Fashionably Late: Mass Effect

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Storytelling in video games has come a long way since the creation of the medium, but in many ways it still has a long way to go. Gamers have often bemoaned the fact that movie adaptations of video games have been so universally shitty, but aside from the fact that the studios let hacks like Uwe Boll helm these productions, there’s a very obvious reason for their poor quality. Most video games barely have a story to speak of, or if they do have a plot, it’s some variant of “overpowered protagonist kills a lot of people.” That’s not a deep plot; it would barely suffice for a B-grade kung fu flick. So is it any wonder that adaptations tend to fall apart when you pull out the only thing holding the video game’s story together, i.e., the gameplay?

Still, while most game developers have spent their time aping plots that sound like they belong in movies the Cinema Snob would review, a select few have made the attempt to marry good gameplay to strong stories, mostly in the RPG field. And one of the luminaries of this movement is Canadian RPG developer BioWare, makers of such titles as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, MDK, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and the subject of today’s Fashionably Late, Mass Effect.

Mass Effect is, in many ways, one of BioWare’s most innovative and experimental titles, and is clearly an attempt to do what so many game developers have tried and failed to do in the past; to forge a genuine, original sci-fi epic that is unique to the medium of video games. And while Mass Effect is the first game in a trilogy, and I’ll be unable to measure the true extent of their success until I have completed all three games, from what I’ve seen here BioWare was clearly on the right track.

The story of Mass Effect is complex and detailed, but I’ll do my best to give my usual bite-sized summary here. The year is 2183. 40 years prior, humans discovered the ruins of an alien race called the Protheans on Mars, along with records detailing aspects of their technology that allowed humanity’s own technology to radically advance by utilizing a principle called “Mass Effect” that enables all sorts of futuristic phenomena such as force-fields, guns that never run out of bullets, and most importantly, faster-than-light space travel.

The Protheans had a vast empire that spanned the entire Milky Way galaxy up until they mysteriously vanished 50,000 years ago, leaving their cities and technology behind. The races that have evolved since then have discovered Prothean technology, much as humans have, and have formed a pan-galactic government called the Galactic Council, based out of an ancient Prothean space station called Citadel. Humanity has taken its place living in the galaxy and new human colonies alongside these other races, but has not yet attained full status as a member species of the Council; as the newcomer to the galactic scene, other races tend to view humanity as the snot-nosed new kid who’s too big for his britches.

Be prepared to take a lot of lip from these snooty jerks...

Be prepared to take a lot of lip from these snooty jerks…

The player takes the role of Commander Shepard, a customizable (and male or female, hence why he/she is only referred to in-game as Commander or Shepard) player character who is a member of the Human Alliance’s navy. And when I say Shepard is customizable, I mean it in a very broad sense; not only can you choose Shepard’s sex and facial features, but also his/her backstory (from a selection of options) and a number of character classes that determine what he/she can do.

Shepard is the XO on a prototype Alliance ship called the Normandy, and considered to be one of the finest representations of the species that humanity has to offer. As such, Shepard is auditioned to join the Spectres, a group of agents that act as problem-solvers for the Council. They act with complete autonomy to preserve the security of the galaxy as they see fit, and Shepard would be the first human to receive the appointment. The Normandy is sent to secure a piece of recovered Prothean technology from a human colony called Eden Prime, along with a Spectre named Nihlus who is to monitor and evaluate Shepard’s performance. However, things rapidly go wrong when the Normandy arrives on Eden Prime, only to find it under attack by the Geth, a synthetic race of rogue robots who have not been seen in Council space for centuries.

Shepard’s team lands on Eden Prime to deal with the situation, only to find out that situation is far worse than they thought. The Geth appear to be working with an alien Spectre named Saren, who has razed the planet to gain access to the Prothean beacon. Saren kills Nihlus, makes contact with the Beacon, and wires the colony to blow. Shepard’s team defuses the bombs, and Shepard comes into contact with the beacon, accidentally triggering some kind of message that implants data into his mind; horrific visions of the Protheans being wiped out by a race of machines from beyond the edge of the galaxy called Reapers. Shepard and his crew are placed center-stage in a conflict to bring Saren down and stop the Reapers from invading and annihilating all sentient life in the galaxy.

To that end, Shepard is given command of the Normandy and her crew, and must follow Saren’s trail, determine what he and the Geth are up to, and put a stop to it. As Shepard, the player is given very free rein on how to deal with this investigation; the Council and other NPCs will, in traditional RPG fashion, give Shepard missions (i.e., quests), and the player is free to tackle them in any order he wants. The Normandy, in addition to serving as Shepard’s mobile base of operations, where Shepard can talk with members of his crew and squad, also serves as his means of going from solar system to solar system and reaching new planets to explore.

