Last week, when talking about Skyrim, I mentioned that a number of games outside the RPG genre incorporated elements of RPGs into their games. These included things like skill points, customization, inventory systems, questing, deep stories, dialogue tree and more of the classic RPG tricks.
This week’s entry into the 7 Best may have started life as being a bit more of an RPG than a third-person shooter but evolved into a third-person shooter that retained the strong influence of RPGs. Of course, if I boiled down the Mass Effect Trilogy to a series of gameplay mechanics and the evolution of the mechanics, I’d be missing the whole point of the franchise. Mass Effect’s strong suit and its claim to fame is the story.
BioWare had long had a cult, if a well-sized cult, following before they released Mass Effect. They were considered among the best RPG developers in the world thanks to hits including Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
If anything, you could say that BioWare specialized in a sort of Dungeons & Dragons style of RPG in the video game realm. Combat was turn-based, even if it appeared to be happening in real-time, and combat damage was based on die rolls and modifiers that the game calculated, even if the player couldn’t see the actual calculations playing out in front of them. Beyond the gameplay, BioWare also had a reputation for weaving some of the best narratives in gaming.
For Mass Effect, BioWare left their comfortable D&D roots and went for something a bit more action oriented. The first Mass Effect game went a bit more action. While it wasn’t a pure third-person shooter, it definitely had the look of one with guns, targeting crosshairs and cover mechanics. However, the accuracy and damage of the guns was dictated by a rather intense skill point allocation system. As you leveled up, you earned points to put into skills to level them up. Even if you aimed right on an enemy, there was a bit of luck involved with actually shooting them.
Apart from the RPG-ish aiming mechanics and the inventory system that tended to require as much of your time as actually playing the game, Mass Effect was a massive hit with both critics and fans. As expected for a BioWare game, it was the story that carried the day for Mass Effect. The game dropped you into this massive new universe with its own history and politics happening completely separate of any human intervention. The main characters were all memorable, well-written and well-acted. They were just as important to the enjoyment of the game as anything else.
But the main plot was what had everyone talking. Mass Effect was a game that would change itself to how you played it. Situations and NPC interaction would change based on what you’ve done and previous choices in the game. The dialogue system was a near revolution for the RPG genre with short dialogue snippets around a wheel that gave you the gist of a dialogue option while outlining whether the option would work to continue or end a dialogue with an NPC and where it sat on the moral spectrum that was in ME and a BioWare trademark from KOTOR.
The main plot saw you, as Commander Shepard (who was essentially an avatar for the player and his/her choices), try to stop an impending galactic genocide at the hands of a race of sentient AI creatures, called The Reapers, who wipe out galactic civilization every 50,000 years. No one had previously stopped The Reapers but Shepard knew what was about to happen and wasn’t going to take a galactic apocalypse lying down.
Along the main quest, you’d meet numerous characters. Some would join your crew and become more iconic with fans than Shepard him/herself. Others would be villains, naturally. And others still would fill out a universe that was teeming with life. In addition to the main plot, there were all sorts of side quests that took you across the galaxy. While there were a number of main worlds, you could also explore all number of planets across the galaxy in your ground vehicle (the Mako, which was a pain to drive) and stumble upon side quests that way. With all the quests and galactic exploration, a playthrough of Mass Effect could run upwards of 40 hours.
As Mass Effect was developed out of the gate to be a trilogy, the most important thing BioWare did with the game was allowing for all the choices that the player made to carry through the franchise. While decisions had a noticeable effect at certain points of Mass Effect, it wasn’t until you did multiple playthroughs of ME1 and import them into Mass Effect 2 (and subsequently import that game’s save file into Mass Effect 3) that you realized how much could change as a result of a few different decisions. The result was a game universe that was uniquely yours. Your Shepard’s universe could end of very different than another Shepard’s which made the Mass Effect experience that much more personal and that much more special.
While the Mass Effect series wasn’t really known for big action movie set pieces, they did open Mass Effect with a literal bang before the opening title card. It was a good way to bring in new players and explain all the changes to the Mass Effect universe that BioWare made between ME1 and ME2.
Having had a little time to work on the Unreal 3 engine and integrate feedback from the first game, BioWare made a number of significant changes that made Mass Effect 2 feel like less of an RPG than action title. They added a series of new biotic and tech powers to the game while massively simplifying the levelling system. The inventory system was eliminated for an upgrade system and an on-ship armoury. Most critically, the RPG aiming system was replaced by actual crosshairs, damage to specific body parts was added and actual ammo, instead of a gun overheating mechanic, was introduced for ME2.
While Mass Effect put a lot of time and effort into establishing the history of the galaxy, the themes for the trilogy and the overarching plot, Mass Effect 2 put the Reaper genocide story aside for a more personal story that focused on the various characters that made up the crew of the Normandy. While the meat and potatoes of the plot wasn’t as good as ME1, the characters became iconic and beloved by fans. For example, Tali and Garrus could come off as filling out the numbers in ME1 but were absolute essential and loved characters in Mass Effect 2. The characterization work between the two games was just night and day.
