Looking back at: Mass Effect

I recently wrote a piece for this blog speaking about the Leviathan DLC for Mass Effect 3 and how it negatively impacted the Reapers as an antagonistic force. I continued and subsequently finished Mass Effect 3 after posting that, only to find I didn’t want to be done with playing it. It was this that caused me to make the questionable decision to go back and start playing the original Mass Effect for the first time in at least five years.

The last few times I tried to play the original Mass Effect, I bounced off it pretty quickly. Much to my surprise, this time I found myself invested. And then ended up finishing the game pretty quickly. It inspired me to look back at the game that kicked off my love affair with the Mass Effect series, and view it through a critical eye. Does it hold up as much as I’d like it to, and if I played it today, would I adore the series as much as I do now?

Background

Released in 2007 exclusively for the Xbox 360, Mass Effect was from developer Bioware who were best know for Baldur’s Gate, Jade Empire and, of course, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Mass Effect was envisioned as a cinematic, three part trilogy from the very beginning. Allowing the player to take control of Commander Shepard, a human solider for the human alliance, nearly every aspect of the Commander was customisable by the player and player choice was hyped highly as a selling point of the game.

 

The lore

The thing that always gripped me the most tightly when I think back to Mass Effect was its lore, I always remember the first Mass Effect painting this vast, complex galaxy I wanted to be a part of. It introduces all of these different races and technological concepts that all fit together perfectly. It always felt like a genuine setting that could potentially exist, rather than a complete flight of fantasy.

Going back today, I see how they managed this more clearly. The vast majority of this world building comes from the player’s time on the Citadel: the hub for galactic society. The area is packed with individuals who can hold branching conversations with you, deepening the player’s understanding of either their race, their position in this society, or both.

Bioware put a lot of time and effort into creating these voiced exchanges, and yet most of them have no direct impact on the game itself. They’re purely there to flesh out the world and story. To give context and invest the player. It’s perfectly possible to ignore all of these interactions with zero detriment to the gameplay experience. However, it’s the fact that they’re there at all that made me want to bleed every piece of information out of as many sources as possible.

This is why the game’s Codex was such an obsession for me. Like the dialogue with non essential NPCs, as the player interacts with the world, entires are constantly popped into their codex. A huge log of information about the races that occupy the galaxy, parts about their biology, their history, their spirituality and their place in the current galaxy.

Again, this is all there to be read (or read to you) at the player’s own discretion. None of it is essential information, and yet the game nudges you in its direction enough that a person like myself would be desperate to know more about this world and would spend downtime pouring through this infomation.

It’s what made me so invested in this universe. Bioware went to great lengths to add flavour text and extra information about so many little things that they really didn’t need to. Outside of the Citadel, there are a few paragraphs of information regarding every planet in each of the star systems the Normandy can her crew can visit, information they didn’t need to include, but did it anyway. The same goes for some of the game’s alien races. The Volus, Hanar and Elchor probably didn’t need to be in the game as they don’t ever really have an impact. But there they are anyway.

It’s the sheer volume of information they included that they really didn’t need to that makes me appreciate the effort and time Bioware put into creating this game world all the more. The world building in the first Mass Effect is still fantastic, and 100% still holds up in my opinion. Made all the better by the active role the player has on shaping the events going forward.

 

Player Agency on World Building

Continuing my points about how strong the lore in the game is, the first Mass Effect also does a great job investing the player into these events by actively allowing them to participate and reshape events as they see fit (to a certain extent at least).

The game’s initial customisation options are very interesting. Aside from the basic choices of Gender, appearance and class, the first Mass Effect allowed the player to define their character’s upbringing, as well as the defining event of their military career. Throughout this first game, character will reference your origins or your past on a number of occasions. It was something that I always found fascinating about the game.

Not just that it always felt like the game was catering to player choice made right in the beginning, but also that there were a number of possibilities out there that I wouldn’t see. The layers don’t end there either. The game’s morality system also gives incentive to role play a certain kind of character throughout, rewarding paragon and renegade points for containing to behave a certain way throughout the game.

