On the Ball

On the Ball: Scanning, for Fun and Profit

Jordan Deam | 10 Feb 2010 22:00
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This article contains potentially significant spoilers about Mass Effect 2. Read at your own risk.

After about 24 hours of play in the space of six days, I finally reached the conclusion of Mass Effect 2 on Sunday night. It was a bumpy ride: Once I completed Jack's loyalty quest, she decided to snub me after I sided with Miranda in what I thought was a trivial argument. Then, thanks to her less than complete faith in my leadership abilities, she faltered in the final mission and ended up costing Thane his life (something I learned only after reading a thread in our forums). And because I wasn't aware that waiting for too long after my crew was abducted would result in most of them being liquefied, they became Reaper juice while I maxed out the damage on my assault rifle.

Yet looking back on my time spent with Shepherd and his comrades, I have only one regret: that I spent hours scouring the galaxy for Element Zero while my "to play" stack collected dust.

As Susan Arendt noted in her review, Mass Effect 2's mining system is perhaps the one major blemish in an otherwise wonderful game. What could have added some variety to the experience of exploring the galaxy (similar to the way in which the hacking minigames offer a decent change of pace from the squad-based gunplay) ended up becoming tedious right out of the starting gate. Why did it fail so hard? Let me count the ways:

1. It's random.

Sure, it's easy enough to limit yourself just to "rich" planets and nodes that produce serious scanner spikes, but that's the problem: There's no discernable pattern that allows you to seek these out more effectively. And if you're in need of a specific mineral to obtain a crucial upgrade, you're even more out of luck - even "rich" planets rarely contain even a single cache of Element Zero, probably the most desirable mineral type due to its use in both biotic upgrades and skill-based training like Tactical Shift (Mass Effect 2's version of re-speccing). Yes, that randomness makes it even more satisfying when you finally do stumble into a planet with a decent supply of Element Zero, but it's only satisfying because it means you'll be finished that much sooner.

There was a brief, tantalizing moment after I first unlocked the "scanning speed" upgrade when I wondered whether the whole process would become almost effortless by Mass Effect 2's endgame. "How many scanning speed upgrades could there be?" I wondered. "And what about scanning radius? Or an upgrade that indicates on the planetary map which areas you've already covered? Or an upgrade that gives you a global thermal readout of all the planet's mineral nodes, so you could pick and choose which ones to harvest?" There seemed to me to be about a half dozen ways to make the experience of mining, if not more fun, then at least less mind-numbingly boring than it currently was.

Instead, I got more probes. Thanks a bunch, Thane.

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