This might be a weird way to start an analysis, but I need to get it off my chest: Mass Effect is too short. My playthrough clocked in at around twenty-one hours, and I did somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of all the side quests. I’m starting with this because twelve hours into the game, I was ready to consider Mass Effect as one of the few games that I can truly call favorites (alongside Dark Souls, Tera Online, and Super Meat Boy). However, the game ended so abruptly that it left me wanting more, to where I think I’ll need to play the other Mass Effect games before I’ll be able to call them a favorite as a whole.
I’ll dissect a bunch of the game’s strengths and weaknesses in a bit, but before that, I want to briefly summarize my playthrough, which has a lot to show for what I felt about the game’s pacing.
My Commander Shepard was a highly diplomatic and hard-faced black woman named Baroness. She was the sole survivor of a famous battle, and a vanguard, specializing in close-ranged weapons. I played the whole game on Normal difficulty, and chose Paragon dialog choices 99% of the time (I’ll discuss this in-depth later).
After the opening mission on Eden Prime (which I greatly enjoyed), I arrived in the Citadel, and I spent nearly five hours there completing every single quest. This might be a good place to start.
I fucking adored the Citadel, like you cannot even believe. I spent a considerable amount of time just running around in circles, drinking it all in. I was psyched to do quests like the one where I had to scan all the keepers in the Citadel. You mean I get XP and credits just for exploring this fucking amazing city?! Hell yes!
You may have noticed that this series is called “Adventure! Action! RPG!” That’s because the adventure is the coolest thing about RPGs for me. I love discovering new places and worlds, which is why visual design is a huge part of what elevates an ARPG to favorites status for me. (Dark Souls and Tera are my #1 and #2 choices of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played).
Having done all those missions on the Citadel before blasting into space, I thought that I’d be coming back to the Citadel almost regularly to see what new things might be waiting for me. Maybe characters would have new dialog, or places would be different. Basically, I was expecting it to be like the Persona games, wherein you can talk to everyone in town after a dungeon, and they almost always have something new to say, or new sub-quests for you to do.
This expectation set me up for disappointment when it wasn’t really the case. In all fairness, there were two points in the game when I returned to the Citadel and unlocked new side-quests. The first time, there were a decent handful of them, but the second time, there were barely any. I returned to the Citadel at the third point in the game when it seemed like there would be new quests, but there weren’t any, and I just finished the one or two which I’d left undone.
After completing the Citadel the first time, I was able to travel the universe to the many different planets in many different galaxies, in about twenty galaxy clusters (wow!). However, this was the moment that, in retrospect, the pacing of the game got fucked up. This wasn’t my fault, because the game did nothing to indicate to me that it might occur, but had I known ahead of time, I would’ve planned around it.
See, the main storyline indicated two different planets where I was supposed to find information about the whereabouts of the main villain, whom I spent the entire game chasing. I quickly deduced that if I completed these two missions, I would unlock the next story-important mission, and so forth. What I didn’t know, however, is that there are only four story-important missions in the game.
Outside of those main missions, the galaxy is littered with planets which I could land on and explore in my land rover, the Mako (which I’ll talk about more when I get into game mechanics). On these planets, there were a bunch of little things that I could do, such as locate fallen probes and gather minerals. Most of these planets have at least one mine shaft which I could go down and fight some enemies, and get extra tidbits of story aside from the main missions.
The difference between the story missions and the side missions is a lot like the difference between exploring dungeons and exploring the overworld in a standard RPG. The story missions are lengthy, linear, contain most of the challenging enemy encounters, and end in a boss fight. The side-missions are more about exploration and cool shit.
I greatly enjoyed exploring side-planets in Mass Effect, but playing too many of them in a row grew tedious, so after I got bored of exploring, I’d want to either go back to the Citadel, or head to the next main-line mission. And since there was never anything new in the Citadel unless I’d just done a main-line mission, this really meant, I’d get bored and do a main-line mision.
