Mass Effect is a third person shooter/role playing game for the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows. It was released on November 20, 2007 in the US. You may be asking yourself ,”why are you reviewing a game that’s over four years old?” My answer would be ,”because I said so.” This review is actually just to give a new perspective on an old favorite. I thought that it would be a good idea to revisit the game’s strengths with the final installment of the series over the horizon. I know I plan to complete multiple playthroughs with my new characters and then import them into ME2, rinse and repeat. I want to maximize my Mass Effect potential, I guess. But anyways, since I intend this as a revisit to the game, there are minor spoilers ahead. They happen early on, but to maximize the effect and your reactions to the story (as well as immersion), then don’t read this until you have played this game. You have been warned…
Oh joyous day! I get to use this as an excuse to play Mass Effect some more! Well, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Let me start with some background. People discover some shit on mars and then they are in a sci-fi universe. I think that about covers it. What’s that? Horrible you say? Fine, here’s more detail, but just try and chill out, okay? So, one day humanity lands on Mars (the planet, not the candy bar) and discover ancient ruins of a long lost alien civilization referred to as the Protheans. This discovery introduces humanity to Element Zero, a substance that, when an electric current is conducted through it, creates a “mass effect field” that can temporarily alter the mass of an object. This presents humanity with the science fiction holy grail of faster than light travel, and allows them to join the larger community of the universe. It is also the reason behind everything in this universe functioning. Guns, ships, shields, and much more are just different applications of these new physical laws. So that’s the universe in a nutshell. You play an Alliance (human military) commander named Shepard (metaphors, anyone?).
So here we are, starting the game, creating a commander Shepard to suit our tastes. You even get to pick a gender. How about that? The game throws you into the Alliance Military Personnel Database and tells you you have to re-create your profile from scratch because of a system error. I love when role playing games just start the role playing from moment one. The whole “you’re using a computer” thing is adorable!
You pick a sex, name yourself, and then you get to pick a pre-service history and a military record. Histories range from grew up in the slums on Earth, military brat, or my whole childhood was killed along with everyone in it in a Batarian raid, and military records include war hero, sole survivor of a brutal battle, or ruthless bastard. Along with serving as potential justification for your character’s…well, character, it also influences
the way other people treat you. There’s also some fun sidequests that are specific to each option, like you have to talk a former slave to the Batarians (Call me a xenophobe, but I hate the Batarians. They’re dicks.) out of committing suicide. And she happens to have been captured by the Batarians in the same raid that killed your parents. Super neat, right?
I like to use this history stuff as a basis for my character. I like to have the colonist history (the one where your colony gets raided when you’re little and your parents were killed in the ensuing battle), pick the ruthless reputation, then be fucking ruthless. It makes your character who they are and serves as potential justification for their actions throughout the game, as I said before, which furthers that whole role playing aspect.
Then you pick a class. There are three areas of combat: biotics (basically the equivalent of magic), tech abilities, and gunplay. The different classes focus on different combinations of these. I normally pick infiltrator (specializing in tech and sniper rifles/pistols), but today, I am a vanguard (pistols/shotguns and biotics). Vanguards are essentially the biotic specialists with the best weapons. They are, in my mind, the “I don’t give a fuck” class. In ME2 they exemplified this by giving the vanguard a falcon punch-type move called “Charge”. So there. Pretty standard class-system stuff. It works very well, because different classes play differently.
Next, you get to make a face. Oh boy, do you make faces. I made faces while I made my Shepard’s face. Making a satisfactory yet unique face in Mass Effect is like trying to eat while you’re hanging upside down off the edge of a a cliff. The main problem is that the sliders don’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s a slider called “Face shape”. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean because the other sliders seem to be the concept of face shape set into different sections of the face. Also, most of the hairstyles are ugly. The texture mapping makes it look like your hair is constantly greasy. Since the human npcs use mostly the same creation engine, one could conclude that no one in the Mass Effect universe washes their hair, or else they all use tons of gel. Anyway, if you aren’t careful, you could end up playing as this:
However, if you play your cards right, you can end up with this:
So now here we are. We have a name, sex, history, class, and face. Isn’t that all you need for life? Hit accept, and you’re immediately staring out a window while people talk about you. They reference your history and military record and say “He/she could be the only one who can save the galaxy!” (paraphrasing). It gives you a good sense of what’s going on right off the bat (though how they know the galaxy needs saving is totally beyond me!). The game gives you a neat little text crawl explaining the whole “mass effect physics” thing, and then you are treated to a cutscene of Shepard walking to the bridge of a spaceship (the Normandy, because France wanted people to forget their reputation of cowardice) while increasingly dramatic music plays. You get your first taste of two important game elements immediately after this cutscene. The first is conversation. The conversation system Bioware created for this game is very well done, as anyone will tell you. The conversation options are on a wheel, making it abundantly clear which speech option is Paragon and which is Renegade and which is boring neutrality. Having the options’ allignment obvious is fantastic. In KoToR (Amazing game, go play it.), you just had to select from a list, which made maintaining your alignment difficult because sometimes it was difficult to snipe the “good guy” answer, especially in situations that deal with a moral grey area. It’s easier to turn your character into who you want them to be this way, which is a huge deal when it comes to rpgs.
