Revisiting Mass Effect

I had a sudden spurt of nostalgia (might have been the late-winter blues kicking in) a few months back, and found myself in my Steam account staring at my row of Mass Effect games. (The originals, not the Andro-bomination.)

And I suddenly realised I really felt like replaying ME.

Part of that urge may have been the fact that my other option was reformatting the print copy of Fighting Shadows, and I didn’t have the stamina (or the alcohol).

But anyway, I fired up Mass Effect 1, had the obligatory fight with Steam + mods + ‘you want the game files stored where‘, and an hour or so later was thoroughly in the mood for blowing away hordes of Geth on my way through Eden.

It’s all about the story

I don’t play games to go online and socialise with adolescents (mental or actual), so if I end up playing and replaying a computer game, it’s because the game environment, the characters I can customise, and the story complexity all add up to something I’m willing to spend my time on even once the surprises have all worn off.

ME1 launched in 2007, so by any lights, it’s an old game by this point, and since I’m now playing on a 2560×1440 screen, you can see that (in fact, the Steam variant maxed out at something like 1920×1080 resolution).

On the other hand, if you can ignore a certain amount of graphic clunkiness, the game is still a lot of fun. The player character comes in six basic flavours ranging from tech through biotic to your basic chest-beating tank, and someone with a brain set up the character types, because they’re all playable, and they all have (by comparison with many games) fairly balanced advantages and disadvantages.

You also get a good range of appearance options, without ending up on the crazy end of the scale (I love the Elder Scrolls games, but you can waste a full day setting up your character appearance if you choose to tweak all  the variables).

Playing the game

ME1 is the only one where you don’t start the game neck deep in shit and sinking fast; in fact, you get notified you’re being considered for an elite squad of special operatives and get booted out of Normandy’s loading bay – your only major handicap is shitty intel on what’s actually supposed to be happening on the ground. By comparison with the problems you face five minutes into ME2 and ME3, that’s kiddy stuff.

ME1 is the first in the series, and you can see that as you play through: the character types aren’t quite as defined as they are by the time you hit ME2, the main NPCs aren’t quite as well-rounded as they are in the next two games, and at least until you put some numbers into your fight stats, even a Husk can do more than ruffle your hair (which is a bit of nuisance as you meet a lot of them during your first mission…)

On the other hand, a lot of the elements I like about all three games are there in ME1 – the main NPCs, including Garrus, who starts out very watered down in ME1 before coming into his own as a talented shit-disturber in ME2 and ME3; the paragon / renegade options, which make your interactions with the game much more nuanced than simply choosing the dialogue option closest to what you actually want to say, and of course the setting of the game itself.

Oh, and there’s a story beyond the “go there, shoot that”. The overarching story through the ME games, and the character interactions, are really why I keep going back to games that are over a decade old. To my mind they’re good in ME1, excellent in ME2, and still pretty entertaining in ME3.

The Mass Effect universe

Like a lot of people, until I hit high school and got throughly put off science and mathematics by a series of teachers who might have been much more interesting without the constraints of the school curriculum, I wanted to be an astronaut and explore strange new worlds (and climbed my parents’ bookshelves to get at the books clearly considered less-than-improving for an 8-year-old, like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern series).

There’s a nice range of planets and ships, and the opposition you end up fighting fits with the storyline. There’s also several allied species, which, while the majority are surprisingly bipedal and share a very human frame of reference, are at least a decent try.

The mass effect relays get neatly around the whole problem of light-speed (good old ‘alien tech’, can’t beat it for sci-fi), and someone who knew their audience set up the galaxy map you navigate by and the backdrops to the systems you can explore. (That said, there are entire weeks when I want just one minute alone in a scream-proofed room to make my point to the individual who programmed the Mako, which steers like a pig on hot ice in zero-gee no matter the terrain, the alleged environment, or the actual steering commands you give.)

ME1 relies heavily on omnigel, which does everything from fixing the Mako (which gets its ass blown away with tedious regularity when fighting anything with bigger guns than the local equivalent of mosquitoes) to letting you into lockers and rooms that you otherwise blow your chance to get into.

ME2 has a much more interesting system for breaking into things, which relies on solving basic pattern-puzzles on a time limit to bypass locks on rooms and safes. It also has by far the best vehicle for surface exploration, which is more of a skimmer / hover-craft…although it does share certain tell-tale steering similarities with the ME1 Mako, at least the fact that the thing is airborne makes those idiosyncracies slightly more logical.

ME3, unfortunately, decided to retire the bypass options for rooms and lockers (your omni-tool takes care of that), and any planetary exploration is done on foot – although the lack of aggravation from the steering is more than made up for by the local-area navigation system, which will ping your compass with the direction of the next goal and nothing more in most situations (much less help than you might imagine when there’s several different floors to choose from, although the good ol’ ‘take the path of most resistance’ is usually reliable).

The characters

I won’t spend a lot of time on the romance options, because there’s multiple articles on which NPCs your character can romance in each of the games (in fact, it’s a fine line in ME1 between ‘being friendly enough to get the character missions’ and ‘leading them on’), but suffice it to say you can date crew in all three games by talking to them and picking the right dialogue options. It doesn’t have a huge amount of effect on the main story other than a few cutscenes in strategic places. 

However, while Ashley has forever made herself my designated DB in ME1 by an unappealing mix of racism (specieism?) and fundamentalism, talking with the rest of the crew nets you missions and entertainment. It’s not bad in ME1, but the conversations in ME2 are fantastic, as are some of the interactions on loyalty missions between crew and NPCs (one of my favourites shows up on Miranda’s loyalty mission, where the Eclipse unit leader comes out with “Oh, I was just waiting for you to finish getting dressed – does Cerberus really let you whore around in that outfit?” right before Miranda blows her away).

The ME2 loyalty missions are one of the highlights that don’t really show up in either ME1 or ME3, much to my regret. Each of your core crew in ME2 shows up and joins the crew with basic skills and one outfit. After they’ve spent varying time aboard, each of them will open up to Shepard a bit and confess there’s something eating away at them (psychopathic daughter, secret twin, accusation of treason, you name it) which Shepard can help them sort out. Once you do, the character develops an extra skill, which ranges from the ‘why did you bother’ to ‘seriously kick-ass’, as well as an extra outift option (that last becomes a bit less interesting if you’ve invested in some of the mods, which can provide alternatives).

Whether or not you complete loyalty missions also has knock-on effects in ME3  (another fun part of this series is that someone had the foresight to plan ahead enough to let some of the decisions made in each game impact the next ones). 

Mass Effect Legendary edition

Happily, there’s an updated version of the trilogy coming out in May 2021, which I did splurge on. As it’s coming from Bioware, it’ll undoubtedly be buggy as hell until enough people complain, but I’m promised an update to the graphics I was whining about, and some of the mods the designeers consider key. We may not agree on that selection, but hopefully sooner or later some enterprising person will set up the actual key mods, including the fix for the disastrous ME3 ending, to function with the new version. 

I’m living in hopes that this is the warm-up to another ME game that’s not the same level of fuck-up as Andromeda, but even if not, I’ll cheerfully take an updated and shiny version of the original trilogy, since I don’t seem to be bored of playing them yet.