The way I see it, every media has its defining Sci-Fi epic. For film it’s Star Wars. In TV it’s Star Trek. For Video Games, it’s without a doubt Mass Effect. Created in 2007 by Bioware, of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic fame, Mass Effect puts the player in the role of Commander Shepard, as he hunts down an Alien fugitive named Saren, as he leads an army of sentient machines known as the Geth in service to a higher power, lurking in the shadows; The Reapers.
What’s Shepard’s character? Well that’s dependent on you, the player. Your every action shapes how the universe perceives the main character, and at the same time how the player perceives the character. Maybe you’re a noble and charismatic ambassador, or a ruthless warrior who uses fear to force his enemies to back down. Of course there are plenty of games that allow you to make such choices and create a unique character, but Mass Effect is elevated above the standard affair in a manner that we will explore when we look at the sequel Mass Effect 2.
For now, we’ll focus on my Shepard; a war hero who will always seek the diplomatic route. However he’s not afraid to use intimidation to get his way. So I was pretty much trying to be Jack Bauer, with Vin Diesel’s face. I was going for the balanced approach. Usually this information would be inconsequential, but trust me, I’m going somewhere with this.
Conversations make up the majority of the game, split between a friendly or paragon response, a neutral response and a renegade response. Building your paragon or renegade bars allow you to accomplish goals without fighting, making your mission a lot easier.
There is also the option to ask for more information on a subject, but only if you’re inclined to learn more about the world. This is expanded through codex entries on the universe, which really help flesh out the universe. One of the major criticisms of the Star Wars prequel trilogy was the way it explained more about it’s universe, with a lot of attention being put into the existence of medichlorians, which give the Jedi Knights of the universe their psychic abilities. In Mass Effect it could be handled differently. How many players of Mass Effect know how the Biotic humans came to be? Or how they use their powers? Or how medi-gel works? If you just played through the story, you would never know. But that’s the beauty of Mass Effect; it’s all about choice.
Of course when diplomacy fails, the game comes down to it’s combat. Too bad the combat blows chunks. The combat portion is a 3rd person shooter with cover physics. Bad cover physics. It’s always a little sticky to get in and out of cover when you need to. For the majority of the game however the enemies will forsake cover in favor of rushing you, swarming you in a matter of seconds and helping you realize how useless the melee function is at causing damage. Strangely this only applies to the side missions, while enemies in the main story use cover to their advantage. You can make the argument that the AI works where it’s needed, but it also makes the side missions a pain in the ass, since auto saves apply to the beginning of the entire mission as opposes to when you enter a new area; again unlike the main story mode. This may not sound like incredibly infuriating aspects to the game, but trust me; we’re going to cover this bullshit in greater detail later.
Fortunately you have a variety of weapons and powers to customize your experience. Soldiers have more armour and can use all weapons; the assault rifle, sniper rifle and shotgun, in addition to your hand dandy side arm. Tech experts specialize in damaging shields, disrupting weapons and hacking machines, and biotic experts wreck havoc with force blasts and crippling attacks on organics. You can also choose characters with a mixed focus; a solider with biotics or tech, or a biotic with tech abilities. So you have a lot of flexibility, which a lot of games don’t offer.
On top of that you have your squad; each taking up one of the aforementioned classes and can be customized for specific situations. For example, you can be a soldier going into an area infested with mechs, so you take your combat/tech expert to help fight, while your engineer provides support. Or perhaps it’s a mystery. So a biotic commander can take a squad with both combat and tech specialties to cover all areas. There’s even a bar at the bottom of the squad select screen which tells you how balanced your team is. However, all the balance in the world won’t save you when your team has the intelligence of a sack of rocks. From standing in front of you while your trying to shoot, to ignoring your team commands and everything in-between; I don’t feel like I’m leading a badass squad of space marines, rather it’s more like I’m Baby sitting!
But this is a Bioware game, so all gear is customizable. You can add different mods to weapons and armour, giving your sniper expert the best rifle for his profession etc. It does drive obsessive compulsives like myself insane when you have to make sure that all gear is updated after every mission is update and organized properly, so I can sell what I don’t need immediately in order to keep it from messing up my inventory, but I digress. The amount of customization again plays into the major theme of the game; choice (if I seem to mention that Mass Effect is all about choice an lot, it’s only because I’m leading up to something in regards to the ending of Mass Effect 3. But let’s keep focused on this game for now.)
