Friends forever: Mass Effect 3 and the save game legacy

Friday, 9 March 2012 12:46 GMT By Alex Donaldson

Mass Effect 3 ships today, and one feature has everyone talking. Alex Donaldson looks back on BioWare’s unique triumph in keeping your Shepard alive for an entire generation.

Sometimes the consequences can be dire, adding more names to that memorial wall Garrus was staring at – and it’s impressive that the game can make you feel a pang of regret for a choice you made years ago. When we’re halfway through the next generation, and likely staring at releases of further Mass Effect titles and various copycats, it’s that which will be remembered.

There’s something touching about looking at a friend of mine staring at a memorial to others lost. It’s a list on a wall, names of people – some I knew, some I didn’t – that have been sacrificed to a common cause. It’s sad. He muses about one in particular, lost years prior, and it’s one of the few times I’ve heard regret in his voice. I feel sorry for him.

None of it is real. The friend is Garrus Vakarian, Mass Effect’s Turian rebel, and the way he expresses lament for those lost in Mass Effect tugs at the heart strings in ways that remind me that in their characters BioWare have built something truly special.

Mass Effect 3, out today, is the final chapter in the trilogy of Commander Shepard, and Garrus was undoubtedly my Shepard’s best friend. They were brothers in almost every sense from the moment they met in a medical clinic on the Citadel, Mass Effect’s centre of Galactic Society, with Shepard impressed at what a clean shot he landed on some criminal scum. Years later, he was the obvious choice to lead the second squad, second-in-command on a dangerous suicide mission.

As he contemplates those lost, he’s more than just a meathead gunsmith. His often sarcastic, dry tone, his burning sense of justice and his fear of losing more people he loved gives him depth. Were it not for the face, I’d say there was something human about him.

Brothers in arms

Here’s the thing about the Mass Effect series: in places it’s messy as hell. The animation is often hit-or-miss and it lacks the subtlety of other story-heavy games. For the last two episodes it’s stumbled in its efforts to find the right balance between third-person shooter and RPG. But thanks to the writing, little of that mattered to me.

The truth is that Mass Effect 3 is both a better shooter and a better RPG than its predecessor. It straddles the genres cleverly, offering up a complexity that’ll please RPG fans and a simplicity that means it can almost be played like a Gears of War title if you please.

The animation’s improved, but it’s still pants. It doesn’t mean much. I’d have come even if it’d been worse. What I played for was the story progression and to see how Shepard’s crew evolved.

There are a lot of impressive things about the Mass Effect series, including the sheer ambition of the first game, which laid detailed groundwork for lore and universe that would carry two sequels with few tweaks. How the team managed to fulfil their crazy-sounding promise of a massive trilogy this generation is also impressive, but the biggest triumph comes in a system conceived from the very beginning – the save game transfer.

The reason I care about Garrus, Liara and Tali more than, say, Uncharted’s Sully, Chloe and Elena is because they’ve not only followed me through thick and thin but because I feel as though I’ve shaped them over the course of several games.

I pushed Garrus to quit the Citadel Police in the first game, and in the second he nods to that as he guns down criminals as a mercenary. Liara’s gone from a naive scientist to a hardened commando-type, all a result of our adventures together.

Here, what felt like an immature opportunity to shoehorn sex into the game, now seems to mature in the final chapter. My Shepard and Liara felt like an item, talked like a couple. At one point Liara wishes she’d had a speech for a particularly big moment. What is she going to tell the grandchildren? We’ll make something up, my Shepard says.

It’s no longer space sex with a blue alien, something for Fox News to latch onto and complain about – like the rest of the game, it has matured. It makes it all the more gut-wrenching to go to war, because that bright future is in no way guaranteed.

Smoke and mirrors

A lot of it is illusion, of course – Garrus would be gunning down mercenaries with a different line of dialogue even if you’d encouraged him to keep doing things by the book or even if you’d never recruited him at all – but illusion is what makes games games.

It comes to a point where you begin to see context in lines of dialogue and pieces of animation that aren’t actually there. Liara reacts warmly to every Shepard when they meet in the third game, but I convinced myself she was warmer and more intimate with my Shepard because they’d been lovers and Shepard had been loyal.

The way BioWare’s smoke and mirrors play out is so satisfying that it doesn’t really bother me that deep down I know I’m being duped.

Mass Effect 3 goes to great lengths to improve the use of the save game data, too. Events that merely got you an email in the second game now have a greater effect in the third, and basic decisions – such as if you decided to sacrifice a chunk of the Alliance Fleet to save the Citadel Council – will now play into the war against the Reapers more directly.

Sometimes the consequences can be dire, adding more names to that memorial wall Garrus was staring at – and it’s impressive that the game can make you feel a pang of regret for a choice you made years ago.

When we’re halfway through the next generation, and likely staring at releases of further Mass Effect titles and various copycats, it’s that which will be remembered.

The legacy of this trilogy will be the way it deftly and cleverly used your save game data, not only to provide a compelling reason to come back next time, but to make you care.

There are aspects of Mass Effect 3 that are bound to leave fans disappointed, not in the least because after all this it’s very hard to account for every variable and harder still for the player to say goodbye to these characters and stories after so many years.

There’s a lot I want to talk about regarding the ending – and perhaps when you’ve all had the chance to complete it we can come back to that – but the fact that it’s hard to let go underlines what a triumph Mass Effect truly is.

For all BioWare’s shouting about an “all out galactic war,” that’s not what Mass Effect is about. It’s about the smaller stories, the relationship between your Shepard and a handful of people – admittedly vitally important people – across the galaxy.

It’s heart-wrenching to leave them behind. But the journey was sure as hell worth it.

Mass Effect 3 releases today for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.

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