Mass Effect Trilogy Part 1
The Mass Effect Trilogy - Part 1
With the recent release of the Mass Effect Trilogy, not only have I had a craving to revisit the series, but I was also surprised when I found out how many people I know who haven’t experienced the epic Space Opera. When asked “Why?”, the most common response was “…I just haven’t gotten around to it”.
I was the same.
I had bought the original Mass Effect in January 2011 with the best intentions, but only managed to play it for a few hours. It got a little tedious and felt dated, so I stopped. Then around September/October, there was a lot of hype surrounding the upcoming Mass Effect 3. The Red Barrel Radio Podcast crew were talking their heads off about how good the series was, reminiscing so fondly about their favourite characters and the hard choices they had made. Throw in a few amazing teaser trailers and I was convinced I was missing out on something huge. So, I bit the bullet and just played the damn thing.
It was the start of a game-changing journey for me. In the next few months, I would grow to revere the N7 logo, laugh when Mordin Solus would think out loud (even more when he sang!), harbor deep respect for Garrus Vakarian, punch reporters in the face for trying to trap me in an interview, love the Normandy and feel personally responsible for her crew. I would finally understand what people meant when they would say “I’m Commander Shepard and this is my favourite store on the Citadel”. If you’ve never played Mass Effect, the things I said will mean nothing to you, but if you decide to join the legion of fans and experience the epic tale, you will look back at this section of the article, smile knowingly and nod in agreement.
In this spoiler-free article, I’m going to take a look at each game in the series and let you know what you should expect from the story and the gameplay. I’ll also address some of the questions you will want to ask before starting this long journey: Does Mass Effect stand up to modern games? Is Mass Effect 2 just an action game disguised as an RPG? Did Mass Effect 3‘s ending really cause the death of 600 Labrador puppies? Read on to find out all you need to convince you to play this series. Although I can tell you now, the Labrador death-toll was in the low 200′s. Acceptable.
Mass Effect (2007)
First off, I have to mention that your character has a voice! It’s pretty standard in a lot of RPG’s nowadays, but it was a big thing for people used to traditional non-talking RPG experiences. Which was pretty much every RPG ever made. It got tiresome after a while. The fully voice-acted Commander Shepard allows you to connect with the character a lot more, which is an essential part of the experience.
The start of the game is a bit of a slow-burn, like most RPG’s produced around that time. The intro is long and full of dialogue, but you jump into some action eventually and the story really starts to lay its foundations. The combat system was like nothing I’d played with before in an RPG, favouring 3rd person shooter mechanics over the more traditional “Press attack button. Fire burst. Weapon proficiency + Character level = chance to hit. Repeat.” I felt like I had so much more control over the action sequences.
The game slows down again as you travel to the galactic hub of organic life, The Citadel. Whilst not lacking in culture or things to click on that fill up your in-game information journal with long-winded descriptions, it starts to show its age with long loading times poorly disguised with elevator rides to upper/lower levels of the space station and large areas containing nothing and switch back walkways purely to give the feeling of scale. It was at this point that I put the game down originally after getting overwhelmed by the quantity of quests that I picked up, the amount of story being jammed into my brain and the dated feeling of major set pieces.
It’s only after completing a few main story missions on The Citadel that the story shifts into the next gear and really starts to get exciting. Suddenly, I was given the highest galactic authority as a Council Spectre and was tasked with chasing a traitor across the galaxy. As I travelled and followed leads, the crew on my ship began to swell with colourful characters that had their own reasons for helping out. They all had reason to be there, they weren’t just tagging along because that’s what happens in games (right?). The closer I got to tracking down the traitor; more layers were revealed, showing the true threat to the galaxy. Something much bigger was in the works and I was the only one who had the power and the will to stop it from happening.
Shepard and “Joker” – the pilot of the SSV Normandy
Woven throughout the engrossing story is a feature that greatly attributed to the success of the series – decisions. Some might seem insignificant, but will bite you in the ass at a later date if you made a bad call. Other choices are huge and a couple of them had me staring at my options on-screen for a few minutes. A game hadn’t really forced me to do that before; they were life or death decisions. As the Commander of your ship, you have to make choices that affect the livelihood of your crew. As a Spectre, fighting for the safety of galactic civilization, you have to make choices that affect the whole galaxy.
Along with these decisions comes a Paragon/Renegade meter. Basically, Light side or Dark side. This affects people’s opinions of you and allows extra options in conversation. Paragon choices feel good a lot of the time, but sometimes, just when the gamer in you starts to take over, choosing every “good” option to get the highest rating, you’re confronted with a difficult one. Gamer says “Yep. Choose that one!”, but the real you says “Do I actually agree with that choice? I don’t think I do…”. Sometimes, the decisions you make aren’t black and white like they have been in games of the past (most notably, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where Light side was an angel, always doing the right thing and Dark side was a demon, always being an evil bastard). I found myself gritting my teeth and choosing what I felt was right, not what my inner gamer told me to.
When I realised that I was doing this, I knew that I was onto something really special. I felt a connection to the characters like I had never experienced in a game before. Sure, I’ve had my favourite characters in the past like Snake, Mario, Leon Kennedy, Chad Muska in THPS3 … but I’d never had an actual emotional connection to any of them (except Snake at the end of MGS3, that shit was real).
The infamous “Mako”
For all of its glory, there are some truly boring and repetitive sections of the game. These mostly come in the form of side-missions that you pick up through scanning various planets from orbit to find resources and mission items. Buildings are recycled so much, it feels like Bioware only had one person working on it and the objectives are often un-inspiring. This is pretty standard fare for most games, but you kind of expect something more important after getting involved in the main story so heavily. Driving the “Mako” ground vehicle around on alien planets you have scanned is a laugh, due to its awful handling and ridiculous capabilities, such as being to drive up almost vertical obstacles. While it can get pretty damn boring driving around these sparsely populated environments, there is a real feeling of frontier exploration behind it. It gives a sense of scale to the galaxy.
