The game begins with a character customization scene. A strangely intricate one, too, but not for the reasons you think. Yes, you pick your class and background here, but that all takes a backseat to the incredibly detailed facial construction feature. And therein lies this game's first major problem; when your developers put this much thought into detailing every single insignificant feature of your avatar's face in a game genre where the camera is oriented behind your character's head roughly 75% of the time, and it gets that much more attention than the alleged Role Playing Game element (which boils down to all of two menu choices), it doesn't really speak well to the design team's priorities.
As for your character's back story (ha ha), you get one of three choices. That's it. You literally just pick it from a menu and then go with it, and the only effect it has on anything is the occasional throwaway line of dialog. You know how this could have been handled better? Have something like a practical version of the GOAT from Fallout 3, where your actions during the mission become famous throughout the galaxy and your subsequent reactions to them determine how others look at you throughout the game. Or if that's too much work, just have a linear opening mission that shows how Shepherd became what he is today and have his reaction to it be entirely up to the player, Deus Ex style. Either one of those would be more effective in helping the player get invested in the narrative, and it would also avoid breaking the cardinal rule of show, don't tell.
Spoony: Then again, Bioware was always staffed by mediocre writers whose "stories" consist of little more than flimsy excuses to put more enemies in the player's path every ten seconds. The only difference is that, unlike in the era of Baldur's Gate 2, they don't even have a decent game engine to hide it behind anymore...
Anyway, after spending roughly 3 seconds developing my character's origins and 38 minutes hitting the "randomize features" button to make him look as freakish as possible:
...we begin the opening mission. We get dropped off on some planet to pursue a machine race called the Geth, who are apparently the robotic equivalent of Vlad Tepes or something as they impale everyone they kill on big metal poles that turn them into cyborgs. ...I'm sure that sounded cool to somebody at some point, but it just comes off as silly in the final game. Oh, and we get two squadmates: Whats-her-name and a mostly silent guy named "Jenkins." I'm sure nothing bad will happen to him!
Spoony: And this is why you don't include internet memes in your games, especially on big budget releases like this one - the joke is run into the ground long before it ever gets released.
Jenkins runs headlong into danger and gets killed within seconds (what a shock) and we continue on alone, shooting a few generic robots and having an extremely drawn out conversation with a guy who fell asleep behind some crates (StC: 19 seconds). It's also about here we start to encounter a major problem with the game: the ungodly dry, boring dialog they use to fill up runtime. None of the scenes feel well-staged, with everyone just standing in a little circle and yammering while the camera randomly cuts between 400 different angles for absolutely no reason, and none of the actors (voice acting or motion captured alike) attempt to look or sound even the slightest bit interested. And in a genre where character interaction is a good 50-75% of the experience the game sells itself upon, this is pretty much unforgivable.
Spoony: Did I mention this series was inspired by Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within? Because the similarities are certainly obvious. It looks good (well, as good as computers and a lack of imagination can make something look, at least), but it's just ungodly dull, droning, science fantasy nonsense from the mind of someone who clearly should have just stuck to his executive duties and left the scripting and direction to someone with actual talent in those fields...
After a small novel about that dull crap, we get a cutscene between two of the bug-alien guys, one of whom shows himself to be evil as he shoots the other guy in the back. Unfortunately they can't even set up a villain right as we have absolutely no context for who either of these two are, why they're here or why we should care about either of them, and the surprise twist of the scene is given away the instant you read the one character's name: Nihlus. Nihlus. If you're going to be that unsubtle, you might as well have just named him "Bad Guy Jones". Though I suppose I can damn them with faint praise and say that at least they didn't give him giant hair antlers and bulging forehead veins. Plus if they'd named him "Nilbog" I could at least make a "the reapers are going to eat ME! OH MY GOOOOOOOD!" joke...
