Mass Effect was not a game that impressed me when I first experienced it five years ago. I watched a friend playing one of the vehicle missions and the experience seemed cringeworthy. He swore the game was good, though, so I gave it a shot.
I got about thirty minutes in and stopped. The controls on the 360 controller just didn’t feel right to me, and I ended up setting the game aside for half a decade. Fast forward to last December. Steam had the first game on sale for something like $2.50. I knew Mass Effect 3 was on the horizon at that point, so I decided to pick it up and give it a second chance, with mouse and keyboard controls.
I’m sitting here now as the credits roll, still largely unimpressed. The game is very much an experiment. It’s Bioware’s attempt at meshing a fast paced shooter with a slower paced RPG, and to be frank, the RPG elements are holding the shooter elements back.
I can only assume that some of the perplexing design choices were made to accomadate the “RPG” label. For example, you can’t aim down sights when you’re low on health. What the fuck is the point of that? Frustration? Because it was damn well frustrating. Power ups that restore health are picked up and used by the player as needed, but have a cooldown. I don’t mind that health isn’t regenerating, like most other shooters. In fact, I prefer it isn’t, but a cooldown? Entirely unnecessary, and again, mostly frustrating.
There’s also the inexplicably bad cover mechanic, where your character automatically sticks to walls when you’re near them, but that’s not the fault of RPG mechanics, that’s just an out right bad decision on the developer’s part. Speaking of bad decisions, the vehicle segments that served as my introduction to the series? God awful. I’d like to meet the testers who played those bits and said “This is good, yes, no more work needs to be done on these,” because that guy is an asshole.
The game culminates with an extremely boring penultimate boss battle and slightly less boring final boss battle that feel tacked on, existing only because it’s expected from a video game.
So now that all that negative shit is out of the way, let’s talk about what Mass Effect does right. Bioware’s writers created a very believable world here. Humans are the new race in town, and the feelings of xenophobia from aliens and humans alike is apparent. Every character you encounter, even the ones that join your party, have their own motivations and feelings. It’s very easy to get lost in the story that’s being told, and the story is in the player’s hands.
My last post was about how video games are being wasted as vehicles for story telling. I honestly think Mass Effect does a decent job delivering a story that would be impossible in other mediums, due to the choices presented to the player during the game. Every dialogue option feels like it has weight, and the big decisions left up to the player are important to how the story plays out. A pre-scripted event where a major character dies is tragic. When you make a choice that ultimately ends in the death of a major character, well, that’s a whole different ball game, and something movies or books can’t pull off.
Mass Effect is obviously a stepping stone to great things. From what I understand all of my big issues with the first game (and more!) are fixed in the sequels, but when something is as story driven as this series is, with your game save carrying over to subsequent games, playing the first is a necessity.