The Mass Effect trilogy is one of the most beloved series of the seventh generation of consoles. Acclaimed for its interactive storytelling and deep mythos, this series has garnered so much attention that as of 2014, it had sold over 14 million copies. Is it actually as good as people say it is though? Does its storytelling still hold up today? Are these questions pointless hooks to attract audience attention to my very first review? To answer those questions in reverse order, Yes, Maybe, No. So without any more prattling, this is a relatively non in depth review of Mass Effect 1.
Mass Effect is nearing a decade old now, and that fact is beginning to show. The game has this eerie thing where every time your party boards an elevator, they all stand ramrod still equidistant apart and in a line. To make the situation even creepier, characters will still exchange dialogue while they’re spines are seemingly replaced with telephone poles. Facial animation, voice acting, and the lip syncing are also quite inconsistent. The Mako, a vehicle driven for large portions of the game, seems to have been designed by a man with flipper hands, because I haven’t played a game with such floaty vehicle controls in years. In spite of all of this, however, the combat animation of this game still stands up today. Enemies will be thrown violently to the ground by a close ranged shotgun blast, or rifle butt, weapons have satisfying weights to them, and enemy rag dolls are a pleasure to behold as they flop around on the ground like eels.
Mass Effect followed the route of every space opera and attempts to tell the story of a galactic wide threat of almost unbelievable proportions. In this case, it happens to be a race of sentient robots who reappear every few thousand years to cleanse the galaxy of life, for some unexplained reason. Also taken from the Children’s Guide to Writing a Plot are 1. A plethora of alien races, each with one, maybe two, personality traits that seem to permeate every single individual of the species, 2. A story centered around a game of catch up, where the player character is always just one or two steps behind the major villain, but all confrontation between them is saved for the end of the game, and 3. A choice system that only amounts to being either very good, or incredibly evil. While Mass Effects plot is most definitely generic, that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Sometimes a lack of creativity allows developers to really refine the ideas put into the game, or at least I’m sure that’s what the people at Bioware tell themselves. Even though I’ve spent nearly this entire paragraph shitting all over the different aspect of the games plot, it still somehow manages to be my favorite part of the game. Regardless of how generic the world is, it still feels like it’s alive. The game is jam packed full of lore and side plots, so whenever I got bored with one quest line, I could easily just hop in my ship and fly to a more interesting quest. Despite it’s flaws, there is enough merit to the game’s plot that I can consider it worthwhile, and maybe even intriguing if I’m feeling generous.
This is a note that doesn’t really have an effect on how good the game is, but I felt the need to complain about it anyway. Spoilers for those who for some reason still give a shit about spoiling a ten year old game. After beating Matriarch Benezia in a fight, she lays dying and says the words, “Where is the light, they always said there would be a…” then she dies. Are we to believe that every single species in the galaxy independently associated dying with the approaching of a light? And even more confusing, if they had all come up with that independently, than it would be almost assuredly true. It’d be like countless alien species all believing in Jesus, I’d be like shit, I guess that makes him real.
Mass Effect attempts to marry the two gameplay styles of third person shooters, and party based RPG’s. A valiant attempt that sadly led to ruin. Most party based RPG’s give the player an isometric perspective of the game, allowing the player to easily see and assess the battlefield, and give controls to each party member individually. Much of this control is lost, when transitioning to a third person viewpoint. Attempting to cast area of effect spells accurately would be a nightmare from a third person perspective, and Bioware tried to compensate for this by having most of the abilities be either single target, or self target. The problem still remains, however, that pointing at an enemy and scrolling through a radial menu to command your teammate to cast an ability on it, is infinitely less efficient than simply pointing your gun and shooting at the enemy. I played Mass Effect on the hardest difficulty setting with party AI and aim assist turned off, which I believed would incentivize me to keep in constant control of my teammates, but that is nearly impossible. Player control over your two squad members is restricted to just equipment choice, the radial menu of abilities that is nearly useless, and three buttons on the D-Pad which tell your party to either group up, stay there, or push to a designated spot. Lacking the ability to fully control my allies, most of the fights ended in one of two ways. Either both of my teammates died early in the fight, leaving me to kill all of the enemies myself; or, my allies would become frustrated with my lack of care towards them, and trap me in a corner so that the enemies can get a clear shot at me. I would’ve had more of a problem with these flaws, if the game’s shooting hadn’t been so damn easy. The shotgun was two to three hitting every enemy right up until the end of the game; and from a distance too. I mistakenly thought I would need a ranged weapon to go with my shotgun, but I could slaughter people from different post codes with that thing. Despite all of this the combat is still somewhat fun, animation is well done, weapons have satisfying weight to their shots (the shotgun specifically), and enemies are reasonably varied. I just feel that the idea to make it a squad based RPG was ill advised. There is a reason that party based RPG’s are almost never from a third or first person perspective, but I won’t fault Bioware for attempting to change it up a bit.
What I will fault them for, though, is their radial dialogue menu. I know it seems to be something that people like about this game, and the trilogy in general, but that fact absolutely astounds me. Most of the dialogue in the game is restricted to three choices, paragon, neutral, and renegade; and each of these choices is wildly different. The player can either choose to be the world’s largest kiss ass, the world’s least emoting person, or the world’s biggest ass hole, with almost no middle ground. It amazes me that people consider that to be giving the player choice. Planescape: Torment, a game that actually does give the player choice, usually has six to seven dialogue choices, varying from sarcastic, to confused, to slightly rude, to incredibly rude, to sweet, to charismatic, etc. Some dialogue choices would even be the exact same, but the player would be able to specify whether they were bluffing or not. That is Role Playing. Mass Effect is following an incredibly presented mad lib.
I was going to write a whole paragraph to summarize my thoughts here, but honestly the previous sentence really encapsulates my ideas perfectly. Mass Effect presents itself so well that it’s hard not to get sucked in, but at the core it has countless little annoyances that cause the game to be average at best. Somewhere hidden inside Mass Effect is a great game, but it’s buried under piles of weird design choices, and Bioware not really grasping the Role Playing part, of a Role Playing Game. It’s still interesting enough that I will play the latter two games of the series, but it’s definitely not the game it was made out to be.