The “Mass Effect” Series: Thoughts from someone late to the party by Nick Parkes

Posted on May 11, 2012


2007 was an interesting year for me. Acne speckled, fresh out of high-school, stranded in Tasmania. I was, at that point, still convinced that my bright orange detachable cargo pants/shorts combination were a perfect way to combine utility with looking your best, and Weird Al Yankovic was the last word in musical brilliance. Odds are if you were to meet this guy at a party, you’d likely pretend to take a phone call and keep clear. And he’d have understood. God knows, it happened a lot.

At this point the only console I owned was an original Xbox with cables so frayed they made the controllers unusable and my MacBook had all the intellectual grunt of a homeopath. So when Bioware released the first Mass Effect, it passed me by unnoticed and stayed off my radar for about five years. In fact, it’s likely to have stayed that way forever were it not both for Steam’s insidious way of enabling giddy impulse purchases and the vehement endorsement of my brother. Though his seal of approval is, at best, an inconsistent testimonial (this is a guy who recommended Twilight and Eragon), but I took him at his word.


It was only earlier this year when it hit me that I’d been missing out on something that may as well have been designed for me personally. I’d previously devoured Bioware’s earlier console games, notably Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel (the third in the series has recently been released and is enjoying enormous success as an online RPG), and the less entertaining and rather more formulaic Jade Empire. In this latter example, Mass Effect appears to be a result of its creators’ attempt at its own fully realised space-opera. Set in the year 2183, it shows the scope of humanity’s place in the universe transformed by the discovery of the titular “mass effect” technology, an inertia-suppressing field that, amongst other things, enables faster-than-light travel, antigravity, and the occasional glowing psychic (just run with it).

You play the role of Commander Shepard, a special-forces trained soldier working for the Human Systems Alliance. Very early on you are given an impossibly cool ship before being tasked with being a Big Damn Hero, and preserving the interests of humanity against a bureaucratic inter-species council which makes up the governing body of the galaxy. On your travels, expect to recruit members for your squad, save the galaxy, and if you so desire, piss away your hard earned credits on the most boring slot-machines in the history of human experience.

Seriously, what the hell!

There are two colossal things that struck me upon entering into this series, firstly an appreciation of the length to which the developers had striven to create a perfectly realised consistent universe and how little of it was overtly shoved in your face. This is largely achieved by accompanying the game itself with an electronic codex – essentially the Wikipedia of the Mass Effect universe that sits quietly in the menu screen. Though it starts as a relatively small affair, each successive in-game interaction unlocks an accompanying codex article that serves to deepen the lore of the game without bogging you down in specifics. Reading these things is entirely optional, but investigating the universe and your place in it through asking questions and delving into the colossal back story gives you a palpable feeling of exploration, a feeling entirely at your control.

By this stage I was enamoured with the series, harping on about it to anyone who would listen, and on at least two occasions, some who didn’t. The latter group had no cause for celebration when, upon completing the first I dived into the sequel, which probably stands the crowning example of how games can successfully work as a storytelling medium. In game conversations feature a wheel the player can use to direct different responses and change the shape of the script. Depending on how you choose to play it, Shepard can be good cop, bad cop, inquisitive, pragmatic, idealistic, disinterested or just a massive bitch. Hell, the sequel occasionally lets you interrupt irritating people by socking them in the jaw, or in one spectacular case, kicking a poor sod through plate glass and off the edge of a skyscraper. This is especially rewarding in the case of Shepard’s interaction with his/her teammates; as the game progresses, you learn more about them, their motivations and their pasts, yielding heartwarming and occasionally hilarious results.

Pair this with a voice acting cast that includes Carrie-Anne Moss, Adam Baldwin, Seth Green and Martin-Fucking-Sheen, and it becomes clear exactly where Bioware wanted to place emphasis for this series.

The significance of storytelling and player choice is amplified by a feature that allows the decisions made in the first game to be carried over to the second. The key decisions you make at the game’s finale will have dramatic repercussions, all of which carry over to the context of the sequel. It gets particularly funny in the second game having random civilians approach you from on the street and chew you out if you made piss-poor decisions earlier on. Sartre did famously say that the only thing we can’t not do is choose, but I’m not sure about the extent to which it applies to giant robotic space lobsters.

Of course, the most notable exclusion at this point is a commentary on how both games actually play, and I’ve refrained because, well, they’re actually not that great. The cover mechanics don’t make much sense, the driving sections were laughably repetitive. The design decision to give everyone unlimited ammunition, though justified by the technology in-universe, makes for some relatively boring combat. Of course, all of these were addressed in the sequel, but I’m not dwelling on it because I just don’t think that’s the reason I enjoy the series. It sounds dopey, but with a sense of place so beautifully realised as in Mass Effect, I’m in it for the story.

You may wonder why I’m writing this now, about two games, released five and two years ago respectively. The simple answer is that the third and final iteration was due for release recently, on my birthday, actually. So in the coming weeks if you see me at a party, unless you want to have this game talked at you until your head reverberates with a hollow drone and the skin on your ears blisters, by all means take a fake phone call; I’m getting used to it.

If you you’d like to read another of Nick’s game reviews click here to read about Assassin’s Creed.

Posted in: Games