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Mass Effect Retrospective Review
After hearing for a year straight just how excellent Mass Effect 2 was, and getting a
chance to play the demo during the summer of 2010, I knew that I had to get a
piece of the Mass Effect franchise. And so, when both Mass Effect games went on
a Steam sale this past winter, I picked them both up.
Now, Mass Effect 2 is a game that has been reviewed to death, so I don’t really think it
needs another review from me. However, I did want to talk about the first game
in the series. Really, the first thing to know about Mass Effect 1 is that it’s
just not as good as Mass Effect 2. But even so, there are some things about
Mass Effect 1 that Mass Effect 2 desperately lacks, something I noticed through
two different playthroughs of both games back to back.
The first character I traveled through both games with was the standard male Shepard.
Damn all those Jennifer Hale fans, I wanted to play as a Calvin Klein model
with a buzz cut and a charismatic, commanding voice that could even convince a
child to give away its candy! Besides, the male Shepard was the poster boy, and
I wanted an authentic Mass Effect experience the first time around. And
I wanted to be sneaky, so I decided to go with infiltrator for my first
run-through of both games. The second time around, I played as a female Adept,
and got a chance to find a couple of things I had missed the first time around.
With that in mind, let us proceed to the review.
The ultimate Mass Effect experience: models with buzzcuts, women with painfully oversized breasts, and weird aliens
The Good: Great dialogue wheel, innovative combat, solid RPG elements, interaction with squadmates, best plot ever.
The Bad: The mako, repetitive level design, bad side missions, bland visuals, and the mako.
What the Heck: The mako.
Story and Presentation
One thing that a lot of people rave about when it comes to Mass Effect 2 is the story.
Yes, Mass Effect 2 had an excellent, deeply personal story, but it kinda sucked
compared to the first Mass Effect’s story. The problem is that Mass Effect 2’s
story always felt a bit episodic compared to Mass Effect 1’s pitch-perfect
narrative, not to mention aimless beyond each individual mission, as there was
little to tie all of your squad mates’ stories together. But boy, does Mass
Effect 1 have an awesome story.
Bioware utilizes two different tricks in order to involve you into Mass Effect’s story.
The first is the use of cut scenes. While cut scenes are pretty much bread and
butter for every RPG, Bioware ensures that theirs are articulately designed and
completely immaculate in regard to every detail. Bioware’s judicious use of cut
scenes in the main storyline serves to augment and punctuate the thrilling
moments of Mass Effect’s main storyline.
What do you get when you have four jerks in the same room?
The second, yet most innovative addition to the main storyline is the dialogue
wheel. It’s by far the coolest thing about Mass Effect, and is not just a sign
of great organization on Bioware’s part, but also a product of excellent game
design that strengthens the narrative in multiple ways. I could try to explain
the ingenious organization of the dialogue wheel myself, but I’ll allow the
Mass Effect wiki to do the talking for me:
Instead of the traditional dialogue choices, which show you every word of your response
verbatim, you are presented with paraphrases of your available dialogue options on a
"conversation wheel". For example, one choice may appear as "Don't try to study me,"
while the actual spoken line is "I'm not some artifact you can take back to your lab, doctor."
Thankfully, none of the Mass Effect characters suck as much as this guy
Just being able to make a verbal decision from scanning a short list of paraphrased
reactions streamlines the game’s extensive dialogue system, allowing the player
to maintain immersion in a conversation. By not forcing players to read through
multiple full lines of text, Bioware ensures that it’s able to offer the player
a wider variety of response options. Personally, I’m not always against
scanning full lines of dialogue choices; I think it worked well in Dragon Age:
Origins, but the dialogue wheel is excellent in Mass Effect and really hums
along nicely with the game’s sci-fi feel and pacing.
