More than three decades ago, Star Wars: Episode IV released and took the film industry by storm. Shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Red Dwarf were television hits in the late 80s and early 90s (sorry Kirk fans!), and novels brought the likes of Ender’s Game and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As a medium, videogames have often been behind on delivering quality Sci-Fi content. Does Mass Effect help to close the gap?
Mass Effect’s story takes place in the Milky Way galaxy. Having found a “Mass Effect” in 2148, a scientific discovery pushing forward Earth’s technology by 200 years, humans are now able to travel quickly through the galaxy and colonize new worlds. In their journey, they have run into new alien races; some diplomatic and some warmongering. After only a couple decades, humanity had spread quickly through the galaxy and colonized many planets. The premise of the story is built on humanity’s effort to fight the xenophobia it faces from other species, and gain recognition in galactic affairs.
The heart of the Galaxy's government is set in the Citadel, a large space station left by the Protheans. Governed by The Council, many species inhabit it. Since the Council controls galactic interests and happenings, the humans desire a spot in their ranks. However, old rivalries, along with aggressive human expansion, leave many species wary of humanity’s intentions. Humanity, as an effort to gain good standing with the species of the galaxy, begins to work closely with the Council.
In 2183, an old Prothean beacon is discovered on the human colony of Eden Prime. The Protheans were a species that ruled the galaxy 50,000 years ago, but mysteriously vanished. Artifacts of their time, even damaged beacons are considered quite valuable. Because of the beacon’s importance, the Alliance (human coalition and representative body) sends a ground team to capture it. The team is accompanied by a Spectre named Nihlus, a covert agent of the Council. This mission holds greater importance, however. It is also an opportunity for humans to further their chances of entering the Spectres, and in turn, the Council.
The situation turns bad when Saren, another Spectre, kills Nihlus and threatens to destroy the colony. He attacks Eden Prime with an army of Geth, synthetic soldiers not seen for hundreds of years. The ground team is able to repel the Geth and recover the beacon. Commander Shepard (the highly-customizable player character and leader of the team) is inducted into the Spectres in order to stop Saren and his quest to bring back the Reapers, a synthetic race that wiped out all organic life 50,000 years ago.
Story progression is one of the most important aspects of Mass Effect, and one of the areas where it truly shines. Much of the plot is told through conversations with the various characters in the game, giving you both essential and non-essential information. Important characters may provide info regarding Saren and his Geth attacks, which will often update your “Mission” folder. Likewise, information from minor characters (such as shopkeepers and diplomats) will provide minor information about various items in the Mass Effect universe, which is added to your “Codex” folder. The plot is full of twists and turns, and is exciting enough to keep the player going even through the duller parts of the game.
In order to craft the immense universe in Mass Effect, Bioware has provided stellar graphics. Characters models look great, with equipment showing a great amount of detail. Environments are repetitive (many side-quests take place in the same 3 or so facilities), but are still varied in their features. However, these all fall short due to severe technical problems. Mass Effect is riddled with framerate drops and glitches, and loading times can come out of nowhere. Even with beautiful graphics, it doesn’t mean much if you’re hit by a framerate hitch.
Music is yet another effective aspect of Mass Effect, but one with areas for improvement. There are a couple tracks that emphasize certain events in the game and enhance the atmosphere. Most of the songs, however, drift to the background while you are playing. Additionally, some songs are a repetitive mess, and actually detract from the player’s experience. So while many of the ballads in Mass Effect fall short and go unnoticed, a few tracks shine and provide a marvelous ambiance to the storyline.
Gameplay in Mass Effect is centered in battle and conversation. Battling works on three basic tiers, and can be divided into six basic classes. The player can choose the default profile(the one shown on the cover); that of John Shepard, Alliance Soldier. However, they can also choose to go into great detail customizing Shepard, with personal information like first name and appearance being decided first. After the basic information has been filled out, one’s character can be given six different classes. These classes are based off of the tiers of battling in Mass Effect. They are Combat, Tech, and Biotics. Different classes provide different mixtures of these, whether your character is a pure Combat type (Soldier), or a mix of Combat and Biotics (Vanguard).
Combat is built on the four basic weapons: The pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, and sniper rifle. Side powers are minimal, but it compensates by offering greater health and attack. Biotics offers you a wide range of powers. These include (but are not limited to) lifting your enemies in the air, throwing them with gravitational force, and pulling them into singularities. Tech powers are designed to weaken and disable your enemies, making them easier prey for you and your teammates. Biotics stand as the most entertaining class to use, but finding the best class is a matter of deciding which one suits you best.
Along with John Shepard, there are 6 other characters that can join your party in Mass Effect, each fitting to specific classes - some are human, but most of them hail from other species in the galaxy. As such, this provides diversity to the cast, and allows you to hear the circumstances each species has faced. A few of the characters are good, always offering a snappy comeback or sage advice. But most of your party members (four in particular) aren't very deep or believable, and their character traits are exaggerated. Teammates can be very helpful in battle, but suffer from some poor A.I. Even with directed commands, they will walk out into the open or rush towards the enemy, getting shot down and killed almost immediately. This can add much frustration to the game, and it’s not just limited to your teammates. Enemies often get stuck behind boxes, run randomly out of cover, and rush towards you (which is almost always unavoidable and results in a cheap death for the player). These problems, along with other technical issues, show a glaring lack of polish from the developers.
One of the most important gameplay aspects of Mass Effect, and probably its most acclaimed feature, is conversation. In order to save the human colonies and stop Saren, Shepard has to gain information. Conversations take place with conversation wheels. You are usually able to choose from 3 options on the right side. One fitting under Paragon (kind), one neutral, and one Renegade (aggressive). By picking certain options, you gain more experience in either Paragon or Renegade, and you can use these talents to gain extra benefits from conversations. These benefits can range from extra money from completing a side quest to more information regarding current situations or things going on in the Mass Effect universe. There are thousands of conversations in Mass Effect, and tons of dialogue. And for those who don’t want to hear the conversations, dialogue can be skipped. Conversations give an added benefit in that it provides extra experience. Players can get as much experience from a lengthy conversation about testicles as they could defeating a tough enemy. It’s a convenient way to earn extra experience, and it motivates you to talk to many different NPCs.
An average Mass Effect play through takes anywhere from 20-30 hours, depending on how many side quests you complete. Someone looking to complete most of the side quests in the game should expect to spend closer to 30 hours, while someone blitzing through the game and only completing the main missions could end up spending less than 20. Mass Effect has many side quests, several of which take place on various planets in the Milky Way Galaxy. The player can take their ship to different planet clusters, each containing systems. Inside, these systems contain a wide variety of planets, and the game even contains our solar system, with every planet from Earth to Neptune.
While they provide great excuses to explore the various planets, the side quests are generally dull. Many of them consist of going to similar looking planets, fighting similar looking enemies in similar looking facilities. The repetition is even accentuated by enemy dialogue, which usually consists of the same 4 or so lines. However, the side quests reward you with large amounts of money and experience, which is useful in accomplishing the continuing goal in the main quest. Although a couple shine, most of the side quests feel more like tasks, and aren’t very much fun.
All in all, Mass Effect is an incredible game, only weakened by a series of technical and design flaws. Getting to high levels and taking on 15 or more enemies at a time never gets boring, and there’s always more to learn about through conversations. Between the interesting characters and the fast-paced storyline, the game's narrative also provides one hell of a ride. So if you’re looking for a great RPG, and you don’t mind some small technical flaws, Mass Effect is the game for you.