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Doug Thompson

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“Mass Effect” was a long time coming for me. First I waited until the game was available for the personal computer. Then I waited for the price to go down about 40 percent.
It was worth the wait. Still, this great game reminds me of what I like least about role-playing games, which is why I didn’t rush out and buy this game when it was new.
You get some urgent mission to save the entire universe. But you’re a fool if you stick to the main point. Instead, the wise course is to go off on a bunch of side quests and level up while collecting great weapons.
It’s like being told you have to hurry to a burning building to rescue people, then finding out your odds improve if you go on a scavenger hunt first.
“Oblivion” is the prime example of this paradox. It’s a great game. However, you’re better off looking for experience and great weapons all over a massive map than saving the world from the unleashed forces of hell. Let the demons run around loose. I’ve got another spell to learn.
“Mass Effect” comes tantalizingly close to avoiding this problem. There is a point in the game where you’re told you have to find a long-lost mass relay, a sort of “booster” that allows rapid transit around the galaxy. You have no idea where it is. If you complete all three main quests, however, it appears on your map.
I pretend I’m not told about the third main mission until I’ve completed the first two and a bunch of side quests. Then the scavenger hunt can be justified as running around the universe on a near-hopeless search for the missing relay until you catch a break. That break comes when something terrible happens on one of the planets and your enemy sends his chief ally to fix it.
It helps that many of the scavenger hunt missions involve beating back attacks by your enemies. You really get the impression of doing some good that has a direct bearing on the main mission.
Why look for such continuity in a game that’s silly, as some people would call it? Should people playing a game in which they’re running around space while blowing up aliens really care about narrative structure?
Yes.
Any story should be told well if it’s going to be told at all.
Getting back to the gameplay, I liked “Mass Effect” but the characters weren’t nearly as deeply conceived and portrayed as those in the first “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic,” for instance. That one was also developed by the company Bioware.
HK-47 of “Knights” was one of the best characters ever conceived and realized in any game I’ve ever played and almost any book I’ve read. Let me put it this way: How many authors have you read who would convincingly create a character who’s a homicidal maniac and effective comic relief — and a robot? “There’s a 99 percent probability that the creature is telling the truth and a 1 percent chance he’s lying and should be blasted, but that 1 percent may just be wishful thinking on my part, master.”
Carth Onasi had issues in “Knights.” Even the hero had a shattering secret, every bit as predictable in hindsight as “I am your father.” Mission Vao had spunk, Jolee Bindo a wise, sarcastic bitterness, Juhani her demons and Bastila her vulnerabilities. Even the Wookie had a compelling backstory and the tough mercenary was a broken man by the end.
I became so sympathetic to those little pieces of fiction that I read through a walkthrough before playing the game “Dark Side” style. I’d been a “Light Side” saint each time and usually brought the whole gang through. I wanted to know what would happen to the team if I tried evil. I never started. I lost all interest after reading that I’d have to kill Mission.
The characters in “Mass Effect” aren’t so knowable. You play a straightforward action hero. A straightforward “special talent” assists you and you pick up some more one-dimensional types along the way.
No game can have everything, I guess, but “Mass Effect” comes closer than any game I’ve played in a while.

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