Mass Effect, after hundreds of hours of extensive playthroughs, is without a doubt one of my favourite games of all time. Although, it’s not without it’s flaws, and plot-holes, of which there are plenty, it’s one of the most gripping games I’ve ever played. And I’ve played a ton of games. A fully-realized sci-fi game akin to the likes of Knights of the Old Republic. Mass Effect somehow manages to hit the sweet spot of inventing a universe with a rich and complex lore and presenting it in a way that doesn’t require the player to memorize any of the game’s codex entries or sit through hours of exposition and info-dumps.
Instead, it reveals the existence of a deeper backstory and lore as optional toppings for your sci-fi sundae. By organizing the game this way, it lessens the risk of players becoming bored or frustrated by the sizeable amount of detail and history, while presenting enough flavour and intrigue to make the game feel compelling. Dialogue and actions alone are believable and inviting enough to make the world come alive.
What I like about Mass Effect when compared to most other games of the same genre, is that rather than beat you over the head with galactic politics, or the intricacies of the economics system, it plunges you head first into a future with aliens, advanced technology, and space magic. And then it asks if you would like to use said space magic, be an elite sniper/hacker, a mix of the two or an armed-to-teeth military space soldier. Or a Vanguard, which is the best of both worlds (biotics and shotguns).
The option to customize your character’s gender, class and background to such an extent that it’s not only brought up at the beginning of the game, but also gives you the opportunity to complete several unique side-missions based on your background is so satisfying as a hardcore role-player, that I have to take the time to commend the voice acting talents of Jennifer Hale, Seth Green, Keith David, and the long list of marvellous performances in the game. Without them, I doubt the game would’ve been even half as enthralling of an experience as it was. And when I say enthralling, I mean there is a distinctive Mass Effect feeling that permeates throughout the entire game that I can’t quite put into words.
Now, I’m not the biggest Star Trek fan, not by a long-shot (born and raised the Jane Way), but I do see the appeal, and I’ll admit that I too, am gripped by the allure of being a Starship Commander. It’s an engrossing role-playing experience and done well enough in Mass Effect that I can always use my imagination and role-playing prowess to fill in the gaps and enhance the experience. You definitely get the feel that you’re the boss and there is freedom in deciding what course to plot next, who you want to bring with you (though, it is arbitrary that you can only bring two squad mates with you, because game rules dominate story and rationality), and how you want to act when given the options (paragon or renegade).
Mass Effect oozes Star Trek in its aesthetic and rich environments, from (alien) race diversity and galactic relations, to the silver and blue colour palette and neon glow – in contrast with the orange screens and omni-tools, to the sleek ship designs and sharp logo. While conversely, exhibiting some hints of Star Wars through its fashion and any similarities it shares with KOTOR. The spirit of Gene Roddenberry resonates throughout Mass Effect, whenever you wander around your ship and strike up conversations with your crew, or plot a course for a distant system to investigate and explore another planet. And this is especially the case when you’re roaming the Citadel, and decide to mingle with the other races to get a taste of their culture and place in the world.
What excites me most about Mass Effect isn’t the the combat, though that is good too. No, it’s the people and the interactions you and your character adds to the world. Each little thing you say and do, whether it be paragon or renegade, should have weight in the world. And in the first game, it did, or at least it felt like it did. Upon repeated playthroughs, I’ve walked both paragon and renegade routes, and let me tell you, being renegade is so much more satisfying than being paragon. I feel like, while the renegade Shepard might not be making the most morally right decisions, there is rationale behind them that just makes a bit more sense than paragon Shepard’s preaches.
(Spoilers, I guess)
But that doesn’t mean I’m limited to playing entirely renegade. No, I’ve played the DLC and one of my favourite decisions as a role-player was when I had my renegade Shepard (who up until this point has made mostly reckless and selfish decisions) let Balak go. In my head, it was a scenario in which even the most renegade shepard would stop and think if it was worth sacrificing innocent lives to stop and kill an intergalactic terrorist. And ultimately come to the conclusion that the more immediate matter with the bombs and hostages was more important than the possibility of Balak terrorizing other colonies if let go. Besides, renegade Shepard is so arrogant and cocky that she would confidently presume another opportunity to find and capture Balak would arise later. But that’s personal preference.
