Mass Effect 3 Can’t Come Soon Enough
I am a late comer to the Mass Effect franchise, and I wish I had found it sooner. The first game is almost three years old now, released in November of 2007, and its sequel was just released this last January, 2010. I kept hearing about it, but just never thought about it until I found a cheap, used copy of Mass Effect and tried it out.
I was hooked.
Mass Effect, and its vastly superior successor Mass Effect 2, has set a new level for video game storytelling in my mind. Yes, the games are well-rendered and the technical appearance is great and everything, but storytelling is what I’m all about with RPGs. Well, maybe not all about, but it is priority one. I can forgive a number of flaws as long as the story is good. And oh my, is the story good. And oh my, are there a number of flaws.
On the story side of the equation, the Mass Effect series can be seen as one giant story, all centering around the exploits of the main character, Commander Shepherd. The situation the good Commander is in is uniformly the same, while the different options of how to play the character are left to you: Gender, facial features, background history (Spacer, Colonist, or Earthborn), service history and reputation (Sole Survivor, War Hero, Ruthless), and character type (Soldier, Adept, Engineer, Sentinel, Vanguard, and Infiltrator being the choices). These factors will all influence how the game plays and what you can do, and I must say the different classes do play very differently, unlike most other RPGs I have played before. Even classes that seem fairly non-combat oriented, like the Engineer, really manage to stand on their own and provide genuine usefulness. How you began your life and what you did professionally before going on your new mission influences how many characters treat you upon meeting you for the first time. For instance my first character, Elric Shepherd, was an Earthborn Soldier with a reputation for Ruthlessness. This history reflects how certain characters handle me upon meeting me, and it closes some doors while it opens up others.
This is not unique to Mass Effect, or even BioWare games in general, but the way it was done here seems so much more seamless than any other attempts before. Also, like all BioWare games, there is a morality system, though in this case it isn’t so much about Good vs. Evil as it is about Decency vs. Douche-Baggery. On my first play I was, by and large, a douche. It’s just more fun. But unlike many other morality systems, the Paragon/Renegade meters are parallel, not balanced against each other, and if you were like me you could fill your D-bag meter to 75% while still having a lot of points in the ol’ Paragon-o-Meter. So I could intimidate with the best of them, while still being charming when called for. Since you play a hero who is trying to save the galaxy, you can never really be “evil,” but you can certainly swing more towards the Machiavellian side of things than the more noble sentiments, or the standard, neutral, soldierly order. In fact, the one thing you don’t want to be is neutral. The more noble or more ruthless you are, the more things become available to you. If you play the bland soldier-boy you will miss out on a lot. The efficiency and fluidity of this is even more pronounced in Mass Effect 2, where you can influence certain scenes when a Paragon or Renegade event is triggered (either by the Paragon symbol blinking on the left hand side, or a Renegade symbol blinking on the right) and you can jump in and do something to alter the conversation, or just end it, and score some alignment points. Like how in one situation when a merc guard was giving my character lip I cut the conversation short and didn’t allow the situation to devolve into combat when I hit the right trigger when the Renegade symbol popped up and kicked his ass out of a 30+ story window to the ground below. Splat.
Now I’m not going to go into a lot of specifics on the technical aspects of the games since so many other people have done that to death, save for stating a few things which I will get out of the way, such as Mass Effect 1’s frame rate was ass, micro-managing equipment and menus was annoying, I hated riding elevators, the Mako sucks diseased mule wang, and bopping around the same boring, lifeless alien worlds with altered skins looking for junk to collect was a colossal fucking waste of time. Also, I wish Mass Effect 2 didn’t rely so heavily on planetary scanning and mining to complete the mission successfully, getting all the needed upgrades to help assure the team’s survival in the end. All the original Mass Effect complaints were logged, registered, and altered by BioWare for ME2. They really listened to the fans, what a novel idea. They will do so again with ME3 as well, count on it. But even with the piss-poor auto-saving of ME1 and the dull but necessary work of resource collecting in ME2, the games simply blow away everything else in the RPG genre hands down. And the reasons are these: Story, characterization, and dialogue. Truly, Mass Effect proved as hard for me to put down as some of my favorite books. And not because I was having fun blowing stuff up. Really, all the ass-kicking was just a means to an end, and that end was unraveling the story.
