Afterthoughts: Mass Effect

You familiar with the concept of a “bad good game”? It’s a great game that gets paved with its own shortcomings to the point that it plays like an early N64 game that wasn’t ready for a 3D engine. But it’s still good. Really. Mass Effect was a blast. Even with a laundry list of technical flaws holding it back.

***SPOILER WARNING***

Every major positive about Mass Effect has a drawback of some sort:

1) The slick supporting characters don’t get enough development; nor do they make good teammates in battle. If Wrex gets the the way of my ammo stream one more time, I swear…

2) The vast, believable universe only offers a handful of major locations and a bunch of dull side planets. And no matter where you go, you’ll encounter framerate issues that could trigger the Richter Scale.

3) Saren proves to be a solid villain with compelling motivations. Unfortunately, we don’t see enough of him, and up until the end he appears to be power-hungry and one-dimensional.

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Though ultimately a puppet, Saren had compelling motivations for siding with the Reapers.

4) The Mako keeps gameplay fresh but handles like a speedboat through syrup. Worse yet, the terrain you drive over couldn’t be less exciting if it were mono-colored dirt. Oh, wait, it is.

5) The epic storyline is shorter than you’d expect (15-25 hours, depending on how much you love sidequests), and yet the plethora of dialogue options make it feel drawn out at times.

I could let this list tumble a little further, but I’m not here to bash. Instead, I’m left pondering how compromised Mass Effect 1 is. When everything good has some bad to it, you can’t label something a masterpiece. You just can’t. Unfortunately, fans of the Mass Effect series had me believing the games oozed greatness at every pore. At the very least, Mass Effect 1 has it’s fair share of clogs.

Take the combat, for instance. It’s simple enough: four weapon types, three party members, and cover-based shooting. Throw in an array of special techniques, ally commands, and weapon upgrades to keep it interesting. Sounds great in theory, right? But the execution is lacking. ME1 doesn’t reward you for headshots, nor does it challenge you to conserve ammo (Weapon “overheating” penalties don’t scare me, sorry.). Since enemies have no weakpoints and ammo is infinite as air, there’s little need for strategy. You can plow through the game by just abusing the assault rifle the entire time. And while the shotgun and sniper rifle come in handy, the pistol is utterly useless. Why even have a precision weapon like a pistol if you’re not rewarding headshots?

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Garrus, Ashley, and Wrex deserved more screen time and competent battle A.I.

Things are getting too negative–how about some love? The creativity and writing that went into the game dazzle me. The Mass Effect universe feel entirely real with its various races, ethnic backgrounds, customs, political systems, speech patterns, and character motivations. The world’s verisimilitude makes for some powerful scenes, particularly a late-game one involving Wrex, when he and Shepard ultimately determine the future of the Krogan race. Moments like those complement the storyline’s flexibilty and take the drama to a level that most videogame storylines can’t come close to matching. I got chills when I had to consider eliminating the buggy Rachni race; annoying as they are, would they really be better off extinct? And choosing between saving Kaiden and Ashley during the nuke mission was tough.

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What could be more fun than driving a Mako? Walking.

That being said, it’s a damn shame Mass Effect 1’s physical universe feels so thin and repetitive, not to mention disjointed. Once you take the helm of the Normandy, you can travel to various solar systems and planets, which sounds bangin’ until you realize you can only land on one planet per solar system. And while that’s a letdown, your spirit doesn’t truly crash until you realize that the optional planets are all barren playgrounds for your Mako to roam over. And when you do find a military station or outpost, chances are it has the exact same level design as an outpost on another optional planet. At one stage of my playthrough, I literally did the same sidequest twice in a row from a gameplay standpoint: enter at the right bottom corner of floor one, shoot everything that moves, take the stairs at the left wall, press X at the end of the lone second-floor room. Don’t forget to yawn.

Reviewing (and scoring) Mass Effect will be tough. On one hand you have a stellar plot, world, and cast in terms of writing; on the other you have watered-down shooting, bouncy-ball framerate, dull Mako parts, and a handful of missed opportunities. Don’t get me wrong: the good outweigh the bad. I’m just praying that Mass Effect 2 addresses the original’s issues.

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15 thoughts on “Afterthoughts: Mass Effect

    • That’s what I’m hoping. A lot of people say ME2 is the best in the series. I can’t wait to see what Bioware changed/improved.

  1. I would have advised you to start off with Mass Effect 2 instead of 1. Mass Effect 2 is a completely different experience then the first game. It’s actually my favorite game of all time.

      • I scored the PS3 trilogy for $25 last month. I waited because PS3 didn’t get ME1 originally, and I wanted the full story.

      • Good idea. I’m strictly a PC gamer right now. I’m honestly not interested in the next gen consoles. I’m getting a Wii U for my kids but that’s about it

      • Play ME2 as soon as possible, the experience will be terrific. I started playing the series with ME2 and in the first few hours it sucked me in completely. The atmosphere, the characters and story is brilliant, and the gameplay is much different from ME1 as it is more action focused, but with the same RPG elements. I don’t know whether ME2 or 3 is the best, but I know that without ME2 the whole trilogy wouldn’t be that perfect. And if you come to the end of ME3, don’t listen to the folks on the net! Your impressions matter, what feeling the ending makes in you.

      • I’ve heard numerous complaints about ME3’s ending (I don’t know what happens, so don’t spoil), but I usually approach things with an open enough mind… For instance, I think I’m one of the few people who thought Star Ocean 3’s plot twist was nifty.

      • The complains are about the integrity of the ending. And that the creators left the players to their imagination to think about the consequences. They had to make the Extended Cut to provide some closure, which I highly recommend to download (and play) only after you have done ME3 without it. And about that ending… it is like when a painter, who have created a painting is forced to repaint it only because the audience didnt like it. But you will see.

      • I’m a fiction writer, so I’m all too familiar with the idea of “repainting” for the audience. It’s often tough to determine whether you’ve conveyed your intent and the audience can’t grasp it OR whether you’re leaving out something the audience needs to properly interpret what’s going on.

        With that in mind, the writers at Bioware are leaps and bounds above my level. When I finish ME3 I’ll see whether the ending was a misfire or a misinterpretation.

      • And there is one very important thing the community forgets: the whole series, the countless hour of gameplay and the story, the characters and their jokes and everything which leads to the conclusion. It seems like a “bad” or “not satisfying” ending kills the whole experience, which I think is really bad and the developers dont deserve the blame they got. In my opinion they did a brilliant job, and we should respect their vision, how they imagined the ending (as well as the whole series).

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