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Mass Effect (PC) artwork

Mass Effect (PC) review


The earth obscures the sun in a mix of motion capture, pre-generated animation, and game-engine rendered overlays. It's a pleasant effect, taking the custom-made face of your protagonist into the game’s cinematics. While also making the gap between pre-rendered scenes and game-time imagery smaller. Mass Effect is a game made up of many different more or less consistently well used techniques like these.

But at the core the game is a linear story told, often very successfully, at the player’s own terms, and in the pace you choose yourself. Where the game’s mechanics are tools to tell that interactive story, instead of the story being a backdrop to an interesting gameplay mechanic.

Space Music

The first thing I notice about Mass Effect is the music. Bioware ignored the temptation to harass us with the synthetic orchestras and crying choirs that appears destined to plague the future of mankind. Instead they chose a more simplistic and slow electronic theme for this game. From the introduction screen, to the game’s conveniently updating encyclopedia. To the presentation of key characters - an appropriately ominous score follows you around, varying in mood and tone as the setting changes.

The themes also loop well, and often mix seamlessly. Which the composers and designers made terrific use of this throughout the game. To make the musical score match both the unscripted length of pauses as you navigate the dialogue, as well as the action-sequences in the game. In fact, the music and the artful mixing fitted to the player’s rhythm successfully saves the game many times when the dialogue or flat two-dimensional scene-direction descends to the usual computer-game standard.

Specially Sam Hulick’s direly accompanied arpeggio, played on a yet to be discovered musical instrument, quickly becomes the defining characteristic of the game’s presentation to me. The orchestral fluff in the background is something I could have been without - but when you hear this alien music again, it’s likely you will instantly recognise it and tie it to Mass Effect. And the Reapers, the Geth, and the extremely exaggerated danger and space-drama, of course.

The Story Arc

The story, as we are presented it, starts at a point in time where humans are rapidly becoming one of the most significant races in known space. In most science fiction, humans are typically the ones who just recently discovered space-travel. Humans are unwise and reckless. And there will be at least some ancient race or other involved that has, from our perspective, always existed. Some member of this race will, without mistake, follow you around uninvited and offer obstinate advice in the form of nonsensical koans. Before sacrificing themselves in an act of intergalactic altruism. Thereby allowing humans to reach their grand potential to save the universe and everything, everywhere. Rather than being tragically destroyed by malevolent and pointless evil.

Meanwhile, humans will be represented solely by moral supermen, travelling on symbolic humanity-defining adventures(tm). Or otherwise they are criminals who have escaped from sterile looking square rooms, and probably feel a bit guilty about roaming free - unless they are quite mad, of course.

Not so in the Mass Effect universe. Here, humans are feared and admired for their ingenuity and passion. While the other races feel intimidated by the determination, ambition and occasional capacity for cruelty that humans exhibit. In fact, humans command as much or as little respect as the other major races. And this creates an interesting background for your character's interaction with others. Not just because this is a more realistic setting, so the allegory can be much more pointy than it is in a more morally black and white universe. Or because in your role you do not automatically command respect by being polite and careful, nor is it expected of you. But because this makes cruel acts as well as acts of genuine compassion perhaps have more impact, than they would in a universe dominated by arch-types.

Also, in spite of teaser trailers insisting the opposite, the crew and captain of an exploration vessel is not particularly special. Nor the centre of attention in every event that takes place in known space, where every choice determines the fate of the galaxy. Instead we are dropped into a scenario where humanity is maturing as a race in a peaceful universe dominated by relative political stability and hard-earned peace. And where individuals do have a hard time truly ending up in a universally defining event.

So, clearly very soon something extraordinary is going to happen that will end in humanity to be threatened with genocide, and the universe in general will be sent towards almost certain ruin. Which, as it happens, you will be involved in. But as a context for the game, the setting as a story-telling scenario provides the depth that makes the game-universe seem larger than what can be reached by going through your ship's bay doors. And for the game it means that choices can be more naturally represented on a relative scale in attitude rather than simply wrong and right, or light and dark.

Because there is no right and wrong in the Mass Effect universe. There is only means, ends, and human (so to speak) enterprise. Whether you take an interest in the genuinely exciting people that inhabit the world, or simply treat them as inconvenient meatbags on the way to your own ambition is up to you.

The Choices

Even if, understandably, the freedom to choose attitudes and motivations for your character is not always mirrored in depth of real choices. There are many situations in the game that offer no choices at all either when it comes to visiting major plot-hubs, or what is said and done during those events. For example, when your believably xenophobic Alliance Captain declares the major villain's plans...

“And he won’t stop until he’s wiped humanity from the face of the galaxy!”