The dialogue wheel and cut scenes, however, are only mechanics that drive along an
excellent story. Mass Effect’s main storyline is the best I’ve ever seen in any
game so far. Each bit is well tuned and crafted; you get an epic speech near
the beginning to pump you up and get into the feel of being a commander, and
the ending is awe-inspiring, to say the least. The best part about the
storyline, the thing that differentiates Mass Effect from the hordes of other
RPG’s out there, is the massive amount of choice. Because each and every
decision you make has far-reaching consequences in the sequels, you’ll be
biting your nails every time you’re presented with two tough choices and no
escape. Though Mass Effect’s choices may be marginally less nail biting than
some of the choices it inspired in later games like Dragon Age: Origins, Mass
Effect 2, and The Witcher 2, it’s still a game whose story mechanics have more
than stood the test of time.
The choices you make in these dialogue scenes are reflected by mutually independent
paragon and renegade bars. Bioware tried to do something different from KotOR
by splitting the paragon and renegade paths from each other, but KotOR’s design
influence lingers on, simply because the Paragon or Renegade points you acquire
from a single conversation are linked. So essentially, if you speak lines in a
dialogue sequence that give you ten renegade points and five paragon points,
you would actually receive only five renegade points, and nothing else.
Essentially, the game penalizes player’s choices simply for not being uniform
during a conversation. Personally, I’d rather get points for each item of
dialogue I speak and not have my points depend on an arbitrary verbal
collective. Thankfully, however, I didn’t find myself getting penalized so
much, as my character wouldn’t naturally change tact in the middle of a
conversation. Still, when I felt it necessary to change my attitude midway
through a conversation, the system’s shortcomings did irritate me.
But where Mass Effect truly does break away from KotOR (in the Paragon/renegade system,
anyway) is that Mass Effect’s Paragon/renegade system isn’t a morality system,
like KotOR’s Light/Dark system was; it’s more of a choice between means to a
given end, that end being saving the galaxy. This means Shepard is a much more
interesting character, as choosing how to accomplish Shepard’s goals is a much
more intriguing task than the pointless conflict between an obviously moral
choice and an obviously immoral choice. Even so, Mass Effect does fall into the
trap of occasionally just making the Paragon an idiot, and the Renegade nothing
but a total douchebag. In some ways, this is good because it incentivizes the
player to choose something in between a stark Renegade or Paragon, and not to
be dogmatic about one arbitrary point system over the other. Of course, you
always have the choice of just being a total douchebag or idiot for your own
The only weak thing about Mass Effect’s story, though, has to be its side quests. While
most are individually interesting, a few are not, and all of them feel like
nothing more than distractions to the main quest. Still, they do give the game
a large amount of interesting exploration in the Mako and on foot that really
fleshes out the flavor of the Mass Effect universe. Besides, you get to listen
to Lance Henriksson assign you side-quests, which is certainly no bad thing.
Get used to entering twenty thousand compounds that look exactly
like this one, both inside and out, on every world you visit in order to
complete a side quest
Lance Henriksson is only one of a number of excellent voice actors crewed to act out
the excellent story. Though I found some of the characters to be annoying,
(Ashley) I never disliked the voice acting for any of them. In particular,
Keith Richards as Captain Anderson, and Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale as the male
and female Shepards definitely stand out for me. Richards manages to affect a
fatherly radio voice without making Captain Anderson appear unnecessarily
patronly. Mark Meer turns in a staple performance with the perfect leader’s
voice, one that commands instant respect. Jennifer Hale delivers an admirable
performance, managing to characterize her Shepard as a hard-bitten veteran, as
opposed to throwing out the ubiquitous female bitch archetype. Regardless of my
personal preference for Hale, both Meer and Hale add immensely to Shepard’s
interminable character strength, and thus set Mass Effect apart from its peers.
The sound design team also did a fantastic job in designing the sound. The most basic
effects across the span of the galaxy, from gunfire sounds to activating
machines, sound solidly futuristic. However, at times things can sound a bit cartoonier
than they really should, causing the game to feel immature at times. The
soundtrack is locked in a similar place, it being a contrast between distinctly
futuristic music and some rather off-kilter pitches. The good bits of the
soundtrack allow the game to set itself apart, especially with the catchy
galaxy map tune that plays while you’re exploring the galaxy in your ship.