As aforementioned, I fucked up the game’s pacing because I did the first dungeon immediately after leaving the Citadel for the first time. I had no way of knowing how few dungeons there would be in the game, proportional to how many side-planets there were.
I explored some side-planets and then went to the second dungeon; this unlocked the third. After more side-planets, I played the third dungeon, and at this point, I realized how close I was to the end of the game. It was very obviously moving into its final stretch at that point, and if I was going to do more exploring, then I’d need to do it before going to the fourth and final dungeon.
By this point, there were still way too many side-planets to explore, and nothing left to do at the Citadel. I knew that I wouldn’t want to spend four hours of non-stop driving on planets, so I played the last dungeon, and the game was over.
This pacing kerfuffle wasn’t the only thing which contributed to my disappointment at the game’s length. Eleven hours in, I had a conversation with three friends who’d played the game (one of whom has gotten all of the achievements in all three games—a feat of several hundred hours). My friends hyped me up about a bunch of stuff, and I was already pretty excited. However, a lot of what they hyped me for was stuff about the second game. This includes some stuff that was just poorly communicated—for instance, they lead me to believe that I could snog Tali in the first game, but it turns out I could only snog Liara, which was… quite terrible.
The thing that gets to me, though, is that my friends agreed, and other reviews I’ve seen have corroborated, on the idea that the first game had, “the best story,” of the trilogy. I doubt heavily that this is true, because if it were, then I’m in for a disappointment. (And before anyone says anything, I already know how the third game ends, and I think it sounds pretty awesome.)
The first game’s story is very cut and dry, and clearly feels like the first act in a much larger story. All it amounts to is that there’s a bad guy who aims to kill a fuckload of people, and you need to find out where he is, why he’s doing this, and stop him. And that’s what you do. In the process, you just scratch the surface of the greater plotline involving the reapers and the cycle of extinction that is the greater central theme of the series.
Had I played this game not knowing that it would have two sequels—or even if I did know, but I’d played it in 2007, three years before Mass Effect two came out—I would’ve been disappointed by how little it touched on these themes, and how ultimately simplistic the plot was.
I know I just poured out 1500 words on that one complaint, but I’ve got a couple other big ones, so bear with me. I promise that this is ultimately going to be a positive review.
There are a number of technical problems which have been talked about by many others, but which shouldn’t be left unmentioned. Mass Effect has some odd bugs, especially involving the visuals. I had a number of conversation-cutscenes wherein a piece of the background texture would be stuck to a character’s head, or their eyes would be closed, only opening when the character was supposed to be blinking. There were also a lot of times when the sound effects from my gun would cut out, replaced with static. In a game that owes so much to how engrossing it is, these bugs are incredibly awkward.
Now is the time to mention that I played this game on my PC in 1080p. I witnessed a forgivable amount of aliasing, and a hell of a lot of screen tearing, especially in the Citadel. It only bothered me every once in awhile, but I tend to be forgiving of this issue. I don’t know if I could’ve fixed it, or if the limitations of my PC contributed to the problem, but lowering the resolution and graphical settings didn’t help at all, so I just played it at default medium settings.
Whenever I left my ship, the game had me bring along two companions (out of the six available), and the AI of these companions was inevitably worthless. Sometimes they would mill around directly in the path of where I was trying to run or shoot, and I died at least twice because of it. Because most of the firefights take place in narrow hallways, not only could my partners be in my way, but a lot of the time, I was in theirs, and their shots would harmlessly deflect off of my back. They would also get stuck on walls or forget to walk through doors, lingering behind until I got far enough away that they respawned behind me.
The game had a weirdly sporadic autosave function. One dungeon might autosave every couple of rooms, or after each important cutscene, whereas others would wait long stretches. This was true also of the side-planets, some of which saved upon entering a cave, and others of which only save upon touching down.
This isn’t a serious problem because there’s a quick-save key which you can use any time that you aren’t in a fire-fight; but let me tell you about the most annoying moment in the game for me.
