Mass Effect is good. But it’s not THAT good.
Managing expectations with a critical look at one of the modern era’s most beloved series; what it is, and what it isn’t.
I love BioWare’s Mass Effect series. I’ve played through it several times, and have had fun every time. It’s a great series, and captures so much of what people love about the science fiction genre. In fact, I even enjoyed Mass Effect 3, although I admittedly did not play it until after BioWare released the Extended Cut DLC that addressed the critically panned ending.
What makes the Mass Effect series great is that it really captures the fundamental elements of pulpy sci-fi stories of eras gone by. Commander Shephard, depending on how you play the character, can be like a 1950s comic book hero, or Ellen Ripley, Han Solo, or even Zapp Branigan. The plot is full of bombastic twists and turns, iconic characters, and dastardly villains. There is little in the way of nuance here — morality in Mass Effect is, at it’s very best, simple dualism, and in that it thrives.
Mass Effect works well when you take it for what it is — an action sci-fi blockbuster where the hero saves the day and gets the girl/guy/non-gendered blue alien. It’s prime time stuff, as long as that prime time is on the Sci-Fi channel. To be fair, I don’t think BioWare ever intended for Mass Effect to be some immensely insightful social commentary; they simply sought to make a polished, enjoyable experience with a story that the player could feel themselves shaping.
Gamers and proponents of the games industry tend to overstate the importance and/or significance of our preferred medium. I try not to do it myself, but I know that I’ve been guilty of it. The fact is, just like most films aren’t Citizen Kane and most books aren’t Crime and Punishment, most games don’t really do anything ground-breaking or revolutionary. They are “simply” entertainment. But, in our constant crusade to give the games the respect afforded to film and literature, there is the tendency to overstate their impact. The Mass Effect games are an example of that.
The importance of Mass Effect’s legacy has been further amplified by this year’s release of the remastered trilogy. Even the name of the remaster, the so-called “Legendary Edition” plays into this conceit. The original games were immensely popular in their day, and the remaster’s sales figures are themselves looking as legendary as the title might suggest. Mass Effect is undisputedly popular, and quite justifiably critically acclaimed as a fantastic series. However, if you’re coming to the series for the first time, you’ll be immensely disappointed if you take much of the praise at face value.
One common point of praise lumped on Mass Effect is the quality of the writing, of the importance of choice and consequence. And while it is certainly leagues ahead of an R.L. Stine Goosebumps choose-your-own-adventure book, its narrative structure is not significantly more complex than that. There are two paths in the game, “Paragon" or “Renegade”. Almost all choices in the game essentially boil down to picking which of these two flavours of good guy you want your Commander Shepherd be. Is Shepherd the morally impeccable hero, committed to law and mercy, the proverbial white knight? Or is Shepherd the tough-love antihero, unafraid to break a few rules in order to save the universe?
This is essentially as complex as the dialogue gets. Players are presented with a dialogue wheel. On the left side are options to further explore the topic being discussed — I call them the“Wikipedia options": tell me all the lore and backstory I need to help me make a decision in this conversation right now. Conversely, the right side of the wheel is your “choice" side, and in most cases boils down to heroic good, neutral or anti-heroic good. Rarely is the player presented with the option to explore a universe where Shephard is actually an evil bastard — the writing simply lacks that level of detail and complexity that you might find in a game like Planescape: Torment or Tyranny (both games that handle the concept of “evil” incredibly well).
Shepherd’s ship, the SSV Normandy (a slick allegory for the Millennium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise) gradually fills up with a cast of sci-fi tropes that are all nods to other works in the genre. Ashley Williams, the tough-on-the-outside-but-vulnerable-on-the-inside soldier. Garrus, the disgraced cop with a heart of gold that doesn’t play by the rules. Wrex, the hired muscle. Liara, the compassionate scientist.