Though Bioware games have a lot of story content that is all well and good, like most
games, the run and gun gameplay and galaxy exploration are the things you’ll
spend most of your time on. Let’s start with exploration, which can be divided
into two sections, the interplanet and intraplanet. The former is bland and involves nothing but aimless clicking, though
kinda cool thanks to lots of written planet details that you’ll probably only
read half of, and the latter sucks. The latter is epitomized by the dreaded
Mako, whose controls are so half-baked and unfinished that even Demiurge
Studios, the company that made the Mass Effect PC port, couldn’t even fill in
the gaping hole of code that Bioware left behind. I know that the controls on
the PC are better than those on the Xbox, but using the Mako on the PC was the
greatest headache-inducing test of mental endurance I have ever undergone.
Point and click as much as you can now, because the mako is much, much worse…
During my first play through, I used the mako extensively, traveling to every planet to
grab every achievement and bit of experience I could. It was the greatest
torture that I have ever experienced in a computer game, save perhaps for
getting a defective copy of Half-Life when I was nine years old that glitched
me from proceeding past the halfway point of the game. It pains me to think on
the agony that so many console players have endured at the hands of that
bumbling, glitch-built vehicle. The very basics of shooting are immaculately
problematic; you can’t fire at anything unless you’re on roughly even terrain
with your target; you can fire away with everything you have, but you’ll
experience nothing but dismay as your shots magically pass through the target with
no impact whatsoever.
However, the most glaring issue with the mako is its movement. It’s impossible to
control its direction at any given time, as a single pothole or bump will send
it into an uncontrolled spin. Ironic, considering that it’s actually meant to
be an all-terrain vehicle. It’s more like a no-terrain vehicle, as you’ll
discover when you drive it on some of the worst terrain ever. Cause the
planet environments suck. The planets in the Mass Effect universe must have
really weird chemical makeup, because the same texture is unexplainably
repeated across every square inch of the planet’s surface. I’ve also never seen
any mountain ranges on Earth with nearly the same amount of awkward crevasses
and pointed summits as there are on the giant spikefests that feature
distinctly on every planet in the Mass Effect universe. The random
spike-mountains protruding from the ground definitely do not relieve the dully
textured terrain by delivering any sort of originality or art quality, making intra-planet
exploration even more of a drag than it is already.
Somehow, the mako is not an entirely awful, soulless vehicle. Somehow, despite the lack
of effort on Bioware’s part, fights in the mako are actually somewhat
interesting. For one, the geth you’ll fight pack a real punch and can take a
lot of hits before going down. The zoom function in combination with the dual
weapon system also helps to make fights more interesting and decision based.
Plus, the ability to jump, which is usually a massive hindrance considering the
poor controls and terrain, can actually be put to good use in combat. It’s only
in combat that the mako’s semi-unique concepts (in combination with Demiurge’s
excellent bug-fixing) manage to shine through the terrible controls.
Similar experiences have only been found in dental offices
Though getting somewhere in the mako resembles getting teeth pulled, things liven up a
bit once you actually get to your destination. I’ve never had as much fun or
difficulty in assaulting a compound as I did in Mass Effect. This is simply
because Mass Effect has an interesting, nuanced combat system. It appears, at
first glance, to be a common shooter, but with the pause button in combination
with the numerous powers for each class, the game actually plays like a
turn-based strategy game without any turns. Adding to this uniqueness is the
ammo mechanic, overheating, which removes the tedium associated with conserving
ammo while still retaining a distinct level of urgency in firefights. If your
gun overheats, you’re in a spot of trouble. The overheat mechanic also tangoes
well with related abilities and equipment that affects the number of shots you
can take before overheating. But Mass Effect is, first and foremost, a cover
game. And really, it has a great cover system. You just have to run up to a
piece of cover and Shepard will automatically hide behind it. While it
occasionally does have some issues, such as a bug with zooming your weapon, I
found the controls to be much more manageable than Mass Effect 2’s unalterably
terrible controls. The health system is also a very nice hybrid between
regenerating health and health packs. While you can get abilities and armor
that will allow your team to regenerate health at a decent rate over time, you
also will have to use health packs during fire fights to stay alive. On top of
