Blog / The commander is ashore

My friend Kelesis is playing Mass Effect for the first time, so I thought I’d dig up my old review of the original game. I’m still a huge fan of the series even given its huge blunders in Mass Effect 2 and 3.

This review originally appeared on November 25, 2007.

I feel like I’ve waited my entire life to play Mass Effect. It’s not just a great RPG fused with a complex shooter, it’s a big kiss to all the sci-fi fans out there. Saying this game borrows elements from Halo, Star Trek and Star Wars is being simplistic. The settings and entire foundation of the plot come from a grab bag of excellent writers: a multitude of aliens and their long-lost Progenitor species from David Brin’s Uplift Saga; an external threat to civilization from Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe; a war against a hive mind insectoid race from Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (hope you’ve read The Hive Queen and the Hegemon); and the annoyance of politics from, oh, the first third of every Jack McDevitt story involving Priscilla Hutchins. I always wanted a video game set in one of those books, but what Bioware delivered is a game in all of them. I could not be more pleased.

Come for the hovercars, stay for the moss

Actually, maybe I could. Mass Effect has a lot of positive qualities - a lot - but it also has some teeth-grinding issues that you would think they’d have fixed before launch. Penny Arcade covered all of them very well: there’s no tutorial, there are embarrassing load issues and texture pop-in galore. Oh, and they didn’t do a whole lot of QA on the interface. It looks great, like a proper next-gen LCARS, but equipping upgrades and browsing your inventory is far more annoying than it should be. Free protip to RPG developers: the pinnacle of inventory and equipment management can be found in Final Fantasy XII. Yes, really. The little colored dots and everything. You probably have a PS2 lying around somewhere. Buy a copy of FFXII and study that system.

I like the Turian sense of honor

When I say the game has no tutorial, I don’t just mean that it doesn’t give you a training ground to play in. The dozen or so “help” pop-ups in the first mission are literally all the assistance the game provides. It doesn’t walk you through equipping upgrades, buying and selling, leveling up, or even driving the Mako ground vehicle. You will have to figure out everything on your own; the manual is effective only as a key chart and coaster. As I was fumbling through the beginning stages of the game I was mighty pissed, but my rage eventually subsided as I stopped dying so damned often. The satisfaction and ownership you feel as you discover all of the game’s systems on your own is remarkable. It doesn’t excuse the poor training, but there’s a great game in there. They were just too busy making it to tell you how to play.

My only other complaint is how short the game feels. Saren is the bad guy from the start, so you visit a total of five mandatory planets to discover and quell his evil scheme. The game itself is not technically short as far as content is concerned: there’s a ton of dialog options, planets to explore and combat variations to experiment upon. But you’re only going to see a fraction of all of it on your first run through. Bioware expects nothing less, as some achievements are designed specifically for multiple runs. I don’t think I’ve been sprinting through the game and I’m saddened that it can end in a mere fifteen hours. I talked to damn near everyone on the Citadel, I landed on and cruised around half a dozen uncharted worlds and I’ve even been running to every merchant I could find to get licenses for the Normandy’s quartermaster. What more do they want from me, aside from listening to the life story of every one of my crew mates or exploring each uncharted planet on foot, fighting Thresher Maws with pistols?

No Romulan ale here, I'm afraid

I know, I know, I should do another run as a male character of a different class and be a jerk to everyone to get the renegade dialog. But I like being nice to people. I’d like to try some biotic powers and I’d certainly like to rescue Liara before I go to Noveria or Feros, but it’s challenging to have my character tell those digitized people to kiss her tight, toned and tanned ass. It’s true that no good game is ever long enough and no bad game is ever short enough (um, this line stolen from Roger Ebert).

I think I’m done bitching about Mass Effect, through I’m still reeling from two difficult decisions I had to make recently. Hell, let’s turn that frown upside-down: the writing and acting are so effective that it actually gets to you emotionally. In one circumstance I played suicide prevention counselor, trying to talk a woman enslaved for thirteen years out of shooting herself. She spoke in the third person, hinting at the savage beatings this “other, dirty, nasty girl” endured at the hands of her masters. It’s probably classic stuff: she was debased to animal status, developed Stockholm Syndrome and her desire for self-destruction was about to culminate with that pistol to her temple. Since this isn’t a full-time negotiator game I’ll admit it wasn’t difficult. There was no Tony Hawk-style balance bar or anything. I just had to work her through the dialog and take a step forward when she seemed calm. In the end I gave her a sedative and got her shipped off to a psychological ward. The difficult part was listening to her story, her fragmented speech and identity disorder. Much like how your character in Crysis will step up to drive a tank at the drop of a hat, you’ll end up in some wild situations for which Commander Shepard apparently feels herself qualified. Hope you can handle it.

