I can’t think of the last time I put 200 hours into anything. Granted, most sports games don’t have hour counters – if that was the case, I think the period of time I was doped up during my ankle injury in May might have gotten me halfway there with NHL ’13 – but I am not the kind of person, especially as I age, to put that many hours into a game, or a series. Simply put, if I’m going to devote that much of my pitifully small free time into something, it better be worth it.
Mass Effect, as a series, was worth it. Further, 200 hours might be conservative; this doesn’t count the hours put in online.
I’m just going to throw words at the wall and see what sticks. What results might not be something I put on my “best articles” portfolio, but hopefully, it will begin to encompass the many thoughts that my months upon months of playing Mass Effect have placed into my head. In short, this is written more or less for the three friends who have followed along with me than it is for a larger readership.
Before I go on, THIS WILL NOT BE A SPOILER-FREE POST, AND I WILL DISCUSS THE ENDINGS. If that bothers you, stop reading NOW. But thanks for the click nonetheless!
It’s very easy to put yourself into these games as the hero; after all, it’s how Commander Shepard was designed. Ultimately, Shepard is the avatar. But, when I first went through Mass Effect on the 360 for the sake of my “RPG Night” livestreams, I somewhat humorously created a female Shepard. Why would I do that? Simple reason, and I quote: “I want to play as someone I would want to fuck”. So I basically created myself, as an attractive woman who generally made the same decisions that I would. When I got the trilogy on PS3, I actually replayed ME1, making most of the same decisions that I made in the prior game, with two exceptions: I saved the Rachni this time, and instead of killing off Ashley Williams at Virmire, I killed off Kaidan Alenko. FemBus!Shep came back.
But as I started playing through the game, the idea that “lol it’s a Shepard I’d fuck” went away. In my initial play through of ME1, I actually mated with Kaidan. At one time, I would have been a little weirded out at the thought of sleeping with a man, and yet here I was, via my avatar, sleeping with a man. In fact, I picked Liara in my second play through of the original less because I knew Kaidan was going to die in Virmire and more just to have a secondary option.
Naturally, due to what some would call my “predilection” towards lesbians, my Shepard showed much more interest in women in the later games. I adored Kelly Chambers’ flirty ways in ME2 and “paired” with her (though pairing with her doesn’t earn the Paramour achievement), and dove headfirst – literally – into Samantha Traynor in ME3, with enough verve towards both of my personal assistants that I’m sure Mel is reading this and wondering if I ever hit on her. However, what surprised me as much as anyone else who followed my exploits on Twitter was that my interest was far less in seeing my “fuckable” Shepard with a hot woman than it was my interest in both characters. In fact, in ME3, just before taking on the Cerberus base, my Shepard spent one more night in bed with Traynor, and they both woke up in their underwear. Hot scene, right? Only I wasn’t titilated; in fact, it best analogy I can think of is that I felt like I walked in on my sister having sex. Having sex with a blazing hot Indian woman who I’d definitely boff, mind, but it was disconcerting.
Nothing speaks to the immersion of playing this series better than that. For someone who is meant to be an avatar of the player, Commander Shepard was brilliantly developed throughout the series. In the first game, she admittedly felt like the hero of a summer popcorn flick; she was indestructible, felt no pain, and stood above literally everything that fell in her path. In very few circumstances did I ever feel legitimately threatened, or feel that Shepard was anything more than the most impressive human being on the face of anything, ever. The second game added some human elements to the character, as well as a layer of depth. She started drinking more. She could make mistakes that could get crew members killed. The added development was welcome. By the third game, after three years of saving the galaxy and her biggest obstacle in front of her, some cracks in the Commander Shepard facade finally started to show. Instead of being the superhero, she started making mistakes, and worse, started feeling the pressure of those mistakes more. Her mental state seemed to be breaking down by the end of the game in some cases, as both her dreams and the way she dealt with subordinates started to be affected. In short, Commander Shepard was human. Still an supremely powerful human capable of almost miraculous feats of marital and political might, but a human nonetheless.
