Mass Effect, 2007
Signed up the 06/06/2017Mass Effect
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Available on: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Released: 2007 (2008 on PC, 2012 on PS3)
On the back of their success with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, game developer BioWare decided to embark on an odyssey greater than any that came before with Mass Effect. Building a franchise complete with deep role-playing mechanics and a wide, branching story line spanning 3 games and an entire galaxy is no easy feat, especially in the year 2007, when the first Mass Effect came out, but BioWare, not lacking ambition, soldiered on and the result is (irrespective of the good and the bad, which I will cover in this review series) one of the most unique and engaging gaming experiences of all time.
To give you a basic synopsis, Mass Effect is set in the year 2183 in our very own Milky Way galaxy, you play as Commander Shepard (no gender identifiers here, you can play as a man or woman, depending on the character you create) the Executive Officer (first mate if you will) aboard the SSV Normandy, a spacecraft that serves in the Navy of the Systems Alliance (that’s us, the humans of Earth and humanity’s other planetary colonies). In your first mission, you are tasked with responding to a distress signal from one of the colonies. On this mission, some things go down, people are betrayed, people die and you are left with an ominous message from the Protheans (an extinct alien speicies) about the impending and imminent arrival of the Reapers, other aliens who want to destroy all organic life in the galaxy. From this event, it is up to Commander Shepard to figure out what this message means, and how to prevent the end of all life.
One thing that you can’t help but notice about the game is how fleshed out and detailed the universe is. There are other sentient species across the galaxy and not only that they all have their own unique apprearences, cultures and political systems. The most advanced species make up the Galactic Council, a sort of United Nations-like body. Humanity has recently been accepted into this Council not long after their discovery of the mass relays (large constructs which facilitate faster-than-light travel through space) and as a result of this meteoric rise to relevance in the galactic theater, a lot of the other species don’t have that much love for humans. The dynamics of the Council are very deep and well thought out but more than that, they are relatable and realistic which helps ground a space odyssey that would otherwise come across as farfetched.
Back to the story, Shepard is called to the Council’s headquarters ( and the socio-economic centre of the galaxy) the Citadel. Accusations are made, more people get shot, politicians politic and Shepard ends up in charge of the Normandy and promoted to the position of Spectre in order to chase the rouge Spectre who betrayed you and is in league with the Reapers: Saren Arturius. This position gives the Commander the freedom to get the job done however s(he) sees fit and it is from this point where Mass Effect really lets you loose upon the Milky Way.
Beautiful isn't she
As a Spectre, you are given free reign to take the missions you want, when you want, as you investigate what Saren is up to and how to stop him. Video games rarely give you this kind of agency and it is refreshing. You genuinely feel like you are in control, giving commands to your crew as you planet-hop chasing leads. And the freedom doesn’t end there; Mass Effect does the best it can to always keep you free roaming. Whether you are on a planet asking questions (or shooting first, Mass Effect gives you that choice) or roaming around your ship making conversation with your eclectic crew, you always get a sense that what you are doing is your choice, which is always important in an RPG.
Speaking of the crew, they form a very important of the game’s experience. You can have conversations with them to learn their back story, learn more about them in general, hear their comments on missions and the decisions you make as well as just for the fun of it. All of the team members are well voiced and expertly written which helps the role-playing experience as you almost grow attached to, or genuinely despise certain characters. You can choose 2 of the available members to go on missions with you. Different crew members have different talents; Urdnot Wrex, the krogan big-body serves as a tank-like companion soaking up damage and dishing it out in healthy doses whilst Liara T’Soni, an asari archeologist messes with the opposition using biotics (Mass Effect’s answer to The Force). This diversity allows you to choose a team that not only complements you, but that best suits the situation you’re in.
"You going to talk to him or should I?"
Alongside the system of squad tactics and powers is a robust customization system. Whether you find pieces on missions or in stores you can customise you and your squad’s armor and weapons. Armor upgrades include things such as faster healing and faster power recharge and weapons can be outfitted with a myriad of attachments and ammunition types. This, coupled with Mass Effect’s classic RPG-style level-up system ensures that you can make your Shepard your own and unlike anyone else’s Shepard.
I should take some time to talk about the main (wo)man Commander Shepard. A lot of detail goes into the character creation: you can choose your Shepard’s upbringing and background, which affects in-game dialogue and mission opportunities. You can also customise your appearance and while Mass Effect’s character creator isn’t the most concise, it is serviceable. You can also choose your class, which determines your play style: The Soldier is a specialist with weaponry and survivability and the experience plays out like your typical third-person shooter. The Engineer is tech focused, with abilities like hacking and attacks that deals special damage to various defenses. The Adept is a biotic master and is able to use the mass effect (hahaha) to manipulate the mass of targets to lift them, throw them around or just rip their protection to shreds. The other three classes are hybrids of the aforementioned three (Vanguard being a mix of soldier and adept, Sentinel a mix of adept and engineer, and Infiltrator a mix of soldier and engineer). BioWare balances these classes by letting certain classes use less weaponry and rely more on their powers because let’s face it, an adept making enemies float while picking them off with an automatic weapon is hardly fair.
Which brings me to the gameplay, which unfortunately, is something of a low-point in the game. Mass Effect is ultimately an RPG with third-person shooter elements and it shows in the gameplay. The AI is wonky, alternating between timidly passive and down-your-throat aggressive at will. The cover system leaves a lot to be desired and the guns feel like pea shooters, lacking any sort of weight or substance. A lot of interiors, particularly in the side missions, are carbon copies of each other; a concerning point for a game that can take anywhere between 10-25 hours to finish. The abilities of the classes as well as the varied enemy types are about the only thing that saves Mass Effect’s combat from being a total bummer. The planet exploration, which has you dropping from your spaceship onto a planet in a rugged all-terrain vehicle known as the Mako, teems with potential to be a highlight in the game as you explore uncharted planets diving into the unknown. Unfortunately however, planets look like palette-swapped copies of each other (which is disappointing when you consider the detailed descriptions of the planets you read before you land) and the Mako handles like mashed potatoes, making these experiences forgettable.
Wheels like potatoes
Mass Effect’s gameplay is a tale of two sides though, and the exploration on planet hubs, as well as the conversation system makes up for the combat and then some. Conversations play out in a cinematic fashion with a conversation wheel popping up before your turn to speak comes up with different replies to choose from. Occasionally there will be interrogative options to ask for more information about a specific topic but for the most part the options will consist of two choices: Paragon or Renegade. Paragon is the optimistic, typical good guy/gal choice, whilst Renegade is for the pragmatic, those who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. The Paragon/Renegade dichotomy extends to bigger choices in the game as well and there are a plethora of choices. From choosing whether to extort a businessman or do him a favor to deciding the fate of an entire race previously described as evil, after hearing their side of the story, all of these choices feed into your Paragon and Renegade scores, with higher scores allowing you to talk your way out of some sticky situations. It is a neat system that encourages thought on the part of the player without designating a “right or wrong” choice. All the choices matter as well as they have an effect on the events of not only Mass Effect but also Mass Effect 2 and 3.
Mass Effect is an experience that much like the rest of the games in the trilogy, is good on its own but really shines when enjoyed as a part of the whole. It is the beginning of something simply amazing, with a well written story, and a universe so well thought out and well executed, that it gives the great fictional worlds like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings a run for their money. It is a master class in the role-playing genre from a company that has made some of the greatest RPGs ever, and whilst the combat sometimes falls short, the experience is one worthy of your time.
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