Spoony: I've rambled about this before in my Dragon Age 2 nutshell, but I think it needs to be addressed again. The plot is technically filled in to this point, but only if you stop the game, bring up the pause menu, and choose to view the game's built-in encyclopedia that explains all of the characters, alien races, planets and story events that brought us to the present day. As I've said, this is a completely wrong-headed way to go about establishing a game universe. If you want me to give a damn about your story, then show it to me in the narrative; don't make me interrupt the narrative so I can thumb through 40+ pages of droning text to get caught up on what the hell everyone is talking about. It's lazy, it's boring, and it's another big violation of the show don't tell principle.
Oh, and if you want an example of how to establish a deep game universe done well, pick up Fallout or Fallout 2. As you're exploring, you find text logs that fill in the plot from the perspectives of characters that existed in the Fallout universe and had hands-on experience with thinks like the FEV virus, the Super Mutants, and the big villains long before you did, and they effectively offer some insight into their workings without reading like a dry Wikipedia article. Of course, it also doesn't hurt that Black Isle (now Obsidian) has some very talented writers on staff who know how to make a captivating narrative and fun dialog peppered with clever humor. Instead of, say, wasting 15 minutes talking about crates.
We eventually come to the spaceport just in time to see Nihilanth's spaceship take off, and we're stuck fighting more Geth in long, narrow hallways with little to no cover, which gets to be pretty frustrating after only a few minutes. Moreso because when you take too much damage, you get stunned for a very long time and can't return fire or even use healing items to patch yourself up; you just have to hide in a corner for roughly a full minute before Shepherd catches his breath and you can continue the fight. And while I'm no fan of the regenerating health mechanic in shooters, this definitely feels like it could have been better handled.
Also not helping matters is the game's somewhat asinine weapon system. I picked a Sniper, which apparently means that I'm moderately skilled with pistols and specialize in long-ranged rifles. Makes sense. Yet at the start, you're given four weapon types (also including a machine gun and a shotgun) and you must have all four types equipped at all times, regardless of your character's class. Why do I have to carry two extra weapons around when I can't use them well and, in fact, will never earn a skill that even allows me to use them remotely effectively? It's a minor point, but it does strike me as another element of lazy design.
Less excusable, though, is the fact that I have to dump roughly twenty skill points into Sniping before said weapons become even remotely usable; any less than that and your aim drunkenly wobbles all over the place, making it nearly impossible to hit anything and forcing me to use my Pistol for the first ten hours or so of the game...
At any rate, we fight the last of the cyberdoofs and come to a pillar, which Shepherd touches, gets a trippy vision of the future from, and then it explodes (GWAAAAAAR!). Then we're off to the Useless Council to get debriefed and told about how Nihilo has gone rogue and the central government is powerless to stop him because, being a Spectre agent, he's basically got diplomatic immunity extending across the entire universe.
Shepherd: Couldn't you just suspend his Spectre access pending an investigation or something?
Keith David, Slumming for a Paycheck: Nope, Spectres are totally off the grid. They're completely untraceable, have limitless access to military tech and have a license to kill indiscriminately and without repercussion. The only one who can stop them is another Spectre.
Spoony: Gee, it's almost like history has repeatedly proven that giving anyone unlimited power over life and death and unrestricted access to military resources is a bad idea, or something!
Shepherd; Fine, I'll stop him. Whatever. Not like this game's going to give me any actual choice in the matter.
Keith David, Slumming for a Paycheck: Good.
Shepherd: It's cool if I act like a complete dickhead every step of the way, right?
Keith David, Slumming for a Paycheck: If that helps give you the illusion that this game has any choices in it that actually matter, then sure.
Spoony: And that leads into my other big gripe with modern RPGs in general - the fact that "freedom of choice" and "morality" consist of approximately zero shades of gray. Instead, they fall under two opposite extremes that ultimately have little to no outcome on how events unfold anyway (not even garnering an alternate line of dialog from NPCs 80% of the time). It's almost farcical in Mass Effect's case as well - every dialog scene lets you be either stoic or snippy, with both adding to a meter on your status screen. Once it hits certain levels, it lets you unlock new dialog options at specific junctures, like choosing to spare someone's life (Paragon!) or shoot them (Renegade!). It doesn't feel immersive or realistic in the slightest, just shoehorned and - gasp - lazy!