There is a very basic cover system that some modern 3rd person shooter fans might find hard to swallow, but if you don’t know what you’re missing, then it works just fine. Indeed, after a few hours, you don’t even notice it. Squad intelligence, however, is severely lacking, causing quite a few frustrating deaths due to their stupidity and the outdated method of having the action pause to tell them where to move or what powers to use. You eventually learn to counter this by becoming a one-man (or woman) army and leaving your allies to their own devices while you destroy everything.
The inventory system has copped a lot of flak too, although I played Mass Effect on PC and it wasn’t too bad. I’ve heard that it’s very counter-intuitive on consoles, which must be a little scary; the amount of loot you pick up is absolutely ridiculous. By the end of my game, I had more than 4 million credits and the best gear for my entire crew. Picking up loot became a waste of time for me.
Like other games in the past, you’ll learn to tolerate the annoying things like those mentioned above, because the payoff is worth it. If you don’t, well, read on for the second entry in the series, where they addressed all of these things and more.
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
The improvements made to the series are almost too numerous to mention. Bioware took on board suggestions from fans, critics and internal staff and addressed pretty much everything that was wrong with the first game and improved the things that made it great. They set out to “create an experience that was less about being a game and more about being an experience.”
And boy, did they get it right.
A much cleaner HUD and tighter view during combat
The game was re-designed to draw in new players. You could quite easily grab this one without having played the first game and enjoy it as a stand-alone title. In the first ten minutes, the changes slap you in the face. The combat system is the first thing you’ll notice. The game feels so much like a 3rd person shooter, you’ll remember playing the first game and laugh at how foolish you were for putting up with what you will now call “clunky” controls and mechanics. The cover system is vastly improved, you can direct your squad’s movements on the fly and ammunition is introduced to all of your weapons, replacing the “Fire until it overheats” mechanic.
Paragon/Renegade decisions are now also integrated into “real-time”, in that often while you are interacting with other characters, you have the chance to interrupt whatever they are saying or doing with a Paragon or Renegade action. The options will flash on-screen at the appropriate time, giving you a few seconds to react. Do you take the easy way out and choose Renegade, or do you keep on talking and make the Paragon call at the right time? It really gives you a feel for Shepard’s personality outside of having conversations and keeps you paying attention, lest you accidentally miss the button-press for pushing someone out of the way of incoming gun fire.
Right-click to intervene this cutscene with a Paragon Action. The choice is yours.
Gone are the Mako driving sections on unexplored planets. Instead, you scan planets for resources, which you use to research upgrades for your weapons, armour, squad mates and ship. Occasionally, you’ll receive a distress signal from one of these planets and you can land to investigate, which results in a short mission for some extra XP and credits. Whilst the exploration process has been streamlined, there is something to be said for all of the different worlds and environments you got to drive around and explore in the first Mass Effect. Even if there was nothing in them. The sense of scale is notably absent, although, the change will allow you to retain valuable hours of your life for wasting on other things.
Instead of lugging around an inventory full of every known weapon in the galaxy, hundreds of equipment upgrades and armor, each of the characters has default weapons that their class can use. Sometimes, there is a superior weapon available, but this is selected either on the Normandy, or before each mission starts with a few easy clicks. Hardcore RPG fans might scoff at this extremely simplified system; indeed, I did at first, but it actually allows you to focus on the experience of playing the game, rather than getting lost in piles of loot.
Mass Effect 2 feels a lot more cinematic.
The story picks up two years after the events of Mass Effect and due to some unexpected events in the prologue, the crew of the Normandy are now living all over the Galaxy. You are assigned a new and improved ship and (some) new crew members to tackle the newest danger in the galaxy. Whilst the Reapers are still a real threat, a more immediate one has manifested in the form of “The Collectors”, who like to collect things. More specifically, they like to collect humans. They have been launching Blitzkrieg attacks on human colony worlds and clearing them out before anyone has time to react. Of course, being the savior of the galaxy, it’s up to Shepard to sort it all out. The Citadel, nor The Systems Alliance are doing anything about the Collector attacks or the Reapers, so in steps a mysterious figure, “The Illusive Man”, who sits at the head of a pro-human organization that funds your entire operation.
One of the series’ best characters – The Illusive Man, superbly voiced by Martin Sheen.
One of the first things you do is fly around and get your squad together, which is a mix of old faces and memorable new ones. After getting all of your available allies, you then have the option to gain their loyalty by helping them out with some of their problems that may be distracting them from the main mission, which is a pretty serious thing, as the whole game is based around the fact that your ultimate goal to stop the Collectors is a suicide mission. Loyalty missions are a lot of fun and they really help your relationship grow with each of the characters. Even if you don’t really like them, or don’t use them much, these personal interactions with them helps you understand their motivation and what has brought them to this point in their lives. It gives a human feel to them and you truly build an emotional connection.
I didn’t realise how much of an effect this great sequel had on me until I went back and played it again recently. The climax of the game is truly different to anything I’d played before; the decisions you make can have a huge effect on how things turn out. The only way you can really understand how awesome it is, is to play it.
I’ve just been showing “Default Female Shepard”, so here’s some “Default Male Shepard” for you. He’s the one you’ll see on pretty much every piece of marketing (prior to Mass Effect 3)
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my look at the Mass Effect series, where I will tell all (spoiler-free of course!) about Mass Effect 3 and offer my final thoughts on not only the final chapter in the epic series, but also the trilogy itself and the impact it’s had on me.
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