it had in the first game, and lacked the brilliant humor that it had in abundance in the second game. When I returned to the Citadel in ME2, I was impressed that it was so different and interesting, whereas in ME3, it doesn’t have any attitude. To be fair, the Citadel is not the first hub in ME2—Omega is—and Omega is in a whole class above the Citadel of ME3.

Moreover, I find the conversation mechanics in ME3 to be less intuitive than those in ME2. There’s a whole system wherein the player listens to random conversations and interjects with something, but whenever I try to listen to the whole conversation, it ends up looping, making the whole thing feel silly. I liked hearing the random conversations in ME2, but I didn’t have to interact with them, and they were also audible for a while as I walked away. In ME3, the conversations are only audible for a couple of seconds in passing, so the player has to stop to listen in on them. Some of these conversations activate quests, which makes them even more of a pain.

Altogether, I think that Mass Effect 2 has the best opening arc of the series. The first game had a brilliant opening arc which established a ton of information all at once, so the second and third games were liberated to have more dramatic openings instead of worrying about the plot too much. Mass Effect 2 was effective because I cared about the Normandy, whereas Mass Effect 3 was less effective because, strangely enough, I didn’t care about Earth, and the mechanics kept taking me out of the experience. ME2 has the most interesting human characters and by far the best quest hub, with the most intuitive mechanics.

I haven’t yet played through Mass Effect 3, but along the way, I’ll be stopping to analyze other trends throughout the saga.


15 thoughts on “The Opening Arcs of Three Mass Effects

  1. As much as I agree with many of your points, I loved the ME3 open the most… not only in terms of the scale and the superior action gameplay, but also feeling the weight of EVERYTHING, from all the games. Gahh I’m so busy right now. Will comment more later.

  2. I’d have to agree with ghostlightning in liking the opening to ME3 the most, but a big part of that for me was the sheer anticipation of getting to play ME3. Like you, I got into the Mass Effect series late — both ME1 and ME2 had been out for a while before I actually played them. But I finished ME2 in time to have a few months’ wait before ME3, and my hype levels were pretty much unreasonable! Just the sheer feeling of “I AM FINALLY PLAYING THIS GAME” made me love it immediately, so I can’t really evaluate the opening without a certain level of bias until I actually play the game again.

    The random quests in ME3 get kind of annoying, though. A lot of them are simple fetch quests, and yeah, they get sprung on you simply for overhearing a conversation. Many of them have time limits, too, and you can’t actually get the items you need for the quests until you surpass certain points in the game … but by that time, the quest might be gone. That sort of thing REALLY discourages the player from exploring the Citadel, which goes against the entire nature of the Mass Effect series.

    • I didn’t know about the time limits, but it’s very probable that I won’t even notice having failed a quest this way. I almost never check my quest tracker, which is why I managed to finishe ME2 with just 3 small quests left undone, although in ME3 I’ve done so just to be like “where did these come from?!:

      As for the opening arc, I certainly wasn’t as ultra-hype since I bought 3 right before finishing 2 and started it up pretty much the same day.

      • It doesn’t even tell you that you’ve “failed,” really. What happens is that you can’t talk to the person who initiated the quest, which is super dumb. Not even a token “Oh, I wish we’d received [insert item here] quicker so that [good event would happen].” You just straight up can’t interact with the quest giver even though, to all appearances, nothing has changed. It’s totally asinine.

  3. I don’t quite agree with how you define the opening for ME2 (it ended with Tali in my opinion), but given your expanded scope, I will agree. Taken as a trilogy, ME2 serves as the dark middle chapter, and all the hubs, Omega included, fits this thematically. The citadel that you visit isn’t clean and pristine, instead being the location for two fairly gray loyalty missions for your compatriots. Illium is just, how did the game put it, “Omega with better shoes”. As a result, starting off with Omega really helps set the tone for everything you were going to deal with in that game.

    ME3 on the other hand…man, ME3. I found the biggest problem with its Citadel was that there was simply so little to do there outside of these contrived fetch quests. Further, it’s already awkward that Shepard is getting these quest cues from essentially eavesdropping on people’s conversation, the fact that Shepard seems to be playing the delivery boy on trips to the Citadel for those fetch quests and nothing else does much to take away from the urgency the reapers seem to naturally suggest.

    That lack of urgency is actually what I felt, made ME3 incredibly weak as a whole. “Palaven is burning” was one hell of a quote, and the vista that accompanied it was amazing. But the game fails reproduce the danger that the reapers represented after that initial mission on the Turian moon except briefly on Thessia. Earth didn’t effect me much at all for the same reason as you, and every reaper Shepard came across were not insurmountable military obstacles to be ran from, but rather something to be defeated with one gimmick or another. And while Ghosty speaks of its culmination of weight from past games, I felt it hollow because looking behind the curtain at all made it clear just how interchangeable all your choices in previous games were in the face of the events of the third.

    Ah well, at least there’s the return to earth cinematic. That was unequivocally the most badass cinematic of the franchise.

  4. I don’t agree with all this criticism re quests and eavesdropping in ME3. I think that it’s great how I don’t have to initiate a conversation to get details. It makes moving around and exploring the gorgeous setting a seamless experience.

    • The problem is the end result is multiple repeated visits to the same 5 areas of the Citadel in an attempt to activate another set of side quests. If ME3 had multiple hubs that opened somewhat linearly (much like ME2), and you were in fact running through them for the sake of exploration and story, not repeated visits for the sake of simple fetch quests, I’d be far less critical.

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