Oh, and most of the big "moral choices" have no far-reaching impact either, as we'll see momentarily.
Then we meet the blue alien chick, who is apparently one of Shepherd's romantic interests regardless of gender. Not because there's any actual chemistry between them, mind you, as their interactions are just as wooden as those of any other characters in this game. Nope, it's just cheap pandering to the pro-LBGTQRBRRBIRBEL crowd, as well as a convenient excuse to dismiss people who criticize the game as "homophobes" and the overwhelming negative reaction to its horribly rushed third chapter and copout ending as a "conspiracy" by ultra-conservative bigots to discredit poor innocent EA. And yes, I know people who were actually dumb enough to eat that load of crap up and probably swear to this day that I'm a homophobic asshole because I saw it for the farce that it was and didn't hesitate to speak my mind on the subject. Just because you say you're pro-gay/trans/whatever doesn't mean you're some infallible force for good or that your critics are "bigots" for speaking out against you for any reason, so kindly drop the narcissism already.
Spoony: You can window-dress it all you want, but it's blatantly clear to me that this is just a sleazy way to earn a few more sales by shoehorning some cheap T&A and lazy political pandering into the game. This is especially evident because none of the game's characters have the slightest bit of depth beyond their sexuality, and completely ignores the fact that there's plenty of porn to be found on the internet for free. But oh, that's right, doing that will cause you to miss out on scoring that achievement on your gamer profile and proving you're a manly man to all of your twelve-year-old buddies on Xbox Live. Blech. Not to mention that, as I've also stated many times, buying video games to further your political views - especially leftist ones - is ineffective and stupid, because the overwhelming majority of your money is going right into the pockets of the rich conservatives who run the multi-billion dollar corporations Electronic Arts, Microsoft and Sony. I'm pretty sure Pepsico's board of directors gets a cut too for all those junk food products you bought to get discounts on DLC and merchandise, to say nothing of the companies that produced said merchandise, the owner of the factory that stamped out the disc you bought, the owner of the other factory that created the case said disc came in, the printing company that printed the case insert and manual, and the company that shipped copies of the game to the tax-dodging, minimum-wage-paying big box retail chain you bought it from. So for every "vote" you and yours have cast for equality by buying a big budget video game, its corporate stakeholders have probably bought at least three actual votes by financing the campaigns of an opposing conservative politician using the salaries you paid them. They, in turn, have gone in to pass massive tax breaks for themselves and their corporate backers, keep minimum wages well below the poverty line, bust up unions, legalize 100+ hour working weeks, disenfranchise millions of voters and pass law after law taking away the freedoms of those you claim to support, all while feeding you a convenient narrative to let you pretend you're a fearless superhero for the oppressed when the sad truth is that you're just an easy mark. Way to stick it to the man, progressives! (These are probably also the same people who think that buying Rage Against the Machine's terrible music and $40 T-shirts is funding some great political revolution when all they're really doing is funding Zack de la Rocha's new yacht...)
But I digress.
Shepherd: So, Whats-her-name, what's your story? Tell me about yourself.
Whats-her-name: Not now.
Whats-her-name: Concentrate on the Geth!
Shepherd: This entire planet is completely empty of Geth. We're safe.
Whats-her-name: Not now.
Shepherd: Do I need to check the codex just to learn basic facts about my own squadmates, too, so I maybe, hopefully have some reason to care when they throw themselves into a sure-death situation to save my life? [OOPS, SPOILER]
Whats-her-name: Concentrate on the Geth!
Shepherd: ...I'll take that as a yes.