One of the peak moments approaching the end of the game happens on Virmire. When Wrex discovers that Saren plans to cure the Krogan of the genophage it creates tension and believable drama among the team, because before Wrex had given up on his people, but now he’s being given an opportunity to change that. When you approach him on the matter you can go about it several different ways. You can try and coerce him into siding with you by painting a convincing picture that Saren’s plans can only mean bad things for the Krogan, if you’re paragon or renegade meters are high enough. If that fails Ashley will shoot and kill him. Otherwise, you can shoot him yourself. Suspense is high here, because you get where Wrex is coming from, and you understand his dilemma and why he feels so conflicted about what you’re doing versus what Saren appears to be doing. And it’s especially high if you’re nervous that you haven’t put enough points into your coercive skills up until now.
Mass Effect is the first, and in my firm belief, the best game in the series. Every time I go back and play Mass Effect, I’m still able to recapture that feeling of being a Starship Commander in a Trek-esque Universe. Whenever I dropped down on a planet, it felt like it could be a real place. But in ME2, the environments look purposely-designed to be game levels and felt fake to the point of immersion-breaking. Mass Effect and its gameplay, while not the best, still felt unique and immersive. Whereas, with ME2, the gameplay felt much more in line with Gears of War than Mass Effect and as a result, didn’t capture the same sci-fi spirit as Mass Effect.
Mass Effect let you explore worlds in a similar vein to Star Trek, whereby you can uncover archaeological digs and ancient artifacts, have conversations with the crew and diplomatic debates with other races, and blast people with sci-fi weapons and space magic (biotics). Despite, its clunky controls and mechanics, I had more good times roving around planets in Mass Effect, exploring the terrain on other worlds in search of treasures and secrets, over launching probes at them in ME2. There was a sense of awe and wonder throughout the first game, that I feel ME2 lacks entirely.
Where Mass Effect incorporated RPG mechanics into its gameplay that worked in favour of its engaging narrative and world-building, its sequel focused too much on the game-side of things, ditching the immersive space opera we had all come to love. This was most likely due to interference from EA on the business side of things, though they did improve upon the gameplay in many aspects and upgrade the graphics and frame-rate, it felt too much like a cover-shooter and as a result, felt too distant from its predecessor in both gameplay and narrative.
For me, the more enjoyable and interesting aspects of the series involve things like the RPG elements from the first game, as well as walking around the Citadel and exploring other lifelike worlds. From the get-go, there was a sense of awe and wonder that its successors never managed to live up to, in addition to several set-ups in the story and side-stories that for the most part ended in disappointment by the third game. Exploration is its own reward and all of the lore is there for players to dive into at their leisure.
Mass Effect still has one of the best plots and villains in video games, despite any inconsistencies or gaps in logic. There was a mystery to it that kept you wanting to know more about the plot, the world and the characters. And while I’ve been hard on ME2 up until now, I will give it’s DLC Lair of the Shadow Broker credit for somewhat managing to recapture that mystery and introduce a new foil to Shepard (Tela Vasir) as one of the best decisions made in the series. I would’ve have much preferred a more personal conflict for Shepard at this point than having to deal with a galactic threat. Tela Vasir isn’t just another Spectre like Shepard, no, she’s what Shepard could’ve become or could become. With her dying breath, she lectures you about your alliance with Cerberus, and even goes as far as to bring up your background and guilt you.
However, I cannot overlook how unenjoyable its gameplay is in comparison to the first. Mass Effect’s RPG elements gave the overall experience in gameplay a real sense of progression and power to it that leveling up and adding points to your skills felt rewarding in and of itself. So, by the end you felt deserving of all the best gear, because you earned it, and being the badass Spectre you are, you are in line for only the finest weapons and armour credits can buy. You climbed your way from the bottom up, and if you picked the Earthborn background and were immersed in the role-playing, it felt even more gratifying. Again, personal preference.
Saren was a great foil to Shepard and while I would’ve liked to have seen BioWare go a step further with their dynamic, I was ultimately satisfied with being able to talk Saren into some shot at redemption in the end. Sovereign and the Reapers’ looming threat was competently introduced and kept within the mystery enough to project an ominous tone. The set-up is perfect and emits a powerful foreboding of things to come. The confrontation between Shepard and Sovereign in the first game still gives me chills every time I replay it.
Mass Effect 2 disregarded essentially all of what made the first Mass Effect great. It decided it wanted to be more gameplay-oriented, so it became a corridor shooter and diluted all the cool RPG elements. Replacing the cool-down for weapons with ammo clips was beyond disappointing. And forcing the player to side with Cerberus by limiting the freedom from the first game, and removing any option of forging your own path made it feel like you were confined. The player-character dynamic was detached in a way and everything you did in the first game felt unsettled and unresolved. Dying at the beginning of ME2, losing most of your cherished teammates from the first game, and skipping two years to retcon the game’s lore also felt like a kick in the teeth.
