To start a new gaming franchise you need something unique to capture players attention, a mixture of interesting protagonists, a great world and a good gameplay. There are many unsuccessful attempts at launching a video game franchise. Bioware’s attempt at launching two franchises fortunately ended with success, one being the Mass Effect franchise and the other one being the Dragon Age franchise. Back in 2007 Bioware released their new RPG with a mixture of third person shooter and a bit of open world exploration, combination that on all levels could have been a failure. But it didn’t, instead of that, we as players got what is now regarded as one of the greatest video game trilogies of all time. The story of Mass Effect is a story of Bioware, despicable greed, creative differences and changing world of video games. It’s also a story of my own as a gamer and how this franchise changed me as a gamer for better or worse.
Disclaimer: This review is gonna contain spoilers about the main story line, read in your own discretion, so if you aren’t familiar with Mass Effect, I would recommend purchasing it and then you can read the article.
Earliest preproduction for Mass Effect can be traced way back into 2003, when Bioware released their game Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic. When the idea of an original IP came up their minds, namely one Casey Hudson, who at the time served as the creative director for that game. Over the next six months key developers at Bioware were trying to figure out how this new science-fiction universe will exist, human-alien relationship, human place in the galaxy and alien’s history and culture. Game development started in 2005 and a lot of key decisions were made at the time like fully voiced protagonists, which wasn’t exactly popular at the time, most of RPGs still had silent protagonists, because in most RPGs the massive focus was on dialogues and player’s perception. On October 11th, 2007, Bioware was bought by the much larger gaming company EA (Electronic Arts), regardless of that Mass Effect was finished at time and on November 20th, 2007 the game was released in the United States and on May 2008 in the EU to much of critical acclaim.
Story, world and lore
Story, world-building and characters are quite possibly the most celebrated elements of Bioware, basic premise of Mass Effect 1 is: “You play as Commander Shepard (voiced by Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale), human soldier who is part of N7 and is targeted to become part of Spectres (Special Tactics and Reconnaissance), but during your initial missions, your trainer (Nihlus Kryi) ends up dead and Prothean (extinct alien race) beacon destroyed and the only thing remained from it is a cryptic vision burned into your mind, about impending threat.” The first Mass Effect unlike its sequels is defined by exploration and learning, there is a lot of information to digest about the world and how everything works, the majority of the time you are completing a lot of side quests and talking to people. Conversations and side quest reveal a lot about the world: Are you interested how Warp Core works? Ask chief engineer. Are you interested about Geth? Ask Tali’zorah. As you might have guessed the Mass Effect world is set in the future more specifically in year 2183, humans have been a part galactic community for a short time and they aren’t strongest or most advanced species in Galaxy, humanity’s arrival into Galaxy has been met with a hostility of another species (Turians). But all isn’t as it seems, it would be so easy to make Turians antagonistic race you can shoot at and it’s not that simple. Apart of that there is also a history and animosity among other alien species. The world of Mass Effect is neatly thought-through, most noticeable inspiration is from original Star Trek, Lovercraftian mythos, Alien franchise, Star Wars and Blade Runner. Also you can spot minor inspirations like Starship Troopers. Locations in first Mass Effect had this grainy, sterile and lifeless look, which gives this greater feeling of older TV shows and movies. It’s no wonder why Mass Effect is highly regarded by many, it is because of a rich story, world and lore. I definitely recommend to open codex and listen and read to what’s in there.
A lot of gaming developers focus on creating rich lore and world, but sometimes forgetting on one more important element, characters are in my opinion meat of the any game, if your game doesn’t have them I do not care about anything, you can have the greatest lore and world around, but if you fill them with boring and flat characters, there is good chance players will not even finish it. Luckily Mass Effect is filled with interesting and well-written characters and not just your squad-mates, villains and side characters aren’t simplistic. One of the most lacking elements in newer Bioware games and other games is the absence of a complex antagonist. An antagonist shouldn’t be a dimensional guy who has one really boring motivation and goal: “I wanna destroy world or become really powerful with help of one MacGuffin.” Saren Arterius (Fred Tatasciore) is one of the finest villains in all Bioware games ever, he is a darker reflection of Commander Shepard, they share the similar goals. At first it may look that Saren’s motivation is the hatred of human race, but as the game progresses you find out that Saren is an agent of synthetic race called the Reapers, namely one of them called Sovereign. The Reapers are the true antagonist of the Mass Effect trilogy, massive fleet of ships, living outside of the Galaxy in Dark Space, their motivation in the first game is actually very cryptic and one time when you are speaking to Sovereign, only thing you learned that they are harvesting advanced organic races for purpose unknown and their return is coming close. Saren is in fact trying to save galactic races by that they surrender themselves to the Reapers in hope that they will be spared. This revelation makes Saren more tragic than villainous, at the end of the game you don’t even have to fight him, you can convince him about his own wrong-doings, but he is unable to change because of indoctrination from the Reapers (form of mind-control) and he commits suicide.
