While it sure seems that the whole of the gaming community is grabbing pitchforks and torches in response to the ruining of SimCity by Maxis and EA (completely evidenced by the game costing only $40 USD on Amazon only two weeks after its official launch), I have to say… damn, am I hooked on this Mass Effect property they have.
I picked up the Mass Effect Trilogy recently and after only spending maybe 30-40 minutes with the first title in the past, I think that it might have vaulted up to one of the top-10 gaming experiences that I can remember. It wasn’t just the gameplay of the titles, because let’s be honest, it was pretty rough at first but the way that the game’s story can be molded is pretty damn impressive.
Here’s the first part in a three part series on why I think the Mass Effect Trilogy is important.
The first Mass Effect experiment was essentially about exposition.
In summary, Mass Effect was equal parts experiment and exposition for BioWare. The first of the three titles plays a lot like exposition for a new universe, much in the same way that the first film in the original Star Wars trilogy plays a lot like exposition for a new universe. While Star Wars became the iconic story we all know and love, Mass Effect’s story telling methods are difficult to measure thanks to the depth of options in the game.
One major issue I experienced in my playthrough was the sense that I left quite a bit of content unexplored. Perhaps the expansive universe is meant to be explored by seasoned veterans of the game or meant for higher-difficulty playthroughs of the game? All I know is that when I made the final confirmation to have the Normandy make haste for Ilos, I knew that I would leave several assignments in limbo. I think I’ll make the effort to complete the game in more of a perfectionist’s style.
This type of retrospective is unique for me, as I haven’t really reviewed anything before, and now I’m reviewing a five-and-a-half year old game. I’m going to try to describe my experiences with the game’s most important features and sum it up at the end. Here goes nothing:
The conversation wheel became a reflex.
My initial introduction to the conversation wheel came from Dragon Age 2. It was first modern RPG that I purchased for my (relatively new) Xbox at the time. I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to EA in the realm of RPGs as of late, but there had been some talk about the latest in the Dragon Age series.
From the beginning of that game, it seemed like the conversation wheel was pretty straight forward. The answers on the top typically have ‘good’ alignments and the ones in the bottom had ‘evil’ alignments. The answers on the left typically required a morality check, as if morality was a statistic that could be tracked based on previous conversations and decisions made, except for an option that allowed a player to get more soundbites out of the NPC the player is conversing with. Dragon Age 2 also had a snarky response in certain situations, opposite the investigation option.
Mass Effect was an older title, by comparison, and had a very similar wheel and it was a bit more ambiguous at first.
Auto-leveling is the worst.
While I might come across the random cabinet and obstacle that might be locked beyond reason, in the same vein that paragon and renegade choices might be restricted because your Shepard doesn’t meet the requirements, there are several instances in the first two-thirds of the game where you are basically penalized for not having a completely tech-focused character for their decryption skill to access loot and bypass certain doors.
Now, I know that the actual player skill involved in the bypass/encryption/discovery minigame is not a huge amount, however I think that forcing players to choose between having useful NPC allies and having worthless NPC allies is a rough call to make–and some players might not be making that call at all. I played the game with the setting that only allowed the player to customize Shepard’s levels.
To get any sort of edge in the early game, you have to execute combat mechanics perfectly until you find a weapon that allows you to quickly dispatch entire legions of enemies based on one of three tanking structures. While auto-leveling other characters is probably a bit naive for a role-playing/real-time tactics adventure, it’s still relatively painless if you aren’t completely torn apart by the thought of leaving some potentially valuable stones unturned… intentionally.
Consequences and results are two different things.
Mass Effect is a bit more hardcore of an RPG than it lets on to be, but it’s not the typical RPG from a strategy point of view. In traditional RPGs, where there are multiple storylines that can be chosen, there are typically well defined branches to follow.
Say you are given the option of killing character B. Well, character B is gone. In most RPGs, that’s that. There might be a different route to take in the immediate future or some smaller hurdles to jump over such as a optional battle scenario, but that’s it. The game still progresses, and if the game ends any differently, the story is written so that it could have not been any other way.
In Mass Effect, the decisions you make don’t ultimately effect the outcome of the game, but they do change a few things along the way, and can certainly make things difficult. When you make these decisions, emotions might be visible on the character’s face that reflect how they feel about the just-made decision. Not only that, but the character typically will be back at some point in the future to remind you about the decision that you made.
That ending. THAT ENDING.
To me, this is the most important bit of the entire game. The landmark assault on the Citadel by the combined Reaper-led fleet presents a situation to which there is no one clear solution. While the decisions can be easy to make if you’re headed down the Paragon/Renegade moral pathways (provided you spent skill points on Charm/Intimidate during the game), the first time you come to this part of the game can be the most confusing. Do you allow the council to live? Is the whole operation pretty straight forward? How much information have you gathered along the way? Is your romantic interest around to contribute?
Ultimately, you end Sovereign’s existence in a massive display of firepower one way or the other… I’m sure. I actually haven’t finished the Renegade play-through of Mass Effect that I’ve been meaning to do, but I think I can wrap something like that up this weekend.
The final scene that happens in the game is so important. The score comes in right after you make the decision on how strong of a note you’re willing to end the game on, and the construction of the conversation until that moment exudes importance for a sequel to inevitably come. I can’t emphasize how impressive the score for the game is and how intricately it is added to key situations from combat sequences to conversational cutscenes.
The second game of the series, we will later learn, will pick up on almost every uniquely identifying situation our Shepard place him/herself into during the first Mass Effect adventure. The second game is more important than the first for a few different reasons (not to mention that the second game is just flat-out better than the first), however this experiment in establishing a universe and its story makes the Mass Effect trilogy truly great.
I’ll continue on to the second game in the series sometime next week.
EDIT: I’ve added a Branch for this post as it sparked a few tweets in conversation… so I figured I’d give Branch a real test for a change.