Mass Efflections: Intensity, Subtlety, Tragedy

Masters of Intensity
The Mass Effects are the most intense games I’ve ever played. Sure, Skyrim was probably more epic. Various Calls of Duty and Battlefields are louder or have more explosions and background action.

Mass Effect takes those more traditional elements of intensity and combines them with player investment. Mass Effect establishes a massive universe, an interesting story, and a bevy of potentially great characters. The characters take a game or two to flesh out, but overall, Mass Effect makes you give a crap about what you are doing because bad decisions have negative consequences on locations or characters you care about.

That sort of investment pays dividends in missions like Feros and the Citadel, where pitched battles and climactic cutscenes (and inspirational speeches on Virmire) come together to make the player feel like they had just saved the universe themselves.

For all my criticisms of Mass Effect 2’s occasionally misplaced bombast and bravado, that suicide mission felt like a suicide mission. Dropping into a black hole. Getting ripped apart by Oculi. Fending off hoards of collectors. Walking through a blizzard of Seekers. Frantically escaping after felling a massive human Reaper. Damn, son…

Mass Effect 3 manages to top them all. The game’s designer’s noticeably increased the challenge of every difficulty level. I found myself fighting for my life more in 3 than I did in any other game in the series.

Every step feels appropriately apocalyptic. The Reapers have harvested countless civilizations before and we are given little evidence to believe Shepard can prevent this one. On Pavalan, two Reapers crack a Turian frigate in half while the hulk of another lies beneath one of the behemoths. The Geth, the galaxy’s most advanced AI, are hacked. Shepard fails to complete an objective for like the first time in his life. So on and so forth. Hell, Earth falls within the game’s tutorial mission.

Meanwhile, earnest, mournful motifs punctuate Mass Effect 3’s score, replacing the energy of Mass Effect and the bombast of Mass Effect 2.

And of course, the game’s final mission features a battle between the Reapers and an inter-galactic armada, immediately followed by a somehow even more desperate ground offensive in London.

You basically don’t breathe for the last several hours of the series.

Masters of Subtlety
Despite all that intensity, the Mass Effect series usually manages to avoid overplaying its hand. Continue reading

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Mass Efflections: Good Enemies

I’ve always believed that a story is only as good as its antagonist. Heroes are cool and all, but they serve no purpose unless they are faced with a legitimate threat. Weak bad guys kill a story’s suspense and leave us underwhelmed by the hero’s victory. Oh, you defeated The Goldfish? The supervillain who can’t remember his plan the next day? Great work.

Luke Skywalker is nothing without a wheezing juggernaut to oppose him. The Borg gave us some of the best episodes in Star Trek history until Voyager ruined them. Gul Dukat elevated Deep Space Nine beyond its peers. Battlestar Galactica might have had killer robots, but the true enemy was our own nature – slow to forgive, adapt, and change. The Wire painted our true enemy as the system itself; the very institutions we created to maintain our society.

A story is only as good as its antagonist.

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Mass Effect showed us two powerful villains before beautifully pulling the rug from underneath us. The first time we see Saren Arterius, he murders a fellow Spectre. Saren is aided and advised by Matriarch Benezia, possessor of centuries of wisdom, immense biotic power, and impractical attire. The entire first game is spent pursuing Saren and Benezia to stop them from handing the universe over to the Reapers.

By the end of the game, however, we discover that both had sympathetic reasons for their actions. Continue reading