While the cakes might change flavour in the sequels, they still come from the same mold. Ashley is supplanted by Miranda Lawson in Mass Effect 2, while Mass Effect 3 sees the formerly gentile Liara take on the role after her experiences leave her a hardened powerbroker. Urdnot Wrex, the tough-as-nails krogan mercenary is replaced by Grunt, the tough-as-nails krogan clone. In Mass Effect 2 and 3, Mordin Solus steps into the role of knowledge-obsessed scientist, albeit with a quirky interest in Gilbert and Sullivan. Then, of course, there is the Normandy’s pilot, Joker, who does an excellent job as an ambassador of the MTV generation with his skater-esque parlance. EDI, the ship’s computer with the soothing female voice, is basically a carbon copy of every sci-fi ship’s computer ever. She even gets a sensual, feminine robot body in Mass Effect 3 to go along with the adolescent fantasies that she was clearly designed to inspire in the first two games.
If all this sounds disparaging of Mass Effect’s characters and plot, it isn’t really intended to be. I’ve played through the series several times, and I truly enjoy it. Though the characters and plot are relentlessly cliché, it’s all incredibly well executed. That’s the thing about tropes — they become tropes because they’re popular, and a well executed trope is no less deserving of praise than any other well executed work of fiction.
Likewise, the voice acting behind the characters is marvellous. When dealing with this sort of material, a voice actor could quite easily fall into a by-the-numbers approach to their character, but there’s very little of that here. Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale bring their respective Commander Shepherds to life, while voice actor stalwarts such as Grey DeLisle, Steve Blum and Claudia Black deliver some of their best videogame acting work. As for the big Hollywood names — people like Seth Green, Carrie Anne-Moss, Martin Sheen, Freddie Prinze Jr., Keith David and so on — it was vindicating to see these professionals give the games industry the same level of respect and professionalism afforded to film.
For me, one of the great highlights of the Mass Effect series has always been the visuals, both technically and aesthetically. There is consistency and careful consideration to every scene, and it was one of the first games that I noted for employing proper camera work — close-ups, wide angle shots, action sequences (good old “shaky-cam”). The design of the world is more Star Trek than Star Wars, and the presentation is excellent in communicating the feel of a semi-utopian future where humans live alongside other interstellar species in (relative) harmony.
In interpreting the rather disproportionate praise that Mass Effect receives compared to other games that might do so much more, there’s another factor to consider — the context in which the game was experienced. Many Mass Effect fans experienced the original trilogy during a formative phase in their gaming life, and there is a great deal of nostalgic attachment to it. One of my favourite PC games is Ultima IX: Ascension. It was bad in 1999 and it’s still bad now. I recognise how bad the game is. But I experienced it during my formative gaming years, and I have a lot of fond memories associated with it, so despite its flaws I still recommend it on some levels. That is certainly at play here, however unlike Ultima IX, Mass Effect is actually pretty damn good.
Another point to consider is the types of people who are gamers today compared with 10 years ago. This industry has absolutely exploded since the release of the original Mass Effect trilogy in 2007–2012. For as long as videogames have existed, fans of science fiction and fantasy have been disproportionately represented in the gaming population. You need only look at the subject matter of games in the first 30 years of the industry to see this. The past decade, however, has seen the industry expand far beyond these interests. For most gamers in 2007, Mass Effect scratched that sci-fi itch better than any other game. In 2021, however, there is a much more diverse gaming population, and its appeal might not be so broad. Something to consider if you’re coming to the series for the first time is: is this likely to appeal to me?
There is so much to love about Mass Effect, and there always has been. But for a series this widely renowned, it is more important than ever to manage expectations. Don’t fall for the hype, and expect some life-changing experience that will subvert your expectations and redefine interactive narratives. If you want that, then there are plenty of other games where you can find that sort of thing.
However, if you just want a solid adventure that is entertaining from start to finish, then Mass Effect is pulp sci-fi at its best, and if you approach it with that mindset, you’re likely to have a great time. Just remember what it is, and what it isn’t.