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Mass Effect 2: Best RPG of Its Generation?

Column By Som Pourfarzaneh on August 22, 2014

Somewhere out there in the inscrutable network of eBay delivery, there’s a PS4 that’s making its way excruciatingly slowly towards my apartment.  In preparation for this new addition to the family, I’ve been going through some older console games that have taken a back seat to newer titles and PC exclusives.  One of the games that has been collecting dust is Mass Effect 3, and I’m currently building up the mental energy required to tackle the long-winded capstone to Bioware’s scifi trilogy.

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Going through all of these games from the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation has given me pause to think about the highlights of that era, and inevitably, about how stunningly good was Mass Effect 2.  Like most everyone else in the industry, I have very fond memories of Bioware’s sophomore effort in the Mass Effect universe, which was expansive but tightly designed, story-based but action-packed, and cerebral but visceral.  ME2 expertly did what all good sequels do, in polishing and building upon the formula and setting established in the first game while serving as an overture for greater developments in the finale.

Looking back at Mass Effect 2, there are a number of things that stand out as being foundational, which to me represent barometers for all RPGs that have come before and since.  ME2’s reinterpretation of dramatic science fiction, as inspired by shows such as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, is a textbook example of how to bring a classic TV or movie genre to life through a newer medium.  Its combat, while still not as fluid as you’ll find in a full-fledged action game, was exciting, satisfying, and a far cry from the often awkward gameplay systems of preceding RPGs.  Perhaps most tellingly, Mass Effect 2’s story, in classic but evolved Bioware style, provided a sweeping narrative based on character development and interaction with one of the most compelling cast of characters so far to take a video game stage.

ME2 certainly has a number of competitors in the battle for the top RPG spot of its generation, with the caveat that the time period we’re looking at is fairly porous.  Oblivion and Skyrim tend to bookend the median of the Xbox 360’s and PS3’s critical popularity, and are two of my favorite games, but didn’t quite reach, in my mind, the directed gameplay experience offered by Mass Effect 2.  I really enjoyed The Witcher (and The Witcher 2 is another of those titles hanging around in my Steam library waiting to be played), but I don’t think that CD Projekt RED has quite perfected the formula for their games just yet.  Fallout 3 was amazing, but a bit rambling and bug-ridden compared to ME2’s focused and polished offering.  Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is probably a solid dark horse candidate, along with Fable 2, Xenoblade Chronicles, Dark Souls, and Bioware’s own Dragon Age: Origins.

Is it a bit early to be talking about the best games of the Xbox 360/PS3 (and Wii?) era?  Probably, considering the overlapping nature of console life cycles and the asynchronicity of PC hardware.  If our metrics are based on console game releases alone, the 360 and PS3 both have Dragon Age: Inquisition coming later this year and Persona 5 is set to release on PS3 in 2015.  We can also look to the Vita and 3DS for games like Persona 4: Golden and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, but who knows where they should fit in generationally.  Still, if we look at the time frame of the Xbox 360 launch in 2005 to, like, now, I think we’d be hard pressed to find a single-player RPG as foundational and formative as Mass Effect 2, particularly in terms of storytelling, world design, character development, and dialogue wheels.

One other caveat is that if we throw MMORPGs into the mix, we might encourage an even more lively discussion.  Most people would grudgingly acknowledge World of Warcraft’s influence on a number of different video game genres, even if they wouldn’t be willing to call it the “best” MMO or RPG of the time period.  Guild Wars 2, while not having quite the gorilla-sized success of Blizzard’s flagship MMO, has indeed captured the imagination of a vibrant and dedicated community who can speak to the game’s brilliant design philosophy and implementation.  I wouldn’t want to be the arbiter of any contest between a single-player RPG and an MMO, but I would say that I think today’s MMOs may be taking some cues from gameplay elements in the Mass Effect series, if only because the latter came first.

Is Mass Effect 2 the best single-player RPG of its generation?  I’m not sure I’d be willing to say that definitely just yet.  Heck, I’m not even sure I’m willing to say it’s MY favorite RPG of the Xbox 360/PS3 era.  I do think, however, that in retrospect, Bioware’s game has proven to be foundational, and serves as a benchmark for all other games of its type moving forward.  And this benchmark makes me extremely excited for whatever game seeks to do it one better, be it Dragon Age: Inquisition, Persona 5, The Witcher 3, or something else that we haven’t yet considered.

I’d like to know what you think - what’s your favorite RPG from the previous generation, and how do you define that era?

Som Pourfarzaneh / Som is a Staff Writer at MMORPG.com and an Associate Director & Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies.  He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600.  You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.

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