Landing on the Citadel for the first time may well be my defining gaming memory of this generation. The feelings of awe I experienced when I saw Gears of War for the first time, or stepped out of the caves in Oblivion were magnificent and wondrous and incredible, but nothing compared to the moment I stepped out into the capital of Bioware's 'next gen' epic. The city streets, the dozens of alien cultures with their own languages, their own diplomacy, their own food. The regions, from the seedy Wards to the embassies of the Presidium to the concourse down at C-SEC or the nightclubs overlooking a view that promised a galaxy of worlds- a galaxy of cultures and civilizations and wonder.
[The Normandy was a character all in itself]
In a way, Mass Effect symbolised a lot of the hopes people had for the next generation of gaming. Stories as good as films, open worlds that felt like real ones, graphics that looked almost like real life. We're still waiting on all of them. But looking out into space in ME1, even though it was little more than a fancy skybox with some animated cars flying across, felt like looking at a bright future for the first time. For a generation of gamers tired of endless doom and gloom, of 'post-apocalyptic' nightmares and trips to hell on earth, Mass Effect symbolised a hopeful tomorrow, both for mankind and for gaming.
[Mass Effect promised a brighter future than most science fiction]
But still, Mass Effect was something of a disappointment. Reading the codex was an exercise in frustration- full of so many interesting worlds and cultures, and yet we visited a space station, a corporate outpost, and a succession of empty, (often) barren and abandoned worlds. ME1 felt like a tease if anything- a window into an amazing universe that you could see, but never touch. A tech demo, if you will, for what the next generation of RPGs might deliver, if only you gave them a chance.
It was also a deeply flawed game, suffering from Bioware's reluctance to move away from the core fanbase that had already complained about Jade Empire's 'dumbing down', but also subject to Microsoft's desire for a more mainstream RPG universe to support the fledgling 360 just months after Sony's competitor launched in the US. The fact that despite an atrocious combat system, serious frame rate issues on the 360 at launch (I believe it was later optimized via patch) and the minimal marketing it was given because Microsoft was focused on Halo 3's release (which had been several weeks earlier), Mass Effect was a success, is a testament to the strengths of the core game, and the IP that Bioware had built.
I don't play games set in worlds that don't interest me. You could have the most beautiful, fun and engaging RPG ever, but if it's set in Generic Fantasy Land #256 I won't give it the time of day. That's because stepping into another world is a key part of what makes an RPG (or action-adventure) so great. It doesn't have to be fictional, indeed the Uncharted series taps into the idea that there are incredible adventures to be had in our own, real, world, but it does have to be exciting and interesting. With Mass Effect, Bioware had established such a world, but it was only with the second game in the series that the player truly stepped into it.
From the sky-cars of Illium to the glowing storefronts of the Citadel (this time reduced to an airport shopping mall), from the cramped Quarian flotilla to a mysterious shipwreck deep in unknown space, from a lawless pirate-haven to a broken wasteland and to everywhere in between, Mass Effect 2 was a galaxy of worlds. Each meticulously detailed, each but a tease as to a greater culture of billions of aliens living their normal lives while Commander Shepard travels the galaxy.
[Sometimes a pretty background makes a whole lot of difference]
This illusion of a world greater than the few dozen corridors and four hub-worlds that make up almost every Bioware game is one of the company's greatest successes. Even though it is many times the size of Mass Effect, Skyrim feels 'small'. How is one supposed to accept that a supposedly great city (in Skyrim) is ten houses and a fort? In Mass Effect, Bioware realised that what one doesn't show is just as important as what one does. Ilium consists, for example, of three corridors and a couple of rooms to the side. But just because you can look out onto what seems like a gigantic city, it feels like a tiny part of a much greater world, and a much greater galaxy beyond that.
ME2 also perfected the sound of the franchise- pulsating ambient synth during combat and exploration, combined with more traditionally 'epic' music during cutscenes. The radio news too, which followed you across the galaxy from hub world to hub world, became more frequent, but remained punctuated with other stories about other places. You were a hero, certainly, but your story was far from the only one in Mass Effect's vast galaxy.
[One of the nice things about Mass Effect was the atmosphere of its more barren 'uncharted worlds']
Key to ME2's success as an RPG was its variety. Not just in the sense of the huge number of worlds the player visited, but also in the themes the game explored. Mass Effect 2 touched on debilitating disease and racism, it discussed systems of government and xenophobia. It looked into drug and alcohol addiction and even had things to say about inequality and what it means to be human. It would be naive to claim that Bioware intended to write a pure social commentary, but the game is still so much more than the basic storyline, which involves tracking down a species of kidnapping aliens who end up working for the Reapers. Indeed I would argue that Mass Effect 2's main 'plot' only exists to provide a template into which Bioware could slot any theme or story they like, which is actually a great thing.
The idea that Shepard's story is only one of so many that could be told in this universe is exhilarating. It is certainly a tragedy that the third game revolved so much about the Reaper war- I'd imagine most fans would much rather learn about Salarian harvest festivals or the intricacies of Elcor theatre, so rich is the universe Bioware created.
So why is Mass Effect 2 this generation's best RPG, especially with significant competition in the form of The Witcher 2, Fable II, Dragon Age: Origins and the new Deus Ex, not to mention more hardcore/action RPG titles like Torchlight, NWN2 and more? Because an RPG, contrary to the belief of a certain group of fedora-wearing internet morons, is not about stats or conversation skills. It is a game about roleplaying, and so its success should be measured in terms of how invested the player is in the world. Do they feel like a part of the story? Do they feel like they too are on the journey that the PC goes on?
[Mass Effect is up against tough competition for the title of this generation's best RPG franchise, not least from CDPR's magnificent Witcher sequel.]
Mass Effect is this generation's greatest RPG franchise because no series, before or after, has provoked as much debate on which choice you picked, who you romanced, who you killed or who you saved. That alone shows that, more than any RPG before it, Mass Effect fully immersed players into its world- and it is telling that, even after all the fuss over an ending many people hated, fans will still debate for hours about the merits of one choice over the other, or whether certain decisions were really 'good' or 'evil'.
Over five years, Bioware's universe became part of the lives of millions of gamers, in the same way that Harry Potter became part of the lives of millions of children (and adults) over the course of a decade. But Mass Effect had one crucial difference- for the first time in pop culture and gaming, a major, AAA franchise's narrative success hinged not on the pretty cutscenes the developers had built in advance, but on the choices players themselves made during the course of the game. Even if no journey was radically different, they were different enough to discuss. Mass Effect brought RPGs and choice in games into the mainstream in a way that even KOTOR or Oblivion never did, and for that it is worth celebrating.
I said at the beginning that my most cherished gaming memory this generation might be of arriving at the Citadel for the first time. I think in reality, though, it was an hour or so into Mass Effect 2. Standing at the bridge of my new ship, a galaxy and a game ahead of me, safe in the knowledge that I was at the start of an incredible journey. I was about to meet people from strange cultures, travel to distant worlds, fight weird alien creatures and discover more about a fantastic universe that I already knew and loved.
Most importantly, I was about to go on an adventure. And adventures are why I play games.
Thanks for reading!
Images credit: Dead End Thrills.