Overthinking It: Thermal Clips in Mass Effect

Now that the Spoiler Warning crew have completed their playthrough of Mass Effect 3 I have gotten into a bit of a contemplative mood. I was watching Smudboy’s analysis of the entirety of Mass Effect 3 in regards to its faults and flaws, and though he didn’t touch on them directly (he might have in other videos I’ve yet to watch) it led me down the path of thinking about thermal clips.

This used to give me shivers in the positive way.

I have a bit of history with the military, and either way stuff like this has a tendency to fascinate me. Now I will state up front that I largely understand the gameplay reasons for thermal clips, I just wish they had been better explained in-canon as well. And perhaps functioned more sensibly. So let’s dive into this mess and see how far ‘too far’ will take us.

Everyone who played the first Mass Effect probably remember that guns didn’t have ammo clips. Instead they contained a block of matter that got teeny, tiny bits sliced off and launched using mass effect fields so a bit the size of a grain of sand could impact like a slug. Naturally this created some heat from the friction, so guns needed to cool off after being fired, while they had virtually infinite ammunition.

This was fine in my book. It was annoying how firing a single shot with a sniper rifle tended to put you into cooldown mode immediately, but that was a way to achieve a certain pace in combat. Could it be improved? Most likely. So Bioware did what they did with most stuff that could use some improvement from Mass Effect 1: Throw it out the window and come up with something new (and not necessarily better). See: Inventory system, Mako, leveling system and even the conversation system when we got to Mass Effect 3. Enter the thermal clips.

They look kinda pretty, though I'm not sure if this is official art.

They did have some justification for this, if I recall. Something about how the Geth had come up with a more efficient way of dispensing with the heat created from weaponry using disposable heat sinks (even though they didn’t use that in ME1, and it’s unclear how everyone else in the galaxy got a hold of this technology), and it got adopted as the galaxy standard. This does make some sense. It’s a neat idea, since having a way to instantly dispel all the heat in a gun has a lot of uses. I’d just go so far as to say it could have been implemented better.

See, the reason that heat is bad for weapons is that overheating has a tendency to deform the metal, so weapons can at best be inaccurate and at worst backfire. In the Norwegian army we used the MG-3 as the General Purpose Machinegun, and it was a beast. With 7.62 x 51 mm rounds, fired at a rate of up to 22 rounds a second, its barrel would get massively warm. The rule was that every 200 rounds the barrel would be popped out and laid aside to cool, while a new, cold barrel would be slid into place and firing could continue.

Because heat does indeed dissipate over time. Something the thermal clips seem to ignore completely. Okay, I understand that if you actually use it up to the limit, you kinda need to eject it to avoid damaging the weapon. There’s however no reason why the ejected clips can’t be picked up and put aside for later; when they’re cool again. Regular combat gloves and some special pouches to store the warm clips in would be all that’s needed. Combat gear has lots of pouches, belts and even a harness normally, so I’m sure they could find somewhere to attach them.

You’d likely not be picking up hot clips while you’re in combat anyway, unless you were really desperate, so by the time you were done they’d likely be cold enough to handle fairly safely. I mean, even if they’re designed to work like thermoses and contain the heat, that would also mean they wouldn’t get too hot on the outside, but why would you design them like that? The only reason would be if you had people who went over battlefields, collected the spent clips, and took them to special heat discharge units. If not they’d simply dissipate on their own, and quite quickly considering their size.

Which also makes me think that even while still attached to guns, the clips should slowly cool down. So if you ended a battle and had just one, two or like half of the ’rounds’ left on the clip, it would start ‘recharging’, as it were, so you could use it for more shots by the start of the next battle.

Though perhaps it’s not common etiquette for the soldiers themselves to collect cooled off clips. Maybe there actually are people who go over battlefields afterwards and collect everything they can find. This would both cut production costs and time, and explain why Shephard wouldn’t collect the spent clips herself. None of this is actually mentioned though, no matter how much I wish it was. So I have to resort to these overthinking sessions.

As a final note: If I was in charge of logistics on the Normandy, I would offer each soldier an old-style weapon as a backup just in case they run out of thermal clips on the battlefield. Or heck, maybe some of them actually prefer the old-style ones. For a game series that was supposed to be about choice, we weren’t given that much. Or even better, as a weapon manufacturer, I would have made weapons that could incorporate thermal clips for faster heat dissipation, but that could also function without them if need be.

I’m guessing the simple answer here is that the developers just didn’t put that much thought into it, and it’d probably be quite tricky to implement even if they did. But if you want to pay me to overthink your concepts, game developers, then feel free to contact me.



Posted on November 25, 2012, in Games and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Interesting view. I want to say ‘if you have material that can safely hold full-temperature heat sinks, why not just use that material in your guns’, but then I realize how heat sinks work and that argument goes out the window.

    I take something of a different offence to heat sinks as presented in Mass Effect. Here’s the gist of it:

    Lore-wise, the reasoning behind switching to these ejectable heat sinks is reasonably fine. There’s a whole bit on how statistical analysis shows that most large-scale battles are won by the side with the highest shot output, which makes sense. It’s just that that reasoning — which, as far as I can tell, is the only bit of reasoning ever offered to support heat sinks — doesn’t really fly for me:

    a) Narratively, Shepard’s situation is massively different from the large-scale battles heat sinks were designed for. We’re special operatives. There’s usually plenty of time for us in between engagements, which are with dozens of foes maximum. Shot output quantity is never the major deciding factor.

    But that wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for:

    b> Ludically, Mass Effect 1 showed us that heat dissipation is barely even a factor. It took how long for a sniper rifle to cool down? Six seconds? And assault rifles and pistols cooled down even quicker. It gets even worse if you factor in the player’s skills, which have the capacity of completely removing the gameplay element of cooldown; see the Infinite Assault Rifle or Infinite Pistol builds for that. My Shepard was capable of shooting his pistol forever. Just forever.

    So narratively, the whole conceit only makes sense if you ignore the difference in situation; even then, ludically, we can show it’s nonsense. Even if battles — all battles — are won by bullet quantity alone, Mass Effect 1-era Shepard has Mass Effect 2/3 Shepard beat.

    Yay for ludonarrative dissonance?

    • Yeah. And I guess the whole galaxy just forgot about frictionless materials. The weapon mods in ME1 were cumbersome to implement, but a nice idea which just needed a little bit of tweaking. So of course they tossed out it with the inventory system, and brought back a limited version for 3.

  2. Hello there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and found that it is really informative. I’ll appreciate if you continue this in future. A lot of people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

  3. It is of note that, somehow, weapons utilising the thermal clip system have a higher damage output than the older cool-down weapons to surpass modern kinetic barriers. (Part of the geth’s reason for inventing the system). Weapons with thermal clips had to sacrifice the cooling systems of older weapons, and now cannot dissapate heat over time since the heat is stored in the clips. Still, your point about re-using clips is valid. Why could one not do that? For some reason clips are disposible items. SPOILER > Conrad Verner has an amusing conversation with Shepard in ME3 about thermal clips. Verner thinks it is like going back to the days of limited ammunition.

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