For the few of you out there who managed to ignore this game for so long, like me, spoilers will now ensue. Commander Shepherd and his team are first swept into galactic intrigue when a special operative working for the Citadel Council, the supreme galactic political organization, has gone rogue and absconded with a piece of Prothean technology – a race of hyper-advanced aliens that went extinct some fifty thousand years ago. Eventually it is revealed that this rogue is attempting to harness the power of an ancient alien intelligence that was not only the reason for the Protheans’ extinction, but for the elimination of every advanced civilization to ever evolve in the Milky Way, for several million years. The story evolves in ME2 when it is revealed that the Protheans were not entirely eliminated, but in fact they were changed, turning into beings known as the Collectors. The ancient alien force known as the Reapers, which appear as enormous Cthonic space vessels of inscrutable power and profound intellect, subverts those it does not destroy and uses them for their own ends. What those ends are, precisely, is beyond normal sapient understanding.
Mass Effect’s world is not perfectly unique, as the Reapers indicate (you can’t help but think of Cthulu when you first see Sovereign), and it does play on many popular sci-fi stereotypes. You have your warrior species (Krogan), your sneaky/smart species (Samarians), your tough bastards (Turians), the Space-Slut species (Asari), Pan-galactic used-car salesman species (Volus), Gypsies (Quarians), and your right-slaving-dick species (Batarians), but even when operating within stereotypes these species receive texture, definition, and enough mold-breaking to prevent them from being caricatures (except the Volus. They’re all pretty much douchey comic relief). The Asari, for instance, despite being the Milky Way’s most unabashed hoes, are also the longest lived and wisest of the races. They live a thousand years, and the way you understand them to work is that they sow their wild oats for the first few hundred years before settling in and becoming responsible. After all, they have a lot of life to live, and can wear many hats during that time, constantly re-inventing themselves. They go out of their way to mate with other species in order to ensure their biological diversity and evolution (Asari on Asari parings are actually considered taboo since they do not further the species at all), and they can mate with everyone since they do not reproduce via normal meiosis, but they take the DNA of the “father,” who need not be male at all, and produce offspring by assimilating their genetic information and then complete the process of gestation independently. They are all female since males would not serve any genetic purpose in-species, so while they make the obvious ploy for sex-symbol species, your disbelief can be suspended because in their own alien way they make sense, and they do not all act alike. Enough exceptions exist for each species that none of them truly became caricatures, as many alien species do in other sci-fi or fantasy stories. All these alien archetypes are noticeable, but unique enough that Mass Effect truly makes them believable.
The central story may seem like pretty standard sci-fi fare, with a hero and cast of allies facing off against a galactic-grade boogity-boogity, but the way the story unfolds and the relationships you build with NPCs, both minor and major, can be profound, and that lies in the exceptional work BioWare did with voice acting, scripting, and dialogue. Every character feels real, speaking as real people, each with their own points of view, and different reactions to you based upon your dealings with them. Sometimes romance can even ensue. This is handled pretty clumsily in ME1, but ME2 improved the concept, another aspect of RPG gaming that has become a trademark of BioWare. Every character has so many different dialogue options depending on different situations; it is truly staggering how much work went into realizing the world of Mass Effect. Your main character is also voiced, which greatly helps in connecting to the story. In other games, all you had was a dialogue box and a few things to choose from, and other characters either react with their own text, or in present games like Bethesda’s Fallout 3 and BioWare’s own Dragon Age: Origins, the NPCs will have a voiced reaction. But even in those cases the voice work has been fairly strained, but Mass Effect is much smoother, and it aids the story and the player’s ability to interface with it greatly. And BioWare has secured top-shelf talent for most of its voice work, with the ME series employing stars such as Claudia Black, Michael Dorn, and even the legendary Martin Sheen as the Illusive Man, and there are many, many more.
