Exploring Freedom In Mass Effect
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly seven years since the the first Mass Effect game was released on Xbox 360 (remember it was a Microsoft-published exclusive). The multitude of choices and wide-open sense of exploration still feel fresh in my mind after all this time and make Mass Effect 1 stand out to me when considering a feeling of freedom in gaming.
Before any gameplay whatsoever, you’re immediately given choices. You can tweak your class skills, a relatively common feature in certain RPGs, but also your appearance and backstory, which wasn’t. The most impressive technical feat, however, is the ability to choose your character’s gender. BioWare’s commitment to the player fully inhabiting their version of protagonist Commander Shepard was so deep that it invested untold extra money, time, and resources into two completely separate voice tracks and all sorts of small changes with NPCs and storylines. Think about how Mass Effect would have differed if the team would have gone the easier route and only allowed a male Shepard, whether you only played only as a female or used a gender swap to freshen up a second playthrough.
The Mass Effect series is quite possibly the finest example of meaningful storyline choice in gaming, and all the foundation started here. I loved the conversation wheel in which you decide on good, evil, or responses somewhere in the middle of the moral scale. Decisions range from how nice you are to a shopkeep to determining the whether the rachni species will become extinct or not. These galaxy-altering choices stand beside more intimate decisions like who you will romance and whether you will rescue crewmates Kaiden or Ashley from a nuclear blast.
The backdrop for all of this intrigue and drama fascinated me as well. I couldn’t help but touch down on every available planet to snoop around for side missions and collectibles. I know the Mako vehicle got a lot of complaints, but I enjoyed driving it around over the remote mineral scanning in Mass Effect 2. I’d take a wide lap around the terrain and then a diagonal cut through the center to make sure I’d seen everything. Granted, the planets weren’t always stunning, but this gave me more of a sense of the massive scale of the galaxy on a surface level. I’ll always remember standing atop alien cliffs sniping base guards from afar, circling thresher maws and blasting away at them with your cannon, and discovering wrecked ships containing resources and grim journals.
Now that Electronic Arts has confirmed that a new Mass Effect is in development, I’m looking forward to what new boundaries BioWare can break in regards to choice and exploration. But in the meantime of what will likely be a lengthy wait, wouldn’t it be awesome if EA released a new-gen Mass Effect trilogy on par with the detail and features of Microsoft’s Halo: The Master Chief Collection? I’d look forward to replaying the first game with updated visuals and some of the rough edges smoothed out more than all the others. For me, the star that started it all has always shone brightest.
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