Aetherial Mundanity – “Mass Effect” 1, 2, and 3 Review

About a year ago, one of my friends told me that Mass Effect is the best RPG he has ever played. Actually, he might have said “best video game”, but it would be about the same to me. Anyway, I put some stock into his opinion because we have somewhat similar tastes and he has played a decent selection of RPGs. Then again, he also told me that Dragon Age was in his top three games at the time. Anyone whose kept up with my blog knows I do not hold Dragon Age in nearly such vaunted opinion. So, I did not keep my hopes up for Mass Effect.

My history with western RPGs is sparse compared to my experience with JRPGs. I was never part of the trend of playing the older games, like Ultima and Wizardry. Some games are just so dated that I would never get around to playing through them unless stuck on a desert island. And even then, I might find a new appreciation for building sand castles.

I’ve had some recent experience with WRPGs; Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Dragon Age, Fallout 3, Planescape: Torment. Generally speaking, I like what I’ve played. It hasn’t blown me out of the water, and I have not sworn off JRPGs; WRPGs are just another category of game I like. So, that’s where I stand coming in to Mass Effect.

Mass Effect is good. I like the game. And when I say “the game”, I mean the trilogy. I will acknowledge the differences between the games, but taken as a unit, I like the game.

Story
Boy oh boy. As I write this, people cannot shut up about the story. I’ll try not to get wrapped up in the controversy.

So, at it’s heart, the game’s plot is: every 50,000 years, an omnipotent machine army destroys all spacefaring sentient life in the galaxy. You play the role of Commander Shepard, a human with the resources and the drive to uncover their plan and unite the galaxy against them. Good set-up for an epic confrontation. Bonus points for making the main character a person in a position of power; as a Commander, he wields a lot of experience and authority. Plus, his ascension to Spectre rank gives him more actual authority to do what needs be done. I usually felt like Shepard deserved to be in control of the situation; if anything, sometimes I felt like he deserved to be more in control.

Actually, that became a bit of a problem later in the game. Sometimes I felt like the other characters were being spiteful for the sake of being spiteful. The Council is incredibly unhelpful, and no amount of explaining it away will really change the feeling that they are truly bullheaded. I mean, I could understand, until Shepard saved their lives. After sacrificing the human fleet to save three lives, I expect some deference.

Did my choices really matter? In the grand scheme of things, no. If I consider the game’s ending to be the benchmark for how my choices mattered, then my choices mattered nothing at all. The game has three endings, which are basically the same, and which are really predicated only on one decision Shepard makes at the very end. The ending is also just about five minutes long and deals with the game in very broad strokes. It is an interesting ending, but not an excellent one. Ironically, I am not sure what I would add to the ending as-is. Getting into details might just diminish the ending’s mood. Plus, given that the mass relays are destroyed, the future is looking bleak. I thought a montage might be in order, showing what happened to everybody. But, given the situation, it would be pretty depressing. There’s not a whole lot of room for their stories to continue on a grand scale. That feeds into a general problem I have with the ending. It’s an okay ending. I just wish it was something else. Maybe if the mass relays hadn’t been destroyed. I get the symbolism, but it limits the scope of the galaxy.

Back to the plot itself. I like the characters. We get a lot of opportunity to learn more about all of Shepard’s traveling companions. And for a stand-in protagonist, Shepard is very well-developed. The game has a good meeting between the player controlling Shepard’s actions and the character having independent thought. The dialogue system is a fair representation of this: the player decides what idea Shepard means to convey, but Shepard chooses the actual dialogue.

Choices. Oh, the choices. Did they ever matter? I’m going to work my way backwards on this one. The endings, like I said, are not substantially different. You could play the game two completely different ways and, in the end, those decisions have no impact on the ending; just the final choice. And, although that final choice makes some difference, the difference, again, is insubstantial.

S, what about the third game itself? Well, I’ll tell you that the decisions you make in the third game have a pretty big impact on how the third game itself develops. The fate of the Geth and the Quarians depend on what you do. Mordin’s life is in your hands. So is Wrex’s.The game itself can play out a lot of different ways. So, I was happy about that.

On the other hand, my decisions from Mass Effect 1 and 2 had almost no substantial impact on the events of ME3. This is a problem because the previous two games, ME2 in particular, had me sweating over some decisions, excited about how they would cause the third game to play out. But the most substantial difference was whether Eve lives and the numbers on the war asset board; and I don’t really care whether a fleet is worth 50 or 100 points; that’s not much story to me. Anyway, destroyed the genophage cure? Well, they found a way to quickly get it up and running again anyway. Did you convert all the Heretic geth to the side of the “good” geth? All the geth ally with the Reapers anyway. Cerebus has its hands on some serious Reaper technology whether or not you destroyed the Collector base. The list goes on. I felt like I could have skipped ME2 and the story would be practically the same, except I would not be buddy-buddy with the cast of ME2. And I never did get anything for letting the Alliance experiment on that guy’s wife from the beginning of ME1.