Your home away from home! Sure beats tooling around in a RV.

Your home away from home! Sure beats tooling around in a RV.

The bulk of the action in Mass Effect takes place on foot; traveling to a new solar system or planet is as simple as pointing and clicking on the Normandy’s interactive star chart; the piloting is left in the capable hands of the Normandy’s helmsman, Joker, voiced in an excellent turn by Seth Green. If the world is a colonized, established planet, then the Normandy will simply dock and Shepard, along with a squad of two other characters that the player chooses before disembarking, will simply step out of the airlock and go about their business.

These worlds are the biggest game areas and contain many hidden items to find, are populated by many NPCs from several different alien races, and many of them will either advance the main plot or provide Shepard with new side quests when spoken to. A huge chunk of the game’s 35 hour length is spent on these worlds, and the Citadel in particular has lots of new quests that will become available over time, making it worth the player’s while to revisit frequently.

If a planet doesn’t have an established colony, then Shepard’s squad may still be able to go down and explore it, using an armored ATV/truck called the Mako. These un-civilized planets have mineral deposits and alien artifacts to recover, nests of pirates and smugglers to fight, and outposts that are the locale for several of the game’s side-missions. Inside these structures, the gameplay is much the same as the on-foot gameplay on the more established planets, but on the planet’s surface, exploration and combat is handled by driving the Mako around and taking out any threats with its mounted machine gun and cannon.

When Shepard and his squad encounter enemies, the game’s combat comes into play. Combat is one area where Mass Effect differs significantly from other RPGs, and even most other BioWare games. Mass Effect is an action RPG, but rather than combat being based around medieval melee weapons, it is instead a futuristic third-person shooter. Combat is handled in real-time, with Shepard (controlled by the player) and his two squad-mates (controlled by the computer) taking on foes using cover-based gunplay. The meat of combat in Mass Effect is avoiding enemy shots by taking cover, and taking out your foes either from a distance, or by flanking them and dealing with them at closer range.

You can also lift them up with telekinesis and gang up on them until they're dead, but it's not very sporting.

You can also lift them up with telekinesis and gang up on them until they’re dead, but it’s not very sporting.

Gunplay in Mass Effect differs from similar titles in that guns in the ME universe have unlimited ammo; the in-universe explanation is that bullets are actually slugs sheared off of a block of lead inside the gun via a miniature Mass Effect field, calculated to the appropriate size for the firing circumstances and distance by an on-board computer, so in-universe guns rarely need reloading (and mechanically in-game they never do). However, the act of firing the bullet along magnetic rails heats up the weapon with each successive shot, and firing a gun too quickly will cause it to overheat, rendering it inoperable until the weapon vents and cools down. Therefore, the player will always be searching for that balance between firing as quickly as possible and not overheating their gun, which adds an interesting layer of strategy that ammo-driven weapons mechanics lack. The exception to these rules are the grenades, which you have a finite amount of and should be reserved for dealing with large crowds of enemies.

The combat is in real time, but there are selection wheels for equipping weapons or activating character powers that, when brought up using the shoulder buttons on the controller, freeze the action while the player makes their selections. The player can directly order the allied AI characters to use specific powers or equip specific weapons, and can also issue commands using the hotkeys mapped to the d-pad to go after particular targets, advance to a selected point, follow the player or stay put. Or the player can simply let the AI make its own decisions, which actually works out fine most of the time. The friendly AI in Mass Effect is rather good, to the point where even a dedicated turn-based RPG wonk like myself doesn’t mind letting the computer handle my teammates for me.

Mass Effect utilizes a health system reminiscent of the first Halo game, in that it has two separate damage meters: health and shields. Every piece of armor in the game provides shields to the equipped character, and those shields will regenerate when not under fire and prevent the character from actually getting injured. Once a character’s shields are dropped, though, any damage goes to their health bar, and once their health bar drops, they’re unconscious (for squad members) or dead (for NPCs and Shepard). Health doesn’t regenerate on its own; the only way to restore lost health is through the use of Medi-Gel, a panacea that is dispersed to the entire squad via the power wheel, and can only be carried and found in limited quantities. Thus, it behooves the player to take advantage of their shields and of cover in the environment to protect themselves from damage.

A big part of what determines how combat will play out is the choices the player makes in character creation and character advancement, and this is where the game’s RPG roots really show. As I said, Shepard is a highly customizable character, and at character creation the player can choose from six different character classes to play as, which greatly affect the role Shepard will play in combat and in the field.

