Synthetics vs. Organics: Mass Effect 3, part 1

I was a couple years late to the Mass Effect party. I didn’t get my 360 until Christmas 2009, meaning I  missed a large portion of that console’s major releases. The first Mass Effect game came out in 2007, and I had never played it myself. But early in 2010, I bought a used copy of the first game when, bored by the uber-derivative Darksiders, which was my first 360 game purchase, I found myself in need of something more substantial. I had been reluctant to get into Mass Effect, but the hype surrounding the second game eventually won me over.

So I played my way through the first game, and was hooked–despite myself. I’d been reluctant because the commercials for Mass Effect made it seem as though the core mechanic of the game was moral choices which would always have unintended negative consequences. I later discovered that this was not at all the case, and I’m very glad I overcame that initial hesitation.

The first Mass Effect was bizarre in a number of ways. The moral choice mechanic was novel to me (though of course it would have been familiar to PC gamers by that time), but more than this, the Star Trek setting, the film-grain video filter, the excellent voice acting, and the new-age music that played on menu screens and in key moments in the plot won me over. Despite the decisions you had to make, the first game had a strange lightheartedness–which was no doubt a factor of the presentation, rather than the subject matter–and the decisions were almost never the few-for-the-many kind of choices that the commercials lead you to believe. The whole thing felt very much like an extended sojourn in the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe, except with more overt militarism, sex and violence.

The premise of Mass Effect is relatively familiar scifi fare. It takes place in the not-too-distant future, about fifty or sixty years after humanity has stumbled into a galactic community which they didn’t know existed (just like Star Trek). After discovering alien technology on Mars, humans developed faster-than-light travel, and came almost immediately into contact with a hostile alien race, the Turians. After a brutal war, peace was eventually forced upon the humans and Turians by the galactic Council, a vaguely democratic ruling body representing the three most powerful races in the galactic community (and only these three). In the game you play as Commander Shepard, a leader of the human Systems Alliance military, who discovers a plot to bring an ancient threat into the galaxy and enslave or obliterate all organic life.

Shepard is appointed as a Spectre, a high-level black-ops position that enables him/her (you get to choose) to do whatever it takes to ensure galactic security. Then you shoot and chat your way through a series of increasingly high-stakes missions across the galaxy, all with the ultimate purpose of preventing the reappearance of the Reapers, a semi-mythical race of sentient spaceships bent on wiping out everybody.

One of my favorite scenarios from Mass Effect was the encounter with the Rachni Queen. Basically, the Queen is the last of an ancient race of sentient bugs, believed to have been wiped out centuries before by another of Mass Effect’s races, the krogan. She has been captured by servants of the Reapers and her offspring turned evil, but she promises that she’ll go straight if Shepard sets her free. You can choose to release her, which your teammates warn you against, or you can kill her. The choice you make in the first game appears to make little difference until much later, when, in Mass Effect 3, the newly-replenished Rachni become allies in the war against the Reapers. Or, I guess they don’t, if you killed her. I don’t know, because I played a straight Paragon (I made the nice-guy choices, because I’m fucking nice).

These kinds of decisions are fun, if one-dimensional. You can help the queen, or kill her. Not much middle ground. Some people might chafe against this limited moral spectrum, but I think it makes sense in the context of a video game which has as one of its goals the conveyance of a sense of wartime sacrifice. No matter what you think of the morality system in the Mass Effect games, you can’t help but feel responsible. Every choice you make really does have consequences in the game. While most of these boil down to how much money you make or what bonuses you gain for your team, some of them have major narrative consequences. Also in the first game, for example, there is a moment when one of your teammates has to die. You can choose which of two people it is, but you can’t save them both. This character’s death haunts Shepard for the remainder of the series, and has a major impact on who’s around, and in what role, by Mass Effect 3.

ME2 continued in the first game’s tradition, although it greatly streamlined the gameplay mechanics. The high level of gear and skill customization in the first game was totally scrapped in favor of a limited set of weapons and far fewer skill trees for each character. Gunplay was tightened up, and the graphics were sharpened. Overall it was an improvement, though as an RPG nut I would have liked them to retain the nuts-and-bolts approach to gear and powers. The plot, meanwhile, took a noticeable turn for the dark and gritty, which actually made sense in terms of the situation in the galaxy following the first game. Shepard had exposed the threat, and then one of the Reapers had nearly destroyed the center of galactic civilization; despite this, the politicians covered it up and denied most of it. The darker tone was appropriate because Shepard was acting as a fugitive, essentially, fighting a lonely battle against a threat nobody believed in.

Mass Effect 3 kept most of the gameplay elements perfected in the second game, and added a few refinements (a combat roll, tighter cover mechanic, and a surprisingly good multiplayer mode). It also reintroduced some of the RPG-ish elements, though with nowhere near the level of customization of the first game. And it was great. This is the thing that people need to acknowledge, I think, before they start ragging on the ending. The game is fantastic. It features incredible setpiece moments, a brilliant narrative that ties up most of the loose threads from the previous games, and a rapid-fire succession of “what-the-fuck-I-can’t-belive-that-happened” moments that faithful followers of the series can’t help but be amazed by. It is satisfying to play on both a gameplay and a narrative level. It deserves the 10/10 it got from Game Informer.

In ME3 you can continue your romance(s) from the previous games, which is incredibly satisfying (and not, no matter what you might think, in a sad fanboy way). Some of the most intense, entrenched conflicts in the ME universe are resolved in truly stunning ways: you cure a disease that has plagued an alien race for centuries; the Rachni finally reappear, to great effect; and two characters from the Mass Effect novels, hitherto unseen in the games, not only appear, but make major contributions to the finale’s plot (one of them, Kai Leng, is a main antagonist).

All of this is extremely satisfying to longtime fans of the series. It’s crunchy. It’s the kind of thing diehard gamers in the old sense (i.e., nerds) live for.

And then, as you no doubt have heard by now, there’s the ending.

I’ll leave that particular rant for the next post. Suffice it to say, for now, that ME3 is possibly the best video game ever made–and, having beaten it, I don’t know if I can ever return to the Mass Effect universe again.


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