Okay, I have a confession to make. I have never played a Mass Effect game. It’s not my fault, I swear! When the first one came out, I did not have an X-Box, and then didn’t want to jump into the middle of the story when Mass Effect 2 came out for the PS3. Will all the buzz surrounding the release of the third installment, and spring break freeing up my schedule, I decided it was time to tackle this much-lauded franchise. I’m about 12 hours into the first game, playing FemShep (of course) as a compassionate no-nonsense soldier. My thoughts are below.
For those of you who have been living under a large pile of gravel for the last five years, Mass Effect is the story of John/Jane Shepard, a commander in the Alliance Navy. The story goes that after discovering a cache of ancient scifi technology on Mars, humans took to the stars, where they were met with borderline racist contempt by a consortium of alien races. Now, hundreds (or maybe thousands?) of years later, the human alliance is finally integrating into the galactic confederation, but a renegade super soldier is trying to loose a race of mythical killer monsters on the cosmos. Only Shepard and her ragtag crew of aliens in their experimental starship can stop them.
I’d describe the aesthetics as a dark Star Trek, in terms of ship and costume design, alien design, and the format of away missions, much more than I would a Star Wars knockoff. But that’s a good thing, considering how similar the gameplay is to spiritual predecessor Knights of the Old Republic. The Alliance Navy uniforms are pretty much identical to those worn by the Confederation in Wing Commander.
Gameplay is pretty clunky; it’s hard to aim, it’s hard to use cover, and it’s hard to keep your allies alive, but it’s also pretty hard to die, so combat can be frustrating, but never annoying the way some games can be. For what it’s worth, it sounds like all these problems have been corrected in future installments of the game.
It is certainly not as free-roaming as a Fallout or Elder Scrolls, but the story is WAY more interesting, and the characters are more, well, there ARE actual characters. So that’s a plus.
The thing to really talk about with Mass Effect is the storytelling. The dialogue wheel is succinct, and it’s rare to choose something to say that ends up being radically different from what you intended. It’s also rare for one of your selections to actually have an impact on what happens in a scene. I’ve already noticed several occasions where I’ve chosen each of three different options, and the reply Shepard gets is identical in each case. This phenomenon is not unique to Mass Effect, and whenever I see it, I always feel like the game writers are lying to me. I don’t know why they do it. Most of the time you can choose between saying something nice, something sarcastic, or something dick — also pretty standard for American RPGs with “branching” dialogue. Although once you define your character’s personality, it’s a bit schizophrenic to bounce back and forth between sweet hero Shepard and raging a-hole Shepard.
The supporting cast is diverse and well-drawn. Shepard conveniently has a member of each prominent alien race on her team (yay diversity)! Although it’s pretty amusing that all the males are giant monsters in battle armor and all the female aliens have the same slinky model body in a skintight body suit. There are many attempts at gender parity in the game, and a lot of stuff that Mass Effect gets right. Then there’s a lot of stuff that just makes you roll your eyes. [Note -- there's also this weird thing where all the alien species are grossly racist to one another, and the humans are not exempt from this behavior.]But Shepard — Jane Shepard, anyway — is a compelling hero, and I see why across the board my female gamer friends are die hards for the series. At the same time, I checked out some of the cutscenes with male Shepard side-by-side, and he’s kind of boring, even though the dialogue is identical. I’m not sure what this says about what we expect from female protagonists, but either way it’s pretty fun to watch FemShep hit on half her crew, punch out giant bugs, and save the galaxy.
Much of this, however, was expected. I’d heard and read a lot about this landmark series, and so there have been few surprises. What has struck me the most, is how reminiscent the game is of the 4-6-7 golden age of Final Fantasy, which was totally unexpected. Even ignoring the design of the Citadel (which looks exactly like Balamb Garden and Coccoon) and the tedium of world map tank driving missions, Mass Effect’s story progression and characters FEEL like Final Fantasy, but without dipping into “Oh, that character is Cloud, oh, that character is Barret, oh, that character is Celes.” There’s a ragtag group of heroes; each has an unresolved past, a unique character class, a different moral code, and a distinct relationship with the main hero. There is a meddlesome villain who doggedly harasses the heroes beginning to end, and is just a man, but still threatens to destroy EVERYTHING.
Another similarity to FF, and KOTOR, and my biggest criticism of the game, is the limited party selection. What exactly is the appeal of having seven playable characters in an RPG, but then forcing you to always have the same party leader, and only allowing you to choose two other characters at a time to join you in battle? This choice has always seemed stupid to me. Balance would actually be easier to manage if you knew the whole party line-up, and gameplay might be more complicated, entering ATB commands for seven characters would be tricky, but complicated is good. Combat in Mass Effect is simple to a fault (at least as the soldier class) and it’s the 21st century. We can handle it. Also, you’d have more time with each of the supporting cast members. As it is, I choose my party based on who might have interesting story moments on a given mission. My best guess isn’t always a good guess, so sometimes I’ll cop out and choose the party members that best compliment my Shepard’s character class, which gives the other four allies short shrift.
The character classes in general are pretty simplistic (although this is another aspect of the game I’ve heard improves in the sequels). There are three character attributes, Combat, Technical, and Biotic (which is basically Mass Effect’s version of magic). The six classes are then the various combinations of these three attributes. There’s a Double-Biotic, Double-Technical, and a Double-Combat (that’s my class, the soldier), and then three hybrids (A Combat-Technical, a Combat-Biotic, and a Technical-Biotic). The strongest party is always going to be one that has the three doubles, as their skills are generally twice as powerful as their hybrid allies. Also, because each of Shepard’s six allies is a different character class, it automatically makes one of your party members redundant, and it’s stupid to use him or her. In my case, it’s my party’s soldier Ashley Williams who never gets used.
So, what’s the takeaway? It’s a great game. It’s not perfect. It’s interesting. It’s worth talking about. Its sequels are probably better, the way that Dragon Age: Origins was an atrocious bore compared to Dragon Age II (Mass Effect 1 is WAY better than Dragon Age: Origins). If nothing else, it’s great to see a space opera universe that doesn’t have the fingerprints of George Lucas or James Cameron on it. I’m looking forward to finishing the game and hurrying on to the second one. stay tuned. I’ll write about it.