The 12 Games Of Christmas: Mass Effect

By John Walker on December 4th, 2008 at 5:58 pm.

What could it be?!

For the second game of Christmas my true blog gave to me… well, you’ll have to click on to find out.

It’s Mass Effect!

Peekaboo!

I never got on with the downloadable content for Mass Effect. For a storywhore like me, Mass Effect gave me both a large, established history to investigate, and within it, something self-contained with a beginning, middle and end. While the universe was left with vast, unanswered questions, for Shepherd and her gang there was closure. My cast of characters had achieved their goals, and it was time for a slap-up tea and high fives all round. Why on Earth would I want to go back in time – with them in particular – and delay their success?

The combat was an interesting departure for Bioware, almost getting into a third-person action place, which of course gave me cause to worry it wouldn’t be delivering what I want from their RPGs: big old conversations with my companions, and on-the-spot ethical dilemmas. But of course they were there in force. (And often as daft as usual). And I came to quite enjoy the fights, and most of all, bouncing around planets in that spacecar.

So while you were always pursuing rogue Spectre, Saren Arterius, and attempting to fathom the mystery of the Geth, the real story was one that had happened in the past. An elaborate recent history of the colonisation of space, and the Human’s latter involvement, as well as a far greater story that’s only hinted at throughout, about the very nature of conscious existence in the galaxies. These levels of magnification mean that Shepherd’s story, while of course vital the continued survival of almost every species, seems almost quite minor. But it’s still your story, and I think the role you play only feels more meaningful for its being set within the larger framework.

The scale allows a sense of tragedy to permeate throughout, and never more so than when you discover the Prothean’s underground preservation chambers, intended to save them from the Reaper attacks. But of course all that remains is an AI, long ago having had to turn off the cryogenics to keep itself running. Death is everywhere, and has been happening for an awfully long time. It offers perspective.

If there was one aspect I’d like to have seen explored more – and in fairness, it was explored quite a lot – it would be Humanity’s fledgling role in the universe. Obviously we join the story after the most momentous events, when Humans discovered Mass Effect capabilities and learned they were not alone in the universe. This is such an interesting time as Humans shift from top predator to bottom of the pile, and the game prods at it, most notably with the pursuit of a seat on the Council, but I’d love to have seen it take it further. Human arrogance is talked about, and as a species they’re already not liked by other “minor” races for even being considered for a Council position so soon. But I’d have liked to feel the effects of this a bit more. See what consequences it had had on Earth’s politics, what extremist fractions had occurred (beyond experiencing racism), whether it had dramatically affected the Human psyche.

I’d love to play a prequel set during the earlier times of transition. In fact, if Bioware want to give me a job I’ve got a few pitches… But in the meantime, Mass Effect was a real highlight of 2008 for me. I think Shepherd’s specific tale perhaps felt slightly trivial (despite the implied impact) within such a fascinating context, and perhaps this was in part because of its non-linear paths and side-quests, which let me muddy the story as it progressed. It became hard to differentiate clearing out a bunker on a remote planet for the sake of finding some ancient runes, or doing the same for the sake of the main plot. But I’m left with memories of a rich story, and the part I played in it. I remember Shepherd and her relationships. I remember saving the universe.

Kieron: John’s pretty much nailed the appeal of Mass Effect really. In fact, more than anything else, it’s Mass Effect which allows me to stay hopeful for Dragon Age despite its somewhat iffy I-am-in-armour-i-am-the-armour-man-+3 aesthetics. Mass Effect felt like a lived in, well designed and relatively novel Science Fiction universe. Most videogame fictions don’t really have the sense they could support anything other than random shooting of other characters. Mass Effect did. I have no idea what the Mass Effect novels are like, but there’s no reason why they won’t be good. I’m actually surprised there isn’t a tie in comic – and I dare say there will be when the second part comes out. And it’s one of the games that’s been licensed for film which abstractly could work.

(Er… that “It will be a comic” isn’t me pitching for work, by the way.)

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70 Comments »

  1. Jim Rossignol says:

    It was nice to see DEATH WORM have a cameo in Mass Effect.

