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A Mass Effect confession: I like scanning planets

4:00 PM on 03.02.2012 // Chad Concelmo

You are in the middle of playing sci-fi opus Mass Effect 2 and completely engrossed in the game's deep, fascinating story. Suddenly, you approach an unexplored galaxy full of numerous planets. You think to yourself: Wow. I may be able to explore all of those vast and intriguing planets. This game is vast ... and intriguing.

Instead, you are only able to scan these planets for valuable minerals that are used to upgrade weapons and other various things in the game.

But scanning does not involve landing on said planets. Oh no. The mostly menu-based process of scanning involves you slowly and meticulously moving a cursor over a 3D model of every planet, looking for the presence of minerals below the planet's surface. Once minerals are discovered, a probe is sent out, retrieving these minerals and adding them to your collection.

The process is long, tedious, unbelievably repetitive ... and pretty much despised by anyone who has ever played Mass Effect 2.

But I kind of love it.

On the most basic of levels, I love scanning for minerals because of the monotonous, hypnotic feeling of it all. (The satisfying rumble of a discovery doesn't hurt either.)

I was completely sucked into Mass Effect 2 when I first played it. I loved the story. I was addicted to the gameplay. I loved pretty much everything about it. But fighting through bases and battling giant aliens was admittedly exhausting.

When I first had to scan a planet for minerals, I was taken aback by how different and strangely relaxing it was than anything else I had done in the game.

I wasn't shooting my gun.

I wasn't running from an ambush.

I was moving a cursor around the screen and looking for important minerals. That's it.

It may not have been very fun, but I was never bored with it. In fact, I really appreciated the process ... even though that process was ridiculously long.

Until the ability is upgraded later in the game, the scanning cursor moves really slowly. And because the planets are so large, and the minerals so randomly placed, you truly have to search everywhere to find anything of use.

It is not as simple as clicking on a planet and scanning everything right away.

You really have to work to find what you are looking for.

And this may be the main reason I loved it: Work. I was working for it.

Just as Shepard had to take time to do this, so to did I have to stop everything and look for these minerals. If the minerals were that important to me -- and, man, they really were -- the game was not just going to hand them over easily.

For something that valuable, a little work -- and a little sacrifice -- was required.

As crazy as it sounds, I liked that the game was making me work just as hard as Shepard and crew would to retrieve these most precious of minerals.

As I started to get in the zone and scan over and over again, I was strangely mesmerized.

And this mesmerized state reminded me of the way I felt playing other games with a similar hard work gameplay mechanic. A mechanic that raised my appreciation for these games as a whole.

Take Super Paper Mario for the Wii as an example. There is a similarly polarizing sequence in that game that finds Mario having to run on a hamster wheel to earn money for a very long time (almost ten minutes, to be exact). All the player is required to do is hold right on the directional pad and sit there as Mario just runs ... and runs ... and runs ... until he has earned the required amount of money to pay off the cost of a broken vase.

It is an equally long process and gamers were equally frustrated by it.

But I respect the designers for trying something new and shockingly different. By having the player do something so seemingly meaningless and tedious, it connects their real world feelings to the in-game moment. Mario is being punished, and, in a way, so is the player!

Similarly -- but used to much greater effect -- there is a sequence in Dragon Quest IV that focuses on the life of Taloon the merchant. In this section of the game, players are thrust in the role of Taloon as he works at a local weapons shop. (Each chapter in brilliant RPG Dragon Quest IV focuses on a different main character.)

During Taloon's chapter, players do not experience the normal gameplay of a traditional RPG. Since Taloon is just a merchant at a weapons shop, he only does things a weapons shop merchant would do: He sells weapons.

For this extended section in the game, players work at this weapons shop, selling and bartering items to make enough money to progress the story.

When creating a believable universe, a game has to contain characters that do jobs not nearly as exciting as the main hero battling monsters and saving the world from an evil villain. But players never get to play as these forgotten, yet important characters. In Dragon Quest IV, you actually get to take control of one of these characters, if only for a little while.

Is selling weapons at the shop a little slow compared to the other chapters in the game? Well, sure. But it is also fascinating ... and original ... and refreshingly unique. Playing as a merchant is something you never do in an RPG, and to be able to do that is a great change of pace.

This is how I feel about scanning in Mass Effect 2.

Is it slow, and strange, and pace-breaking, and tedious? Yeah, it is. But scanning for minerals in that universe would be. It may not be entertaining, but it is a necessary task the characters (and, in turn, you) have to complete.

If you want to earn valuable upgrades, you really have to work for them. You have to sacrifice a little real world annoyance to strengthen your in-game characters.

The concept is pretty brilliant.

Well, at least I think it is brilliant. BioWare ended up patching the scanning process shortly after Mass Effect 2 was released. So maybe that "brilliant" concept was not so brilliant after all ...

Regardless, I still loved and respected scanning planets in Mass Effect 2 ... even if I never really had any actual fun doing it.

What do you think? Did any of you like scanning for minerals as much as I did? Did you think it was an interesting gameplay choice, or a boring, completely mundane one? Do you think scanning will make a return in Mass Effect 3?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

Chad Concelmo,
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