Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Big Game Hunting - Mass Effect

Earlier this month, something epic came to an end. Inevitably, it was met with derision and anger from fans who felt cheated, as if they had somehow come to own this intellectual property. Certainly, having poured hours of gameplay into the franchise, I can see the source of such strong feeling, though the arrogance that drives it is staggering.

When one plays an RPG with friends, one is participating in collaborative storytelling. You can make specific decisions about your character. You can petition your GM between sessions, you can ally yourselves with other characters and you can get instant feedback from said peers. When you choose to play a computer RPG, most of the time you are playing a finished and encapsulated product. Despite the myriad of choices, ultimately the story has been written by others. And not necessarily for you.

The first Mass Effect was released in 2007 on X-Box and in 2008 for Windows. As a Mac user and PS3 gamer, this first entry in a new science fiction RPG franchise passed me by. In 2007, I was busily devouring Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - one of the first games to truly enthral me on my PS3, Oblivion was epic to the point of being initially somewhat overwhelming. I overlooked its flaws and embraced the world and options it presented; often staying up till 4am playing through quests, dungeons and Oblivion Gates.

A few years later, I heard great things about Bioware's Dragon Age: Origins and gave it a go. I quickly grew to despise it. I dislike squad/party management systems. I've frequently been in a managerial role at work, so when I play a game I want to play as a sole protagonist with capable comrades as required, rather than continuing to direct belligerent ingrates. Furthermore, Dragon Age: Origins presented an array of mostly unsympathetic characters in overblown, longwinded cutscenes. I rarely fail to see a game through to completion, but I gave up on Dragon Age after a few quests. I found what I was craving in Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas in subsequent years, then news came that Mass Effect 2 was being ported to the PS3.

Due to licensing issues, the first Mass Effect would not be available to Sony gamers, but a motion comic DLC was released - allowing players a chance to pick up on the backstory and make the key decisions ready to import into ME2. The opening of Mass Effect 2 itself is a blur of an attack on the original Normandy that destroyed it and Shepard. It was compelling start as I took on the role of a reborn Shepard, surrounded by people she couldn't trust and with little attachment to her past. This was my additional motivation for my version of the character. As I hadn't played ME1, I would be cold and aloof to those who had known me before. The dialogue options didn't allow me to portray an amnesiac, but the Paragon/Renegade choices allowed me to keep the past of ME1 at arm's length, whilst also giving Jacob and Miranda a hard time for being Cerberus (based on what I had learnt about this pro-human organisation). It felt like real roleplaying, rather than just clicking buttons and pulling on triggers.

Furthermore whilst the Mass Effect games do feature squad management options, the AI is good enough to allow you to be more of a Commando Shepard than a Commander Shepard during combat, as your team can usually hold their own provided you fight well too. A far cry from the suicidal liabilities that seemed to follow me round during my short time playing Dragon Age.

Over time - and loyalty side missions - I slowly let the character thaw, especially as new non-human crew members joined the Normandy SR-2. Shepard became friendlier and developed a renewed sense of camaraderie, especially once Garrus Vakarian entered the fray. Brandon Keener's voice acting convinced me that Garrus was a stalwart comrade-in-arms despite my PS3 limitation of not having played the first Mass Effect.

I forged a team, I made choices, I fought battles and I lost a few people in the final mission. In short, I was sucked in. Bioware had done something quite magical, but even then I remained a Bethesda boy at heart. I was rabidly excited about Skyrim and was delighted when my copy arrived a day early. I didn't get worked up about Mass Effect 3. I knew I'd play it eventually, but somehow because Bethesda games give you so much freedom, I forgot how evocative Mass Effect 2 had been.

Somewhere in all the recent kerfuffle surrounding Game and EA, I found myself in a position to order a Collector's Edition Of Mass Effect 3 and I decided I may as well. I'm so glad that I did. Mass Effect 3 built on what had gone before, creating a relentless gaming experience filled with heartbreak, desperation and driven endeavours. I lost another character to a noble sacrifice and it felt satisfying. Then I lost two friends in a senseless mess and I was genuinely upset. When another comrade-in-arms seemingly went down fighting I was distraught, and truly elated when it was revealed to be a fake out. It's rare when a game can really tap into one's emotions on that level.

The much derided ending wasn't as satisfying as I'd have liked, but after around seventy hours of game play, I doubt anything would feel quite right. I'll refrain from talking about the details for those who haven't played it yet, but I certainly don't hate it. I made the right choice for my Shepard and I shall be intrigued to see how it plays out in future DLC or sequels. I suspect we might see a new beginning akin to that of the second Deus Ex game (I know - horrid game compared to the first, but I still enjoyed the story of Invisible War) whereby enough time past to render the decisions somewhat moot, though if you wanted to look for aspects of "your" choice then you would find it. We'll see.

Mass Effect 3 made me eat humble pie. Bioware are incredible storytellers and my investment in the narrative trumps anything Bethesda have served up. I was pleasantly reminded of my beloved Babylon 5 as ME3 unfolded. An ancient, dark force with terrible technology returns to destroy the current dominant races, all in the name of improving the galaxy for the younger races. A central space station serves as a rallying point for the different peoples of that time, despite itself being intrinsically connected to the mystery. And humanity transforms from young, naive upstarts involved in conflicts born of misunderstanding and arrogance, into the unifying force that brings the allied forces together to strike back at their oppressors. Sacrifice is a key part of both stories too.

So, while others may scream at the injustice of palette swaps and DLC retcons, I'm just grateful that Bioware gave me another science fiction epic to enjoy.

It really was great gameplay too.

Ben Fardon is itching to start an Eclipse Phase RPG campaign.


  1. LOL. There was one point, while watching, I was shouting at the screen 'YOU ARE NOT BLOODY VORLONS!' I'm sure you know when ;)

  2. Very personal reflection on your experience with the game series, I enjoyed it very much!

    Close to completing the 2nd one now, so I look forward to jumping onto the 3rd!

    Even though I have never watched Babylon 5 (shh..I know!) I completely agree with that comparison, I have always felt it reminds me of Kevin J Anderson's 'Saga of the Seven Suns' novel series - A massive space opera with a multicultural war spanning across all of space!


  3. It has some brilliant music too, this song from the ending has been haunting me. Similarly the ending music of ME2 was fantastically evocative, and ME1 had some synthy genius going on.

  4. Quite so! I must get round to downloading my free ME3 OST. :)