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Revisiting Mass Effect: Part 1

Nearly nine years ago BioWare released the first Mass Effect and launched one of the most beloved and well received franchises of the last console generation. With the trilogy recently being put on sale on PC and Mass Effect: Andromeda on the horizon I felt like it was as good a time as any to revisit the series.

Our trip down memory lane starts after getting about 13 hours into Mass Effect. At this point Shepard has become a Spectre and has begun her search for Saren, although she has spent most of her time exploring uncharted worlds and doing missions for Alliance Naval Command.

Meet Kylie Shepard

Say hi to Kylie Shepard.
Say hi to Kylie Shepard.

The best place to start is by introducing our heroine, Kylie Shepard. I tried to make a custom face but nothing looked good. In the end I went with the default female Shepard. Before starting I took some time to come up with a rough outline of her personality, skill set and worldview. It was a different approach than I have taken with this series in the past. Usually I build the character as I go based on what I feel in the moment but this time I wanted to roleplay a character from the beginning. The hope is that by having a defined personality I can limit my input on these decisions and avoid using knowledge gained from playing through the entire trilogy.

Kylie was space-born and a military brat, enlisting with the Alliance as a Soldier as soon as she was old enough. After seeing her unit wiped out from a thresher maw attack on Akuze and living to tell the tale she was pegged as humanity’s candidate for the Spectres; an elite group of operatives who enforce the Citadel Council’s rule through any means necessary.

Kylie is loyal to humanity and the Systems Alliance however she also realizes that they are part of a larger galaxy. She recognizes the need to coexist and cooperate with the other species to maximize humanity’s potential. She doesn’t care what you look like or what planet you’re from as long as you do your job. As a leader she expects her crew to follow her lead and obey orders. She doesn’t mind her crew freely speaking their minds as long as they recognize that she has the final say. While she is skilled with an assault rifle she prefers to handle situations through diplomacy first, although she isn’t above intimidation or coercion if it means she can get the job done without bloodshed.

Welcome to the galaxy

After getting through the initial character creation the game wastes little time introducing you to the Mass Effect universe. Between the Codex and the early dialogue options there is plenty of information to bring you up to speed and give a basic understanding of how the world works.

One of the things I noticed this time through is how well the dialogue asks questions without making Shepard seem like an idiot. Shepard doesn’t have amnesia, unlike almost every other RPG protagonist, and it wouldn’t make sense for her to be unaware of major historical events or galactic institutions. At the same time, the player is unaware of these things. The way this plays out is that rather than simply asking “What is a Spectre?” Shepard might say “What kind of missions does the Council send Spectres on?” The end result is still the same; the other character gives you an idea of what Spectres do. The difference is that the second line makes it feel more like Shepard is a part of this universe. She has heard of the Spectres and understands they answer to the Council. Instead of being a vessel for the player Shepard is someone who has lived in and experienced this galaxy.

Visually I was also surprised by how much I still was moved by some of the establishing scenes early in the game. Scenes such as the Normandy’s first approach to the Citadel gave me the same goosebumps and excitement I got when I saw them for the first time years ago. The approach to the Citadel and the scene in the Council chambers when Shepard is named a Spectre still felt powerful even seeing them again for the fourth or fifth time. It’s a testament to the direction and art design that even though the graphics haven’t aged particularly well (even on PC) the sense of wonder is still present.

Space racism is everywhere

Exploring planets leads to some fantastic skyboxes.
Exploring planets leads to some fantastic skyboxes.

One part of the galaxy I forgot about was just how much of a role racism and xenophobia played. It’s almost impossible to make it out of a conversation without having someone mention something negative about one of the races in the galaxy. It isn’t even limited to humans vs. aliens; a Turian will tell you all Krogan are bloodthirsty killers while a Salarian will tell you the Asari are too content to sit around and do nothing instead of taking action.

The one place I thought I would be free of this was on the Normandy, where aliens were valuable members of my crew. It was a bit of shock to speak to Ashley and Navigator Presley and be reminded exactly how racist these characters started out. Sure, by the end of the game they will both have come around, but it was still disgusting to realize that it was happening on my own ship.

