Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mass Effects: The Banality of Mission Hubs

I remember stepping onto the deck of the SSV Normandy SR-1 like a dream. It was shiny and sci-fi and full of interesting people to interact with. The Normandy is as important to the Mass Effect trilogy as the Millennium Falcon is to Star Wars. The Normandy is like a character unto itself, a microcosm of the Mass Effect universe.

However, for how integral the Normandy is for Mass Effect, it might be detrimental to gaming at large.

It's not the Normandy itself that is causing the problem, its the function of the Normandy that's hurting. Mission hubs aren't new and Mass Effect certainly did not invent them. What Mass Effect did do was create a mission hub that was actually interesting, paving the way for mission hubs that, well, weren't.

First, let's look at all the ways in which the Normandy was amazing before turning to it's less than spectacular followers.

The Normandy acts as a distilled part of the Mass Effect universe. First, the aesthetic of the ship changes as Shepard's allegiances do too.  The destruction of the SR-1 and the introduction of the SR-2 marks a shift from Specter to Cerberus. Note that the original Normandy (pictured above) is not Systems Alliance blue, in fact, it doesn't even have the Alliance emblem that will adorn it in the Mass Effect 3.

Notice the changes between the SR-1 and the SR-2. The SR-2 was built and designed by Cerberus specifically for the Illusive Man's mission for Shepard. The color scheme says as much. The Cerberus black and yellow and the logo in the front area make that point clear. Less clear is the meaning assigned to the size change. The much larger SR-2 represents the much larger scale of Mass Effect 2. The SR-1 was enough was designed for a smaller mission which quickly spiraled into a massive one. The SR-2 is a ship big enough for the challenge of saving the universe from the Reapers.

In Mass Effect 3 the SR-2 gets a new paint job. Finally in Alliance blue it's clear who the Normandy is working for, Earth. The crew similarly executes this function, everyone is wearing Systems Alliance uniforms again. In fact, EDI is one of the only remaining vestiges of the Cerberus days. Each reiteration of the Normandy illustrates the changing and shifting magnitude and allegiances within the game.

As the games progress, the Normandy fills with crew members and each gets their own space. Looking back, I underestimated how great all of those conversations actually where. They work very hard to develop each crew member and by reflection, Shepard. The conversations aren't just fluff either, they add up to extra missions. The conversations aren't just adding flavor, they add more flavor and more content. By extension, they also deepen the connection that the player has with each NPC.

Now this isn't to say that the Normandy is perfect, it does how its own shortfalls. The different consoles are too far apart. The loadout screen is essentially a loading screen away from the navigation screen and really any other part of the ship. For as much as there is to do in the Normandy there's also a lot of wasted space. Even worse, some of that space is locked initially as it's DLC.

However, the success of the Normandy has drawn many imitators.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a recent example of how not to do the mission hub.

Pictured: Form. Not Pictured: Function
Without the ability to sprint inside the command center the whole complex becomes a massive sprawling drab mess. The Bureau solves Mass Effect's console distance problem by adding redundant consoles in various places. There are no fewer than three different places to change your weapons.

The Bureau also contains specialized areas where characters can be talked to but none of this feels like it adds up to anything more. Most of the conversations can be skipped and few are memorable. A few of them add up to side missions but none of these are essential, at least not in the way that Mass Effect's become life or death.

The command center in The Bureau pushes the whole game's aesthetic in an aggressive, but not meaningful way. Though it's nice to see the way the Normandy would have looked in the 1960's it doesn't add anything except tow the company line. Instead of being filled with interesting characters for the player to invest in its filled with bland caricatures of enjoyable NPCs.

The Paladin in Splinter Cell: Blacklist takes more cues from the Normandy than it might want to admit. Blacklist solves Mass Effect's distance problem by placing almost all of the various menu functions in the start menu or the main in game interface. Though a few things lie outside the SMI (that table in the picture below) interface and the start menu it does a good job centralizing the action.

Pictured: All of the important things
However, the Paladin includes many other rooms to explore, none of which include anything of note that cannot be accessed from either the start menu or the SMI. Conversations can be had with the various people in the plane but the conversations are pure fluff. The side missions accessed from those conversations can equally be accessed from the SMI without having to leave the main room to track down any errant character.

Though the Paladin becomes important to the plot, it never drives the universe around it like the Normandy. It feels like the Paladin being a plane is more essential to the plot than the other way around. If it weren't for the pilot's constant reminders about turbulence that never arrives it is easy to forget that it is a plane.

The take away from these things isn't that the Normandy is the end all be all of mission hubs. It's that execution is essential. The Normandy is carefully woven into the game universe. The Bureau has a number of fumbles but the mission hub is a bloated reminder of everything wrong with the game. The Paladin looks great and is a tight controlled space but its so toned down that it removes the thing that makes a mission hub memorable, interaction.

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