Let’s make some calibrations.
The year is 2007.
Mass Effect was just released.
I didn’t care.
Obviously, I’m a good seven years late to the party. I grew up watching every version of Star Trek with my dad; I wanted to be an astronaut as a child; space battles are just SO COOL. And yet, there was never anything particularly enticing about Mass Effect to me. Nothing about it seemed to allure me. I’d never played a Bioware game, and I usually stay away from shooters, though I enjoy RPGs. It’s less that I thought the game would be boring and more that it simply never caught my eye.
Man, I was an idiot. Now I’m in too deep. Send help.
If you haven’t already played the series, it takes place in the far future. Humans discovered the Protheans, an ancient race that helped build an intergalactic civilization through the use of mass effect fields, connecting segments of space via technology called mass relays. The Protheans are now gone, but their legacy remains in technology… and rumors of their enemies, the Reapers.
But everyone in the universe thinks the Reapers are nothing more than a myth, a Prothean bedtime story. All the other species–that, by the way, dislike how quickly humans are growing and colonizing–believe the Reapers aren’t a threat.
Then Commander Shepard is sent on a mission to investigate a planet’s distress call, while being under consideration to become the first human member of the Spectres, an elite police force.
All hell breaks loose. Saren, a fellow Spectre, controls the Geth, a synthetic war race, and uses them to further his goal: to release the Reapers from dark space and bring about a new world order.
It’s a lot of space jargon, and honestly, your typical save-the-universe plot. There are a few cool twists and turns in the narrative that I won’t spoil in case you haven’t played the series, but its magic lies in the world-building and characterization. I’ll cover that a little bit more down below.
Players assume the role of Commander Shepard, a member of the human Alliance military. Shepard begins as a blank slate–players choose their gender and appearance, from hair color to facial structure, as well as Shepard’s first name. It’s a little jarring when there’s only one voice for male Shepard and female Shepard respectively, especially when seeing playthroughs where Jennifer Hale’s voice comes from a blond white woman instead of my darker-skinned redhead Shepard, but the acting itself is well-done. It’s too bad the character creation isn’t a little more robust, but there’s enough options to have some fun creating your own Shepard.
Shepard is joined on her mission by a number of other characters, humans and aliens alike. There’s Kaidan and Ashley, fellow Alliance members; there’s Liara, an Asari scientist; there’s Tali, a Quarian you save in the center of intergalactic activity known as the Citadel; there are others, too. Each of your teammates has their own personality, shown not only if you choose to bring them on missions but also through socializing with them on your ship, the SSV Normandy. Between traveling the galaxies, shooting mercenaries and geth, and saving the universe, Shepard can explore the Normandy and talk with the rest of the crew. Not all of them are going to go down on missions with you–Doctor Chakwas, for instance, is the ship’s medic and helps flesh out the world through her dialogue. It lends Mass Effect a great sense of realism and makes it easier to learn about the politics of this far future. Actions taken while socializing on the ship and on various planets can affect players’ rating as either Paragon or Renegade, which open up more dialogue paths and on occasion affect how people react to Shepard.
You can romance several of your teammates, too. While most of the discussions Shepard has allow her to learn about Kaidan, Liara, and the others and build trust, some of them have decidedly flirtatious undertones. Although male Shepard can’t romance any of his male teammates, female Shepard can fall in love with men as well as women/feminine-gendered aliens. I’m pretty sure my friends were sick of me excitedly shouting “SPACE LESBIANS” the instance I realized it. Oops.
Aside from PLAYING A SPACE DATING SIM OH MY GOD learning to trust your teammates, Shepard travels the galaxies in the Normandy and can survey planets, each with their own backstory and statistics. It’s massive, and really cool to see how much work the people over at Bioware put into creating a fully-realized world.
The bulk of the gameplay comes in the missions on various planets. Some of them are just sidequests–rescuing a planet from a group of Batarian mercenaries, for instance, or freeing the body of a man’s late wife from Alliance bureaucracy, or finding missing people across the galaxies. The main missions involve lots of fighting, though, ridding the planets of the Geth and trying to put a stop to Saren’s plan. Shooting is a pretty typical endeavor–players can, depending on the class they choose at the game’s beginning, use a variety of weapons from shotguns to pistols to sniper rifles. Each weapon can be aimed for better accuracy, and upgrades on weapons and armor provide various damage effects and better defenses or in-the-field abilities.
Where the game brings in its action-RPG elements is in the Power Wheel. During combat, holding the R2 button will pause the game and bring up a variety of skills from each squadmate. For instance, Liara can use her biotic powers to throw enemies across the landscape, where Ashley can temporarily upgrade her damage output. Shepard gets different abilities depending on her class–for instance, I chose “Adept”, which let me have powers similar to Liara, from throwing enemies to weakening their shields. More abilities and better stats are unlocked through squad points, which are gained every time players level up by getting experience from quests and defeating enemies. It takes a little bit of getting used to. A friend of mine didn’t realize for the entire first two missions that you can aim while bringing up the Power Wheel, and the fact that the game pauses while selecting skills threw me off, having just come from Bioshock Infinite and its instant-cast vigors.
Honestly, the best thing about the combat for me was the game’s physics. With a few upgrades, my Shepard learned “Pull”, which allowed me to use biotics to suspend enemies in midair. Thanks to the ragdoll physics, I could make the Geth float up into space, shoot them, and then have them crash down several feet away or float even higher up over my head. Several missions include the use of the Mako, a space vehicle, and while the majority of them are massively frustrating due to the unwieldy controls in those segments, crashing into enemies and sending them flying was an absolute delight.
Graphically, the game’s not that impressive. It’s from 2007, though, and I didn’t expect a lot–between playing this and having seen screenshots of Mass Effect 3, it’s clear the graphics went through major upgrades. They aren’t bad by any means in this first installment, and several planets have downright gorgeous landscapes, but most of the characters land squarely in uncanny valley territory, especially when they look vaguely displeased while waiting for players to choose the next dialogue option. The glitchiness of this version doesn’t help things; there were times where Shepard would be talking to someone and their character would simply disappear, teammate AI will sometimes block Shepard in a corner, and occasionally she’d would just crumple to the ground even when I was under cover. Most of the mishaps were amusing at worst, including one time where Liara’s entire upper half glitched through a door, leaving me with a teammate and a half in an elevator. As I’ve only played the game on the Playstation 3, I can’t say if the glitches are present in the original release on the 360 or PC.
I’m already partway through Mass Effect 2, and even then, I’m finding myself having to resist the urge to go back through Mass Effect and finish all the sidequests I missed and see all the differences between the various paths and romance options.
Saving the universe has never been so addicting.
-Compelling characters with unique backstories
-Plenty of changes available for multiple replays
-Occasional graphical glitches
-Limited romance options for LGBTQ people
-Ragdoll physics limit the seriousness of the world at times
-Controls during the Mako missions are frustrating at best
Play it if: you’re looking for a massive world with unique characters, you want to experience a world in which you really feel like you’re making a difference, you’re into sci-fi, or you just want to kick some alien ass.
Mass Effect was completed as part of the Mass Effect Trilogy, available on Xbox 360, PS3 (reviewed), and PC, over the course of approximately 23 hours.