Friday, 24 March 2017

Mass Effect - Retrospective Review

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios/EA
Platforms: PC, PS3, 360 

Mass Effect marked a distinct turning point in Bioware games. You could see the start of this change in Jade Empire; a shift away from the typical point-and-click oriented RPGs; ones that are essentially playable campaigns straight from Dungeons and Dragons.  It’s no surprise that a good portion of the earlier (and most beloved, in many cases) of Bioware’s back catalogue use reworked rules systems straight out of D&D.

Mass Effect broke away from that convention. It moved away from the masses of readable text and instead had the player choose dialogue options from a wheel that have, at maximum, six choices. Many older players, and you’ve no doubt seen that image, point to this as the biggest sign that Bioware were “dumbing down”; shifting away from their earlier, more cerebral roots and instead catering to players more comfortable shooting at NPCs rather than talking to them.

I think this is somewhat unfair to the original Mass Effect, considering that it has so much going on. Returning to Mass Effect is...well...weird. Its combat system has not aged well at all; trapped between a more typical western RPG system of powers, stats and cooldowns, and the duck-and-shoot rhythm of a post-Gears of War shooter. It’s clunky and it doesn’t know which side to fall on. Is it an RPG with shooter mechanics, or a shooter with RPG mechanics? Well, it’s both, and that’s what makes it so weird.

It’s also hilariously, ridiculously unbalanced. By about halfway through a typical playthrough of the game, Shepherd will reach a point where basic enemies no longer pose even an inkling of threat. Missile shots from Geth, which are an absolute death sentence early on, will likely be shrugged off as you bombard them with whatever powers you have available.

I think this is the primary issue that the first Mass Effect always had, alongside its inherent clunkiness. The game really struggles to balance the power system that underpins its central shooter gameplay. It needs the powers to keep the game interesting, if they weren’t there, ready and available, an average gunfight would be nothing but awkward bouts of gunfire. With how they are handled though, you end up with fights that are essentially about dumping as many powers on opposing enemies as possible. Mass Effect’s powers might give its combat more depth, but they’re more than a little dumb.

This should come with the caveat that the power system itself is handled rather well. The game’s three core classes Soldier, Engineer and Biotic all feel and play rather differently actually, and Bioware do a decent job of not making the three classes simply sci-fi copy-pastes of their respective fantasy equivalents. Engineers in particular, along with the Tech-based hybrid classes, feel suitably unique, despite the game essentially just mixing up the same handful of powers and skills across its six classes.

In other words, despite the game’s inherent flaws in its combat system, it’s hard to knock what Mass Effect was trying to do. This was still Bioware in experiment phase. It’s clunky, has aged poorly, and feels rather awkward to play (the cover system is utterly abysmal a good portion of the time, to the point where I go out my way to avoid it), but the fact that it does so much in terms of being a shooter and being a quasi-strategic RPG experience, it’d be unfair to completely write off what the game does.

Starting a retrospective about Mass Effect and discussing the combat is perhaps a little odd. If you asked fans what their most memorable parts of the game were, it’s rarely going to be the combat, or the gameplay at all, in fact. Most likely they’ll say it’s the characters and story.

And while that might be the case, and they are certainly the strongest aspects of the game, and the series as a whole, I don’t think it’s right to ignore the game’s combat and mechanical systems just because they might not be the primary focus. After all, it’s still a game. Were the writing the only thing to focus on, you could shift Mass Effect to a different medium such as film or TV and essentially have the same experience.

However, film and TV do have a massive impact on Mass Effect. The game’s world isn’t really all that original as a sci-fi concept, but what it is good at is cherry-picking, amalgamating and reimagining the bits and pieces of sci-fi from popular culture.

First off, you’ve got the central concept of being the commanding officer of a starship (very Star Trek), you’ve got an elite group of agents, the SPECTRES, that aren’t beholden to the same laws and rules as everyone else in the Council but are there to uphold it, again, very Star Trek but with a dash of Jedi about it. If the Jedi aspect wasn’t completely hinted at yet, the primary villain of the game is the best ever SPECTRE, who’s gone rogue, and he augments his body with bits of machinery. (Pst, hey, pst, I think he’s meant to be a bit like Darth Vader. Don’t tell anyone).

