While we still make the rounds turning up new habitats and environments in No Man’s Sky, I’m quick to remember the first time I made touchdown on an interstellar body in the original Mass Effect.
It might be hard to recall after BioWare took the sequels in a far more linear and streamlined direction, but much of what No Man’s Sky was promising over the last few years already appeared in the marketing for the first Mass Effect release. Planet hopping, vast expanses of alien terrain, various environments and atmospheric dangers, minerals to dig, treasures to uncover. It’s all right there, just on a much smaller scale.
Of course, when the hype began in 2006, such a feat still seemed enormous as nobody had ever pulled of a full-fledged explorable galaxy. BioWare’s title was ambitious and promised endless experiences as Commander Shepard danced across the stars.
And then it launched, and many gamers threw up their shoulders with a shrug at this element. Much like with No Man’s Sky, the promises of endless space didn’t impress anyone in practice, only on paper. Maybe it was because the story and characters were on a whole other level, but the planetary design came off as mundane, repetitive, and at its worst, downright “copy and paste.”
Who can forget the hundreds of fire-fights that erupted in those mass produced space bunkers?
In 2016, the comparison seems somewhat fit given that we have different expectations in the “size” of our video game worlds nowadays. It’s crazy to think that the original could be considered “small” after how many planets it provided, but we’ve come a long way over the last decade in what huge renderings, fast loading times, and procedural generation can accomplish.
However, Mass Effect’s exploration was able to provide one extra element that No Man’s Sky does not, and that is a specific purpose to visit each of these planets. Whenever Shepard and crew landed on the surface of an unpopulated alien world, players knew that anything could happen.
Pirates could raid at any moment, forcing players to make quick decisions in how to bring them down. Maybe the team stumbles across a bunker or an abandoned laboratory, opening up a new mission that they might not have found out about otherwise. Husk raids were always the worst, leading to plenty of unexpected deaths at the hands of flaming blue skeletons. Unlike No Man’s Sky, which presents planets’ differences as primarily an aesthetic one, Mass Effect’s provided unique dangers each and every time the crew left the safety of the Normandy.
At the time, we criticized these worlds for being too small because gamers were so obsessed with the “size” of a video game thanks to enormous gaming world like World of Warcraft and Oblivion. Nowadays though, I think a whole lot of other video gamers out there, including myself, are finding themselves without the same excess of free-time that we had a decade ago. The Nintendomania generation now has careers and kids of their own, and just like when they were kids, tighter, arcade experiences are back in style to match their busy lifestyles.
In that regard, after seeing what the original Mass Effect promised to be through the lens of No Man’s Sky, I am starting to think that maybe we were a little harsh on BioWare’s planets back then. They were focused, had certain goals to achieve, and most importantly, there weren’t too many. Mass Effect can be beaten in well under 30 hours and maybe even 20 hours, and completing each planet leaves a level of satisfaction knowing you made a significant dent in the overall experience.
“Completing” a planet in No Man’s Sky has quickly devolved into routine, and your reward is a quick jump to the next one.
Again, open-ended games haven’t really jived with me in many years, and the hope that I would be able to use my own imagination to carve experiences out of No Man’s Sky has been having trouble forming. With an entire universe at my fingertips, the linear gamer within me, the one raised on Final Fantasy, is craving some form of cohesive path or ability to filter out the unexciting planets.
Mass Effect already did that, not going overboard with its exploration and turning out a well balanced space adventure that never got too big for its own content.