When Commander Shepard set out in 2007’s Mass Effect to establish humanity’s place in the cosmos and protect our species from extinction, no one knew if a video game could deliver a science-fiction saga to rival the best of television and film.
Now the question is whether the Hollywood of 2012 can keep up with Mass Effect.
With the release earlier this month of Mass Effect 3, BioWare, the developer of this video game franchise, has delivered a compelling conclusion to a galaxy-spanning adventure that belongs in the sci-fi pantheon.
From its cinematic visual presentation; to the intimate characterizations of dozens of friends, allies and enemies; to the taut combat sequences, Mass Effect 3 draws players into a universe even George Lucas could appreciate. In fact, Mass Effect 3 is far more polished than Star Wars: The Old Republic, the multiplayer online game BioWare introduced in December.
Storytelling and immersive characterizations have long been BioWare’s trademark, and Mass Effect’s story of how you, as Commander Shepard, decide to shape the future of all sentient life is deeply personal. If you have played the previous games, hundreds of decisions you have made in the past will help determine how the story ends. As the credits rolled after about 50 hours, I found myself steeped in appreciation for how BioWare’s game developers had made so many wrinkles of the story my own.
If you have not played the earlier games, you can start from scratch, but you’ll miss much of the game’s emotional resonance. BioWare has tried to ease the transition for new players by basically boiling down the story to “man versus space robots,” but beginning the trilogy with Mass Effect 3 is akin to jumping into the Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings series at the end.
In the first game, humanity was the new kid on the galactic block, struggling for respect as a freshly spacefaring species. As Commander Shepard, you discovered that not only humanity but also all intelligent life was under threat from an insecto-mechanical enemy called the Reapers.
Similarly, perhaps, BioWare was known as a company that made thoughtful role-playing adventure games like Baldur’s Gate and Jade Empire and that was struggling for respect among run-and-gun action fans.
Narratively, the first game was a revelation: deep, mature and engaging. But mechanically, it suffered from trying to shoehorn too many role-playing conventions (like managing inventory) into a running-and-shooting style.
With the second installment, BioWare overcompensated by going to an almost purely action-based style. That made Mass Effect 2 more streamlined but ultimately less tactically interesting. And narratively, the second game felt a bit like a holding pattern, a mere waystation between discovering the big, bad threat in the first game and the promised opportunity to destroy it in the third.
Fortunately, the final chapter brings all of the ingredients together into a gripping, coherent triumph. Perhaps most brilliant, Mass Effect 3 offers players three distinct modes: rather than continue to vacillate among competing concepts of game design, BioWare devoted the resources required to let players actually choose what sort of game they want to play.
So if you don’t want to get bogged down with all of those pesky conversations — you know, all that mushy, ethical handwringing about how ruthless you’re willing to be as you save humanity — play in action mode and just concentrate on pulling the trigger. But wait. If you actually enjoy exploring complex characters with varying, competing motivations but can’t hit the broad side of a dreadnaught? Play in story mode and breeze through combat.