Below-mentioned heavy-breathing turtle guy

It definitely helps that you’ll be dealing with the most lifelike characters ever created. Nomad’s rough rangers from Crysis set the bar for humans, but Mass Effect is the new apex for alien visages. Turian, Asari, Krogan… every species looks at once exotic, realistic and original. All of them speak with impeccable mouth movements and full body language, though the hand gestures are not perfectly synched to the speech and you’ll see glitches in the animation more than you should. But I’d gladly buy episodes if this game ended up on TV like Viva Pinata. My dearest wish is for EA to expand the Mass Effect universe into other genres. Revive the space shooter and give us a new version of Freespace 2. Compete against Elite IV and make a free-roaming simulator. Or show Nintendo how it’s done and create a game about a bounty hunter who actually hunts bounties. You don’t need to do any work with the setting, alien species or spaceship design. Can you see it? It’s so beautiful in my mind.

While the game manages to feel like an upgrade to the Knights of the Old Republic engine it is still breathtaking at times. The ship designs are the coolest things ever, even though all you get to see for 95% of the game is your own vessel, the Normandy. Textures are super high res (um, when they’re done loading), the lighting is dramatic and the scale of the places you’ll visit is incredible. My favorite is probably the approach to Peak 15 on Noveria. Rumbling through the blizzard in my Mako, I spotted the research station from a distance. A large silver tower obscured by howling snow, it was overrun by Rachni and I was the only one who could save it. You get to be the star of your own awesome sci-fi movie (and if you’re like me, wax poetic half the time).

If you’ve played any Bioware games in the past you won’t be surprised by the superior voice acting in Mass Effect. Every character is so lovable that I end up getting very nosy with the species ambassadors. Tell me more about your culture, you charming heavy breathing turtle-thing you. Probably the only surprise this time is that there’s no real standout character. In Knights of the Old Republic everybody’s favorite was HK-47, a sadistic assassin droid that was sort of like Bender with a license to kill. In addition to always encouraging you to be evil, HK-47 would preface his sentences with a descriptor of what he was about to say, such as “Deceit: Nothing to see here miss, just a regular droid.”

It'd have been quicker to kill 'em

In Mass Effect, HK-47’s mannerisms are split between the Elcor species and the character Wrex. Wrex is quite the badass, but I also love the precise, azure-skinned Liara, the hothead ex-cop Garrus, and… well, everybody really. Compare this to the other games where you shoot things in space and listen to some of the worst dialog and plot ever written (Halo 3, Metroid Prime 3) and you wonder how the other developers get away with it. Actually, a Bungie/Bioware sequel to Mass Effect would be fantastic: instead of slogging through the combat to get to the dialog or vice versa, we could have the best of both worlds.

Fat chance, I know.

That’s not to say the combat in Mass Effect is bad, it’s just stilted. Path finding for all characters borders on unacceptable, as your crew will get caught up on little annoyances like exploding barrels while walking through a room. Yes, even in the future people store deadly plasma or insta-freeze compound in these easy to hit containers that they scatter on the floor. Sigh. Anyway, the good news is that the bad guys also have trouble walking across the room, so feel free to snipe them silly while they twitch between two crates.

Can we have a better bad guy now?

The shooting mechanic scales with your level, your special powers are well balanced and your friends and enemies can hide behind cover like Gears of War. It’s the final layer of polish that is conspicuously missing. The Geth are a boring enemy race: they’re like the robots from the Star Wars prequels without the “roger roger” nonsense: they chirp to each other like metal birds. When you shoot one they don’t really seem to mind; they’ll keep charging at you or sniping or whatever. One thing Gears of War got right was the meaty feeling of bullets ripping into the enemy. Maybe the Geth could spurt oil?

I’ve been playing this game all weekend and have been enjoying myself more than I thought possible. Super Mario Galaxy is a wonderful game for everyone, but Mass Effect was made just for me. It has a fantastic, kick-ass conclusion and wraps up all the major mysteries you encounter during the game (making it entirely unlike all those sci-fi novels I listed above). Given the overall quality of the game I know a sequel won’t be coming soon, but I’m ravenous for more.