The First Mass Effect is a Great Game Not Just for its Time, But for All Time

The First Mass Effect is a Great Game Not Just for its Time, But for All Time

THE MASS EFFECT TRILOGY REVISITED: In the first of our three essays revisiting the Mass Effect trilogy, contributor Doc Burford makes an argument for the original game being the best.

"'Dilemma' doesn't begin to describe it," the ad declared. As advertisements go, it was simple, but something about it captured my imagination. The alien was cool and the tank was cooler; but for me, seeing all those stars with their S.O.S. and "signal lost" notifications sealed the deal. I had to buy this game and see what all the fuss was about. I had to play Mass Effect.

To me, this advertisement was a promise; each distress signal was a chance at adventure. Bioware promised over 32 stars and planets to explore, which sounded like a lot, especially a decade ago. Mass Effect delivered on that promise, the first in a series of ambitious, critically acclaimed space operas. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Mass Effect. Since its release in 2007, fans have moaned about the awkward combat, the quirky Mako tank, and the empty planets. "It was good for its time" is the common refrain, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mass Effect is a great game, not just for its time, but for all time.

Meeting Commander Shepard.

Mass Effect begins simply enough: create your character, pick out his or her background, press a button, and then watch a little scene where two characters talk about you. One of the greatest playwrights of all time, David Mamet, once argued that any scene where two characters talk about a third "is a crock of shit," but Mass Effect manages to avoid Mamet's criticism by making that third character you. More importantly, the conversation about you reflects the decisions you made immediately prior. "I am a game about choice," says Mass Effect.

One of the most frequent mistakes video game developers make is that they fail to provide the player sufficient motive. John Wick is a great movie because Wick has a strong motive for going after the bad guys: they killed the puppy that John's late wife gave him. If Wick just decided to kill some dudes one day, it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying. A great game understands the value of motive. Mass Effect is one of those games. That opening conversation isn't just showing you that your choices have consequences, it's also setting up expectations about the sort of person you are.

Immediately after this conversation, you—a soldier for the human Systems Alliance—find yourself on board the Normandy, a top-secret stealth ship on her maiden voyage to a human colony calling for human help. Mass Effect entices you with questions: why is this mission so important? Why is Nihlus, an alien operative known as a Spectre, on the ship? What's going on at Eden Prime, the human colony? Few motivators are as compelling as a question, and Mass Effect offers plenty, using your curiosity as a way to move forward.

Most games begin with a tedious tutorial level, teaching you how to do things like move, crouch, and shoot. Mass Effect chooses to let you soak in the atmosphere instead. You can wander around the Normandy, picking up urgent snippets of conversation. Talking to crewmembers only yields more questions than answers, and everyone points you to Captain Anderson, so off you go to find him.

Eden Prime is the least interesting level in the game, but it offers plenty of interesting questions.

The Captain sends you down to Eden Prime to recover a mysterious alien artifact. Unfortunately the colonists need your help because they're being attacked by evil robots. Eden Prime is also the game's combat training sequence, the least interesting part of the game. To counteract training tedium, Mass Effect alternates training sequences with the introduction of new questions, like "why are the robots turning humans into mechanical zombies?" and "what is that gigantic space ship doing?" and "why did another Spectre, Saren, show up and shoot Nihlus in the back of the head?"

All of these questions push you forward. After all, mission markers are important in helping you understand what to do, but Mass Effect capitalizes on your curiosity as the emotional reason to move forward. You're still playing because you want to, not because the game told you to.

Your excursion ends when you make contact with the alien artifact, which Saren was trying to destroy before he left. It gives you an apocalyptic vision before knocking you out. When you wake up, you're back on board the Normandy on your way to the Citadel to see the Council, which is basically just the United Nations for aliens.

Those aliens, the armor-plated Turians, the aquatic Asari, and the lizard-like Salarians, don't think much of humans. Saren is their James Bond, and now some upstart humans are telling everybody he's a traitor, which they don't take kindly to. There's a lot of talk about how humans need to prove themselves, both from the condescending aliens and the human politicians who have worked so hard to be recognized.

Characters like Nihlus are emblematic of humanity's position as an underdog in the Mass Effect universe.

The worst RPGs I've ever played make you some sort of chosen hero, destined to save the universe because it was foretold in some prophecy or something. There's no investment there, no emotion. If you're destined to succeed, then why make any effort? Even the later Mass Effect games suffered from this; one character literally describes Shepard as "a god" in a particularly-embarrassing Mass Effect 2 conversation.

