A New Player’s Review of ‘Mass Effect 1’ by BioWare

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another creator’s story, in an attempt to improve my own writing.

This is my first Mass Effect game. Bioware is a famous studio, so I’ve wanted to play their games for a while. I’ve played some bioware games (DA: Origins and KoToR), but those games were so old I bounced off the moment to moment gameplay and quit after only a few hours. With the recent re-release of Mass Effect, I bought it and decided to give it a spin. At long last, I finally realize why BioWare is(was) such a popular developer.

I enjoyed my time playing this. Let’s get this started.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point. I like political stories, and Mass Effect’s story focuses on the politics of the Citadel, Earth and the wider galaxy. I am very much the target audience of this story. As a result, I was pre-disposed to like this game.


PLAYER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

Mainly, I was happy while playing this game.

This is a game of dialog, choices and combat. This game is at it’s best when the player is talking to the side characters and making choices. This is an RPG (role playing game) in the truest sense: you play the role of a character, and through the filter of that character’s personality, you make choices which that character would make. Whenever I was forced to make a choice, I always slowed down and thought and rethought over what I should do. This is good stuff.

The game’s combat is passable, but not great.

  • I played on normal mode as a sniper/infiltrator, and 99% of the game was brainlessly easy. That remaining 1% was annoyingly hard- specifically when you are crowd controlled to death by biotics or are one-shot by a charging krogan. These random powerspikes (I feel) were a sign of poor game design. The game should have a smoother escalation curve between enemies.
  • This game has the most severe case of ‘reused assets’ I’ve ever seen. BioWare copy/pasted the same mine, ship and building again and again and again. This reduced my suspension of disbelief.
  • That said, the feel of the gunplay is fun. I loved the sound.

And finally, the bad.

  • I got bored with the ATV sections. In between dialog and combat sections, this game contains sections driving around in a Mako tank, going from destination to destination. I am a bit of a completionist, so I felt compelled to search each map to find hidden objectives.
  • I am a zen gamer; by which I mean I enjoy boring games. I listen to audiobooks when I play games, so having boring, unthinking games really works for me. That said, even with listening to audiobooks I got bored during the ATV sections. It was too linear, the landscapes were too boring/unpopulated, there was not enough to do on the world maps.
    • The driving in this game was a frustratingly simple minigame. The Mako minigame needed more work, and I say that as someone who likes protracted boring segments in games.
  • The hacking minigame. OMG, the hacking minigame. The first twenty or thirty times, it was a fun little brain teaser. The next three hundred times was just frustrating. Why did you need to use the hacking minigame when surveying metal outcrops? You can’t hack unworked metal!

The gameplay of this game tripped over it’s own feet more often than it didn’t… but this game is going on 15 years old, so I was expecting some rust. Overall, this game functioned.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (B)


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

The game’s concept was ‘slightly grungy space adventure with ‘realistic’ characters and settings, fighting against an oncoming robot apocalypse.’ The execution upon that concept was fantastic.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (A+)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

In this section, I’ll be talking about the primary companions of the game. The characters were (mostly) well brought to life by the voice actors and the animators. With one or two possible exceptions, I thought the voice actors did a fine job. The facial animations were a bit robotic, but as this is an old game. I adapted to the jank. The writing of the companion dialog was good across the board, with one or two exceptions.

My favorite side characters were Ashley and Wrex. They both had good voice acting, and were memorable characters for their flaws.

The biggest side-character problem I had was with Liara; of all the side characters, she’s the one whose voice actor+writing failed to really *click* with me.

Now, a moment about Shepherd. The protagonist’s voice actor didn’t do such a great job at all times. (I had maleShep as my voice actor.) I can’t imagine how many lines of dialog the voice actor had to go through, but some of them were phoned in. Similarly, sometimes the audio department at BioWare forgot to edit in background sound effects into Shep’s dialog. As an example, in the sleezy citadel bar, loud music was playing, but whenever Shep would talk the sound of the music would be cut off for the duration of him talking. Whenever this would happen, my immersion was broken.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

This story used the 7 Point Plot Structure, with a minor variation in the middle.

  1. Hook/Status Quo
    1. The Hook of this story is Saren assassinating Nihlus, and Shepherd being enspelled by the Prothean beacon.
  2. Plot Turn 1/Inciting Incident
    1. The Inciting Incident is the series of events in the Citadel, with Shepherd gathering his crew and also assembling the evidence needed to convict Saren.
  3. Pinch 1/Protagonist Acts 1
    1. Pinch 1 is finding Liara.
  4. Midpoint Confrontation

This story didn’t have a true midpoint confrontation. Instead, the player is given two assignments: go to Feros, or Novaria. Finishing either mission allows the player to continue to Virmire. As a result, the climax of Feros or Novaria serves as the Midpoint Confrontation.

  1. Pinch 2/ Protagonist Acts 2
    1. The assault on Virmire
  2. Plot Turn 2/ Relief and Respite/Darkest Before the Dawn
    1. The death of either Ash or Kaiden.
  3. Resolution/Climax and Denouement
    1. Finding the Conduit, and defeating Sovereign and Saren.

This is a great structure. In particular I liked the death of Ash/Kaiden as the Darkest Before the Dawn moment.