  2. Ubiquitous says:

    I defy developers to think of a game where a DEATH WORM cameo would not improve their game in every way possible.

    I don’t think such a hypothetical game exists.

  3. James G says:

    Good to see some Mass Effect love, I muchly enjoyed it but only ever tend to see people complaining about it. I’m especially interested in how future games in the series will reflect some of the larger choices you made in the first game.

    MINOR SPOILERS

    I chose to save the council, although having seen the paragon dead-council ending, I do wonder if I made the right decision. A replacement government consisting of all races is vastly preferable (in my mind) to the council, and I’m hoping that I’ll see the human presence on the council prompt it being opened up to other species.

  4. Larington says:

    Now you mention it, yes, the real star of Mass Effect is the universe/setting the human race is placed in and its interactions with the other races, rather than the main story which I felt was a tad, err, lacking somehow.

  5. unclelou says:

    Mass Effect is a stellar game, though I did find it a bit less of an RPG and more of an action game than I had hoped. Still, probably the best game I’ve played this year, and definitely the one with the best production values and coherent style.

    For anyone who has yet to play it: pick a female character. Her voice-acting is infinitely better.

  6. Monchberter says:

    DEATH WORM is could make an awesome additional boss for L4D, if that game could be made any more awesome.

    Mass Effect? Meh.

  7. Dan (WR) says:

    Mass Effect really rubbed me up the wrong way. The writing was relatively good (by videogame standards) and you had to admire the way they’d constructed the fictional universe. But it was also a bit too formulaic, and if you’ve been exposed to enough Space Opera, the last thing you want is another Babylon 5. Which is unfair really, given all the fantasy stuff is the same, but still…

    I’m sure I would have liked it if there was more characterisation, but I felt that’s where it fell down. The companions bored the arse off me. Tali was an exposition dump. Monacle-boy flip-floppped at the slightest rebuke. Blue girl was the traditional white-mage romance sap. Baron Greenback had no reason to join you in the first place. Princess Pogrom was the only one that didn’t feel completely lazy. God bless her bigotry.

    And the planets were poor. The same geography in different colours, with identikit buildings and scavenger hunts that inexplicably required the same button mini-games.

    The biggest problem was probably that I chose Man-Shepard though. And Man-Shepard is a complete tool.

  8. Chris R says:

    Yes, but does it make your Mass Erect?

    (sorry, ZP made me doo eet!)

  9. Alex says:

    You’re nuts, we all need MORE B5!

  10. Dante says:

    Man Shepard is awesome. I have no idea why so many critics played up the female version, not that she isn’t good, it’s just that the guy is too.

    Just justifying their own gender bending perversions I guess.

  11. Katsumoto says:

    Mass Effect and Left 4 Dead are the only games that have met (and exceeded) my expectations this year. Maybe my expectations are too high, but everything else this year has been a major disappointment, most notably Clear Sky and Far Cry 2. Boo hoo!

    Good read as ever :)!

  12. John Walker says:

    I’m not exactly B5′s number one fan, but I was also a bit surprised by the notion that we shouldn’t want more of its type. Intelligent, adult science fiction in a universe where everything isn’t made better with a magic button? Yes please!

  13. Sum0 says:

    I did love Mass Effect’s “humanity are at the bottom for a change” idea as a counterpoint to stuff like Star Trek, where the entire galaxy is apparently sitting around waiting for humans to get off Earth and unite everyone.
    But it then proceeded to fall into the same cliche with – yes, a human saving the galaxy and getting a seat on the Council which even I thought was unfair to all the other, less glamorous species slogging away in the background.
    I’d have preferred it if at least some of the aliens were all “Huh? What are you guys? …Humans? Earth? Never heard of it.”

  14. mejobloggs says:

    I enjoyed Mass Effect, but while the main quest was awesome, the rest of the game seemed boring and undeveloped.

    The main quest had awesome looking planets and exciting story, while side quests basically had the same planet in different colours, and all the buildings seemed to have the same layouts too.

    I thought items where done well. It was difficult to find really good items. You got the occasional kick-ass gun etc, but the good stuff was in shops for lots of $$$. Just how it should be

  15. Katsumoto says:

    Now, what people never talk about is the soundtrack. Mass Effect’s OST is awe-inspiringly beautiful and I pretty much have had it on loop since the summer.

