Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Mass Effect 3

Lowdown: A third person shooter, a colossal space opera.
In retrospect, I find it hard to believe I did not hear of Mass Effect before early March this year. Things have changed somewhat since: I have completed the game’s campaign and then some; I have collected some of its action figures; I ordered Mass Effect comic books; I’m reading a Mass Effect book on my Kindle; and most importantly, Mass Effect 3 managed to transform itself from a game I play late at night after everyone else has gone to sleep and into a family event the entire household is interested in – my four year old and my wife as well as yours truly. The purpose of this review is to try and answer a basic question - how (and why) was all of the above achieved?
Mass Effect 3 starts by designing your character, Commander Shepard. You have a choice of male or female, and you also have a choice of designing the way they look and the details of their personal histories (Mass Effect 2 players can choose to import their old characters through). I would recommend opting for the female Shepard: not only is its voice casting much superior, by my reckoning, I also regard the mere availability of playing such a kick ass character in female mode to be a breakthrough. Not many other games of this scale offer such a prominent female option! Besides, given the dominant place role playing has in Mass Effect 3, I’ve enjoyed taking the role play one step further.
You also need to choose your character’s class. This is equivalent to D&D’s choice of playing a fighter, magic user or cleric: your choice affects your character’s special powers. Me, my preference is firmly with the thief option, dubbed Infiltrator, armed with a sniper rifle and cloaking abilities allowing for that special surprise attack. Once done with the pleasantries you’re taken to a futuristic earth as it comes under the attack of The Reapers: an alien race hell bent on destroying all advanced life in the galaxy and choosing to start with us humans first. Nothing on earth can pose these Reapers a challenge, so following some short tutorial like action you escape the earth on board your good old Enterprise look-alike spaceship, the Normandy. Your mission: try and get as much galactic support for the human (and galactic) cause of defeating the Reapers prior to an ultimate showdown for the fate of our planet.
You start by getting your ass to Mars, where you uncover the first clue and find a friend from previous episodes, Liara. You also get to practice the concept of Mass Effect third person shooting action for the first time: you’re in charge of a squad of three fighters whom you choose as per your mission’s needs, arm and cultivate special powers for. As you go about trying to achieve your missions’ goals you encounter enemies of various types, whom you can dispatch or deal with using either your weapons or your special magic like powers. From time to time you even get a mission that's more than your average shoot-'em-up, like this Tron like mission taking place inside a computer.
Progressing from Mars, you go through the galaxy collecting hints of missions that you can perform. These missions have you finding a galaxy divided with many races fighting their petty quarrels; it is your job to unite them or pick a side that will stand by you when the final call is made. This aspect of the game exposes the other half of Mass Effect 3, the rich world of its interactive cut scenes.
I find it hard to communicate this aspect of the game in its full glory. Essentially, you move about as a person on board your ship or on board whatever planet/station it is that you are visiting, and as your encounter others you interact with them. Cut scenes play and at various points you need to choose how to direct your conversation or, more critically, how to direct your actions. Your behavior does make a difference: people are affected by your choices; entire alien races end up living or dying through your calls.
Personal relationships are thus developed, too, adding a lot of spice to the game. Mass Effect 3 is perhaps most renowned for its portrayal of gay relationships, and I can vouch for that: my female Shepard had herself a girlfriend with whom she shared a bed and the occasional shower. As one can expect, that side of things is handled rather clumsily (unless you prefer to shower with your bra on), but again – as far as the world of gaming is concerned, this is a breakthrough. For the first time I can remember I can have my choice of exotic and meaningful relationships in a game that is at the highest ever level of the cutting edge. I am not saying these relationships are the thing that turns Mass Effect 3 great; I am, however, saying that these are the symptoms of true greatness.
You want to know what the single thing that turns Mass Effect 3 into a great game is? In one word, that would be “richness”. The look of this game is spectacular, putting Star Wars in shame (especially in the grand space battles department). Every place you visit is detailed; every character has its background and looks the part. There is a 40 hour or so plot to keep you going, and that plot is more sophisticated than the bulk of stuff that comes out of Hollywood. It's not a Tolkien world, but it is certainly more then Disney World. The result is that you have your own, personally choreographed, extra long Star Wars / Star Trek action adventure that is, in my book, far superior to those sources of inspiration by virtue of its interactivity.
