Friday, April 6, 2012

The Weight of the Galaxy

Mass EffectThe third and final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy came out  last month. If you're anything like me, you've known this for quite some time; any mention of it had you salivating like Pavlov's dog. But it wouldn't be enough for you to just play it. No, you'd need to once again fully immerse yourself in this universe.

The best way to do that? Start a new character and play through the first two, in order, back to back. And that's exactly what I did.

Mass Effect itself is one of the best games I've ever played. To get it out of the way, let's first talk about its problems: the battles are clunky, the AI is stupid, and the equipment system is tedious. Ok, done, let's talk about the rest of it now.

I should note: a lot of this was influenced by a stellar post over at popbioethics. I don't fully agree with the post, but it makes a lot of good points.

To begin, Mass Effect is one of the most true role-playing games out there. They did a great job of supplying a system where you always have multiple choices, and depending on what you do has definitive ramifications down the line. And it's not just whether or not you complete a task, but often how you complete a task. Which gets me into the reputation system: are you a just, lawful hero, or a ruthless, chaotic anti-hero? Your decisions affect what's available and how you're treated. This allows it to be extremely immersive; you're no longer watching a movie with some interaction, you are instead crafting the main character to such an extent that they become an extension of yourself.

Next, the environment: instead of a universe where humanity is the status quo, Mass Effect throws you into one where humanity is brand new on the scene. Humanity's viewed as a second-class race, not important and still too focused on its own insignificant problems compared to the issues affecting the galaxy. It's not dystopian: there's a galactic government which oversees most of the "civilized" areas of the galaxy. But it's far from utopian, as the highest power of the government, the Council, is shared by three races, the rest of which are vying for inclusion in that elite club.

Not only that, but as popbioethics pointed out, this is a universe where things have gone horribly wrong. One race, the savage Krogan, is on the brink of extinction thanks to two of the Council races, the scientific Salarians and the militaristic Turians. That happened after the Krogan extinguished the bug-like Rachni on the Council's behalf. Meanwhile the technological Quarians have been evicted from their homeworld by the Geth, an AI race and the Quarians' former servant cyborgs. Then there's the Batarians, a race which still thrives on a caste system and slaving.

Among all this, the most advanced technology in the galaxy is the Mass Relay: a mass transit device which has allowed space-faring races to traverse the galaxy instantaneously. Without these, colonization and expansion would be slow-going and extremely difficult. Unfortunately this technology has only been co-opted by each race, as it was seemingly left over by the Protheans, an extremely advanced race that went extinct for unknown reasons 50,000 years earlier. So it's also a galaxy where all races have come to depend on a crucial piece of technology of fully foreign design.

And yet there you are, you little human, with your human problems, trying to understand the chaos which is the Milky Way.

Of course, the game doesn't tell you all of this at once, it's introduced to you as you work your way through the main plot. You start with a simple mission: examine and retrieve a Prothean artifact found on a human colony. Of course what seems simple is anything but (like every other RPG out there). Instead by the end you're in a battle for the survival of all civilized life in the galaxy.

Your villain? Saren, a rogue "Spectre" (special agent for the Council, think Trevelyan from Goldeneye), who is for some reason working with the Geth and travels in a giant dreadnought of unknown design called Sovereign. As you work through the game you realize Saren is controlling people with Indoctrination and wants to learn as much as he can about the Protheans.

[caption id="attachment_1059" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="That's no ship. It's a Reaper!"][/caption]

But wait! Sovereign's not a ship, it's a Reaper! And the Mass Relays weren't left by the Protheans! They were left by the Reapers to control the technological paths each race would take when they were discovered! The galaxy is a giant trap, and the Reapers want to kill us all! OMG! THE CITADEL IS OUR DOOM!

Yes, that's pretty much how quickly everything spirals out of control: The Citadel, the center of galactic civilization and also thought to be left behind by the Protheans, is actually Reaper technology as well. In fact, it's a Mass Relay itself; it opens to the space between galaxies, where the Reapers are waiting to begin their assault on the civilizations of the Milky Way. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, don't let the Reapers invade the galaxy and kill everyone!

Trust me, it's a powerful storyline, with betrayal, intrigue, and action. Plus tons of sideplots to fill out the fictional universe. Overall, this is a decidedly one of my favorite games.

Then came Mass Effect 2, a game which you start by dying. That's right, Bioware wasn't pulling any punches; they kill you off within 5 minutes. Of course you don't stay dead, but it gives the plot a reason to take your character somewhere he'd never be otherwise: in the hands of a terrorist organization called Cerberus. There were a few missions involving their inhumane operations in Mass Effect, but this makes you one of them. Your goal: stop the Reapers' plans, again. And that's exactly why Cerberus brought you back. Overall though, this is a pretty nice twist for the second game, as it puts your character in a place they shouldn't be, yet the events make it believable he would be there.

The second game improves on all those things that made the first one annoying: Fighting is much simpler and more streamlined. They tossed the crappy inventory altogether. And the AI really improved a lot.

Even better, they didn't lose much at all. I won't go into plot details on this one, mainly because this post is huge already and touching the awesomeness in chapter 2 *cough*Legion, Thane, Grunt, Samara, Garrus, Tali, Zaeed, Kasumi*cough* would make this post be 3 times longer.  The missions are still great though, the plot has just as many twists and turns, and overall it's still a great game. My one problem with Mass Effect 2 when compared to Mass Effect: the enemy Harbinger (another Reaper) just isn't as cool as Saren. Plus the final battle with a "Human Reaper" was just lame (someone had a bad trip when they came up with that idea).

Again though, Bioware delivered what they'd set out to deliver, a game which was more fun and more engrossing than Mass Effect: and lost none of the charm.

Oh look, it's the end of the post and I didn't get to talk about Mass Effect 3. Darn. I'll have to get at it another time, I guess.

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