In the dark mists of the Year Of Our Crab 2007 (22 AC), a videogame was released unto the world under the name Mass Effect, which quickly became the center of a cultural firestorm of attention. It was the first non-fantasy, triple-A RPG created by a western studio in many years; it was a magnum opus of writing from a studio that genetically had been responsible for some of the best videogame writing of all time. It was a major cross-platform RPG release. And it had sex in it. All of these things swirled together to make Mass Effect the center of massive controversy, intense argument and much media attention, which worked out very well for the game. Quickly finding its audience and exploding in popularity on the internet, Mass Effect was like an invading force, for me. Friends I could reliably talk to suddenly vanished off the internet for days at a time, because Sorry I was Playing Mass Effect.
After this maelstrom of attention, the gripping of the collective consciousness for literally years, the beginning of the multi-year event that was Mass Effect Is Happening, when I could finally grab the game on Steam, I did so figuring I would have a wonderful experience ahead of me. I loaded the game up, I started playing it, and two years later I finally finished it, overcoming the challenge of excruciating dullness. The 2007 Game Of The Year was, to my surprise, awful.
I don’t mean that it was awful the way that typical fare like Call Of Duty is awful, where the narrative and character of the game promote or expect things I find personally vile. That’s a different kind of awful, a kind of awful that relies on Good People Saying Nothing. No, Mass Effect is actually pretty impressive in the breadth of issues it tries to tackle, the ways it tries to counter typical sexist narratives, tries to create a sensible science-fiction setting while asking for only a few conceits – Mass Effect was good in almost all the ways I consider typical videogames to be bad. No, Mass Effect is just boring.
When I start playing a videogame, I recognise that there are going to be things you deal with in the beginning of a game that aren’t explicitly lots of fun. Tutorials, for example, or menu systems. Almost all games start you out with a weak character so you can grow into power, too, which is important to a feeling of narrative development. Usually, the emotional reaction to this is “Okay, once I push past this, the game will be fun.” If you design a videogame where I’m saying that two thirds through the game, you have a big problem. I had to push through recruitment missions, through vehicle sections, through fiddly hacking mini-games, through a very linear sequence of linear missions, through dialogue with characters I didn’t care about, and then…
Without exceptional spoilers, Virmie is where you hear this short speech. I remember saying aloud, “What right does this game have to suddenly kick arse?” I was ready, by this point, to write a review which lambasted Mass Effect 1 as a dreadful game, something with deep, fundamental flaws and an overhyped reputation which was totally undeserved, set in a boring world that failed to use its vast canvas to show us any character or culture that was interesting enough to make me care. Oh, there was Ashley’s guilt about Eden Prime, there was a dogged desire to hunt down Saren, but it all felt like puppets – I didn’t believe in Shepard’s desire to hunt down Saren any more than I believed Wrex actually existed.
In this one scene this one Salarian steeled my resolve, had me grabbing my guns and running to optional objectives. I was certain the frogs were all going to die, but damned if I was going to let that happen if I could help it. It didn’t hurt matters that this was the first exposure to the truly chthonic expressions of the universe, the first direct encounter with something that was not Geth, but something that was higher, more, darker. It was the first exposure to Reapers.
The whole game was a downward slide after that point, but it was this moment that made me re-evaluate the way I’d been playing the game previously. Could I really call the game bad, because it didn’t engage me? Was it my fault, or the game’s? Were the controls clunky, or did they just seem clunky to me? This reassessment brought me back around to consider the game broken down into its elements.
I think the greatest problem that Mass Effect had was that the majority of the game elements weren’t treated as game elements. There was one part of the game that Bioware had down to an art form – dialogue trees, of that particular back-and-forth, hard-to-fail structure – but the rest of the game was this vast blank canvas in which they had no idea what they were doing. I’ll go into more detail with the dialogue trees in the second game, where I feel they work better with the systems of incentive the game gives you.
Think about all the parts of Mass Effect 1 that people dislike. There’s the inventory management system, which is almost exclusively about comparing two numbers and choosing the higher number, over and over again. There’s the Mako sections, which are all a long linear path with some minor obstructions on the way and ways to die if you fall off the path along with a device that doesn’t seem well-designed to handle such a thing. There’s the hacking mini-game, which (awkward PC controls aside) is not actually very fun an experience itself. All of these elements in the game are made up of ways to delay you from the events that the game does well – the conversations and the dramatic cut-scene sequences where you can do cool things. You can do a point-by-point breakdown on all of the elements in the game, but in the end, they all feel like they were designed the wrong way around.
Gunplay in other games, is satisfying and fun. Gunplay in Mass Effect is tedious and annoying. Hacking in other games, is satisfying and fun. Hacking in Mass Effect is tedious and annoying. Cruising around on a six-wheeled high-speed tank sniping things out of the sky, if it appears anywhere else, could be rad as hell, but in Mass Effect it’s tedious and annoying. These elements were not designed to be enjoyable experiences in and of themselves: They were designed to be connecting tissue holding good, enjoyable experiences together. You can do that in some cases – some games can afford to put in badly-designed impediments. Hell, some games, like Hate Plus refined their use of impediment to the status of art. When you’re making a AAA game, though, you don’t have that luxury. You can’t afford to give someone a good visual novel held together with a bad shooter and a bad vehicle section.
If only someone were to take this game, break it into its component parts, set aside those elements that didn’t work, and let the whole unit come together in a fun, enjoyable way that was more cohesive, more tightly-designed, and generally more fun.
Buy it if:
- You absolutely must have a personal character save to play in Mass Effect 2.
- The visual-novel aspect of the game is a powerful enough draw to make the game’s bad parts tolerable.
Avoid it if:
- You already own Mass Effect 2 and a program for crafting your own save.
- You have firm opinions on good shooters, good inventory systems, and good questing systems.