If you haven’t read our Mass Effect 3 review yet, we strongly recommend you do. While the publishing sequence may not be in line with the game’s chronology, there are several reasons as to why we chose to do a retrospective review of Mass Effect 3 before Mass Effect 1 and 2.
First, Mass Effect 3 is an encapsulation of Bioware’s recent development philosophy – and therefore it helps us to understand where Bioware is, and how they’ve developed over the years. This understanding contextualizes a lot of our analysis. Second, Mass Effect 3 is an end product, so they’re technically not as constrained by the technology and budget of the previous two games. Thirdly and finally, Mass Effect 3 is a polished product.
Mass Effect isn’t. It’s a buggy, sluggish, rough, and heart-filled endeavor that seems more like a transitional piece in the same vein as Dragon Age: Origins. However, whereas Dragon Age: Origins (review here) is a call back to Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect is more of a call back to Knights of the Old Republic.
If you haven’t played the Mass Effect series before, we urge you to play it before Mass Effect 2 and 3, if at all possible. It’s a smartly constructed – and tightly written – story with a good amount of characterization that’s become the hallmark of Bioware: wordy, talkative, and brooding. But none of it comes off as over-dramatic or cartoon-ish.
But it’s also primitive. The game is transitional – it borrows much of its inventory and some of its combat mechanics from Knights of the Old Republic, and its macro-arc retains the 4-major location plot structure. Ultimately, it’s not a crazy leap forward in terms of narrative, but it’s remarkably different in many instances.
Mass Effect is about the widely-feared or lauded – depending on how you play – Commander Shepard, a space soldier of varying origin whose call of duty is to be the first human Spectre. Spectres, agents of the Council – a collection of influential races in the not-too-distant future – are the left hand and first line of defense of an otherwise peaceful hegemony. The Spectres are a mix of Jedi, detectives, and “the bad cop”, given free reign to marshal in or destroy any threat the Council deems of worthwhile note.
The beginning of Mass Effect is the beginning of Shepard’s largest arc in his or her story: Shepard is chosen as the first human candidate for Spectre-ship, but a rogue Spectre by the name of Saren Arterius sabotages his evaluation by attacking the nascent colony of Eden Prime alongside a mysterious robotic military force called the Geth.
After a lengthy investigation, Shepard finds out that Saren has gone rogue and is acting on behalf of a mythical alien robot race – the Reapers – and it’s up to Shepard and his erstwhile crew of crack elites aboard the SSV Normandy to stop them. Along the way, Shepard is forced to make some tough decisions, punch some aliens, and shoot up several complexes with blatant disregard of the consequences.
In terms of a mesostructure, Mass Effect isn’t that bad. Yes, there are long elevator rides and lengthy and somewhat inane quests, but their locations are sequenced in a way that you can do most of these quests in batches and then resolve their respective stories or conflicts en masse. Since the story depends upon you finishing the main quests before it can nullify minor ones, you can schedule your time out pretty well.
In fact, most quests are resolved mechanically rather than through narrative. When you shoot up the compound of Thorian subjects or you find Wrex’s armor, there’s no need to return to the quest-giver for a cutscene: it’s marked as completed or it progresses to the next point in the quest. Once you spend a considerable amount of time knocking off quests bit by bit, there’s a massive payoff in the form of en masse completion that comes with doing quests by the handful. Furthermore, there’s no urgency for this sort of situation; you’re given a surprising amount of freedom to roam and explore the galaxy at will.
And that’s where Mass Effect differs the most from Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. Whereas Mass Effect 2 and 3 focus around a clear conflict with clear narrative logistics, Mass Effect is free to be messy and muddy; it says that you should get to the beacons and follow Saren and try and stop him, but it doesn’t really press that urgency as much as the missing human colonists in Mass Effect 2 or the Reaper Invasion in Mass Effect 3.
Because exploration is widely encouraged, there’s a berth of love and effort in Bioware’s franchise debut that’s quite rare among the industry. Being able to land on desolate planets and explore and see what’s there, read their codices, and perhaps shoot up some wildlife in peppy technopunk music are all phenomenal staples of Mass Effect. In Mass Effect 2 and 3, you don’t have that exploration – you move to very clear centers of civilization, where conflict is the nexus for all of your mechanical interactions. In Mass Effect, you can get lost in the far reaches of the galaxy and have all your credits be stolen by alien cows, get lost in the frightening visage of a red giant hanging lazily in the sky, or run across a sudden Thresher Maw.