  16. Ragnar says:

    I have no idea what the Mass Effect novels are like, but there’s no reason why they won’t be good.

    They are good. At least in my opinion. From story perspective, they are better than the games at least.Compared to e.g. Isaac Asimov novels they fall short, but not very far. Karpyshyn is a fairly good author me thinks.

    Anyway, I think they should make a hybrid racer/orienteering game with that spacecar driving around planets. Would be lots of fun.

  17. Pidesco says:

    I really don’t get all the love for a game that is 90% percent filler, and really bad, repetitive filler, at that. Really, the only thing in the game I commend, compared to recent Bioware titles. is the combat, but having better combat than JE or KOTOR isn’t exactly a feat in game design.

    Also, the dialogue in Mass Effect can get pretty atrocious, with almost all the dialogue options being “tell me about it”. Also, the development of party NPCs is still nothing but a bad metagame that detaches the player from the characters. The morality system is again the same good vs bully schtick from all the previous games, only now with character animations.

    Don’t get me wrong, Mass Effect is very much a competent game (well, the main quest is), but I’m really sick of Bioware getting acclaim for failing to improve on their game formula after 10 years. They’re essentially Squaresoft, these days

  18. Meat Circus says:

    Intelligent, adult science fiction indeed. And it would have made for a great TV series.

    You seem to have forgotten to talk about why it was a good game though.

  19. Ravenger says:

    I loved the game, but there was a lot of cookie-cutter generic filler content.

    I don’t understand why when it looked like the generic interiors such as space-ships, caves, etc. looked like they’d been made out of pre-fab sections that they didn’t actually make any different layouts out of those sections, like they do in Oblivion & Fallout 3. Instead every space ship or other interior was exactly the same layout except for strategically placed crates. A massive missed opportunity.

    And of course the obligatory DRM reference: wheres our de-authorisation tool, EA? You’ve given one for red-alert, but Mass Effect was the first game to use the new activation system, so why haven’t we got a way to de-activate the game yet?

  20. Kelduum Revaan says:

    For those who didn’t recognise her, Woman-Shepherd was Bastila from Knights of the Old Republic of course (and tons of other stuff), and apparently Bastila and default Woman-Shepherd are based on her, so be nice.

    Also, Drew Karpyshyn was of course the writer of the KOTOR stuff which became Star Wars canon, and he’s the one filling in the blanks in the back story with the Darth Bane novels, which I have to say have been very good so far.

  21. Meat Circus says:

    So, what about the rest? Surely it deserves some mention, because it is a good story and it is an interesting universe. But the quests are average and the combat was poo. So, you know. One of the twelve? Ahma not so sure.

  22. Funky Badger says:

    Favourtie gaming moment of the last 12 months: the intro voice-over in mass effect, Lance Frikkin’ Henriksen giving it “Maybe she/he’s the one”.

    Hell. Yeah.

    (Special mention to Soverign who was an awesome villain)

  23. Funky Badger says:

    Have there been 12 games ever that you like, MC?

  24. Pidesco says:

    That voice-over would have been laughed out of any movie theater.

    “Is that the kind of person we want protecting the galaxy?
    That’s the only kind of person who can protect the galaxy!”

    And that’s when my forehead hit my desk.

  25. Dan (WR) says:

    While I sympathise a bit with comments about poo combat, don’t a lot of RPGs fall down on this point? The combat in KOTOR (for example) was pretty poor when you think back on it.

    And I was being dumb earlier. Babylon 5 was pretty smart all in all, and it’s not a good comparison point. But I struggle to articulate why I found ME so bland. Maybe it was the ancient returning evil cycle-of-civilization shtick. I don’t know.

  26. Meat Circus says:

    Oi, Badger. That’s harsh.

    I thought Mass Effect was excellent because of its story and setting. That I wouldn’t place it in my top twelve (because of mediocre quests and bad combat) clearly implies that I have *at least* twelve games this year I liked more, surely?