Something I did enjoy across Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 was the renegade dialogue and interrupts from subsequent playthroughs in both games. There’s a smug sense of satisfaction that comes from acting like an arrogant jerk and behaving indiscriminately, while holding onto the conviction that you’re making pragmatic decisions that gets shit done. Plus, renegade FemShep (Jennifer Hale) has some of the best line deliveries, and overall genuinely engaging performances in videogames that I’ve had great pleasure characterizing and portraying in-game.
Recruiting and chatting with the crew involved several of the highlights throughout the series, though I standby what I said before, in that Mass Effect achieved more with its crew conversations than the subsequent titles. Paragon Shepard acts as a foil for Garrus to aspire to after resolving his side-story. Helping Tali find something to bring back to the Flotila, though proved insignificant in ME2, still felt important at the time. Wrex and Shepard’s interactions are probably the more engaging ones in-so-far as Wrex is an interesting character, because through him you learn about the Krogan and the events that led to their current predicament. You also learn about his family and history, and he becomes especially significant when you discover he had a brief meeting with Saren. Teasing and romancing Liara is adorable and particularly amusing if you’re a renegade FemShep. She’s by far one of the more likeable characters in the series, especially when compared to the less interesting human crew, Ashley and Kaiden.
One of the most befitting things in the first Mass Effect is its soundtrack. Each score compliments their respective scenes and the action sequences, as well some of the downtime moments in the game to a tee. At the beginning of the game, we are treated to an astonishing theme starting with a conversation between Captain Anderson and Udina about your Shepard and the background you chose for him/her leading into an opening crawl about the lore and events of the game up until that point cutting to the title Mass Effect and then fading to black.
That opening alone is praise-worthy as it manages to not only get you immediately invested in your character, but also intrigued by the (game) world and the impact you will have on it. The ambient music throughout those few scenes vaguely alludes to the rest of the game’s events by use of its dominantly dreary sounds taken over by the few moments of dimming hopefulness.
Aside from the music, the blending of the title flashing and vanishing across the planet’s horizon is such an iconic scene that I can’t help but feel thrilled whenever it appears. Scenes of urgency are matched beat for beat with the music, such as the climax on Virmire. And scenes of peace and serenity are appropriately soft or quiet to help harmonize the mood for crew conversations, planet excursions or treks around the Citadel.
Romance scenes (particularly Liara’s) are fitted with a welcome amorous mood in sync with idyllic sounds that enhance the picturesque visuals, and the colours and editing around the sexual nature of the scene (somewhat reminiscent of the sex scene from Top Gun) accentuate the passion between the two characters. It’s not necessarily love per se (though it could be interpreted that way based off past dialogue interactions), but an extra level of intimacy between your character and one of two crew members (depending upon gender) that makes sense in context, given that this is supposedly a suicide mission you’re committed to.
ME2’s DLC Lair of the Shadow Broker throws in a scene with Liara at the end that touches on something I didn’t think they would be willing to do. Something I wasn’t expecting from the game was Liara asking “How are you actually doing Shepard. I mean, really.” And then you’re given the chance you express: worry, hopefulness or frustration. Liara will console and support you regardless of how you react, but I still think it’s an effective way of handling this sort of moment. Liara tells you to “Give yourself some credit” and remarks on how much you’ve accomplished, letting you know it’s okay to take a break. It’s a nice little down-to-earth moment that allows you to think back on everything up until now, as well as prospect Shepard’s future.
My problems with the series won’t bother you if you’re not into the Star Trek power fantasy, and prefer the shooter aspects over the RPG elements. I know I didn’t really touch on ME3, despite the fair amount of dramatic moments, but it just doesn’t lend itself to the same accessibility as the previous two games. The ending has been a controversial topic talked to death and even theorized by the fans, as well as “fixed” in a DLC, but it’s such a disheartening and disappointing part in the series that it takes a huge toll on replaying ME3. And it’s not the only reason I tend to distance myself from the third game in the series. While, I liked the multiplayer and some of the character moments, there was this look and feel to everything that just came across as disingenuous and hollow. And thus, left me unfulfilled.
I enjoy ME2, for what it’s worth, and ME3 had some redeeming qualities, but I love Mass Effect. Even if it is awkward in some areas, I still believe Mass Effect represents the height of the series: in its setting, characters, gameplay and narrative, themes and worldbuilding, and role-playing and immersion. I was hopeful that Andromeda would return to the roots of Mass Effect, but with more polish. But after witnessing the marketing and gameplay my optimism has been extinguished. I await the day a new game manages to recapture the same spirit Mass Effect did, but I won’t hold my breath for BioWare to be the ones to do it.