In a sense, I’m actually glad I played through as a female Shepard, because it would actually take some of my immersion out of it seeing myself as a “male” Shepard, and then hearing someone else’s voice in the place of my own. It also helps that Jennifer Hale’s work as Fem!Shep is maybe the greatest bit of voice acting in the history of this medium. In a sense, her voice became mine, in a way that Mark Meer’s could never be (through no fault of his own). I simply cannot overstate how amazing Jennifer’s work was.
If there’s one thing I wish, it’s that they gave Fem!Shep enough of her own personality to differentiate herself from the male counterpart. I’ve heard it argued recently that the only reason Fem!Shep even exists is just to be a carbon copy of the male version for people who want to play that, and though I think Bioware did a decent job of making her her own person, I think more work could have been done there. I believe a lot of the blame for this relatively minor complain goes to the marketing department, for sticking the male Shepard on every part of the games’ marketing until ME3 came along and they decided to acknowledge that the female counterpart existed. In fact, when I first started playing Mass Effect on the 360, I didn’t know at first glance that I could even play a female. Their reasoning for this is that it’s “easier” for consumers to revolve around one standard Shepard, and that would be more believable if that one Shepard wasn’t the same grizzly, square-jawed hero that has been at the forefront of every single AAA game for the past decade. In short, the marketing team copped out without even paying lip service to the whole “female protagonists don’t sell” nonsense.
It’s hard to pull off having an immersive character that also happens to be the player’s avatar, where you’re playing yourself, but also playing another person in a world you can only affect in certain ways. Bioware pulled it off. However, it’s nice to see that Shepard had a little help from her friends…
It’s hard to believe that, for a role playing game set hundreds of years in the future where humanity lives daily with “alien” races – an ironic term, considering the fact that to the Asari and Salarians, humans are the so-called “aliens” – playing with such a diverse cast of characters feels so natural. It’s more than simply taking aliens into combat, because there, it doesn’t matter who’s who; everyone has a gun, and everyone can shoot. I didn’t get into Mass Effect because of its combat style; it’s really just another third person shooter in that regard. What kept me going was the amazing writing contained within all three games.
Obviously, some characters are going to be stronger than others from a narrative standpoint; not everyone is going to be put onto a “greatest characters” list. But even the ones that I found boring or standard issue had both an important part in the overreaching story, and enough to separate themselves from being complete caricatures. A couple of examples come out of the first two characters seen in Mass Effect 2, Jacob Taylor and Miranda Lawson. On the surface, there’s really not much there; Miranda is the perfect everything, even if she’s genetically altered, and Jacob is the jive-talking soldier who somehow, despite living in space his entire life, manages to maintain much of the vernacular and mannerisms of the black guy in a “buddy cop” movie from the 90s. The old chief can’t get over this newer, hipper police officer and all his “boo-yeahs”, it’s hilarious!
However, and thankfully, the writers added enough to everyone to keep me from being bored with them. Miranda’s fierce loyalty to her sister, which finally manifests itself in one of the final stages of Mass Effect 3 (assuming everything goes right), is enough to impress almost any jaded player. Jacob’s battles with daddy issues have been dealt with better by other mediums, but it was his relationship with the scientist that led to her getting pregnant that touched me. Maybe Jacob is an all too common caricature, but at least here, he’s a believable one that fits in.
So far, I’ve talked about characters I didn’t particularly care for, but the ones that I did like were beyond memorable. Kimberly Wallace of Game Informer did a feature on the best characters Bioware games have given us, and it’s no surprise that the two from Mass Effect that appear on that list are my favourites. Many friends criticized me for not entering into a romance with Garrus Vakarian, and I defended my decision at the time along two lines: Kelly Chambers is hot and boffable, and Samantha Traynor is *REALLY* hot and *REALLY* boffable. However, having played through the game with a little bit of perspective, I have a third line of defence: I don’t want to go *there* with my best friend. Kim referred to Garrus as the “bro of all bros”, and you just don’t sleep with your bro, bro. To use a tired term that will surely get Tumblr mad at me, I’ve “friendzoned” Garrus.
And then… there’s Mordin Solis.
