Mass Effect was a beloved franchise for many. We’re jumping straight into past tense here, as it’s one of many franchises that just got worse every iteration and jumped off a fucking cliff when it was time to end the (planned) trilogy.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Today you’re treated with an guest post from the editor / proofreader, A9. Hello again, it has been a while.
This whole article will assume you’ve played Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3 and various plot details will be spoiled if you still want to play it one of these days. I won’t go into any of the side material such as the comics, or the newest game in the franchise, Andromeda.
I will have to apologise to the reader ahead of time for the ramble that is this post, as this whole post was inspired as it were by the soundtracks of Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3. It’s not meant as an informative post, but more as a critique and my frustrations with the series. Or more informally, a ramble that was created out of endearment for the first game.
Mass Effect: An Introduction
Mass Effect is a third person shooter role playing game set in a semi-hard science fiction setting. What is hard science fiction? Without getting too much into it, a science fiction story that abides to the rules and logic of the world and can explain why certain things work the way they do, for example faster than light travel. Why do I categorise it as semi? It all hinges on the ‘discovery’ of a fake element, element zero.
Throughout the Mass Effect trilogy you follow John or Jane Shepard, commander of the Earth’s Systems Alliance Navy on his quest to stop the Reapers, a highly-advanced machine race of synthetic-organic starships. Why does he want to stop them? Because they want to erase all organic life in the galaxy, and that’s a pretty big deal.
The thing that actually made the series so beloved for many was the world in which this story takes place, with a vast amount of different and unique looking aliens, each with their own cultures, interesting locations to visit and with some nice space politics sprinkled on top. For example, the colossal space station called the Citadel, which houses tons of different aliens and hosts the Citadel Council, which is the ultimate authority of Citadel Space (the space inhabited by all members who recognise the authority of the Council). The galaxy itself worked even if the threat of the Reapers wasn’t there and it’s clear a lot of time and effort went into making this galaxy feel ‘real’.
This combined with the fact that save files could be transferred to the next game, made players quite invested into their character and choices. A decision made in the first game could have repercussions in the next two, or if a quest hadn’t been completed in the first game the quests also won’t pop up in the later games.
The most important thing that separates Mass Effect from movies or books is the interactivity with the protagonist. With a selection of three backgrounds (sole survivor, war hero and ruthless) you start your journey. While still limited by a binary good vs evil alignment system (paragon and renegade) which lock some conversation options, from then on you choose most of your dialogue options. Within the confines of the story of the games, you choose who to ally yourself with and who to piss off. You get to know your crew, which consists mainly of humans (you are in a human space navy after all), with a couple of aliens you pick up on your travels, each with their own goals and motivations. They don’t just join because the plot demands it, they all have their own goals and tagging along with Shepard will get them closer to their goals. To top it off, most of these motivations tend to intertwine with other crew members offering different perspective on the problems of others and span over three different games.
Take the character Garrus, an ex-space cop who investigated the top special agent of the Citadel Council but kept being blocked on every corner, despite any evidence he had. After having made no real progress (since everything was classified), the case was ordered closed. Not satisfied with this, he teams up with Shepard to bring this agent to justice. But on this journey, he will have to learn what justice really is when not simply backed up by laws and regulations and he will often lean to the darker side of ‘justice’, to get the job done even if it means killing the suspect. Shepard can influence him, by encouraging this, ignoring it, or reminding him that just killing guilty parties isn’t true justice. This provides the basis of their cooperation and friendship.
The role of humankind
The universe Mass Effect is very comparable to the likes of Star Trek (but not constrained by costume budget). As a video game, the lore and setting had to be established right away, instead of getting the opportunity to create a basis and gradually building upon it episode after episode.
The biggest parallel between Mass Effect and Star Trek is the intergalactic community. You have the Citadel with the Council on one hand, and the United Federation of Planets with the Federation Council on the other. Yet the key difference here is the role humans play, and how we get to those end points. In Star Trek, humankind starts World War III, after which First Contact with the first alien race happens, the Vulcans. With their advice they band together within a hundred years into one United Earth. The humans then play an integral role in the foundation of the Coalition of Planets, which will grow into the Federation.
Yet in Mass Effect, humankind is the new kid on the block. While the early history of the Systems Alliance (the name of the united earth government) isn’t exactly clear, the foundation is: the discovery of a ruined alien research station, which revealed humankind wasn’t alone in the universe. This discovery sent Earth almost into a panic, as there was no telling if the aliens were still out there, or whether were hostile or not. This provided the cornerstone for the nations of Earth to band together, in a “us vs them” kind of way, which took only less than a year since the discovery. The Systems Alliance was formed, and the Mass Relays were discovered allowing interstellar travel, but even then there were no aliens to be found. Only after years of rapid expansion featuring many new colonies did they encounter their first aliens, the Turians. According to the interstellar laws created by the Council (which was all unknown to the Systems Alliance) randomly exploring Mass Relays was forbidden and a battle ensued, with only one human ship surviving and limping towards the closest human colony. It got followed, and subsequently the whole colony got invaded.
