Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mass-ive Effect

Note to any possible readers: I plan on discussing the Mass Effect series of video games in detail; if you don't want to be spoiled, don't read.

I have been a Bioware fan for about as long as is possible, and the Mass Effect series may be my favorite series of theirs. From the very beginning in 2007, I followed and played along with the story of Commander Shepard. I slogged through planets in the cumbersome Mako APC, fought off Thresher Maws with the (entirely too small) gun suite, and traveled the galaxy trying to avert a galactic catastrophe. Then I came back from the dead, searched for crewmates (and minerals) while working for a rogue organization, and in a masterful suicide mission, saved the galaxy again from the threat of the Reapers. And now, for the third time, I fight to bring together the squabbling races of the galaxy into a unified front against a terrifying enemy that could still kill everyone, starting with Earth.

The characters have been my favorite part of the games. In Mass Effect, you collected such a strange group for your crew: Kaidan, the biotic soldier bitter about his treatment by the government; Ashley, the gung-ho marine who dislikes aliens and worries about the place of humans in galactic society; Garrus, the ex-cop alien who wants to get back at the worst criminal he can; Tali, the young Quarian on pilgrimage looking for information to help her people and falls into a conspiracy; Liara, the absent-minded scholar researching a long-dead race who has crucial information and ties; and Wrex,the angry mercenary without a home, looking for a cause to believe in. Along with Joker, the fragile-boned, sarcastic pilot who flies your ship across the galaxy, this strange team unites to stop a disaster that could potentially destroy galactic civilization. And along the way, your Shepard, male or female, black or white, Renegade or Paragon, forms relationships with each of them. Garrus, though he is a Turian, an alien race noted for their military and harsh demeanor, becomes a close friend. Kaidan, untrusting of authority, begins to trust his commander, while Ashley slowly starts to realize that not all aliens are trying to bring humanity down. Tali and Liara, both somewhat naive and innocent, learn about the nature of the galaxy they live in, and those they can trust. Wrex finds a companion in battle to follow, and a cause he can believe in - the salvation of his people. And it is all because of your character; without your Shepard acting, none of this happens. Even then, you face difficult decisions; eventually, you must not only be forced with the possibility of shooting Wrex to save your mission, but you are forced to leave a crew member behind to detonate a bomb to save a world. You, as a player, begin to form relationships of your own with this crew.

this continues with Mass Effect 2. You are raised from the dead (after an unfortunate encounter with a much stronger foe) in a gruesome science experiment by a fringe group that claims to be working in humanity's best interests. They claim that your death was no accident, but the first act of the main body of the foe you fought off in the first game. They want you to travel the galaxy, recruiting a crew of strange bedfellows, criminals, and former associates, for a mission to stop the Collectors (the enemy that killed you) that has almost no chance for your survival.

We start with Miranda, the cold-as-ice contact for your new quasi-masters, genetically engineered for perfection but with little experience with real social life. Then there is Jacob, the human former soldier, disillusioned by his old job and brought in by Cerberus (the organization that raised you from the dead) as a reliable gun for hire. As we progress, we find Garrus, an old friend who has become a vigilante hunting the scum of the galaxy, and been scarred in the process, and then Mordin, the Salarian scientist reaching the end of his life with some interesting life experience and a great deal of secrets. The crew grows with 'Jack' (or Subject Zero), an unhinged biotic who has been in and out of prisons all her life after escaping a secret project experimenting to increase her abilities, and then Grunt, a Krogan (like Wrex), born in a vat, with the memories and genes of the greatest Krogan warlords in history, but no experiences of his own. Tali is brought back into the fold, saving her from danger and recruiting her for her technical expertise. We are introduced to Samara, an Asari biotic who follows the hardcore code of the Justicar, and Thane, the assassin looking for redemption and willing to join a suicide mission. Legion, a synthetic life-form looking to redeem his people in Shepard's eyes, joins near the end, while Joker still takes the helm, and an artificial intelligence, EDI, helps him run the show.

Throughout the game, as we (as Shepard) go on missions with these people, we get to know them and we can win each of their loyalty; each as a 'loyalty mission' that will make them more devoted to the mission and to you.You help Miranda save her little sister from the father who made her as perfect (and cold) as she is; you help Jacob to find out what happened to the father who abandoned him as a child. You help Garrus find closure (or revenge) with the man who helped kill Garrus' vigilante crew. You help Mordin stop terrible medical experiments being done by a well-meaning but somewhat crazed former student. You help Jack to let go of her past by destroying the facility where she was imprisoned and experimented on, while Grunt you help by helping him to discover how to really be Krogan, rather than just the memory of one. Tali you save from exile from her people because of mistakes her father made; with Samara you help her find the dangerous target she has hunted for centuries; with Thane, you help him keep his son from following his path; and with Legion, you help him keep some of his people from continuing along a destructive past. You can even meet some old friends, like Wrex, who (if alive) is running the show on the Krogan homeworld, and Liara, who has become an information broker, and even Kaiden/Ashley, who disavow you for working with Cerberus. You can bring your crew together, make them tight-knit and loyal and put aside old arguments and rivalries, and in the final accounting, you can do anything from lose everyone (including Shepard) in a glorious last stand or bring everyone out of your 'suicide mission' alive.