Mordin Solis is, simply put, an exercise in contradiction. The doctor with the funny way of speaking, who is also a former special forces operative, can both heal and kill, but does it in a way that is humourous and endearing at the same time. I didn’t quite know what to make of Mordin at first, but he grew on me very quickly, to the point where he very quickly became my favourite character to interact with. At times a ballast, and at times almost a fatherly figure to the crew – check out his helping to ensure that a hookup between a male Shepard and Tali goes without getting her killed – he’s also a good soldier that endears himself to everyone.
Then he starts singing.
Characters make every role playing game enjoyable. The greatest story ever told is barely tolerable if the people playing it out aren’t interesting. Mass Effect did something more: they had a great story that was made five times better by having such wonderful characters to share the experience with.
When I went from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2, I complained a little bit because I lost a lot of the RPG niceties that I appreciated so much in the first game for a much more simplistic stat management system. In exchange for that, targeted shots became more important, and more damaging head shots became possible. Also, the sniper rifle became God’s gift to shooting and the shotgun became nerfed.
Needless to say, at first, I wasn’t happy. But a few hours later, I was wondering how I played ME1 in the first place.
I still wish that stat management in the latter two games – particularly ME2 – was better. I miss that a lot of those old skills are gone, but the way to play the game – the act of shooting people – greatly improved. The shooting parts of the game felt like actual shooting parts. I felt like I was going into different places, instead of the same three dungeons over and over again. These were things that I didn’t mind as I played through the first game, but I don’t know if I could go back after beating the other two.
With all of these platitudes I’ve given this series, there are a few things that annoy me. Most of them revolve around the simple passing of time regarding all console games.
Let me break down what the three games have in terms of options.
Mass Effect 1: Extensive RPG options, and gameplay options more tailored to being an RPG.. Very little DLC, but it’s affordable, and in this case, included with the package. No online options.
Mass Effect 2: More DLC. More frivolous DLC. No online options, but you can buy extra guns to help out, and a small comic in case you didn’t play the first game. Definitely a shooting game now.
Mass Effect 3: Ridiculous amount of DLC ($50 worth just to get the missions, let alone any gun/appearance packs). One of the DLC packs was required to get a key character. Online play not only exists, but for awhile was forced to get the better endings. Online play also features a way to pay-to-win via updates with real world money. The game is now tied into other forms of media, including mobile. Even more emphasis is paid to the shooting aspects.
It should be noted that the first game was released in 2006 – virtually a launch title – and the last one was released in 2011. In that time, console gaming drastically changed. Gone was the day when a company would release a $60 game and only follow it up with some expansion set-quality DLC. By 2011, companies were learning the spending habits of their customers, and they said that their customers could be coerced into buying even temporary DLC that had no effect on the real game. Hence, the DLC for the online portion of the game, which mirrored that seen in some of EA’s sports titles. Since online play was necessary (upon release) in order to get any of the better endings to Mass Effect 3, there was a strong incentive to buy some of the DLC packs for the online campaign early, in addition to Javik’s DLC and everything else. By 2011, the $60 price of a game was largely being viewed as some kind of perverse entrance fee, only to be used for the right to spend more money. I would be lying if I said the perception that EA had their hands constantly in my wallet didn’t affect my enjoyment ever so slightly; it’s hard to be having 100% fun when you’re watching your back all the time.
Maybe the “evolution” of console gaming in regards to Mass Effect isn’t quite as intense as it was for Dead Space, but it’s definitely noticeable for anyone paying attention.