Mass Effect positions you, as an individual and a human being, as the underdog. Everyone looks down on you. Not only do you have questions that need to be answered, you also have everything to prove. It's a potent cocktail of motivations.

This is the point where most games would dump you back into combat, but not Mass Effect. It's a smarter, more patient game than that. For the time being, you're stuck on the Citadel, trying to find evidence to take Saren down. Every Mass Effect game features the Citadel in some way, but the first game has my favorite iteration. This Citadel is huge, featuring spaces of vast emptiness that convey the Citadel's scale in a way later games never did.

Mass Effect is rich with memorable characters and locations. The wealthy Presidium district is home to bankers and ambassadors, while the Wards house a casino, a shady nightclub, a free clinic, and some shops. In the Presidium, you'll encounter characters like Barla Von, a financier and agent of the mysterious Shadow Broker, or Sha'ira, an Asari consort who has the ears of the rich and powerful. You'll find shadier characters in the Ward, like Schells, an alien who is trying to cheat at gambling, or Harkin, a corrupt cop.

Mass Effect positions you, as an individual and a human being, as the underdog. Everyone looks down on you. Not only do you have questions that need to be answered, you also have everything to prove. It's a potent cocktail of motivations.

You can explore the Citadel for hours, completing a wide variety of assignments for the game's many characters. One moment, you might find yourself obtaining a permit for a floating psychic squid preacher, and the next you might be taking down a crime lord to help an up-and-coming journalist. Mass Effect offers so much to do, and it's content to let you soak up the world and atmosphere before it really begins.

When you're ready, you return to the Council with proof of Saren's wrongdoing. They are reluctant to admit that he may have gone rogue, but decide to make you the first human Spectre, burdened with the responsibility that comes with the position. We have progressed from "you have to prove yourself" to "don't screw this up, Shepard."

Mass Effect is really good at upping the ante. Most games, even Bioware titles, work like this: some big tragedy happens, a world-ending threat is revealed, and you, the world's greatest hero, must conduct a lot of busywork if you want to prevent it. Mass Effect is more gradual and organic. As you become a Spectre, it feels like all of humankind is depending on you, not to save them from some cosmic threat, but to simply prove that humans deserve to be seen as equals. The cosmic horror stuff comes later.

Captain Anderson seals the deal by giving you control over the Normandy, the most advanced ship in humanity's fleet. Time to find out what Saren's up to. With the Normandy at your disposal, the entire galaxy is yours to explore. Fly to any star system, visit any planet, and take on even more dangerous assignments. As you explore, you'll discover so much to see and do.

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Quest design is hard for even the most seasoned of game developers; even gigantic studios with dozens of shipped titles still manage to deliver boring, rote missions. Too many games feature quest design where players are tasked with locating something and delivering it somewhere. These fetch quests are dull and unmemorable, and even Bioware itself has featured them prominently in their games.

Mass Effect tries for something more. In one mission, Admiral Hackett, from the Systems Alliance, contacts you about a potential embarrassment: a nuclear device, hastily launched during humanity's first contact with the aliens, has just activated in Citadel-controlled space. He wants you to discreetly shut it down before the council finds out. This ties in with the "humanity has to prove itself" theme, and in particular, the burden placed on you as the first human Spectre.

When you find the bomb, you are attacked—it turns out the bomb was a trap set for you. Some pirates with a score to settle sent out the signal, knowing you were nearby and the Alliance would ask you to defuse it. They try to detonate the bomb, assassinating you, but you can defuse it and take them down. Mechanically, it's a simple quest: go somewhere, press some buttons, and shoot some dudes. Bioware's brilliance is in the way they change the narrative context.

Other memorable quests involve tracking down a hacker that turns out to be a rogue AI, talking down a group of angry psychic soldiers after they take civilians hostage, and finding a cow that tries to steal all of your money. So many of Bioware's quests here are great, and the game presents a plethora of ways to deal with them. You could deliver some contraband for a mission, treating it like a fetch quest, or you could take the contraband to the authorities. Or you could bypass the middle man and sell it to the original buyer. Each of these choices will have a different outcome.

Mass Effect's combat feels admittedly clumsy by modern standards, but it doesn't detract from its other qualities.

Mass Effect rarely offers a quest without subverting expectations or offering some kind of interesting twist to the formula. One mission in the game uses the clichéd "kill lots of beasts to find a specific piece of loot" objective, but doing so raises your Renegade score. If you're hoping to play as a heroic Paragon instead, you'll have to do something other than rely on RPG quest design clichés. This kind of clever mission design feels so fresh, even now, that I stopped playing everything I'm playing now, even Horizon: Zero Dawn, to go back through Mass Effect.

