Before you pick up a copy of Bioware’s latest SF RPG masterpiece Mass Effect 3—available today for Xbox 360,PS3, and PC—know that there’s a wrong way to play.
“That’s unpossible,” you might cry in a Ralph Wiggum voice, to which I must ask, “How do you even know what Mass Effect 3 is, being trapped in 1994?” And also, you are incorrect. With well over 35,000 lines of dialogue and a tweaked reputation system that leaves more room for decisions between pure Paragon/Renegade morality than ever before, Mass Effect 3 is all about player choices.
So don’t make the easy ones.
1) Don’t play Mass Effect 3 as a newbie to the series.
This should be a no-brainer, but companies love trying to convince readers, viewers, and gamers that each installment of a series can stand on its own so as not to alienate any potential sales. Bioware is no different. Would you watch Return of the Jedi before seeing the other two films in the series? Do you begin A Song of Ice and Fire with A Storm of Swords? Of course not. Bioware gives new players a chance to jump into the final battle against the Reaper by making key decisions for them from the start. There’s also James Vega, a noob to the crew of your starship the Normandy, who’s there for expository questions. He’s voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.; don’t be that guy.
If you played the first two games and have a saved file ready to import, you’ve got a Commander Shepard with about 80 hours and 1,000 decisions behind her. That’s incredible.
While I personally think it would be criminal to skip the first Mass Effect, it’s a few years old and that makes all the difference in graphics and gameplay. It’s the shortest game of the series and its side missions are awfully repetitive. And slow as shit, given your ground vehicle is the Mako, an intergalactic Pinto. You’d be missing out on some awe-inspiring moments and a rather lovely soundtrack, but to miss out on 2010’s mega bestseller Mass Effect 2? Never.
Calling the Mass Effect universe “the greatest science fiction universe of our generation” is a bit hyperbolic for me, but it is a wonderfully vibrant pastiche of some of the best SF to come before. It’s got the color of Farscape, the intergalactic alliances and all the assorted intrigues of Star Trek, the gritty tough calls of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (and two shared actors in Michael Hogan and Tricia Helfer) and the bug-hunts of Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers. And you are there to kick ass and take names through all of it. Why jump in at the end?
2) Don’t play as the default male Commander Shepard.
Some people are a bit lazy and like to play a game right out of the box. You’d be missing out an opportunity to create a character that is truly yours. Moreover, most Mass Effect fans will gladly tell you that FemShep is the best Shep. Jennifer Hale is a truly gifted voice actor and her inspiring speeches (and not-so-veiled threats) are a lot more nuanced than the generic dude-bro deliveries of the male counterpart.
Last summer there was a flap about Bioware letting long-suffering FemShep fans vote for a new default Commander to appear on promotional materials. Basically, it was an insulting beauty pageant where, naturally, the white, blond-haired, blue-eyed model won. A second round of voting decided that default FemShep would at least be a redhead. To the future! While I can understand the outrage as a female gamer sick to death of the way most women and minorities are represented in games, I wasn’t actually that mad. Disappointed, maybe. But not mad.
It doesn’t matter who’s on the box because my Commander Shepard has light brown skin, an aquiline nose, a gamine haircut, and never steps onto the CIC without her eyeliner. She suckerpunches aliens twice her size, shows mercy to the Rachni, and gets blackout drunk at the bar on the Citadel. She let that racist Ashley Williams die on Virmire. She seduced Garrus, the Abed of the Normandy. (By that I mean Garrus is also a lovable but awkward bird-man.)
In short, my Commander Shepard is frakking awesome and no one can play her but me. Make your own Commander Shepard. Make him or her be as heroic, intimidating, and unpredictable as you like.
3) Don’t play Action or Story Mode.
In Mass Effect 3, you get three choices for gameplay. Mass Effect is an action series after all, and you will need your weapons and some basic battle tactics to survive an intergalactic war. Action, as the name implies, amps up the combat but makes the dialogue choice in the 82 minutes of cutscenes automatic. Why bother playing one of the best role-playing games in town if all you want to do is shoot things? Go play Call of Duty. You’re not welcome here. Though I’m sure I’ll be seeing your type griefing other players in Mass Effect 3’s new multiplayer mode. Joy. Can’t wait.
But to go too far to the opposite extreme and play Story Mode, where the combat is easy and dialogue selection is manual, removes all of the challenge from the game. Look, I’m not the best shot. I suck as a tactician. If I were in a war movie, I’d be the twitchy little guy who fires blindly in the middle of a battle, screaming like crazy and only hitting his target 40% of the time.
But playing Mass Effect 3 in the standard RPG Mode gives players the most fulfilling experience. When I actually do stop panicking in a room full of of angry Geth, think clearly, and use my squadmates to wear down enemies, I get that warm and fuzzy approximation of accomplishment that only a gamer can know. It makes me think my Commander Shepard is that much cooler. That the cover and squadmate systems have been tweaked for optimal performance makes me that much more excited to go out there and save the galaxy from annihilation.
With a few reloads along the way. It’s okay. No one’s judging.
To that note, there’s a fourth way to play Mass Effect 3 wrong:
4) Listen to what I say.
I’d think you were crazy if you came into this franchise cold. Would you even know to get excited if you saw a space-monkey show up? Were you there to experience the outrage of getting dumped by your pretend-boyfriend via email? (This actually happens in Mass Effect 2! The nerve!) Did you get a little misty-eyed when Shepard was named the first human Spectre in known space?
Just because I identify with a heterosexual female mostly-Paragon Shepard doesn’t mean you can’t play as a Renegade gay male. Or an asari-sexual completely neutral party. There’s really no wrong way to play Mass Effect 3, so long as you enjoy the hours of work that went into bringing this epic, interactive experience to a rousing conclusion.
It’s your universe, after all.
Visit the official Mass Effect 3 site for more info.