In this particular playthrough, I decided to stick as renegade as possible. What surprised me when revisiting this game was how much of an unlikeable asshole Shepard could be. Being renegade in later games always felt like it just made Shepard less of a bleeding heart and more of a “get shit done” type of person. In this first game, some of the player actions are downright villainous.

Aside from the fact that you can downright abuse (or kill) your own teammates during dialogue, Shepard can be openly xenophobic to any non human they meet, expressing distrust to pretty much every alien. In fact there is a higher level of xenophobia and anti alien sentiment throughout the entire game from all races. This seems to be phased out greatly in the later games. Which is a shame, because it works in favour of the game’s world building to shy away from the utopian society it might seem like in fist glance.

The only real downside I found to the game’s morality system is that being renegade allows you to block yourself out of content. Many people approach you asking for help and in the efforts to gain every little renegade point you can, you end up blowing a lot of people off. Thus denying yourself a piece of content and its rewards. This was no longer an issue come the sequel, but feels like a design oversight here.

But that’s the choice presented to you in this game, and in this first game, choices feel important. The ramifications of your choices feel like they carry real weight. And in a time where Telltale loves pretending choices in their games carry weight, it’s more impressive to know most of the choices you make in this game do carry forward.

 

Game Structure

In terms of its structure, the first Mass Effect is a much shorter game than I remember. After the prologue mission and introduction to the Citadel hub area, there are only four real fleshed out locations to visit in terms of story content. Most of your time will be spent on side missions, which are very lacking in comparison to other aspects of the game.

I’ve praised the game in terms of its lore and world building, but when it comes to gameplay content its surprisingly lacking when looking back. The Citadel is the first issue in this regard. When you first get plopped into the human embassy and are allowed to wander the he station at your leisure, it feels like this vast hive of activity, full of things to learn and missions to pick up.

The problem is, as soon as you’re allowed to leave the Citadel it becomes this very open and very empty space that becomes a chore to navigate. After each story beat, I always felt the need to head back and see if anything new was available to me. The problem was, these little bits of content were far and few between, many of them not marked on the map. Thus you end up running painfully slow loops around the huge area,  hoping someone will try to grab your attention. It’s real tedious.

This isn’t aided by the journal and side quest system. As mentioned before, quest marking is sporadic to non existent. Many of them require you to visit uncharted planets out in the galaxy. None of which are marked on your galaxy map, you need to read and remember the cluster, system and planet from your journal. Which aren’t huge problems, but its a small quality of life chance I would have appreciated.

The bigger issue here is the world design. You drop onto a dozen or so different planets to accomplish side tasks. It all ends up feeling very repetitive with nothing sticking out. This comes from the fact that, aside from the occasional pretty skybox, all of the planets are the same, huge empty landscapes. In which you need to drive, without incident, to enter one three different identical buildings and kill the enemies inside.

None of the side content comes across as memorable in the slightest as a result, more often than not the resolution comes in the form of a text box rather than any spoken dialogue. I suppose it’s further evidence of how good the world building was, thinking back to this deep and complex game, when in reality, in terms of actual gameplay it’s very shallow outside of its tailored content. Which isn’t always that fun either…

 

Gameplay

Thus we cut to the heart of the issue. Even before going back to the first Mass Effect, the combat was always something I remember playing because I needed to rather than wanted to. Split into individual gunplay encounters and vehicle sections, fighting enemies in this game starts out as an ordeal before becoming dull in the later stages.

So let’s start with the Mako. Even at the time of the game’s release, it was criticised for its role in gameplay. Its ability to cling to near vertical surfaces always came off as a funny design quirk personally, the Mako has much deeper problems than adhesion. Aside from the fact that turning and precise control are lost causes, the main gun is an unwanted puzzle.

Being positioned atop the vehicle, if a target is too low to the ground, the gun can’t reach that far down to hit it. Which makes logical sense. Where it becomes frustrating is that the game allows to aim wherever you so please, you line the reticle on the enemy and fire, only to have your cannon hit the mountain several meters above its head. There is no visual representation of where your firing arc ends, meaning you often have to position yourself on hillsides to ensure your shots hit, often exposing yourself in the process.

