This review-essay hybrid is spoiler-heavy, because I don't think there can be meaningful discussion of Mass Effect otherwise. If you have not yet completed Mass Effect do not read any further. I am not your average Mass Effect gamer. I played through the game multiple times to get the different permutations possible in the end. On the Xbox 360 I ended up having four complete character saves, all of them an infiltrator, because I had so much fun with the game and was so excited about the prospect of the game’s choices being carried over into the sequel. Of course, when the PC port came out with an improved user-interface, inventory system, and faster load times the entire Mass Effect package was soured by Bioware/EA’s DRM scheme which was complete with activation limits and no initial license-revoke tool. Then Circuit City was going out of business and I got the game for $15. My settings I recently played Mass Effect PC with, as well as time-played and my character build can be seen below:
My graphics settings for Mass Effect.
My total time played in Mass Effect near the end of the game.
How my Mass Effect character looked and was built near the end of the game.
As I am unabashedly biased in favor of Mass Effect, let me first open up with my criticisms of this game. The effort that was put into level design is questionable much of the time, as often you’ll find yourself herding your Shepard and teammates of choice through the same “pre-fabricated” colony buildings and mine shafts. Combat is literally hit or miss, with more of the latter as targeting enemies with skills is a challenge at best. Enemies will also make insane charges or “fly-by” attacks that make no sense in terms of strategy, and come to think of it, your allies will sometimes fall into this pattern too. Piloting the MAKO is a generous term to use because of imprecise driving controls, and having timed how long this takes, 4 min. and 30 seconds is way too long for a shield to recharge to full protective capacity. Creating a realistic looking character seems much more difficult than it should have been, and it’s hard to get a good idea of how your character actually looks until you’re actually in the game and moving around. There are all kinds of graphical issues, slow loading times and unbelievably long elevator rides, and problems that essentially make Mass Effect seem, in a word, sloppy. From my last play-through I captured the following footage illustrating some of these annoyances.
Some of the easier to capture annoyances I had with Mass Effect.
A common complaint that I don’t share with many other people I know who played Mass Effect is that of the pacing, particularly with the sheer amount of quests that are given in the Citadel starting area and how overwhelming that can be. Maybe it’s just my completionist play-style that overtakes me when playing Bioware games, but I had no problem with a full quest log and new tasks around every corner. Knocking quests out one at a time on the glorified space-station seemed quite achievable, and most if-not-all of said quests contributed to shedding more light on the masterfully created universe of Mass Effect.
Which is what really hooked me about Mass Effect: the vision of the Milky Way presented in Mass Effect turns out to be a fun, exciting, and unique galaxy to get immersed in. Almost everything from the technology to the inhabitants has displayable thoughtfulness to it, which I would argue stands in stark contrast to other space operas I enjoy like Star Trek, Star Wars, or Farscape. In these other sweeping science fiction visions, so much of everything is basically eye-dressing… ancillary and serving little to no purpose. Thinking about how many throw-away races, anomalies, situations, and plots litter these different franchises really makes me appreciate the focus and attention to detail that each encounter in Mass Effect really has.
Where similar universes in scope to Mass Effect will try and explain themselves with encyclopedias or handbooks sold to the most ardent of their respective fans, the in-game codex was so sufficient that the official message board community anticipating Mass Effect 2 had a fair amount of discussion about the retcon that was made to ammo, or more specifically “thermal clips.” For almost any other game that I can think of, most of the small “message board” segment of fans would essentially talk down such a change in lore to better suit game-play as an exercise in semantics at best and ultimately regard any complaints as a waste of forum space. This point illustrates to me that is Mass Effect Bioware succeeded at creating a viable universe that even such a minor detail as how ammo is discharged is a) strongly relevant to game mechanics, and b) is willingly discussed to some degree by more than a fringe of already fringey group.
This is similar with the races introduced in Mass Effect as well. While the total number of races introduced in the first game is small, I think this serves Mass Effect quite well. Each race has purpose, meaning, culture, and history: enough so that I found myself relatively jarred me when a stereotype I formed was effectively broken, and with some frequency. This is not to say that in all regards of Mass Effect that all races were created equal. The most enigmatic of the races is probably the least humanoid in the form of the Hanar, which amount to little more than talking space squids. If I was a writing a review of a Star Wars movie, that would probably be the greatest extent to which the Hanar could be portrayed, but this is Mass Effect. I can tell you that the Hanar seem to be aloof when it comes to day-to-day activities but are deeply concerned about religious matters and worship a past civilization as gods. Due to a side-quest, it became apparent the Hanar are evangelical to some extent, and I postulated (correctly I can argue, as it turns out from Mass Effect 2) that the Hanar had an imperial nature about them.