The second thing you get a taste of, immediately after the conversation is over, is the morality system. This game’s morality system is the best I have ever seen. Rather than having a sliding scale that covers all morality, all of your choices are reflected equally in the universe because morality is calculated in a different way. There’s one scale for Paragon (which is good) and a whole other scale for Renegade (use the process of elimination to figure out what that means). This means that allof your decisions have social consequensces rather than just the majority of them. I have no jokes left on this subject, so let’s move on.
First thing you notice: space racists. Unlike other sci-fi series, you see TONS of xenophobes of every race, which means some pretty awesome attempts at realisim for a work of science fiction. The captain of the ship orders you to come to the briefing room (I think that’s what it is anyway…) to talk to you. He tells you that you’re headed to the (aptly named) human colony Eden Prime. Apparently, there’s some trouble in paradise, as you’ve recently recieved a distress signal. They unearthed a Prothean artifact, then things went sour. You’re being sent to recover the artifact and save the day. A Spectre is sent along to support you in the mission. Spectres are probably my favorite aspect of the universe’s political structure. Basically, they’re space police modeled after Batman. They are to uphold peace and enforce the law however they see fit. Obviously, it’s a blessing and a curse, as some people abuse this power. But, I digress…
You land on the planet with a squad of two other people. Here’s where you get a feel for the third and fourth game elements with the mission on Eden Prime: combat, and preparing for more combat.
The combat’s decent, but not amazing. Nothing to applaud into an envelope and send home about. It’s a pretty basic third person shooter with a handy dandy cover mechanic. Don’t get me wrong; you won’t hate it. On the contrary, it works exceedingly well for the game. It just doesn’t feel like the next great innovation in the third person shooter area. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing (unless you hate things that are good.).
Now, back to current events (from 200 years in the future), on Eden Prime, you meet another Spectre named Saren. The game balances this out by having Saren kill the first Spectre you meet (so you don’t end up with Spectre-overload [Dibs on the band name]?) He’s trying to bring The Reapers back (dibs on the song title). The Reapers are the ones who wiped out the Protheans, bt dubs. So then you have to gather a team of intergalactic badasses to stop Saren and save the world (universe).
You get tons of oppurtunities to influence the story (as well as the politics of the universe) throughout the game, which is what makes the story amazing. Where the game shines for me, though, is in the customization.
People made a pretty big deal out of Mass Effect before and after it came out because it was an action-rpg with guns in space! But the rpg elements were the biggest parts of the game (tied with the conversation, morality, and story). Rightfully so, because at this point in time that’s what we had come to expect from Bioware. The leveling system was a lot like KoToR’s as well (seriously, play that game. Even if you’ve played it already, go play it again). Instead of blanket stats that affect how your character is generally, you leveled up specific skills, which worked well because it was a more actioney rpg.
I loved it because the one thing more than everything else that screams rpg (to me, and anyone who played Oblivion because that game is in love with it’s menus.) is menu-surfing. Call me an idiot, but I love menus. The menus translate (for me) into customization. Different weapons and armor had different stats, which you could change even further with the use of armor, weapon, and ammo upgrades. On top of that, you get to pick a party of two from your intergalactic-badassery squad everytime you leave the ship. You get to optimize your squads effectiveness by choosing a squad that compliments each other or works well for the mission at hand. Oh, and all the gun and armor customization and leveling? You get to control that for your squad too.
Mass Effect was everything an rpg should be, and I loved that about it. It didn’t play or feel like any rpg, or even any game has before. Mass Effect
was beautiful because of that. The core of the game was combat, and the combat wasn’t amazing by itself. But with the different classes and all of the customization, you got to play the game the way you wanted to. You got to create your character and your tactics based around that character. A soldier with heavy armor, their assault rifle skill fully leveled and a Gorgon-X assault rifle would play a lot different than an infiltrator who put all of their points into buffing tech abilities and their sniper rifle skill. That’s the main reason to play Mass Effect: From your character to your playstyle and down into the story itself, you create your own experience with the game. That’s what’s so beautiful about it.
Anyways, up next: Mass Effect 2!