Regardless of your decisions, there was no stopping the Reaper invasion of the galaxy and their attempt to wipe out all advanced life in the galaxy. Having worked quietly to stop the Reaper threat, in Mass Effect 3, Commander Shepard leads the galaxy’s war effort in a last ditch fight to save galactic civilization.
As a stand alone effort, I’m not sure that Mass Effect 3 quite matches either of the first two games as the real emotional impact of the game is largely for people who have built relationships with characters, both major and the most minor of minor, throughout the trilogy. At times, the game really leans on nostalgia and fan services to hit the emotional high and low notes of the game. The fact that it can have such an emotional impact, though, is a testament to the quality of writing of this series.
In addition to the epic story campaign, ME3 also introduced a horde mode multiplayer. While many fans thought the inclusion of the multiplayer was needless and would take away resources from the campaign, it did gain a substantial cult following that played for over a year after launch thanks to weekly community operations and regular free updates to the game that introduces new characters, maps, weapons and enemies. I probably spent more time in multiplayer carrying teams in silver than I did playing the campaign.
As I’ve already mentioned intermittently throughout the post, for the most part, fans and critics alike loved Mass Effect. They loved the story. They loved the characters. They loved the fact that their choices mattered and that they made a difference in how the story played out and what happened to the characters that they loved.
There was one big point of contention that divided the game’s fan base. The ending to Mass Effect 3 was probably one of the most controversial endings to a game in history. The abrupt ending left the fate of the galaxy and Shepard’s crew unknown as the credits rolled. Many fans felt that the endings didn’t make sense, didn’t offer closure and did little to take into account the decisions they made in over 100 hours of gameplay preceding that final decision.
The ending controversy had an effect beyond just BioWare, EA and the game’s fans but as to how we looked at ownership of games. Battle lines were drawn among the fans and media. One side was calling gamers who didn’t like the ending entitled and that changing the game’s ending shouldn’t be changed as it would infringe on BioWare’s artistic integrity. The other side of the argument was gamers who felt their criticisms were justified given how the original ending didn’t fit with the established themes and laws of physics in Mass Effect.
BioWare blinked a bit on this controversy. They released an extended ending that filled in many of the blanks left by the ending and filling in plot holes created by the original final cutscenes. However, they didn’t fundamentally change the ending of the game. It satisfied some gamers but didn’t do much for many others. As such, Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC became a de facto ending for many who weren’t happy with the original ending (myself included). Admittedly, though, BioWare was going to have a hard time making everyone happy with the ending of Mass Effect 3.
And I’ve gone all this way without talking about any of the audio stuff. All of the dialogue in this game was fully voiced and there were plenty of voices you recognized populating the universe. While ME1 may have been a bit short on celebrity voice actors, it certainly had some fantastic acting. The addition of more famous names in ME2 and ME3, like Martin Sheen as The Illusive Man, didn’t disrupt the game at all. Everyone put forward their best effort and the result is some of the best acting in gaming history. It really helps the emotion of the game come across.
Also helping that was the epic score composed by a team that included Jack Wall, Sam Hulick, Sascha Dikiciyan, Cris Velasco and Christopher Lennertz. As the series evolved, so did the music. The first game featured a lot of electronic music inspired by 80s sci-fi movies mixed with a bit of orchestral scoring. By the third game, the soundtrack had become this epic, sweeping, cinematic orchestral score that Hollywood blockbusters would have loved to have. For every bit as good as the other parts of the Mass Effect games were, the music was that much better.
I know that it’s a bit of a cop-out to just throw the whole trilogy on the list of the seven best games of the last generation. I do have EA to thank for that since they did release the trilogy in a $60 box set which I’m going to count as one game since it can be purchased as one item. We’re going to come back to that concept in a few weeks on this list.
I just couldn’t name one specific Mass Effect game as the best. ME1 wasn’t the best Mass Effect from a mechanical stand point but it had a strong story, introduced some great new mechanics and was the game that I credit with getting me back into gaming after high school. ME2 may not have had the story focus that the first game did but it certainly gave us many more interesting characters and cleaned up a lot of the issues from the first game. And Mass Effect 3 may have had a poor ending but it was just a fantastic journey for long-time fans of the series for the preceding 30 hours. Each has their own merits and is just as deserving of inclusion on the list as the other two.
I also have a bit of a personal bias in naming Mass Effect to this list. While I played a lot of games that I loved in elementary school, when I was in high school and university, I just didn’t find any games that really grabbed me. The only ones were RPGs and even then I wasn’t particularly interested in any of them.
When I finished university, there was one game that had a bunch of buzz and was the first game I picked up when I needed a new laptop: Mass Effect. Sure, it had been out on PC for a year by then but it didn’t feel dated. It was just absolutely amazing. I was absorbed by the characters and the story and the whole universe. I just powered through ME1 and straight into ME2. I was absolutely hooked. I’ve poured hundreds, maybe up to 1,000 hours, into the series. I put the blame for getting back into gaming entirely on Mass Effect.
It’s hard for me to synopsize Mass Effect into a single post and explain why it was one of the best games of the last generation and still feel like I’m doing it justice. I honestly could begin and end my own best games of the last generation with the Mass Effect trilogy. For me, Mass Effect was the best that the last generation had to offer.