that, you have shields, which regenerate fairly quickly if you hide behind
cover. You need to keep track of both health and shields during a firefight and
regulate your abilities that bolster each in order to stay alive. Health is
just another way that Mass Effect places an emphasis on strategy. You can
certainly try to play Mass Effect like a twitch shooter, but you’ll only get
You can only get away with this on Easy
Put simply, its gameplay design is nothing short of genius in principle. However,
its execution can occasionally be a bit bland. The class system, composed of
the three archetypes, biotic, tech, soldier and their hybrids, is inventive,
disposing of the warrior/rogue/mage types entirely. Even the powers available
to each class are interesting and powerful in themselves. However, it’s the
distinguishments between each class that feel a bit sterilized. For example,
vanguards are exact copies of one half of the soldier class and one half of the
adept class. There’s not much variation, save for the weapons that each class
is restricted to. But really, how much variety can you get from mixing up four
weapons? Not much. I suppose, however, that the hybrid system works well
enough, in the same way that tube-fed mush works. Still, considering the
uninspired way that some of the classes in Mass Effect 2 were redesigned, I’d
rather eat tube-fed mush than live off of milk duds. I suppose that’s something
for Mass Effect 3 to get right. Even so, all of the skills and equipment you
use in combat is strongly directed by a RPG-driven inventory and experience
Bioware does manage to spice things up with an excellent skill system. Many of the
skills are well layered to provide prerequisites for others, and each skill is
very useful and well balanced, meaning that where you place your points is
going to carry a lot of weight. This extra layer of strategy rewards players
who place thought into the system, ultimately making Mass Effect a better game
The soldier is the one with the shallowest skill tree- the adept has tons more abilities
The inventory system is likewise deep. Inside each of the four gun types: assault
rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, and pistols, you have a lot of variety between
models, each of which are characterized by three traits: the number of shots
each weapon can take before overheating, accuracy, and damage. And each
individual model has a good deal of customization in its own right. Each gun
can hold an ammo type and up to two additional attachments. These attachments
and ammo types range from freezing your enemies and increasing the cooldowns on
their powers, to heat sinks that allows you to fire your weapon for a much
longer time. Mastering how to mix and match your attachments with your guns is
an essential skill for survival on the harder levels. It’s just another way
that Bioware rewards smart players. And none of it is difficult to understand.
The inventory system is intuitive and very simple to use.
The visuals in this game are far worse than these screens would have you believe
Running on the Unreal Engine 3, Mass Effect looks great, but not excellent. This isn’t
helped by the omnipresent re-used, bland character models. While at times the
game is framed well, it’s still just such a step below recent games. The only
word that I can consistently use to describe the visuals is sterilized. They’re
certainly not bland, but the engine and art style are just too primal to be
awe-inspiring. At least the art style manages to give the game a very
distinctive feel that builds upon the setting quite well.
Distinctive feel, sterile character models
With two different paths, paragon and renegade, and three class archetypes, soldier,
adept, and tech, to pursue, you have at least two playthroughs just for the
story, and realistically up to three for the gameplay. Considering that each run
through is about thirty hours, that’s not a bad value. Most likely, though,
you’ll end up only playing the game twice. However, the best thing about
playing the game is that you’ll get to import your save into Mass Effect 2, and
see the impact of all your choices.
Two sequels later, and this guy is still hurting from driving the mako
Mass Effect is a game chock full of RPG elements, excellent storytelling,
and varied gameplay that with keep you interested for hours. Contrary to the
hand-holding and shallow mechanics that plague its sequel and other recent
Bioware games, Mass Effect is a game that proves a game can be both strategic
and accessible. And while Mass Effect is often overlooked by its younger,
shinier brother, it’s a game that really shouldn’t ever be forgotten,
especially as Mass Effect 3 glitters over the horizon.
Presentation and Story 9/10- Memorable story for years to come,
accessible, but has side quest issues.
Sound 6/10- Distinctive, but not very good.
Gameplay 8/10- Despite some blandness and repetitive level design,
very intense and tactical combat.
Graphics 7/10- Good and themed, but somewhat sterilized.
Lasting Appeal 8/10- Good lasting appeal for a RPG
Go get it, people!