Monday, August 1, 2011

Mass Effect – Science Fiction RPG Series Done Right

I've made no secret my love for Bioware, so getting around to this was an inevitability. A lot of the games we geeks play and books we read start with the same set of core assumptions, unless they are adapted from a movie/comic/TV show. There's a guy with a sword, he lives in a place that looks and sounds a whole lot like medieval Western Europe, and there is a whole lot of magic flying around as he goes on his version of the heroic journey. That's why I value good original science-fiction so much. I love swords and sorcery, but I don't care what your favorite food is, you can't have it for every meal without becoming tired of it. (Possible exception: bacon, but I digress.) Bioware showed us they could do RPGs outside of the D&D mold with Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Soon after trying out those first non-fantasy settings, they began work on Mass Effect, one of the most well-developed science fiction properties not only in gaming, but anywhere.

This game universe has, quite seriously, been called "This Generation's Star Wars."

After the success of Star Wars: KOTOR, rather than working on the sequel, Bioware suggested another developer to take on part 2 in order to work on other games (specifically, the aforementioned Jade Empire.) The concept was based on some of the core values present in Bioware games, reward exploration and interaction with NPCs in the party, make every decision important and have those choices matter. A game focused on exploring the unknown and encountering strange and wonderful alien things for the first time really couldn't be done in the Star Wars Universe anymore. Those strange and fantastic vistas have been explored, examined and catalogued so much over the last three-plus decades that they are familiar. In order to deliver the kind of experience they wanted to provide to the fans, they'd have to make an entirely new setting.

The setting that resulted is incredibly deep and rich with histories of alien races and their unique cultures and the integration of humanity into an intergalactic society. Humanity has, recently, discovered ancient alien technologies that allowed the use of devices called Mass Relays to perform jumps beyond what conventional space travel was capable of. This increased range brought human colonists to other worlds and into conflict with alien races in a “Contact War” that is ended by the Citadel Council, an intergalactic government headquartered on a massive space station built by the Protheans, the same vanished race whose technology allows for travel through Mass Relays. Humanity is offered associate membership in this government which is headed by three alien races, one of whom is the race humanity nearly engaged in an all-out war.

A few of the many races in the ME Universe. Not Pictured: Elcor, Batarians or Drell.

The Citadel's ruling races are the Asari, the Turians and the Salarians, with a host of associate races having embassies and bringing concerns to the Council, but with little actual power. The Asari are an asexual race who vaguely resemble blue skinned humanoid females who reproduce genetically by combining their own genetic material with others (male or female) of other sentient species. The Turians are an organized and disciplined race of warriors who value public service, the needs of the group over the needs of the individual, and respecting law and order. This last quality is what nearly brought them to all-out war with humans who were unknowingly breaking Citadel Law by activating dormant Mass Relays. The Salarians are a slender and seemingly hyperactive race of scientific and psionic geniuses who talk, think, act and even die quicker than other races, leaving an impact before their 40 year expected lifespans are up through the innovations they develop in their time.

The first Mass Effect game starts with an unusual event, a veteran soldier of the Human Alliance is allowed to join the para-military Citadel Organization called the SPECTRES. Commander Shepard (the player's character) jumps at the chance to be more involved in Citadel Government and being a SPECTRE is like a cross between MI6, CIA and Special Forces. Shepard and his crew are tasked with investigating Saren, a former SPECTRE gone rogue and stop whatever it is he's up to. Shepard and his crew discover secrets about the missing Prothean race and eventually stop Saren at the cost of many lives, but humanity is made a full Council Race. The 2nd game starts with the apparent death and resurrection of Shepard who is rebuilt over the course of years by the shadowy pro-human organization CERBERUS. He is given a new ship and a new mission, to combat The Collectors, an alien race with vastly superior technology who suddenly have started abducting entire human settlements. The connections of secrets revealed between the first two games sets up the trilogy for a final chapter, yet to be released.

Recently, Bioware had a poll on Facebook regarding the new "default" appearance
for the female version of Commander Shepard. This is the lead candidate.

Shepard's gender, appearance, background and character class/specialty are all selected by the player, and choices made throughout the game affect how certain NPCs react to you, and certain decisions have lasting effects throughout the series. The conversation wheel, used later (and perhaps to not the same effectiveness) in Dragon Age 2 was introduced with these games, allowing conversations to have more of a natural and cinematic feel than the text-heavy conversation trees found in other RPGs. Skill with various weapons, technology and the psionic powers called “biotics” allow for different versions of Shepard to play very differently. The NPCs are strong personalities, typical of a Bioware game, setting the stage for drama, friendship, betrayal and romance depending on what happens in your game.

One of the things that is different in Mass Effect is the more action-oriented combat. Instead of a turn-based system or even real-time and pausable to give orders, combat is more similar to a 3rd person, cover-based shooter like Gears of War than a typical RPG. I play for the story, but the combat hasn't turned me away, as I can enjoy either style and still get what I want out of the story. The streamlining of weapons and armor, taking away a traditional inventory and always equipping the best weapons and armor available is something I'm not a huge fan of, but those micromanaged aspects of old-school RPGs are vanishing because there are a lot of people who don't like or want them. The trend towards shorter games found in the Dragon Age series also seems to be the case in Mass Effect. Doing sidequests and optional missions is especially important in Mass Effect 2, not only because the main quest is short compared to the first game, but because the survival of your team may well depend on how thorough your preparations for the final fight are.

I'll mourn the passing of each traditional RPG element that is left by the road as these sorts of games continue to move forward with gamers' tastes, but so long as the stories remain this good, that will be tempered by a celebration of all the other elements that have improved over the years. I, for one, can't wait until they finish and release Mass Effect 3.
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The Angry Lurker said...

I must admit that I like that what you do affects you later on and most actions have consequences.

Alpha said...

KOTOR: So good.

Conspyre said...

I thought the streamlining of the inventory system was a needed change- while I lovelovelove systems that let me choose from a plethora of guns and upgrades and decide how many pockets I want on my vest, the first game just kinda did a shoddy job of it. With the increased focus on action in the sequel, going back to the clunky inventory system would've felt out of place. Plus, I like the iconic appearances of the characters- every time I ended up putting Ashley into black or green armor instead of her classic pink and white, it felt like I was doing the artists a disservice. Sure, in Dragon Age it makes sense that everyone is in dingy steel through the early sections of the game, but the ME setting feels a bit less gritty.

Also, Spectres are totally 40K Inquisitors... Carte blanche to do anything they want, minimal oversight. Pity that if they ever make an Inquisition game now, they'll be "knockoffs of Spectres".

Electric Addict said...

bioware does a good job!

Jay said...

man, i've avoided this game for some time because i knew it would be addicting, but now i think i have to jump in... :D

Unknown said...

I enjoy Mass Effect for its interactive movie experience. It truly has a great story. But even with the choices available for your character it is still severely limited as an RPG, and as an overall game feels really dumbed down for the masses.

Zombie Ad said...

Not played it, but as my other half has played pretty much everything they made, I've experienced them 2nd hand, and they do look and play wonderfully.

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