Pacing wise, it’s hard to judge. There are a lot of side plots going on in the background which don’t fit into the above structure, side missions which you can finish at any time. I front-loaded a lot of side-missions, so consequently the front half of this story felt very slow to me. I think this would have been rectified if Saren or Sovereign or Benezia were the antagonists of some of those side missions, to help give them more characterization/screen time.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (B+)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

This story *largely* does tension well. A skilled storyteller uses tension cyclically: a good story cycles between moments of low stress, into medium stress, and finally high stress, before cycling back to low stress again. The ‘Mako-combat-dialog’ cycle of mission design in this game works well at establishing and maintaining sustainable tension. Mako sections are low tension; dialog is medium tension; combat is high tension. By transitioning repeatedly through these three states of tension, the story never feels overwrought or dull.

Tension broke down when the Mako-sections got boring. I talked about this above.

The stakes felt a bit ‘meh’ to me. I don’t particularly like ‘end of the world’ as stakes. It’s too high, not personal enough. I would have preferred smaller stakes, like ‘Shepherd’s family is in danger’ or ‘this one person Saren’s kidnapped must be saved.’

The story’s plot was good, and at moments great. Between the good animation, dialog and voice acting, some of the more ridiculous aspects of the story became compelling if not outright terrifying. At first I was not sold on the concept of ‘ancient robot invasion,’ but the menace of Sovereign really did work to make things compelling.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (A-)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

I liked Mass Effect’s slightly grimy, but hopeful atmosphere (at least in my Paragon playthrough). This setting includes some good and bad people, exploring the dark possibilities of future technologies (like organ harvesting). Aliens aren’t innately good or evil, but… people. And people sometimes are willing to destroy mankind for self-interested, geo-political reasons. It’s a nuanced, storied setting.

Years ago I read ‘Rage of Dragons.’ One of my favorite parts about that book was the pre-existing conflicts in the setting, where locals and colonists fought over the same land. Those conflicts in that book wasn’t the substance of the books’ main story, but instead the book’s sub-plots.

Similarly here in ‘Mass Effect,’ the player is dropped into a setting with many pre-existing conflicts. Humans and lizard people hate one another. Frog people and krogan hate one another. Batarians hate pretty much everyone, but especially humans. Geth and quarians hate one another. You get the idea. The main plot of ‘Mass Effect’ isn’t about these prejudices, but instead instead the side missions.

Having pre-existing conflicts is a valuable asset from a storytelling perspective. Gameplay (and book writing) has a need for side quests and sub-plots. These pre-existing conflicts provide the fodder for those sub-plots.

Now for two things I didn’t like.

  • I did not like was how the dialog system combined with the worldbuilding. As the protagonist, the player could interact with side characters to learn more about the world and setting. Unfortunately, I found this out-of-character for a lot of characters. Why would taciturn Wrex take time out of his day to explain about the world, his species, the genophage, ancient wars, and the like?
    • I like that the worldbuilding information is voiced; I don’t like that characters talk about it like robots. I wish you could learn this worldbuilding information could have been imparted to the player during the long, boring Mako drives.
  • I did not like how a lot of the ‘choices’ the player could make resulted in Shepherd saying the exact same line of dialog. The illusion of choice isn’t choice.

I give the Authorial Voice: (A)


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

This is a good setting. I mentioned above my like for the pre-existing conflicts between species.

I liked the concept behind the asari- namely a monogendered species who can mate with any other species. I liked the concept of the krogan- a long lived species of warrior turtles who once were poised to take over the galaxy… but were brought low by a genetically engineered virus. The other species- especially human characters- were boring in comparison.

I found the idea of an ‘ancient teleportation network’ to be derivative of Stargate, but I thought it was uniquely enough implemented. I especially liked how it was revealed that the mass relay networks were left behind by the villains to cause the heroes to develop technology in such a way as to make the heroes easier to conquer.

I give the Setting: (A)


LESSONS LEARNED

  • Tension is cyclical: this game’s gameplay loop cycles between low tension (in the Mako), to medium tension (dialog), to high tension (combat). This works very well to never overwhelm, or underwhelm, the player.
  • Having pre-existing conflicts between various people and factions before the story begin is a good way to populate your story with good side plots and deep worldbuilding.

WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • Anyone 13 and older. (This has sexual themes, so people who are young need adult supervision.)
  • People who want to play a lite-shooter with lots of RPG elements
  • A VERY solid sci fi setting.

SUMMARY

Fun, flawed game. This game is excellent at it’s story, RPG and power fantasy aspects, but is bad at the moment-to-moment driving gameplay, and the combat is mediocre. This game is definitely worth playing, but I personally feel that the player should skip the side quests and searching the maps for hidden mineral deposits. Play the game on easy mode and have fun with the good parts of the story- the RPG.


STARS: 4 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)


Genres/Tagwords: Science Fiction, video game, review


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

A Literary Study of ‘Gideon the Ninth’ by Tamsyn Muir

A Review of ‘The Book of Rumi’ by Rumi, Edited by Maryam Mafi

A Review of ‘Unsouled’ by Will Wight

A Review of ‘Terrier’ by Tamora Pierce

A Review of ‘Breach of Peace’ by Daniel B. Greene

And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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