|Now you know where all those "N7" t-shirts you see sometimes are from.|
Set about two hundred years in the future, Mass Effect is the pinnacle of their achievement to date. You play as Commander Shepard, male or female, tough and reckless or thoughtful and empathetic--you choose. The major storyline, involving an apparently indomitable race of super-intelligent machines known as Reapers, doesn't actually change all that much on the large scale, but your decisions affect which characters live and die, how you get from point A to point B, and every logistic and interpersonal relationship in between*.
ME is not the first series to focus on the player being able to make decisions that affect the world around them, but it may be the game that (to date anyway) most capitulates the sensation of actually having made these choices and owning up to what becomes of them. At least when I played it, I know I really felt as if I were in some sense Commander Shepard. Partly this is because my character looked like me, but also because the games allow me to approach situations at least in the same ballpark as how I would if I were really there. They have even allowed for the development of romantic interests in each game that really add to the emotional interest of the gamer without getting in the way too much or being too cheesy to take seriously.
|Liara T'Soni, one of the romantic possibilities in the game.|
Another aspect of the games that is commendable is how familiar they get you with the different species that populate the Milky Way. There is a real sense of community in the galaxy as they have created it, with all the good and bad blood that entails, and you are right in the thick of it. You start to understand how the races are different; you learn about their pasts and what they--as a culture--value.
It is not perfect. The first game is rather glitchy and is almost impossible to play for those who are not familiar with video games in general, which is a real shame considering these titles could go a long way toward inviting new people to experience the power of video games. The choices can sometimes feel like damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't scenarios. Not every possible side quest is as thrilling as one might hope, but these are minor issues in a game so packed with interesting characters, ideas, and decisions that two hours can pass by in the proverbial blink of an eye.
*I don't think I'll ever get over the fact that "in between" isn't "inbetween." Between between between.