  27. eyemessiah says:

    I don’t think we need more B5. IMHO it was just as hamstrung by its PG13 production as is mostly every other tea-time scifi serial, and like some of the worst of those (which I suspect took their cues from B5) it turns into a horrible mess by struggling to explore adult issues within the strictures of a PG13 moral universe. Its a whole other thing, but relevant to storytelling in games too I think. But not really what I meant to talk about…

    Uh…
    Mass Effect, oh yes. I nearly ragequit (thanks for that one forumguy!) for good after tiring of all the interminable lifts, funny combat and frankly dreadful vehicle sequences, but somehow I stuck with it and was rewarded with a game that for me came closer to being a truly involving interactive story as anything I have played in a decade. It might have been illusory, but I really did feel at times like the game was allowing me to tell the kind of story that I wanted to tell, and that it was reading my directorial intent from the many and varied dialogue choices. Obviously it wasn’t a perfect fit, and I felt much maligned by the ending the game served up to me, but otherwise I was pretty impressed.

    EDIT: I picked WOman-Shepard (and made her look like a better version of an ex-girlfriend), skipped almost all of the sidequests and cracked the hell out of the game. If I hadn’t done these things I may have enjoyed it significantly less!

  28. Stromko says:

    I’ve long ago lost hope that there’d be sequels to Mass Effect in the foreseeable future. Before Mass Effect came out, there was talk about it being a trilogy that would occur during one console generation. Since it came out, I haven’t heard one word about a sequel.

    It’s even more damning how few of the original voice actors seemed to be involved in that extra mission(the DLC with the Batarians and such). None of your companions say a word, the pilot doesn’t say a word, the senate is mute, you don’t hear from anyone in the Earth military. Instead you get a never-before-heard narrator in the form of the ship’s computer feeding you some basic information, and off you go into some (nicely) new content.

    It seems to me that if they were really intending to make a sequel anytime soon, they’d have had ample reason to bring the voice actors back in. Even if the old companions wouldn’t join you in the next game, you’d think they’d at least get a decent cameo.

    Of course that’s all very circumstantial, for all I know they could’ve been planning a brand new cast for each game in the series right from the start. But nothing could adequately explain why there’s been no marketing, other than the very obvious concept that Bioware’s working on Dragon Age right now and (thankfully) they aren’t letting some other studio at EA pick up the slack.

    Which leads the other way, to the easy angry internet man assumption that Bioware’s old games were too much content for too little gain, and that from now on thanks to their new ownership by EA, to put it mildly, the studio will not make any more big-budget roleplaying games. Given a long and proven track record for taking brilliant studios and turning them into crappy studios, much worse could be inferred. I suppose in the near future, Dragon Age is the only thing that’s going to give us some idea of Bioware’s new trajectory.

    I’ve heard gamers who’ve been around a long time and once wrote off EA saying that the company’s taken a better direction lately, but I’m unconvinced. I’m not sure why anyone thinks that publisher is actually trying to foster good games. I think they prefer to lower our expectations by making every game they publish at least a /little/ crappy, and augmented by the fact that making a good game is really, really hard, they usually end up with a game that’s /really/ crappy.

    I look at every game in my house with ‘EA’ stamped on the end and I see more and more proof with every case. In my heart of hearts, I feel Bioware’s new corporate overlords are a cancer that will rob them of all function and identity, that EA will use the goodwill that studio has earned from their customers to sell an increasingly stinkier pile of shovelware onto them.

  29. TheDeadlyShoe says:

    Anyone who found the combat lacking was obviously using insufficient numbers of SHOTGUN ROCKETS.

  30. Funky Badger says:

    Pidesco: yah boo sucks, I thought it was great.

    Meat: sorry, dude. You just come across as a glass half-empty kinda guy. No offence meant, head being pulled back now ;-)

  31. Dizet Sma says:

    I liked Mass Effect a lot, but the criticisms of the ‘cookie cutter’ side maps is a very valid one. ME gets extra marks from me for naming one of the characters ‘Steve Hackett’, tho’!

