Revisiting Mass Effect, Part 1 of ??

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Ever since its initial release as a timed Xbox 360 exclusive in 2007, BioWare’s Mass Effect has held a spot on my favorite games list. I have replayed it and its sequels multiple times over the years. Both Mass Effect 2 and 3 improve on many of the things the first game struggled to get right, to the extent that quite a few fans who jumped on board with Mass Effect 2 say you should skip Mass Effect 1 and get to the good stuff. There is even a handy interactive motion comic that lets you make some of the important Mass Effect 1 decisions and import those to ME2 without playing the first game, and if you’re on PC you can simply download a save and edit it to your liking before importing it to Mass Effect 2.

I can understand why those who were wowed by the cinematic bombast, more exciting combat mechanics, streamlined inventory and skill tree systems, and memorable cast of Mass Effect 2 would feel this way. Why wouldn’t I? However, I was also one of those who fell in love with the first game despite its (fairly apparent) shortcomings and were quite disappointed with the direction the sequels took.

I hopped aboard the BioWare train when the legendary Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic released on the original Xbox in 2003, so while I am not exactly an old-school BioWare fan from the Baldur’s Gate days, I am a fan of the sort of RPG exemplified by BioWare’s games up until 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins. The focus was not on the action, even in more action-oriented and streamlined titles like 2005’s Jade Empire, but on the worlds and the characters inhabiting those worlds. Even when the story itself was set within an existing IP such as Star Wars, BioWare’s worldbuilding worked in tandem with the original lore to create something familiar but different enough to feel fresh. While BioWare’s stories would regularly revisit similar concepts and their games tended to follow a loose formula that is evident once you notice it, it wasn’t detrimental to the games themselves because you got so invested in the worlds and characters themselves, as well as the decisions you could make to shape the fate of those worlds and characters.

Player agency was meant to be the major selling point of Mass Effect. While there is an overarching main story, the player is free to explore the galaxy as they see fit and solve problems however they wish. Well, to an extent. Obviously, there are limitations so you can’t go completely rogue, and the moral decisions are still largely based on the morality system from KotOR (with slightly less pointless cruelty on the “dark side” end). Different conversation options often lead to the exact same line of dialog, so there is not quite as much freedom as there initially seems to be, but any major decisions you make are in fact major decisions that can have serious repercussions down the line. Some of these effects of your choices would get bungled in the sequels when BioWare discovered how difficult it actually was to keep track of all of the player’s decisions for an entire trilogy, but I am not going to hold that against Mass Effect 1.

In case you’re somehow unfamiliar with the whole Mass Effect thing, let’s go over some galactic history to get you started. In 2148, humanity discovered the remains of an ancient spacefaring civilization called the Protheans on Mars, which enabled humans to travel to other star systems and make contact with a variety of alien races in the galaxy. The “civilized” part of the galaxy is known as Citadel space, named after the massive space station that essentially serves as the galactic capital. Citadel space is governed by the Citadel Council, a joint governing body comprising the three most prominent alien races – the asari, the turians, and the salarians. Travel between star systems is handled by devices known as mass relays, which are assumed to be of Prothean origin but nobody actually knows where they came from. The relays and most technology in the galaxy are powered by what is commonly called “mass effect.” Cue the amazing intro music.

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*cue MASS EFFECT title card*

As a result of the Rachni Wars and the Krogan Rebellions hundreds of years ago (I originally wrote a lengthy description of both, but the short version is that intelligent space bugs accidentally got unleashed on the galaxy, the salarians gave angry, quick to breed dinosaur people some spaceships and weapons to kill all the bugs, and then the angry, quick to breed dinosaur people turned those weapons against the galaxy in search of living space and smashed everything until a sterility plague was dropped on them), opening new mass relays is prohibited under Council law. When humanity started to expand into space, none the wiser about the Council or their laws, they opened a relay and ended up in a conflict with the militaristic turians whose reaction to meeting a new intelligent species was to try and obliterate them until the Council intervened. For humanity, this was a major event and is now referred to as the First Contact War. Meanwhile, the turians consider it a minor skirmish and call it the “Relay 314 Incident.”

Mass Effect begins 26 years after the First Contact War. Humanity is in the process of establishing itself in the galaxy, but there is plenty of mistrust toward them among the other Citadel races. Obviously, a number of turians dislike humans (and vice versa) as a result of the conflict, but humanity’s political ambition is also a sticking point for many of the aliens. For example, the criminally underrepresented elcor and volus have been waiting for thousands of years to gain a seat on the Council and become able to properly influence the galactic politics, which goes a long way to explain why the volus ambassador at the Citadel is so cold towards Shepard in an optional conversation. 26 years is nothing in the grand scheme of things, and here are these arrogant upstarts already gaining influence and getting increasingly close to a Council seat.

