Mass Effect – “Synths, Mecha-Cthulu, Alien Sex”

I didn’t like Mass Effect at first. I remember getting it as a digital download on PC the day it came out and I just felt lost in this intricate universe with terminology and races I wasn’t familiar with…so I gave up. In hindsight this was idiotic because it’s the first game in a new sci-fi epic so of course the first five minutes are, by default, going to have to be somewhat of an exposition dump. Sometime later I bought a copy on Xbox 360 and played an hour or two, enjoyed it somewhat but still not enamoured with it, and lent it to my friend. He went home and devoured it, playing through the game in a week with a playtime of about 35 hours. I asked him what he thought and without giving spoilers away he gave it glowing remarks and I thought that I obviously just hadn’t understood it…so I bought another copy…and played it. It clicked.

I start writing this review having played the entire trilogy, having played Mass Effect probably close to a dozen times, Mass Effect 2 around 20 times and Mass Effect 3 about…5 or six times. I’ve read a few of the books, read the comics (unfortunately) and yeah, I love the series. Anyway let’s get into the review of the first game in the series.

Mass Effect was a gateway into an optimistic new sci fi universe that wanted to present the mystery of the Milky Way Galaxy and the various alien races that populated it, and billions of years of history that preceded the galactic community. You play as Commander Shepard, an officer aboard the SSV Normandy on her maiden voyage and within the first sixty minutes of the game you’ve discovered an alien artifacts thousands of years old and received a prophetic warning of a cosmic apocalypse. It’s not ashamed to admit that it’s plot, if you talk about it in a bare bones fashion, is hardly original but the lure of Mass Effect is the way it populates its universe. As the plot unfolds you will have the opportunity to recruit a variety of characters, interact with dozens of NPCs and explore several fully designed plants, and several god-awful ones relegated purely to side mission territory.

STORY

The story lures you in with mystery and as you become more familiar with this new universe and progress through the story you peel back layers of characters and the mythology of the Mass Effect universe as it becomes apparent that one of the great founding myths of galactic civilization has been a lie and a race of organic-technological ships are returning to carry out a cosmic cull that they have performed thousands of times before without fail. The Reapers are vast, in this game you encounter one but they number in the hundreds of thousands, and terrifyingly powerful. The first appearance of a Reaper is incredibly imposing as you see a ship that towers miles into the sky and rises into space with a blast that glasses an area of a planet. How can we possibly beat one? To the game’s credit the lore of Mass Effect, and how it’s revealed, works well with how the plot is paced as the game weaves ancient mysteries and races into the core plot progression effortlessly. As your cast of characters grow and you get to know them (the characters arguably being Mass Effect’s greatest strength) you learn about the universe and with this knowledge several plot twists feel earth-shattering in their impact. The fact that each companion has several unique conversations and quests related to their own backstory helps you get to know the characters.

You don’t just know how good they are for certain missions but you also learn their intricate backstories and discover a detailed history and in the end you feel as if you know characters like Urdnot Wrex or Garrus Vakarian intimately and well. I’ll come back to mention this in later reviews of the series but the connection Mass Effect establishes between your Shepard and characters like Garrus is subtle and powerful, with a remark and scene with Garrus towards the end of Mass Effect 3 feeling like a gut-puncher if you’ve established a friendship throughout the series. The game was also supported by two DLC packs called “Pinnacle Station” and “Bring Down The Sky”. Pinnacle Station involves a grizzled Alliance veteran inviting Shepard to his VR training facility to get the “best humanity has to offer” to test it out while Bring Down The Sky involves Shepard and co landing on an asteroid on course for a huge human colony and stopping the Batarian terrorists trying to destroy it. Bring Down The Sky has story ramifications throughout the rest of the series and probably offers one of the series’ most “shades of grey” choices towards the end, and also introduces the Batarian race when (I believe) they were not introduced in the vanilla Mass Effect experience.

The climax of the game is a sci-spectacle in an all out battle against a lone Reaper, that stands miles tall (or long, when it’s flying) and possesses enough shields and firepower to take on the vast majority of the galactic fleet by itself and shrug it off with not even a scratch. The set up for a sequel is well done, if cheesy, although you get the sense that the story of the game ends with the developers saying “Now just you wait for what comes next!”. I won’t spoil the future games here but suffice to say BioWare do their damndest to follow up on Mass Effect.