This feeling was made even worse with the way the game handled dialogue around the issue. When speaking to Presley he expressed concerns that this was a human mission and we shouldn’t need help from aliens. My response was that Saren is a threat to the entire galaxy, not just humanity, and this dialogue choice the Renegade option. For comparison, when the game presents you with the option to kill or capture/arrest another character the Renegade option is to kill them. Based on how the game handles their morality system a stern objection to racism is the same as killing someone. It’s the most disappointing moment I have had so far with the morality and dialogue systems.

The misunderstood Mako

After you have taken time to meet your crew and explore the ship it’s time to head out and explore the galaxy. The game offers a selection of various star systems to visit and many have uncharted planets begging to be explored. Shepard’s means to explore the planet might be the most hotly debated part of Mass Effect lore, perhaps second only to the ending of Mass Effect 3.

The Mako is a six-wheeled tank that Shepard uses to get around on these unexplored planets. Most of the criticism came from the way it controlled. It’s unwieldy, bouncy and just generally hard to maneuver. On top of that the planets are covered with mountains, with the objectives located at their peaks. It was often a chore to reach the top of these mountains. Once there it was easy to fall off and be forced to find another route up. Despite all of this I was always a member of Team Mako.

The Mako, coupled with the uneven terrain, really made these uncharted planets feel unexplored. You were seeing this world in its most natural state and may have been one of its earliest visitors. After enough time I became adept at controlling the Mako and the thrill of exploring outweighed the poor control. Navigation was also helped by a much more useful map than I remember. It does a good job of showing elevations and using it I was able to plot pretty easy routes to most points of interest. In fact, with enough searching most of the time I could find what appeared to be a deliberate route up mountains. These just weren’t clearly marked. It’s disappointing that rather than try to fix the problems with these sections BioWare instead chose to cut them from the sequels and rob players of this sense of discovery.

Get used to fighting in this warehouse. You're going to see it a lot.
Get used to fighting in this warehouse. You're going to see it a lot.

The one negative worth mentioning is the repetitiveness of the environments on these uncharted planets, specifically the structures. There are really three types of structures you will encounter; the warehouse, the underground base and the mine. The floorplan is the same for each and the only difference is where cover is located within them. This time through I figured I would come up with an in-world justification for this. I decided it had to be because the companies doing the exploration/excavation would use low cost, prefabricated structures that could be brought in by spaceship. While it makes sense that explorers would use prefab buildings and these would have the same layout it doesn’t mean it’s not boring.

Going in guns blazing

Exploration and conversation make up two-thirds of Mass Effect but the game wouldn’t be complete without combat. This is the part of the game that was most different from what I remembered. Playing as a Soldier (on Veteran difficulty), and thus focusing heavily on weapon combat, exposes the game’s shortcomings a third-person shooter. Additionally, the game’s roots as a BioWare RPG place a stronger focus on squad management than its sequels.

In all of my previous playthroughs I have played as a Biotic or Tech class. This gave access to several abilities that could be activated from the tactical pause menu to deal damage or incapacitate foes. The Soldier is a pure combat class however and relies on weaponry. I have found that after years of playing shooters, the Mass Effect combat has become much more challenging for me. Part of this is because the game doesn’t handle like a modern shooter. The sway on a sniper rifle is extremely difficult to compensate for, especially without a “hold breath” option. The assault rifle, which should be my primary weapon in most encounters, is almost comically inaccurate after any amount of sustained fire. It has forced me to embrace shotguns, a weapon I never used in any Mass Effect game until now. My combat strategy is to take cover and let the enemy come to me. Once I have thinned their ranks I then storm them and take out the stragglers.

The combat in Mass Effect also has more in common with Dragon Age: Origins than it does Gears of War. While your squad will use powers on their own, positioning is almost exclusively managed by the player. It has resulted in plenty of situations where I have forgotten to put my squad into cover and have to fight my way out of battles on my own. It also means that in order to tip the scales in your favor you need to actively manage your entire squad and not just Shepard. While this would be second nature to someone trained on classic BioWare RPGs it hasn’t been as easy to come back to, especially when the sequels have moved away from it.

Into the great wide open

With about a third of the game behind me (based on previous play times) there is still plenty to see. Now that I have gotten the broad strokes of gameplay and world building out of the way it’s time to focus on the decisions ahead. In Part 2 I expect to discuss the plot and some of the major decisions coming up. I’m looking forward to checking back in on Kylie Shepard in another 10-15 hours.