My name is Vigil. You are are safe here for the moment, but that is likely to change. Soon nowhere will be safe.
When I purchased my first Xbox 360 back in 2007, I did so mainly because I wanted Halo 3. I owned the first two on the original Xbox and so for me it was an easy decision to make. However, I’ve never been much of an online gamer so once I breezed through Halo 3’s disappointingly short campaign (oh yes, we will get to that in a future post), I was left looking for something else to sink my teeth into. Then one day I was at a friend’s house and he was playing this little game called Mass Effect. I wasn’t necessarily a stranger to the game. After all, BioWare was the developer behind Mass Effect and they just happened to also create Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which is quite possibly my favorite game ever. For whatever reason, I just hadn’t stayed up to date on Mass Effect but knowing that BioWare was behind it and seeing it in action for myself, I made a mental note to buy my own copy when I had the chance. Then my fucking 360 broke.
Ah yes, all you 360 owners out there know what I’m talking about: the three rings of death, the ultimate middle finger to anyone who dropped $300 or more on a faulty product. Being a poor college student who was paying rent, it took me about a year to replace the damn thing, but when I did the first game I picked up was Mass Effect. I was relieved to be back on my digital saddle and excited to finally play it for myself, but little did I know that I was about to embark on the beginning of my all-time favorite video game trilogy.
If you’re new to Pegboards and you aren’t much of a gamer, you’re probably asking yourself why in the hell am I hyping up a game that’s over seven-years old? A fair question, dear reader, so bear with me a bit longer and I’ll clue you in. In case you didn’t know, Mass Effect is a mixture between an action-filled space opera and an RPG. Thanks to the discovery of faster than light travel, humans have expanded their reach beyond the known solar system and have joined the other races of the galaxy in colonizing unsettled worlds. Being new to the party, humans are marked with distrust and hostility by those other races, particularly the Turians, Salarians and Asari. Wars are waged, bad blood boils over and allies morph into enemies. By the start of the game, humans have done enough to earn an embassy at the Citadel (sort of the United Nations of space) where the Systems Alliance represents Earth and all of its colonies. Your character, Commander Shepard, is a hero of the Alliance and a candidate to join the Spectres, who are basically the Jedi Knights of the Citadel. During a supposed routine mission, an important Turian winds up dead and a rouge Turian Spectre named Saren leaves you holding the bag. Not only is Saren a traitor, but he is also the key to the return of the Reapers, sentient machines that harvest all organic life in the galaxy about every 50,000 years. Woof.
Everyone who plays the game will guide Commander Shepard in his/her mission to stop Saren, but Mass Effect gives you almost complete control over who that person is and how you want to shape them. My Shepard lost his family to space pirates as a teenager, only to rise through the ranks of the Alliance and hold off the enemy single-handedly when his men needed him the most. Maybe your Shepard grew up as an orphan on Earth and watched her entire unit get wiped out on Akuze, leaving some serious emotional scars in the process. People I encounter during my adventures might say how much they admire my service record, professing a desire to shake my hand. Your Shepard will have more than a few distrustful looks thrown her way, and strangers will be relieved that they weren’t incinerated upon meeting you. Backstory plays a big part in the reputation that Shepard maintains with the rest of the galaxy, but how you resolve conflicts and respond to pleas of help will go a long way in either reinforcing or refuting what others think of you.
This includes your own crew, whom you can influence in any way you see fit. You’ll recruit characters of different races to the Normandy, your own personal starship, throughout the game in order to aid you in your mission. They come with completely different backgrounds and attitudes about the galaxy, and those opposing viewpoints can cause tension on your ship. Garrus often became frustrated with me because I was never willing to take a more ruthless approach for stopping the bad guys if it meant sacrificing innocent people. By the end of the game, he thanked me for sticking to my morals and admitted that he learned a thing or two along the way. In between missions, all of these characters are available to converse with and by getting to know them better, connections are established that transcend the relationships you typically have with people in a video game. You could blow through the main story in about 10 hours and completely bypass all of the conversations with your squadmates, but in doing so you would rob yourself of the most enriching element of Mass Effect; the experience of sharing this journey with a host of compelling allies, and the bond that forms as they come to rely on you even more than you rely on them.