Of course, that brought us to the ultimate niggle for some…
Everyone hated the ending. Some people even sued EA regarding the ending. It became a major controversy because everything in video games is a major controversy due to the extreme amount of navel gazing that goes on, a controversy that the release of the “extended cut” DLC didn’t fix.1 In fact, to give a backdrop of my thoughts on the actual ending, let’s go back to my thoughts on the controversy as it was happening:
The reaction to this ending has been absolutely maddening. While I haven’t seen the ending, something tells me it’s not a happy one. Also, while I guess there could be some criticism that there aren’t multiple ending arcs (from the sounds of it), petitioning to change the ending and getting the Federal Trade Commission involved is absolutely ludicrous, and the people behind these moves should be mocked, shunned, whatever. Someone on Twitter made the comparison that the trouble with Capcom is that they intentionally alienate their hardcore base, while the trouble with BioWare is that they cater to their hardcore base. With things like this happening, gamers are dangerously close to moving BioWare into becoming the company that changedDevil May Cry specifically to piss off their fans, cancelled Mega Man because of a beancounter’s decision, and whose top grossing game is a Zynga wannabe.
What I don’t understand is this: when you bought Mass Effect and jumped into those games, you decided that you were behind the creative direction of the game. You were down with the vision of the people that wrote what is, ostensibly, a masterpiece of a trilogy. I’ve seen endings in both movies and games that I didn’t care for, and at the time, it’s a frustrating thing. But sometimes, frustration is just what happens. That’s the intention. Imagine where you’re watching someone try to save the planet with a group of people you’ve grown to know and like, and in the end, no matter the good intentions and good moves of everyone involved, it doesn’t matter: everyone dies, viscerally and painfully, and then the world is literally destroyed anyway by the very enemy they were trying to defeat. I don’t know if that’s what happened in Mass Effect 3, but it’s definitely what happened in Space Runaway Ideon, a 1980′s anime by Yoshiyuki Tomino that was produced immediately after the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Thirty-nine episodes, and it didn’t matter because everyone died anyway. Frustrating? Yes. Sad? Incredibly. But sometimes, that’s the lesson: war fucking sucks.
If you’re too selfish and entitled to grasp that might be the lesson out of all this—again, I don’t know—then you deserve to be mocked. Just don’t screw up my games going forward by making these companies risk averse.
In short: I had made an assumption, having never played the prior games to that point, that the ending was very, very negative, the equivalent of Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies2. Of course, we all know the endings by now: one where Shepard destroys the Reapers (I’m going on the assumption that this is with max readiness), one where she controls them, and the third one where she basically *becomes* them, or as I like to call it, the Madoka Sheperda ending.
What’s notable is that I didn’t get any of those the first time. That’s right, I was one of the assholes who resisted the Catalyst – a policy that has served me for literally the entire 200 hours before that choice had to be made, then suddenly stopped working at the 200 hour and one minute mark – and watched as everything I worked for – including my ship – went up in flames, just like that. Poof. Talk about unsatisfying endings, NOW the game wants to get picky?
The second time around, I decided to go with Synthesis, which morphs Shepard into some love ray – that’s honestly the best way I can describe it – which literally evolves humanity into some kind of human/machine hybrid, with glowing bodies and stuff.
Everyone hated it. Everyone hated all three endings, in all honesty.
I am… ambivalent. But I can definitely see where Bioware was going, and commend them for their verve.
On the one hand, I felt at the end like all of the fighting I did, ultimately, was meaningless for the most part. Eden Prime, Virmire, Ilon, the Suicide Mission, assaulting the Cerberus base, everything I’d done to that point felt wholly insignificant, and it’s affecting an attempted second playthrough of the game. What’s the point? I know that it’s not going to mean anything. Everything I – as Shepard – love is going to be without me, and I will get no reward at the end of it, other than maybe watching over my creation or, in the Control ending, actually moving machinery around like chess pieces. Yes, I saved humanity, but couldn’t I have saved myself? Did I really have to become a God? After watching Shepard’s humanity play out in the third game, for better or worse, to become the literal embodiment of human evolution is far-fetched, even for this game.
