Rated Mature; Reviewed on PS3 and PC
Part 1 of this series discussed the promise of the game and Part 2 covered the how several of the key game mechanics evolved as the series progressed. In this section I’ll cover the more subjective aspects of character growth, interaction and story evolution.
[Story spoilers will be sprinkled liberally throughout this discussion.]
Mass Effect promised a cohesive character building experience across an epic, multi-year story arc. One in which you could build relationships, both friendships and enmities, and forge a galactic reputation. While the trilogy definitely met many of these goals, in my opinion it often failed to meet them on the scales promised.
The Shepard character (I played as a fiery redheaded woman with heart of gold) was essentially a blank-slate. The superficial choice of background during character creation resulted in none of the options being given any real depth. This was likely done purposefully to allow the player to imprint better on the character but still felt like an unfinished thread. You could define your version of Shepard by selecting “paragon” (good, righteous) or “renegade” (selfish, expedient) conversation options. While these choices significantly altered the direction of your conversations they had very little actual story impact.
The secondary characters were always where the true depth was to be found, but the demands of the essentially linear story ensured that no matter what your decisions were the major events and set-pieces still played out as planned. For obvious reasons the first game was most restrictive here (clearly to prevent small changes from compounding). You were forced to sacrifice either Ashley or Kaiden – which had a negligible effect on the story as they simply became interchangeable in the later games. You also had the option of saving or killing Wrex – one of the better characters in my opinion – whose role could be assumed by his brother in the later games.
In ME2 all bets were off. You had much less interaction with your previous squad mates (thus ensuring the survival of those needed for ME3) and several new characters were introduced giving you plenty of cannon fodder. If played badly you could kill nearly everyone (including yourself) in the end game (although if you killed yourself you also forfeited the option of bringing your ME2 save game into ME3). The events in ME3 would proceed apace with tertiary characters filling the roles of your deceased companions.
The greatest thing encouraging you in this regard is the fact that the companion characters were all genuinely interesting. While they were all a bit clichéd (the soldier, the cynic, the comedian, the innocent and several other well-known tropes) they were also well-written and more importantly featured believable growth across the series. For the most part the characters felt worthy of respect and trust (mostly the trust that we would try to help them not to die).
While Mass Effect 2 introduced the bulk of the characters and provided the most background information it felt the most sterile of the three. Mass Effect had fewer characters and featured them much more prominently in the main story segments. It also provided more distractions. ME2 felt forced. Obtaining each character was the result of a mission followed up by a single “loyalty” mission that added background to the character and, if completed successfully, gave the character a perk. These missions rarely touched on the main plot and the specific “recruitment” then “loyalty” structure gave the preceding an artificial cast as did locking each character into a specific location on the ship. It was also unfortunate that the characters had so little to say in the second game resulting in many (many) repeated “blow off” lines (which led to several self-referential “calibration” jokes in ME3).
Mass Effect 3 got things right. Not only were characters finally not limited to single locations on the ship (indeed, many locations carried over from ME2 were vacant throughout the game) but they finally actually started to talk to each other. It’s difficult to overstate how much more actualized the galaxy seems when you’re not the only one talking to everybody. Wandering the ship in ME2 was a chore – a repetitious round trip of long-load times and auto-doors looking for that next nugget of actual new content. In ME3 it was more organic and significantly more enjoyable.
One of the initially most controversial elements of the first game was the ability to romance companions. While this raised a huge amount of dust about the appropriateness of “sex in video games” there was, in fact, only the barest inference of sex. What Mass Effect did provide was essentially a flirting simulator which resulted in a brief pre-rendered scene implying some “doin’ it”. That the game evolved to include possible alien and homosexual relationships ended up being more important to the media than the gameplay.
My biggest problem with the romance system in Mass Effect is that it really had very little impact to the story. As long as you did your conversation rounds and made the (fairly obvious) correct choices with your romantic interest (only two were available in the first game but the options expanded later) the culmination of the romance was essentially automatic. While romances could be maintained across the three games they felt tacked on at best. The two-year story break that started the second game effectively separated you from your previous romantic interest except for brief meetings (and some shoe-horned video). The second game created more opportunities for romance both with established and new characters as did the third but with more options the depth of each suffered.
While the romance mechanic was one of the more advertised features of the game I personally felt that it fell pretty flat. The entire exercise was interesting but felt less like getting to know another person and more like driving towards a trophy and a few seconds of (barely) titillating video.
The story of Mass Effect was, without equivocation, its greatest single draw. The game featured good combat and interesting characters but the universe in which they existed was what kept people moving forward. While we won’t discuss the ending here (that will be focus of the last part of the series) there is almost nothing negative to be said about the journey.
The overarching story incorporated many themes but the pervasive one was that of acceptance. Acceptance of humans, an upstart race who many thought were demanding more than they deserved. Acceptance of the Krogan who were drawn onto the galactic stage long before they were ready and suffered dearly for their immaturity. Acceptance of the Geth, misunderstood synthetics who maintained a multi-generational war with their Quarian creators. All of these stories, and several others, were explored in-depth throughout the series and while any one of them could have carried the entire series the combination was gloriously overwhelming at times.
The back-story of Mass Effect is, without argument, one of the richest, most compelling creations in the history of gaming. It can only be properly compared to other masterworks like the Fallout series, Halo or the Elder Scrolls for sheer complexity of design. Deeply intertwined, compulsively detailed events with galactic consequences drive the stories being told and because they are so very well constructed everything seems natural. Like Bioware’s other great epic, “Dragon Age”, its clear that significant effort was made on the setting and back story before the details of the actual game were finalized. The game feels so logical because it’s positioned so firmly in a universe that was created to hold it.
That fact that your one small character has the opputunity to address or correct nearly every major misstep made over the past three thousand years while simultaneously battling a threat billions of years old may seem odd to some, but Bioware did promise “epic”!
The next, and last, installment of the series will focus on the main arc of the story and the controversial ending which (preview!) ruined it all.