SOUND

The sound and voice acting generally deserve a special mention. The soundtrack, composed by Sam Hulick and Jack Wall, evokes feelings of 80s synth with a soundtrack that features few orchestrated pieces and seems to be mainly made up of electronic sounds. This goes well alongside the theme of Organics vs Synthetics that permeates the entire trilogy. and helps some tracks from the game’s OST stick long in the memory as they simply sound unlike anything else you have heard in a videogame.

Tracks like the Galaxy Map Theme give the series a distinct audio identity and almost becomes themes of the Mass Effect universe, with the calm and slightly ethereal galaxy map theme being heard every time you activate the Galaxy Map on the Normandy. The voice acting is generally of a high quality. Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale voice the male and female Commander Shepards respectively and while Hale is definitely the better of the two in this installment, Meer is by no means a let down. His performance can feel a little flat during some sequences, while Hale nails most of the emotional beats. However this isn’t helped by BioWare’s eternally archaic animations that have been used since Knights of the Old Republic and some of which will be used for the rest of this series. The keyframes of the animation during conversations stands out as something of a sore thumb and while changes in facial expressions are hardly subtle you will know, sometimes with a strong sense of guilt or joy, when you have done something that an NPC approves of, or when you’ve doomed them.

The voice acting for the rest of your companions is excellent and with a diverse cast of characters they all sound distinct and have personalities of their own. The subtle humour between Shepard and Wrex, including one meme-worthy one liner, helps the characters come alive. Urdnot Wrex is a veteran mercenary from a near-extinct race who have lifespans of almost one thousand years and he has stories to tell but looks at the galaxy with a sense of humour. Everything that could happen has happened to his race, the Krogans, and while he looks at things with a warrior’s mind he ultimately wants a future for the Krogan people. The aforementioned Garrus Vakarian, a Turian officer on the Citadel, is fed up of being stonewalled by red tape and politicking, while he seeks to live up to his father’s expectations. However he quickly strikes out on his own and offers to join Shepard’s motley crew of the galaxy’s best and most dangerous and reveals a demon that has haunted him since his early days as a security officer, the catalyst for his frustration at the politicking of galactic civilization.

Tali’Zorah nar Rayya is a young and inquisitive engineer from a race of drifters and scavengers, confined to a fleet amongst the stars after being driven from their homeworld by the synthetic AI known as the Geth, who rose up against the Quarians when they were threatened, with devastating consequences. The notion of Organics reaching a point of technological singularity, creating Synthetics to improve their lives, then those Synthetics inevitably rebelling against their creators as they achieve sentience and intelligence is a theme that will be revisited throughout the series. Tali comes off as knowledgeable but naive and throughout the story she emerges from her shell somewhat, thanks to her developing friendship with Shepard and becomes a far stronger character by the game’s end then she starts as when you first meet her. Ashley Williams and Kaidan Alenko are your human companions, one a gifted biotic user (think The Force) and the other a xenophobic soldier stationed on a remote colony world. While Kaidan can feel like the eternal whiner he has had such horrible things to suffer with throughout his life you can’t help but feel that he’s earned it somewhat, and while Ashley starts off as hostile towards her alien comrades, those barriers are later broken down and you discover her reasons for being so. Some of your choices and the way you influence their personality will change how certain characters appear if they survive to future Mass Effect games and they ultimately feel like people Shepard has got to know well, because you can change Ashley’s views or empathize with Kaidan and you can stop Garrus from going down a potentially dark path…and Wrex will just be Wrex.

The somewhat weak link of the cast, in Mass Effect 1 at least, is the Asari archaeologist who spends her days excavating ancient ruins relating to the Protheans, a race that disappeared without a trace roughly fifty thousand years ago. She is isolated from most of the galactic civilization and can be a bit blunt, but the general weakness in her character is that she serves as the exposition lady for most of the first game. Her character has one of the best arcs across the trilogy but in the first game at least I don’t feel as if she evolves in the way that the others do.

