I recently bought Mass Effect in a Steam sale that knocked the price of Bioware’s RPG to $5. Thanks yet again to the guys at the Giant Bombcast (seriously, this is the second or third I’ve bought because of them and fourth or fifth from podcast recommendations), I’d wanted to play the game, but was waiting for a sale price since I have tons of other games I haven’t even started yet. Having finished Final Fantasy X and the single player mode of Portal 2, I started on Mass Effect.
Unless I’m forgetting some game from deep in my past, this is my first Western RPG. I know that I can’t base all of my comparison of jRPGs and RPGs on this one Bioware game, but in the same way that Square-Enix is responsible for nearly all the jRPGs out in the USA, it seems that Bioware is responsible for nearly all the RPGs. The biggest difference appears to be that Western RPGs take more inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons. More often than jRPGs, the characters are class-based and that tends to determine your characteristics. Also, experience points are spent in a more fine grain manner to upgrade certain attributes like aim, charisma, etc while jRPGs tend to just level you up every N XP points and then automatically upgrade the character’s attributes. During combat you only control your main character and the rest of your party is automated. I’m also playing Final Fantasy X-2 which has a more frenetic, active battle that’s almost real-time. However, I’m still selecting “fight”, “magic”, “items”, etc So it gets crazy as I’m trying to go through the menus as quickly as possible. For Mass Effect, it’s much easier. I just move my mouse to highlight the enemy I want to attack and then shoot or throw a grenade or whatever. It feels more seamless.
I liked the early title drop in the introduction – I had just thought Mass Effect was a nonsense phrase, so it was neat to learn early on what it stood for. My first thought was how beautiful this game was, like an interactive movie. I couldn’t believe the game came out in Q4 of 2007. Although some of that wears off when you see some of the uncanny valley in some of the mouth movements when the characters are talking, this game is incredibly immersive. It makes me wonder how much better it looks in Mass Effect 2 and the unreleased Mass Effect 3. It certainly helps that the game has top notch voice actors (I was proud of myself for IDing Joker as voiced by Seth Green) and really good body animations that make it seem like a real person is talking. Although I haven’t gotten far in the game, I can already see the one thing that pulls the player out of the amazing fictional universe the Bioware crew has created – emptiness. The guys at the Giant Bombcast mentioned this when comparing to the world of Assassin’s Creed which is full of bustling cities. In contrast, the supposedly bustling Citadel seems very empty.
As with any work of Science Fiction, the game is exploring elements of the present by placing it in the future. The Alliance and the Council represent, at least to me, the USA or really any super power throughout history. They seem to have specism (intergalactic racism) towards planets that were late to discover space travel. The Spectres are very clearly meant to be the CIA. And their past controversial actions definitely seem to mirror past CIA scandals. Of course, there are Space Geishas. At least, that’s how the Consort at the Citadel and her acolytes portrays themselves. Even our real world fiction finds a place in the world of Mass Effect – Husks are essentially Space Zombies. So far I haven’t found space religion yet, but I’m sure it’ll make an appearance. In fact, there was already a mention of the age-old science fiction trope of our gods actually being aliens. Speaking of the fiction, as with other science fiction nerds playing the Mass Effect series, one of my favorite aspects of the game is the Codex. The Codex is a series of short encyclopedia entries (mostly narrated) that show just how much work has gone into the Mass Effect Universe. I know this isn’t Bioware’s first space rodeo – they did the critically acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series (KOTOR) – but they must employ some science fiction writers alongside their coding team because the fiction is so dense. Speaking of KOTOR, one of the breakout characters was a homicidal robot named HK-47. He speaks like this: “Observation: I say we blast the meatbag and save you the trouble master.” “Commentary: How would you like to be the wholly-owned servant to an organic meatbag? It’s demeaning! If, uh, you weren’t one yourself, I mean…”. On The Citadel one of the alien species you run into, the Elcor, speaks in a similar matter, explaining that humans often misunderstand their monotone voices. I can’t help but think their speaking pattern, listing the tone first, is an homage to HK-47.
I think the gameplay aspects of Mass Effect are pretty interesting. I don’t know if this is common for Bioware RPGs, but when I am given choices for what Shepard should say, they aren’t a verbatim listing of what he’ll say, but just the general idea. I’m used to RPGs and adventure games displaying exactly what the character will say. In a way, I find this more exciting because it’ll be a surprise when Shepard speaks instead of listening to what I just read. I’ve decided neither to play intentionally good or evil, but to play as I would play if I were really Shepard. I really like the journal/task log. I know it may have been harder in the old SNES or PS1 days, but one thing that always really annoyed me about Final Fantasy games was keeping track of all the side quests, never mind the actual quest. Sometimes I’d end up making a list of all the things I was supposed to do and where I was supposed to go. And while I guess exploration was part of the fun, I always found it frustrating to try and figure out which mountain to the east they were talking about rather than wandering aimlessly getting into random enemy encounters. So it’s great in Mass Effect to have all the main objectives and side quests outlined – especially since it may be days between playthroughs.
At the time that I write this (mid-May) I have only played a little over 4 hours. The last major event that occurred was the trial. I am wondering what the plot will really be. In other words, I think I know who the bad guy is. But is he the main enemy? Is he just a pawn? Is he a pawn without knowing it? What are his motivations? As of right now, I don’t even know if I’m right. I know he killed a dude and it was made to seem ominous, but maybe he’s actually a good guy or thinks he is. The story is definitely much more compelling to me than Final Fantasy X-2 with approximately only a couple hours more of Mass Effect playtime. (And I felt it was pretty compelling from the beginning) I’m excited to see where the story goes.