The other aspect to combat is the Mako ATV; a small tank used for exploring planets and driving segments. Now this is where the game really starts to get frustrating because the freaking car drives like a blind folded elephant with one of it’s feet sealed in a cement block! To compensate for the rough terrain you often find yourself in, the Mako has a tendency to bounce and flip over a lot. As a result you really need to stick to flat land, or your going to spend most of your commute in the air upside down. It gets worse when you enter combat; you can aim the vehicles gun to fire at a target while strafing, but if you hit a hill wrong your going to leave your self open as you go floating through the air. Imagine trying to concentrate on something to your left while pushing a shopping trolley at high speed. You just don’t stick to the ground in a way that feels comfortable.
And unfortunately you’re going to be spending a lot of time tolerating this thing.
I found myself avoiding using it for combat by sniping from the top of a hill. It’s a little more complicated, but at least the shooting mechanics work well at a distance.
This brings me to the uncharted planet mechanic; each system in the galactic overview has a planet where you can drive around in the Mako and explore. Each planet has it’s own mission and all feel unique, with different environments and the occasional risk of freezing or poisoning when on foot. Which would be cool, but unfortunately there are a few issues with these side planets.
Firstly, the structures on the planets are copy and pasted to hell. You have the option of warehouse A, warehouse B and mine. I realize that it would be a lot to ask for around 30 unique structures, but that doesn’t make the experience any less repetitive. Secondly there’s the aforementioned decrease in enemy AI in side missions, which leads me the third problem of auto saves. The game saves when you land on the planet automatically, and the rest are manual. So if you mess up you’re doing the whole planet again from the terrible vehicle sections. Perhaps I’ve become dumbed down by AutoSaves in recent years; I don’t have to worry about manually saving anymore when the game does it for me after all. But that doesn’t make the gameplay any less tedious and repetitive. I will give the game credit that these free roaming planets were ambitious. It had promise; I would usually scout from the top of a hill, and then send my team in on foot while I sniped from the cliffs. It feels very Battlefield-esc, in the best possible way. It could have used more polish and probably better hardware to help improve the experience. It’s a shame that the mechanic wasn’t improved in the later games, but the Mako segments were dropped in favor of improving other aspects.
The heart of the game however is the Normandy, your home ship from where you can chart a course from the galaxy map, or interact with your crew. You get to know each of their different quirks and personalities, helping to connect with them. There is also the possibility of romancing a crew member, which I somehow fell into with my team’s combat expert, Ashley. It’s actually strange because I wasn’t trying to romance her; my Shepard seemed like the type of person to keep people away in that regard, like he’d already lost so many already. To be honest I was just trying to be friendly with Ashley, and yet she and Shepard got together at the end. Normally this wouldn’t be worth noting, but once again, it’s important when talking about the sequels. Other love interests include Kaiden for the female player character, and Liara for either gender, since she’s is from an all female race that procreate psychically with any partner. You might think that this is some strange bi-sexual alien fantasy on the part of the writers, but the speices and their customs are treated with a lot of dignity and depth…and hotness, but I digress.
The idea of bonding comes to a head near the end when squad mates can die! In one case a member of the team, Wrex, is at odds with Shepard regarding the destruction of a lab which could help cure his race’s disease, which was slowly killing his race off. If you can’t convince him that it’s the right call, you’re forced to kill him. Fortunately I was able to save him on my play through, which AGAIN comes into play in the sequels, which is why I brought it up.
Another case involves saving either Kaiden or Ashley. I went with Ashley since she was also with a squad, as opposed to Kaiden who was with only a few. It came down to logic, “the needs of the many” and all that, but because I had formed an attachment, it was hard to let Kaiden die. It was something that stuck with me throughout the rest of the series. This is where Mass Effect really shines! It makes you care about your choices. There’s no right or wrong choice; it all comes down to what your Shepard will do, and ultimately what your own personal experience with the game is.
Throughout this review I have constantly repeated “I’m going somewhere with this” and “when we look at the sequels.” That’s because the magic of Mass Effect lies in its place as a series rather than as an individual game. For example you can play any Mario game and get an experience unique to that game. Playing Super Mario Bros will have little to no impact on your experience with Super Mario 3 for example (Super Mario 2 less so, considering that it’s an entirely different game), but Mass Effect requires every game in the series to fully explore it.
What does this mean? Well that will be the subject of the next Stuff I Remember, when we look at Mass Effect 2.