I Need A Hero: Mass Effect 2

Martin Sheen, impressed by how important you are.

Mass Effect 2 is out, you lot. Thought I’d point it out, in case you haven’t seen an internet for the last week. It’s very good. Scratches a different spot to Dragon Age, but scratches it good. You want scratching, then swan over to your local games retailer sharpish, as it is, in my opinion, a rather important game.

That’s because there is a particular reason Mass Effect 2 is so successful. It was present in Mass Effect, but the first game’s flaws held it back somewhat. This time around, BioWare have excised all the rubbish and Mass Effect 2 stands proudly amidst the ranks of Absolutely Brilliant Games. For many reasons, but for one reason above all.

Because Mass Effect 2 (and, for the sake of fairness, Mass Effect) makes Commander Shepard the biggest dog in the game. S/he is the boss. Everyone is terrified of Shepard, or goggling with awe. Mass Effect works primarily as a stimulant injection straight to the ego. Shepard is a superman/woman, and playing Shepard is one of the most direct ways any game has managed to make the player feel like a real, last-hope-for-the-galaxy hero. Games keep telling us we’re important, that we’re heroes – Mass Effect makes us feel like titans.

Shepard, and by extension the player, is the most important person in Mass Effect. S/he strides around being heroic, brutal, and all stages in between with no changes at Do-What-You’re-Told-On-Sea. Shepard, within the constraints of the game’s narrative, is the prime mover and shaker. The galaxy reflects his/her actions, and has to suck it up.

This is exceptionally rare. I remember the shock, on playing the first Mass Effect, of finding myself in charge, directly responsible for pretty much everything. I wasn’t doing what I was told; I was doing the telling. And the punching in the face, and also the screaming abuse at anyone with the brass neck to look at me, natch. It was spectacular. It turned me into a bit of a monster, if I’m honest – Jackson Shepard may have saved the galaxy twice at the last count, but he’s no gentleman. In fact, he’s a rude obnoxious thug. Bless his hideously scarred glowing face.

Until Mass Effect, I was used to being the most important person in a purely meta sense – outside the game, I existed and was experiencing it, whereas everyone else was just an assembly of code and audio files – but being the big, baddest mofo in narrative terms very rarely happens. You might be hard, and you’re probably doing all the hard work, but you very rarely, if ever, get to take charge (except in management games, natch, but that’s a rather different issue). In fact, I’m trying to count games that have done this, and I’m struggling. Fallout 2? I made myself pretty important in post apocalyptic California. Champion boxer, made man, drug dealer, porn star, slaver, superviolent desperado – I did it all, and Fallout was unusually open to this style of play. Sure, there was a story somewhere, but it was quite happy for you to ignore it completely and wander the wasteland behaving in whatever morally repugnant fashion you chose. Oh how I chose.

Tommy Vercetti is another good example. Tommy is the man; the hardest, nastiest, psychotic-ist gangster in a world straining to accommodate a surplus of hard nasty psycho gangster. But Tommy, in something of a departure for Rockstar, is not only a genuine and unrepentant sociopath, but also the big cheese. Tommy takes charge. It makes no difference at all to the structure, but it does make the whole thing much more fun. It’s telling that CJ and Nico bored me stiff with their attempts to be sympathetic. It’s telling that Vice City is the only GTA game I’ve completed – I don’t want to work for some other crime boss. I want to be the crime boss. In Vice City, I was. I demonstrated this by driving over skyscraper roves on a superbike, and projecting a pair of enormous norks onto the skyline. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Bellic.

But otherwise, you’re always someone else’s lackey. Half-Life may be great and Gordon Freeman may be the hardest man to ever grow a ginger beard and wear NHS glasses, but he’s got the dynamism and charisma of an uncooked sausage. Considering that games are the perfect medium for making your audience feel like a magnificent hero (even when they’re actually sitting at home in their pants and dressing gown stuffing monster munch up their gob), it’s a terrible shame that more games don’t bother, simply falling back into the same Do What I Tell You routine.

A shame. So come on, EDRites. How about a roll of honour for games that give dynamism to the player character, the games that make you huge, powerful and important?

Inquiring minds want to know.

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2 Comments on “I Need A Hero: Mass Effect 2”

  1. nightjuju Says:

    Curse you. Curse you muchly! I am now playing Mass Effect. I have only played it or a short time, but am already addicted to the damned thing!

    The Citadel has gotten slightly tedious, but Wrex has provided some fun moments.
    I shall be playing it some more once I get back from work.

  2. Joe Says:

    Having just completed Dragon Age (on the first attempt, no less :P), I would say that it manages to make you feel important Some of the time, not all. While the ending makes you feel heroic (unless you’re the weird self-sacrificing type, anyway), and you do get to choose two monarchs, if you were Really important you’d get to choose yourself, at least if you’re a noble. Yes, you’re the only hope of Ferelden, and sometimes people even realise that, but it doesn’t stop them asking you to find lost children or pick pretty flowers. If I didn’t need the experience, I’d laugh in their face before I removed it.

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