Your responses will be one of the following:

1. You’re right 2. I’ll stop him. 3. Not if I can help it!

Other embarrassingly pointless options sometimes are added towards the end of a plot-essential path like this:

“Do you have anything else to add, Commander Shepard?”
1. You won’t see the truth. 2. No. 3. What’s the point?

And all choices produce the same voice-acted response in the end. What should have been a dramatic moment where the player punctuates the event suddenly loses any sort of purpose, and simply becomes filler. Not only is the event clearly decided for you, but you critically see this from the outside of the game before picking the dialogue. And the immersion drops.

Nevertheless, just on the other side of the stream, someone found gold using the same scoop. Here is another example from a later point in the game, where you land on an asteroid set by terrorists to crash into the atmosphere of a populated planet (a popular terrorist weapon, according to the game’s conveniently updating encyclopedia, the “Codex”). An engineer despairs of what will happen if the Batarian raiders are not stopped:

-”There’ll be a climate shift. Mass extinctions. The ecosystem won’t recover for thousands of years. Millions, maybe”.

And your responses are:
1. What if it lands in the water? 2. Why would they do this? 3. I understand the situation. 4. Alien bastards.

Apart from giving you an impression of the subtle humour in the game - none of these choices will produce the exact same response, while three of them lead to each of their own partially unique exchanges. The game often uses this technique to add small context-aware bits to other scripted paths. And sometimes - I wish it was more often - the game can surprise you by letting the conversation, followed by an action, take fairly sharp turns within the sub-plots in response to choices you make earlier.

In this way the conversations play out on the player’s terms, and the dialogue choices suddenly allow you to create a very believable motivation and setting for your character inside the game. Does this incident make your character hate aliens more than he did? Is this too grave to be forgiven by your angel self, and now the gentle “paragon” Shepard is no more? Do you think it doesn’t really concern you - after all, maybe it isn’t really that bad? Certainly the crater might not look so bad from outer space anyway? Or are you interested in some background on this area of space, on the edge of the human colonisation effort? And how the Batarians feel about humans claiming what should be theirs? Do you decide in the end that you are stopping the hostage crisis to make an example for both the human colonists as well as the Batarian rabble? So neither will want another intervention in the future? Is it only allegiance to the Human Alliance forces that motivates you? Or do you genuinely try to save the hostages, and simply protect what is in front of you?

All the best writing in Mass Effect is presented like this - allowing you to take your time understanding the gravity of the situation on your own terms, and visit and find small interesting sub-plots within a strictly set main scenario. Before eventually choosing the fourth option, acknowledging the situation and moving on with a professional air to the next main event. Which may or may not involve ESRB rating unfriendly torture and cruel execution all round. But which will certainly involve hot plasma and high density mass drivers.

The Shooting

It is a strange design-choice in a role-playing game, but from the beginning of the first mission, you are equipped with heavy and high tech weaponry. You control your character in third person, moving from cover to cover, and firing at anything that moves. Depending on your choice of class, you can basically remove all strategic movement as well, and end up moving around as if you were playing just another shooter.

Still, it is possible to avoid this, and play using a system that is much more dynamic than individually controlling your team-mates in a turn-based rpg. And it will be an approach that in a sense has more purpose than choosing which monster should be chopped at by two axes instead of one. In fact, when pausing the game in the radial menu seen in first person, and using the squad-commands, the game changes in character much like the writing as the story progresses. It gives off the initial appearance of being astoundingly generic. And yet it opens up and is very unique when you take a closer look.

Even though the shooting part of the game has certain weaknesses - mainly having to do with sometimes erratic AI that can rush past you, or hide in a corner forever, excessive amounts of one hit kill enemy weapons (that probably could have been countered if you spent some more time with the messy and cumbersome inventory). Or the not always completely successful animation states. But it is difficult to focus too much on this since what is there is actually very effective for moving you ahead.

So during the battles, instead my attention is drawn to the way the character drops into cover on some ancient ruins. or the way you fire a weapon. Whether it is Babylon 5‘s enforcers, Starship Trooper cannon fodder, Star Trek phasers, or Flash Gordon that lurks in the back of your head - when you pull the trigger in this game, it threatens to make a classic Sci-fi moment come to life on your screen surprisingly often. Of course, doesn’t happen successfully every single time. Whether it is in the game, or in the cutscenes and dialogue.


Because it is difficult to escape the fact that some of the main plot and story-transitions in this game is very pedestrian. Mass Effect’s main writer Drew Karpyshyn - who also wrote several successful books set in the Mass Effect universe - has blisteringly bright ideas, as well as a very good eye for classic table-top rpg-settings. But the transport paths in Mass Effect are not very notable.

It is easy to draw a parallel to Ian Flemming’s James Bond books. In spite of a very successful comic spin-off, and an endless amount of movies based on his interesting characters and settings - Ian Flemming was not the best writer. Even if the scenarios presented in the books are instant classics, the parts in between consist of: Bond travels from A to B. Now he travels from B to C. Then in a twist he skips D and goes right to F! He says some things, and travels back to England for tea and crumpets.