I had just killed the boss of the first dungeon, and was treated to a cutscene with dialog options. I then had to shoot the boss a few more times, activating another, particularly long cutscene which included some really weighty choices. After that, I had to head down a couple of corridors and find this scientist dude, which lead to another cutscene, and him getting killed. I got an access code off of his dead body to start up a self-destruct sequence for the station I was in. After starting this sequence, there was no option to save, and there was just one room full of enemies to take care of before the end of the dungeon…
Except I died on that room, and the last auto-save had been immediately after I killed the boss, but before all of those fucking cutscenes. For the record, I could skip each line of dialog by hitting the spacebar, but I had to watch out for dialog choices while doing so, and there were parts that couldn’t be skipped. It nonetheless set me back nearly ten minutes in mostly cutscene.
One last vague complaint is that the cutscenes had a tendency to cut out just before they should. For instance, in an emotional cutscene, there might be a big, sweeping song playing, but the song wouldn’t have time to fade out before a loading screen cut it off, leaving the emotional moment feeling truncated and awkward.
Technical stuff I didn’t mind
Continuing with technical aspects of the game, I’d now like to address some of the common complaints that I’ve read in other reviews of the game which didn’t bother me very much.
Two of the most serious complaints that I’ve seen about the game are: 1. That controlling the land-rover (Mako), which is used in some story missions and to explore planets, is a pain in the ass; and 2. That the menus are a convoluted mess. These problems were both remedied for me, I think, because I played the PC version of the game.
I have a hard time picturing how all the menus would’ve worked on the Xbox 360, because indeed, they’re a bit of a mess, and having a bunch of hot-keys to open each individual menu, as well as a mouse to click on shit, was invaluable.
It seems as though a lot of changes were made to the PC version. I read in one review that it was impossible to sort items on the menus, which is doable on the PC. I also read that the game did very little to instruct the player on how to use all of these menus, which was less true in the PC version, though I still had to look up how to assign skills to my quick-select bar. Finally, I read that in the Xbox version, you couldn’t undo the skill points that you assigned after levelling up, which is kind of ridiculous, and remedied in the PC version.
As for the Mako controls, they are a little bit hard to figure out, but I found that once I got the hang of them, they were not only a breeze, but actually fun! I really enjoyed playing with the controls to climb all sorts of treacherous mountains. Again, though, I think this owes to the PC controls.
Moving the Mako was all about hitting the WASD keys in short bursts, and letting go of the acceleration any time that I reached the crest of a slope. I don’t know how the Mako controlled on the console version, but if it moved just by pushing the control stick forward, then it would’ve been a lot more awkward than letting go of a key every few seconds.
Lastly, there’s the issue of the long and frequent load times, which took the form of elevator rides. These were no different on the PC version, but while they could get tedious sometimes, I didn’t mind them as much as others seem to. Most of them came with some kind of news report or conversation between the characters, which I felt made them quite organic, especially when they would discuss things that happened in side-quests I’d completed. I’ll take stuff like this over loading screens of any length.
Moving along, let’s talk about visual design. For the most part, I loved the visual design of Mass Effect, though it could feel all over the place at times.
The few major locations in the game are all superb. The Citadel is drop-dead gorgeous, with a spectacular contemporary design sense, involving walls that are mostly white, with color given to most places in the form of lighting. Everything looked polished and futuristic in a very modern way.
Two of the major locations—the opening bit on Eden Prime, and the last major mission planet, consisted of verdant, gorgeous wildlife surrounding stock colony bases. The first was more impressive than the last, if only because the last was entirely too short.
Between them was one level taking place mostly in a stock sci-fi base (stock not meant as an insult, but as a trope indicator), one which was in a ruined-city type of location (which had one really memorable set-piece in the middle), and one which looked like the beaches of a Halo planet.
Actually, I felt that Mass Effect owed a lot of its visual design to Halo, if only because they are two of the only really big, beautiful, high-budget, modern sci-fi games in existence. The comparison becomes really apt when you look at the vehicle sections in Mass Effect’s main-line missions, which can all be compared directly to tank or Ghost sections from Halo 2.