I really enjoy the fact humans are not treated as inherently special in Mass Effect. Eventually, thanks to changes in the writing staff and the general direction of the series, that will change. I think that is a shame because the setting of Mass Effect has so much potential for interesting ideas, and going back to the “but humans are special” well that was avoided so effectively in the first game is squandering that potential. But for now, humans are the upstart species mistrusted and grudgingly tolerated by most of the alien races in the game. Relations are improving bit by bit, as evidenced by the recent joint construction project of the Normandy SR-1 stealth ship by the human Systems Alliance and the turian military.

Nearly all of this information is completely optional backstory you can learn by talking to various NPCs and reading the in-game Codex. If you think all of this is boring, you can ignore the Codex and get straight to the point when talking to people. In case it wasn’t obvious, I am a worldbuilding nerd (to an extent) so I find all of the history and insights to the different alien cultures fascinating, just like I loved the grandiose descriptions in Jade Empire about all kinds of amazing locations and past events we never see in the actual game or the various stories about the history of the NCR, the Legion and other factions in Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas (another mainstay on my Best Games Ever list). This sort of thing adds flavor to the game world and makes it feel larger and more cohesive, even if it is still technically just an environment for you to shoot enemies behind waist-high objects.

The aforementioned Normandy SR-1 is where the game begins proper and you are placed inside the black, red and white N7 armor of Commander Shepard. Shepard’s various actions in the trilogy have spawned countless memes over the years and the games themselves have turned Shepard into a huge badass even by video game protagonist standards, but here they are just an Alliance soldier. A very skilled and accomplished one, to be sure, which is why the Council is considering them for the Spectre program. Spectres are the Citadel’s special agents who, while still answering to the Council, can basically go wherever they wish and do what they want to a somewhat reasonable extent. In other words, they are professional RPG protagonists, perfect for a game all about player choice.

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During character creation, you get to choose between three different pre-service histories and psychological profiles each. My female Shepard here used to run in a gang on Earth before enlisting and later had her unit eaten by thresher maws thanks to a Cerberus science experiment presumably titled “Project Feed Soldiers to Thresher Maws To See What Happens.”

After you’ve restarted the game multiple times upon realizing your custom Shepard looks like some sort of human-frog hybrid in the intro cutscene (and eventually choosing the default appearance because it at least looks presentable), Captain David Anderson sends Shepard and a couple of other soldiers to the human colony of Eden Prime, where a Prothean beacon has been found. Obviously, this is a Big Deal because the last time humans found Prothean artifacts, they discovered travel between star systems. You can ask for more information about the Protheans, Eden Prime, and the beacon, and since doing so unlocks more Codex entries (and a bit of EXP), the game softly encourages you to do exactly that. Obviously, you can just get straight to business if you prefer. Meanwhile, a turian Spectre named Nihlus is aboard the Normandy and will be evaluating Shepard’s performance in the mission to find out if they’ve got what it takes to become the first human Spectre.

Naturally, everything goes to all kinds of hell as soon as Shepard’s squad lands on the planet. Corporal Richard L. Jenkins (this game was made by nerds in the mid-00s so I give you three guesses what the L stands for) gets shot and killed by combat drones as it turns out Eden Prime is being attacked by robot lifeforms called the geth. The geth were created by the quarian race as robot helpers, gained sentience and drove the quarians (who tried to destroy all the geth upon realizing they had become fully sentient) from their homeworld in a violent war. They usually keep to themselves and haven’t been seen outside the Perseus Veil for generations, so why are they attacking a human colony now? One would assume they’re going for the beacon, but what would the geth do with a Prothean beacon?

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As much as I appreciate the graphical improvements in the remaster, this scene looked much more striking in the original game because the sky was blood red. It looked very ominous. Well, unless you were using an AMD card on PC, because then all the smoke effects appeared as dark rectangles. The 2008 PC port wasn’t very good.

While Nihlus scouts ahead, he runs into a fellow turian spectre named Saren Arterius and immediately gets shot in the back by Saren. The first time I played the game, I assumed Nihlus would turn out to betray you because, well, just look at the guy. He just looks like a villain and even his name is Nihlus (the fact one of the main antagonists in Obsidian’s KotOR II was named Darth Nihilus didn’t help). Maybe that was an intentional misdirection, playing on the human mistrust toward turians after the First Contact War or just toward aliens in general – here’s this weird hardass alien special agent who looks intimidating in his ominous red armor, so surely he must be bad! Or maybe I’m giving the designers too much credit. Regardless, I thought he would turn out to be a bad guy, but no. Nihlus is a hardass, but he’s a pretty decent fellow.

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Here’s our buddy Nihlus, looking nice as always while explaining to us why some of the aliens don’t like humans.

