It was a gamers dream. A story that interconnected and grew across three games, culminating in some nebulous ultimate battle. Filled with choices, every decision you make, big or small, would be recorded, changing your very character and echoing across the galaxy. Snubbed an overeager fan? He’ll remember that. Decided to save a potentially threatening species rather than commit xenocide? That will definitely come back to haunt you later. Everything was included in your save file, following you through the planned trilogy. Infinite potential.
Many studios have been pegged by the genres they create. Bioware is no different. Though they’ve branched out once or twice, they have certainly mastered role playing games (RPGs) while simultaneously evolving it. Save for Bethesda (Elder Scrolls), no other developer is able to create a world that feels completely lived in and fleshed out. I couldn’t begin to imagine the hundreds of pages of script for the game, not including all the descriptions for abilities, species, planets, etc.
Taking place in 2183, humans have been active in the galactic space for years. After discovering alien tech on Mars 35 years ago, humans quickly found a Mass Relay at the edge of our solar system. The relay allowed for light speed travel by negating the mass of an object. Quickly we encountered another race, starting what was called the First Contact War. Before being completely annihilated, the intergalactic council stepped in, offering us a place in the democracy.
Mass Effect allows you to create your own character, male or female (go with female), named Shepard. After a trial mission, where she is observed, she is inducted into the Spectre Corps, a peace keeping organization above the law, answering only to the council. From there, the game unfolds in an open ended fashion. Players are given several missions to choose from that can be completed in any order. Only major story missions must be completed to proceed.
While the tactical third person gameplay is serviceable here, it’s the dialogue trees that take center stage. The game is fully voiced, with some well known actors like Keith David and Seth Green taking prominent roles. One of the best aspects was talking to your crew between missions, learning more about them, strengthening or damaging your relationship with them. In typical Bioware fashion, there was a morality aspect, which depending on which direction you were headed (Renegade or Paragon), would open more choices in dialogue like sweet talking or intimidation.
The first game was more RPG like than it’s follow ups. Equipment was purchased and upgraded as money was accrued. This element was removed after the first title to streamline the story experience. Some fans didn’t like the change while others didn’t mind or notice. I could see why it was removed, and it definitely helped the flow of later games, but I feel like it was a conceit of their original vision. Then again, I’m an RPG junky.
Another complaint removed in later games was the elevator scenes. Players would travel in a long elevator in the Citadel that masked load screens while characters either small talked amongst themselves or heard reports of happenings in the galaxy on the intercom. I didn’t mind these sections as they gave a chance for little moments to play out, though I can see why they’d become bothersome over frequent trips.
Much downloadable content (DLC) was promised for the game, expanding the story, though little came of it. Only two packs were released. One, “Bring Down the Sky”, expanded the story, adding another mission that impacted the story in later games. The other, “Pinnacle Station”, was the somewhat cliched virtual time trail training station offering new gear. A little pointless and a waste of money. The lack of DLC for the first game became a joke, but something Bioware rectified in later titles.
Throughout the game, players are given many choices. Some are blatantly black and white, differing between Renegade and Paragon. There are a few though that are ambiguously gray. These moments gave me pause, making me think about what choice I would make in the situation. Of course on a second play through I selected the other outcome, but ultimately, I stuck with my original choice.
Another interesting note is the sex scandal occurring when the game released in 2007. Fox News, a bastion for high quality reporting, jumped on the game for being a sex simulator (it’s not). If you cultivate a strong enough relationship with your teammates, tastefully handled romantic options become available. This option is easily missed, with many not knowing it even existed. Host/author Cooper Lawrence went on the air with only anecdotal evidence that this was a sex simulator, with someone telling her moments before that it’s like pornography having done no research herself.
The internet took up the cause, doling out 1-star reviews for her recently released book on amazon. At one point, the negative reviews reached 412 before being removed by amazon. One review read “I know all about this book but have never fully read it. Why? Due to the overwhelming backlash, I have no choice but to agree with the 1 star ratings. The rumors are rampant that this book was poorly written and poorly researched. So without verifying the contents myself – I give it a 1 star. Good thing video games aren’t judged in this manner – whew!!!” There’s still an overwhelming amount of 1-star reviews on the book.
Mass Effect is an amazing game, best exemplifying this generation. There’s a handful of games that define the last generation of consoles, and this is one of them. Every gamer needs to experience this story.
Male or Female? Renegade or Paragon? Liara or Ashely/Kaiden? Comment below!
The third act reveal floored me.