So, I’ve been wanting to revisit the Mass Effect trilogy for a while, but I kept putting it off for various reasons. The vicious opinions surrounding the ending, the overpriced DLC that isn’t included in any bundle, and the lack of controller support. Although, I managed to remedy the latter using a handy mod. Anyways, with Andromina still a looming enigma on the horizon, I figured now is as good a time as any to start the spacefaring adventure of Shepard the space shepherd. So I’ll just jump on in.
Mass Effect Review
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Developer: BioWare and Demiurge Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
The setup of Mass Effect 1 is pretty simple. Set in the far flung future after humanity came into contact with a variety of other humans thanks to devices that allow spaceships to travel faster than the speed of light, Mass Effect is the story of Commander Shepard, a military man or woman who is praised as the bestest human of them all, and is thrown into a conflict pertaining to an alien named Saren who plans on destroying all life in the universe after reawakening an ancient evil. Which I don’t consider to be much of a spoiler, so I’ll just go all in and call them the Reapers. Helped by a crew formed of people who think Saren is a nasty dirty doo-doo head in some way, Shepard begins a journey to use their power as a super awesome space police person in order to save the galaxy from destruction.
I’m making fun of the story a little, but despite being alarmingly simple in a lot of ways, the world of Mass Effect 1 is immediately engaging and engrossing, with interesting alien design, and the image of a very sleek but appealing feature that manages to strike a balance between the familiar and and something majestic. Though, it’s not really the best look at the world, mostly in light of the other games, where you can actually visit alien planets that truly do feel alien, instead of a mining site, a human colony, a facility on a beach, and a scientific research based that looks like it could very well be on Earth. There also aren’t any female aliens in the game (I don’t count the monogender Asari) aside from Tali, who is the only example of her race seen in the entire game.
The oddness of not including female variations of certain species until reaching the DLC for the third game aside, Mass Effect 1 originally received a lot of praise for both its story and writing upon its release. While I don’t see it as much remarkable from a conceptual standpoint, as every main story mission feels like its own sci-fi trope, I must admit that the writing and dialog on display here was rather enjoyable, and what little is actually told to the player about most of the characters does make them out to all be interesting in their own way. Aside from your human companions anyhow, who are just kinda boring. However, the quantity of what you get to know about each of these companions is far less than what I would have wanted, as they all feel like pretty basic character archetypes here, even though I know for a fact that the ascend to something far greater in subsequent games.
The compliment from earlier was only in reference to proper supporting and main characters, as those are the only characters who I remember well enough to call characters, and I’d hesitate to claim that much for some of them. Despite the high quality of both the voice acting and script, the majority of random incidental characters are beyond forgettable, and their stories don’t fare much better. I genuinely struggle to remember anything about the side content of this game beyond a simple character trait, maybe a line, or an odd premise. Most of the game feels like set up for what would come later, and as its own thing, it’s not very remarkable.
Part of this has to do with the game’s overall presentation, which is almost bogglingly contrary to the sci-fi epic that the developers clearly wanted to create with this game. Everything is presented in such a sterile, straightforward, and ultimately boring manner that I almost found myself drifting away and losing interest in the game as I was playing it. Describing Mass Effect 1 as “sorta boring” has stuck with me for years, and its lackluster presentation only reaffirms that mentality, as it is the mainstay for the majority of the game. Excluding a few scant moments in the experience that do manage to feel like an action oriented science fiction adventure with a pleasant amount of somber moments. Most of them isolated near the ending of the main story.
At this point, I feel like I should bring up the morality system of the game, which I’ve always had something of a problem with, as in most binary morality systems, you are incentivised to stick with one mentality over the other. In Mass Effect 1, the mentality is to either be a selfish and loose space bastard who wants to murder as much as possible or a classically described hero who is as good and noble as one from a pulpy sci-fi serial, minus the overt and problematic traits that come with characters designed around mid-20th century American cultural idealism. Needless to say, I went with the latter, and because my morals are borderline childish, I ended up agreeing with about everything I did anyhow. Plus, I think it makes for a better story in the end, as Shepard is poised as a hero through every title..