Moving on, now we get access to our own ship and pretty much have free reign to do missions in any order we choose now. As with most things in the game, though, a lot of them are very generic and forgettable. You walk down a corridor, get into repetitive gunfights, do some laughably trite puzzles to open doors (including a dopey lockpicking minigame and dragging out the Towers of Hanoi for the umpteenth time*), have some wooden small talk with another NPC, then move on. The only one that showed a bit of promise was the one with the Rachni, an insectoid race that was a massive scourge to the galaxy at one point and threatens to be so again under Nimbostratus's watch. This leads to one of the few potentially interesting dilemmas in the game: you can either spare their their last queen and allow their species to repopulate (albeit with a new outlook on coexistence with other races), or you can just finish them off and purge the galaxy of their threat once and for all. But what's the end result of the former option? ...They never get mentioned again until the third game, at which point they just go evil and you kill them off again. Which would be fine if you were trying to set up a nihilistic tone to the whole series, but that's not what you promised your fans, now is it Bioware?
*Oh, and if it's too tough, you can just pay some Omni-gel and skip it. I hate to be a gatekeeper to anyone else's gaming experience, but... come on. If you're going to play a genre of games that relies heavily on its cerebral aspect (when more talented companies do them, anyway), you can at least learn how to properly complete a logic puzzle from the 1800s...
Along the way we also meet a dinosaur-looking guy named Wrex (get it? GET IT?!) and get introduced to a particularly horrible mechanic in the form of vehicular combat. Wherein you still go down a linear, sterile metal corridor fighting enemies, but now have to do it in a vehicle that has ridiculously sensitive steering and shields that regenerate at a rate of approximately 1% every three years. They're quite an ordeal to get through... at least until you figure out that you can instantly top off the car's shields by doing a quicksave and then reloading, at which point these segments become laughably easy. Incredibly long and boring, but easy nevertheless.
At one point, we're also told that Nihilexlax is planning to resurrect Wrex's dying (check the codex, since he never mentions this and I don't recall any dialog even hinting at it) race for his own nefarious purposes, at which point he immediately goes turncoat against Shepherd and you're given the choice to either shoot him dead on the spot or convince him to stand down because Noodlesocks clearly doesn't have any noble intentions in mind for them anyway. Unfortunately for me, I didn't have enough brownie points with random NPCs for the former option, so I had no choice but to pick option A.
Spoony: Oh no, not a party member I had no particular attachment to and whom I never once used anyway! Oh, the humanity!
Seriously though, this Paragon/Renegade mechanic is fucking lame. I can get not helping the insect race even if you're going for a "good guy" character since they were allegedly a pretty big threat to the whole galaxy at one point. But having a long-time ally go turncoat to save his own species and then just shooting him without batting an eye doesn't mean you're "doing the right thing" by any measuring stick - it means you're a fucking douchebag who just views everyone around him as expendable. Not being able to talk him down because I didn't pick enough "nice guy" options during mundane dialog is just about the worst way I can think of to handle it too. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Deus Ex: Human Revolution did this a lot better with its "battle of words" segments - you frequently had to talk characters down, and it wasn't always readily evident what the "right" options were - you had to be smart enough to spot and play to the flaws in their reasoning and hope they came to see your point of view, and, in at least a few cases, they would actually use your previous choices against you in their own arguments. And yes, that game came out several years after this one, but that doesn't change the fact that it was a far better mechanic!
Anyway, not long after that I came to a dead end and I couldn't figure out how to proceed, but then I remembered I wasn't having any fun anyway and just shut down the game, uninstalled, and deleted it from my Steam library. The end.
