Mass Effect Review: Close Encounters of the Trilogy Kind
If there’s one topic that that comes up on this blog at every available opportunity, it’s Mass Effect. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If I didn’t discover this game after university, I probably wouldn’t still be a gamer today. For some, that would be a good thing since I wouldn’t be pontificating on modern gaming, the business of video games and the quality of games journalism.
Out of university, I played Mass Effect 1 on my laptop and immediately carried straight into Mass Effect 2. I loved this game so much that I played through each game three times for well over 200 hours in total before I started Mass Effect 3. That might even be on the low-end for people who love this franchise. What made me love this game so much that I devoted literally hundred of hours of my life to playing and writing about the franchise. Well, let’s start with the first one.
Off the top, I have to mention that this is a BioWare game. The legendary Canadian RPG maker gained its reputation on the back of excellent stories and characters. Mass Effect was something of a risk for the developer. They traditionally focused on licensed property on PC but Mass Effect was an original IP that made its debut on Xbox 360. Granted, BioWare successfully did the same with Jade Empire a couple of years previous to Mass Effect but this was a much bigger endeavor for the studio.
In Mass Effect, you assume the role of Commander Shepard, a soldier for the Human Systems Alliance. Shepard can be a man or woman, depending on your preference with a skill set (I’ll get into character classes later) and back story (which only really adds one side quest and some differing dialogue) of your choosing. He’s a candidate for a spot on the galactic government’s special ops force, SPECTRE. What’s supposed to be a simple evaluation mission involving the recovery of an ancient alien artifact at a human colony ends up being a complete disaster thanks to a sneak attack and an unexpected betrayal. The game starts as a simple case of finding out what a rogue SPECTRE, Saren, is after by attempting to steal the artifact and trying to stop him. This being a BioWare game (I almost wrote movie there which is fitting given the developer), things are not as they seem because, well, plot twists and spoilers.
Along the way, you meet new people and ally them to your cause of chasing Saren from one end of the galaxy to the other in a race against time to stop him before he can enact his master plan of galactic destruction. Of course, how this plays out during the game depends on your choices during the game. Unlike the BioWare-developed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic which had two distinct endings to the game, Mass Effect has one proper ending but a number of things could be different by game’s end that could be different based on your choices. To say that no two people will have the exact same Mass Effect experience is probably an exaggeration but not much of one.
Also playing into how the game sorts itself out is the morality system. Regular BioWare gamers are very familiar with their fondness for morality systems. You can play through this game either taking the morally correct or “good” stance, called Paragon, or the more evil “renegade” path (or some shade of grey in the middle). Playing through the game as a Paragon or Renegade won’t necessarily affect the final outcome of the game but choosing one moral path over the other will change various dialogue options available as well as how you’re perceived by other characters. Various Paragon or Renegade choices will also influence the story as it goes forward in Mass Effect and the other games in the trilogy. The effect of following one path over another, however, doesn’t seem as pronounced here as it is in Mass Effect 2 (from a visual standpoint) and 3 (in terms of the impact of your decisions).
The story is what drives this game forward. Immersing yourself in the story of the game is what makes it worthwhile in the end. The stakes get higher as the plot unfolds and as you get to know the other characters who are on your ship as your crew. And as you get deeper into the game, the more addicting the game gets and the more you push through to get to the end of your journey. Rushing through makes you miss out on a whole great big galaxy of side quests around you so maybe that’s not entirely a good thing. Regardless, BioWare knocks out a story so big and so good, it’s not a surprise that Hollywood is interest in a movie adaption and hastn’t figured out how to compress it into a two-hour movie.
The gameplay tends toward being like an RPG in the sort of traditional BioWare way. Action is a bit more free-flowing than you would’ve seen with Knights of the Old Republic or the Dungeons & Dragons licenced games. KOTOR had a quasi-turn-based combat system. In ME, you run and gun with your weapons. I won’t call this a pure shooter, however. You can aim dead centre on an enemy and still miss. That’s because your accuracy with a weapon is a function of the weapon’s accuracy rating, your skill with the selected weapon, if you’re firing your weapon quickly/continuously and if you’re actually aiming at your target as seemingly the least important criterion in shooting the enemy. That’s a very CRPG way of doing a shooter.
