Monday, February 15, 2010

REVIEW: Mass Effect

I consider Mass Effect to be the modern equivalent of literature. Slowly, as print dies out, and what used to be print moves further into an electronic medium, story telling efforts are going to be made more frequently in forms we might not expect.

What kind of story does Pac-Man tell, or how deep does the story of Mario and Princess Peach run? These concepts might be gaming lore, but Mass Effect goes further and allows for the kind of connection a reader has with a book through its pacing, attention to detail, and its ability to make a more personal connection with the player.

In Mass Effect, you have a whole world open to you, and the door is swung wide open pretty early at that. While a lot of the original content in Mass Effect is actually very derivative, it's nothing great works of the written word have been guilty of for centuries. Sometimes to create something new, captivating, and interesting, you have to borrow a little from the people who know best. Two professors, on separate occasions, have very recently echoed this idea.

In this brave new world, or galaxy, you play as Shepherd. Whether you decide to be male or female is up to you, much like your back story. This only encourages extra playthroughs, and should be standard in all RPGs. Shepherd is an alliance soldier being accompanied by an intergalactic Council agent on an investigation. Shepherd is heading to the human colony on Eden Prime to investigate a piece of Prothean technology that was unearthed. The Protheans are an ancient race, so this piece of technology is a big find. Another Council agent, Saren, is at the scene ahead of Shepherd. Saren goes rogue, kills your escort and aligns himself with the Geth, an army of artificially intelligent beings that plague the galaxy beyond the veil. Needless to say, you're quickly tasked with hunting the rogue Saren down and solving the mystery of the Prothean beacon. Saving the galaxy sounds so cliche, and Mass Effect's very fully encyclopedia disguises the cliche with a sense of believability.

Essentially, the best thing Mass Effect has going for it is the world it creates around the player, and the way it gives weight to choices the player is presented with. Having heavy decisions means being involved, and that's exactly what the player feels moment to moment. Playing as Shepherd makes the player feel like he or she matters, even in a galaxy full of colorful aliens, some bug-eyed, some monstrous, all entertaining. Choices aren't as black and white like deciding whether to harvest little sisters or save them. Instead they play on the players morality and politics.

That makes all the difference. If you stripped Mass Effect bare of its choices, of it's fully-fleshed world, it would be a third person shooter with some neat RPG influences, a clunky cover system and mundane vehicle sections. But as a sum of the greater works of science fiction and a game that requires the player to question him or herself, rather than the developers, Mass Effect shines.


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