The other lesser-developed races of Mass Effect would be the Elcor and Volus peoples, who for the most part serve as little more than comic relief. Conveniently, the lack of explication on these races is offered in their uniquely “shared embassy” on the Citadel space station, where the player learns that they are effectively discriminated against unfairly by the more powerful or influential of the sapient races. While this explanation seems admittedly flimsy, that it exists at all is a testament to the attention to detail that Mass Effect was given, rather than many of the superficial constructs that Industrial Light & Magic, the Jim Henson studio, or whoever MGM uses put in front of the camera because, accurately in most cases, “they look cool.”
When, early in the course of Mass Effect’s story, the player learns that all sapient life in the galaxy is in grave danger, this realization actually carries some weight because the galaxy actually seems worth saving! This value that can be attached to the setting gives the story of Mass Effect a credibility that few other video game yarns can match. I can think of many examples of games that mocked a player’s choices, inadvertently or not. Included in this list would be Doom 3, which gives the player a choice to call for reinforcements that would likely become possessed and then used as a vanguard for a campaign against Earth, or refuse to carry the action out. Regardless, the transmission goes out. Bioshock’s big twist was probably one of my favorite moments in gaming because it took the position that whenever the controller is in a player’s hand they have no choice. Mass Effect’s story involves, instead, choices that fall into one of two categories: character development or plot-altering.
Character development choices are probably the more inconsequential of the two categories, and typically involve the player deciding whether to help an NPC out with a task or brush them off entirely, or the “tone” in which the player responds to a given circumstance that cannot be brushed off. These choices at face value appear to contribute little to the overall story of Mass Effect and serve to provide the player the opportunity to shape their character’s temperament through their alignment while at the same time enhancing in some small way Mass Effect’s galaxy. One of the memorable choices involves whether or not a mother should get her child genetically modified against the chance that it could die from the ailment that killed its father. Compared to some of the plot-altering choices, this decision seems to be petty in comparison to the greater task at hand, but despite that is still an interesting predicament which, like any good science fiction, requires that the player actually stop and think about a question that we’re already seeing crop up with contemporary technology in the real world. This is a fantastic example of how side-quests should be approached in all games, and what helps make Mass Effect stand out as a true work of art, even if most of the other side-quests are more in the realm of being forgettable.
The plot-altering choices in Mass Effect are much bigger in how they will (or can be seen as inferring to) impact the larger story of the game trilogy as a whole and have consequences. Some of these choices are pretty obvious in just what will happen, like deciding which character will be left behind to die, or if the player will go to the trouble of trying to avoid killing infected colonists or write them off and shoot through them to get to the root of a problem. Obviously, these feel like thinly veiled plot devices and don’t really foster the sense of freedom that true choice should. The real exception here is the decision to either let the Rachni queen die, as a menace that was supposedly eradicated at great cost to the rest of the galaxy, or try to reverse the possible mistake that the attempted genocide could be interpreted as. The situation really is thought-provoking as the outcome can possibly come back later to bite the player in the ass either way and the outcome is ultimately uncertain. Is racial guilt for something humanity wasn’t even responsible for enough of a reason to risk a well-developed galaxy full of interesting characters that is already at peril? Without the aforementioned value I attribute to Mass Effect’s setting this decision wouldn’t be worth this degree of reflection.
Mass Effect, like Dragon Age: Origins, hides the real story behind that of an impending menace. The crux of Mass Effect is humanity’s ascendancy into the galactic stage, and the choices are not about the ends but rather the means. To put Mass Effect into a real-world context a good historical example would be the European colonization of the Americas, which could have ended so differently if some key choices were examined with more scrutiny. Progress is inevitable, but will the player choose conquest or coexistence for humanity? This is the binary alignment system of Mass Effect, and much more than just choosing “good” or “bad” actions.