It’s not just lasers and shooting for you to experience in Mass Effect. There are some fun sci-fi powers to supplement the shooting. There are six classes for you to choose for your Shepard and one of each of the six classes are on your crew. Each class is limited to using certain guns and using class-specific special abilities. Soldiers can unleash powers to boost their weapons to turn aliens into Swiss cheese. There are tech powers which involve overloading shields, scrambling circuits and improving your team’s ability to hack various objects. The coolest sci-fi powers in Mass Effect, by a wide margin, are biotics, which are ME’s version of the force. You can disrupt enemy shields, lift them in the air, throw them against walls, slam them into the ground and, if you’re defensively minded, improve your own shields with a biotic barrier. Each class either uses just one of the soldier, tech or biotic powers or a combination of two. The game breaks up classes like this to encourage you to balance your team among the three power types and tailor your squad to each mission. While I found that I was mostly bringing characters I liked or those who I thought would have the most interesting things to say along on mission, the game would have been easier if I brought the right combination of classes.
Gameplay is broken up into about eight main story missions with a number of side quests. Each tend to follow a similar formula with the missions including the majority being on foot (and almost always involving shooting at some point) and a section in your six-wheel armored transport, called the Mako (a vehicle so loved that BioWare jettisoned it before ME2). In the main story missions, the pattern tends to be: arrive, dialogue, shoot, drive, shoot while driving, get out of the Mako, shoot some more and talk to end it. The different locations, enemies and NPCs that fill out the galaxy make the missions feel different enough that you don’t actually notice how similar the missions are until you put it into words.
The galactic side quests tend to be less forgiving in covering up the patterns in their construction. There are certain non-story worlds (usually there’s one interactive planet in a solar system) where you can land in your Mako and explore. The layout of the planets are similar with a square plot of land that is explorable and is covered with mountains, valleys and plains. The map will have three or four points of interest that you can drive to with a couple more for you to stumble upon but not on the map. There will always be a base of some sort (there are three different layouts frequently used) where you shoot people to achieve an end goal for that planet.
The side quests on main worlds (such as The Citadel and the story mission planets) often involve missions requiring talking to other characters to achieve a specific end and searching for items. These are interspersed frequently enough that they break up the rest of the game well. Aiding local law enforcement or helping out a diplomat gives you something to do other than going from Point A to Point B while shooting things en route to and at your destination.
I know that it sounds like I don’t like the gameplay (admittedly, I’m not a big fan of shooters), but the gameplay seemed to work for me. If you stick to the main set of missions, I think your perspective on the gameplay changes. The gameplay, while arguably very repetitive, is augmented so well by the story that it doesn’t feel like a chore to walk in, shoot and leave. In fact, you want to go in, shoot things and leave because that’s how you’re going to save the galaxy. That and unleashing biotic hell on enemies never seems to get old. Maybe that’s my problem with other shooters. Shooting enemies tends not to carry any weight because that’s all you ever do and the only goal is to get to the end of the level rather than something important or noble.
The biggest failing of the gameplay of ME1, by a wide margin, is the inventory system. I can understand why BioWare’s experience with RPGs makes it think that we want an in-depth inventory system to bolster the customization options but that doesn’t stop it from being a total annoyance. As you would expect, items for you inventory can be dropped by enemies or picked up from crates. You can carry up to 150 items in your inventory at any time between weapons, ammo, weapon mods, tech-based omni-tools, biotic amps, armor and armor mods for all of your characters. There’s no storage on your ship for it all either so if you pick up inventory item 151, you have to drop it (called converting to omni-gel). There’s no option for actually going into your inventory to drop an item so you can take the new one and you don’t have a chance to grab that item again because you’ve converted it to omni-gel.
Exacerbating that problem is that those 150 inventory items have to be used for four different weapon types, quite a few different ammo types, special boosters for tech and biotic powers and four different types armor for the various alien races that form your crew. All of these inventory items have two or three stats associated with them so you’re juggling different items for different situations. With all of these things to deal with, I felt as though I did as much forward thinking and work on managing my inventory as I did actually on the Normandy.