As for the gameplay, Mass Effect 1 is ultimately a cover based third person shooter, but the entire thing feels like a rough approximation by people who aren’t the most experienced in creating action oriented games. The shooting feels fine, with your weapons adopting an interesting heat based firing system instead of traditional ammo. Your abilities are numerous, depending on the class and character and generally fun to use, even though I’m still not sure what exactly some of them are suppose to do.
The cover system is… well, I actually stopped using cover halfway through the game for two reasons. One, it just doesn’t work every well, and suffers from how characters stick to a wall just by being near it. Two, it really doesn’t offer much protection, and you should be fine just by rushing into danger with a corrosive shotgun in tow. In fact, the entire game is bizarrely easy, or rather, it become a cakewalk on normal difficulty once you reach level 20-ish, have a decent assortment of upgrades, and tricked every character out with a healing upgrades. I went with the squishiest team in the game for most missions, and while their AI often led them to death, I had zero problems stomping over everything in the game.
There’s also the inventory system, which suffers from a poorly designed UI that takes forever to scroll through if you have a full inventory, and is so cluttered with options that the entire thing feels arbitrary and pointless. The quantity of weapons and upgrade types just feels needless, and due to an inventory size limit, you’ll need to often sift through it, selling various guns and gun mods for credits. Credits, which can only be spent on more guns and gun mods, even though whatever weapons you purchase will probably be worse than ones you find in the next two hours, making the entire cycle seem a bit pointless. You have no reason to buy anything, and you’re so powerful after a few hours that you have no reason to put much effort into optimizing your characters. The entire process is arbitrary, overly complicated, and I fully understand why it was gutted in subsequent titles.
You also need to give every character a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, and sniper rifle, even though most characters can only use some of those weapons effectively, which is really stupid in my book, but I digress. I still haven’t gotten to the Mako, a giant turret sporting RC car that is driven around a collection of mountainous rocks, also known as an alien planet. Which could be a lot of fun, but despite the fact that the entire thing feels like you’re driving around a bounce house, these still sections still succeed in being really, really boring.
All you do is roam around, search for various points of interest copied and pasted across a square mile of mountainous terrain, and occasionally shoot at enemies. It has all the appeal of playing with toy cars in a rock quarry, but is significantly less fun, as you can’t toss rocks at bad children who will grow up to be criminals. Which sounds like a blast in comparison to the humdrum hacking minigame that involves rotating a cursor around a multi-layered circle, avoiding independently rotating block as you do so. It is about as much fun as throwing rocks at children who are predestined to become criminals.
Though, the Mako is leagues more enjoyable than traversing around the Citadel, the gathering point of all races and capital of all of outer space. The barren and sterile nature of the setting is the epitome of the dull and truncated nature that subsists throughout… pretty much every aspect of this title, but is worse here than anywhere else. The world is occupied by NPCs that awkwardly stand around and act as set dressing, what few quests are there fail to garner much interest, and the act of getting anywhere in this oversized yet still small environment takes a needless amount of time. Heck, it takes a full minute to simply get into the Citadel, as you need to go through a routine that fails to do anything but waste my time and turn every trip to this location into a massive chore.
Mass Effect 1 is a title build on decade old technology, and while I can point out to certain elements of its graphical fidelity, which is really only important when trying to assume a fairly realistic look, I still think it looks rather enticing thanks to a solid art direction, which gives way to occasionally interesting environments and appealing character designs. Because of these things, and the usual graphical options that come with 3D PC games, the game managed to age rather well visually. Though, the points where the art direction falters, when the environments are left looking alarmingly sterile and boring, simply never looked good to begin with. Same goes for the colored mountain range that cover every optionally explorable planet.
I’ve always considered Mass Effect 1 to be the lowest point in the trilogy by far, and looking back at it… yeah, it is. I keep going back to the word sterile, as I really do believe it encapsulates this game alarmingly well. The story is often devoid of personality and really all that much interesting, despite all the care the developers placed in this world. The gameplay theoretically has a lot interesting to it, with a wide array of abilities for every characters, but quickly becomes formulaic and uninteresting. While the world all too often looks dull thanks to an aesthetic that unfortunately often falls back on visual science fiction tropes. There is good at the core of the game, and the blueprints of an excellent space adventure are laid out, but as it stands, Mass Effect 1 is just sorta boring.