Late to the Party: Mass Effect

Version Played: Mass Effect Legendary Edition on PS4. All screenshots my own.

Spoilers for Mass Effect 1 abound, but no other titles in the series are discussed.

The lack of Mass Effect in my life was an absence I was incredibly eager to remedy. I’ve never played a Bioware title, but I feel I’ve heard about them for the majority of my adult gaming life. Between Dragon Ages, Star Wars titles, and the revered Mass Effect trilogy (peace and blessings Andromeda, and also to you Anthem), I had heard a deluge of praise. Though I went into Mass Effect with minimal knowledge, there are several things that I couldn’t help but interalize via cultural osmosis: relationships abound, choices have meaning, and the core story is one that many have great investment in. I say all this because my experience with Mass Effect remained one of high expectation versus my more average play experience. I enjoyed Mass Effect, just not nearly to the extent that I was convinced I would.

Mass Effect takes place sometime in the late 22nd century. Humanity has left the sole planet its been confined to and formed intergalactic alliances with myriad races, planets, and entire star systems across the galaxy. As a player, you take control of Commander Shepard aboard the Normandy, a human run military ship galavanting across the galaxy.

Everyone loves a bureaucratic space hub, yes?

By video game character creation standards, your personalized Shepard has a fair amount of flexibility. You can choose pre-set character models, with two different voices available based on two pre-set available genders, or create your own. As a person driven to pure glee when given the chance to alter my character to my own delight, I of course chose to make my own, and my character Udun Shepard was born in all her majesty. I’ll readily admit that I restarted the game because my initial Shepard sported a high blush that clashed spectacularly with her skin tone in game, though it looked fine in the creator, but for the most part, I can appreciate the personalization available. I primarily create black femme characters, and the hairstyles within Mass Effect are bit lacking for my purposes, but I do truly love the end result. 

Despite some limitations with character creation, I do feel Mass Effect shines in its world building. Various galactic races have formed inter-species alliances and civilizations that lend themselves to lovely lore. For every asari, who appear as highly interesting human adjacent blue women, there’s also a hanar, a pink and distinctly alien species with their own speech patterns and cultural leanings strikingly different from humanity.

Yeah, I’d follow her into battle and kill aliens on her behalf.

If anything, the world building is where I truly understood Mass Effect’s appeal. From the sheen of the Citadel, a massive and explorable environment that stands as a testament to inter-species innovation and bureaucracy, to the many uninhabited random planets you can navigate in your six wheel drive, planet hopping vehicle as you look for resources, this game is invested in creating a dense universe for you to play within. But alas, with space travel comes conflict, with conflict comes story beats, and this is where, perhaps due to my own outsized expectations, I found Mass Effect lacking, much to my surprise.

Mass Effect has a story, but it’s one I never truly came to care about. Commander Shepard, after attaining the rank of Spectre–the first human Spectre in fact–that grants them the authority to intervene in space shenanigans, discovers that a rogue agent is trying to revive and empower an alien race, the Reapers, who will wipe out all biological life for their own purposes. The stakes are clearly high, so much so that I should have been champing at the bit of established tension and urgency, except I wasn’t.

It is, perhaps, a symptom of the fact that I was engaged in other tight and beautiful narratives in other mediums at the time—and also perhaps because I went into this game expecting a story heavy title—but Mass Effect never made me feel its stakes. I had fondness for some characters and various races I had met, but like so many open worlds, after one too many “go fetch this and talk to this person” side quests I had practically lost the plot and forgotten I was on an imminent mission to prevent universal destruction. Saren, the rogue Spectre working with the Reapers, never felt like that much of a threat, though I was repeatedly told he was. By the time I reached endgame and Saren’s machinations had become more apparent I was impressed that the game allowed Shepard to convince him of his own potential for goodness, resulting in Saren ending his own life to prevent more damage. That, I thought, was an interesting story choice! At least I did, until he revives into a generic robot final boss, and I had to fight him in a long, standard and uninteresting final battle.

Just a regular day of space faring.

As I was moving through Mass Effect increasingly bored by the narrative, I held on to the idea that the characters would become the game’s saving grace, and I absolutely wanted the characters to be the game’s saving grace, but I wouldn’t say they are, and part of this is my fault. As Shepard traverses the galaxy, they’ll pick up several new crew members who will join your party on missions and in combat, each with their own culture, personality, and skills: Liara an asari skilled in biotics, Ashley a human strong in combat, Kaiden a human with a mix of skills, Tali a quarian with high tech skills, Wrex a krogan with high combat and biotics, and Garrus a strong all around member. By the end of the game, I should have had a strong grasp on these characters, their motivations, their goals, their relationship to Shepard. Instead, I found myself surprised and bewildered that the game was ending and all I really experienced was some fun rapport and commentary from whoever I brought with me on a mission. This is because I made a huge mistake.