The main protagonist of the Mass Effect trilogy is Commander Shepard at the beginning you customize him/her how much you like, one of the crucial parts of creating your Shepard is the element of three backgrounds and three previous military services, this unlocks personal quests and special dialogues. Speaking about dialogues, you respond by a dialogue wheel, three choices of answers and two paragon/renegade answers, that I would translate as persuasion/threat, paragon/renegade system is perhaps one of the more controversial part of Mass Effect trilogy and some might say it’s really limiting and that it is binary good guy/bad guy response, others me included would say it gives some personality of Shepard instead of water-down neutral responses. I guess real answers lie somewhere in the middle.
Squad-mates in Mass Effect 1 are slight less well-written as in its sequels, while not that they are bad necessarily, but in sequels mainly in Mass Effect 2 are much more fleshed-out. Regardless of that they are still very likable and charismatic my personal favorite are Urdnot Wrex, Tali’zorah nar Rayya and Liara T’Soni, I love talking to them, it’s because of Wrex and talking to him I cure genophage in Mass Effect 3 (yes, I play as usually paragon Shepard), mainly because you can hear how it saddens him. Two supposed main squad-mates are Ashley Williams and Kaiden Alenko, human soldiers, they are fine, I don’t particularly have anything against them. During the mission on Virmare (planet) you have to make a choice who lives and who dies (Ashley or Kaiden) and you know what even after all this time I still can’t figure out which decision is right or wrong, I wish kinda I could save both of them, but that’s Mass Effect no matter how much you try, or how good you are, someone from your squad ends up dead. Other one’s worth mentioning are Captain David Anderson, who serves as your mentor and Counselor Donnell Udina who is politician and has his own motivation and the fact he isn’t immediately amazed by Commander Shepard, creates an illusion of realism.
Combat in Mass Effect 1 is a mixed bag and also is the most criticized part of the game, it is in third person with special powers, you can pause the game anytime you want. If anything really didn’t age well in Mass Effect it’s the combat, especially in comparison towards its sequels it’s not that good. AI of the enemies is quite flawed, annoying and very scripted, combat is my least favorite part of Mass Effect 1. Other part of Mass Effect game-play is Mako (armored vehicle) driving secession and this is something that Mass Effect 1 does poorly, you are dropped into an empty planet map and drive from one point of interest to another, if this was used less common I would have no problem with Maco. Apart from that Mass Effect 1 quite runs smoothly, no major crashes or anything like that. Controls are pretty basic: WASD to walk, mouse controls to shoot and aim and spacebar to pause the game and use powers. In this regard I can see how combat and game-play can and will be upgraded for better or worse.
DLCs for Mass Effect 1, were released at the time where the gaming industry was still figuring out what exactly DLCs are and I can understand this. Pinnacle Station and Bring down the Sky are early DLCs and I can forgive them for lacking quality, now they are sold with the original game, so I guess what is the deal? Even if they are sold separately, they aren’t all that expensive and they make the game feel fuller.
To answer the final question: Is it worth to buy and play Mass Effect 1 after all those years? Yes, it is! Mass Effect 1, after all those years, is worth of playing, even with its flaws. Does it mean that it is a flawless game? No. Mass Effect 1 is a pretty great game, even with its problems if you can ignore lacking gaming features and focus on its qualities superb story and characters, you will find something special, you will find Mass Effect and that’s why the game deserves 8/10.
In the next article we will take a look at Dragon Age: Origins.
Until then keep playing Mass Effect 1!