  32. Gap Gen says:

    Yes, sci-fi in film has never really lived up to sci-fi on paper. Not sure why – there are plenty of great sci-fi films, but in terms of concept they’re not quite as adventurous. I mean, compare BSG to Dune. Sure, BSG is based on a tacky 70s show and so has much of its baggage to carry, but the society is basically America in space but with paganism, compared to Dune’s fantastically detailed feudalistic technophobic society. I’m not saying that every show should go to as much trouble as Tolkein or Frank Herbert in making a universe (but then again, why the hell not if you have a multimillion dollar budget?) but I’ve generally been disappointed by film sci-fi – for one thing, most sci-fi shows generally seem quite scared of the whole ‘science’ thing.

  33. Ginger Yellow says:

    I must be the only person who thought the combat was mostly really good, for a first/third person RPG. I mean, look at Oblivion for God’s sake. And I was definitely a sucker for the facial animations (no cold, dead eyes, for once!). But, yeah, the sidequests were unbelievably disappointing. I remember seeing the first footage of the Mako landing on a planet and driving about and thinking: “Wow, and there are dozens of these worlds! How are they going to manage that?” About an hour after leaving the space station, I realised how.

  34. eyemessiah says:

    @Gap Gen
    I hear you! Even when scifi manages to spawn a character or two who isn’t just an American (although to be fair a lot of ST often seems quite British) in space the show usually then becomes overly concerned with them becoming more human. Aliens which have no interest in learning how to love are generally the bad guys. And even then you get stuff like the ridiculous soap opera BSG’s supposedly inscrutable killing machines get caught up in.

    Re. spelling scifi with a capital ‘Science’. I’d love it if it were possible, but even in literature hard sci-fi sells so poorly its madness to think you could make a TV serial or a feature film where maths, geometry and real quantum mechanics get pushed to the forefront. Scifi barely acknowledges relativistic effects (Gunbuster ftw!), so I think it will be a while before it catches up with modern science, let alone gets to a point where it can speculate intelligently about the scientific advances of the future, and then actually plot explorations of their implications. For instance, the difference between Greg Egan’s attempts at exploring the implications of simulated reality and strong AI and those of TV & film scifi of the last couple of decades are really pretty staggering.

    I love TV & film scifi with all of my being, but there is no doubt in my mind that thus far its been a pile of pish.

  35. Flappybat says:

    It would have been a ton better if the sidequests and random planets had been fleshed out.

    It’s also a shame the ship was barely used. There was barely any point to being a captain and the ship was just mundane minihub.

  36. Dr_demento says:

    Played ME, loved it. I didn’t like the combat, it felt very floaty and weak at low-levels (despite SHOTGUN ROCKETS) and they could have done more with the magic powers. Aso got incredibly (like really amazingly) annoyed that the colonist-base interiors were all the same despite their clearly modular design. How much I would have loved a labyrinth in the mars-rock-behind-glass type one… Oh, and the incidental side missions had very little to them in terms of, you know, content.

    On the other hand, the plot was incredible, FEM-SHEPARD had astonishing voiceacting (she could do both nasty and nice, unlike the voiceacting in every other RPG ever), the world actually interested me enough to have me reading the Codex stuff, and the aliens were just freaky enough. Can’t wait for the sequel, so long as they fix the combat and the interors…

  37. Larington says:

    Yeah, a number of the visual elements, planet surfaces in particular, were very bland, there was rarely any effort made in making places special or unique, except for some story centric locations and even then those were few and far between.

    But the games heart & soul was in the right place, gave the player some genuinely big decisions, like SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER towards the end where you get asked whether to save the council or not – it took me 3 minutes to make the decision /SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER and despite taking a big risk with its combat system, pulled off something that was functional if not very enjoyable to use.

  38. Stromko says:

    I played Mass Effect (on the console, boooo!), and found it quite incredible. There were times when I was distinctly irritated at it, there were times it made me gnash my teeth, times I felt deep disappointment– but also times when I just had to stop and say, “Oh my god I can’t believe how much fun this is. This is what I dared hopes games could be when I was a child.”

    That really made it all worth it. Despite my heavy reservations about their new ownership, I would be giddy as a kindergartner snorting a bag of sugar if a Mass Effect sequel did materialize. I’d probably be sorely disappointed, but I couldn’t help looking forward to getting my hands on the thing anyway.

