GAMING GREATS: Mass Effect (2007)

R.G. revisits Bioware’s ambitious sci-fi soap opera.

Who made it?: Bioware (Developer – Xbox 360), Demiurge Studios (Developer – Microsoft Windows), Edge of Reality (Developer – PS3).

Genre: Action Role-Playing Game, Third-Person Shooter

Platforms: Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3.

Format: DVD, Blu-ray, Digital Download.

Release date: November 23, 2007 (Xbox 360, UK), June 6, 2008 (Microsoft Windows, UK), December 7, 2012 (PS3, UK).

Me and the Mass Effect trilogy have a long, long history. The original was my very first Xbox 360 game when I got it for my fifteenth birthday. From that day on, for the next five years, it was a rollercoaster ride of action, drama, heartbreaks and sacrifice; all of it bundled up in what I call one of the greatest sci-fi works ever. When films have Star Wars and television has Firefly (or more appropriately, Battlestar Galactica), video games have Mass Effect. This trilogy is very dear to me and while it is quite sad that it finally finished, let’s take a look back at the game that started it all.

Mass Effect is a science fiction/action role-playing game set a couple of hundred years into the future. Humanity discovered advanced ancient technology on Mars that fast-forwarded their current tech by several centuries, including space travel. Now, they have discovered other alien civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, and after years of animosity and misunderstandings, humanity is now part of a galactic civilization. You are Commander Shepard, a human soldier who is part of the Systems Alliance, mankind’s interstellar representative, and you are set on an adventure to stop a rogue soldier named Saren from conquering the galaxy. You are also to uncover secrets of an ancient civilization that mysteriously disappeared fifty-thousand years ago, and a revelation that will drastically change the cosmos forever.

2007 was an amazing year for video games. This is the year when lauded titles from on-going franchises like Halo 3, God of War II, Super Mario Galaxy and Call of Duty 4 came out. This was also the year that saw the birth of many seventh generation staples like Uncharted, Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed and, of course, Mass Effect. With so many good games to choose from, Mass Effect topped them all by being the one I played the most in that incredible twelve months. The reason is because the story is absolutely phenomenal, and your involvement as a player from making choices gives an incentive to replay the game to see how many different scenarios you can conjure up.

Surprisingly, I thought it kind of sucked the first time I played it. I thought it was way too slow in terms of pacing from the beginning, and the combat wasn’t very interesting, so I actually held back from playing for a while. I had played some titles in Bioware’s portfolio before like Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire, both which are very good games, so it’s quite a surprise that it took a while to warm to Mass Effect, even though it has the same elements as the two aforementioned games. It has an incredibly vast dialogue system with each choice having an effect on the character’s morality, making it all seem a bit too weighty for the uninitiated. Your character and your companions can be fully customised, of course, and most of the quest requires going back and forth on a map, which isn’t the most fun. That is until I actually gave it another chance and started paying attention to the story and what the characters were saying; I could finally take it all in.

After playing the game over and over again, the pacing is actually one of this game’s biggest strengths. It more than allows for you to soak in the finest details. It lets you get to know your Shepard and the crew that tags along on your adventures, as well as making you admire the very inspired environmental art design, and gives you a chance to be engrossed into its well-written, thoroughly thought-out science fiction universe. That’s because it borrows the best and most plausible elements from other works of sci-fi. What I love about this whole galaxy is that it doesn’t too feel far-fetched or out-of-place.

Like Bioware’s previous games, Mass Effect is a story and character-driven RPG that contains morality alignments. You’ll be spending more time walking around the map, negotiating with your team mates and NPCs, with the occasional shoot out occurring every now and then. Thankfully, the story is well-written, the dialogues are performed efficiently, and the characters are interesting enough to hold your interest and motivate you to push forward. The story does play-out like some kind of soap opera as so many diverse emotions rear their head, which results in one of the most effective sets of dramas I’ve seen in a video game. Betrayal, loss, sacrifice, heartbreak, distrust… all the good things in drama happens in Mass Effect, which makes it more engrossing than it already is.