Saren, of course, appears even more villainous, as he looks to be part geth. Apparently, he was supposed to look more organic at this point of the game, but that model was never implemented so he just looks like a half-synthetic nightmare turian from the start. Nobody ever brings that up at all for some reason. Shepard doesn’t say, “Hey, this guy has robot eyes, a robot arm and a bunch of wires all over his body, and that stuff looks mysteriously like the geth and the robot zombies we fought on Eden Prime!” I never said this game was perfect.

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Does this look like a man who would work with the geth? Of course not, don’t be silly! (Image source: Mass Effect Fandom Wiki, because I apparently forgot to take a decent shot of Saren)

After killing Nihlus, Saren activates the Prothean beacon and escapes in a massive (and massively evil-looking, so at least our guy is staying on brand) spaceship. Shepard and the obligatory boring human party members Kaidan “I’m voiced by Carth Onasi” Alenko and Ashley “I’m not space racist, but…” Williams fight their way through hordes of geth and the aforementioned robotic husks created by the geth from dead humans. If you feel like it, you can talk to some colonists to find out more about the situation and get some items from them, especially if you’ve put enough points to the Charm and Intimidate speech skills that are tied to the Paragon/Renegade morality system (Paragon and Renegade are basically “Big Damn Hero” and “Loose Cannon Jerk and Occasional Space Racist” respectively, and the Charm and Intimidate lines correspond to them).

That brings us to the combat in Mass Effect 1. While the Legendary Edition remaster makes things quite a bit smoother by adding various quality of life improvements, this is still the Mass Effect 1 combat engine at its core. Which is to say it’s a slightly awkward attempt to implement cover shooter gameplay mechanics into an RPG that is still primarily about crunching numbers. The Mass Effect sequels are shooters with RPG elements, but this is closer to KotOR (or Obsidian’s ambitious but flawed Alpha Protocol) than anything else – not necessarily in the gameplay feel itself, but in the balance between RPG and action. Leveling up your skills and obtaining better gear makes a huge difference.

Levels and gear being important is especially the case in the original version, where the best the Alliance military has to offer can barely shoot straight due to a lack of skill points and decent weapons. Some people hate this, especially if they played Mass Effect 2 first. I don’t mind it that much because this is an RPG and that sort of thing is just one of those genre conventions you shrug at. Geralt is basically useless at the start of The Witcher 3 despite being a master witcher and having top-of-the line gear and ultra-powerful abilities at the end of The Witcher 2, and many of us accept it because that’s just how RPGs work. Others hate it because it makes no sense and may turn to mods to customize the experience to suit their preferences (for example, The Witcher 3 has a great No Levels mod), if possible.

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Shepard appears to be checking out his gigantic Paragon bar. Unlike the morality systems in KotOR and Jade Empire, the Paragon and Renegade points are separated so you could theoretically have max points in both (sadly, BioWare fixed the glitch that allowed you to max out both bars easily).

The remaster allows Shepard to use any gun effectively, although any abilities specific to each weapon (for example, Marksman increases your accuracy and damage for a brief period) are still tied to the actual weapon skill trees. In practice, that means most classes can only master one or two weapons, but you can still deal massive damage with late-game weapons without those special abilities. Or you can use Force… err, biotic powers, which are just as hilariously broken as they were in the original release.

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*DuckTales Moon theme intensifies*

The party eventually makes their way to the beacon, which reacts to Shepard and they get a vision of some kind of disaster beamed into their brain. The beacon explodes as Shepard passes out. This concludes the tutorial and establishes the stakes. Whatever the disaster in the vision was (figuring that out will obviously be one of the big mysteries of this story), Saren has apparently allied himself with the geth to bring about the same kind of disaster. Why? Well, we know he hates humans because Captain Anderson told us about him. We have to stop Saren, but how do we stop a Council Spectre who can do anything and has an army of geth at his side? We can start by going to the Council on the Citadel and trying to get Saren’s Spectre status revoked, so let’s give that a shot.

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The Citadel is perhaps a bit too big for its own good, but I quite like exploring it because it feels like a place instead of a video game map. Mass Effect 2‘s Citadel is severely downscaled and only consists of a single ward, which feels kind of limited in comparison.

You know, this was supposed to just be a quick look at the Legendary Edition remaster of Mass Effect 1, but as I look at the lengthy and barely proofread wall of text above, it’s clear to me this is going to be a multi-part series. I don’t know how many parts there will be or if I ever complete them (on a totally unrelated note, I’m going to my first test for inattentive ADHD later this week, and I’m also kind of busy with my translation work lately – especially now that I’m working on an actual, honest-to-god AAA video game I may be able to talk about once it releases), but I do enjoy writing about Mass Effect and definitely want to update more often than every… wow, it’s been nearly eight months? Cripes!

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