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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Mass Effect 3’: a new type of video game

Published: March 2, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

On March 6, the third and final installment in Bioware’s epic “Mass Effect” trilogy will hit shelves in retailers across America, and legions of fans will conclude the five-year story arc that has spanned not only three video games, but numerous books and graphic novels too. This game will represent more than a great way to spend time though—it represents an incredible leap forward in storytelling for the entire video game industry.

The “Mass Effect” series centers on the player’s character, Commander Shepard of the Systems Alliance, the government of all human worlds in the galaxy. During the first game, Shepard discovers that a race of hyper-advanced machines, the Reapers, return from beyond the edge of the galaxy every 50,000 years in order to harvest all organic life, and that they are on the way. As Shepard navigates the galaxy in order to combat the Reaper threat, he or she builds up alliances, assists his or her squad-mates with personal quests, and ultimately works to protect all sentient life in the galaxy. In “Mass Effect 3,” the Reapers invade Earth, and the stage is set for Shepard to lead humanity and the galactic community through a war for their very survival. How that story ends, however, is almost completely up to the player, based on the decisions he or she makes throughout his or her Mass Effect career.

This innovative brand of storytelling, however, is simply the next step in the progression of the series’ developer, Bioware. Bioware is known for its decade worth of storytelling-based games such as “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” and “Dragon Age: Origins.” Many of these games have been critically acclaimed, and “Knights of the Old Republic” and “Mass Effect 2” received incredible praise from critics, scoring 10/10 from most major reviewers.
“Mass Effect 2” imported many of the player’s decisions from his or her “Mass Effect 1” play-through, in order to give a more fluid sense of connection and continuity between the games. Such decisions involved major choices, such as which of the player’s squad-mates died in the line of duty, and other minor, comical choices, such as how to treat an obsessive fan of your character. “Mass Effect 3” is aiming to surpass the level of continuity in “Mass Effect 2,” and has been confirmed as importing more than 1,000 variables from both previous titles, according to Case Hudson, the project director for all three games.

Such a feat is virtually unprecedented in the world of video games. While many Role-Playing Game (RPG) series have iconic characters that appear in multiple games (Cloud in “Final Fantasy” and Captain Price in “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” to name two), decisions rarely affect the story of other games. As such, players gain a true sense of involvement in the world of “Mass Effect”, and many truly care how their decisions play out, thanks to these emotional connections to the overall story. This stands to revolutionize the industry, as “Mass Effect” is already considered a bar for other RPG’s to meet in order to receive high-quality reviews. Depending on the success of “Mass Effect 3,” that bar could easily become the be-all and end-all of RPG games, and be the bar to which all other games are compared based on their storytelling ability.

Another way the series has revolutionized storytelling-based games is its morality system. This system both allows the player to gain a reputation as good or evil, based on the type of actions and decisions he or she makes and enables non-player-controlled characters (NPC’s) in game to react in different ways to the player. While Mass Effect isn’t the first game series to use such a morality system (Bioware used the system years previously in “Knights of the Old Republic,” for example), the ability for the player’s morality and moral decisions to carry over between games gives yet another element of emotional investment in the games.

The games have also utilized a concept that has been present in RPG’s almost since the genre’s beginnings—creating in-depth relationships with your squad-mates. In both games, the allies that travel with you start to feel like truly alive characters as the games progress, and the player starts to think of them as such. Eventually, each character unlocks a personal quest, which provides even more insight to the character’s background and who they are. Through the player’s moral choices, these squad-mates will either come to like or hate the player, based on each of their own moral codes. The nerdy, shy Quarian Tali, for example, will actively voice her protest toward negative actions from the player, whereas Zaeed Massani, has no problem shooting his way through an entire platoon of enemy soldiers to enact revenge on his former comrade. It is aspects like these that make the characters feel alive, encouraging the player to care about them.