Pictured: a rare instance of an engineer looking intimidating.

Pictured: a rare instance of an engineer looking intimidating.

There are three schools of talent in the game; combat (i.e., weapon skills and physical abilities), tech (hacking equipment and manipulating computers and machines), and biotics (Mass Effect-driven telekinetic powers), and each class either focuses exclusively on one of these schools, or has a dual focus on two of them. For example, a character who takes the Soldier class can fully utilize every gun in the game and has access to skills that make them formidable at gunplay and physical combat, but gains no tech or biotic abilities at all, while someone who takes the Adept class has access to every biotic power in the game, but can only use pistols and is less physically powerful and durable. Meanwhile, a character who takes the Vanguard class gains some combat and biotic abilities, but doesn’t gain all the talents an Adept or a Soldier would, and only has full use of pistols and shotguns.

Characters can also be customized with equipment. By default, each character is outfitted with a suit of armor and one of each of the four weapon classes; a sniper rifle, assault rifle, pistol and shotgun, even though they can only effectively use a few of them (any gun a character isn’t proficient with can only be shot from the hip, with no aiming down the sights). As the player progresses through the game, they’ll find new weapons and armor squirreled away in storage containers in true RPG fashion, or available for purchase at vendors throughout the game. The equipment you find scales up with you, so you’ll always be finding new gear you can use. Additionally, the armor and weapons can be customized with mods, items attached to the gear that alter its properties to the player’s taste. Want to add some extra shielding to your armor, or reduce a gun’s overheating, or shoot an enemy with radioactive bullets? You can do all of that and more; the possibilities are very open.

However, the abundance of gear you find and the relative lack of inventory space (you can only hold 150 pieces of gear, including armor, guns and mods), means that you’ll either have to frequently visit vendors to sell off old equipment (which results in truly astronomical sums of cash by the end of the game) or you’ll have to break unwanted gear down into Omni-Gel, a futuristic substance that can be used for everything from overriding locks to repairing the Mako. Also, on another note, it is somewhat immersion-rattling that every locale in the game, from office buildings to abandoned ruins, has caches of body armor, assault weapons and grenades squirreled away. Office parties in the Mass Effect universe must be fucking terrifying….

Pictured: Typical ME-Universe board room (Artist's Rendition)

Pictured: Typical ME-Universe board room (Artist’s Rendition)

Each member of Shepard’s squad has their own class pre-assigned, and thus has certain abilities and weapons they can use and certain ones they can’t. It’s up to the player to pick teams to bring into the field that round out their weaknesses and compliment their strengths. Additionally, as the player completes quests and defeats enemies, Shepard and all the squad members (including those who aren’t on the active team, which is always appreciated) will gain experience points and their levels will go up. When characters gain a level, they gain a number of Squad Points that they can then spend to unlock new powers and skills, and to increase the potency of those they already have.

Powers are just what they sound like; they’re the abilities that are used from the power wheel to either buff the character using them, or cause damage or debuff enemies. Characters with a combat focus will get powers that enable their weapons to fire more rapidly, more accurately, or do more damage, or will make them tougher for a period of time. Characters with a tech focus can gain abilities that let them bring down enemy shields, hack enemy robots (including the Geth) and overload devices in a spectacular fashion.

Biotic focused characters gain telekinetic abilities that allow the player to fling enemies around like rag dolls, levitate them, freeze them in place, shred them in miniature black holes, and telekinetic barriers to supplement their shields. There aren’t MP or “Force Points” in Mass Effect, but there are cooldowns for each power, a delay that the player must wait after using a power before they can use it again. The cooldown time, damage dealt and effect duration all improve as a power is leveled up.

Passive skills aren’t activated in battle, but rather increase statistics like character health, weapon damage, damage reduction and the like. These skills are always on once they’re bought, and players should prioritize them when allocating Squad Points, since they offer a lot of bang for the buck. Additionally, some skills unlock both powers and passive skills. For example, the Shotgun skill both increases damage with shotguns, and also unlocks the Carnage power. Likewise, the Decryption and Electronics skills that Tech focused characters can learn not only unlock the Sabotage and Overload powers, respectively, but they affect what locked objects and computers the player can hack open in the environment, how efficiently the Mako can be repaired in the field and grant a bonus to the character’s shields (yeah, techies are a little unbalanced in Mass Effect).

Hmm...it's good, but it needs more "dakka."

Hmm…it’s good, but it needs more “dakka.”