This decision isn’t as cut and dry as it may seem at face value, which is to Mass Effect’s credit. While the setting makes the galaxy of Mass Effect as a whole worth saving, some of its inhabitants will seemingly go to any means necessary to prove they are not, and they do so in a realistic capacity for the most part. Enter the Council, three representatives from the three most powerful and influential races in the game, and who hold Shepard’s leash. These people are bureaucrats in the strongest sense of the word and will constantly criticize, second-guess, and be condescending to the player as they rush blindly toward the oncoming cliff of epic destruction. Opting to save them in the end is one of the most difficult decisions I make in the entire game. Given the Council’s past and present treatment of the Volus, Elcor, and Rachni, is supporting the status quo really a “good” action? I find this amount of depth beyond simple right and wrong refreshing.
For all the reused assets and levels, there was some truly great level design in Mass Effect, which is crystallized in the final Citadel level. When the trusty elevator breaks down and Shepard and friends say “fuck it” and start scaling the side of the building instead with blazing guns, that’s when the designers at Bioware recognized their game-defining flaw and addressed it. Come to think of it, the MAKO crashing and burning, and being left behind is rather symbolic too. That entire sequence redefined the game-play experience for me as I raced to stop Saren and had no clue what surprise was in store for me next around each sweet, perfectly placed corner. I still get shivers thinking about that perfect level.
An improvement that I really found striking in the PC version of Mass Effect is how Demiurge Studios handled the security-bypasses and hacking, which was actually pretty fun compared to the unimaginative quick-time-event method that was employed in the Xbox flavor of the game, and even over what was employed in Mass Effect 2.
The entertaining bypass and decryption mini-game for Mass Effect in the PC version of the game.
I believe Wrex is one of the best characters I have had the pleasure to encounter in a video game. He is brilliant because Wrex represents a potential future for the other characters in the game. His people, the Krogans, fought a costly war for the bureaucrats of the galaxy and were repaid with betrayal that is effectively genocidal in nature. Wrex is defeated, as are his brethren, and are stuck in their own culturally and biologically driven behavior to fight. While Wrex is actually thoughtful enough to recognize that his people need to come together and try a different approach to actually survive, he himself isn’t above falling into the same cycle afflicting every other Krogan at the wrong end of Shepard & Co.’s guns.
Personal defeat makes Wrex’s evolution in the course of Mass Effect the most pronounced out of the entire cast. He’s literally along for the ride, unlike anyone else on the Normandy. His dialog is initially curt and to the point, but he starts dropping comments off-hand that practically have the player begging for more information, like the fact that he had previously met Saren before the events of the game started up. As the player starts peeling their way deeper into Wrex, the surprising thing isn’t finding an observant mind with a sharp tongue to match his wit, but rather hope. To prove that the journey is what really matters though, when Wrex finds a potential answer to cure the genophage, the respect that Wrex has in Shepard to set that hope aside and replace it with faith feels like it was actually earned and subsequently believable. If the player for whatever reason chooses not to invest in Wrex, his abrupt and needless death is quite fitting in every way imaginable.
The other character that I really liked was Garrus, or Garrus as a clone of Saren as Saren appeared in the prequel novel Mass Effect: Revelation. That Bioware put this character into the game was a clever move and Garrus serves as an effective foil to Wrex. Where Wrex is, for a good part of Mass Effect, disillusioned, Garrus is all too eager to get the opportunity to serve the greater good at the expense of anyone who gets in the way. That the player has the option to either foster this or try to mentor Garrus out of his natural predilection makes me ponder just how Garrus will fare at the end of the initial Mass Effect story arc.
A character that I think gets an unfair shake from many players is Ashley. Yes, Ashley is xenophobic and more often than not will strive to put humanity’s interests above any other consideration, but she’s also a warrior poet with a family history that puts her philosophy into a context that can be defended to an extent. It’s not like Ashley is some kind of loose cannon mutineer either, as the player can easily put Ashley in her place, so she’s at least willing to be a team player (unless that team consists of a manly Shepard with Liara and involves activities best left unmentioned). In regard to the race-centered self-interests, while this is perhaps most pronounced in Ashley, it is far from being a unique characteristic for her even on the Normandy, let alone off the ship. A paragon Shepard may in fact be one of the few examples of somebody even contemplating against this way of thinking that I can offer up, while everyone else either has prejudices or is neutral at best.