It has a very experimental feel to it, and there’s moments where you can see that Bioware is trying their hardest to change and adapt what they knew at that point into something that felt a bit more, dare we say it, modern. The transition from the Dungeons & Dragons d20 system to a more shooter-styled-yet-still-RPG system was troublesome for Bioware, and it shows. Pea-shooter responsiveness, an unfriendly heating system, terrible scopes and sights, and blandly sounding firing makes combat feel chore-like. For instance, trying to line up shots through a scope at lower levels is monstrously challenging, to the point that it dissuaded us from sniping entirely. It’s only after you invest more points into sniping that it becomes a worthwhile endeavor, but the problem is that there’s a cost associated with that precision . At best, it’s a leveling system that somewhat works against you; at worst, it’s outright hostile.
It’s even more troublesome when you’re stuck in the Mako – an unrelentingly poor behemoth of a player-controlled vehicle – and you need to drive from checkpoint to checkpoint or eliminate foes. The Mako’s controls and handling are so feathery and prone to skids that the experience falls only slightly short of hellish. Too many times we became stuck having to stop the Mako entirely so we could line up a shot to eliminate an enemy. On higher difficulties where enemies become adept at flanking you, that strategy will get you killed. In most instances, its armaments were decorative and unnecessary – you’d have a much easier time eliminating foes by running them over instead of trying to blast them apart. Bioware’s decision to remove the Mako in Mass Effect 2 and 3 and have it focus entirely on Shepard in rail-shooter scenarios is a vast improvement.
But as much as we hate the Mako as a mechanical component, we can’t hate what it stands for. Mass Effect is at its strongest when trying to replicate a new, foreign environment. It was the introduction of a new IP, with new aliens, new enemies and new stories to tell. What better way to introduce that, other than explorable planets? To be fair, many of the planets are nothing more than slabs of drab terrain hurriedly mashed together with odd texture packs, but it’s the exploration and the weirdness of the galaxy that counts.
We loved landing and looking at alien skies – sketchy graphics be damned. We loved being able to cruise like a madman on some ash-choked smuggler’s hellhole somewhere in the middle of the galaxy, blasting Geth and taking names. Bioware’s decision to introduce us to this galaxy by showing us its inhabitants and complexity through exploration and storytelling is what makes this game work.
Yet ultimately, Mass Effect is a game where its story has aged far better than its mechanics. We first played Mass Effect when on its release but going back to it now, we have a new-found appreciation for its political systems. Its characters are somewhat reminiscent of a Gramscian, cultural hegemonic system – where every single alien has their own idea of common sense; and Shepard and the Normandy are actors that push against it. For instance, the idea of a mechanical, super-robot force isn’t something that the Council is comfortable with – nor is it something they believe in – because their understanding of the galaxy and its inhabitants is far larger and longer than the humans. When we see callousness and experimentation, it’s by the pro-human group Cerberus, and nobody else. When we hear of the Krogan genophage, Shepard’s initial response is that the humans experienced the same thing.
It’s a veritable culture shock that mirrors the player’s lack of information of the universe around them. The player can grow to understand Shepard and his or her position, and how that position influences the people on the Normandy and in the galaxy. For instance, we know that Shepard can be distrusting of the Turians, because of the conflict which occurred between the two races prior to the storyline. By getting to know Garrus, we learn that Turians are hard, rigidly structured citizens of a futuristic Platonist timarchy. By getting to know Kaidan, we learn that aliens and our conception of humanity extends to them: greed, envy, fear, and just being a giant dick are facets that all aliens share as we come across them in the galaxy.
By the end of the game, we start seeing past Tali’s mask, Wrex’s hump or the color of Liara’s skin. Instead, we find ourselves looking at desperate, scarred, and growing individuals; we find people.
Credit need to be given to the writing of the characters of the Normandy – most of the people you come across in Mass Effect are mainly there for the sake of the plot, but your crew members are the main drivers for your understanding of the game and its universe. You learn about the struggles of Krogan sterility from Wrex; you learn about the flaws in Turian conservatism from Garrus; and you learn about the challenges and failures of the Quarians from Tali.
Even the humans – Kaidan and Ashley – reveal striking developments in human history and behavior that not only provides subtle exposition and backdrop, but also grounds them as human beings. We know that religion remains in the face of aliens because Ashley is religious, but we also learn that Ashley is…well, religious. We know that humanity’s romance with the final frontier was quickly extinguished, but in doing so we also learn that such romanticism was partly paved by bloodied noses, migraines, and racism.