The gameplay isn’t revolutionary. It’s more or less an evolution of what we already expect from BioWare: The combination of different character classes. The essential story missions peppered with side quests to gather items/money/experience points. The force/biotics. The addition of real-time shooter combat (with the ability to pause action to plan and assign commands) does give it quite a different feel from other BioWare games.
The hardest part of going back nearly ten years to do a video game review is to talk about the graphics. Part of me wonders what the comparables would be for a ten-year-old game would be. The first one to come to mind is Uncharted which was probably had the best graphics in a game in 2007. The game, as one would expect from a BioWare, has sufficiently good graphics all things considered. They aren’t mindblowingly good but they are at least good enough to serve the purpose of immersing you in the Mass Effect galaxy.
The most noticeable flaw with the graphics are definitely the textures. Regardless of how high I turned up the texture details while maxing out my screen’s resolution, armor always seemed a little blurry and painted on. While you seldom notice the issues on either the armor or your ship, they’re definitely there. Most of the cutscenes are fully rendered in the game’s engine so the appearance of the letters “NORMANDY” on the side of your ship depend on what your texture settings are. The game is in Unreal Engine 3 and this is a limitation of many UE3 games so this shouldn’t surprise you. Granted, graphics never really were a key selling point for BioWare games anyway.
The long and short of the graphics is that they are good enough that you aren’t taken out of the world but not revolutionarily great either. Mind you, the optional film grain effect helps a bunch as it takes the shine out of the world and gives it a lived-in feel as though the world actually exists. That last sentence is something most filmmakers should note for CGI in their movies. Most movies (and even video games) have CGI with such vibrant colours and shiny textures that they don’t seem to belong in the world but look fake. Everything in Mass Effect looks like it belongs to a living universe. That was one of the strengths of Star Wars IV through VII.
Things definitely pick up when you start talking about the game’s audio. While the game definitely includes Star Trek and Star Wars as influences, the sweeping orchestral scores that are typical of those movies are not present in Mass Effect. It’s a very synthetic and electronic based soundtrack for this game which has Blade Runner and Dune as influences. The sound effects in the game are also unique to the Mass Effect world. The weapons have a more gun sound than laser sound while biotic and tech powers also have their own sounds different from sounds we typically hear for Force powers in Star Wars games or magic in other RPGs.
The voice acting is definitely where this game excels. Every character line, including your own Commander Shepard, is spoken. Even picking a male or female Shepard give you a unique voice actor (Fem Shep’s voice actress, Jennifer Hale, is widely considered the superior Shepard) with unique lines and dialogue possibilities for certain characters. Outside of the seven main characters (Shepard and the rest of your party), there aren’t a lot of unique dialogue options. That’s not surprising given the hundreds of characters who you can talk to. Still, BioWare should be commended for putting so much effort into the whole of the galaxy so there are so many people worth talking to.
I also think it’s worth noting that every aliens species even has its own distinct way of speaking, even if they don’t have unique languages. Salarians are highlighted with high-pitched, rapid speech. Asari sound almost human but tend towards a deepner, almost regal tone. The Krogan and Turians typically have deep voices but the Turians have a certain reverb to their voices that the gravelly Krogan voices don’t have. Quarian voices have a slightly Eastern European accent. Volus voices are muffled inside their breather suits. And Elcor speak with a slow pace in a monotone fashion. It’s another one of those little touches that gives Mass Effect a feel of a real universe. As much as I like Star Trek, I do wish that someone other than the Klingons had their own language or vocal trademarks.
Mass Effect isn’t a perfect game. I’m not sure that you’ll ever see one that properly is perfect even if they’re rated 10/10. At the time, though, this game was considered as close to perfection as possible for many gamers and critics. The familiar plot in an original universe with well-written and well-acted characters filling out the galaxy definitely plays well now as many of the games that have come since.
It was known upon release that BioWare wanted to make a trilogy. Any movie trilogy should be able to be watched consecutively. If you don’t want to play the Mass Effect games in succession, the game fails as a trilogy. After playing Mass Effect, there was never a doubt that the story had to keep going.
Mass Effect was reviewed on PC but is available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (as part of the Mass Effect Trilogy release). Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and whether you want to completely judge a franchise based on the first part of something that was designed as a three-part epic.