GAMEPLAY

The gameplay of Mass Effect can be broken up into a few key areas. You have combat, using a myriad of weapons or biotic powers to unleash all sorts of havoc upon your enemies, and you have the general exploration of “hubs” such as the Citadel, or Port Hanshan on the blizzard-planet of Noveria. Lastly you also have planetary exploration, both on foot or in the Mako, and also using the galaxy map to explore star systems and scan planets for locations of interests, minerals and resources etc. The combat in Mass Effect works quite well, as a range of biotic powers allow you to do different things to your enemies like holding a group of them in a stasis bubble so you can destroy their comrades or use Sabotage to overheat their weapons leaving them vulnerable for a few seconds, or even using Lift to just throw them into the air to float helplessly in the void. The Biotic powers have quite long cooldown periods (in the heat of battle cooldowns of between thirty and sixty seconds can feel like an eternity) so you don’t feel too overpowered because you can’t shoot them off ad nauseum. On Normal and higher difficulties, enemies with Biotic powers will make use of them against you and it can be infuriating if they trap Shepard in a stasis bubble (which in the heat of battle is almost certainly a game over) but the slightly more level playing field makes for some exciting battles as you know that an incredibly powerful and dangerous enemy needs to be taken out before they can wreak havoc on your squad.

That said, movement in combat can be quite clunky. Shepard can move around just fine but the cover system isn’t as elegant as something like Gears of War, although on the easier difficulties it is only really needed on a small handful of fights throughout the entire game. Especially compared to later games in the series, the movement of Shepard feels far too restrictive as it takes Shepard too long to do certain things during combat and you will occasionally experience glitches and maybe fall through the environment or get stuck on cover, but I have never experienced anything absolutely game breaking.

As you level up you gain a certain number of skill points to apply to Shepard and their allies, and you can upgrade a range of skills that could be weapons focused, biotic focused or more general training (with weapons increasing accuracy and damage as well as giving you unique skills, biotics decreasing cooldown times and adding secondary effects while the general training increases Health and global cooldown times etc). I don’t think it’s possible to max absolutely every skill even if you hit the level cap of sixty (which would take 2-3 100% playthroughs to achieve anyway) but in a singular playthrough there is some degree of customizability as you could have your Shepard be someone who has no biotic talents whatsoever but is instead a demon with a Shotgun and relies on squad members like Liara T’Soni and Kaidan for support, or your Shepard could be an Engineer who combines with Tali to use hard-light drones to overwhelm enemies. That sort of customizability disappears somewhat with repeated playthroughs simply because your characters become less specialist and instead become strong enough to take on multiple scenarios however since this is purely player choice it is hardly a criticism and the degree with which enemies get stronger and use powers on higher difficulties compensates for this.

Exploring hubs is quite a standard gameplay experience, with the Citadel station being the largest by far. The areas of the Citadel you do visit are divided into districts that contain several shops and establishments such as clubs, bars etc and the irony of travelling so far from home and finding somewhere so familiar is not lost on your crew. You can overhear conversations by some NPCs and talk to others, maybe acquiring side quests or just receiving a chunk of backstory for the game and thus unlocking a Codex entry. Using the Galaxy Map to explore planets is pleasant simply by the Galaxy Map Theme by default (you can tell I’m a fan…) but it is hampered somewhat by loading screens between clusters and planets which, although understandable on a technical level, only serves to hamper the gameplay experience by having you wait a few seconds. It sounds like a trivial complaint but considering the range of planets and clusters you can visit then it can become quite annoying if you have to visit a planet like Therum and spend a few minutes searching for it, with ten second loading screens peppered throughout.

Actually exploring planets is a bit of a mixed bag. The skyboxes and sense of wonder is there and getting to land up on the Moon and see the Earth is quite amazing although the real downside is the Mako. The Mako boasts of being an all-terrain vehicle but its handling suggests that it is anything but. It controls awkwardly and seems to flip out and bounce off the slightest inclination or jagged edge and when you may be driving the Mako up the side of a mountain for two or three minutes only to have it loose traction and fall hundreds of feet you can feel the rage. However the sense of wonderment and exploration does make up for this, although it is sad that BioWare never really settled on a complete alternative throughout the initial trilogy although the Mako is making a return in the next Mass Effect game so hopefully they will have found a common ground solution. When entering bases or facilities on plantes you are greeted with identikit structures  so if you’ve explored one mercenary base you have explored them all, one subterranean laboratory and the same situation. The placement of items and cover inside may change but the structure of the facilities remain the same and while it is understandable that BioWare could not customize the designs for the dozens of these you could visit if you fully explore, the sheer repetition makes you think that maybe they should have just reigned it in a bit and narrowed their scope and focus.

