It’s virtually impossible to discuss one of the Mass Effect games in isolation from the others. The fact they are a chronological trilogy covering one overarching story, between which you transfer your character. Though not the first and, hopefully, not the last game to allow you to transfer your character from a previous game, Mass Effect is the first series to really take it and run with it. Decisions you make in the first game genuinely affect the way the game plays out, seemingly minor actions/decisions in game one resurface in game 3 as being vital and difference making. The sheer planning and effort that must have gone in to keeping track of the various storyline options is hard to comprehend.
For those that don’t know, Mass Effect is a trilogy of games made by Bioware which continue that developer’s proud history of excellently written and depicted RPG games. You may have worked out by now that I’m something of a fan. We all have a game or series of games that captures our imagination, burrows into our hearts and our minds and stays with us, that we knowingly or un-knowingly use as a benchmark to which we compare other games we come across. For me, the Mass Effect Trilogy is one of those, despite being comparatively recent. I tend towards RPG games as a genre and Mass Effect defines what, in my mind, a great RPG needs to be.
Bioware were the developers for the well-known and well-received Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games before they struck out on their own with Mass Effect. As such, there is not a little similarity to Mr Lucas’ opus, with parts being faintly reminiscent of Star wars, whilst there are some parts that are virtually cut-and-paste, particularly with the ‘biotic powers’ which just shout ‘Jedi’. However, everything is so well developed and incorporated into the world, you don’t really notice, though that may be me as a fan being more willing to suspend my disbelieve beyond normal allowances, I admit.
And on the world; I have never come across a source that manages to create such a details and immersive world, outside of the printed word. The setting, environments and the overall socio-ecological basis of the universe the story is set in is developed with more subtlety and maturity than most films, let alone games, where subtlety is generally absent. The well-developed conversation system, where you are given a number of options with brief summaries to choose from as a response, while the other character is talking, allows the conversations to flow like real conversations much more than any game I have come across. It really is a major factor in drawing you in and making you suspend that disbelief. I know I’ve used immersion already, but immersion really is the key word for this trilogy. The top notch voice acting and animation really do make you care about the characters and, in all honesty, it feels genuinely cinematic. I hate using that word too, as I will argue with anyone that games being cinematic usually means you will be sitting through a lot of FMVs, but here it is a valid description, as you watch an overarching narrative play out as you play. Not since Half Life 2 has a game so effectively told a story just by using on screen events and trusting the player to understand.
Despite my fanboy devotion to this trilogy, I will admit it does have some scuffs on its otherwise gleaming paintwork. The 1st game has a fairly ropey 3rd person action shooter mechanic and some truly god-awful AI at times. The Mako sections (where you land on a planet and explore in your moonbuggy/APC) has a lot of criticism, though I thought it was ok, just about.
The series has something of a dichotomy as it progresses through the games also. The 1st game has you travelling across the galaxy, visiting planets, landing and exploring. This made you feel like you were really a space explorer and lent the game a feel of a vast physical scale. This is reigned back extensively in games 2 and 3, with planet visits limited to scanning for ore from space (just as exciting as it sounds that) and the galaxy hubs feeling not much more epic than a given region of Super Mario Land. Also, the areas in the latter games are much smaller and you’re more conscious of them being levels, in the true sense of the word in gaming context, which does hurt the immersion a bit. This narrowing of the feeling of physical scale is in complete opposite to the scale of the storyline, which build and builds to an epic crescendo as your focus expands from a single planet to a whole universe. The term space opera is one that sounds kind of silly, but that’s what it is; a modern sci-fi tale in the tradition of the epics of old.
So, taken as a whole, is the Mass Effect trilogy perfect? No, but then if you’re waiting on a perfect game, I suggest you give up now. What it is, is a game quite unlike any other you will have ever played. If you value a game with a narrative that will hold your interest and you’re one of those gamers who can help but do all the side missions and want to see a story develop, you must give this a go. The trilogy, given the chance, will account for several hundred hours of your life and, you know what, you really will feel it was time well spent.
As an addition, as part of our N7 week, I’m putting a call out to all Mass Effect Trilogy fans. I want to put together a detailed compilation of people’s favourite moments or stories about the Trilogy. If you’ve played any of the games and it made an impression on you, please send me datails about what that moment was and why it made such an impression. It could be something small in a sub-quest or some major turning point in the narrative, or it could be a story outside of the game world, but whatever it is I want to hear about it. We all have different things that make a game special to us and I would like to put those together.
All that are willing, please send me details of the moment and I will compile them into an article detailing them all. The address is email@example.com and I will do my best to credit everyone included. I look forward to reading them! (submissions deadline is 5pm Sunday 11th November)