Video Games You Should Have Played By Now: Mass Effect
Hello, and welcome to the latest edition of Video Games You Should Have Played By Now. Today’s installment is one that is very special to me personally, because its the first entry in what was once my favorite game franchise: Mass Effect. But before we talk about the game, let me give you a bit of background about my history with the franchise. Mass Effect was the game that got me to buy an X-Box 360. It and its sequel, Mass Effect 2, are among the best games I’ve ever played. But until recently, I hadn’t played them in several years, mostly because the final game of the trilogy, Mass Effect 3, was very disappointing for me (Why? That’s a story for another time). Because of the bad taste that ME3 left in my mouth, I was fairly bitter towards the whole franchise for a while.
But at last year’s E3, they were showing a trailer for the next installment in the franchise, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and I saw something that made me nostalgic: a tank driving around on an alien planet. I was taken back to my time playing Mass Effect, driving the Mako around an uncharted world, one of the things that made me fall in love with the first game. The trailer wasn’t enough to sell me on Andromeda, but it did make me want to replay the old games, which I did last summer. I’m glad I did, too, because it helped me to remember all the things that made Mass Effect great, and now makes me want to write about it for you guys. And since Andromeda is actually going to come out a few weeks from now, Mass Effect is actually a timely subject. So without further ado, let’s jump into Mass Effect.
Originally released for the 360 in 2007, Mass Effect is third-person RPG/shooter that takes place in a future where humans have discovered the eponymous mass effect, a means of faster-than-light travel. This allows them to venture out into the Milky Way and join a larger community in which the various space-faring races of the galaxy form a multi-species government, the seat of power for which is an ancient structure called the Citadel. As the game begins, humanity is still relatively new to the galaxy at large, but is on the cusp of taking a more prominent role. It is at this juncture that the player steps into the role of Commander Shepard, an officer in Earth’s military who finds themselves in a pivotal role in shaping galactic affairs.
That, in a nutshell, is our setting and plot, but we are only scratching the surface. The world of Mass Effect is one rich with details and lore, with its own history, nuanced alien cultures, and rules for its sci-fi extensively mapped out. Fans of Star Trek will feel right at home here thanks to these elements, and also because of the themes and tone. More than anything, it is these elements of characters and setting that make Mass Effect stand out. Which is good, because the gameplay of the first game, while not outright bad, is really nothing special. While there are some neat telekenetic abilities and other powers to play around with, each with customizable progression trees, the shooting is very rudimentary. Additionally, your squad’s AI will have your allies spending a lot of their time shooting the wall between you and your enemies rather than actually do anything useful. And perhaps most infamously of all, there are the driving controls for your tank, the Mako, which… aren’t very finessed, let’s say.
But while the gameplay isn’t great, it is at least serviceable, so it won’t be a distraction for you while you experience the story, characters, and setting that make Mass Effect great.
If I had to pick one word to describe Mass Effect, it would have to be real; because of how carefully and logically the details are thought out, Mass Effect feels like it’s part of a living, breathing world. By talking to the characters, exploring the nooks and crannies, and pouring through the codex, you come to appreciate how immersive everything is.
The technology of the universe feels real because of well thought out it is. Much like Star Trek, Mass Effect takes a very grounded approach to its sci-fi; other than the mass effect itself, all other science and technology in the series stems from realistic concepts. By allowing for one miraculous piece of technology that lets you to manipulate the mass of any object, the game designers craft ways to travel faster than light, create artificial gravity, create weapons and force fields, and numerous other things. If you are curious about how any random piece of technology works, you will almost certainly find an explanation waiting for you in the codex, and it helps to make everything feel rooted in solid ground.
The story feels real because of how tight everything is. One mark of a bad story is that it often has to rely on characters behaving like idiots or on astonishing coincidences in order for the plot to move forward. Mass Effect has no such problems, with everything happening as a reasonable reaction to previous events, and a staggering number of details being juggled and accounted for. The writers did an impressive job anticipating potential loose ends, and account for them with remarkable skill.
The alien races in the game feel real because of how their history, physiology, and cultures shape their tendencies and outlooks on life. The asari, for instance, can live to 1000 years old, and as such tend to take a patient, long-run approach to their problems, which contrasts starkly with salarians, who are lucky to reach 50 and who have an extremely high metabolism, causing them to act quickly and decisively. The various races come complete with rivalries, alliances, prejudices, and that which they hold sacred.
