It’s surprising that it’s come to this, but BioWare’s genre-bending RPG Mass Effect has become the torchbearer for pop science fiction. The handoff may be a function of the lull in the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, or the abject failures of the Matrix trilogy. But the ambitious space opera has, over the course of two increasingly confident outings, earned its role. It’s about time a videogame stepped up.
Mass Effect’s setting is best boiled down as Star Trek during wartime. Protagonist Commander Shepard is a ship’s captain trying to prepare a galaxy full of self-interested species for a massive invasion that nobody believes is coming. In Mass Effect 3, all those space-chickens come home to roost. The Reapers, ancient machines designed to reboot the galaxy when sentient life gets too uppity, finally come calling. In the game’s first moments, they strike Earth. We’ve seen our home invaded before, but Mass Effect 3 manages, with extreme economy, to make this attack mean something. That’s because BioWare immediately makes it personal. Players discover a young boy huddled in the smoldering ashes and offer to escort the boy to safety. “You can’t save me,” the kid says. And he’s right.
Shepard retreats from this failure to regroup and find a way to do the impossible—rally every fleet, army, and faction in the galaxy to team up and defeat the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Mass Effect 2 played like The Seven Samurai—players hopped the galaxy recruiting a team for a suicide mission. Mass Effect 3 feels less hemmed-in—the stakes are bigger, the strokes broader, and the outcomes more dramatic. Part of what makes Mass Effect 3 feel so personal is that players are constantly making interesting decisions. Personal interactions can be subtly spun by choices in conversation, but there are also huge needs-of-the-many decisions to make. Lives constantly hang in the balance. And by the end, players will have decided the fate of longtime friends, personal enemies, and entire species.
Many furrow their brows over BioWare’s streamlining of role-playing game mechanics, but Mass Effect 3 still feels like it gives players plenty of control over the way they play, develop their characters, and outfit their crews. The futzing just isn’t granular, and doesn’t require constant attention, like in Skyrim. Every so often, players equip, gear up, and get on with it. This willingness to jettison convention makes Mass Effect 3 effective. It’s a RPG that draws from the rest of modern gaming, smartly infusing twitch action and cinematic bluster into its DNA. Even though it’s talky, the game is propulsive. Missions wrap every hour or so, injecting an episodic vibe into the overarching plot. And the climaxes are doozies. Giant monsters grapple with towering robots. Fleets of spaceships clash and burn. And players are behind it all, insinuated into the action by involvement and intimate familiarity with all the players.
Prior generations needed action figures and homemade costumes to feel like they were part of their favorite science-fiction epic. Mass Effect 3 makes that kind of hero worship feel outmoded. By making every one of us the captain in our own saga, BioWare has retired the one-size-fits all of Kirk and Luke in favor of something much more flexible. Mass Effect 3 is what it feels like to be your own biggest fan.