Discount Bin: Mass Effect
Sometimes, a game (or in the case of Mass Effect, a series) slips you by. As a poor college student, I often have to ration out my spending and $60 on a AAA title the year it comes out is often out of my reach.
So I only recently picked up Bioware's smash hit Mass Effect. The plus side of buying games this late in their life span? The game only costs about $10 at your local used game store or on Steam. I played the Xbox 360 version of the game, so my review is tied to that.
One of the things that Mass Effect is correctly lauded for is the ability to pick the gender of your character. Among a myriad of customization options, the one that I was most interested in was allowing my Shepard to be female.
For characters, I created Melanie Shepard, a black, bald female character. It was refreshing to be able to choose so many aspects of the character, and it really made it feel like I had a great deal of agency.
The above is a creation by another Mass Effect fan, but since I played on the Xbox I'm not entirely sure how to show you my character. She's pretty close to this though.
For a series that advertises the ability to have aspects of your character and decision making transfer throughout, it is really nice to be able to control what your character looks like. Even if all of the advertising features a nearly bald white guy with a chiseled jaw.
It's really no surprise that this game has gotten a lot of attention from queer gamers.
The other part of character selection helps determine your backstory. Where you raised in the Alliance (future human military)? Come from Earth? It's entirely up to you. You can also pick your military backstory. Are you a "sole survivor," the tortured lone survivor of a horrible conflict? A war hero? These aspects of your character will continue to pop up in the other games, so it's a good idea to consider what you're doing first. I can't tell you the amount of times I was thanked for being a super awesome war hero.
For a game that claims to allow you to choose your own path to such an extensive degree the amount of times where an all out fire-fight are imperative to the plot is a bit ridiculous.
The fighting controls were actually fairly understandable, especially for someone like myself who doesn't often play First Person Shooters. There is a lot of pausing in the action to switch between weapons and powers in a sort of scroll wheel function, but it actually allowed me to consider which weapons I was going to pull.
In the wheel you're also given the option of controlling members of your party, but I rarely exercised that ability. The AI seemed fairly competent and was actually helpful a good amount of time.
The sections I was least fond of were probably the ones that involved driving. When you landed on a planet to explore, I found the Mako very difficult to control. The terrain is, understandably rough, and I was usually thrown around like a ping pong ball in an ocean. Oftentimes, jumping into the car seemed like a way for the game designers to fill up space with large set pieces.
Characters and Species
One of the greater selling points for Mass Effect are the well fleshed out characters and the myriad of species that you interact with. All of them have distinctive personalities and traits that go well towards creating a complete world.
Take, for example, the members of your party. The humans, who are your first partners, are probably the least interesting members. Really, they're just there to fill up space until the aliens arrive, and once they did, I never used them again.
But over the course of the game, you can collect a few interesting party members, from a biotic Asari (a blue, all female species that are obviously intended to be alluring), a disgruntled former police officer and Turian (a slightly war-like species who initially sparred with humanity), a mercenary Krogan (think Klingon) and a naive, hyper intelligent Quarian (part of a species that lives nomadically on a flotilla of ships.) They're a diverse bunch, and you want to learn more about them as the game progresses.
The advertising and push for the game seemed to insist on creating sexual relationships with some of these characters, and while they do have the option for lesbian/gay relationships, I found myself uninterested in pursuing that path. It's possibly because of the way I envisioned my character as being a great soldier, but socially a bit awkward, and partially because though I liked the growth of the characters, I was annoyed by the two options I was being pushed towards.
Garrus, the Turian police officer, was pretentious and had a bit of a stick up his ass. Liara, the blue Asari, was sweet, but a little too sheltered. I'd rather cavort around the galaxy with them blowing stuff up. Also, I was unable to get the relationship I wanted, which was with the Krogan. Wrex and I could've had a connection if it weren't for the game getting in the way.
And the villains in Mass Effect? Just the kind of galaxy ending baddies that you'd expect from a space opera.
The story is one of the things the gets heavily credited by reviewers. It is a fantastic, galaxy spanning space opera, and the scope itself is quite amazing.
The game has certain features of a sandbox with some missions that are more linear than others. In the beginning, I just wanted to cavort around with the Elkor (a lumbering, elephant like species) at the Citadel, but eventually the side quests seemed to fade away. It's honestly a testament to the series that I wanted to move on to the main quests, to the exclusion of the side quests.
The graphics, from 2009, frankly hold up. There is a bit more uncanny valley than I'm used to seeing in modern games, but that's no reason not to dive into the series.
The worlds feel complete and well crafted, and the modeling for the individual characters is pretty well done overall.
The loading screens are actually an odd sort of highlight from the game. The game tends to load while you're standing in elevators, so you end up being able to just watch your character and two of her companions just chilling in the elevator. Occasionally they'll engage in small talk or a brief news item will pop up, but what it really does is serve as a great way to not break the action. You still feel like you're in game, even though the game is actually loading.
The game has actually aged rather well, and the visuals still hold up. The driving sections are one of the weaker moments of the game, and occasionally the story drags on like you're carrying around an encyclopedia.
But if you don't mind the reading, check out Mass Effect today from your local used game store. If you're as lucky as I am, you're bound to find it for only slightly more than a decent lunch, and it's definitely worth more than that.