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Mass Effect

Entry updated 11 February 2019. Tagged: Game.

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Videogame (2007). BioWare. Designed by Casey Hudson, Preston Watamaniuk. Platforms: XB360 (2007); Win (2008).

Mass Effect is a Computer Role Playing Game which employs a three-dimensional third-person view. The setting is Space Opera; in the twenty-second century humanity is expanding into a galaxy populated by many diverse alien civilizations, using technology obtained from Forerunner artefacts discovered on Mars. The various species each have their own "racial personalities", in the manner of Star Control II (1992) (see Star Control) or the Uplift stories of David Brin. Political power resides with a sodality somewhat resembling the United Nations, within which humanity is a minor participant; internal squabbles are common, though the galaxy is generally peaceful. The titular effect is a fundamental physical force similar to Gravity or electromagnetism, which (with the assistance of implanted Cybernetics, or "biotics") can be used in ways largely indistinguishable from Psionics; a network of "mass relays" is used for instantaneous Faster Than Light travel (see Matter Transmission). The game's main storyline is broadly linear with some multilinear elements (see Interactive Narrative) but quite complex, with many optional missions which do not affect the main plot. In essence, all the sentient races are in danger from the Reapers, artificially intelligent Berserkers which periodically return from outside the galaxy to eliminate technologically advanced civilizations; among their previous victims are the Protheans, the now extinct Forerunner race from whose abandoned spacecraft humanity learnt how to travel to the stars. Initially, the player is ignorant of this threat; ultimately, they must avert the Reapers' first strike.

Two main styles of play are offered by the game: action-oriented set-pieces which occupy most of the player's time on planets and long conversational sequences which occur on Spaceships and the Citadel, a gigantic Space Habitat. During combat the player is usually given control of a squad of three soldiers, who can be commanded either in real time (in the manner of a Third Person Shooter) or by pausing the game and issuing detailed instructions. There is considerable scope for role playing outside battle situations, with a great deal of choice in both the nature of the main character and what they can say. The player's character, a human military officer, can be male or female, with one of several possible personal histories and professions as well as a customized physical appearance. Some of the options available to the player initially proved contentious, notably the ability to form a same-sex romantic relationship with an alien if the main character is female, which resulted in the game being briefly banned in Singapore. The flexibility of the conversational system greatly assists with the creation of an alternate persona; it is possible to construct a preferred role and begin playing it almost without conscious thought. As in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), characters' behaviour is rated according to a moral scheme, in this case one that distinguishes between honour and expediency, and computer-controlled individuals' reactions to the player are affected by such assessments of their character. In Mass Effect, however, the ethical choices are generally less clear cut than in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. At one point, for example, the player may need to decide whether to commit genocide to eradicate the threat posed by a perhaps incurably aggressive alien race.

Mass Effect is undoubtedly one of the most wide-ranging sf CRPGs created to date. On occasion, this sense of scale can create its own problems; while the player can travel to many different solar systems, those that are not part of a specific mission tend to be quite uninteresting. Nevertheless, the game offers players a real chance to shape the events of a galaxy spanning Space Opera which draws on both the Military SF tradition exemplified by the television series Space: Above and Beyond (1995-1996) and the Sense of Wonder which distinguishes Babylon 5 (1993-1998).

The next game in the sequence is Mass Effect 2 (2010 BioWare, Win, XB360; 2011 PS3) designed by Casey Hudson, Preston Watamaniuk. The design of this work differs in several important respects from that of its predecessor. Notably, BioWare borrowed the Third Person Shooter form's emphasis on speed and fluidity in combat, as they had earlier taken a focus on strongly characterized and directed core narratives from Console Role Playing Games (see Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic). Action sequences are much faster paced as a result, though it is still possible to issue commands while the game is paused as well as fight in real time. Mass Effect 2 is also less interested in the details of character simulation than the original game, and offers fewer opportunities for the player to configure their virtual persona; the design is strongly focused on conversation and combat, with a few minor additions such as planetary mining. The narrative structure is reminiscent of one often seen in the middle volume of book trilogies, or the mid season episodes of TV shows; the (largely linear) main storyline is relatively simple, but is surrounded by optional missions in which the player can interact with the game's many strongly drawn and interesting characters. That primary plot begins on an ominous note, with the destruction of the player's ship (the Normandy) and the unavoidable death of their character. Several years later, the protagonist's corpse is revived by an underground human supremacist organization known as Cerberus, which wants them to investigate the mysterious disappearances of the populations of several human colony worlds. Eventually it emerges that the missing colonists have been abducted by a servant species of the Reapers, who are using them as raw material for the construction of a partially organic Berserker; the player must follow the kidnappers through a mass relay to the centre of the galaxy and attack a Space Habitat in orbit around a Black Hole. Interestingly, information which represents the set of decisions a player made in the first game can be ingested by its successor, ensuring that continuity is maintained and influencing the multilinear choices available in the second work.