It can’t be a Bioware release without talking about decision-making and character relationships. For dialogue options, there is an innovative change from their past games where instead of a list of dialogue, you have a wheel instead, which is a lot more intuitive and allows you to read all your options on-screen. You can have conversations with your crew members that you meet along the way and get to know who they are and what drives them. You are motivated to get to know them better because they are well fleshed-out, have very interesting histories, and have multiple dimensions in their personalities. Also, it is very interesting to see them react to how your Shepard goes about his business and listen to their opinions on a crucial decision you’ve made. Of course, how the characters act around you will be based on your morality alignments; Paragon and Renegade. Paragons are heroic and compassionate whilst Renegades are ruthless and apathetic. Different characters will react uniquely based on your mental state, either being positive or negative. Based on how you interact with other NPCs and crucial moments, as well as your standing relationships with your crew members, it affects how the story goes and whether the outcome is good or bad. Everything is based on your choices.

From the looks of it, Mass Effect shines exceptionally in terms of storytelling and mythology. But while it is very strong in story execution, it stumbles in terms of gameplay. The combat is incredibly boring and lacks challenge, and most of the RPG elements felt way too padded. The combat is a below-average third-person shooter, and while it does have some interesting elements such as the ability to change up your strategy against the enemy, it is way too easy. Even in the hardest difficulty, I never really needed to use abilities and you never run out of bullets. There are even upgrades that can lower overheating so you can pack infinite-ammo weaponry that never overheats. I think Bioware went a bit overboard with the RPG elements, especially with the customisation. The problem with it is that there are way too many firearms, armours and upgrades, and you get them way too often, which will fill up your entire inventory without even knowing it (you can get equipment from levelling up or accidentally looking into a crate or locker). It also doesn’t help that you can find better equipment if you scavenge, but uh-oh, no space in the inventory since you’ve scavenged non-stop. If you’re not near a shop, you have no choice but to dissolve equipment into omni-gels, which are useful for getting through lock doors. All of that doesn’t really matter because your inventory will eventually get full again.

It seems to me that Bioware are a lot better at telling a story than delivering good gameplay. They’ve demonstrated it before as I wasn’t really into Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire’s overall mechanics, even though I love both of those games. Speaking on the technical and graphical side of things, Mass Effect did look damn good back in the day and its environment gives off an appropriately pulp sci-fi look and atmosphere. Yet it does suffer from texture pop-ins after loading and frame rate drops during busy combat. The companion AIs are rendered useless because of how easy the combat is, and if you try to use them in combat, they fail quite miserably.

To sum Mass Effect up, it is a case of great story tagged to mediocre gameplay, but I’m actually alright with that. If a game can still tell an incredible narrative but its gameplay is not up to par, I would still probably love the game. That’s why I love games like Journey, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain, or Bioware’s previous RPGs. Mass Effect, even with its problematic mechanics and technical issues, is a landmark in how video games tell stories, and should be considered a staple in anything science fiction-related. Thankfully, everything gets better and better as this sci-fi saga continues into darker, more emotional heights…

Useless Trivia

(via Mass Effect Wikia and Wikipedia)
  • Jennifer Hale, the voice actor of the female version of Commander Shepard, also contributed to a previous Bioware game, Knights of the Old Republic in which she voices Bastilla Shan.
  • Commander Shepard’s birthday is April 11, the same day Apollo 13 was launched.
  • Male Shepard’s default face is based off Dutch model Mark Vanderloo.
  • After Bioware was acquired by EA and released Mass Effect 2 and 3 for multiple consoles, Mass Effect was still only for Xbox 360 and PC as Microsoft Studios still had publishing rights to the game. This has changed after Mass Effect was finally released on the PS3 on December 7, 2012, four years after the game’s release.

R.G. Villanueva

Contributing game and film writer for SquabbleBox. Occasional DJ and instrumentalist, amateur programmer, all-around lazy guy.

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  1. Seipher says:

    Great review and nicely detailed keep up the good work

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