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In case you somehow missed it, last week saw the launch of BioWare’s Mass Effect 2, the bigger-and-better sequel to the already-beloved Mass Effect. Judging by the opinions of everybody I know, it’s a pretty damn awesome game. Escapist Senior Editor Susan Arendt is adoring it, as is each of our coworkers who come by her desk during the day to chat about it. One of my good friends from college tells me that, hands down, it’s the best game he has ever played. Reviewer after reviewer has piled praise upon it; ME2 currently has a stunning 96/100 on Metacritic (not that you should use Metacritic objectively, but just sayin’).

So why don’t I have any intention to play it, when I know for a fact that it’s something I’d probably love? Well, the short answer is “because I never played Mass Effect 1.” There we go, column over – see you guys next week!

But no, that’s no excuse at all, is it? I’ve got a 360, I’ve got a gaming PC (although I didn’t when ME1 came out, being a student, and that’s my reason for missing it), and there was plenty of time before ME2 hit shelves to correct this mistake. It would have certainly paid off, too – I’d get to play two awesome games, one of which I’d have enjoyed all the more for getting the immediate context of its predecessor.

But nope, I didn’t do that, either. And here’s why: Games like Mass Effect are simply too long for me these days. It’s the exact same reason I haven’t started Dragon Age: Origins yet, either, despite getting it as a very thoughtful gift – the idea of starting a 50+ hour epic adventure makes me less likely to play the game. It’s huge, it’s epic, it’s deep. Frankly, it’s overwhelming.

Part of this I can chalk up to my job – as awesome as getting to make a living writing about games is (and make no mistake, it is awesome), it is still a job. We don’t get to spend all day at the office just lounging about with controllers in our hands when there’s work that needs doing, and our weekends and free time are often occupied with playing games we’ve been assigned for reviews. This past weekend, I curled up with Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, next weekend my time will be monopolized by White Knight Chronicles. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get to enjoy the games when we play them (hopefully, anyway), it just means that for me, picking up a huge title is getting harder and harder to justify.

“But wait a moment, John,” I can hear you saying. “A look at your Steam page reveals that you’ve spent almost 200 hours in Left 4 Dead 2 since November, and what about the fact that you really don’t want to know what your /played time in WoW is?” Even if you aren’t saying it, you should be, because it’s a damn good point – what’s the difference between using my free time to tackle Icecrown Citadel with my guild in WoW or filling up the generator in L4D2‘s Scavenge mode, and using my free time to chip away at fighting the Darkspawn in Dragon Age or collecting Space Hamsters in ME2?

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I guess there’s not much of a difference if you boil it down to those basic building blocks, but there’s an important difference psychologically. Games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect are about experiencing a lengthy overall plot, whereas my enjoyment of L4D2 and WoW comes from the game itself. There’s no real end to them. I’ve rescued Ellis, Rochelle, Nick, and Coach from New Orleans more times than I can count – I’m not playing the game to see the final cutscene, or else I’d never think about playing Versus. But the game itself keeps me playing because it’s so entertaining, and close matches leave my heart genuinely racing.

Similarly, though I’ve argued at length that MMOGs can (and do) tell meaningful stories, that really isn’t the point of the game. Yes, I want to see – and kill – the Lich King, but at the moment, I just enjoy talking with my friends and guildies on Ventrilo as our plans to kill the big bad bosses finally come together. The raiding and dungeon-crawling in WoW and the frantic zombie-blasting running-and-gunning in L4D2 aren’t means to an end, they are the end.

If I uninstalled L4D2 and WoW from my computer tonight, I’d have no regrets. I’ve gotten plenty of enjoyment out of them, after all. But if I played Mass Effect or Dragon Age for 40 hours and then quit without seeing the ending, then I’d feel like that time was poorly-spent. What’s the point of diving into a story if you don’t see it through to the end? If you’re playing a game for the story, and you never finish, wasn’t it a bit of a waste?

To that end, as much as gamers like to bash games for being too short, I’ve almost come to prefer the 8-10 hour campaigns to the 50+ hour ones. That feels like the perfect size for me these days. They’re games that have just enough meat on their bones to be interesting, but games that I can also finish in three or four sittings. It means that I feel my time with them was justified because I “finished” the game (multiplayer aside), instead of having to call it quits because something else came out that I wanted to play.

I’m not saying that every game needs to be this short, nor am I saying that these long uber-campaigns are bad things for those with the time and the inclination to experience them. I’m sure that everyone who wants to spend 60 hours playing ME2 to the end found it rewarding as hell, but I’m not so sure it’s for me anymore. If I drop 100+ hours on a game, I want it to be because I chose to, not because the game required me to in order to complete it.

Perhaps it’s silly of me – if I devoted the time I do on L4D2 or WoW to these grand BioWare role-playing fiestas, I’d be done within a month or so. But somehow, it’s hard to really resist the siren’s call of those two games – in the end, I end up spending more time with them precisely because I don’t have to spend more time with them. And then there are other, newer titles to play through and enjoy in the rest of the time I have.

Maybe someday I will play Dragon Age. Maybe someday I’ll get around to the Mass Effect trilogy. But for right now? That damned portable generator isn’t just going to fill itself, you know.

John Funk might feel a bit guilty over never getting to kill Arthas, but he’d get over it.

Microsoft: Xbox 360 250 Gig HDD in Japan in March

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