Shepard also has some unique skill options that the squad members don’t when it comes to leveling up. First, after completing a particular mission and stopping a rogue military computer on a lunar base, Shepard’s class-titled passive skill will open up the option to select a secondary class that functions as a variation of the base one; all of Shepard’s previously unlocked powers will remain the same, but purchasing further ranks in the class skill will grant different bonuses than before, offering another degree of character choice and customization.

Second, Shepard is the only character who gains access to the Charm and Intimidate skills. While it may sound like Mass Effect is nothing but running around shooting people, the game involves a lot of dialogue sequences where Shepard can talk to people, learn their backstories if they’re central characters, and even romance a few of his squad mates if he wishes. Certain events in missions and the story at large can also be impacted by what Shepard says, and characters can be saved from death and conflicts can be avoided if Shepard is silver-tongued.

That’s where the Charm and Intimidate skills come into play; paying points into those fields unlocks Charm and Intimidate options in certain conversations—Charm dialogue options are highlighted in blue, while Intimidate options are highlighted in red. Both options have the potential to be real game-changers, but they can only be used if the player has put enough points into the skills. Also, advancing Charm and Intimidate is dependent on more than just spending squad points; it’s also dependent on what Shepard says and does over the course of the game.

Mass Effect has a morality system of sorts; it’s not quite as stark as the good/evil systems you’ll find in games like Fable, Infamous or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Rather than categorizing actions as “good” or “evil,” it uses the characterizations “Paragon” and “Renegade.” Paragon actions tend to be by the book; not breaking the law, being nice and respectful where appropriate, not resorting to lethal force as a first option, and respecting human/alien rights. Renegade actions break or bend the rules; resorting to violence and coercion to solve problems, being unnecessarily rude, breaking the law, and generally any action that’s self-interested and non-benevolent (though not necessarily evil, as Renegade actions frequently still contribute to a “good” goal). The dichotomy is less “good vs. evil” than it is “hero vs. anti-hero.”

Though some have observed it's more "reasonable person" vs. "unhinged asshole."

Though some have observed it’s more “reasonable person” vs. “unhinged asshole.”

In many dialogue scenes, Shepard has Paragon, Renegade and neutral responses to choose from; they aren’t clearly outlined, but on the dialogue wheel where responses are selected, Paragon options are at the top, Renegade at the bottom, and neutral in between. They’re also usually fairly obvious from the response summary provided to the player (although there are a few that are misleading and may catch you off guard). Unless the options have earth-shaking consequences, typically choosing a response will only net you a few points on the Paragon or Renegade scale.

The big bumps come from actions taken during missions. Do you spare the last member of a formerly hostile species, or destroy it? Do you attempt to save the homicidally brainwashed colonists trying to kill you, or shoot them all and let God sort it out? Decisions like this will invariably result in large numbers of Paragon or Renegade points, and will also have consequences later in the game, as well as in future Mass Effect games.

One interesting facet of the Paragon/Renegade system is that it’s not a zero-sum game; accumulating Paragon points doesn’t wipe out accumulated Renegade points, and vice-versa. The game tracks them separately. And while I don’t think it’s possible to accumulate enough points in one playthrough to achieve both full Paragon and Renegade status, you can gain a fair amount of one and max out the other if you choose. As I said earlier, Charm and Intimidate are paired with Paragon and Renegade scores, respectively. If you don’t have a high enough Paragon score, you can only purchase so many ranks of Charm, which won’t be enough to pass more difficult Charm checks later in the game, and vice-versa for Intimidate and Renegade.

But other than that, and the consequences coming from your actions, your alignment on the Paragon/Renegade scale doesn’t impact your ability to complete the game, and it doesn’t affect your relationship with your squad mates or drive them away. Certain characters clearly fall more on either the Paragon or Renegade side of things, and corresponding responses will please them or upset them, but it doesn’t impact them too much in the long run, so no need to worry about driving your friends into a homicidal rage…with one key exception, that can be bypassed with a Charm or Intimidate check.

Picture unrelated.

Picture unrelated.

Mass Effect has an impressive and colorful cast of characters. The galaxy is populated by a large number of characters who Shepard can interact with and do jobs for; as a Spectre, Shepard can go anywhere and do pretty much anything, so a lot of people want him to help sort out their problems, usually in exchange for a few credits. Many of these characters will make appearances in subsequent games, and they’ll remember what Shepard did, and didn’t, do for them, which can come back to hinder Shepard or help him in the future. Standouts include Shepard’s superior, Captain Anderson (voiced by the always-awesome Keith David), the Machiavellian Ambassador Udina, Normandy pilot Jeff “Joker” Moreau (voiced by Seth Green), and medical officer Dr. Chakwas.

