ATTENTION: SPOILERS INCLUDED
It’s not long now until the third and final installment in the best-selling and award-winning science fiction series Mass Effect is released, so I think it’s a good time to look back and see what makes this game so successful.
The games are described as action role-playing games; basically third-person shooters with role-playing elements, including decision-making that shapes the story. This decision-making affects the story across the installments as well, because you are able to import your character information from the earlier games (a feature that is continued in the latest title, making it possible to continue your character development through all three games). You play Commander Shepard (either male or female, depending on your preference), a human soldier who uncovers the existence of a race of mechanical beings called Reapers. In the first game, a Reaper called Sovereign, aided by a Spectre (SPECial Tactics and REconnaissance) named Saren Arterius, is attempting to open a route for the other Reapers to enter the galaxy and exterminate all sapient organic life. They are aided in this by the Geth, a race of artificially intelligent synthetics, originally created by the Quarian race as servants/slaves. Once this threat is dealt with, the Reapers (in Mass Effect 2) work through a shadowy race called the Collectors, who are kidnapping entire human colonies. Shepard is killed by the Collectors at the start of the game and brought back to life by Cerberus, the human supremacist group responsible for some of the nasty side missions in the first game. You find out that they are not necessarily as evil as they appear, but you decide how much to trust them and work with them. The third game apparently focuses on the final attack of the Reapers as they enter the galaxy determined to exterminate all sentient life. I think it’s fair to say that we can expect a really big fight, especially if the trailer and this screenshot are to be believed!
So why are these games so good? Well, Bioware (also responsible for the Dragon Age series and the recent MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic) have put a lot of work into designing and developing their universe. The locations (while occasionally limited) are well realised and the cut scenes well animated. The voice casting is excellent, with characters voiced by Seth Green, Martin Sheen, Armin Shimerman, Lance Henriksen, Marina Sirtis, Claudia Black, Adam Baldwin, Carrie-Ann Moss, Dwight Schultz and Michael Dorn among many others. It’s like a cult TV/film convention guest list. The bonus is that the voices sound familiar without being distracting, allowing you to immerse yourself into the game without spending time muttering “I know that voice. Who is that? For fuck’s sake, who is it?” and missing half of the plot.
Or is that just me?
The depth of the universe is well demonstrated by the number of non-human races, all of which have their own talents and weaknesses. There are the Asari (blue, pseudo-psychic squid-haired women), Batarians (four-eyed criminals and slavers – very anti-human), Collectors (insectoid bad guys), Drell (lizard people with eidetic memories), Elcor (elephantine and slow speaking, the Elcor state their emotions explicitly to avoid confusion), Geth (sentient machines with a hive-mind), Hanar (religious jellyfish), Krogans (hardcore warrior toads), Quarians (interstellar travellers with poor immune systems and excellent technical skills), Salarians (hyperactive scientists and spies), Turians (honourable raptor-like creatures), Volus (dumpy diving suits), and Vorcha (barely sentient scavengers and fighters). Over the two games so far released, Shepard will build a team featuring several of these races, with recurring characters who come to trust and respect the leadership of the player. Other races have been introduced through the downloadable content, comic books and iOS games: I have focused on the main installments here.
The universe is arranged in star clusters, which Shepard can travel around at will using the galaxy map in his ship (more about that later). Some planets can be landed on, with side missions and main missions taking place in a wide range of environments. In the first game, the player has access to the Mako, a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle armed with autofire weapons and a single shot cannon. This allows Shepard to roam the surface of terrestrial worlds searching for resources to collect and enemies to slap. This vehicle is missing from Mass Effect 2, replaced by a system whereby you scan planets from orbit using the map screen and launch probes to collect resources. This does rob the game of some of the exploratory feel of the original, and makes it feel somehow smaller in scale. However, it does bring me to the next item on my list: The Normandy.
Look at it! Just look at it! Isn’t she beautiful? Sleek and sexy, a design classic! Sorry if I’m getting carried away, but I really love the Normandy. As you play the game, she becomes more than just a vehicle, more than just a base of operations, more than a home, even. She becomes a character in her own right. Which is why the opening scene of ME2 is so heart-breaking. An enormous Collector ship appears from nowhere and blasts the Normandy into scrap, killing Shepard in the process. I don’t mind admitting that it brings a tear to my eye every time I see it, even though I know that Cerberus will bring Shepard back to life and supply him with the SR2 (a slightly redesigned Normandy). It is the design of this ship that helps breathe life into the franchise. The designers could easily have created a functional, practical ship to haul Shepard’s team around the galaxy. Instead, they came up with something iconic. Good for them.
Another area in which the design tem excelled themselves is the armour and weapons. Shepard’s N7 armour has become something of a classic among the fans, and the weapon sets available match the design perfectly. In ME1, you could choose from a range of armour, depending on preference for heavy or light, colour and appearance, but this option was removed for ME2. In the second game you had one set of armour, although you could customize it in terms of colour, pattern and material, as well as purchasing add-ons which altered the appearance and granted combat bonuses.
I am, as I’m sure you have realised, a huge fan of the Mass Effect universe, and I am really looking forward to receiving my copy of ME3 when it is released. But I am a little worried. I hope they have managed to keep the feel of the game. I hope that they have kept the sense of scale. I hope that they haven’t lost the love. If they have turned the game into a bog-standard shooter it will be an enormous disappointment. The well scripted and intricate story is what makes these games great.
They need to keep the promise made by ME1 and 2. If not, it will be a massive tragedy.