 There’s other bits and pieces of sci-fi here and there. The Geth have their roots in numerous science fiction stories about artificial intelligence, Blade Runner, Terminator, The Matrix, I could go on. This isn’t to sound cynical about Mass Effect’s influences, mind. The game might crib its ideas from other sources but it uses them all to great effect, reworking them for its own ends.

The game’s alien races, likewise, are interesting and well thought out. Many role-playing games with large expansive worlds have a similar “codex” to Mass Effect, one that lays out additional information about the world and the creatures that inhabit it. Some games use this tab as a kind of lazy info dump for information they couldn’t otherwise fit into the story. In most cases I see this as clunky and underwhelming world-building.

By contrast Mass Effect’s codex is genuinely interesting, and part of that is because the world and the alien species that inhabit it are also interesting. The Turians, Salarians and Asari, along with the other races, are all fleshed out enough within the story that you want to go looking up additional information about their cultures. I like how the main three council races are a giant meta-version of the central combat system: the Turians manage the Council’s military (combat), the Salarians are scientists and experts in espionage (tech), and the Asari are councillors, advisors and potent biotics, it’s a cute idea.

One genius touch about Mass Effect’s story-telling, and it’s something that a lot of modern media could take huge notes from, is that it works in isolation and as part of a wider trilogy. This might sound obvious, and plenty of series do this, but in Mass Effect it works incredibly well.

As a stand-alone story, Mass Effect works flawlessly. There’s a primary villain, Sarren, and there’s clear motivation for why he needs to be stopped. However, there’s a greater threat that lurks behind him, the Reapers. The Reapers aren’t at the forefront of the game, and even after the game’s climax, the Council still stupidly refuse to acknowledge that there’s a bigger problem out there in the galaxy. It’s a plot/story structure that’s incredibly well balanced, where we get a satisfying story right now, but bigger seeds are planted for the sequel.

In addition to all of this there’s the individual character moments and smaller storylines that grew in significance as the series progressed, and the way the seeds of those stories is planted in the first game is great. Mass Effect has great characters, ones that are likeable and relatable and are perhaps the most memorable thing about the series, (and part of the reason Mass Effect 3’s ending is so darn insulting).

More importantly however, those personal connections the player has to their squad mates translates to the bigger stories that the game begins to hint at in this first instalment. We care about the genophage because of how it affects Wrex, we care about the Quarian/Geth conflict because of how it affects Tali and so on. It’s smart writing but what’s more impressive is that it’s smart writing that involves the player’s interactivity. Depending on how the player invests their time with Wrex they might have different thoughts about the genophage for instance, and the sequel would go on to complicate these side stories even further with the introduction of characters like Mordin and Legion.

This is how you have a game tell a linear story and yet still retain its gameplay and interactivity. It doesn’t simply morph into a movie because the way the player interacts with the individual characters informs their opinions on the wider stories that play out.

Granted, there are a few things story-wise that the game doesn’t push nearly enough, and continued to struggle with in the sequels. The biggest one is the Paragon/Renegade push and pull. Bioware have always dealt in this dual-morality but Mass Effect struggles to give it a deeper meaning or context.

During my most recent playthrough prior to this retrospective it was more noticeable that Garrus is clearly established as the character designed to explore the Paragon/Renegade concept. Garrus is a “good” character, a likeable guy, a series favourite, and one that wants to do the right thing, whatever that may be. He’s trapped between government bureaucracy and the rule of law, and outright vigilantism, and the game would have worked better had it translated Garrus’ struggle to the one that Shepherd experiences in her/his dealings with the council. Instead, the council are just snooty and annoying, and being a renegade basically turns Shepherd into a giant asshole.

Speaking of assholes, the political elements of the plot suffer from the exact same problem. The final decision of the game is who Shepherd decides to give the job of human representative to, with the candidates being Udina or Anderson. That’s hardly a choice. Udina directly interferes with your chances of saving the Citadel when he straight up grounds your ship and prevents you from taking off during the build up to the climax.

Likewise, you have a previous connection with Anderson prior to meeting Udina, since he’s with you from the very beginning of the game. Hell, he even narrates your characters backstory during the opening.