Single player campaign action is further augmented by multiplayer action, which I am only beginning to explore but seems addictive just the same. Your multiplayer action has [mild] impact on your single player adventures, which is nice; you can also download the free iPhone app that will let you interact with game characters as per your campaign status and allow you to improve the galaxy’s readiness through a simple mini game. My point is that Mass Effect 3 offers a complete package to a level higher than any I have previously encountered.
That last point brings me to the main problem with Mass Effect 3, which is not a problem with the game itself but rather an ongoing issue with Electronic Arts, the company releasing the game (and the owner of Bioware, the game’s developer): Not content with selling you the game once, Electronic Arts charges an extra for each additional time you want to register for multiplayer action (or, for that matter, for iPhone action). You get your first round for free with a special code that comes with the game, but if you were to resell the game it would lose a lot of its worth; not doubt this is exactly what Electronic Arts had in mind. This is actually a recurring problem with Electronic Arts’ releases, which leads me to express my hopes those behind the policy will receive a wedgie a day for their appalling disrespect of consumer rights. Who is the real pirate in this equation?
Other than that the most famous problem with the game is its ending. You have to bear in mind this is the ending of a trilogy that managed to get a lot of devoted fans over the years; however, personally I fail to see how the series could have been completed in any way which would have been more satisfying. I would definitely hate a cliché ending much more! Continuing with the personal, my biggest grip with the game is to do with its character portrayal: all the women, for example, look like the Amazons. A special breed of the Amazons, actually, given that there seems to be nothing alive with less than a D cup. I can argue Mass Effect 3 continues a long line of sexist games aimed to attract the average male teen, but it has to be said that the game treats male characters in a similar manner with bulging muscles aplenty.
Mass Effect 3 managed to create the best interactive movie experience ever. The fact this game plays like a science fiction space adventure flick makes it even better. In my opinion it is clearly the best video game I have ever seen or played.
Obviously, that last statement doesn’t stand to much by itself. For example, Space Invaders used to be the best game of its time although it is clearly inferior to Mass Effect 3; on the other hand, it is also clearly the more historically important of the two. In these times of ours when new bombastic games are released at regular intervals it is likely Mass Effect 3 will not stand as the best for long; it is also clear there is nothing inherent to Mass Effect 3 to totally revolutionize the world of gaming as we know it. However, the way I see it Mass Effect 3 is the best by virtue of producing a game that combines familiar gaming elements, combining them to create an unprecedented impact, and enriching them beyond any other. It is not revolutionary but rather extremely evolutionary, enough for me to deal it a unique 5.5 out of 5 stars. Enough for me to be happy to lose myself to this fictional world.

Added on 4/5/12:
I wanted to add a few words to my review now that I have several multiplayer hours of experience under my belt.
I like it! The multiplayer mode, that is. I like it primarily because of it being a cooperative effort against the computer, rather than a human against human affair. I like it because this noob doesn’t just get repeatedly slaughtered by some twelve years old with months of experience under their belt. I like it because it is nice to see veterans whom I don’t know come to my aid when this beginner gets injured.
On the other hand, the multiplayer experience is essentially a collapsed version of the Mass Effect 3 experience: play is limited to battles and special powers’ grooming, with the whole role playing aspect dispensed with. The experience is not unlike that of playing Halo, which is nice, but it is still a far cry from the very fulfilling single player campaign mode. There you’re not only battling (albeit on your own), you’re also carrying the weight of the entire galaxy on your back.
These thoughts made me pinpoint exactly why I like Mass Effect 3 as much as I do. It’s not only that it is progressive enough to offer gay relationships; it is the whole liberal, and dare I say even secular, world view that oozes out of the game. It is a game that is all about forgetting the differences between us in order to unite for the benefit of everyone. It is that philosophy that drives the entire game, and it is that philosophy that makes Mass Effect 3 the good game it is.

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