I’ve just finished playing Mass Effect and Mass Effect: 2, and I have a declaration: Mass Effect is the best game I have ever played.
Do I think that Mass Effect is a perfect game? I do not. Do I think it could be improved? Sure I do. But the imperfections don’t prevent Mass Effect from being better than any game I have ever played. It is rough because it is trying things, and the big things it accomplishes make up for the little things it misses.
Now that I’ve established my thesis, a few clarifications: firstly, for the purpose of this review, I’m considering the first two games as a single unit. If I need to refer to a specific installment, I’ll say ME1 or ME2, otherwise assume I’m talking about the series as a whole. Secondly: the main character is Commander Shepard, who is male by default, but can be played as female. Most of my experience is with the female version, so I may throw in some female pronouns. Now that that’s out of the way, onward.
Mass effect combines a mishmash of genre gameplay types to create an experience unlike anything else. It is a game that allows the player a great deal of choice, freedom, and personal investment without taking place in a sandbox. Players proceed through a fairly linear story with a few truly significant decisions, while still feeling like they have ownership of almost every situation. It provides strong, well-written characters and settings, but lets the player shape them. More importantly, it lets players shape their relationship with the world around them.
There are two types of main character you can have in a game: a pre-written protagonist and a freeform player creation. Some characters switch between these roles, depending on the type of gameplay you are currently engaging in: GTA IV’s Niko Bellic is pre-written during many cutscenes, but he’s an escapist freeform blob while roaming the streets. In a lot of modern games, a sprinkling of linear story is periodically layered onto the formless goo of the sandbox, creating a tasty gameplay parfait. This can create a disconnect in characterization between sandbox and storyline portions. When viewed from outside the game, characters appear to behave inconsistently: Dead Rising 2 fans often joke about “concerned dad” Chuck messing around with costumes instead of finding medication for his sick daughter. This disconnect is considered something of a necessary evil, required to provide players with the freedom to play the game their own way. To me, this is a false assumption, which begs the question: if the fun part of the gameplay isn’t in-character, why not change the character so they’re the kind of person who would do fun things?
Mass effect neatly avoids this trap. The fun in Mass Effect comes from things the character logically wants to do: join the Spectres, meet interesting people, and kill them. What’s more, any action Shepard takes feels in-character, because the actions Shepard takes determine her character. Shoot a guy in the leg instead of talking to him? Your Shepard has just become the kind of person who shoots people in the leg, seamlessly, even if she’s been a perfectly reasonable person so far. If you’ve been playing her as a renegade, that dude obviously just messed with the wrong badass If you’ve been playing her as a paragon, she feels like a reasonable person who was simply pushed too far. This naturalness emerges from the variety and intuitiveness of the options Shepard is presented with, as well as the seamless writing that maintains tone no matter what path is chosen. Other games have similar variety of choice, but the excellent voice acting for every line of Shepard’s dialogue makes these conversations seem more real. It makes the game feel more like a movie than a choose-your-own-adventure novel.
The dialogue, social, and relationship aspects of Mass Effect’s gameplay are excellent, but that’s only to be expected from a Bioware RPG. In ME1, the combat portion of the game is adequate and interesting but heavily flawed, while in ME2 it’s streamlined but more generic. Where Mass Effect shines is how it mixes dialogue and face-shooting: whenever I was about to get tired of combat, I’d stumble into a dialogue-wheel plot intersection or a tactical roleplaying decision. Conversely, when I was getting tired of talking, I could usually expect some action right around the corner. It’s this balance that makes the game feel so whole: through the next tunnel could be a room filled dangerous enemies, or a scientist cowering in a corner, waiting to confront you with moral ambiguity. Similarly, a lot of seemingly ordinary conversations have a high probability of erupting into gunfire; if you’re not the talking type, there are plenty of opportunities to shoot first and completely neglect to ever ask questions. These transitions make everything you do feel real, relevant, and in-character.
Unfortunately, sometimes all this great writing hints at more than the game can deliver, content-wise. I often found myself wanting even more interaction than was provided, and when an NPC’s content has been temporarily exhausted, it’s laughably obvious and endlessly picked-apart; ask any ME2 fan about calibrations, and they’ll agree. Still, this is evidence of another thing that makes Mass Effect great: its willingness to do something cool even if the ideal implementation is impossible. The love interests and squad-chemistry character development aren’t perfect – they’re just the best I’ve ever seen, by a wide margin.
A lot of people say that Mass Effect offers the illusion of choice rather than actual choice; this is both true and misleading. Mass effect let me choose how I felt about my companions, and act upon those choices, which caused me to develop stronger connections to my party. It also neatly sidesteps an immersion-breaking trap many other RPGs fall into. Often I’ll be loving the main character in a narrative game, when suddenly they do something I feel is massively out-of-character, or fundamentally stupid. Usually I’ll facepalm and move on, but my rating goes down a few tenths of a point. When the kickass girl I love playing goes for the doofy hunk instead of the sarcastic nerd, I’ll shake my fist impotently at the sky, and curse my unique taste in men. Mass Effect ensures that you will rarely have your immersion shattered in this way. The associated paragon and renegade system also takes the first important step away from reducing all moral choice to Mother Theresa or baby-eating. The choices are less about evil and more about attitude, which makes them feel more valid.
This doesn’t just apply to character development, it’s also a big part of how you interact with the main plot. I’ll give you a spoiler-free example: say Murray is your boss. You can choose to be nice and deferential to him, or rude and disrespectful. This will determine the tenor of your next conversation, and your relationship with him throughout the game. Now, at the end of the game there’s a huge decision: you can either help Murray or get him fired. If you help him, he instantly forgives your past misconduct, while if you get him fired, all that goodwill you’ve built up counts for nothing. You could argue that this means that all those little choices didn’t matter, but the smaller decisions influence who Shepard is, and give the player ownership of Shepard’s decisions, attitude, and identity. Shepard’s personality has more more weight than characters in games where you’re given only a small number of good-or-evil turning-point decisions.
When you do finally encounter the major plot points, with their weighty repercussions, this system is even more powerful. In many games, the plot will throw you into a no-win situation, a trap you see coming a mile away, or an obvious manipulation. Usually you have no choice but to accept your fate and do whatever inadvisable thing the plot railroads you toward, just to get to the next chapter of the story. Mass Effect’s decision system always gives you some sense of agency: the job you have to do may be unpleasant, but you get to do damage control according to your own priorities. The player is always left with the impression that they were the best person for the job, the only person for the job, rather than a pawn in someone else’s game.
And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. I can’t fit everything that makes Mass Effect great into one article, and I’d never stop writing this article if I tried. There’s so much more to be talked about: how the setting is one of the best science fiction universes I’ve ever encountered, how a character whose sole purpose is delivering fast-paced technobabble exposition won my heart, and how Commander Shepard has real weight as a character, despite being made up entirely of player-determined decisions. One article can’t contain every lesson Mass Effect has to teach, so I’m going to be doing a series: expect a new article every week, until I go insane or run out of things to talk about and things to learn.
For now, I’ll close by saying this: Mass Effect may be the best game I’ve ever played, but that doesn’t tell you a lot about it, so I’ll try to boil my praise down to something a little less hyperbolic sounding. Mass Effect toes the perfect line between having writers tell a great story and letting players play an actual game. If dialogue and character have a future in games, Mass Effect embodies one of the best possible futures. It’s a revolutionary evolutionary step in several right directions.
And you should totally play it.