In our Defining A Generation series we take a look back at the current gaming generation as the new one arrives. We will be spotlighting the titles that really made this generation what it was. These games, whether top sellers or frustrating disappointments, from the sublime to the ridiculous, will have one thing in common; they embody, in part, the essence of what this gaming generation stood for; what made it unique. Join us as we take a magical mystery tour of the 360/PS3/Wii generation!
Ever console generation is defined by its games. They come in genres of all different kinds, from FPS titles to Platformers and many, many others, but for me there’s one genre that consistently produces stand-out titles: RPGs. By their very nature these titles are vast in size and scale, but more importantly their focus on narrative and character makes them more emotively engaging than most. Because of this, RPGs often retain an affection from their fans for a lifetime. One need only read my Ultima series of articles or look at games like Final Fantasy VII for examples of this enduring appeal.
Indeed, I’ve already discussed another massive RPG in this series in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, a game with several hundred hours of my time under its belt already.
However, to me there really is only one RPG series that truly defines this console generation: the Mass Effect trilogy.
It’s virtually impossible to discuss one of the Mass Effect games in isolation from the others. For those that don’t know, Mass Effect is a trilogy of games from Bioware, the undisputed masters of the gaming storytelling art, a tradition the Mass Effect games continue admirably.
You may have worked out by now that I’m something of a fan.
We all have a game or series of games that captures our imagination, burrows into our hearts and our minds and stays with us, that we knowingly or un-knowingly use as a benchmark to which we compare all other games we come across. For me, the Mass Effect Trilogy is one of those series, despite being comparatively recent. I tend towards RPG games as a genre and Mass Effect defines what, in my mind, a great RPG needs to be.
Bioware were the developers for the well-known and well-received Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games before they struck out on their own with Mass Effect. As such, there is not a little similarity to Mr Lucas’ opus, with parts being faintly reminiscent of Star wars and with some parts that are virtually cut-and-paste replication;, particularly the ‘biotic powers’ which may as well shout ‘Jedi’ when you use them. However, everything is so slick and refined you don’t really notice, though that may be me as a fan being more willing to suspend my disbelief beyond normal allowances, I admit.
And on the world; I have never come across a source that manages to create such a detailed and immersive world outside of the printed word. The setting, environments and the overall socio-ecological basis of the universe is developed with more subtlety and maturity than most films, let alone games; a medium where subtlety is often a foreign concept. The well-developed conversation system, where you are given a number of options with brief summaries to choose from as a response, allows the conversations to flow more realistically than in any game I have come across. It really is a major factor in drawing you in and making you suspend that disbelief.
I know I’ve discussed immersion before, but immersion really is the key word for this trilogy. The top notch voice acting and animation really do make you care about the characters and, in all honesty, it feels genuinely cinematic. I hate using that word too, (as I’d argue with anyone that games being cinematic usually means you’ll be sitting through a lot of FMVs), but here it is a valid description, as you watch an overarching narrative play out as you play. Not since Half Life 2 has a game so effectively told a story just by using on screen events and trusting the player to understand.
The series has something of a dichotomy as it progresses through its various iterations, however. The first game has you travelling across the galaxy, visiting planets, landing and exploring, which made you feel like you were really a space explorer and lent the game a feel of a vast physical scale. This was reined back extensively in the subsequent games, with planet visits limited to scanning for ore from space (just as exciting as it sounds that) and the galaxy hubs feeling not much more epic than a given region of Super Mario Land. Also, the areas in the latter games are much smaller and you’re more conscious of them being levels, in the true sense of the word in gaming context, which does hurt the immersion a bit. This narrowing of the feeling of physical scale is in complete contrast to the scale of the storyline, which build and builds to an epic crescendo as your focus expands from a single planet to a whole universe. The term space opera is one that sounds kind of silly, but that’s what it is; a modern sci-fi tale in the tradition of the epics of old.
So, taken as a whole, is the Mass Effect trilogy perfect? No, but then if you’re waiting on a perfect game, I suggest you give up now. What it is, though, is a game quite unlike any other you will have ever played. If you value a game with a narrative that will captivate you and keep you coming back and you’re one of those gamers who can’t help but do all the side missions and want to see a story develop, you must give this a go. The trilogy, given the chance, will account for several hundred hours of your life and, you know what, you’ll really feel it was time well spent.
The Mass Effect trilogy is one of those series of games you’ll tell your kids about in 20 years’ time and after all, isn’t that really the hallmark of a defining game of a generation?
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Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org