Narrative RPGs are arguably all about choices and your power over choices. Choosing a class and a background lays the groundwork for the whole experience of a game and provides a springboard for roleplaying. In the first Mass Effect, for example, you're given two key choices at the beginning of the game that effectively select which version of Commander Shepard you want to inhabit. You decide the personal history and the psychology of Shepard. You decide whether they grew up as the nomadic child of navy officers or on the streets, and whether they matured into a scarred survivor, renowned war hero or a ruthlessly efficient commander.
Editor's note: Jordan Erica Webber is co-author with Eurogamer contributor Daniel Griliopoulos of the weighty tome Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us: (about life, philosophy and everything), out this month. We've asked her to write a few thoughts on video games as works of philosophy. Beware: there are spoilers for Soma, the Mass Effect and Fallout series ahead.
Whether you're traversing an expansive open world, climbing crumbling ruins or sneaking between shadowy city corners, the landscapes and environments we see in games have never been better. Gone are the days of miracle-growing trees popping up at certain draw distances. Instead, we have places and environments deliberately and carefully designed, and landscapes so realistic we can relate to them, be astonished by them, even yearn for them. Naturally, ever-improving graphical capabilities have a lot to do with this, because as environments get more realistic, we increasingly experience them as 'real', but there can be, and often is, so much more to it than just the technical ability to crank up the aesthetics.
Ask a Mass Effect fan to pick their favourite mission from the trilogy and you'll probably hear a range of responses. There's the Virmire level in Mass Effect 1, for example, where BioWare unexpectedly forced players to choose between two squadmates' lives. Then there's the superlative Suicide Mission finale of Mass Effect 2, perhaps the most intricately-plotted episode of the whole series. There are whole flowcharts to explain that one.
On the eve of Mass Effect Andromeda's EA/Origin Access trial and just a week out from the game's launch, we decided it was time to refresh our memories of gaming's greatest sci-fi trilogy.
Editor's note: With the recent release of Mass Effect Andromeda, quite possibly BioWare's worst RPG to date, we look back to one of its best. This retrospective first appeared on Eurogamer in June 2014.
Her name is Commander Shepard, though her friends call her anything from Jane to Shiva to Lydia. She's one of the most popular heroines in gaming history; a three-time galaxy saviour who takes no crap and wouldn't be caught dead in a chainmail bikini. To most, she's a long-haired redhead, but she's been seen trying other colours and styles. To some, she's a diplomat, to others, a ruthless, trigger-happy bitch.
Looking forward to Mass Effect 3? Of course you are. If you've only played the first two games, though, you've barely scratched the surface of BioWare's amazing sci-fi universe. There are books, comics and of course, a whole stack of downloadable add-ons that fill in the gaps, take you to places Shepard doesn't get to go, and explain details you may have missed - like exactly why everyone hates Cerberus so much. But which ones are worth your time, which are essential if you want to appreciate the full story, and which can be skipped? We've checked them all out. For you.
"Batman must save Gotham," says everyone's favorite butler/surgeon/IT guy Alfred during the third act of Batman: Arkham City. He's not kidding. If I allow Bats to fail at rescuing even one of serial killer Victor Szasz's hostages it's off to the game-over screen. Retry or quit, there is no fail.
The Mass Effect franchise has gone cross-platform, but for licensing reasons it's unlikely that PlayStation 3 owners will ever get a version of the original game for their console. This is something of a problem, because BioWare envisaged the series as an interlinked story where decisions you make in the first game have ramifications in both the sequel and this year's concluding chapter.
It's just over 11 years since we flipped the switch on Eurogamer and started pumping our thoughts about games out into the world, and this will be the seventh game of the year we've named in that time. Despite a few leftfield choices along the way though (Psychonauts in 2005 is still my favourite), we've never crowned an RPG - until today.
They got me again when I found the MSV Estevanico.
Yesterday, BioWare co-founder Dr. Greg Zeschuk delivered a keynote presentation to the Develop Conference in Brighton entitled Creative Game Development: How we do it at BioWare. In it, he discussed BioWare's rise from being two men in a Canadian garage to the triple-A developer it is today.
Bonnie and Clyde. Morecambe and Wise. Zeschuk and Muzyka. Only two of them sound like words made up by someone trying to cheat at Scrabble, but all of them are known for being highly successful partnerships. Whether you're all about murderous crime sprees, dancing with Angela Rippon or setting up Canadian development studios focused on producing globally successful role-playing videogames in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, it takes two to make an impact.
There was always the sense that Mass Effect was a console game where the ambitions of the developer were held back significantly by the technology utilised. BioWare's use of Unreal Engine 3 was an inspired choice in creating the look and feel of its epic space opera, but in terms of the basic performance level the Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect was legendarily disappointing.
Everyone is safe! If you've played Mass Effect 2 for more than a quarter of an hour (behaviour we recommend), nothing you read below will spoil anything. If you still haven't started playing, you might want to get that out of the way before you read page two, but you're quite safe until then.
People didn't really respond all that well to the unveiling of the new Mass Effect character Subject Zero. A troubled lady with attitude and tats, she looked like the kind of person you'd rather have blasted out into space through an air lock than get stuck in a lift with - a particularly poignant worry given the original Mass Effect's excessive elevator-based predilections.
I made a bit of an error with Mass Effect. Going for edgy realism, I designed my particular Shepard to resemble the western approach of Kilimanjaro after an improbable collision with an aerial crocodile farm - all rugged escarpments and pockmarked, gnarly-leather skin. He is not what you'd call a looker.
If you're a game developer who's prone to epileptic fits, repeated coronary occlusions, or regular spells of choking during lunch, you could do a lot worse than seek employment with BioWare, an RPG house run by not one, but two, MDs. With the release of Dragon Age: Origins looming, and a merger with stable-mate Mythic, the developer behind Warhammer Online, recently announced by parent company EA, we caught up with co-founder Dr Greg Zeschuk to discuss the ramifications of the new organisational structure, and what we can expect from the studio's latest, significantly darker take on fantasy. We also asked what he made of this strange lump on our neck. (It turned out to be peanut butter.)
By the end of BioWare's first Mass Effect game, regardless of the gender, facial features, moral alignment and sexual predilections of your own personal Commander Shepard (ours was a half-hearted moral fence-sitter with a tendency to try and screw anything that moved, despite the fact that he looked like an ageing sixth-form college lecturer), they were blasting into space as a fully-fledged Spectre agent, ready to kick off some serious intergalactic shenanigans. They were a pretty big wheel down at the cracker factory, in other words, but sometime soon after that - according to the sequel's enigmatic announcement trailer, at least - they promptly dropped dead.