What you say and do to these characters influences the story in many ways, with ME2 being superior in this area, but the continuity between the games is insured because you can bring the Commander Shepherd you finished ME1 with into ME2 to continue the story, and the game will remember everything you did in the first and alter the story accordingly. For instance, I allowed the Citadel Council to go down in flames, sacrificed Williams rather than Alenko, had a romance with Liara T’Soni, saved the Rachni Queen, and put Captain Anderson on the Council. All these things affected how my game in ME2 played, to a greater or lesser extent. ME2 had some short comings here, as well, but BioWare has stated that all the stops are being pulled out for ME3 since it will finish the series and no worries will be placed on the possibility of the story continuing. Therefore, things that happened all the way back in ME1 will likely arise in ME3 – that’s quite the continuity chain, and it has changed how I view video game RPGs forever. I don’t know if I can enjoy other RPGs nearly as much, when I became so involved in Mass Effect. Admittedly, after playing thirty some hours of ME2, I find it hard to replay 1 since ME2 is just so superior, from the combat to the story, to the characters and potential for relationships. Oh, and I really fucking hate the Mako. I had to say it again. Diseased mule wang, for real.
But I can rumble through 1 again to see the effects on 2, and then to eventually see what happens in 3. It’s the most epic RPG of all time. Not even Dragon Age: Origins, my former favorite and another BioWare product, can come close. All those hours of playing, and very little of it is what I would term grinding. The only grinding in Mass Effect comes from the resource collecting, as there is little to no need to force-level your characters as in many RPGs such as the Final Fantasy games, but you don’t feel offended at having to do side quests in order to max out as much as in other games. There isn’t as much unnecessary bend-and-fetch action in the ME series, which is so welcome in this genre it’s not even funny. I wanted to do the side quests, especially in ME2, because they could often tie into other plot points, get you what you need to make it out of the final battle with everyone intact, or just because it feels right in-character.
The story, the world, the characters, all give you a reason to care about what is happening. In ME2 I cultivated a relationship with Tali, the Quarian, because it seemed like my character would want to be with someone he knew from before, and because she was just a cool character and the challenges in getting close to a species that lived forever in bio-suits because their immune systems were gone from centuries living in spaceships without biospheres was challenging and truly alien. And the way it unfolded, her nervous, sputtering behavior (“I mean if you don’t want to, you, uh, I know, and it’s, uh… oh wow is it hot in here, ummm…”), everything was so natural without being crude or dirty. And you can’t help but feel happy for the Commander and for Tali when they manage to find some small happiness in what has so far been a pretty damn bleak life. It was a satisfying story-point, and one that other games I have played up to now have not been able to do nearly as competently. I haven’t experimented with other character combinations yet, but from everything I’ve read from people that have truly dissected the game, many of the other options are equally striking. Then, when I realized I had botched a bit at the end of ME2 and lost two of my crew in the escape I actually felt bad, even though they were two of the more unlikable characters. Not because I didn’t beat the game perfectly, but because the characters I had grown to know were suddenly dead. No game has done that to me before. That was the moment that I decided that this series was truly great. That is one hell of an achievement.
So now I wait, likely until some appropriately dramatic time in 2012, for Mass Effect 3. This is not a set release date, but more based on what the good folks at BioWare have said, which is that the development time for ME3 will likely match that of ME2, which emerged two and a half years after ME1. My best guess is late August, 2012, based purely on the numbers. It’s a hell of a long wait, but folks, it is worth it. By all appearances Xbox 360 and its competing systems will still be around then, updated here and there, but until then we have DLC content. That’s ok, and it helps to connect what is happening between 2 and 3, but Mass Effect 3 has some big shoes to fill. Between Knights of the Old Republic, Bioshock, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect I am confident BioWare will pull out another magnum opus. Dragon Age 2 promises to follow this idea, with a set main character with live dialogue, and that will be a boon to that franchise as well (you go, BioWare). Other RPG makers need to follow this lead or be left in the dust. I’m not sure I can ever go back to the old days. Nostalgia gamer, I am not. Here’s to the future, to innovation, to superior characterization, awesome voice acting, and good story telling. Now, just work on those frame rates and mini-games, people, and we can all end this story happily. Happy gaming, everyone.