Monday, March 12, 2012

Massive Mass Effect Week: Meeting Expectations

When I first played Mass Effect 1, I soaked up everything: read the codex every time it updated, examined planetary write-ups, and hit every point I could on my dialog wheel. The universe was surprisingly deep, even if some of the dialog ended up coming off as campy.

The characters built in it were great. The members of your squad came off as different people, even disregarding their powers. Garrus is sullen and dissatisfied with the failure of law to ensure justice. Tali is dealing with her people's status as the pariahs of the galaxy. The game focused on humans getting used to being part of an interstellar community, and the interstellar community trying to discern a real threat from the human race's background level of belligerent, self-important bitching about their status.

Even the archvillain Saren is just a tool of The Reaper Sovereign. He and Matriarch Benezia think they can take on the awesome and ancient power of a Reaper, but are soon enthralled. They aren't bad people. Quite the opposite; they're decent, respected citizens of the galaxy twisted by an alien who sees them as nothing more than the threads in a societal sweater that do the most damage when pulled. The main villains of the series are decent people in a bad situation.

My point is that there are very, very few evil people in Mass Effect. There are Krogans that love killing. Asari and Volas that think nothing of soft-peddled slavery. Salarians who cull a race's future generations with what can only be described here as a contraceptive virus. There are ruthless monsters: sadistic mercenaries, inhuman corporate actors, revenge-fueled mercenaries, political opportunists, and treacherous mercenaries. Jacob's dad spends eight years of his life systemically raping and exterminating his fellow crew members and still comes off as more "flawed" than "evil son of a bitch." In fact, the most evil things we get are The Reapers themselves and the rogue Cerberus facility that created Jack. And, I guess Shepard...depending.

The first two Mass Effect games were amazing because they had a deep setting that rings true and characters that with motivations and methods derived from the fullness of that setting. The action happens within a certain scale. In Mass Effect 1, you've a special agent--I'm sorry a "space special agent"--who is tracking down another agent who's gone rogue. You handle much larger things than that, like his private army and fleet attack on Space Washington D.C., but that's the central story. In Mass Effect 2, you're part of a secret organization that takes on the last outpost and ship of The Reapers' client race. The action matches the challenge, and most challenges can be met with a squad of three guys with guns and space magic.

Now, in Mass Effect 3, thousands of alien ships with a 50,000 year technological head-start have invaded Earth, ramping up the scale of the challenge consistent with the third and final installment of the series. With all of the depth explored and the nuance of the galaxy flattened into a binary idiom of "smart enough to ally against the obvious Reaper threat" or "dumb enough to pretend like one of the most powerful races in the galaxy didn't just get it's ass kicked--handily kicked," it seems like it's going to be pretty hard to have a good game with a threat so big it will probably require either an improbable, magic button or a few thousand three-man teams to resolve successfully.

That said, I still want to play it, but the bar has been set high by other games, like Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. I'm going to wait for the price to go down before I do that though. The trick is to keep away from internet video game sites to avoid least until everyone stops talking about it when Top Gun: Hard Lock comes out on Tuesday.

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