So, Mass Effect 2. That’s a game where I felt like I was making a lot of really important decisions that would affect ME3. But none of them really did matter. Even Arrival. In a way, it would be better if I did not play Arrival. Then I would not have had to doom tens of thousands to death to prevent the Reapers’ early arrival. They just would not come that early. Whee…

And ME1? Well, in both ME1 and 2, I felt like I had a lot of different paths through the games. It all ends the same, though. That’s what bothers me in general about the games. I know games have limited memory and design teams need to spend a lot of time to work on completely different branches. But, in principle, I am waiting for a game where the game can branch and does not end up anywhere near the same place for its ending based on the path you choose. The closest I have seen are in Planescape: Torment and Vanguard Bandits, which give the players extremely different paths or endings based on choices.

Wow, I am not sure what else I want to say about the story. I twas epic. Big fights. Lots of emotional drama. Loved the voice acting. The music score is amazing. I felt like there was a lot of history behind the setting. Characters were often complex and moral decisions often times felt significant. I sometimes struggled between options that felt equally right. The game works in symbolism, love, hatred, revenge, sadness, humor, intrigue, war, horror, and lots of other things. This is a robust game. So, the story: I like it. There are a lot of flaws with it’s ultimate choice progression, but I think it’s a good story beyond that. The failure of the choice progression is a major flaw because it retroactively makes the games worse: choices that the player thought were significant ultimately were insignificant. If I play through the games again, I will be incurious about many of the alternate decisions I could have made because I know what the result is: the same.

Music
Mentioned this already, but worth repeating. I love the game’s sound track. Beautifully orchestrated, fitting for every scene. My favorite song is from the third game: “Leaving Earth”, which gives a powerful feeling of hopelessness and impending doom.

Graphics
Pre~tty. I play an actually new video game once every two or three years, so I get to see an impressive graphics jump. I was still painfully aware of some flaws at times, but they were not a big deal. In the first game, the planets your land rover crosses a variety of landscapes that do not have much texturing to them. The second game has a big problem with objects passing through other solid objects. In the third game, I could still tell that some things were just too smooth, but it was an improvement over the previous couple games. Overall, the graphics started out great and only improved with each iteration.

Combat
I could compare this game to Planescape: Torment for letting the party resolve some events non-violently, but really? You spend a lot of time fighting. Particularly in the third game, where enemies start coming in waves. I began feeling like I wasn’t a clever tactician; I felt more like a rampaging machine of death. I eschewed strategy for endless sweeps of Biotic Charge + Nova, repeat. A lot of that could be because of my strategy, but I do not think either of the first two games had enemies with repeating spawn points that I could camp.

Well, how about some nice things to say about combat? I actually think it improved between games. I much prefer the faster pace of combat in the second and third games. Character classes felt increasingly dissimilar from each other. Despite having the largest set of skills, I do not think the first game did a particularly good job of making the Soldier feel truly distinct from the Vanguard. Instead, I played most of the game feeling like the Vanguard was a poor substitute for the soldier. That could just be from the way I built my Vanguard, but it was not until the second game, where I got Biotic Charge, that I felt like the Vanguard stood out.

Other Thoughts
This actually is one of the finest games I have played. I like the main character’s personality and motivations. The supporting cast is colorful, especially the people who join Shepard’s squad. I really got to know a lot of characters fairly well. The combat was smooth and engaging… well, until the third game, when it all fell apart (Biotic Charge->Nova->Biotic Charge-Nova->Biotic Charge…). It is a pretty game with some depth to its world.

But is it really philosophic? Do we learn anything? I mean, does it have that feel that some really great books and movies have? Or even other games, like Planescape: Torment managed? Mm… I guess that is where it falls apart in the very end. The game feels like a movie for much of it; and it feels like a serious endeavor. It wants to be more than just a game; it wants to be artistic. And, I know, games can be art – but not many go out of their way to capture the cinematic artistic feel (somehow, that sounds way too fancy when I type it out). This one does. And so, it succeeds at that for most of the story, but falters at the very end. So, like any movie or book that would be judged by the merits of its plot strength and its ending, I gotta say that it is good, but has some significant flaws. Maybe that’s because EA influenced the third game when they bought Bioware. Maybe it’s because the writer for the first two games was not the same writer for the third. Maybe they just really did not know how they wanted to wrap up everything, tie it all together. They didn’t do a bad job; I’ve certainly seen bigger plot holes in other media. I guess what makes the flaws significant here is this: this is one of the most high profile video games of all time, and it takes a lot of chances. In many ways, those chances pay off. But it falters here and there. That is just going to happen. Now, that does mean the game isn’t perfect. But it is still also in the lofty realms of deeper storytelling that I have rarely seen in video games. And that is why I like Mass Effect.

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