What do you mean you’ve never heard of Mass Effect? Its messianic plotline? Its cross-galactic scale? Its wedding of RPG, third-person shooter, and dating sim genres? I feel crazy writing this, but if you’re getting a Wii U and haven’t yet touched this BioWare-made, EA-published trilogy, maybe it gains relevance. No Nintendo platform has ever been home to any BioWare game. With Mass Effect 3 making the leap to Wii U, that’s finally set to change. The Canadian developer is synonymous with top-flight RPGs, a group of universes compelling enough for their makers to keep adding to them rather than delving into new franchises.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a quick look back at one of BioWare’s other rather excellent titles, Knights of the Old Republic, which the Mass Effect series builds on. Released in 2003, KOTOR was a kick-ass RPG faithfully based on the d20 System and served as a prequel to the Star Wars saga we all know and love. You customize the physical appearance and class of your human protagonist, explore Star Wars locales in real time, and if an enemy pops up then the combat becomes more or less turn-based, pausing automatically for you to queue up a series of actions. When you aren’t doing that, you’re running around your safe hubs or the greater environments they belong to, making ethical decisions at every turn, and engaging in relationship-building dialogue with your squad mates.
Mass Effect twists that formula a bit, allowing you to pause combat only when you feel like it, tasking you with fewer equipment duties, and making mopey conversations a little less imposed. The series starts off in the year 2183, casting you as Commander Shepard, the human savior of organic life. The threat is a race of mechanical beings called the Reapers. Every 50,000 years for the past 37 million, they’ve succeeded in eradicating… everything.
You’ll meet plenty of colourful characters along the way in the Mass Effect series.
So the table is certainly set before you even pick up a controller and play, but Mass Effect wears its typical super-soldier plot rather well, as saving the world goes hand in hand with living and learning it. It falls squarely under the hard sci-fi banner, but even though it’s often preoccupied with providing scientific backing for everything, BioWare were wonderfully creative within the limitation. Ability sets (biotic and tech, for instance) play out like a fantasy game’s schools of magic, always providing explanations for weapons upgrades, or short geo-historical blurbs on each and every planet you fly past, and it all works to confer the feeling that it’s a big, big world you’re working so hard to save.
This hits hardest through the series’ ambitious cosmopolitanism. Humans make only one of the galaxy’s sentient species, and each is endowed with histories, values, and reputed specialities. They’re also linguistically consistent. Give a Mass Effect fan a name and chances are they can tell you whether it be of Turian, Quarian, or Krogan ilk. Saving the world is often a matter of bringing these peoples together against the greater Reaper threat, but you’ll also be tasked with a wealth of choices when speaking with NPCs– some of which might seem to matter more than others until the repercussions play out. Much of Mass Effect’s appeal is in its branching plot-lines, its loaded decisions, and the resulting fact that no two players are experiencing the same intrigue.
Play out one particular dialogue tree correctly, and you can give a news reporter your best right hook!
Admittedly, it’s a lot for one game to pack in, let alone a trilogy, and Mass Effect’s evolution is often seen as something of an identity crisis: the first game was closer to an RPG than a shooter, the second did away with most of the stats and spreadsheets, and the third happily sits somewhere in between.
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