As a TV-phile, movie buff and comics fan, I demand a strong story and and well-developed characters before I become a fan of a title. But as a video game player, I have found that these things tend to be lacking in most games. Sure there may be some vague reason for your character to do and say the things he does, but it’s really just an excuse to get you to the next level/puzzle/map.
One game developer has built a reputation for putting story telling at the forefront of their games and has found a golden grail of gaming markets. BioWare is responsible from some of the best stories to grace video games as far back as Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Neverwinter Nights (2002) and Knights Of The Old Republic (2003). These titles are legends among gamers and this year they have released their greatest and arguably best RPG (Role Playing Game) to date.
Using a similar style as Knights Of The Old Republic, Mass Effect is a combat oriented role playing game with the player taking the role of Commander Shepard. However it’s left almost completely up to the player as to “Who” and “What” Commander Shepard is. Aside from being a Human (which is essential to the storyline) the rest is wide open. The player sets the gender, physical looks and Military Specialization (aka Class) and also determines how Shepard will react in almost every situation and conversation in the game.
The combat system is very easy to pick up and can be scaled to fit most any player’s abilities. Casual gamers will not have a problem with the lower difficulty settings or it can be cranked up to provide a challenge to most any seasoned players. Plus there’s the tried and true “save game” right before a big fire fight just in case. Depending on the chosen class, Shepard will shoot, use his biotics (think telekinesis) or his tech (more like a magic system) to take down the enemies. There are quite a few battles to be fought, it is a video game after all. Thankfully the combat never gets stale. With races against time, conversations in the middle of a fight and other things happening in the world around Shepard and his crew, it never becomes boring.
The real star of the show in this franchise is the story and character development, those all important elements most of us look for in other entertainment. It’s very easy to get sucked into Shepard’s world and his (as well as humanity’s) plight. In this universe, alien races are dominant and humans are seen as a race that has just started to gain its sea legs. Most of the aliens don’t take humans very seriously. It’s up to you to change that perception. Along the way, you’ll also have to decide who lives and dies on your crew. With each of your crew members having their own background, personalities, specializations and relationship to Shepard, this is often a gut wrenching choice.
Currently Mass Effect has two chapters out with a third (and final?) due out in 2011. In the original Mass Effect, the player becomes the first human to hold the title of Specter, an intergalactic multi-alien task force of honor bound warriors. As you gain your crew and learn what is really going on in the universe, the story starts to snowball. At one point during the story, you’ll have the entirety of an alien race looking to you for survival or utter annihilation. By the end of the game the race for survival is fully underway, but far from over.
Mass Effect 2 opens with a tutorial section and a video that left this reviewer slack jawed and stunned. The combat system and user interface for the second chapter is greatly improved, as are the textures and quality of animation. But again the draw remains this incredible story about one person’s fight for the survival of his species and indeed most sentient species. As with the original, a crew must be assembled, this time from a much larger selection than in the original game. You and your crew then take helm of a ship and try to stop the invading forces.
By providing a great deal of control over the central character, even before much of the story is known, Mass Effect gets the player deeply involved from the beginning. Since most players are going to create someone physically attractive (which is fairly easy to do with the customization system), they will have a natural bond to start. Once the player starts making decisions and building relationships, that bond becomes even stronger. Once a situation is thrown up where they have to decide who lives and who dies, it matters. In most video games you just hit the Start button and respawn. In Mass Effect, when a character dies, they usually stay that way.
The player input does not end there. It’s possible to play Mass Effect 1 and make the decisions that effect things even far into the storyline of Mass Effect 2. I’ve played the game several times from opening to ending and gotten different cut scenes, conversations and even different outcomes of battles based on the decisions my character made, sometimes much earlier in the game. There simply is not another game on the market that lets the player have that large of an impact on the actual storyline, while also having a storyline that is as well written as this one.
If this sounds a lot like some large budget space opera motion picture, you aren’t far off. The cast of this particular space opera is a geeks dream come true. Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Seth Green, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Adam Baldwin, Yvonne Strahvshi, Martin Sheen, Tricia Helfer, Carrie-Ann Moss, Michael Dorn, Brian Bloom and Marina Sirtis all have major roles in the game. Well known voice actors Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer carry the duties of voicing Shepard (female and male, respectively). Think of the budget you would need to hire all of those actors as well as the CGI to make a universe like this come alive. Yet, BioWare did it their way and made it approachable to anyone who can swing a mouse and knows what WASD is.
There is downloadable content available for both titles, although the original Mass Effect’s DLC is now free. Mass Effect 2 separated the vehicle missions out of the core game and into DLC, but honestly they are not worth it. What is worthwhile are the two DLC characters that add to your party roster. Kasumi the master thief and Zaeed the old Commando both offer really nice back stories and Kasumi is a must on just about any team. The rest of the DLC offerings have been scarce, although The Shadow Broker adds a new chapter that I have yet to have a chance to play through. If they treat this game like the others that have had DLC, they will soon release a “complete” edition that includes it all for one price.
With Mass Effect 3 several months away and the prices on both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 dropping to affordable levels, this is the perfect time to check out the best sci-fi epic since Star Wars. Both titles are available for Windows PC. Mass Effect 2 is also on Xbox360 and coming soon for PS3.
There is a four issue comic that fills in some blanks from the opening of Mass Effect 2, available on BioWare’s website . Well worth the read for fans and newcomers alike.
Liam’s email addy is theclocktower at gmail dot com