Only after a short war (that was lost) did the Systems Alliance get introduced to the galactic community and only then did they realise that other races have been gallivanting around the galaxy for hundreds of years already. Humans were just so insignificant up till that point, that the other races just didn’t bother. During the course of Mass Effect trilogy the humans climb in the ranks (quite quickly) and join or lead the Citadel Council, almost turning it into a Humanity Fuck Yeah story.
Story, lore, codex
The story, which by some accounts should not be the focus of a video game was one of Mass Effect’s defining features. In principle, I am of the opinion that gameplay is the most important aspect of a video game (or computer game as this blog’s owner would say) and that story is complimentary. Yet some video games have a nice synergy between gameplay and story.
The entire Mass Effect universe has an immense amount of lore, filled with many different aliens and technology concepts. The first game makes ample use of that, yet so much stays just in the codex, the in-game encyclopedia. It’s nice supplementary reading for sure, but why wasn’t it tied into the main story? Did they just run out of time?
Rather than making use of the rest of the codex, ME2 supplemented it with extra material and new places. One cannot fault them for that, it’s normal to add new stuff, but so many things are left unexplored and rarely visited again. How do the species govern their own people, their own homeworld? What is really happening in the galaxy outside the reaper threat?
The promise of a trilogy with a great story was there, as the set-up was very well done, with many story threads being left open and the real mystery of what the Reapers are. Yet main trilogy ends with such a wet fart, that the thing that most people enjoyed the most, utterly failed them. Hey, remember the threat from the first game? Yeah now they’re just everywhere but we’re doing OK. Oh, and by the way, we found an ancient superweapon design on Mars, so let’s build that. And before we forget, here have this utterly forced psychological trauma of seeing a kid die during the invasion of earth. We’re going to show it to you throughout the game, that kid that you saw for about three seconds.
Even the iconic dialogue wheel could be disabled at this point with the cinematic option to just watch cutscenes without any interaction. Let’s not even start the infamous “skip combat” button debacle again.
In Mass Effect 3 everything is action or drama, and the space adventure is only there as a legacy of the previous games. It’s replaced with doing missions for all alien races to unite everyone into building the giant superweapon to defeat the big evil badguys. But these missions feel insignificant and are just time wasters. Oh, thanks for unclogging our toilet Mr Shepard, I guess we’ll help you combat this galactic threat.
Gameplay, along for the ride
Gameplay has always been along for the ride in Mass Effect, yet even that gets worse over time. ME1 kicked things off as a fairly standard third person shooter with many abilities: biotics, tech skills, you name it. Each skill has its own cooldown, and ammo is unlimited. Run around the map, shoot enemies, hide behind cover, ignore your brain-dead teammates, drive a odd low-gravity moon rover, and repeat.
Gunplay is one of the most important aspects in a third person shooter, and my personal weapon of choice is the pistol in ME1. Accurate, fair fire rate and not bad reach.
Instead of polishing the combat options you had in ME1, BioWare decided to limit the player instead of making combat abilities flow better into each other. In ME1, each ability had its own cooldown, but in ME2 it’s an universal cooldown. BioWare thought it would be great to go from a cooldown ammo system to an actual ammo system with an hard cap on the maximum amount of ammo you can carry for a specific weapon. With just a small magazine of ~30 for the pistols, you’re fucked if you run out so have fun with the other weapons! Instead of giving the player an incentive for using the other weapons, they limited the better weapon to force you to use other weapons which were often inferior unless in specific situations. Except for the submachine gun, I hate everything about that popgun. The weapons are oddly distributed among the classes so good luck if you want the assault rifle, since you have to give up every interesting ability to get it.
Equipment was a big deal in ME1, thanks to it’s RPG roots, yet was found in such abundance that it boiled down to Weapon Model 1 to Weapon Model 10. Sure, there are different variants… but good luck with the inventory management system.
“One of the most controversial changes to the combat was probably how ammo works,” Hudson goes on. “It was something that wasn’t part of the main game design but instead was implemented as a test by a gameplay programmer. The Lead Designer was against the idea, but tested the ‘ammo’ version of the game for several weeks in total secrecy before concluding that it made a huge improvement to the tension and pacing of combat.GamesRadar+ – The Making of Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 is the perfect middle ground between a game that needed a few more months in development, and a very polished turd that is Mass Effect 3.
New players in an ongoing story
Mass Effect 1 was a great starting point for a trilogy, but they never properly followed that up with anything substantial. ME2 has little to no relevance to the main plot, it only explores a single part of the whole story, and also establishes a minor ending point for ME3 to profit off. The series was constructed as a trilogy, but was this the correct idea in hindsight?