Unfortunately, Mass Effect’s main missions don’t get to be as expansive and well-designed as those in Halo, which seems to come as a natural part of being an action-RPG instead of a straight-up action game. Most of the dungeons consist of linear passages, wherein I’d encounter a bunch of walls to use as cover from oncoming enemies, and pick them off one by one. I never had to tactically make my way around the terrain to take on enemies; I’d choose a wall to stand behind and pick off enemies one by one as they ran headlong towards me. This is not a complaint—I don’t expect more than this from a standard action-RPG.
The expansiveness of Mass Effect comes more from the planet exploration mechanic. However, this aspect of the game is significantly less polished. I do not discredit it for this, though—it’s amazing that BioWare were able to fit so much into this game, and I commend them for it, even if ideally it could’ve had the impossible budget and time to polish these worlds further.
The planets are all basically the same kinds of hills-and-valleys terrain, with different colors, textures, and skyboxes to give each planet a unique personality. Most of the mines on those planets are identical, which is unfortunate. The first time I discovered a mine and fought a sand-worm on a planet, I was fucking exhilarated, but when I did the same things on the next planet, it was less exciting. To the game’s credit, some of the side places were more unique, and there were a number which I didn’t get around to that may have also been different.
Mass Effect’s character designs are on the cusp of being really great, but failed to me in one big way which I’ll get to. I adored all of the diverse alien designs, from the floating appendix-looking thing with tendrils, to the giant, almost animal-looking, rough-skinned creatures with huge arms.
The problem, however, is that within each species, every single person has the exact same fucking body type. And not only that, but the female humans, Assari, and Quarians, all share a body type together! Moreover, the Assari are all female, we only ever see one Quarian, and every other race is shown as completely male. Every female that we see in the game, besides Tali, is either human or Assari. They all have the same large breasts, thigh gap, and slim frame—even Baroness Shepard, my player character.
The only difference between characters of the same race is their facial structure, and even then, a lot of it stays very consistent. Almost all of the women have gigantic doe eyes, and everyone in the game has unnaturally big lips. The biggest indicator of who’s who is their hairstyles and outfits, which are sometimes all you have to indicate that a character is older than the others.
Additionally, the characters mostly share the same set of animated expressions. This spans across races, so that Wrex, my huge Krogan teammate, makes the same hand gestures as Garrus, my slim Turian. For the most part, I didn’t mind this, but towards the end of the game, it really started to become noticeable when I’d memorized all of the expressions.
Now it’s time to really get into the meat of discussion about this game—the writing. An almost ubiquitous statement across reviews of BioWare games is that they always feature “good writing,” which is a statement that means absolutely nothing. Let’s get into the bones of it.
One big strength of the central storyline in Mass Effect is that it follows a number of set themes very closely. Speciesism plays a major role in all of the game’s politics, usually focusing on the diplomatic eggshells and fine line that the humans have to walk to become a recognized species. I really enjoyed playing my Shepard as the ever-strong diplomat rising both above base speciesism (characters hating and fearing other species), as well as political speciesism (the concil’s distrust of humans, and the humans’ desire to show the council their worth).
A theme that emerges slowly throughout the game and is clearly the thread that will continue into the next games is that of the universe’s cyclical nature, with the rising and falling of empires and civilizations. It’s only touched upon here, but it is something of great interest to me.
There’s a more subtle theme of mind control and subjective intelligence that happens between Shepard and the villain, Saren. Shepard and Saren are both subjected to knowledge that no one else in the universe have, and are faced with the challenge of interpreting and spreading their knowledge. However, Saren interprets the visions as an inevitability, whereas Shepard interprets them as something that needs to be stopped. The fact that Saren is affected by the Reaper’s indoctrination, which also infects its followers, continues this theme, although it isn’t really portrayed with any kind of depth.
Perhaps the most consistent theme, however, is that of the Paragon vs. the Renegade, which is what comes through in your dialog choice throughout the game. Now, to be honest, these choices don’t always come together well. A lot of the times, the Renegade option just makes Shepard look like a gigantic asshole, to where the choice is more likely between a Paragon and a neutral option unless you’re really dedicated to role-playing Shepard as a certain kind of character. Personally, I chose the dialog options that most reflected what I would say if I was Shepard, and I happen to be very diplomatic about things.