Picking Anderson for the job also seems wrong with what Shepherd says during the ending. When you choose him, Shepherd says something along the lines of “we need less politicians and more military guys running things”. This is me playing a paragon Shepherd, and my character seems to be arguing for less democracy and more military involvement. I understand that the intention of the line is probably more along the lines of “politicians are self-serving morons”, and I understand that, I hate most politicians as well, but part of that whole bit of dialogue just spooks me a little bit. Why couldn’t Shepherd have said something about Anderson being his friend and therefore trusting him? That’s why I (and I’m imagining most people) picked him after all.

I bring this up because the whole Anderson/Udina decision would have been a great way to explore the Paragon/Renegade dynamic. Udina should have been the Paragon choice.

Wait, come back, hear me out.

Rather than just being snivelling git for the entire game, Udina should have been the one arguing for greater transparency and democracy within the Council. This would explain his anger and frustration at what he sees as the Council shafting humans a seat at the table, which the game sets up anyway.

In contrast, Anderson should have been a little harder, a bit more cynical. Again, this isn’t dramatically altering his character since he’s already a little like this. As a world-weary former soldier, he could have been the pragmatic foil to Udina. When it comes to the build-up to the finale, have the Council, not Udina, ground the Normandy, and then have the player make a choice between asking for Anderson’s help or Udina’s.

Now, both have clear pros and cons. Udina would help negotiate for the Normandy to be allowed to leave (even if the Council wouldn’t send any of the fleet with it) in order to stop Sovereign. However, maybe Udina’s way is a bit too soft and could end up not working. Meanwhile, convincing Anderson for help would be the direct choice, with him barging into the Council and overriding the lock down that prevents the Normandy from leaving. It’s clear and direct, but could cause trouble for the Alliance.

Ok, I’ll take the writing cap off now. It’s a minor change to the story but one that I think shows, that with a bit more forethought, the game could have mined far more potential out of the Paragon/Renegade idea rather than simply being a case of playing as a good or evil character.

Then, there’s the Mako, that one bit of Mass Effect that never returned for either of its immediate sequels. Sure, there was that one vague nod to it in one of Mass Effect 2’s DLCs but that was about it.

It’s worth talking about though, primarily because it seems to be a huge influence on what Mass Effect: Andromeda is going to be about. Andromeda seems to be primarily focused on exploration and investigating new planets, a concept that has its roots, funnily enough, in this first instalment.

Mass Effect’s take on exploration isn’t anything groundbreaking but it does give the game a bigger scope than it would otherwise be able to managed. Exploring different clusters of star systems, taking on side quests, going to various planets, all of which are essentially the same save for a different skybox and terrain. It’s the game’s way of building a world bigger than it would otherwise have been. It’s a simple idea that’s solid and functional.

I don’t have anything too bad to say about the Mako either. I know a lot of people seem to complain about it in retrospect for being clunky and difficult to control, but I never found it egregiously bad. It’s included in all four of the game’s primary missions to break up the pacing and it does that fairly well I feel. Again, it’s a bit bland and repetitive looking back, but for what they did with it, I don’t particularly hate it.

In fact I’m actually impressed by all of the games side content in a lot of ways, primarily because it does a lot better job of doing what No Man’s Sky set out to do, and it’s not even the main focus of this game. Think about it, going to all of those uncharted planets to pick up dog tags, asari writings and promethean relics, it’s all filler but it essentially evokes the same feeling of what No Man’s Sky was meant to be all about. And best of all, it wasn’t even what the game was even about. Think about that for a moment; Mass Effect gets closer to the intended tone of No Man’s Sky in its side missions, than No Man’s Sky can get in its entirety.

I’m cautiously optimistic about Mass Effect: Andromeda even though open world navigation, crafting and so on, is not what I’d really want the game to primarily focus on. What it does show however, is that, for all of its growing pains, the original Mass Effect still has some chunks of design space that are worth mining. It’s a game that’s certainly aged, and definitely not for the better in most cases, and going back to it can still be frustrating after the epic non-ending of Mass Effect 3.

Still, it’s a cracking game, and perhaps, more so than either of its sequels, captured that adventurous spirit of exploring deep space.


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