Ashley also provides one of the most classic sci-fi dialog segments in the game as there is a conversation about spirituality and a “higher power” that I really appreciated. While many connoisseurs of video games disregard such notions as outdated hocus pocus and superstition, the fact is that historically some degree of spirituality has been rooted in the foundations of the human psyche and this element will likely continue to persist wherever we go. The inclusion of this discussion in Mass Effect is just one more masterful brush-stroke on the part of the Bioware writing staff, and I find it amusingly ironic whenever somebody writes Ashley off as nothing more than a “Space Nazi.”
When it comes to criticism on a character, I have to agree when Kaidan comes up. Unlike Ashley, I'll be a hypocrite here and sum Kaidan up, and that can be achieved with the word “Byronic.” Where Ashley has some baggage, this seems to be all Kaidan can bring to the table; to be fair, I’m really not sure that, given his history, much more could have been done with him. My girlfriend disagrees with my assessment though, because the damage that Kaidan has dealt with isn't readily apparent as it is with other Byronic heroes unless the player really tries to get a deeper understanding of him. I never really thought about this type of hero being defined by how much attention they draw to themselves before, and it's a good point, and pretty remarkable that a videogame conversation enhanced how I look at character analysis. That said, I have a hard time disputing my original assessment that Kaidan is a simple character, and in turn, I don’t really give Kaidan much consideration when Mass Effect tries to make me choose his fate on Virmire.
I will admit that Kaidan does have one really compelling line. If, after Kaidan confronts the player to make a decision between a romantic relationship with either him or Liara and the player chooses him, he smugly says something to the effect of “what, you think I’ve never been in the position to have to make a choice before?” This makes me wonder if most of his talk wasn’t really just an act, but that alone wasn’t enough to dissuade me from thinking that Shepard losing Kaidan (and leaving Liara well enough alone) wouldn’t make for the more interesting story as it developed past the first game.
Speaking of Liara, I don’t really understand the fascination that some people have with this character. Unless there is something alluring about awkwardness with family members or in social situations, or archaeology is really just that cool, I can kind of take it or leave it regarding anything involving Liara. Maybe it’s just due to her being a somewhat exotic and incomprehensible humanoid, but bringing her along to off the Matriarch doesn’t seem as impactful as such a situation normally should, and I would expect her to express at least some anger at Shepard for the resulting events. Where Wrex’s faith in Shepard’s line of reasoning absolutely makes sense, Liara’s same faith feels incredibly flimsy in comparison. I don’t really want to say that Liara has all the backbone of a doormat, but it’s hard to argue anything else when she takes no issue whatsoever with Shepard wanting to keep her/his romance options as open and busy as possible, happily assuming that Kaidan rejecting a threesome means she is accepted. Maybe with a little more real-world experience Liara will grow into somebody more defining.
Fan-favorite Liara misses Shepard's point.
Tali is another fan-favorite I don’t quite get, but she has a couple of things working in her favor. The whole mystery angle in terms of her masked features can definitely pique the curiosity of the player, as can the whole vagrant theme and the persecution by almost everyone else of the Quarians as a whole. As a character, Tali also serves nicely in the function of giving the player elucidation on the Geth. There’s really not much more to say about Tali except that I was glad to see she would be returning in Mass Effect 2.
As video game antagonists go, Saren is really high up there for not only being an effective foil to Shepard, but being sympathetic as well. The only reason the player has any room to really doubt Saren when he says that nobody stands a chance against the reapers is because he lied to the Council about his involvement on Eden Prime at the start of the game (and his actions with Anderson in the Revelation novel). Otherwise, Saren has a valid point in that collusion with the Reapers could be the most beneficial action to take, especially as Saren possessed unique knowledge about them. I did love having the ability to talk/goad Saren into taking what little action he had left and free himself from Sovereign’s control. I really do wonder though if at any time during the development of Mass Effect the player could choose to be persuaded by Saren, and how differently the game could have turned out in that respect.
As things are though, I stand by my original assessment that Mass Effect is a great game despite the game-play working against it to a degree. Thanks to a rich setting with nearly infinite possibilities, and a cast of interesting, truly human characters of which some aren't even human at all, I think Mass Effect is the sci-fi intellectual property to keep an eye out for in the foreseeable future. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to start writing up my thoughts on Mass Effect 2!