When it came to make the decisions that mattered – such as whether you should shoot Wrex or not, whether you sacrifice Ashley or Kaidan – they’re not only decisions that talk to the player as a moral decision maker, but also as a person, making a judgment on relationship values. Whether you chose to have Wrex stand down or not depends upon not only the larger moral backdrop and the story, but also whether you like Wrex; whether you sacrifice Ashley or Kaidan not only depends upon whether you want to save Kirrahe and his men, but also whether you like Ashley or Kaidan. As a result, you feel as though you’re dealing with people rather than scripted constructs, and the stress of command comes with having known those people and deciding what to do with them.
And its these people who are the wellsprings of information in Mass Effect. Every interaction subtly implies and reveals more about the nature of the galaxy, and its myriad of institutions. Each encounter and each meeting is a small, slow, and ultimately insightful and fulfilling unwrapping of a larger picture. For that to work, it takes a considerable amount of deft and skill in Bioware’s writing to pull off, and Mass Effect has that in spades.
In fact, the most effective example of this might be Saren Arterius himself. As a rogue Spectre with a hatred for humans, Saren always came off as a somewhat uninteresting character – there’s never enough interaction between him and Shepard and his attempts at moralizing seemed more like a shtick than earnestness. Additionally, since he is an explosive instigator (his attack on Eden Prime was nothing short of a hurricane in comparative force), it’s not like damage control is on his mind.
In the final encounter with Saren, you’re able to convince him to kill himself after forcing him to realize what he’s become. There’s something poignant about that scene: Saren goes from being a faceless, aggressively-designed bird monster, to a human being. Not in a physical sense – he’s an alien, after all – but rather in terms of a general, out-of-the-narrative colloquial identity sense. Saren eschews his personal beliefs for a greater cause, refusing to lose his identity: just as how Shepard did so earlier at Virmire. Shepard is a human being crafted by player decisions, but ultimately a human being. Saren, through the potential of his suicide, reveals his character as having agency to his problems by enacting what he believed to be a solution.
But as much as we love Mass Effect’s ability to masterfully transition players into a comfortable understanding of the galaxy, it’s still limited. The stories are very much isolated incidents, with each of them having their own rising action, climax, and resolutions. Because they’re so self-contained, they don’t effectively gel into a larger holistic story beyond being places for the beacons. Though a few of them do somewhat intertwine in their stories (Feros and Noveria ultimately being the places for Liara’s arc as a character), most places are content with leaving them as come and go scenarios for Shepard to fix.
However a big issue with the locations is the aesthetics. We know Mass Effect was a game that was created with a limited budget in mind, so we can’t really fault Bioware for Mass Effect for having so many repeated mission environments without sounding like a dicks. We know that it’s somewhat bland for every sidequest to have the same space cargo box setups; but given the large number of sidequests available, it would have been difficult and costly to try and make unique environments for most of them.
But when you’re at Feros or Noveria or even the Citadel, the places feel too uniform. Feros is all brown; Noveria is all metal and ice; Therum is all lava and rock; the Citadel is too drab. In Mass Effect 2 we were introduced to Shin Akiba with its advertisements and its gaudy colours. In Mass Effect 3 we got to see the greenery of Tuchanka hidden away in the safety of the planet’s ruins. Aesthetic design is often hit or miss with Bioware: Tattooine perfectly encapsulated liveliness while understanding the limitations of the engine, whereas Kirkwall was a monstrously drab city full of spikes. Even at the Citadel, in the supposedly seedy parts of the game, it’s got the same clean design to it, so while it does feel large, it doesn’t feel like people live in those locations. The whole place feels like a set piece. In Feros you’re moving from one craggy ruin to another, and at Noveria you’re stuck at two major facilities for most of your time so a lot of the design choices are similar. Even when you fly off to Ilos, the place doesn’t feel like a lost city – it feels like an overly large monument, with no noticeable places of habitations for a long lost Prothean civilization. It lacks energy.
But as much as we dislike those flaws, they’re minor points. The wonderful way the story is told and the rich lore behind it, makes those flaws a small issue that’s outweighed by everything that Mass Effect does right.
There’s not much we can really say that’s negative about Mass Effect, other than what we’ve already noted. It’s a sober, subtle transition for new players, and it hides a wonderful layer of complexity, waiting to be uncovered by returning players.
It effectively replicates a feeling of wonder with its exploration – as damning as some of it may be – and through the space opera wraps around the fables of the Reapers, we come to understand the origins of the reporter-punching, galaxy-saving Commander Shepard.