  39. BrokenSymmetry says:

    Ashley and Wrex are among the best characters I’ve ever encountered in an RPG.

  40. Paul B says:

    Not to mention Tali, who gets my sexiest-alien-in-a-mask award (though probably a bit too young for me).

  41. Funky Badger says:

    Points hard sci-fi fans int direction of Stanislaw Lem’s boks – particularly Fiasco – no one writes better fiction about science

  42. James G says:

    Firstly on the subject of ME sequels, I’m pretty sure its still going ahead. I’m sure I’ve even seen some Bioware folks mention working on it. (Yup. Priestly confirms that it is underway over here: http://tinyurl.com/5oa7lk )
    Ashley especially was great, one of the most well formed characters I’ve seen in gaming. Her xenophobia (and I think Xenophobia is probably more appropriate a description here than racism) was tempered with reasoning, and although neither my Shepard or myself agreed with her, it was difficult to write off her concerns as the rantings of an unhinged racist. At the same time, it was clear that even among concerns of humanities safety which she claimed were based purely on pragmatism, there was an underlying fear/discomfort with aliens in general. The little throwaway comments were also great, revealing underlying negativity, and a degree of morbidity.

    SPOILERS

    I felt genuinely guilty when I left Ashley to die. Earlier, when you selected who to send with the Salarians, I had sent Kaiden, on a purely utilitarian basis. I realised that the narrative was setting us up for a death, and Ashley’s combat specialisation would be more useful than Kaiden, who was almost identical build to my Shepard. However, when it came to the bomb I let Ashley die, and couldn’t help but wonder if I had let ‘personal’ feelings get in the way of that decision.

  43. Homunculus says:

    Hands up who named their Shepherds “Adrian”.

    *does the Opposing Force secret handshake*

  44. Pags says:

    “CORPORAL SHEPERD HUH? DROP DOWN AND GIVE ME 20.”

    Fond memories.

  45. Funky Badger says:

    James: I didn’t realise there was a death coming up there, even as the (cut scene) bombs began to fall I thought the game would give me a chance to go back and be the hero. Was literally, wonderfully, stunned when it didn’t. A fantastic moment.

    (Also, it wasn’t clear from the set-up which was the death choice, so I reasoned who would best protect the bomb, which was top priority. Fortunately for me, this meant if was Captain Alien Hunter that got smoked – I wouldn’t have minded her nearly as much if she wasn’t such a God-botherer)

  46. Gap Gen says:

    eyemessiah: scifi doesn’t necessarily need to be about science – technofetishism kinda tired me after a while. But it is very easy to get the science right; after all, even if a film about Wolf Rayet stars might not sell, gritty realism does – after all, things like Band of Brothers are more in the vogue than When Eagles Dare, and even Bond has become grittier and less camp than before.

    For my money, scifi films would have been totally different had 2001 been the seminal scifi film rather than Star Wars. The science is never really the point of 2001 exactly, but it gets it right quietly and without fuss.

    I guess another problem is the advance of technology. BSG has jump drives and yet its soldiers are no better armed and equipped than modern US marines (granted, one of the themes is the unreliability of technology, but still). A film where a UAV kills you from kilometres away is less fun than fighting unconvincing aliens hand-to-hand. Then again, if you don’t try it you don’t know.

  47. TheSombreroKid says:

    mass effect is super i hate anyone who doesn’t like it, one of my favorite games maybe even in the top 10!

  48. wcaypahwat says:

    I was quite wary of it when I picked it up. In my mind I knew it was just a prettied up port of a console game…. I was nicely surprised it turned out as well as it did.

  49. Grey_Ghost says:

    Overall Mass Effect was one of the best games I’ve ever played (PC), and I look forward to it’s sequel(s?). I’m mixed on the combat side… I really only enjoy it when I don’t have to tell my companions what to do all the time. I hope they work on the AI for them.

    Some of the side missions really do start to become a bore, and the environments really do need to be improved heavily (especially variety). Though for me, the the story / characters / dialog / animations / graphics all overpower its flaws, which makes it one of my all time favorites.