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.
Mike Laidlaw can still remember his first day at BioWare, even though it was over 15 years ago. He even remembers the date he answered the phone and found out he had got the job: 23rd December 2002. Laidlaw was used to answering the phone; at the time he was working at Bell, Canada's largest telecommunications company, in the province of Ontario. When Laidlaw first joined Bell's call centre, he worked the phones. Later, he got promoted to lead a team on the phones, "which was somehow way worse than being on the phones," Laidlaw told me last March, the day after his star turn at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. "I went in and said, I'm sorry, I'm quitting. I'm not coming in tomorrow. They said, 'you can't quit two days before Christmas! If you quit you'll never work here again!' I said, 'that is pretty much the plan, yes.' So I walked out, and a bunch of people high-fived me because - yay! - I got out."
I remember not being very taken by Mass Effect's main theme, the first time I heard it. Next to what I'd read about the game, a tale of alien liaisons and sizzling gun battles amid the stars, the title music seemed dreary, the wrong kind of spaced-out. A decade later, I listen to it while crossing a certain footbridge in London, on my way to the abandoned mall food court where I'm writing this. Somebody has scrawled "change" plus a few choice sentiments about austerity policies on the wall at one end. The council has repainted that bridge a few times in the years I've lived nearby - right now it's an incongruous green and purple pattern, like a coral reef hammered flat - and every time, that unknown soul has returned to scribble the message anew. A gesture of defiance, or ironic futility? I couldn't tell you, but as the languid drone of Vigil's Theme fills my skull, I read the words again, ponder their relevance to Mass Effect's storyline and find myself ludicrously close to tears.
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.
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.
Five years ago it was cover systems. Thanks to Gears of War, it got to the point where you couldn't go to the bathroom without being invited to crouch behind something by a whopping red icon. Then for a while it was experience systems in multiplayer. They had been done before, of course, but we can blame Call of Duty 4 for catapulting them to front of mind. Nowadays even 2D platform games on your mobile phone have XP systems.
Those poor old elevators. In case you haven't heard, one of Mass Effect's weirdest features has been officially shelved in favour of more load screens. Yes, the lifts were incredibly slow. For example, Mass Effect is a science-fiction RPG where male characters can fall in love with one of two female crewmates, and I chose Liara because the alternative, Ashley, hangs out in the Mako garage, and thanks to the lift sequence separating the garage from the rest of your spaceship this constituted an unworkable long-distance relationship. That slow. But at least they weren't load screens.
The first thing to establish about Mass Effect on PC is that it's not a port. "This is a conversion," explained BioWare demonstrator Chris Priestly. "BioWare hates ports." Considerable effort has been expended on adapting the science-fiction role-playing game from console to desktop. Not only does it have the well-documented control, inventory, and hot-key changes, but it also has gameplay improvements informed by community feedback on the 360 original. There are shorter loading times and faster elevators, and there's less texture-popping. Mass Effect PC also supports higher resolutions; Priestly illustrated this by focusing on Liara, whose freckles were apparently more visible (we were also shown the infamous sex scene so we could see for ourselves how ludicrous The Allegations were, which we found a little bizarre).
Please note! While it should go without saying, it seldom does in the world of the Internet: reading a guide to the final sections of a game is likely to spoil it for you if you haven't reached them on your own.
"I'm the tyranny of evil men," scowled Samuel L. Jackson, rather memorably. "But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be a shepherd". He could have saved himself a lot of silly bother by simply waiting fourteen years for Mass Effect to come out, since you can't help but be a shepherd in this one. Commander Shepard, to be precise (oh it's a perfect segue) and it's his/her adventure we're continuing today.
Saving the galaxy from a rogue Spectre agent and his army of mechanical zealots is the sort of undertaking that can, understandably, command a lot of your concentration. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't set aside a little "me-time" along the way. Sample local customs. Try a hobby, like cross stitch, electronics jamming or assault rifle training. Salvage the reputation of psychic space prostitute. That sort of thing. With that in mind, here's a different sort of game guide.
It is now dark when we walk home and birds are either dropping out of trees in frozen lumps or going somewhere much nicer for their holidays. And, as always happens, the shops are hoisting their Christmas decorations up and getting us all worried about buying presents because we never know what they want is it socks or aftershave. So, we thought we would join in.
Mass Effect is fast becoming one of the most anticipated games of this year. It's not surprising when you consider it's being developed by BioWare, the same studio which brought us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Not to mention the fact that it's looking superb, as we found out when we got the chance to go hands-on at a special preview event recently.
Being disappointed during a game demo isn't usually a good sign, but there are exceptions to the rule. We're at a preview event for Mass Effect - BioWare's hotly anticipated science-fiction RPG about buccaneering around the galaxy - and they've just revealed a plot spoiler. We're already looking forward to playing it and now they've gone and spoiled it by telling us all about the [Deletedeletedelete. Now you've spoiled it for me! Witch! - Ed]
A Most Wanted list you say? Cripes, whatever next: a Tips and Cheats pamphlet to go with Eurogamer's promotional Pacman Beach Ball cover mount? Still, it's the summer, there are precious few games around and, with an awful lot of new titles coming up towards the end of the year you might quite reasonably want to know which ones to keep an eye on.