The list of memorable moments in Mass Effect is as vast and breathtaking as the galaxy itself: becoming the first human Spectre, the return of the Rachni, the loss of a friend on Virmire, the conversations with Sovereign and Vigil, the Battle of the Citadel and so on. They are epic encounters that play out as dramatically as the Trench Run on the Death Star or Darth Vader revealing himself to be Luke’s father, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most of these events present you with a choice to make that will put your integrity to the test, and no matter what you decide it will have a direct effect on the well-being of everyone else. Will you compromise in your effort to stop Saren and become a Renegade, or will your conscience be the light that guides you and ensure that you remain a Paragon? Characters will live or die and humanity will gain respect or lose it based on how you call the shots, and all of this underlines one of the main themes of Mass Effect: your ability to control your own destiny. Oh, and all of these decisions have a huge impact on what happens in Mass Effect 2, in case all of this wasn’t already cool enough.
I’ve heard people describe Mass Effect as something that eclipses what video games usually set out to do and becomes more of an experience than anything else. Whether it’s the sweeping score that perfectly reflects the tone of both the huge battles and crucial revelations or simply the title screen that sucks you in from the moment you boot up the game, Mass Effect is as beautiful as it is addicting. Throw in the fact that experienced actors like Seth Green, Keith David, and Jennifer Hale lend their talents to the story and there’s no denying that this game takes its place alongside other significant science fiction franchises; those Star Wars references weren’t a coincidence, folks.
This isn’t to say Mass Effect is without its flaws. Those same people who see this as a work of art may not like to admit it, but take away the well-crafted story and intriguing characters and what you’re left with is a rather ordinary RPG. Combat can be a frustrating endeavor, especially in the early going when you and your squadmates are still at the lower experience levels. In Gears of War, the cover system is highly efficient and absolutely a necessity if you want to survive, which makes sense considering that Gears’ strongest suite is that the gameplay is fast, relentless and adrenaline filled. Mass Effect feels sluggish in comparison and everything from the cover system to the enemy A.I. just doesn’t feel up to snuff. Once you level up Shepard and your squadmates gain more powers, things get a lot better but it takes some time. As for the side quests, they are worth doing but pretty much every planet you visit and every base that you attack feels cookie-cutter and the same. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone shout, “Enemies are everywhere” or “I’ve lost shields,” I would have even more money than my in-game avatar. That kind of repetition makes the side quests feel like a chore by game’s end and it’s even worse when your vehicle of exploration on these planets is as clunky and useless as the Mako.
Another aspect of the game that I grew weary of was the level-up system. Like a lot of other RPG’s, when you and your squadmates obtain enough experience to upgrade to a new level, you earn skill points that you can allocate to specific abilities and traits for every character. You also collect improved weapons and sturdier armor as things progress and in turn can upgrade all of those items as well. The problem is that you not only have to keep track of the specifics of all your equipment, but for your squadmates’ too. It just felt like a waste of time after a certain point and by the end I was selling most of my items en masse because I had no clue what to do with any of them. Maybe that means I’m not on RPG junkie at heart, but I just didn’t enjoy it at all.
When you look at the comment section for any Mass Effect-related video on YouTube, you’ll find a lot of diehard fans expressing their love for what they believe is one of the greatest games ever made. I think the truth is that while the narrative, scope and the freedom to control your destiny are all worthy of critical acclaim, BioWare didn’t treat the gameplay with quite as much devotion and precision. If it’s going to be labeled as a classic, it needs to fire on all cylinders and in that regard Mass Effect falls short. That being said, the overall experience is an incredible odyssey through space that captures your imagination and leaves a lasting impression on you. You’ll dread Saren and the Reapers, but your squadmates will provide you with the hope and support you need to see your journey through to the end. And while I am not quite as enamored by Mass Effect as others, I will absolutely never forget how I felt the first time I played it.
That it was worth buying another 360 for.
Jesse’s Rating: 8.8 out of 10