The moment I was sold on Mass Effect came on Virmire. It was there, on what should have been a paradise world of tropical sun and gently lapping streams, that Shepard makes a choice. It’s not a nice choice; it’s a hard, cruel choice, one that promises ramifications that will echo through future events and games. It comes at the end of a series of gruelling decisions, disturbing revelations, and hard-fought battles; Virmire is a single lengthy gut-punch that demands of its players a sense of attachment and investment that personally I find myself craving for with my games. It’s a sentiment that Mass Effect cultivates well in one of Bioware’s most expertly-crafted game worlds.
Mass Effect (PC, PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Released: 2007 | Developed: Bioware | Published: EA
It is the 22nd century and humanity has ascended to the stars. Aided by ancient alien research, the human race has taken its first steps into a wider galaxy, and found itself as newcomers in a broad and diverse galactic neighbourhood. Strange and varied species watch on warily as mankind is tentatively invited into the ranks of the Citadel, a governing body that guides trillions of space-faring souls in the Milky Way. At the centre of it all is Mass Effect’s hero, Commander Shepard, and their desperate attempt against the odds to stop a maniacal traitorous soldier from unleashing an army upon the galaxy.
Shepard is central to the success of Mass Effect. The Commander is customisable but amazingly retains a tangible sense of their character. In true RPG fashion the player picks Shepard’s name, history, appearance, and class; they construct Shepard’s psych profile and the player’s actions and dialogue decide their overall morality. Despite this Shepard remains a fixed point in the world and clearly has their own role and memories. Certain dialogue options are clearly built for new players to invite NPCs to explain in-game concepts but there are also options that show Shepard is no amnesiac stranger to the galaxy, subtly acknowledging things that it makes sense for them to know. This might seem an insignificant point but the small details embellish a grander whole. The strength of the vocal performances seal the deal: Mark Meer provides great work as the voice of a male Commander but Jennifer Hale’s assured and powerful take on the character has all but ensured every Shepard I follow is female, such is the force she brings to the role. That is in itself an achievement that few created game characters can boast.
The other NPCs you come across are no slouches either. Shepard’s crew are obvious highlights; each offers not just well-written dialogue but your party covers 5 different races and give snippets of sparkling insight into their respective cultures. Moments like Wrex’s jaded resignation to the ceaseless suicidal warring of the Krogan or hearing Tali’s bubbly excitement slip to venomous societally-instilled hatred of AIs are what narrative lovers like myself thrive on as the game allows the player to tease forth just a little more understanding of the dynamics of this vibrant and weird mishmash of galactic cultures. It feeds through into the quest writing; rarely do you feel like a bystander as events happen without your input. Instead Bioware place great importance on Shepard’s decisions having weight, and often this manifests in far-reaching ways that are difficult to predict. Certainly it’s a game where making a decision and sticking with it, even if it suddenly feels wrong is worth it; allow yourself to become immersed and accept the responsibility for the impact your actions have on the game world and you begin to unlock yet more of why I love Mass Effect.
The effort that went into constructing Shepard and their crew was not restricted to them though; Mass Effect’s Milky Way is one of my favourite game worlds and exemplifies Bioware’s thorough approach to world-building. Once the player gains control of the SSV Normandy, the Commander’s flagship, the galaxy opens up for exploration. While sidequests and collectibles should motivate many players to scour the myriad planets that populate the Milky Way, every world comes with a (occasionally substantial) description that combine with the in-game codex to produce a brilliantly coherent and consistent history and lore. For narrative junkies like myself, this is manna from the gods. This sense of exploration is reinforced by the fact that almost every star system in the game has at least one planet that you can land on, deploying in the Mako (a sort of fusion between an ATV and a tank with a reckless disregard for the rules of gravity) allowing you to roll around the landscape and discover what each planet has to offer.
That said, the exploration has some limits. Though the planets Shepard’s crew visits as part of the main story are well fleshed-out, the others are markedly less so. The majority of planets are comprised of a mostly empty square mile of typically rocky-to-mountainous terrain and a pretty skybox, while the process of scanning planets for collectibles will only appeal to dedicated completionists. Additionally, the Mako is extremely clunky to control. There’s a constant feeling of having to wrestle with it to make it go where I want; the main mission levels are designed well enough to not notice it overmuch, but the extra planets tend to be overly craggy and encourage the Mako to bounce and judder all over the place.
This clunkiness is apparent in the gameplay as well. Mass Effect wears the hats of both RPG and third-person cover shooter but regrettably it’s not an especially good example of the latter. Though Shepard’s party can wield an array of guns, none of the four classes feel particularly distinct and all lack a sense of weight or impact to their shots. Additionally there’s no snap-to cover button, which can cause problems during tense firefights as you frantically rub Shepard up against a wall hoping they get the message and stand out of the way of the deadly gunshots raining against their rapidly dwindling shields. Thankfully the array of alternative options available to other classes are more interesting in combat. Tech-focused characters are able to hack enemy systems and overload shields, while others pack “biotics”, allowing them to manipulate mass effect fields to pull and throw enemies across the field of battle or summon miniature black holes to hoist them in place – essentially we’re talking space wizards.
All of this is backed up by a robust and extensive system of equipment and upgrades. Players can spend hours across a playthrough tinkering with the entire squad’s arsenal and armour, and every piece of it can be bolstered with upgrades. There’s a staggering array of equipment-specific augments, and keeping track of it all is a mind-boggling task, one that is not helped by a confusing and ungainly menu that is not user-friendly in the slightest. Worse, once you get to grips with the upgrades you’ll notice it is staggeringly simple to break the game and sap any and all challenge from the combat.
You could be forgiven for thinking that with all this grumbling about the gameplay that there’s very little reason to recommend playing Mass Effect. It should stand as testament to how good the writing, the characterisation, and the world-building is that actually I’d entirely urge you to play it if it’s still on your own backlog. Games are more than the sum of their parts, and the work Bioware put into constructing Mass Effect’s galaxy is stunning; it elevates it far beyond any problematic impressions the otherwise passably janky gameplay leaves. From the chilly and secretive corpocracy of Noveria’s Apple-store clean corridors to the pluralistic bustle of the Citadel or even with the isolating silence of standing on the surface of an unexplored world, the immersion is intoxicating. NPCs brim with personality and each conversation with any of the varied denizens of the galaxy imparts snippets of new knowledge and culture, leaving both Shepard and us richer for it.
5/7 – GREAT. Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.