But I think mostly we wanted to create an experience that was less about being a game and more about being an experience. That might be the theme behind everything. I’m not saying make the systems thinner or anything specific like that, but let the game get out of the way of the player having an experience. I think that’s the goal of any artist in any medium, to get out of the way of what the game is trying to be. To make it less mechanical and let people interact with it in a more natural wayJoystiq – Interview: BioWare’s Casey Hudson on the making of Mass Effect 2
With the first game being a clear hit, how to approach the sequels? The first game wasn’t perfect by any means but things can be fixed with the sequel. But you still want new players to get into the series. How do you get new players invested in the second game while still understanding the story? In ME2 they used a interactive comic book, that would create a ‘save file’ for the game to import, along with Shepard having to answer a few questions to make sure he’s ‘alright’. The classic approach is giving the player a character that’s unfamiliar with the story at large, such as Jacob Taylor in ME2, and James Vega in ME3. They both serve the same goal, but are handled very differently.
Jacob is a former Systems Alliance marine that defected to the human-survivalist paramilitary group called Cerberus. His reason for joining was seeing an ineffectual bureaucracy in action against systematic attacks against human colonies by an mysterious attacker. Yet, he’s hasn’t disillusioned himself about Cerberus, which is commonly known as a humans-at-the-top group and frequently remarks how he doesn’t always agree with their philosophy and methods. He’s brought into the plot to comment on Shepard’s actions in the previous game, whether or not the player actually played it, and partially serves to introduce Shepard to this new organisation
James got fired from the cast of Geordie Shore and got chucked onto the Normandy since he was near Shepard when Earth got invaded. He’s a marine. And a meathead. Always describing and comparing things right in front of him. He gives stupid nicknames. It’s no secret he’s specifically made to cater to new players that would probably rather play Gears of War. Really, that’s all he serves for.
Original Sound Track
The decline of this series can be seen, or more appropriately heard in the soundtrack. A funky, somewhat slow electronic sound filled with synthesisers gradually transforms to a overly forced dramatic slow piano piece that changes to generic action music. The thing that is missing is the spectacular. The focus isn’t on the spectacle of the galaxy anymore, the focus has shifted to solving the problems in the galaxy. The spectacle is almost taken for granted and takes a back seat, or gets stashed in the trunk.
An example of the main theme being used in other pieces can be heard in The Lazarus Project, in which the deceased Shepard is being rebuilt. It has the uplifting notes of the original theme, but goes downward from there. This is in line with the themes of the game, working for a dark organisation and also turning your back against the people you’ve worked for in the first game.
Where the soundtrack begins to decline in the second game for me, is the more frequent use of the piano. Just as the same main theme gets reused around the rest of the soundtrack, so does this piano theme. It’s not an overly emotional theme though, it does sound a little sad, but for me this captures mystery and having questions.
And then we have the main theme of Mass Effect 3, a theme that just uses the fucking piano while tooting a harsh horn throughout the theme. It’s forced, there is no subtlety. Hell, is this even science fiction anymore? ARE YOU FEELING SAD YET? I’m struggling to make clear how much I absolutely detest this theme.
For me, it comes down to the following: While the first game does has its dramatic themes, they’re better built up to.
The past and future of Mass Effect
As Aalt wrote in this post:
The worst decision that franchises like this do is writing prequels. By doing that, the staff is essentially tied to defined future of the story. If they break the future, the overall story and canon makes less and less sense with each little breakage. One drop doesn’t break a damn, but enough drops turn into a tidal whale. For long time fans of any franchise, they know how prequels often turn out. Not all that great, sometimes even sullying the story they’re based on.
Yet I cannot help but wonder, if you have a legitimate starting point for such a prequel, can you fault them? The biggest event in the Mass Effect universe is the discovery of the effects of element zero, the mass drives, the Prothean beacon and then the Turian war.
But what about the future in-game? The way ME3 ended the trilogy was a real letdown, can you follow it up with anything good? The rebuilding of the citadel was already done in ME2 and 3. Do you just want to skip ahead a hundred years and introduce a new bigbad evil guy? Or will all the mass relays be rebuilt? As faster than light travel is gone from the galaxy, the story would have to be a very contained one that’s restricted to one solar system.
Finally, the future of the franchise. With the disaster that was Andromeda, it will be a while before we will get a new game. Won’t this be the perfect moment to translate the games to TV or a movie? This way, the ‘cumbersome’ gameplay won’t get it the way of the story. I’m only being semi-sarcastic here. With a bit of luck, they’ll pull a Witcher success story (yes, I know that’s also based on a book) and they can even diverge from the ME2 and ME3 script and take a look back at their original plans for the trilogy.
I might just come back to this post to clean it up some more and include elements I dropped in the end. A lot of development stuff, gameplay changes and stupid corporate decisions.