The encounters and engagements themselves are described with a long series of enumerated clichés and tropes, that in the end are worn so thin it becomes tiring. In fact, you often get the impression that most of the dialogue is a placeholder for something more exciting to be filled in later. (Which, to some extent it was with the movies and the comic-books).

Mass Effect suffers somewhat from the same problem. The scenario introductions are fast and interesting. While the good use of the background lore places both main and side-characters in the universe and the story, rather than simply dropping them in front of your main character, before filling in the details later.

But the actual story-telling that brings you through the set pieces and the transport segments is sometimes difficult to enjoy. It is as if the plot-writers were happy with a “banter at the bridge before something dire unexpectedly happens” descriptor being stuck in the script for the majority of the development time. Given the quality of the visuals and the scene-settings elsewhere, as well as the consistently amazing voice-acting, this is something that makes you stop and pause at points in the game that are probably supposed to be the most engaging and dramatic.

Instead, the best writing in Mass Effect - and this truly is writing you do not want to miss - is found in the independent sub-scenarios. Whether on a random asteroid in cold space, in the lower hull of the ship, or when meeting a Hanar street preacher. It is where the overall story is put on hold while the writers go amok with the rich and interesting background lore that the game flows most easily.

This is also where the game successfully becomes something genuinely interesting and unique. All of a sudden we then have successful individual writing with interesting characters, complex scenarios with a quality overall setting that ties into the main plot. As well as skillful use of the in many ways limited tech the Unreal Engine offers to change level layouts, or to successfully create the illusion of environment aware encounters.

There is a space-walk sequence in the game, for example, and it is visualized for you by turning the view-port 240 degrees, before simply letting you walk through a completely normal level. But this small detail along with an appropriately changing sky-box during the level is very effective in placing your character in the scenario you participate in, and in providing the illusion of walking at the outside hull of a space-ship.

When the dialogue also shifts to become more subtle as described earlier, the paths between game and scenic elements become fluid. And the game suddenly loses the “video-game” sheen almost completely. These parts of the game are so well done that the references to other science fiction moments turn from shameful rip-off, and into respectful homage.

It is just too bad about the unintended humor in some of the main story-elements.


Mass Effect can perhaps be described as a serial cavalcade of brilliant ideas, well done technical experiments, and different fresh approaches to stale mechanics and interactive story-telling devices. Some of them are often successful. And the only fault with some of the experiments is that they are not used more.

But whether it is the use of music, and the mixing fitted to the player’s interaction with the game in the dialogue scenarios. Or the way the careful strategy of a role-playing game is combined with more action-game elements, to create something unique. Put together, it provides an experience that can be played casually and comfortably by anyone at a reasonably slow pace, but still be intense and interesting when moving slowly ahead.

Meanwhile the actual sketchy and unpolished parts of the game very obviously comes from a scaled down version of something more interesting the tech simply did not allow. And you will likely see the idea so clearly that you can easily forgive any oversights, or at least focus on something else. Because they are all devices used to drive the story and the presentation - the mechanics on their own is not what dominates the game.

On the other hand, some of the transport stages are simply not very good, and doesn’t fit with the somewhat dark tone in the rest of the game. “Only you can save the universe, Shepard! So you got to go now! In this ship here, ok, with no backup and support? Really! No sarcasm! Don’t laugh, you drenning space-baboon!”.

At the best moments, Mass Effect is an extremely good example of a well-knit team making the best out of their scenario writers and dialogue writers, all working in tandem with level design and game-mechanical programmers. At the worst times, which happens once in a while during the plot-essential dramatic sequences, it lacks the flair and ingenuity that the rest of the lore and scenario writing clearly demonstrates Bioware is very capable of.

Fortunately, most of the game is made up of the clever scenario writing. And along with the context-aware conversations that let you move through the game at your own pace, while gradually letting you delve into the game’s universe. And eventually find your protagonist, “your Sheperd”, a sizable space in it.

Not many studios make attempts at creating interactive stories like this. And most attempts are typically held back by game-technical difficulties dominating the presentation - whether it is graphics or controls that create a barrier to pass through. Mass Effect also have those barriers, but they are not what will dominate a playthrough, even for those who don’t normally play video-games. It’s the conversations, the scenarios, and the thoughts they provoke that will make you stop and pause.

A playthrough will take about three days, if you skip the random planets and exploration missions. The PC version requires pixel shader 3.0. Why does the Hanar stand on the street humming in colours about tolerance and peace all over? Because he's a stupid go!@#$!ed jellyfish, that's why!


fleinn's avatar
Community review by fleinn (January 23, 2011)

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