The characters feel real because of the life that was breathed into them. The squadmates and supporting cast of the game are crafted with sharp dialogue, top shelf voice acting, and a high level of nuance. The members of Shepard’s crew have virtues and flaws, regrets and aspirations, and show growth across this game and its sequels. BioWare has often shown a talent for creating great characters that players actually care about, and Mass Effect is one of the best showcases for this.
The locations for the main story feel real because of the polish and brilliantly crafted atmosphere that go into them. The Citadel feels vast and bustling, with large crowds wandering through a sprawling, interconnected hub. The corporate lab world of Novaria feels very clinical, almost hermetically sealed, until you peal back the layers to find the horrors underneath, with the once pristine buildings falling apart around you. The games final location, Ilos, feels like a graveyard, the final resting place of a once proud civilization. Meanwhile, on the numerous uncharted planets you can explore, there is an expansive sampling of topographies and ecosystems, no one of which is like any of the others. As you travel throughout the galaxy, you are constantly coming across new settings that create a range of impressions, blending the familiar and the exotic, the small-scale and the grandiose, and it makes for an amazing experience.
The game’s moral quandaries feel real because they arise logically and organically from the story. All too often, a game’s morality system boils down to just being either a saint or an a-hole, but in Mass Effect, the choices seem like legitimate dilemmas. Because Shepard is positioned as an agent of the Citadel with high degrees of autonomy, he or she finds themselves in many positions to make decisions of tremendous importance. What’s remarkable, I think, is that none of the major decisions feel contrived. My personal favorite is the choice at the end of the Noveria mission (mild spoilers ahead). After the boss battle is completed, Shepard in the crew find themselves in the presence of a rachni queen, a revived member of a long dead race of sapient insect-like creatures that had once waged war across the galaxy. The queen is capable of laying eggs to restart her race, but is trapped in a containment cell, and Shepard has the option of letting her go or activating the failsafes and exterminating the queen, and therefore her entire race. The paragon option is to let her go, while the renegade option is to wipe. The thing is, though, that both options have considerations beyond just being kind or cruel. On the one hand, this rachni queen has done nothing wrong; is it right to punish her for something her ancestors did? Is it justifyable to detain or even kill someone for what they might do? But on the other hand, she represents a very real danger; the rachni wars from centuries ago resulted in millions of deaths. If there’s a possibility that reviving her race could bring another such war to the galaxy, couldn’t the cost of letting her go be unthinkable? These are genuinely difficult questions that fit seamlessly into the narrative that Mass Effect tells, and it makes for some of the best moments of decision I’ve ever played through in any game.
But for me personally, the thing that does the most to make the game feel real, the thing that makes it one of my most beloved games of all time, is a crashed speeder on a planet called Agebinium, near which can be found a corpse dressed in the remains of an expensive suit in antique aviator goggles. It’s the discovery of a skull of some species never seen by a human before, abandoned on the surface of Maji, a planet covered in a beautiful red hue orbiting a pair of binary stars. It’s the stories and legends you can find by reading the data entries for the planets, including that of Shiagur, female warlord of the krogan, who fell to the turians on the planet Canrum and inspired quests for revenge across the galaxy. It’s learning from Doran, the owner of the nightclub Flux, that he’s been known to cut it loose on the dance floor from time to time, only to find that he is indeed getting his groove on during a later visit.
These little details have no real bearing on the story of the game. They don’t net you any prizes or experience points either. But they go a long way towards making the game feel alive and inhabited, giving it a soul. Including so many tidbits that a lot of players may never even see shows a level of care and passion that makes Mass Effect a joy to play and the its universe a thrill to explore. The immersion you get when you go off the beaten path made the Mako missions one of my favorite parts of the game, in spite of them also being the parts where the controls are the clunkiest.
And again, those controls are clunky. Some people might find that the action in Mass Effect is just a little too bland. There are also issues with boss battles, which are largely forgettable. And the game’s budget constraints can really show during a lot of the side quests; it won’t take you long to notice that all of the firefights outside of the main story cycle through four layouts with randomized crates inside.
But for me, all of these drawbacks add up to nothing when stacked up against all the craft and artistry that went into making the world of Mass Effect. Very few times in my life have I ever encountered a property with such a vibrant and detailed lore. This game gave me characters that I love, a galaxy I want to explore, and a future I want to be a part of. When Andromeda drops in a couple of weeks, I hope that it gets back to all of the things that gave Mass Effect its heart. And I hope that all of you guys go back to the first Mass Effect game to see what all the fuss was about in the first place.