My Other Car Is The Normandy — Why I Still Love Mass Effect, Part 1

27 Mar

Stewart here…

Traveling through the galaxy, fighting bad guys, and interspecies lovemaking: what's not to love about Mass Effect?

Traveling through the galaxy, fighting bad guys, and interspecies lovemaking: what’s not to love about Mass Effect?

Look, I’ve made no bones about it to people, but I am just a sucker for big epic sci-fi with spaceships.  And often, that gets rewarded with some great stuff in that category.  Yeah, you got your Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica (and occasionally your Stargate), but that has been a bit absent in TV as of late and slightly there in movies.  However, I managed to find a great fix of it recently while also rediscovering console gaming.

Before I get to that, here’s a confession: up until a few years ago, I was primarily into PC gaming.  I had a love for mostly the first person shooter games, the occasional Tomb Raider games, and in the late period of my PC days, the Grand Theft Auto games like Vice City and San Andreas.  So when I had a good amount of cash squirreled away, I decided to drift back into video game consoles.  So I got a good Xbox 360 and with it, one game that grabbed my attention: a sci-fi RPG-esque game called Mass Effect.

Now to give some perspective, this was 2008; a year before its sequel was to arrive on store shelves.  I had picked up the Platinum Hits edition, which was a good buy for all intents and purposes in retrospect.  I was never a big fan of RPGs, let alone MMORPGs (I’m sure I’ve never played World of Warcraft once, even though I have one of the game collections in storage), so I was going into it with some dread.  Yeah I’m not a big quest guy, but like I said earlier, I’m a sucker for spaceship drama.

And what a setup: you’re a soldier on a next generation spacecraft called the Normandy, and up until recently, humanity had discovered a system of faster than light travel known as the mass effect relays, and is now one of the newbie races in a galaxy full of alien cultures.  Being the new kids in the galaxy to discover interplanetary travel, you got a lot to deal with, like xenophobia and the occasional conflict with other aliens (long story to get into here, but suffice to say, our first encounters with aliens didn’t go too swimmingly).  But as a growing part of the galaxy, and under the eye of the multi-alien government known as the Council, humanity is making its mark on affairs at large.  And that brings us to you the player, who gets to be Commander Shepard, a human who gets to be a pivotal player in dealing with one of the greatest threats to the entire galaxy.

As Shepard (and in RPG fashion, you get to be male or female), you become one of the Council’s elite agents, a SPECTRE, who is the equivalent of a James Bond in space.  You get immediately wrapped up in the hunt for a rogue Spectre who has enlisted a race of rogue sentient AI called the Geth to help him in a plan to lay waste to the galaxy.  You get to fly the Normandy through space, collect a team of heroes to help you in your fight, and discover some big ancient secrets that portend to an ancient evil known as the Reapers that goes back for thousands of years.

One of the first things that caught me off guard immediately about the first Mass Effect was how much it straddled the line between a third person shooter game and a RPG.  It wasn’t a fusion I had seen before in my games, and I really enjoyed it for that.  There was the great thing of customizing how my Shepard looked and what armor he/she wore (yeah, I did a run of the game as a “she”, but more on that later), but also the fun of blasting aliens with a laser machine gun, often incinerating them into nothingness.  It was beautiful and new for me.

The other thing that stood out was the dialogue option wheel, in which I could either be a Paragon (nice, diplomatic to a point) or Renegade (basically a space dick) to the characters I ran into.  It was fun to play with both, but the game was smart enough to steer you in one direction or another, because if you weren’t full on in one direction, you would have a hard time making some choices that could save certain members of your crew and defuse some very volatile situations.  And even then, you could decide who you could shack up with in the game, from human to aliens.  I won’t go into details in this particular installment, but it was interesting to try out every option and see who I ultimately stayed with from this game into the end of the trilogy.

Paragon or Renegade, I think its clear which which option has the better quips.

Paragon or Renegade, I think its clear which which option has the better quips.

And boy, what a great group of well-rounded characters that you get to start this epic journey with.  There’s the big, bulky Krogan, Wrex; the eager Turian space cop Garrus; the Quarian tech expert Tali; your human comrades Kaidan and Ashley; and Asari scientist Liara.  Its hard to point to particular favorites, in some ways because their stories take such big turns in not only the first game, but the rest of the series as well, all dependent on what you encourage them to do and what you do for them.  Depending on what you do, some of them can become great allies, sacrifices to the greater good, or even lovers.

It helps to have some great work in terms of voice actors, and this series always delivered some nuanced and memorable voices for your companions.  That you feel for these characters when you put them in some tough places that some won’t escape from is some great storytelling skill that is hard to do in most games, when in many, its all about the action.  Its hard for me to even hear Seth Green anymore without thinking he’s flying the Normandy as the pilot Joker.  And for Shepard, its rare that I replay a RPG-esque character like that in both genders just to see the differences and details that each version has, but Mass Effect did that for me.

Your team, and if you're lucky, you won't alienate or end up killing most of them.

Your team, and if you’re lucky, you won’t alienate or end up killing most of them.

But beyond that, what kept me interested was the detail put into the lore of the game.  They had a codex of information on alien races that was so exhaustive you could the see the effort of making each species different in their own way.  You could see the tension between many of the alien races, like the conflict between the space settler Quarians and the Geth, or the whole genophage of the Krogan, that were dramatic and powerful issues to ponder and decide where you stood with them as Shepard.  That your opinion on some pretty morally complex issues such as creating AI or controlled genocide could determine how your game turns out is some hefty sci-fi stuff that video games had rarely got into.

Not to say the first game is without its faults.  You often got side missions that seemed to be in variations of the same building, a land rover that had to climb some pretty hard terrain, and a combat mechanic that wasn’t quite there.  Some credit is due to the creators of the series, BioWare, that they took the input and critiques of fans in this and other issues to keep modifying and improving on the formula they set up.  You never got the feeling they got complacent with the mechanics of the series after the first try, and even with the occasional hiccup in the subsequent games, were always trying to perfect this hybrid game they were creating.

It was one of those rare gaming experiences that opened me up to the possibility of what games could do besides just provide something to shoot at for hours on end.  So imagine my surprise way back in ’08 when I realized the sequel was a few months away, and I could only anticipate what kind of new adventures I could take Shepard on.  What happened was a wait until early 2009 that almost destroyed my expectations with a game that was far beyond what I expected.  But that’s a story for another segment…

I just realized I got near 1,500 words and I haven’t even gone into the lore or characters, let alone the second or third game, so I’ll be doing some follow-ups on those topics, along with some spoiler-heavy talk too.  So until then, feel free to comment and discuss your thoughts on Mass Effect (and please don’t let it be on Mass Effect 3’s ending right now, OK?), some of your experiences on the first game, your favorite characters to take on your ground crew, the choices you made throughout, etc.  Until then…

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