As of August 19th, 2012, I have finished the first installment of the Mass Effect trilogy. For most, that won’t mean much, almost as if I was empathizing with the fact that they never finished Super Mario Bros. 3 (even when you were shown how to get easily to World 8 in The Wizard). But the fact is that I didn’t actually start Mass Effect until a month prior. That’s where I deserve the obligatory “Where the fuck have you been?” and “Why the hell were you playing Trials and Fez instead?” Well, I just wasn’t that interested.
Long long ago, in a small duplex way up Old San Jose Rd…
To illustrate why this seems like eons ago, the guy who first showed me a Mass Effect preview has since moved out of the small duplex (where he showed it to me) and into another apartment with a girl, became engaged to this girl, bought a house with the fiance, broke off the engagement and moved out, and I haven’t seen him since. The ex-fiance has since been through two more guys, who each had their own set of issues, which would sometimes boil over at parties, making me uncomfortable and want to leave, so now I don’t drink at her parties just in case the mood strikes me to drive somewhere else. Without a daytime television program, it takes the better part of a decade to witness that much drama. That wedding I mentioned was set for the day before the Beijing Olympic Summer Games, if that helps set some sort of timeline. I didn’t even have an Xbox back then, and the hottest shit anyone could play was Guitar Hero II (I was a maniac on that orange button).
The Mass Effect preview video I watched wasn’t a trailer so much as it was one of the developers narrating some of the game’s development, specifically how battles would play out. The developer showed how the player would give his or her team commands, both in movement and abilities. One could even choose which weapon his or her team members would use. This was all during battle; while fighting a large robot thing, the developer would essentially pause the game to issue placement and ability commands to his teammates, then take cover and shoot the enemy a few times. Rinse, Repeat.
That looked too involved and not fun. Fable was about the level of depth that I was into. In fact, Fable was about the fucking pinnacle of awesome games for me at the time. I enjoy games where I can upgrade my characters and their weapons, but there is a limit to how deep a management system can be and still hold my interest. I first realized that there can be too much to upgrade and manage when I played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (made by BioWare, who also made Mass Effect). My character had a lightsaber, and I was ready to make him break something, but upon finding a battle, I had to choose my defensive and offensive attacks from a menu, and order them correctly to successfully parry and strike my opponent. Within two battles, the game had become tedious and cumbersome, so I ejected that disc and moved on to Morrowind. The battles in Morrowind were better since they were action-based instead of real-time-strategy-ish, but even the smallest details around inventory or skill-sets were managed by the player, and every detail was seemingly important. People fucking love SW: KOTOR and Morrowind, and I’m sure they are fantastic games, but the player involvement ran too deep for me to enjoy. And I was instantly reminded of these disappointments when I watched that first video of Mass Effect gameplay, so I decided then, all those eons ago, that it wouldn’t be a game for me.
Cousin Mark (no relation) is someone whose opinion I absorb and process. I wouldn’t say that I trust or value his opinion, or that his thoughts on movies and video games reflect my own. But I am accustomed to hearing him and extrapolating a prediction for my own level of enjoyment, based on previous data from similar scenarios. He is also much more experienced with video games on a whole, as he has more time and funds to throw at the hobby. This is helpful to me when it’s time to find a new game, because he’s already played everything on the market, and I already know just how much salt to put on his reviews. He thought Mass Effect 2 was the best thing to touch the digital medium. He wouldn’t say it outright, but he definitely doesn’t have a t-shirt, hoodie, and side bag decorated with The Legend of Zelda motifs.
At a gathering hosted at his place, we got to talking shop, as we usually do, and I mentioned that I was close to finishing Assassin’s Creed II (also, years after its release). His exact words were, “Don’t play that shit. Play Mass Effect.” He knew that I had never played them, but he didn’t know that I had grown up a bit and might be ready for the interactive space saga trilogy. Cousin Mark then literally, not “figuratively,” as the internet seems to define the word, but “actually” pulled the game from his shelf and put it in my hands.
When I started, I was still wary of the battle scenarios from that initial video, however, I was able to set my AI teammates to automagically deploy their own abilities. So my apprehension about having too much to control during battle was quelled the first few times my teammates just killed everyone on screen while I was still trying to figure out the buttons. Problem solved.
Being a sucker for side-quests (or ‘Assignments’, as they’re called in the game), I was talking to as many characters as I could, hoping they’d have some kind of task that would reward me with experience points and money, which I could spend on upgrading my skills and weapons. Upgrading everything I could gave the real quests (‘Missions’) a higher potential for success, which wasn’t always an issue since my AI teammates tended to dominate the gunfights for me.
Talking to all these characters also gave me insight into the overarching story of the Mass Effect world. There’s a lot going on in that universe, some of which matters and some that doesn’t, but all of it was intriguing enough that I paid attention to everything. After 40+ hours of playtime, I know more about the Mass Effect universe than I do about college, and I did that for 6 years. If only there was an educational system that fed students knowledge through goal-based interactive media… oh, wait.
I don’t have an eloquent way to describe how much focus I put into Mass Effect other than ‘I was really fucking into that shit.’ It is the video game equivalent of a page-turner, a The DaVinci Code for gamers, especially for me since I turn on subtitles when I play, so I got most of my summer reading taken care of.
The story is pretty solid, and if it were ever made into a movie, there’d be little reason to deviate from the source material because it’s already a science fiction epic, dealing with potential galactic domination, but grounded in human nature and issues of morality. I would definitely see this movie, but I might find it disappointing because it won’t be the same Mass Effect that I played. Certain choices throughout the game will tweak how the story plays out, so my experience will be different from most people’s. Story-changing choices in the game also carry over to the sequels, and I’ve heard that when people talk about the third game, they have no way to reference each other’s progress because the stories are so dissimilar by then. This point of interest, that any person’s experience through the trilogy is unique to that person, is what made me a little more receptive to Cousin Mark’s recommendation. I’m steering this space opera in the direction I want it to go, and it only makes me more interested in playing Mass Effect 2, knowing that my influence throughout the first game will tailor the next one just for me.
Should you play this game? Well, if you played more than two games in the last five years, there’s a good chance that you’ve already played a Mass Effect game and don’t need a recommendation. At the same time, I rejected everyone’s suggestion to play it for years, so I won’t push it on anyone else. If you’re at least mildly interested, then give it a shot. But if it doesn’t look like your thing, you can always go back to Super Mario 3.