I didn’t talk to my crew members between main story missions. It frankly didn’t even occur to me that I was supposed to do this. I had a hard enough time remembering where the hell everything was on the ship, let alone stalking around to find my crew in between a thousand different missions. Is this my fault? Well, yes. But at the same time I would have appreciated any indication that this was something to engage in. I’ve spoken before about this habit of older titles absolutely refusing to give basic guides or feedback in game, and Mass Effect is no different. In fact I didn’t realize there was a wheel to use special abilities until about 10 hours into the game. I kept going into the menu to find a control guide, but I never found anything resembling one and subsequently didn’t realize I had to press the R1 button to navigate and use my tech powers. As a result of this, I wildly underutilized skills that would have made the game drastically easier, and I didn’t get to smooch anyone on my ship.

The squad deserved better. Sorry, y’all.

The two elements I was most excited to explore–the story and the characters–both turned into rather uninspiring fare. I could have overlooked this if the combat loop was satisfying or the exploration was invigorating, but I’d rank both these pieces also squarely in the average pile. Combat largely consists of third person shooting with the aforementioned special skills available for use. I never found the shooting combat that engaging. The space guns rampant within the game always felt strangely insubstantial, and I was confused about the accuracy stats that seemed to dictate the success rate of my shots. I got accustomed to the shooting combat but it never felt that interesting or innovative, and the early game is particularly difficult and irritating. Likewise, while I deeply appreciate the creation of so many distinct worlds in the game–and the history and information you can read about each–actual exploration within the Mako unit was clunky and frustrating, and I found myself heaving a deep sigh every time I was forced to utilize it.

Never fear, space governments are just as ineffective and headache inducing as our own!

As of now, it’s difficult to say how my personal choices within the game affected the story. Mass Effect’s morality system is fairly standard. You can play as a Paragon–a goody, goody–or a Renegade–an asshole. I tend to frame my characters as goody two shoes who will, on occasion, commit murder for the protection of friends or comrades. I wasn’t really faced with many difficult decisions within Mass Effect. I got a few Renegade points, but largely felt the Renegade options were comically cruel for the sake of being cruel. I will commend the game for thrusting one choice on me–Who do you Save?–that left me feeling sad after the fact, but at that point I knew so little about poor Kaiden (because as I mentioned above, I neglected to talk to my crew at all) that it was hard to feel that out of sorts after the loss past an hour or so. I can only imagine how much more effective this moment would have been if I had spent time with him, or anyone.

In truth, I’m still mulling over how I feel about Mass Effect. It took me longer to sit down and parse out this article than it should have, and part of that comes from the fact that I felt so middling about the entire experience. I liked the game; I enjoyed it while I was enmeshed in it, despite my frequent irritation with individual elements, but when I step back and look at the game as a whole, I’m left with more indifference than I feel I should have, particularly for a game that has amassed the deep love Mass Effect has. It is, perhaps, a bit unfair for me to judge the first part of a trilogy for its weaknesses when it’s part of a larger whole, but each Mass Effect always seemed like a distinct entity to me, and I can only hope this is the weakest of the bunch.

Unfiltered thoughts

  • My Shepard is probably the only element of the game that I unabashedly love, in large part because of Jennifer Hale’s wonderful, wonderful performance
  • It took me a while to fully appreciate how to use my squad in combat, but once I did they became quite integral to my fighting style. In particular I appreciate how your squad members provide comments such as gently reminding you you’re going in the wrong direction. I appreciated these quiet and mundane character moments
  • There are like three human character models for NPCs, and I got increasingly distracted every time I came across another human who looked exactly the same as the other 15 I had spoken to
  • While updated in Legendary, characters’ face models outside of Shepard are still…wanting. This is something that’s still prevalent in plenty of games today, so I can’t hold it against Mass Effect, truly, but it was distracting for me at times.
  • Similarly, the base layouts for missions were almost exactly the same. No matter the planet, no matter the race.
  • I’ll readily admit that space/sci-fi is not my genre or setting of choice. I was gonna struggle with immersion no matter what, but after my first foray into the Citadel and being genuinely awed by how beautiful and lived in it felt, I was disappointed that no other world, map, or environment came close to touching it. (I’ll also admit that Prey (2017) and its massive ship remains the only action rpg set in space that I’ve unabashedly loved.)
  • The Elcor were probably my favorite race in the game. I love the idea of just outright stating feelings. I would like to begin my sentences with “Chastising rebuke” or “alarmed response.”
  • There are several planets with truly beautiful–and sometimes unnerving–skies that I couldn’t help but stand and stare at. The planetary designs were very much a mixed bag, but when they hit, they’re breathtaking.
  • If there’s one thing I will say about the Legendary Edition, it’s that it feels like a game designed for people who have already played and have nostalgia for Mass Effect. I can’t make a direct comparison as this is my first time playing, but there are so many qol things that a newbie would benefit from (like a guide to controls in the menu!)