If anything, a part of Shepard’s humanity – fatigue – is what I believe to be the main reason for a lot of the plot holes in the last game. It’s understandable, considering a game of this scale and while fighting the changing tides of making money on console gaming, for some wires to get crossed. That effect played out the hardest when it came to dealing with Cerberus. Throughout the second game, the once simple Cerberus group was given a lot of depth, opening up a lot of gray areas in regards to their motives and their actions, leading the player to constantly question the morality of their actions and to decide if the ends really did justify the means. By the third game, however, they were not only back to being a moustache-twirlingly evil group, but they had gone beyond even the actions of the first game, killing pretty much anyone in their way, humans included. When explanations came up, much like with what Ambassador Udina did during the attempted coup of the Citadel, the answer amounted to the game throwing up its hands and saying something about indoctrination. They might as well have just called it Kryptonite. I won’t say it’s lazy – you don’t make games like this by being lazy – but I will say that it seems like the development team threw its hands up a few times and said “fuck it”.
I said before that my feeling that everything I did over 200 hours was eventually meaningless. However, I wonder if that was the point. We’d been led to believe that the Reapers were completely unbeatable by conventional means, and that even the best work that could have been done might not have been enough. It turns out, that was true, and then some. It took the science fictional equivalent of magic to finally remove the threat.
The number one impression I got, however, was that the ending was trying to teach us, albeit in a somewhat preachy way, about the value of both evolving one’s personal thoughts and about trying to get along with those of a different colour or race. This really comes through in the synthesis ending, which has the double effect of overriding some of the larger Renegade decisions (I.E.: it cures the Genophage)3, and while a happyish ending is nice, it feels forced, like everything had to hit certain checkmarks.
Overall, it was nice to see an ending that incorporated so many choices through so many of the series’ games, but I couldn’t say I was left satisfied by the ending to Mass Effect 3. With that said, I definitely get it. I understand the intention, and think the people who were screaming their heads off are dumber than ever. Of course they are; they’re gamers, and they don’t realize…
This Is The Greatest Achievement In Gaming History
I don’t make the above statement with hyperbole in mind. Consider what Bioware and EA accomplished. Three games of sixty or more hours of content, the majority of it fresh, some of it outright hilarious (seriously, that Citadel DLC), with ties and links to prior save files that merge in seamlessly depending on how you play the game. Other games that have incoroprated similar features always feel like they have chunks in them where a jigsaw piece fits; picture when you take a different path in a visual novel, and how once you get past that part of the story, you can pretty much just hit the “skip all read” button. Everything in Mass Effect blends together, and except for the major set pieces that have to happen, no two playthroughs are the same unless the player wants them to be.
For me, personally, Mass Effect 2 was my favourite. It had better gameplay than ME1, didn’t shove online down my throat as badly as ME2 did, and I think the Suicide Mission was the series’ high point. But ultimately, it’s like choosing which Playboy bunny gets to feed you grapes; either way, you win.
This isn’t just the greatest set of role playing games in history. Taken together, they’re the greatest games ever. No one has accomplished anything of this scope before or since.
I don’t know where the Mass Effect series goes beyond this. Obviously, Commander Shepard won’t be around, but will it matter? Captain Armstrong, or LCDR Aldrin or maybe even Major Gagarin4 will have their own adventure, with their own allies, maybe another race or two, and if allowed to be, it will be just as amazing as the past three gamers were. If EA gets out of the way and lets Bioware be Bioware, then they’ll sweep the World Series, World Cup, Stanley Cup Finals and Wimbledon, all at the same time, for the second time. That’s what they accomplished with Mass Effect. Electronic Arts and Bioware won everything, everywhere, and could do it again if they wanted to. To nitpick the issues is like nitpicking a supermodel. Who cares about the mole on her upper lip when the rest of her body is melting hot?
1 – Everything I talk about is with the Extended Cut DLC. I have never played the game without it, and I consider the EC DLC canon.
2 – Miraculously, for almost two years, I was able to remain spoiler free about the ending of all three Mass Effect games until I got to the point where I could beat them myself. To put that in perspective, despite my best efforts, I can’t go five minutes on Tumblr without one of my supposed friends spoiling major plot points to Attack on Titan.
3 – This is assuming that Synthesis is even possible having made those decisions.
4 – For those unaware: Commander Shepard was named after Alan Shepard, the second person to fly into space. The others might be a bit more obvious references – and let’s not forget that the capitol of Luna was named after Neil Armstrong in the Mass Effect universe – but whatever. Maybe Commander (John) Glenn?