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

All’s Well That Ends Well

Even before you press a single button, it is clear that Mass Effect 3 is going to be very different from Mass Effect 2. Gone is the title screen’s stirring music. Gone is the grandiose idle menu cutscene full of action and danger.

In its place is one of the most sober pieces of music imaginable. No cutscenes. No bombast. No firefights. Just a sad song playing while a planet burns and what seem to be meteorites burn up entering a planet’s atmosphere.

********************

Remember when I mentioned the major shift in music from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2?

Well, Mass Effect 3 switched it up again.

Mass Effect had to establish a universe, set almost 200 years in the future, where humanity was the newcomer. We are galactic infants and the music needed to show some sense of wonder and possibility. Jack Wall and Sam Hulick succeeded in that regard with a score inspired by sci-fi electronics.

Mass Effect 2 was all about assembling a superteam of badasses, a sort of a sci-fi Expendables, in order to save humanity from new threats and old. You recruit a who’s who of galactic experts to defeat the bad guys. That calls for some Hans Zimmer. I’ve probably overused the word “bombast” in relation to Mass Effect 2’s music, but it’s either the most accurate term or the most accurate in my limited vocabulary of music descriptions. In any case, Wall & Hulick again delivered the score ME2 needed.

Mass Effect 3 is about the apocalypse. It is about the end of everything we know and love. It is about billions dead. Mourning. Hopelessness. The inevitable. Even if victory is achieved, the cost will be beyond comprehension. This requires a softer touch and almost oppressive tragedy. Clint Mansell takes over for Jack Wall and joins Hulick to create a score befitting the end of days, perhaps none more so than the gorgeous “Leaving Earth.”

********************

The opening of Mass Effect 3 is probably the greatest video game “scene” I’ve ever played. Continue reading

Mass Efflections: Introduction

In July of 2009, I wrote a piece about the “10 Best Video Games I’d Played.” It wasn’t a bad list, but four and a half years later, little would be recognizable.

Black Ops II has replaced Modern Warfare. Splinter Cell: Blacklist is up there somewhere now. I’ve played enough Operation: Flashpoints, Gears of Wars, Halos, and Batmans to know that only Fallout 3 and Eternal Darkness would remain on that list today.

There is one other similarity, though: A Mass Effect game would occupy the top spot. In fact, the Mass Effect series would occupy three of the top four spots, with only Bioshock: Infinite making me think twice about a sweep.

********************

My first Mass Effect playthrough was pretty predictable. I played as a male Shepard, making sure to go paragon on everything. My initial Shepard was super nice, as are pretty much all of my Action RPG characters.

I romanced Liara in Mass Effect. If I had to guess, I was drawn to her innocence in a cold, unforgiving universe. Or something like that. Sadly for her, I moved on to Miranda Lawson in Mass Effect 2 because Yvonne Strahovski. I don’t think I need to explain more, although I’m sure I will later.

This time, the rules are simple: Continue reading