Today I’m shaking things up a bit in my weekly “Retrospective” column. Instead of looking back at a game I never played, fitting it into a modern context, I thought I’d play a game that I did play and loved again after nearly five years. Instead of evaluating its validity without an ounce of nostalgia, I thought I’d use nostalgia this week a a vehicle to drive my analysis of design. After all, Mass Effect as a franchise has exploded since this first effort, and what started out somewhat humble has since grown into a behemoth in the gaming spectrum.
While I’ll try to keep this as objective as possible, a few points should be clarified before I begin. 1. Mass Effect is my favorite game series period. Well, maybe it’s tied with KotOR. 2. Mass Effect 2 was, and still is, my favorite in the series. And 3. Despite some disappointment with the direction and mechanics in Mass Effect 3, it, and its ending, did not ruin the series for me. It’s still a series with a lot of power, personality, and emotion. What that out of the way, let’s take a long, hard look at some points I collected and carried whilst entrenched in the Milky Way.
Point 1: Saren may be the best Mass Effect Villain
Some may find it surprising that Saren deserves any space in conversation. After all, his contribution to the ultimate scale and ferocity of the Reapers’ destructive plan is mild at best. And besides, at the end of the game, he dies and our conflict with his is through. He barely even gets a mention in the other two games.
But if we were to look at each game individually, who exactly could be classified as the head literary bad guys from the latter two games? In Mass Effect 2, the collector’s make up the bulk of the threat, while in ME3 I suppose it would be the Elusive Man. The problem with the former is that the collectors have no voice or rationality to their destruction. They’re merely somewhat mindless tools for the Reapers to exploit. In the latter, the Elusive Man’s turn to villainy is poorly handled.
In ME2, the Elusive Man’s intentions were hidden behind a thick veil of secrecy. Is Cerberus right to be trusted? Is the Elusive Man truly looking out for humanity? Or are his goals beneficial only to him? By the time he shows up in the third game, he basically marches in and says “I was evil this whole time, here is my plan in bullet point form.” Gone were the subtleties of his character and our relationship to him. He becomes a shoehorned villain, taking the place of Saren without all the intense personal exploration (beyond the fact that we’re straight up told at the end that his goals were, in fact, “good”). You see, playing Mass Effect 1 again reintroduced me to the complex relationship Saren has with Sovereign. A part of him truly fears that he may, in fact, be a pawn in the Reaper’s game, and much of this fear drives his rage and ruthlessness. Deep down, a part of him has immense insecurity, which comes out in full on Virmire, where he’s performing tests to measure the Reapers’ method of mind control.
The best villains in fiction dress their logic and aspirations in ways that we can kind of understand. There’s rationality behind Saren’s voice. He truly believes that his path will save all galactic life, and that the Reapers can be reasoned with. What that being said, it should be noted that I don’t consider the Reapers themselves to be true villains in the Mass Effect narrative. They take the place of the shadow, a more silent and dangerous form of evil in fiction. They’re a force of nature, an impending doom. They are not calculating minions underneath a psychopathic leader. And as such, the Reapers are as much a villain as the asteroid is in Deep Impact. Saren puts that impending destruction into human(ish) terms with an understandable edge. And that’s why I love him ever so much.
Point 2: Mass Effect 1 is janky
I’m alternating between good and bad points, and here’s a negative observation. In many ways, Mass Effect 1 can be described as a slow motion train wreck of visual and audial glitches that break immersion. To be fair, many of the fun little breakdowns I’ve encountered may entirely be blamed on a poor porting effort to PS3 (the entire reason I’m playing these games again is because I recently purchased the full trilogy on PS3, as that’s turned into my primary system), but I do recall a lot of issues regarding audio not playing, unsynced voices, visual slipups, and even a room that induced Shepherd into a ghost trail-laden LSD romp (I wish I was kidding).
What’s even more apparent in my most recent playthrough is how Bioware truly didn’t have the resources (time, money, etc) to truly implement the mechanics necessary to match what I imagine was an immense creative vision. I’m guessing that the terribad side mission planets, that are all basically generic and void landscapes with textures slapped on, are the result of an ernest effort to make the galaxy feel like a tangible, interactive place. And to be fair, it is quite nice that we can, in fact, roam the wastes of some far off planet and just explore. But where that works on some icy and desert planets, and especially well on the moon, trying to make a barren terrestrial world with nature doesn’t work without trees and, you know, life.
