Mass Effect. There’s an awful lot that can be said, some things that oughtn’t be said, and a few things that don’t need to be said. I’ll take the series as a whole rather than focusing on one game at a time.
First impression: wow, this is amazing. Everything feels smooth and epic.
A few story choices later: this sucks. Everything feels locked in and alienated from us.
Sober realization (days in): hmm, that was okay. The game was not terrible overall; bad design choices stopped the game from achieving true greatness, but they didn’t completely destroy it.
Mass Effect tried to market itself based on narrative choice (freedom to design your own story) and a personalised character. Well, if freedom means a choose-your-own-adventure book (the kind where every choice we make you ends up with our character in a trap or eaten by wolves), sure. The only choices we can actually make are ones like:
- Do you want to kill Character A or Character B?
- Do you want listen to Character C, which will make Character B hate you forever and leave your story?
- Do you want to destroy Nation A or Nation B?
- Do you want to give an order that makes no sense and you know will kill either Character D or Character E?
You get the point. The choices are ultimately rigged, and not in “this could work out either way” kinds of ways, either – in blatant, “we know both choices are really bad, but to continue the game we have to choose one” kinds of ways. There are some choices in the game (such as inadvertantly rescuing a famous admiral) that allow us to open up more intelligent options when we make bigger choices, but saving the admiral meant sacrificing Group F to save him anyways. Same problem.
Also, the choices are all made during cut-scenes. In other words, if a cut-scene comes up, we know there’s going to be a choice. We don’t know anything about what the choice will entail or involve, but we know we will have to make one.
Oh yeah, and on the lines of a story sold based on narrative, the whole thing is a (spoiler) world-is-ending tale. Never been there before. And this one was even worse, because it made very little sense and completely took all meaning out of the choices and gameplay we had gone through. Come on, BioWare, did you just give up on the story? Why else would you implement an all-powerful, unrelated character who simply states that you made a bad game?
Did I start out hard? Yep. BioWare has such a grip on the market that starting out hard is necessary. And it’s not going to get a whole lot easier yet.
The gameplay was, well… amusing. If there’s one thing I’ve complained a lot about in Mass Effect, it’s the fact that combat was a glorified version of whack-a-mole. You heard me. We sit behind a bench, wait for the gunfire to calm down a little, stand up, wait for them to pop their heads up, spray a round, and drop back behind our shelter. This is 60% of the game. Oh yeah, and our guns create their own ammo, but somehow (in Mass Effect 2 and 3) they run out of it. BioWare liked to explain it by saying that we actually have to replace the heat pack in our guns, and we collect heat packs to replenish ammo, but hey – what if we only fire one bullet every ten minutes? How are our guns heating up so badly? I’m not against the idea of having players try options other than guns, but in whack-a-mole combat, melee fighting is completely out of the picture. Seriously. Also, the movement limitations were sad. Mass Effect played out in a beautiful sci-fi setting, but all we can do is kind of walk, kind of sprint, and kind of dodge. No jumping, no extra pathing (unless it was scripted), no swimming through void in zero gravity. Mass Effect 1 had an issue with repetitive planet surface scenarios (land, drive, drive, drive, get out, clean up enemies), but rather than improve on this element, Mass Effect 2 and 3 completely removed it. We could scan the planets, but that was it. No beautiful landscape view, just a planet on a screen.
Relationships. This was almost the only reason Mass Effect was rated M, and yet it was brutally mechanical. A relationship is so much more than just following someone around with your tongue out until they turn around and say “let’s do it”. The relationships in this game reminded me of Harvest Moon DS. Just find the flower the girl of your dreams enjoys most (or, if you want to save money, a trinket from the mines you can dig up on the top level) and keep handing stacks and stacks of them to her until she starts blushing. Fantastic representation of reality. Works every time. Oh, but then you have to go save lots of pixies (by a lot, I mean more than a hundred) one at a time before you can proceed. Mass Effect made relationships a lot simpler. Just keep clicking the dialogue option that says “I want you”. Takes about three conversations.
Yep, that was harsh. But Mass Effect wasn’t all bad.
The scenery in Mass Effect was gorgeous. Much of the game was set on planet surfaces, where we got to see aliens, awesome panoramas, spaceshipwrecks, secret labs, ruined monasteries, and much more. It was (as I already said) gorgeous. The textures were done well. The game’s musical score complemented the setting perfectly. Haunting, beautiful melodies. Sci-fi electronic tracks. Songs that seemed to complement the very stars in the sky. But was it too little too late?
In conclusion, Mass Effect was beautiful. But while aesthetics alone may suit drawings or movies, a game needs much, much more. The cultures and characters you encounter make for an interesting game. The story and gameplay strip that away. If you are looking for a game purely because you love sci-fi settings and music, definitely go for it. If you are hunting for fun gameplay and love a good story, don’t play it.
Overall layout of the game:
30%: spontaneous, genocidal choices
5%: robotic, Harvest Moon relationships
5%: other (galaxy map travel, upgrading weapons, complaining about lack of ammo)
- Smooth combat control
- Science fiction locations and people in a fascinating setting
- Beautiful galaxy views and scenery
- Haunting-yet-charming musical scores
- Decent optimization for PC
- Repetitive, whack-a-mole combat
- Extremely limited movement, no zero-gravity moments
- Trainwreck ending