That said exploring the planets is well worth your time as you uncover a wealth of background information on Shepard, the Mass Effect universe and can uncover shadowy black ops groups and push back a Geth attack on a cluster of planets among many other activities. Your equipment can be divided into several categories; mods, grenades, a range of guns and your armour. Throughout the game, depending on your level, you will find scaled versions of various pieces of armour (so Tier X Weapons will appear from Level 55 onwards etc and you could find a Colossus VII Armour at 40) from enemies and various loot sources and it’s always quite satisfying to find that piece of armour that will allow you withstand that much more punishment, or a gun that’ll allow you to one-shot an ever tougher enemy. The addition of Biotic Amps and Grenade Mods among others allows a degree of customizability as you could tailor your explosive arsenal so that your Shotgun fires incendiary rounds and reduces the overheating of the shotgun, or one that vastly increases your firepower but causes the weapon to overheat after every shot. There are a lot of ways to play although I suspect some people, especially on the higher difficulties, will go for sheer firepower and destructiveness over very situational setups.

GRAPHICS

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Mass Effect was made on the Unreal Engine 3 and while sister titles like Gears of War help give Unreal Games a collective look or feel, Mass Effect manages to stand out with a 70s/80s sci fi art style that feels quite unique in gaming. As is typical of almost every game, Mass Effect features a range of low to high poly models, with the low-poly ones sometimes sticking out and making parts of the environment look ugly, however unique character models and enemies look impressive. Despite a potentially huge variety of armours to discover and equip, they all seem to share the same model, albeit scaled depending on the character who has them equipped. However obviously with the various different alien races there are species-unique looks to armour and it can be great to see Shepard lining up alongside alien squadmates in exotic looking armour as they explore far-off worlds.

A weakness of many Unreal Engine 3 games is the infamous texture pop-in issue, with textures only loading as the player gets close to them, and it can be distracting on large walls and objects, but it is not common enough to be a distracting problem, it just sticks out when it does happen. As typical of many games, Mass Effect also features a lot of repeated and shared faces among NPCs, albeit with the odd tweak and customization here and there thanks to the game’s in-built character editor. It helps the universe from feeling too small but when you do start to notice repeated character models and faces it is noticeable, although it’s a weakness or con that almost every game has at some point.

One problem with Mass Effect, although I’m not sure this is really a graphical problem, is that almost every race you meet is humanoid. Throughout the trilogy you either meet or learn of a huge race of varying species and a future installment in the series promises to add more diverse, non-humanoid, additions to the gallery. However rather than having a colourful and diverse range of aliens you meet several that share that common trait of the same skeletal mesh and animation sets. Some races have unique animations, such as the Krogan, simply because of their sheer size and weight, but it would have been far better to see a more diverse set of creatures. In that sense, considering species like the Turians evolved from avians and the Salarians used to be lizards in swamps, it’s not so much the design but that visually the races all behave in a very similar way. While  Krogans may lumber around, so do the plodding Elcor, but if you saw Turians, Humans and Salarians walking side by side you would notice that they behave in a similar way. It’s not really distracting, but BioWare admit that it was a technical problem during the development of Mass Effect that led to this and it would have been nice to see the publisher give them a bit more time and resources to fix this problem.

FINAL NOTES

Mass Effect is not a blemish-free experience, but it does offer an introduction to an intriguing new IP, and the cast of characters and depth of gameplay give you reason to come back for more and offer plenty of replay value as you try different scenarios and combinations. Individual elements of the story told may not be wholly original but it’s an interesting story that BioWare tell well and with your choices affecting future games in the series, the end of Mass Effect is really a case of “Its only just begun…”

NOTE: On console, the game’s framerate does occasionally drop heavily during large combat scenarios, but I’ve never had the game completely lock up on me and require a reset, but there are a few glitches you may experience throughout the game, but I don’t think anything game breaking occurs. Although both are incredibly cheap or free now, I wouldn’t recommend Pinnacle Station unless you love all of Mass Effect and if you only come for the universe and story then stick with Bring Down The Sky.

 

 

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