The structure of Mass Effect 3 (2012 BioWare, PS3, Win, XB360) designed by Casey Hudson, Preston Watamaniuk is similar to that of its predecessor, though victory is perhaps harder to achieve. As this game begins, annihilation is coming; the Reapers have begun their final assault, and Earth is under attack. Participants must unite the galaxy's many alien species against the common enemy, fighting both Cerberus and the Reapers during a series of multilinear missions; completion of many of these diplomatic tasks requires players to make difficult choices. Many characters from the earlier games return, in ways which (as in Mass Effect 2) may be determined by the decisions the player made in those works. The Reapers justify their actions as an attempt to preserve intelligent species by incorporating their essential natures into the Berserkers' own designs and then making the organic races extinct before they can create the artificial intelligences that will otherwise inevitably destroy them. Ultimately a galactic alliance can be forged, allowing the player to construct a Prothean superweapon in Earth orbit and deploy it against the invaders, after which they can choose whether to attempt to destroy the enemy, control them, or merge with them. Regardless of the decision made, a sacrifice will be demanded; the mass relay network is destroyed, and the player's character will almost certainly die. The sequence continues with Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017 BioWare, PS4, Win, XBox One) designed by Ian S Frazier.

Considered as a whole, the games of the Mass Effect series depict a notably rich and varied fictional galaxy, one amply supplied with distinctive Alien species and civilizations. While these works offer far less freedom to roam than do such games as Fallout: New Vegas (see Fallout), they instead provide lengthy story arcs with appealing characters who add personal significance to the many choices their players must make. Ultimately, this degree of emotional depth may be incompatible with the licence to explore granted by Fallout: New Vegas. Regardless, the Mass Effect trilogy offers what may be the most impressive evocation of the Space Opera tradition yet seen in a Videogame.

Related works: Mass Effect: Galaxy (2009 BioWare, iOS) designed by Kevin Barrett is an action game, played in plan view, which follows a biotic supersoldier through a story intended to serve as a prequel for Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect: Infiltrator (2012 IronMonkey Studios, iOS) is a Third Person Shooter in which the player must covertly penetrate Cerberus bases and liberate prisoners. Both games received mixed reviews.

The Mass Effect games have received frequent and varied expansions. Bring Down The Sky (2008 BioWare, Win, XB360) is a pack for the first game which deals with an alien terrorist group's attempt to drop an asteroid on a human colony world, while Pinnacle Station (2009 BioWare, Win, XB360) extends the same work with a set of simulated combat missions. Expansions for Mass Effect 2 include Zaeed: The Price of Revenge (2010 BioWare, Win) and Kasumi: Stolen Memory (2010 BioWare, Win, XB360), which introduce new characters, Firewalker Pack (2010 BioWare, Win), which adds new equipment, and the combat-oriented Overlord (2010 BioWare, Win, XB360), in which the player must destroy a rogue AI. Lair of the Shadow Broker (2010 BioWare, Win, XB360) ties up a loose end from the first game, while Arrival (2011 BioWare, PS3, Win, XB360) extends the game's major plotline into a prequel for Mass Effect 3. Finally, Normandy Crash Site (2010 BioWare, Win) allows the player to visit the remains of the ship destroyed at the beginning of Mass Effect 2 and erect a memorial to its crew; much additional backstory is revealed. The first Mass Effect 3 expansion was From Ashes (2012 BioWare, PS3, Win, XB360), which adds a new character, the last remaining Prothean. The Resurgence Pack (2012 BioWare, PS3, Win, XB360) contains additional equipment and areas for use in competitive online play.

Drew Karpyshyn, lead writer for the first two games in the main series, has published three novels set in the milieu. Mass Effect: Revelation (2007) is a prequel to Mass Effect which expands significantly on its backstory, while Mass Effect: Ascension (2008), set after the end of that game, concentrates on humanity's research into the mental powers derived from the titular effect and Mass Effect: Retribution (2010) is a sequel to Mass Effect 2 which follows a secret Cerberus programme intended to fuse a human test subject with Berserker technology. These books were followed by Mass Effect: Deception (2012) by William C Dietz, a prequel to Mass Effect 3 which received unusually poor reviews. Mass Effect (2010-current) is an associated Comics series created by Mac Walters, lead writer on Mass Effect 3. [NT]

see also: Triple A.


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