So, I recently started playing Mass Effect 3, which means that I’ve played at least part of the entire series. And one thing that has really struck me is both how much there is to at least potentially explore in the game … and how each game in the series, in its own unique way, managed to screw that up.
The game that I had the most fun exploring was, in fact, the first game. This is despite my not particularly liking the MAKO. Well, okay, it wasn’t really the MAKO itself that was the problem, even though it was often hard to drive (although at least you couldn’t crash it and kill yourself) but more that with the terrain on the planets it was often hard to find your way through the various obstacles to the objective that you were trying to reach, which to my mind is, in fact, a major problem of the series and, also, with Bioware games (The Old Republic has the same problem). It was just worse with the MAKO because you had further to go, more obstacle, and it wasn’t really clear what obstacles you could drive over and which were really obstacles. So once you got down on a planet, it was annoying, but you were encouraged to go to every planet and scan them to see what you might find, because that was very easy, and you didn’t have to worry about running out of fuel if you ran around exploring all the sectors. Also, for the most part you gained XP and some credits and some trophies, so skipping it wasn’t a big deal either.
The second game, however, made me not want to do that much exploration. It introduced both the requirement for fuel and the requirement for probes to explore planets. You never stepped onto the planet and so only explored it by scanning it manually, and then launching probes at it to pick up the materials that you needed to make new things (including the things you needed to save all of the crew in the final mission). But since you had a limited number of probes, you could do a couple of planets before having to fly back to the depot to buy new ones. Which cost you credits for fuel. And while materials were valuable and something you needed, so were credits. And you never really knew whether it was or would be worth it or not. And it was also time consuming, but not in a fun way, as while the MAKO could be annoying at least you got to drive around on the planet. With the probes, all you were doing was the repetitive “Move to high point-launch probe-move to next point” sort of gameplay, and with the MAKO if you weren’t efficient at it you’d just take a little longer, while if you were inefficient with the probes you’d have to fly back and spend credits to be able to try again or get all of the planets. And again since credits were important, you had to ask yourself if it was worth it, while in ME1 all you had to do was ask yourself if the time spent was worth it. In ME2, you had to ask if the time and the money was worth it.
Mass Effect 3 improves on this, as it removes the need to scan each planet and area manually, and removes the need to collect specific minerals for ship upgrades. Instead, you can do an area scan and it triggers anything interesting in the area of the scan. This is good. However, you can only do a small — and variable — number of these before you trigger enemy interest, at which point you get attacked. If you don’t manage to escape, it’s “Game Over”. This activity level stays until you complete a mission — and I’m not really sure what counts as a mission — at which point it resets to 0. All across the galaxy. Huh. So that means that the main strategy would be to enter an area of the galaxy, scan it until you’re getting too close to being attacked, leave, go to another part of the galaxy, scan it, rinse, repeat, run a mission, and then return to the areas that you didn’t manage to completely scan the last time … assuming that you can remember what you scanned and what you didn’t, because you still get activity if you scan an area that you already scanned, so if you scan the same planets/area twice you’re simply wasting your opportunity. And you also might have had to spend fuel to get there, although probes are free.
All of these methods, I think, waste the opportunity that they had with the Mass Effect series to promote exploration. Exploration isn’t really a staple of the Dragon Age series — I think, anyway — because as a fantasy world there’s not that much that you can easily explore without them having to add a lot of assets and artwork and the like. In Mass Effect, you can add planets that look only superficially different from each other, and if you don’t let the player land on the planets that don’t have explicit missions on them you don’t need major planetary artwork. But you can still write up descriptions and history for them, which can make them feel unique and give an overall sense that this is indeed a galaxy. However, the methods that the series uses to let you explore, to me, miss what a game should do to encourage exploration without annoying players who don’t care about it. There are two keys, in my opinion:
1) The major limiting factor to exploration should be nothing more than time. If you’re willing to take the time to visit every planet/area, then nothing else should stop you from doing that. That includes the game deciding that you’re taking too long to advance the plot.
2) You shouldn’t need to explore to win the game, so the rewards should be minor and not game-changing or game-breaking. Some exploration might be required, but it shouldn’t be the case that someone who explores everything finds the game to be a cakewalk while someone who doesn’t can’t finish the game.
ME1 is the best at this, although I can’t say how hard it is to finish if you don’t explore almost everything. ME2 is the worst because you have to invest more than time into it, and the things you find and build can be game-changing. ME3 isn’t bad, but it still forces you to spend credits to explore and puts an artificial limit on the exploration, limiting it to the number of missions you can run. If you are inefficient in your exploration, the number of missions might mean that you run out of ways to reset activity before you finish exploring everything. Also, how much you find can indeed change the ending of your game (if you don’t max out War Assets, you might not get the best endings).
The key is to encourage and allow exploration without mandating it. The Mass Effect series, to me, is a prime example of a series that started off closer to the ideal and then moved away from that, only to try to return at the end. Which, it seems to me, is a pretty good description of the series in general: ME1 was better than ME2, and ME3 is trying to recapture some of the magic of ME1 while preserving the good things in ME2. How well will it succeed? Find out when I talk about ME3, should I ever manage to finish it!