Reviews – Games – Mass Effect

Title: Mass Effect

Series: 1 of 4 of the Mass Effect series

Creator: Bioware

Medium: PC (Windows 7, Gaming Spec)

Purchased via: Steam

Price: 3 GBP

Progress: Partially completed. Little compulsion to continue.

Comments:

BioWare is a Games Studio with no less than three bestselling, critically-acclaimed series under its belt besides Mass Effect. These are Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age. Like Mass Effect, they can all be described as class-based, Western-style, action-RPGs.

Mass Effect is an utterly quintessential Bioware game. Par for the course, marks against it include clunky and indistinct combat, under-differentiated equipment, a largely-irrelevant class system, a good but hardly exceptional graphics engine (that taxes the system more than it should), a tired quest system, and art-direction that is polished but hardly ground-breaking. Yet all these aspects are only secondary to the main appeal. Mass Effect‘s strengths and emphasis lie in its characterisation, world-building, story, and plot. It is for these elements that you buy a Bioware game and continue playing it.

However, I would argue that, when judged by its own standards, Mass Effect must be considered a very good, but far from great game. The fact that the series is considered an exceptional work of storytelling among Triple-A game titles says more about how low standards are in the games industry than anything.

I’m a Sci-Fi nerd. I consume a silly amount of books, films, TV shows and games belonging to the genre. I pick out ideas, plot devices and tech concepts out of sheer force of habit. I am inoculated against enjoyment of the cliched and done-to-death; I respect that which is the well-worn, but well-executed; I appreciate novel twists to old tropes (or their outright subversion); I am childishly delighted on the rare occasions I encounter something original and fun. The bald truth is that Mass Effect story is not particularly original, the universe is not particularly original, the plot is ridden with tired tropes, and its portrayal of interstellar politics is both aggravatingly simplistic and logically inconsistent.

I am not saying that Mass Effect is bad Sci-Fi. But as someone who knows the genre well, I would assert that it isn’t exceptional Sci-Fi either. It is merely above-average. If you want good world-building, storytelling, dialogue, characterisation, tech concepts and plot twists, there are books, TV series and films that do most, or all, of these better than Mass Effect. Nor are any of these things that couldn’t be transferred to the medium of games with the right vision and direction.

The very best thing Mass Effect has going for it is its portrayal of the protagonist, Commander Shepard. I cannot think of any other game that so excellently realises the idea of a strong, heroic, leader as a protagonist in a heavily story-driven game, whilst simultaneously allowing the player enough flexibility in their decision-making to make them feel the character is their own. In that area, at least, Mass Effect is world-class.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Mass Effect. It does so much right and Bioware’s approach to game-making is admirable. But that Mass Effect is considered part of the elite of storytelling in Sci-Fi/Fantasy gaming demonstrates how much room there is for this genre as a whole to grow.

Quick Verdict: Well-executed, but broadly unremarkable.

Opening

I find it difficult to write non-fiction. I struggle a lot with the inherent subjectivity of writing. I enjoy reading other’s people’s non-fiction. I consume blogs and articles and opinion pieces. I compulsively check microblogging sites like twitter. But whenever I’m reading non-fiction, my overriding emotion or feeling is wariness. I’m wary about being misinformed, or being sold things I don’t want or need, or being taught a way of thinking that is harmful or regressive or rigid, or influenced by connotations or implications lurking beneath the surface meanings.

When I’m reading I’m trying to absorb data without emotion, context without emotion, and emotion only with sufficient context. But it is difficult. I’ve only got one, flawed brain and it’s doing the equivalent of trying to fill a 500ml bottle with pure alpine spring water from an unceasing avalanche of shit heading towards, past and over the filtering system.

I know how hard it is to write something accurate. I know how hard it is to write something useful. It helps me to think of any piece of writing as a tool that can be used for good or for evil. A tool that needs to be understood before it can be used, and needs to be wielded well before it can be applied usefully. Anything I write is a tool that might be used often, but more likely won’t be used much at all.

With all this in my mind when I sit down to write non-fiction, the wariness always flares up. I freeze. Sometimes I don’t become unfrozen. If I manage to continue I find myself compulsively checking for errors, inaccuracies, exaggerations, unfounded opinions, residual anger, pointless put-downs, repetition and cliches in every sentence. As I go I deconstruct what I’ve written. I re-arrange it. I put it back. Then I think about showing it to the world. Then I delete it.

At least, I used to.

For now I’m content to be the guy who is doing his best to make sure what he’s sending your way isn’t shit; metaphorically or emphatically. But, of course, you shouldn’t just take my word for that.