I’m writing this draft on March 21, launch day for Mass Effect: Andromeda. I probably won’t post this until much later, because I’m very paranoid about exposing myself to Mass Effect story spoilers right now, and my vivid imagination sees everyone running to the comments to post their Andromeda thoughts even though this post has nothing to do with Andromeda. Not only do I not want to hear about Andromeda, but I also don’t want to hear about Mass Effect 2 and 3.
So since I can’t look at the Internet for a few weeks while everyone gets Mass Effect out of their systems, I thought I’d write about the old ones. As of this writing, I’ve finished my replay of Mass Effect 1, and I’m somewhere around halfway through Mass Effect 2 (I’m in the second stage of crew recruitment), which has caught me back up to where I left off with the series several years ago.
Mass Effect 1 was fairly short for a Bioware RPG–I finished it in about 23 hours. I didn’t do every single side mission in the game, but I did a bunch of them. I played on casual difficulty with maximum auto aim, so I pretty much blew through the “game” portion. I think I only died one time. (I’m pretty sure it was on that one side mission where you have to kill the AI computers at a Lunar base, where the mechs keep shooting rockets at you.)
I’m a sucker for the humans-join-galactic-civilization plot device so I loved, loved, loved the Mass Effect 1 story. I found the “worldbuilding” fascinating, if not particularly realistic. It was totally worth putting up with the sub-standard shooter game controls. Honestly after a few hours with it I didn’t even think about the controls anymore. Maybe because I was playing on super easy mode so there was almost never a point where there was any danger of failing. It was mostly a matter of running from point A to point B and shooting everything like ducks in a barrel on the way.
Given that they removed it from the sequel, I think I might be the only person in the world who actually enjoyed driving the Mako around on planets. I loved driving off of cliffs and bouncing around the mountains and seeing how much I could get it to flip over. But like a cat, it always lands on its wheels! A Mako-driving demolition derby-style game would be awesome. [Ed: I know now that there’s a vehicle in Andromeda–it’s not as good.]
Back to the story. There may be some spoilers from here on out if you haven’t played the game yet.
I liked that Mass Effect 1 was very focused from start to finish. You always knew what your mission was: Find and defeat Saren. The journey took you through all kinds of strange and spectacular places, and uncovered secrets about the history of the galaxy along the way, but the basic plot remained the same from start to finish. (More on this when I write about Mass Effect 2.)
I loved the last several hours of the game. The final set piece was amazing, when you had to go outside the Citadel and make your way to the Sovereign ship. The end reminded me a bit of the FBI helicopter crashing into the Nakatomi Plaza building in Die Hard, which was an awesome action scene. It was like that except on a more mind-blowing scale.
I guess what really fascinates me about the story is how they manage to combine thought-provoking science fiction with action-packed space opera without completely ruining both. On the one hand there’s the in-your-face examinations of culture and racism, and on the other hand there’s guns and explosions and yelling.
Racism was the major theme I kept seeing over and over again in Mass Effect 1. Alien races hating humans, humans hating aliens, Krogans hating Salarians, everybody hating Quarians. It was pretty much a celebration of racism all the way through Mass Effect 1. I learned a valuable lesson that racism is A-OK!
Just kidding. The biggest complaint I have about Mass Effect 1 is how they homogenized the alien races. Each race was a stereotype. There was no diversity of thought among the alien characters, in other words. Granted, I suppose there’s not much they can do in a 23 hour game to show the entire breadth of every alien culture, but still. It would have been nice to see a Krogan with a squeaky voice. (There is actually a female Krogan in Mass Effect 2, but I have yet to spot a female Turian–that race must all be misogynists.) [Ed: I also now know that female Turians exist in Andromeda.]
My favorite parts: I loved the “hold the line” speech given by the Salarian captain on Virmire. It really stood out because the Salarians are the least warlike of the alien races. Also because it was a major emotional moment in the story delivered by a random side character.
This time I knew what was coming, but that moment when you had to choose the fate of your two crewmen on Virmire was still pretty heart-rending. They did a really good job of crafting a situation that ensured you could only save one of the two, and that feeling of knowing you were cut off and could only save one still hit like a ton of bricks. (I saved Kaiden this time, which is the opposite of what I did the first time, I think. I actually find both of those characters slightly annoying, but Ashley’s expendable since she’s just a combat trooper, redundant with my Shepard’s abilities.)
I think Tali was my favorite squadmate character in terms of personality. I know a lot of people like Garrus but I’ve never liked him that much. He’s just kind of there. I like Wrex and Liana better.
I loved the dialog with “Vigil” toward the end. That whole scene was really spine-tingling because of the thumping heartbeat sound in the background the whole time.
Some of the best dialog moments occurred while riding elevators in The Citadel, when your two squadmates would talk to each other. I just wanted to keep going up and down listening to them, but sometimes you only get the galactic news (which was also good). I wish there had been a more controlled way to trigger those interactions.
Even though Doctor Chakwas (Carolyn Seymour) had a teeny tiny part, I loved listening to her voice. She might have been the best voice actor in the entire game. Joker (Seth Meyer) was a close second. (A good voice actor infuses the dialog with a distinct personality, in addition to or instead of reading the lines with a distinct tone of voice.)
I think I mentioned that I played a female Shepard this time. It was a different experience but not as much as I expected. On Jennifer Hale’s voice acting performance: I thought her tone was pretty flat throughout most of the game. But I recall the male Shepard being pretty flat, too, so I guess “flat affectation” was what they were going for as a character. Or maybe those actors were chosen more for their technical competence at consistently delivering the massive number of lines they needed to read than for their acting abilities.
Speaking of Femshep, here’s a potentially controversial topic that I’ll mention as something that bugs me in these Bioware games where characters can be male or female in cut scenes. I first noticed this phenomenon in the background characters of cut scenes in Dragon Age (the first one), and now I can’t un-see it. They apparently use the same motion capture animation for characters regardless of whether they are male or female. What that means is that sometimes the female characters move around with body language that looks more like a dude, and it’s very jarring.
Most of the time it’s not that noticeable, but sometimes they capture exaggerated dudebro walking animations or postures for the male characters–you know, where they really swagger and swing their arms wide with their elbows out like gorillas or football players. It’s comical enough when a man does that, but when a woman walks that way it’s like watching a caricature. Like a movie or sitcom where the plot is a woman who is pretending to be a man and hilarious hijinks ensue. (Or like that Futurama episode where Leela pretended to be a man to join the DOOP army.)
I’m not saying that every woman in a videogame has to walk like a stripper, but there’s some body language that you tend to associate more with men than women (like the dudebro gorilla walk), and it would be nice if they would try to think about that when they do the motion capture if they’re going to use it with a female model.
All in all, Mass Effect is one of the best story games I’ve ever played. Like others of its ilk (eg. Bioshock Infinite, Dragon Age), the story is so good that the game gets in the way of it. I would have preferred consuming it as a movie or television show. It’s one of the rare games that I completely lose track of time when I’m playing it, and have a really hard time putting down, like a great book.