In my usual, late-to-the-party fashion, I recently played Mass Effect. The series has been a mainstay on my list of games to play and I snapped up the first two during a Steam sale. I’m so glad I did.
I immediately had a good feeling about Mass Effect when I opened up the character creator. Though you must play as the pre-named Commander Shepherd, gender, appearance, and background story is customizable. I went with a female Shepherd and was pleased with the game’s handling of my choice. Since the face of the Mass Effect games is a white male, I thought it might have trouble handling my choice to play a female, or at least feel a little awkward in parts. Forutnately, it never did. In fact, I completely forgot that playing a woman wasn’t the default.
This smoothness is greatly helped by the fact that you have to play as a named character. Nothing pulls me out of a game faster than dialogue skipping my name because it’s cusomizable. By having a set last name, the dialogue is kept natural, regardless of whether you choose to play as a man or a woman.
Your gender doesn’t affect combat at all, but it does make a difference in the context of the game. It’s not a bad difference — this is definitely a case of “separate but equal.” There are times when characters you interact with address you differently based on your gender — for example, as a female, I got hit on by a skeevy guy in a bar — and your gender affects your relationships with members of your crew.
You can gain crew members’ respect, then friendship. Depending on your gender, you can also romance certain crew members. Despite my opposition towards romance novels and rom-coms, I do like having a romantic element in my stories, and Mass Effect had just enough. Becoming more intimate with crew members is completely optional, and it’s perfectly possible to become friends with everyone without becoming romantically involved with anyone. Personally, I couldn’t resist Kaiden’s charms.
In addition to the organic quality of conversation within the game, I was also impressed by Mass Effect‘s personality engine. There are two paths Shepherd can take when interacting with others: Paragon and Renegade. Actions can be shared between the two, but reaching certain points in each path opens up new dialogue and action options, so it can be beneficial to pick a path and try to stick with it. I didn’t care about the benefits as much as I maybe should have, so I just chose to go with my gut in the various situations and in the end came out roughly even.
The difference between the two paths sometimes lies in the ultimate solution to various problems, but often is simply a way of approaching something, with the scenario ending the same way. Paragon actions and dialogue choices tend to be more socially acceptable and follow the laws and social mores that have come to be expected in the Mass Effect universe. Dialogue that takes Paragon options tends to be respectful and diplomatic, though slower and occaisionally intention is lost to subtlety.
Renegade actions and dialogue options are generally more heavy-handed and favor gut reactions and emotions. More-so than Paragon dialogue, Renegade options allow Shepherd to voice her mind and speak plainly, without care for ranks or the social pleasantries that make up so much of the solider lifestyle. Both Paragon and Renegade will get the job done, but they’ll get it done in different ways.
Despite the masterful handling of non-combat elements, Mass Effect is, first and foremost, a shooter. Combat is almost exclusively ranged, which makes sense in a futuristic setting. Guns are each character’s primary weapon, but there are two different “powers” available as well: tech and biotics. Tech and biotics are a way of weaving magic into the Mass Effect world without taking away from the futuristic, believable setting. Tech allows for advanced hacking and control capabilities that come in especially handy against the mostly robotic enemies. Biotics stem from a genetic mutation amplified by technological implants that allow certain people to use telekinetic abilities.
I chose to cross-class by playing an Infiltrator — a combination of straight combat and tech abilities. Though I couldn’t truly excel in either category, I got to pick skills from both, and enjoyed the experience. The ability to use tech powers gave Mass Effect a different flavor than that of traditional shooters, and getting to choose my teammates for each mission allowed me to blend our skills for a different combat feel in each mission. I almost exclusively took Garrus, another Infiltrator, and Kaiden, a Biotic with me. Since the skill selection screen allows you to control Shepherd’s and your teammate’s actions, play is dynamic. I never felt cornered by my choice to play an Infiltrator because I had other teammates abilities as well, allowing for a balanced team or one heavy in a particular skill set, depending on the mission at hand.
Mass Effect is a relatively old game, but holds up extremely well. Good story is good story, no matter what the time, and the story was never hindered by awkward rendering or bad graphics. Since the game allows for fairly minute control over facial appearance and many of the cinematics focus on the face, I expected issues with appearance, at least occasionally, but they never happened. The only issue I experienced was an extremely steep drop in frame rates during a single mission, but the problem was resolved by saving and restarting the game.
I would recommend Mass Effect to nearly anyone because of its vast array of play options. Love a good story? Mass Effect has got you covered and you can play through the main mission in about 15 hours. Want to explore an incredibly detailed universe? There are a multitude of locations to discover and lots of supplemental world-building material to peruse. Enjoy negotiating and building relationships with other characters? Mass Effect has some of the best conversation modules I’ve played with. Just feel like grabbing your gun and killing some stuff? Mass Effect has combat that perfectly blends strategy with force. Pretty much no matter what you’re into, Mass Effect has got you covered.