However, there were a number of moments in the game wherein the choices felt like they really pushed a relevant question. More often than not, these were scenes wherein I had a criminal’s life in my hands, and I had the choice between killing them or turning them in; or alternatively, killing them or letting them go free.
If I had a choice, then I almost always chose not to kill anyone, which reflects my real-world ideal that killing people is pointless unless they force your hand. For instance, towards the beginning of the game, there was a low-level criminal who’d sent a bunch of thugs at me, under the command of Saren. He was a dick, but I let him go—it didn’t even occur to me to kill him. However, when I told my younger brother about it, he said he’d killed that guy immediately.
I set free the new queen of a bug species which historically had nearly conquered the galaxy before the Krogans had stopped them, because the queen was cool. I tried to lock up a number of the game’s criminals, and this usually worked. One time I tried to reason with a dude who was losing his shit, but he freaked out on me and Shepard shot him in the face—this one couldn’t be helped.
However, there was one point where I really felt bad about one decision I made. It was in a side-mission, and I’d found this group of scientists who’d been doing some sick experiments on a bunch of people, but were now in danger and had sent out a distress beacon. They bribed me to let them go, and my options were to either tell them that they needed to be taken in (Paragon), or let them go free (Renegade). After they refused to be taken in, I could tell them again that they can’t go free (Paragon) or kill them (Renegade). I knew that they were resisting being taken in, and part of me was like, what do I care if they go free, they do need to get out of here. However, I was pretty used to being Paragon at that point, and I chose that option, even though I usually tried to keep Shepard from getting emotional about the shit that others do, which is how the Paragon choice had her acting. The scientists retaliated, and I ended up having to kill them all.
Had I let them go, no one would’ve had to die there. On the other hand, the fact that they attacked me shows that they really weren’t likely to reform their ways if I’d captured them, so in the long run, I may have saved the lives of many others. I can take some solace in this, but if I’d felt like I killed them just because of the crimes they’d already committed, I’d be unhappy about it.
This is the kind of conversation with myself that I love to see a game making me have! And it’s not the only one, either.
During the third mainline mission, there were a number of choices with regards to the lives of my teammates. The first was when I had to talk Wrex out of making me kill him, which I could only do if I was Paragon enough to get the right dialog choices. (I was full Paragon long before this point). Considering he’s like the best fucking character in the game, I was happy to spare him.
Then I got to the part where I had to choose one of my human teammates—either Kaidan or Ashley—to leave my party and help a fellow commander with a difficult operation. It was an obvious death flag, and I got to make the most sadistic decisions in the game.
You see, I never, ever, ever, put the human characters in my party. I snubbed them completely, not even talking to them on the Normandy in-between missions. I found both of them insufferable, between Kaidan’s utter blandness, and Ashley’s being an intolerant cunt. Right off the bat upon entering the Citadel, Ashley kept bitching about the place, while I was in the middle of thinking it was the best place ever. Then she started being a dick to my alien friends, and I just got sick of talking to her. It was always awkward when the two of them showed up in cutscenes, because I’d honestly forget that they existed.
I got to choose which one of them would go on the suicide run. There was an option to say “neither,” though I suspected and later confirmed that this option would cycle back to the choice. I chose Ashley. After all, I wasn’t directly killing her—I was just sending her on a mission.
Later on, there’s a moment where I straight-up had to choose between Kaidan and Ashley—who do you save? Again, there was no option to save both. The game took the morals out of the decision for me, and I chose to let Ashley die. I felt just a little bad about my sadism, but well… that was that.
One last moment like this came at the end of the game. I had the option to either save the Council, or tell all of the Alliance ships to focus on killing the Reaper. At this point, the options were a little unclear, and I couldn’t tell if there was one that would save everyone, or how fucked I would be if I saved the council. So I let the Council die, and it was a bit painful when I realized the Council was on a ship with a good deal of other people on it, too. This lead to a pretty interesting ending, though, which would have been drastically different if the council would’ve survived.