And now, in Mass Effect 3, you must again assemble a crew to bring the galaxy together in a final, desperate stand against a fleet of horrible alien ships, in the tiny hope that you can stop, or at least slow down, their extinction of all sentient organic life - something they have done every 50,ooo years for at least 30 million years. First is James Vega, a young lieutenant with anger issues who wants to live to be old enough to have his own ship; second is Ashley or Kaiden, grudgingly returned to your side now that you have returned to the military. Third is Liara, whose research may lead to the breakthrough find that saves galactic civilization. Next we find EDI, the AI from the previous game, who has found a robotic body to install herself in and wants to prove her worth both on and off the ship, as well as start a relationship with Joker, who is still your (wiseass) pilot. Then Garrus, serving reluctantly in the military because, since he has spent two games with you, he is the Turian's greatest expert on the Reapers, and is glad to reunite with an old friend. And finally is Tali, who has risen to a position of authority among her people, but joins Shepard in her desperation to keep her own people from extinction.

As the games progress, each builds on the one before; a Wrex who died in Mass Effect is not present in Mass Effect 2, and his absence is noted. Liara or Tali hating (or loving) your Shepard in one game will still hate (or love) Shepard in the next. Even minor characters recur, depending on how you affected their lives; you can help a slightly obsessive fan of Shepard become a crime-fighter of his own, albeit a somewhat scatterbrained one. The choices you make from game to game matter in how the next game progresses; while you can simply pick Mass Effect 3 up without playing the previous two, the events of the game will be missing many characters, and will lack a great deal of emotional effect. The characters from your previous games that you reunite with in Mass Effect 3 who are fighting, bleeding, and dying for a cause (or just for you) are like old friends, whose lives you have to risk to save everyone. This is a series where gamers have been told that their choices will matter, and that the end will all come down to the choices you have made in the past.

And yet, that is not the ending given. Once you fight your way to the end of the game, watching your companions, friends, and possibly even lovers suffer, fight, and even die, you are walked into a room with the Starchild (also known as Catalyst), who identifies itself as the controlling influence behind the Reapers. After controlling them to kill every sentient organic society in the galaxy every 50,000 years for 30 million years, he is responsible for deaths and murders that even Hitler could not possibly conceive of (30 million/50,000 = 600, so 600 cycles times, conservatively, 3 trillion lives per cycle = more zeroes that I can think of). It tells you that it knows that synthetic life and organic life will always try to exterminate each other, and so its Reapers must periodically kill off all sentient organic life in order to save it. There is no discussion about this; you can't yell at Catalyst, argue with it, try to reason with it, or anything else you have been able to do in an important conversation for the 3 games up to this point. You must simply accept that it is doing this all for what it sees as the greater galactic good, even though it makes no sense. And then, you are given three choices about what to do about the Reapers - you can destroy them all (and, along with them, all other synthetic life, including EDI), you can sacrifice yourself to control them, or you can create a synthesis of organic and synthetic life, thus eliminating the need for periodic galactic cleansing. Nothing you have done before this in any of the games makes any difference in your choices. You are simply forced to trust the greatest mass murderer in galactic history without the slightest argument and make a choice, all of which, regardless of your choice, essentially demolish galactic civilization as it is known. No giant battle scene where the combined forces of the galaxy face off against the Reapers in a stirring last stand; no touching scene where you have to say goodbye to your friends to save the galaxy. You aren't even told what happens after your choice, whether your friends live or die, how it all turns out.

This is not the ending I signed up for. In a series that has, as one of its greatest strengths, the relationships forged between characters, to finish the game without showing us what happens to our crew and the other companions makes it nearly meaningless. To finish a game about choices with a choice that you aren't given any real information on, from a being you have no reason to trust, robs the player of any meaningful decision. I wouldn't mind if it ended with Shepard doing everything right and still not being able to stop the Reapers (though I'd prefer a more Babylon 5-style ending, telling the Reapers to 'get the hell out of our galaxy' after smacking them around), but I want the time I spent playing the first two games, and the rest of the third game, to have meant something. The characters have become like friends, and I want to know what happens to them. I want to have choice. I don't want to be presented with three 'choices' which are all virtually the same and which have nothing to do with what came before.

I want to be Shepard the galactic hero, dammit, not Button Pusher #3.

No comments:

Post a Comment