Doing this causes you to take a lot more hits, forcing you to deal with the incredibly slow recharge rate of your shield and repair functions. Tough fights end up becoming battles of hit and run, with the run sections translating to the player parking round a corner and waiting upwards of three minutes for shields to slowly restore. Doing nothing in a video game isn’t ever fun. These sections were bad back then and feel even worse now, especially considering Bioware themselves made up for it in later games with better vehicle sections.

Then we have the standard combat which doesn’t fare much better. Combat in the first Mass Effect feels very loose and floaty. Hardly any of your powers or weapons feel like they have real weight or impact to them. It means it still feels like a game of numbers rather than player skill. The upgrade tree is huge, each individual weapon and ability having a number of small incremental increases over time.

So the early game can be a frustrating series of encounters with bullet spongey enemies who seem to shrug off your ineffectual powers, before charging you down and allowing you to play with the unwanted melee function. Conversely, the later game feels too easy, as you become more powerful than the game is apparently balanced for. Additionally, certain classes feel like they pale in comparison to others. The adept feels broken compared to the engineer class, as one ragdolls enemies, making them helpless while the other just seems to deal a small amount of damage with a huge cool down.

I never felt like I was having fun with the combat, the tools at my disposal never felt worth the effort when I could point my assault rifle at an enemy and just hole fire in its general direction until it was dead. There are little to no tactics involved, nor enemy A.I. to speak of. Team mates end up becoming little more than liabilities and the item system feels like a series of micromanagements there to further incrementally increase your numbers.

This is the most damning aspect of the game. Even going back, my enjoyment of the game was purely from a place of nostalgia. I enjoyed interacting the world again and seeing how it got going, but the moment to moment gunplay and vehicle sections were just bad. And they feel even worse knowing what came after.

 

Conclusions

So I set out to see if this game held up as much as I wanted it to, and if I would recommend going back to it today. Well, let’s break down some positives and negatives first:

+ World building is fantastic, Bioware crafted a very intriguing game world here and as a starting point the first Mass Effect is very strong

+ The infighting and general xenophobia between races makes the galaxy all the more interesting through how realistic it comes across. The Reapers are the main threat, but that doesn’t mean everyone else wants to put a bullet into you along the way.

+ The game’s choice and dialogue system feel like they carry weight. And while not all the choices end up carrying over to later games, enough does that making those choices still feels important.

Shepard feels like a more dynamic personality, the ways in which the player can role play them is still a great example of having a custom character that isn’t just a voiceless, blank slate.

The game is a fantastic first part to a trilogy. It set up far more of the Reaper threat than I remembered before going back and it uses its set up fantastically in the following games.

 

– Combat in all aspects are terrible in this game. They’re not good even by 2007 standards when you think it came out the same year as Bioshock, Halo 3 and Modern Warfare.

– The open world becomes a chore to navigate very quickly, and the fast travel system doesn’t feel like as much as an option if you think you might be missing content as a result of using it.

– The game turns out to be far more shallow than I remember. Side missions are cut and paste and not worth interacting with really, aside from the few that do cascade into events of the future games. None of that is evident here though.

– While I remember the ability visit so many planets gave this amazing sense of scale to the game, upon going back, the vast majority of these planets feel like barren, generated locations hardly worth interacting with outside of a cool skybox.

Putting it bluntly. No. The original Mass Effect really doesn’t hold up as a video game. As a piece of world building and storytelling it is still phenomenal. But that is ultimately only a very small part of your time interacting with the game overall.

Bioware went on to make two of my favourite games of all time in Mass Effect 2 & 3. Taking the phenomenal aspects of the first game and doubling down on them while reworking the combat into something that feels far more modern by comparison. I still love the game for the series is brought me, but going back was pretty eye opening for what a scrappy and flawed game it ended up being.

I love Mass Effect, but unless you’re like me and just love that lore experience, then I’d say just download a save editor and start from number 2. I originally toyed with calling this new category “ruining my nostalgia”, wasn’t expecting the first entry to be such a kick in the teeth.

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