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Mass Effect Trilogy (PlayStation 3) artwork

Mass Effect Trilogy (PlayStation 3) review

"The heart of Mass Effect is you, the player. Mass Effect is a series that succeeds in its details, rather than its broad strokes, and while the technology and themes of the story create a vivid setting, all of the details of that setting are decided by the player."

What is at the heart of Mass Effect’s story? The name might lead you to believe it’s the giant energy reduction devices, called Mass Effect drives, whose discovery has allowed humanity to mingle with alien races in a society spanning the entire galaxy. Or you might think it is the theme of enslavement and dominance which permeates the series and is seen on many levels, from the war against the Reapers to the creation of the genophage virus which decimates the Krogan population. A strong argument could also be made that the heart of the story lies with the crew of the Frigate Normandy, as they develop over the course of the trilogy, permanently changed by galactic war.

The truest answer is that the heart of Mass Effect is you, the player. Mass Effect is a series that succeeds in its details, rather than its broad strokes, and while the technology and themes of the story create a vivid setting, all of the details of that setting are decided by the player. It is these details that fans seem most interested in talking about, too. I kept a blog of each of my game sessions and the most common responses I got were questions about all the little nuances of my choices: “What did you say to the Illusive Man?” “How did you kill the Thorian?” “What were the results of the Quarian trial?” And of course, they would then tell me how they did things differently. Often my response to these tales was one of astonishment: “Really? I didn’t even know you could do that/save him/kill her.”

Mass Effect Trilogy asset

Again, the broad strokes of Mass Effect don’t really change for each player. Everyone is going to fight the Reapers, you’re all going to visit the same places and see the same things along the way, and it’s always going to culminate in a final choice at the very end. But the details are yours to create. And while many of them may not have an overt impact on the narrative, they nonetheless will end up defining the Shepherd you create as a unique entity. It is interactivity that the game’s story highlights, if not always flexibility.

Even the most cosmetic choice, your character’s appearance, can have a huge affect on how the story feels. There was a moment in Mass Effect 2 where my Shepherd had to wear a dress in order to infiltrate a high-society party. Someone who had built a slightly tanned, feminine-featured, long haired beauty as their Shepherd would see her really transform during this mission, and their scene may have fit right in with a hundred spy films staring a sexy femme fatale. For my Shepherd, the dress was like a joke--it couldn’t hide the streamlined and efficient haircut, the tight face and hard features that speak of someone who has lived a rough life and is prepared to face a rougher one. It couldn’t disguise those half lidded judging eyes. For this Shepherd, such a dress seemed like a closed door to me--a visual statement saying that here is a woman who knows nothing but war. When this battle is done, there’s not going to be anything for her--no social life that will accommodate her--no gathering that she will fit into. My Shepherd, just on her appearance alone, was a tragic figure, a woman doomed in peace time.

If you cannot tell from the above analysis, my Shepherd became more than a save file to me. She became a living character, even a close friend. Some of you may scoff at this idea, or tell me I should get a life, but is it really such a stretch? After all, how many people have built internet shrines to Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow, or talk about naming their children “Luke and Leia?” When we encounter a well written story, it becomes real for us. That is one of the powers of story. And in Mass Effect, that power is trebled by the fact that the player is often put in the role of the writer. It makes sense, then, that I fretted over my game like I would over a piece of writing. I made copies of my save file on PSN network and worried that my game would crash before I would be able to see the conclusion. Why? Because this felt unique to me; not like a book I could put down and pick up later, but something I was in the process of creating and whose details I might not be able to repeat again if lost.

The end result is that when I talk about the story of Mass Effect and Commander Shepherd, I talk about it in terms of my story, and my Shepherd. The extreme level of interactivity (not the same as flexibility) with the story brought me closer to the events of the game, to the point where I was emotionally invested in a way I haven’t been since the golden days of RPGs, with releases such as Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, and Final Fantasy VI.

Despite this praise, the trilogy is not without its problems. Each title in the series has its own issues. Mass Effect 1 is old, and it shows in outdated design. Too much of the game content involves side missions in copy-and-pasted environments, and the gunplay is clunky to the point that people who started with the later games will feel like they are playing an entirely different series. Mass Effect 2 has god awful hacking mini games that you have to play all the time, and is more of a series of side missions than an actual continuation of the main story. And Mass Effect 3 went overboard with fetch quests, had glitch and lag problems, and shot itself in the foot with a ridiculous promise to have an ending which took into account every decision a player had made in the trilogy--a promise it couldn’t live up to. Each game, in its own way, drops the ball at some point.

That said, there is no better way to experience the trilogy than in this collection. I was fortunate; this was my first time through, and so I was able to skip over the years of suspense between each title, avoid all the marketing build up from Bioware, and not get involved in any of the complaints over the ending. I would even argue that, when played in this fashion, a lot of the complaints over story and plot holes disappears. Partially because you are more clearly able to see a through line of tragedy throughout the story, and partially because you simply won’t have time to look around and note all the times that the ball is dropped. You’ll be too busy looking ahead, to the next mission, to the next choice. Regardless of whether you’re coming to Mass Effect for the first time or returning to the world, it’s clear that this is the way the series was meant to be played.


zippdementia's avatar
Community review by zippdementia (January 21, 2013)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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