It's not a perfect game, mind you. Modern third-person shooters feature things like hit markers, sticky aim, and "hold your breath to steady your sniper rifle" mechanics. Mass Effect lacks many modern conveniences; and some mechanics, like its cover system, seem incredibly dated. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Casablanca may be an old movie, limited by lighting and film stock technology of the day, but it's still a great movie. Mass Effect is the same way: it's dated in some ways, but still enjoyable as heck, and even features some great ideas that I wish newer games would steal.

Consider the gun mods: I've played plenty of games with gun mods, but these mods rarely have an appreciable impact on a gun's performance. Mass Effect offers a plethora of modifications; rather than a 1% increase here or a +2 bonus there, it gives you shredder rounds with a 25% bonus towards fleshy enemies, or +90 shields. By the end of the game, I had built an Infiltrator that could take two direct rounds from a mighty Geth Colossus, with perfect aim and massive damage bonuses against whatever I was facing that particular encounter.

This freedom of choice was combined with a genuine sense of progression: I've played plenty of games where enemy power keeps up with player power and the difficulty curve never changes. Mass Effect actually let me feel like I was growing, becoming the awesome Spectre I had worked so hard to become. It is one of the only games with a progression system where I felt like I was becoming increasingly powerful.

Another cool system is the game's use of physics. In most games, if you run into an enemy player, nothing will happen. At best, you'll knock them back. Mass Effect brings physics into the equation. Hit an enemy hard enough and he'll fall over, crumpling into a heap. It's not just knockback—he'll literally fall over and have to stand back up. Earlier, I found myself facing off against a bunch of enemy drones. With one punch, I knocked a few over and mopped them up with my shotgun. It felt great! I wish more shooters had that kind of physicality.

Across the universe.

Eventually, you'll have to get back to the main quest. Bioware is wonderful with its breadcrumbs, especially in Mass Effect. So many games, even The Witcher 3, one of my favorite games, give you some kind of overarching goal and then a lot of busywork to actually get there. Not Mass Effect. When you get to Feros, one of the planets in the main quest, you're immediately tasked with holding back a robotic invasion. Once you've beaten the robots back, it seems like there's time for a breather. You're even given a series of deceptively-simple fetch quests like "find power cells" or "kill monsters for meat."

Feros is unique in that these quests are all stereotypical RPG fare and it has more of these than any other locations in the game, but that's because Bioware is just waiting to subvert them. The quests are extremely easy to complete, posing no challenge at all. They exist to lure you into a false sense of security; here is the most comfortable, traditional quest you could possibly encounter. As you explore the tunnels, you'll run into a character, Ian, who hints that the colony is being mind-controlled.

Mass Effect could take the generic RPG route and let you get bored with stereotypical fetch quests. Instead, it pokes fun at them, then adds a new wrinkle to the narrative. As you explore, this narrative unfolds in surprising ways. Noveria, the other major location in the game, unfolds in a completely different but equally surprising way.

Your companions are hugely important as well. Plenty of games have companions, but not many feature characters as interesting as Mass Effect's. Take Ashley, for instance. She's often mischaracterized as a racist. This is inaccurate; she's a soldier who doesn't think non-military personnel should have access to military secrets, and, having been trained her whole life to fight aliens, she's initially distrustful of them. Throughout the course of the game, she warms up to them, in part thanks to your conversations.

Another companion is Garrus, a mentally unstable Turian who once ordered the deaths of dozens of civilians in a misguided attempt to stop a single fugitive. Years later, he still hasn't realized that ordering the deaths of civilians to stop one man is wrong. He idolizes the Spectres because he loves the idea of being a thug with no rules. He says he wants to do good, but so does Dirty Harry, and he's a maniac. Shepard has the option to call him a terrorist with a badge, which he is. Despite being a horrible fascist, Garrus can be redeemed. The more missions you to together, the more he matures, realizing that his whole Punisher routine is the wrong thing to do.

Then there's the Mako.

In Mass Effect 2, this character growth is thrown out the window so Garrus can be an edgy Space Punisher who thinks he's Batman. Other RPGs, even Mass Effect 2, use characters as simplistic info dumps, rather than actual characters. Any growth comes in the form of a single mission. "Shoot someone in the face and win my undying love," the characters proclaim. Mass Effect is more sophisticated, emphasizing relationship-building. Who you choose to be in the game directly influences who your friends will become. So much of Mass Effect's greatness comes from patience: you have to be converse with its characters frequently.

