My god have story-driven games come a long way since 2007. This was a tough play-through after God of War, which I finished last week on PC. GoW was graphically gorgeous, made combat very fun, and its tightly-focused storyline about a father and son made me care deeply about its characters. I found myself in tears at the end and not since Red Dead Redemption 2 has a game wrung so much emotion out of me. I know it's not a fair comparison with Mass Effect, but it is a stark reminder of just how much big-name titles have evolved over the last decade or so.
I played Mass Effect on the advice of multiple friends, on whom this series made a big impact. I'm still making my way through Mass Effect 2 (already markedly better) at the moment so we'll see how much it pans out, but they recommended I evaluate the series as a whole, with Mass Effect 2 and 3 being where things get really good.
FYI: Spoilers below.
It sets up the storyline and universe for the other Mass Effects, I guess, which is why I didn't grade it an "F." Taken on their own, the backstory and environment of Mass Effect are compelling and vibey. I would read books that build on them.
In general, the first Mass Effect feels like a cheap Halo knockoff. The main character, Commander Shepard, might as well be Master Chief unmasked. The Mako is a shitty Warthog. The Normandy is the Pillar of Autumn.
Every character is cardboard, especially Shepard. He's a tough-guy marine type and the quests offer nothing to complicate his persona or increase his likability. I would've appreciated if he was a collector of Pokemon cards or something like that to offset his one-dimensionality. As Shepard, you mainly punch/shoot people, figure out how to open locked doors, and that's really it.
At several points, the game forces the player to make tough decisions, like the choice between destroying the main bad guy, Sovereign, and saving the Council (a governing body for all species in the galaxy). Whichever decision you make, Shepard takes it all in stride, like he knew he was right all along. There isn't really any kind of hand-wringing or wallowing like one would expect from a human being: "ah man, that was hard. I really feel for all of the people my big decision just fucked over."
No offense to Mark Meer, the voice actor for Shepard, but the tone of his voice doesn't really adapt or change much based on the situation. It's just kind of flat all the time, which makes it feel like talking with the crew holds the same gravity as the final showdown with Saren.
None of the other characters get fleshed out either. The female ones are uniformly busty and undifferentiated.
I played Mass Effect Legendary Edition and, compared to the original XBox 360 assets, these graphics were enormously improved. But, there were still many moments that left me giggling. It's the eyes. People’s eyes make them look psychopathic and it takes the seriousness out of almost every situation.
One thing that really annoyed me was that the game completely softens or alters the user-selected dialogue options. I'd select a prompt like "You asshole!" and then Shepard would proceed to say something like "You're being difficult." This happens over and over and I can't remember if Shepard actually ever said what I selected on the dialogue wheel.
Notes I jotted down on my phone as I played:
- The combat is unsatisfying. For example, there's a bludgeon mechanic where you can walk up to an enemy and press B. However, it's really like a small bump with Shepard's elbow and they fall over, dead. It's so far removed from the God of War-style savage attacks that you can practically feel through the screen. That said, the squad-style combat was likely an interesting innovation for its time. I see this pattern repeated in more recent games, like the Far Cry series, where you can sic your AI pal on an enemy or have them move to a location.
- There’s a lot of choring early game and not a lot of combat. It's weird because combat is clearly what most of the game is built around with all of the equipment and squad management options.
- The objective system leaves you guessing and walking around for a long time to find some person or alien for a piece of dialogue to advance the game. You have to flick constantly between the Journal and the Map to figure out where to go. And maps aren't connected! If you're on the wrong floor, you can't see the names of the rooms from your journal that signpost where Shepard is supposed to head. The in-game heads-up objective display I assume was created because developers realized this kind of thing interrupts you constantly, diving into a menu to remember what you're supposed to be doing. A HUD keeps the game flowing.
- Why am I fatigued after sprinting for 10 yards? Isn't this guy a badass space marine?
- Dumb puzzles. For example: The core stack mover thing. I didn't want to take the time to figure it out and had to convert all of my gear into Omni-gel except one gun to pay to get past this part.
- My decryption levels were never high enough to crack 90% of the loot boxes even late game.
- Fucking elevators all the time.
- The Mako. I don't know what to Mako' it. The handling defies all expectation.
We'll see what they fixed in Mass Effect 2.