Combat, too, doesn’t really feel good. Like a lot of other western RPGs with guns, you don’t always feel like your shots have the right amount of power behind them, and you enemies rarely react correctly to getting shot. There’s no head damage either. Whats worse is that the game can be unfairly challenging if you’re not a soldier class. I tried playing on veteran level as an infiltrator, and some enemy encounters simply cannot be won with just a pistol and sniper rifle, at least at that difficulty level. The game makes up for it by opening up a whole hell of a lot of loot that wouldn’t be available without the electronics skill given to that class, but the first couple of missions were grueling. The sequel managed to make each class interesting and powerful, and I never even felt tempted to play as a soldier in ME2 or 3 simply because it seemed boring and straightforward.
Point 3: The atmosphere and storytelling makes up for it
Now with all that said, Mass Effect does have one ace up its sleeve. Truly, the real reason to play this game is for the universe and the intimate connections you have to your crew members. And even with all the shortcomings in the mechanics and glitches in the programming, the story is exciting and the world is rich. I love just how huge the universe feels in the first Mass Effect, and I honestly feel like the latter games try a little too hard to break down that sense of wonder and mystique. This is especially true of ME3, which ultimately pulls back all the curtains and shows you every planet and secret you were curious about. To me, it felt bloated and I felt like there was nothing left to discover (except for what a Volus truly looks like, of course). I don’t think it was a wrong decision to take us to the Quarian homeworld or see Thessia for the first time, but at the end of the day my desire to search and discover had been overfed.
Mass Effect 1 has the universe sensibilities of a strong sci-fi novel like Speaker for the Dead or perhaps a well-constructed D&D campaign. The universe feels so, sooo much bigger than you, and there are secrets and mysteries you know you can’t ever find and uncover. I could sit and read the planet descriptions for hours, giggling with intrigue every time a description leaves me with more questions than when I started.
The party members also make up a bulk of the enjoyable experiences, as listening to their tales and experiences can be so fascinating and rewarding. This is an element that certainly wasn’t lost on the series as the games progressed, and the party member relationships certainly grow to extremely personal and enduring levels in ME2 and 3. But ME1 set the precedent, going even beyond KotOR‘s astounding amount of interesting and emotional dialogue.
What’s great about the Mass Effect story is that it knows to feed you information slowly and steadily. Even knowing the outcome of the series as a whole, I was still riveted by certain pivotal moments, like the confrontation with Sovereign on Virmire to the incredibly intriguing conflict with the Thorian on Virmire. There’re just so many rich sources of intrigue it’s nearly impossible not to fall in deep passionate love with the well crafted universe.
Point 4 (Final): Mass Effect has changed for the better
I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this one, but I really do think that the inherent changes to the Mass Effect formula by the second game were positive and necessary. While the first game had its head in the right place, it just doesn’t have the direction necessary to pull it off. I would expect a world that rich and deep to have a cinematic quality to match. There were a surprising moment in a specific side mission when I encountered a strange Prothean ruin that, when approached, fed me a four page long description of a hallucination Shepard is given after touching it. While the description itself was fascinating (a lengthy exploration of the Prothean interaction with cavemen), I was just so blown away that the designers felt the need to give me this amazing story through text. In later Mass Effects, this would, of course, be given a beautiful cinematic, maybe even a playable sequence. Reading it in a text blob seemed so antiquated it hurt.
In addition, the combat is so stagnant and choppy that part of me is glad that they seriously reworked that whole aspect of the game by the time that ME2 rolled around. While I was dissatisfied with how action oriented ME3 was overall, I thought ME2 found a nice balance.
Again, I want to reassert that I absolutely love this game. It was, after all, one of the first current gen games I’d ever played, and absolutely brings back similar emotional feelings that came from playing Knights of the Old Republic back when I was much younger and more impressionable. This is, after all, a pretty old game by now, and it’s nice to see that there’s constant evolution in the RPG genre.
If you loved or hated the original Mass Effect, I’d love to hear your thoughts. There was, after all, a personal rediscovery fueled by love. If you think Mass Effect lost its touch after the first game, say why! Same goes if you never thought it was good to begin with.