Console Yourself: Mass Effect
“Discuss something else.” -Dialogue Tree Option
Format: Xbox 360 & PC • Developer: Bioware• Released: November 2007
In theory, Bioware should be a very easy developer to dislike. In addition to annoying glitches in their titles, they employ a game structure so formulaic that it borders on contempt for their audience. The firm even gave a lecture at a developers’ conference explaining exactly how they approached each of their games: the first 5% as entirely linear introduction, an upending of the core scenario at 85% through, and so on. This situation was escalated by the outfit’s second Xbox game, Jade Empire, which combined a cringe-inducingly unconvincing mystical oriental setting with a combat mechanic that spectacularly failed to justify its prominent billing in the title. However, with Warren Spector presently locked in a staring contest with Yuji Naka as to who can go the longest without actually releasing a piece of software, there are precious few firms actively trying to push “narrative-focussed, morally coded emergent storytelling psuedo-action games” forward.
(We REALLY need some new genre descriptions.)
And so, to Mass Effect. One of Microsoft’s big hopes for the Christmas 2007 market, the plan was for the title to launch a whole series of Xbox 360-exclusive RPG sequels, with a running plot throughout. This scheme was casually upended by Electronic Arts’ purchase of the developer, and even now, we’ve no idea as to whether the remainder of the story will ever be told. Despite EA’s valiant efforts to stop being the videogame industry’s cartoon bad guy, this is a regrettable situation, as Effect is easily Bioware’s strongest console title.
Playing as a human military commander, the game sets a fight with the robotic Geth against a detailed backdrop of species and spaceships. The game’s setting is stock sci-fi, but the developer is obviously operating firmly within its comfort zone. Although strongly attacked on release for plainly being Star Wars without the licence, the greater freedom which the creatives have in playing with their setting more than makes up for the lack of originality. Although the combat mechanics are initially confusing, there’s considerable scope for improvisation, and there are enough variables for the player to develop their own unique battle strategies. What really makes the title is the one central idea of giving you the keys to the universe and the legal authority to act as you see fit. After spending the first four hours being introduced to the scenario, Shepard is appointed a special agent of the galactic council and given a fully-crewed ship to use as he sees fit. There’s a strong contrast with Jade Empire here, where the player never enjoyed control of his or her own destiny, being permanently occupied with errands for others. The sense of empowerment is enormous, and Bioware pitch this element at just the right point, when the player has sufficient knowledge of the game’s setting to appreciated the significance of this step, but hasn’t yet been bored by being a lackey. Although the vast majority of the planets that can be landed upon are uninteresting rocky deserts, the concept of freedom is more than enough. Although the game suffers from the traditional Bioware trait of giving you a spurious choice of responses in conversations, which affect only your “goodness meter”, the player is much more willing to suspend disbelief having chosen to arrive in that location.
As usual with Bioware, the game suffers from a number of unforced errors of design. The vehicle driving sections are extremely irritating, as it takes far too long for the Mako’s shields to recharge (at one point, I actually found myself reading a book while waiting for the buggy to be ready for another attack on the Geth), while the game forgets the central bargain it makes over combat. In this deal, the player agrees to ignore some clunky fights, where the game doesn’t quite disguise its dice rolling, in return for the knowledge that performing an action will allow for improvement in that capacity. The vehicle, however, sees no such improvement throughout the game. In one sense, this is logical- an inanimate object can’t level up. However, this irresponsible lack of awareness of the title’s weaknesses results in the game removing the one source of consolation from largely inconsequential scuffles. Other legacy problems, including lengthy loading times and an amusingly unconvincing romance for the lead character, are also present, but aren’t the core issue here. What stops the title from true greatness is the developer’s unwillingness to truly grasp the nettle of handing control of the narrative to the player. While the Elder Scrolls games operate in a much less sophisticated and duller universe, it’s hard not to wish for some of Bethesda’s willingness to bend the narrative structure to the player’s whims. A small but telling moment comes at the end of the game, when the player must decide whether to sacrifice a considerable number of human lives to protect alien civilians. At this point, I was accompanied by two alien party members, one of whom begged me to help while the other asked if I was ready to throw away human lives. Obviously, if a human solider had accompanied Sheppard at this point, they would have articulated this second viewpoint. Rather than trust the players to consider the ramification of the decision themselves, the game sacrifices integrity of characterisation to stick to its established explicit binary moral formula. Admittedly the title can’t deviate too far from its established conclusion whilst still allowing the story to continue seamlessly in the next game, but after making about 25 hours’ worth of choices, a few more consequences to previous actions would have been appreciated.
The game can be described in one word: cosy. By not trying to go anywhere new, Bioware have produced a curiously relaxing epic, with a little freedom going a very long way.