In the last entry, I highlighted the most egregious problems of Mass Effect. But the fact remains that I’ve played it to completion twice, when I don’t manage to complete most of the games I start. Clearly, it’s doing something right. To round out my coverage of the first Mass Effect, I’ll take a stab at explaining what that is.
Guns and Conversation
While Rock Paper Shotgun first coined the term “Guns and Conversation” to refer to the genre that Mass Effect 2 inhabits, it certainly refers to the original as well. It’s a genre I want to see more of. For all of its failings, Mass Effect is following in the footsteps of classics like Deus Ex and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, melding the act of Shoot Bad People Fall Down with a healthy dose of dialog trees. It’s not an immersive sim like these predecessors; it doesn’t contain nearly as many quest hubs, and segregates its action from its storytelling pretty severely. But it’s making a genuine attempt to invest the normally mindless action of the third-person shooter with some sort of context and meaning.
Maybe this is a mistake. The more we take the shooter seriously, the more a conscientious individual must ask why we’re murdering for fun. When we divorce it from its arcade roots, it becomes disturbing. But given that the shooter isn’t going anywhere, I think this is the lesser of two evils; better to force engagement then dodge it. To Mass Effect‘s credit, it ameliorates this by having us mostly kill space-zombies, sociopathic robots, and insane insectoids.
It’s far from perfect, but as of 2007 it was the most popular attempt at a genre I believe in, and that’s worth a lot.
Sincere Science Fiction
Even if they gave Nebula awards for video games, Mass Effect wouldn’t be winning any. It doesn’t really have an original thought in its head, and the main plot (involving the inexplicably genocidal Reapers and their PLOT FROM DARKSPACE) is about as banal as sci-fi gets. Yet the developers did far better with world-building and characterization than they did with the plot. The Codex shows that these writers continually asked each other questions about the universe and how it functioned. What are the religious beliefs of these cultures? How do contemporary weapons and armor function? How does starship combat and comm transmissions work? Their answers aren’t going to satisfy devotees of hard science fiction, but that’s a given; you have to have faster-than-light travel and a surfeit of habitable worlds for the story Bioware wants to tell. At the very least, the creators put more effort into fleshing out a setting than any other sci-fi game in recent memory. And at every step of the way, they’re sincere; for all its warts, it comes across as a labor of love by fans of space opera.
On top of that, there’s a wonderful attention to detail in the planetary descriptions. If exploring the planet’s surface is surprisingly underwhelming, than the top-level descriptions provided are far more authentic than one would expect in a video game. The writer clearly knew their planetary science, and the overviews provide just the right balance of realistic banality (because, after all, all known planets are just lifeless hunks of various elements) and narrative background. It has little bearing on the meat of the game, but it’s one of the aspects of the fiction that stands out for going the extra mile.
If there is one thing that Bioware has delivered consistently in every game they’ve made, it’s quest density. At no point is your character without something to do. There are always places to go, and people to talk to (and/or kill). Sidequests are heaped on faster than you can tackle them, assuming you’re going through the main questline at a reasonable pace.
There’s nothing particularly clever about this design trick, but it works; even when you hit the fat middle and pacing issues rear their ugly head, there is always a short-term goal to accomplish, something to keep you moving to the next stage of the game. The fact that the developers best at this (Bioware and Bethesda) have become the sole Western developers churning out AAA single-player RPGs shows just how important this is for keeping players’ attention.
A Solid Combat System
Mass Effect‘s combat system isn’t going to win any awards; the shooting mechanics are about as bare-bones as you get. Arguably the hardest thing to get right in a shooter is the “feel” of firing the weapon, as the game must somehow convey the weight, power, and kick of the gun without any haptic feedback. Mass Effect doesn’t even try to do this, instead giving the player guns that use (you guessed it) mass effect fields to fire infinite bullets with little recoil until they overheat.
But this flaw aside, there’s nothing really *wrong* with the combat system, and in a sense it’s a pleasant throwback; while there’s a rudimentary cover system, I never used it. This has a lot more in common with the third person shooters of the ’90s than the post Gears-of-War coverfests, and running around and mowing down space monsters without any of the pseudo-realism that plagues the modern shooter is refreshing. Your character’s powers, and the ability to give commands to your squadmates, provide just enough variety to keep it from being tiresome.
Again, it’s not fantastic, but it’s a welcome change from the “D&D for Dummies” combat system Bioware had employed for KOTOR; it requires active involvement and is a strong counterbalance to the game’s many monologues.
The “dialog wheel” was one of the most advertised features of Mass Effect, and the focus in trailers (such as this E3 2006 trailer, which among other things continually assures us that Mass Effect will be “realistic”) was on the fluidity of the responses.
The dialog wheel has some serious issues, most of which I covered in my criticisms of the Paragon/Renegade system, but the flow does work. It pops up just early enough to pick one of the short responses, and Shepard responds without the awkward pause you normally see in dialogue trees. Hooray! Interactive cutscenes! Not the height of game narrative, but if you’re going to try and be cinematic you may as well go whole hog, and this minor innovation eliminates one of the major incongruities in the film-game.
A Krogan Named Wrex
Mass Effect provides six characters than can adventure with Shepard. In standard Bioware fashion, they’re all walking archetypes; you can chart a character’s narrative trajectory and guess at their history pretty shortly after meeting them. There are few surprises, because Bioware is not going for surprises. These characters are proven crowd-pleasers, and the player will know exactly what dialog-therapy to provide them as the game goes on.
Of these, Urndot Wrex is clearly the standout. It’s hard to pin down exactly why, but I think it’s because he comes off as autonomous. Every other character is overtly subservient to and reliant on Shepard, as part of the whole power-fantasy thing. Wrex, on the other hand, is just along for the ride. As an outsider, he feels free to call out all the bullshit happening around him, which seems to please pretty much everyone. Players invested in the narrative view it as comic relief, while those less enthused will feel better knowing there is at least one other character in the galaxy who shares their cynicism.
By virtue of being the only substantial Krogan character, Wrex also finds himself at the center of the genophage issue, which is the one legitimately moral gray area in the game. As noted in the last entry, Mass Effect squanders the setup by forcing a position on the player, but I still found Wrex’s backstory genuinely thought-provoking and occasionally challenging.
Lastly, one can’t talk about Wrex without mentioning the performance of voice actor Steven Barr. The high cost associated with voice acting often limits the narratives of games and, in my opinion, has more drawbacks than benefits; but performances like Barr’s reminds us that the best actors can deliver a complexity to a character that can’t be expressed by writing alone.