END OF SPOILERS
The characters also played a big role in making Mass Effect interesting, although not as big as I expected. I later learned this was partially due to my not completing all of the side missions—to an extent that I now kind of want to go on new game + and finish those missions.
My favorite characters were Wrex and Tali, whom I took on a lot of the early missions with me. Wrex was the most entertaining, with his awesome war stories and the fact that he clearly had a number of deep convictions which were beset by his disappointment in his species. Tali, I mostly liked because she had a cute voice and a decent personality.
I wanted to be friends with Garrus, especially because my friends tell me that he becomes Shepard’s BFF in later games, but he rarely seemed to have anything to talk to me about. Again, though, I figured out that there were side-quests which would’ve put minor caps on the sub-plots of Garrus and Tali, which I didn’t complete.
Liara was the only alien whom I never kept in my party, but I talked to her on the ship after each mission. The sexual tension that started flying between her and Shepard like *immediately* was pretty entertaining for a while. It’s a shame, though, that the actual “sex scene” was a fucking horrible Hollywood-esque atrocity not even worth laughing about.
Mechanics and sound design
What more is there to say? I haven’t really addressed the RPG mechanics at length, but that’s mainly because they’re quite standard. You level up to get stronger, get money to pick up better weapons, and this makes combat easier. The game doesn’t feature any conventional grinding, and features permanent enemy death, which is something I fucking *adore* in action-RPGs. The primary ways to gather XP and money outside the dungeons is through exploration and side-quests, which yield rewards for every little thing you do.
Levelling up happens very quickly in Mass Effect, although this was less surprising when I realized how short the game was altogether. I maxed out my important specializations in the blink of an eye, and I levelled up enough that I cut through the last two dungeons like butter. My shotgun was strong enough to kill most enemies in one shot, or take them down enough to where my partners could do the same. I still died a number of times throughout the game, because Shepard usually dies in like two hits; but in retrospect, a lot of these deaths were for stupid reasons, such as bugs, allies getting in the way, or accidentally driving the Mako into lava. When I actually died to the enemies straight-up, it was usually due to poor level design, coupled with the enemy’s tendency to rush at me.
That out of the way, all that’s left is sound design. Mass Effect’s soundtrack is mostly unremarkable. I like that it was electronic music for the most part, but none of the songs were memorable besides the main menu song and the awesome ending theme.
Sound effects, on the other hand, were fantastic. My shotgun sounded like a thunderclap, which was very satisfying, except when the goddamn audio would cut out. There was a small issue with sounds sometimes randomly getting quieter and then louder, but ignoring that, the sound effect for everything were generally great.
More importantly, the voice acting was absolutely fucking phenomenal across the board. No other studio but BioWare pours this kind of money into a game’s cast. Nevermind that they got actors like Seth Green and Martin Sheen for some of the major characters—every single speaking role in the game is as good as a leading role in any other game. This is a really big deal in a game that consists primarily of extensive conversations. I played the entire game without subtitles, never once playing my music over it, which is something I’ve never done in a twenty-hour game before.
My favorite bits were the unique vocal styles of some of the aliens. Best of these are the Elcor, who speak in a deep monotone, but state the emotion which they intend to convey before each sentence. (“Cautiously optimistic: I hope that you are right, Shepard.”) It’s almost a subversion of all the other excellent dialog, in that the nuance is in the lack thereof.
Anyhow, that’s about all I can think to say about Mass Effect (nearly six thousand words, no less). I ended up focusing as much on the negative as the positive, but it’s mostly out of frustration towards how brief the game was. I got wrapped up in the universe ready for the long haul, and the promise of adventure and intrigue made it so I could ignore most of the game’s shortcomings with ease. It was only in the last hours of the game, when I knew that the adventure would be short-lived, that I started to really let those flaws get to me. All in all though, I greatly enjoyed this game and am very glad to have played it, and I look forward to continuing the series.