Mass Effect is a third-person action RPG that provides a gentle reminder that we’ve been having the same conversations about race and unity for generations all the while nothing has changed despite humanity’s more open-minded views. Not only that but it shows how developers and writers have been trying to teach us the lessons that serve to better us in a way that can only be told through video games… with player choice.
Starting up the game you’ll be asked to create a female or male character each fully realised by the vocal arts of Jennifer Hale (Nominee for best performance by a female at the Spike Video Game Awards in 2010 and 2012) or Mark Meer respectively. While now quite obviously dated in terms of presentation and upscaling the game still maintains a place among the more in-depth character customisation menu’s I’ve seen in recent years although, the continuity of your character for each game suffers from some disparate facial changes despite using the import function. My brown haired Femshep had blonde eyebrows upon importing to Mass Effect 2.
Bioware as they were back in the early naughties were the superpower of lore and storytelling, with games like Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire already under their belt, Mass Effect proved to be yet another great success story of what is possible within in the realms of video game through the use of incredible voice acting and an otherworldly synth soundtrack that follows you through every twist, turn and planet.
Telling the story of humanity as the last species in the galaxy to conquer space travel they must prove their worth amongst the intergalactic council of races that came before with varying degrees of hostility and scepticism. You as Commander Shepard (An alliance military soldier) stand as a figurehead for what humanity stands for and are enlisted as a Spectre (A form of shadow operative that report to the council but with no restrictions as to how they fulfil their mission) to investigate and stop the greatest threat the galaxy has ever faced.
Adding to this introduction of alien species is a lore so in-depth that I found myself even almost 15 years since my initial playthrough enamoured with how these fictional species have their own fully realised cultures, government and military as well as how they interconnect to the main story and serve as plot devices detailing their own complex histories that precede the game. It provides the building blocks for metaphors within our own lives and how we should choose understanding and acceptance over indifference, racism and phobia of identity.
As you progress in your mission, you’ll recruit the more prolific of the alien races to your team all with varying backstories and attitudes towards certain behaviours that you may or may not choose to act on. What is also great about these believable characters is that no one person is beyond reproach, through the use of the morality mechanic as Paragon Shepard you can appeal to everyone’s better nature and bring out their best qualities. None are inherently evil and are simply believing in what they know to be right despite the tension it causes. It’s up to you and your leadership to show them a better way; once again standing as a metaphor and bringing the trivialities of racial prejudice to its knees to unify and bring hope to everyone for a singular cause.
The way in which characters react towards your own agency through the use of dialogue choice (Which will expand even more through the progression of your paragon or renegade value) drives home that you can only get out of this game what you put in. Crew members can be dismissed with enough effort or even killed (while undesirable given the games premise of unity) if you are not attentive to their personal plight and conversely can lead to some rewarding romantic interest should you be so inclined. (Garrus is the best)
The sheer depth of lore and worldbuilding in this series is what has made it the resounding success it is even with the degradation of opinion as the games continued and is worthy of praise to this day. It’s one thing to write lore and make it so integral to the understanding of the series it’s another to make it interesting without feeling like filler or unnecessary exposition. Thanks to some narrated codex entries hidden in the menu’s you can easily catch up on what you may miss out on or question as you progress through the game as the story just barely scratches the surface of what the Bioware team have created.
Player choice is forever at the forefront of this series. While not always immediately visible the choices you make will chain react into the sequels and demands that you consider what your actions could mean for yourself, the intergalactic alliance and your crew.
Taking the best bits about a cover-based shooter and blending in a level-based system that unlocks new skills and stat boosts as you progress. You will pick two crew members to accompany you on each mission who all specialise in one field of combat, whether that’s weaponry, tech or this games answer to magic known as biotics. You as the player can control when and how your crew members utilise their skills through the action wheel and button shortcuts to provide the breathing room to pop off a few shots during the more hectic gunfights and later on in the series will see you combining different skills for explosive damage. It’s nothing all that special and while revolutionary for its time, it unfortunately shows its age but hopefully you realise that Mass Effect as a story more than makes up for its misgivings in gameplay.
The Trilogy suffers (in gameplay only) from what can only be described as the three bears syndrome. The first is too cold – it has you a lot of the time cleaning up your inventory and making sure each character has an optimal setup for the next encounter however, the issue here is that this game out of the three offers the least amount of time in combat to make good of your loadouts and has the least intelligent enemy AI of the bunch even on harder difficulties as they stand in front of waist high cover or freeze in place altogether. Adding to this is the Mako, a series of vehicle-based travel segments and method of surveying new planets for resources and distress signals as you explore the galaxy. It’s a clunky control system that’s more bothersome than enjoyable but luckily relatively few and far between.
The second is just right and is critically acclaimed as the best in the trilogy, exchanging the collect-athon style of inventory management for simple weapon loadouts makes it more down to player style rather than optimising for each encounter and directing more focus on team-based abilities and synergy. Mass Effect 2 also expands upon the lore with more lesser alien species and diving deeper into the histories that plague them and trading in the Mako for an interactive overworld view of the galaxy where you travel in the Normandy sending out probes for resources to upgrade the ship, passive weapon enhancements and your crew’s abilities.
The third plays almost similar to the second however there is now an immediate disconnect from what came before as EA games forced a more action driven narrative and focuses on the psychological toll on Shepard’s psyche as we reach the conclusion but in terms of combat there is too much and it makes it hard to enjoy the dialogue as you know it’s simply a breather before the next big wave of encounters hit or singular battlefield missions. In direct contradiction to this however is the lack of multiplayer from the original third-instalment that directly impacted the main campaign and the war effort. Every mission success lent a progression marker to the overall military prowess against the reapers and looking back was ahead of its time and is somewhat overlooked as one of the more enjoyable multiplayer experiences I’ve had. I was sad to see it left out.
Mass Effect is a must play because not only is it a marvel of what video games are able to achieve in terms of worldbuilding and enthralling narrative. It also shines a subconscious light for the player on what hate can look like and how to engage with people who are not like yourself – providing the moral lessons on how to disagree without conflict, how easy decisions are not always the best and that not everyone should be and think the same.