But of course, the majority of the spotlight is reserved for Shepard and the members of his squad, all of whom have well-crafted backstories and sharp dialogue to tell them with. There’s Garrus Vakerian, a Turian officer in the Citadel Security force, frustrated by the red tape of being a cop, who joins Shepard to pursue Saren (a fellow Turian) against his superiors’ orders: Urdnot Wrex, a Krogan mercenary weary and frustrated by his failed attempts to help his doomed race save itself from extinction: Dr. Liara T’Soni, a scientist of the mono-gendered Asari race who is both an expert on the Protheans and the daughter of Saren’s right-hand woman, the Matriarch Benezia: Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, a member of the Quarian race, the creators of the Geth who were driven from their homeworld when the machines rebelled and now travel the galaxy in a fleet of ships, isolated in quarantine suits because of their weakened immune systems: Ashley Williams, a soldier from a military family with a love of classical Earth poetry, the lone survivor of her platoon after Saren’s attack on Eden Prime, who joins Shepard to face the galactic threat: Kaiden Alenko, a Biotic soldier under Shepard’s command who still suffers from the side effects of early, crude attempts to harness Biotic power in humans.

These squad mates become a continuing presence in subsequent games, and their journey at Shepard’s side weaves an impressive epic that rises from the attachment the player will form with these characters, and from the experiences of fighting at their side, and occasionally, deciding who lives and who dies.

Visually, the game is impressive, given that it was originally an early Xbox 360 title. The look of the game is well-designed, and rides a nice line between that squeaky-clean futuristic look of Star Trek and the utilitarian, lived-in quality of Star Wars and Aliens. The only real complaint I have on the design front is that many of the buildings and structures in on the non-colonized worlds, where side missions take place, have the same layout and look nearly identical. I suppose one could make the argument that such structures would be prefabricated and shipped to the planet, and thus would be very cookie-cutter, but in practice it feels like the designers recycled set pieces to save themselves time. Still, it’s a fairly minor flaw.

A slice of galactic civilization.

A slice of galactic civilization.

The design and concepts of the various alien races are another high point of the game.Mass Effect subscribes more to the Star Wars school of alien design, where species depart from a humanoid appearance as often as they adhere to it. The blue-skinned, tentacle-headed Asari are easily the most humanoid of the sentient races in the game, and they only get more exotic from there. The Turians, Krogan and Salarians are all bipedal, but their appearances lean toward the bird-like, reptilian and amphibian respectively, and could never be mistaken for human. The Quarians and the Volus, while generally humanoid in shape, are only seen in environment suits (the Quarians due to their poor immune system, the Volus due to the need to be in a high-pressure environment, breathing ammonia), giving both species an air of mystery and a distinctive identity at the same time. And the Elcor and Hanar don’t have the slightest semblance of humanity, appearing more closely related to elephants and jellyfish, respectively, than anything else. I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi where the alien species differ wildly from humanity, so the design and lore behind the aliens in Mass Effect really clicked with me.

From a technical standpoint, the game was at least partially made using the Unreal engine, which I’ve previously expressed my distaste for, and it has many of the attendant flaws of a game built with that engine—large amounts of texture pop-in when a level loads, dodgy frame rates during cutscenes, and the occasional geometry clipping error. The game is also somewhat crash-prone; I had to reset my PS3 from a hard-lock at least six times during the course of completing Mass Effect, so save early and often.

Sound in the game is strong; the effects all sound appropriate and are well-chosen, and the music is atmospheric and contributes well to the mood of the game. It’s nothing you’ll be humming years down the line, but it has its moments. And of course, the voice acting is excellent. Both the more well-known stars like Keith David, Seth Green and Lance Henriksen and the lesser-known voice actors all nail their performances and contribute to the feeling of authenticity and immersion the game drives home. It helps that they have some very well-written dialogue to work with, too.

At the end of the day, Mass Effect isn’t a perfect game; it definitely has a few issues. But none of those issues are enough to overpower a package that is clearly more than the sum of its parts. The lore, the design, the story and the characters all create a sense of immersion that even the occasional technical glitch can’t destroy. Mass Effect weaves a world around the player, a world where their actions have consequence, and their decisions have meaning, creating a kind of sci-fi epic that simply can’t be replicated in any other medium.

Join me next time as I continue my journey with the crew of the Normandy and fight against the Reaper menace in Mass Effect 2. Until then, when you find yourself in times of trouble, just ask yourself “What would Paragon Shepard do?