Spoony: And that's Mass Effect in a nutshell - mediocre, formulaic, derivative and utterly forgettable in every respect. The plot borrows elements from several other big names in gaming and science fiction like Star Trek, Starflight, Starcraft, Wing Commander and Xenosaga, but makes absolutely no attempt to put their own spin on them or leave the player with any open-ended questions to think about. The gameplay has no pop or challenge to it - it's just another forgettable cover shooter with regenerating health and bad enemy AI that you'll learn to outsmart within the first few battles you encounter, turning the rest of the experience into a mindless slog. There's not even anything compelling on the RPG front as the unified skill set is lazily implemented, the party AI is terrible, the characters are stock (besides the whole "everyone is bisexual" thing, which is neither realistic nor interesting. And since they're clearly only using it to score easy political points and discredit anyone who criticizes their game for any reason as a "bigot", you can add disingenuous and disrespectful to that list too) and the boolean-choice narrative is lazy and asinine in the extreme. Mass Effect is not a good RPG, it's not a good shooter, and it certainly isn't a very good story. Hell, I think Kingdom Hearts actually does a better job as a space opera than Mass Effect ever did; Yes, Kingdom Hearts' dialog is corny and the plot is just a thoughtless retread of every Disney film and Square Enix story trope ever, but at least that franchise knows how to carry a continuous narrative without having to rely on a lazy plot encyclopedia. Not to mention the acting, animation, combat and overall design are a lot more polished and fluid, and the vehicle sections don't suck nearly as hard either. I'm not even kidding; Kingdom Hearts is better at being a space opera, and a video game, than Mass Effect. And it even treats gay characters with more dignity, tact and respect than Mass Effect, so... yeah.
Oh, and if you want the same concept of a choice-driven story but actually executed well, here's a short list of games that do it better:
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution
- Fallout 2
- Fallout: New Vegas
- Shadowrun: Dragonfall
- Shadowrun: Hong Kong
- Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
- Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor
You know what another big factor in all of those games is? Your character's morality is not a linear black-or-white choice. Shadowrun in particular puts the whole narrative in a moral gray area and makes it feel as though every choice you make is the wrong one; a given option may pay off or ease your conscience in the short term, but it usually has long-running repercussions that come back to haunt you later (and, as highlighted in the game's endings, can even have severe consequences for the world as a whole). And you know what? That's compelling storytelling! A lot more true to life, too, as people are not always rewarded for doing what they believe to be the "right" thing and not always punished for doing what others would consider "wrong". Frequently the opposite, in fact. I think Warren Spector said it best for making a compelling multiple-choice narrative: "Show the player two [or more] things they want, but only let them pick one."
If you still want to harp on my critiques of Mass Effect's shoehorned sexual themes, then listen to this: Shadowrun features several gay/bisexual characters. You likely didn't know that because Harebrained Schemes knew better than to make it one of the game's selling points (probably because they're smart enough to recognize that, just as in real life, someone's sexual orientation has little to no bearing on who they are as a person, and that said orientation doesn't compel them to go out of their way to advertise it to everyone they meet). Furthermore, Catherine is a much better game that uses sexual themes as a plot device, and in a way that doesn't come off as cheap pandering to boot! So there you go. Time to find a new straw man, kiddos.
Oh, and speaking of storytelling, Mass Effect doesn't even need to be a trilogy. This series does not have three games' worth of quality content; not even close. You could easily cut out all of the filler characters and events and compress this down to one game and it would be far better for it. The push to make every science fiction series into a "trilogy" just so people start drawing comparisons to Star Wars (a mediocre, sloppily thatched-together franchise in its own right) is cheap coat-tail riding and, quite frankly, just an underhanded way to gouge your customers for more money. To say nothing of this infamous screen:
And before I get e-mails about it: yes, I did give Mass Effect 2 a try at the behest of a few series fans, and while it is a better game than the first, it still falls well short of being what I would consider a good game. The game's pacing certainly benefits from its streamlined design and combat is significantly more involving and strategic, but nearly all of the major gripes I had with ME1 are still there. The characters and environments are still stock at best and uninspired at worst, the writing is still derivative and dry (particularly the corny Gollum-voiced evil lizard race, which caused me to break down into a fit of laughter the first time I heard them), and it's still abundantly clear that none of the actors are the slightest bit invested in the project beyond the promise of an easy paycheck. Certainly not worthy of being listed as one of the twenty greatest games of all time on Game Rankings, let alone any top twenty I can think of. Well, except maybe the Top Twenty Games With the Most Undeserved, Overblown and Mindlessly Positive Press Coverage That EA Purchased in 2010.