Mass Effect

2002 was an annus horriblus for many different reasons; my brother and sister gave me an XBox for Christmas. I didn’t expect anything from them. If anything the fact my brother was still alive was all the gift I needed. But I accepted the XBox and gradually got a few games (mostly lousy ones) until I hit the jackpot—Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. This was the first video game that swallowed me up whole. As I gradually made my way deeper into the game I began to play endlessly. There was a point where I grew frustrated with my then-roommate and for some reason ended up over at my girlfriend’s apartment with the XBox and KOTOR. As I would sit on her couch for hours on end and grunt responses rather than speak, she eventually said, “You need to take that thing out of here. NOW!” Which I did and spent many a free evening in the basement like Gollum with the ring. Not only that, but I eventually moved into her apartment when she moved to Traverse City. It was in this space that I finally, FINALLY, beat the game over a year later.

What was it about this game that cost me so many hours? It was easy to play, easy to understand the mechanics of the game, and easy to fall for the story. You wake up on a ship, you don’t know who you are and you are under attack. Simple premise. And then factor in the Star Wars universe and an epic story that takes dozens of hours to complete. Not only that but the story, as it unfolds, is full of twists and turns worthy of the finest Star Wars films. Each character you can interact with has their own dialog options, so the tapestry of voices in the game is wide and unique. And ultimately, and this was a major promotional selling point of the game—you at home get to choose the character’s true nature. The options in the game are designed to make you either a good character that has been saved from the dark side, or an evil character that once revived does not stray from the dark path. If you head down the path of the dark side, your character’s physical appearance changes. Your face becomes gnarled and white and if you go all the way to the dark side your character profile on the menu screen will be surrounded by flames. This was the first game that I can remember playing where your direct, specific choices influence where the game is going and how the game ends. In Knights of the Old Republic, you either end up good or bad and the universe rolls with your decision. The sequel a few years later was one of the more unsatisfying sequels one could imagine. The basic premise, gameplay and decision making remained relatively intact but the story was unfulfilling and the ending caused me to seek out a video game message board to make sure I had not missed something along the way. Seems that BioWare, the game company that had designed the first game did not design the second game. The absence was glaring and all the hours I poured into the sequel carry none of the fondness or memories that I received playing the first game.

Over the last few months of 2010 I had rented BioWare’s Mass Effect on more than one occasion and never managed to play it. I rent foolishly, renting two or three games rather than just one. What always happens is I only play one of those three games, keep them all past their due date and pay the late fees. After a few of these follies, I eventually rented Mass Effect 2. (Yes I started playing the sequel first). The game took a minute but it sucked me in. I would play it a bit at night, then a bit more, then a bit more and then I would be planning to rent the game only on Friday so I could stay up late and play it all night. During the Christmas season I found the game on sale through for ten dollars. I thought I was hooked when I rented it! Now that I owned it, I should almost say it owned me. I played the game for hours on end. Slightly different playing from my younger days as I didn’t have the luxury of hours stolen after an early morning class or the pathetic freedom of having no girlfriend to spend time with in the wee small hours of the morning. Instead I played when I could, once the kids and wife went to bed.

Playing the sequel first stripped any of the emotional impact of playing the follow-up to another well-received game, and allowed me to settle in and get hooked. As with KOTR and Jade Empire there is a specific code of morality you can adhere to (or not) throughout the game. You are either a Paragon or a Renegade. Each differing response leads to different responses and a totally different game experience. In Mass Effect each choice has its own response and creates an amazingly deep and nuanced game to play. I have yet been unable to go all the way Renegade. Just can’t do it. Playing that way seems easier to me, not as challenging. Perhaps one day I will play the game all the way in the red, just to see the differences and how they will change the experience in the third game, due this winter.

Now this brings me to another aspect of Mass Effect that I absolutely loved: continuity. By playing the sequel before the original I was playing what I considered the programmers’ canonical version of the Mass Effect universe. What I discovered is that had I began the experience with the first Mass Effect I would have started ME2 with completely different characters and plot points based on my actions from the first game. When I did buy ME1 and played it I tried to remember the things in the sequel that I could affect through my gameplay. The character you create in the first game can be used in the second game. Whatever storylines and plot points you begin in the first game (love and casualties) carry over throughout all three games. Major plot points aren’t the only things carried over either. As you play the first game there are minor characters that you interact with and basically free from perilous situations. I had forgotten about these characters until playing the sequel with the save data from the first game. These people start showing up! And your interactions have ramifications. I just think it is so cool and it feels like nothing I’ve seen in games before.

Another aspect I absolutely loved about the game was the scope and reality of the game universe. Every place you visit in the game is rooted in the Milky Way. The planets are invented, but the areas in the universe these planets inhabit are real and real images of these areas are used. Visiting the Horsehead or Hourglass Nebula might not entice the regular consumer but as an astronomy freak I thought this was awesome. Especially cool was the ability to visit our own solar system. This leads to a hidden bit of comedy when you visit and try to send a probe to the planet Uranus. The ship computer usually says “Dispatching probes, sir,” but when you visit our wackily-named planet the voice says, “You can’t be serious.” When you probe again the voice, sounding completely exhausted, says “Probing Uranus, sir.” It’s a combination of butt/science humor which is something to behold.

In Mass Effect your actions have direct consequences that have long standing ramifications. If you romance a character in the first game, when you enter your cabin in the second game there is a photo of that character on your desk. If you cheat, the photo is turned down. This deep, involved character development also enhances the replay value of the games. Want to play as a different gender? Check. Want to be a Renegade? Check. Want to beat the game without losing a single character? Check. Want to see if you can end the game having every character die? Check.

Do I think this is the future of gaming? No. Do I hope that more games use this system to develop a rich experience? Yes! Where in the past my emotional investment in a game was due to the game itself this method of play found me attached to the game and the characters. And this investment has me eagerly awaiting the third game to see how the stories I’ve laid out end. It can’t come soon enough.

3 Responses to “Mass Effect”
  1. Duke Kimball says:

    Heh. I just finished Mass Effect 2 earlier this week, and am now looking to get my hands on all the downloadable content. Great assessment of the game. Lots of games claim to have the whole “YOUR MORAL CHOICES HAVE DIRE CONSEQUENCES” angle going on… *ahemFableahem*… but I feel like BioWare has really upped the ante with the ME games. On top of that, it’s the only game where I really feel like engaging NPCs in conversation… the dialogue system was smooth enough that I would lose hours trying to chat up people and unlock new story.

    Anyway. Solid review. Cheers.

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