Monday, February 6, 2012

One month away...

Okay. It's only a month before Bioware's "Mass Effect 3" is released.

I can't overstate this: I'm getting to be beside myself with anticipation. I say that as a certifiably addicted fan of the "Mass Effect" series. I've played the first two games to death, yet at the same time I haven't played them enough. I'm fully ready to do the same with #3. Why do I say such things? Why have I been so hooked to "Mass Effect" since the first day I started it up and began that fateful mission to Eden Prime? What is it about these games, and why am I beyond ready to play the third and final(?) installment of what has been universally called one of the best video game series ever made? And why am I not the only one who feels that way?

If you haven't played "Mass Effect" or its sequel, it's hard to's even harder if you never played video games.

I've grown up with the evolution of video games...I've been there with "Pong", "Space Invaders", "Pac Man" and "Donkey Kong". I never really thought of myself as a gamer, though, until the age of the Sony PlayStation came along. I've loved to watch a good movie or read a good book, and that love became an aspiration to write myself. As story became more and more important in the process of making games, my attraction to games could only increase. I couldn't get enough of games that defined the PSOne like "Resident Evil", "Metal Gear Solid", and the seventh and eighth installments of "Final Fantasy", games that not only told a good story but immersed the gamer in alternate virutal worlds.

As much as I love action games -- especially first person shooters -- and adventure games, role playing video games always had a certain call to me. The RPG is often one of the most time-sucking experiences you can find, but when a game is made by the best in the business like "Final Fantasy", the loss of those hours is worth it. You get used to living under new rules in a fantastic new setting, while getting to know truly interesting and cool characters and building experience and strength from many battles against many different kinds of enemies as you work toward the game's conclusion. But all the time, there was one thing getting in the way of having a truly immersive experience: the fact that what you were doing didn't involve a whole lot of choice. Playing an RPG meant playing through a linear storyline with one set path and one possible conclusion at the end.

As video games have evolved, however, the freedom of deciding what one can do and when has been a desire game makers have done their best to answer. At first, games like "Grand Theft Auto" offered an experience like playing in a big sandbox, where you can do what you want when you want it. Still, that didn't put a whole lot of impact on the story. Then the RPG-FPS hybrid "Deus Ex" was created for the PC in 2000, and its quality and innovation brought it as close to the Choose Your Adventure form of storytelling as one could imagine, including giving the gamer the chance to choose the ending of the story. The game went so far as to give a wealth of options for fighting adversaries or avoiding them altogether...many gamers have gotten through "Deus Ex" without firing a single shot!

But then, a group of respected game developers from Canada took the most popular American science fiction mythos of the 20th Century and made something truly special.

The company of game developers, Bioware, created "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic" in 2003 for the Xbox and PC, and spared little effort in making an astounding action-RPG. It didn't just take the fictional mythology created by George Lucas (with his approval and the assistance of Lucasarts) to make Star Wars fun again for the first time since the original trilogy, it took role playing to an addicitve new level of immersion. Set four thousand years before the films to a time at the height of both the Old Republic and the Sith Empire and their conflict, the experience went surprisingly deeper than choosing your own path, and even how the game came to a close. You could not only choose what kind of character you could play, male or female, rogue or soldier or what have you, your ability to choose even included how you could interact with NPCs (non playable characters) and therefore not only drive the story along, determine your alignment with good (Light Side) or evil (Dark Side). When having a conversation with another character, you could choose from a menu list of noble, neutral or selfish responses, which would lead to an appropriately fitting reaction. At key moments, if you wanted to be REALLY evil, you can even kill supporting characters who are in your way, no longer of use, or just plain annoy you. (God, if only audiences had that ability while watching "The Phantom Menace", Jar Jar Binks would have been SO dead before he even had the chance to take Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to Gungan City!) As a dramatic side effect of making decisions that lean to the Dark Side, the appearance of the player's character gradually changes to look more evil, as well. The storytelling was impressive enough, including one of the most jaw-dropping twists you'll ever see in a story in any medium, but the overall freedom of choice made the experience all the sweeter. How can you not love a game where you could play a female Jedi and have a lesbian relationship with an alien cat girl -- no sex scenes, though, sorry! -- if you wanted? The fact this game won many Game of the Year accolades is testament enough to the love gamers felt.

The sequel to "KOTOR", "The Sith Lords", was created two years later, developed not by Bioware but by Obsidian Entertainment with Lucasarts for the Xbox and PC. Unfortunately, the second game wasn't as good as the first...the developer's need to rush the game to release made the experience incomplete, coupled with a story that just wasn't as good as the original's. Still, I liked the fact that the player's choices this time can not only visually change their character's appearance, but also the looks of the supporting characters. Why wasn't Bioware involved with "The Sith Lords"? Because they were focused on an original action-RPG, "Jade Empire", which arrived on the Xbox in 2005 and the PC in 2006. Set in a fictonal-mythical world inspired by ancient legends and lore of China, this game also used the tried and true gameplay and dialogue menu systems of the "KOTOR" games. The difference here was that instead of Light and Dark Side, a player could follow the in-game philosophies of either the Open Palm or the Closed Fist to decide what path they would take in the story. The game was given high praise, but some criticized its lack of depth.

In 2005, also, the Xbox 360 was brought to gamers as part of the next generation of consoles. It's appropriate to mention that because two years later, Bioware took everything they learned and devised from "KOTOR" and "Jade Empire" to create a new and original creation for the 360. As a result, they raised the bar of quality for video games in general.

The result was Bioware's "Mass Effect", a space opera in the tradition of "Star Wars".


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