Then there's the Mako.

I'll be the first to admit that the Mako is a weird, messy tank that explores mostly barren, dull worlds, but it is also one of my favorite single things in a video game. Mass Effect is a game that promises a lot. That first ad, which featured a galaxy of S.O.S. and a crew of three folks standing around the Mako, promised a galaxy to explore.

The problem with most space games is that they're too empty. Everyone I know who's picked up something like Elite Dangerous or No Man's Sky, all starry-eyed at the prospect of an entire galaxy to explore, has come back bored. Space is big, and in that bigness, there's an awful lot of nothing. On the flipside, some games have tried to offer so much gameplay diversity that they end up being dissatisfying—one "planet" in Mass Effect 2 was just a platform with a single puzzle to solve. Another simply involved walking through the ultra-linear remains of a space ship until you found a terminal and pressed a button. It isn't compelling or fun.

With Mass Effect, you have the Mako. Sometimes, you find interesting things on a planet; maybe a compound of religious fanatics or a space cow that tries to steal all your money. Other times, you find barren worlds, with nothing more than empty wreckage, infuriating hills to climb, and some natural resources to claim.

That's the beauty of it. Mass Effect offers just enough nothing to make the substantial stuff feel so much more substantial. Sure, the planets feel half-finished, with frustrating, unrealistic mountains for the Mako to climb. But wow, sometimes just cruising through a valley on a distant planet while looking around at the magnificent desolation of these worlds is enough. When you do find things, it's thrilling. Bioware gives you just enough boredom to make discovery still feel like discovery.

Some players may feel frustrated at the number of recycled assets in Mass Effect's world. I was one of them. Over time, my opinion softened; it made sense that colonies on distant worlds would feature prefabricated structures. Recycling assets made them feel mass-produced and sterile, giving the world a character of its own.

The art direction on the whole is amazing: Noveria's brutalist, hard-edged concrete and zen gardens are beautiful. Feros' magnificent, war-torn sky bridge is a wonder to behold, floating above the clouds, illuminated by tracer fire. The Citadel, with its broad, upward-flowing horizon looks like something out of a 1970s science book, back when humanity was still enthusiastic about space exploration. Mass Effect attempts to evoke this late-70s, early-80s sci-fi vibe by borrowing heavily from the art of famed sci-fi and industrial artist Syd Mead. One graphics option attempts to replicate film grain, to varying degrees of success.

Individual props look like they're taken from sci-fi movies of the era; one model in particular has these nice, soft curves that feel like they're taken from the set of Alien. The probes look like they're from early Star Trek episodes.

The soundtrack is fascinating too—sci-fi games now tend to borrow inspiration from Hans Zimmer and Tron: Legacy, which is great, but Mass Effect's soundtrack is something else. With its heavy, almost exclusive use of quiet synths, Mass Effect sounds more like Vangelis than anything else, but it still has a presence all of its own. As soon as I hear the opening chords of Wall and Hulick's Mass Effect Theme, I'm back there, in the Normandy, exploring the galaxy with my crew.

Mass Effect builds to an amazing conclusion. You, the underdog human, against Saren, the golden boy of the Council, who is being mind-controlled by an ancient alien, Sovereign, that has been masquerading as his ship. You fight your way through a dead alien world, teleporting into the Citadel, which is actually a giant beacon meant to summon Sovereign's friends from their deep slumber. By slowly building up to this galaxy-destroying threat, Mass Effect's conclusion has a lot more weight. Everything you've earned will be all for nothing if you don't stop Sovereign. What you do here matters.

Mass Effect features a galaxy to explore, urging players onward by making them an underdog with a mystery to solve. Its gameplay mechanics are interesting and worth revisiting. The way Bioware deftly subverts so many quest design clichés is something every quest designer should learn from. Mass Effect is a patient game too; it lets you spend time on the Normandy, isn't afraid to hide the nuances of its characters behind a half a dozen conversations. The world-ending threat isn't introduced until the end of the game.

Yes, Mass Effect has aged. Yes, it's derivative sci-fi. Yes, there are better RPGs. But it's a great and special game, and it's done incredible things that, to this day, have never been matched. By being patient and giving players an emotional reason to always keep moving forward, Bioware delivered one of the strongest adventures I've ever had the pleasure of playing. When I booted up Mass Effect in preparation for this piece, I was hoping to capture some screenshots and familiarize myself with some of the systems. Now I've put everything else on hold so I could finish it for the third time. Mass Effect delivered on its promise. "Great" doesn't even begin to describe it.

Screenshots courtesy of MobyGames.

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