I play RPG’s as if I had OCD – I hate to leave side quests unfinished, and locations un-looted or at the very least unseen. I tried to apply this same mindset to Mass Effect but that was a mistake. Let me put it this way: some games use the side quests to deliver more content to the player. In Morrowind and Oblivion for example side quests were often packed with game lore, sent you to interesting picturesque location or gave you a chance to explore previously known sites from a slightly different perspective. They had NPC’s you could talk with and often lore books you could pick up and learn from.
Some Mass Effect side quests are like that… Most however seem to be randomly generated “clense the area of enemies” missions. The first 3 or 4 will be entertaining. The remaining ones are usually carbon copy of the earlier ones. An average side quest goes like this:
You are essentially dropped on a planet in your trusty Mako (oh Mako, why can’t you fucking fly!) and you can see 3 marks on the map. Two of these marks are item caches that will dispense random generated loot. The third one is enemy bunker or base. The bases seem to follow 4 or 5 floor layouts so after a while you will have a strong sense of deja vu when you enter them. There is nothing wrong with reusing pieces of scenery, but I must ask: was this really necessary?
Let me put it this way – I did every single “land on a random planet” side quest in the game that I was able to unlock. I was pretty diligent in clicking on every object in my field of view and talking with everyone in my path. While I’m sure I missed some of them, but then again, I wasn’t really looking for them that intensely. Still, I did every mission I managed to stumble upon while completing the main quest which is probably more than an average player would do. The point is, that there was just not that many of them. I really think BioWare could hand-craft unique scenery for each one. Instead, they all seem to be cut out of the same template. It’s almost as if the creators play-tested the main quest and went “oh, shit – this game is way to short, let’s add some padding and quick!”.
The reward for doing the side quests is not that great. You usually find moderate level appropriate gear at these locations, and most main quest missions tend to have better drop rates. So these are not treasure hunting missions. Some side quests offer unique one-off encounters with semi-interesting NPC’s that tie into background of the main characters. Still, the lead up to the 5 minute dialog at the end is excruciatingly dull and identical to every other quest of that type, including the floor layout and the furnishings of the building you will be visiting. You pass these off as character development pieces, but then why wouldn’t they spend more time on important story pieces like that? Most of these “revelations” seem to be tacked on as an afterthought, and can be easily skipped.
They are also not really grind quests since Mass Effect does not require tedious grinding. Experience is dispensed liberally, and even if you skip the side quests you should be able to max out the skill with your primary and secondary favorite weapon, your armor stat and you favorite special power(s). Not to mention that the main storyline dispenses XP much more generously than all these sub quests.
So why are these missions there? If they are not treasure hunting quests, grind quests or character pieces, then what are they?
It’s padding! Pure and simple. I was trying real hard to give each of these missions a chance. I was hoping for variety. But in the end, every single side quest in which they drop you down in Mako seemed like a dull chore rather than entertainment. It was very disappointing, especially since the main quest was well paced and offered a wide variety of environments and objectives.