Replaying Mass Effect

So, I started another play-through of the Mass Effect series. Again. Like a recurring alcoholic trying to get to grips with his life, getting a job and cleaning up, only stumble across a half-finished bottle of vodka in a drawer, which you’d stashed drunk and forgotten all about, only to crash out of the wagon and spiral into a happy, action-filled adventure saving sentient life from crazy, ancient machine-gods.

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The first note I want to make is that I’ve played the first ME on both Xbox and PC, and the PC version can honestly go fuck itself. BioWare had left the PC port to Demiurge Studios, which in retrospect was apparently a bad decision, since they took care of the PC version for both sequels themselves. In all fairness, it’s not a bad port. Apart from being completely goddamn broken. Even after patching, the game is plagued by small bugs and horrendously ugly graphics, which themselves appear pretty schizophrenically. It’s pretty usual to talk to characters with fully rendered heads, but below the neck wear unicoloured, blobby, unrendered clothing. While Garrus is stuck in a loop in the background, skidding around crazily, like he’s stuck on tracks and the only speed is ‘cocaine’.

There were several occasions when the game simply froze, and starting the game was a massive pain in the arse, because every time you start the game can takes anything between one and ten minutes to get its shit together and move beyond a black screen, with BioWare’s theme tune in the background. Of course there are varied graphic settings you can tweak to make the game look less like a badly rendered turd, but that brings us to the second issue, this being the game being really badly optimized. As soon as a tried to crank the graphics settings anywhere above medium, the frame rate started coughing as soon as it had to render anything more exciting than Shepard sitting quietly in a chair in a spartan, empty room, filing missing ordnance reports. And this is on a PC that while not Alienware, can at least run games from 2013 on decent settings without hick-ups.

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There are some other amusing details that show the first ME was an AA-title, rather than serious, polished AAA like parts 2 and 3. For example, the voice acting is kind of fucked: sometimes you can go through dialogue trees where bits are clearly added in later to fill blanks, where the voice actor is clearly a different actor, with a clearly different voice, recorded in a different studio with a completely different microphone, voice and pitch going all over the place like a sine-wave. Another example are crowds, who mystically all move their mouths without producing any audible noise. In addition, some of the crowd members were clearly feeling a bit lonely showing up all by themselves, and brought some cardboard cutouts to stand beside them, to alleviate the feeling of solitude, because BioWare wanted to create a sense of life and activity, but “programmers are expensive and we’re working with a budget here.”

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Despite all the technical issues, the ME experience is still well worth a few ragequits and excessively long loading times. Compared to later titles, ME1 was hands down the most ambitious. It wanted to mash together Knights of the Long Republic with Halo, make huge, open environments, bash the player over the head with huge epic story and drown them in game universe and character dialogue. Mostly ME pulls it off and really manages to pull the player in the world, despite cutting corners everywhere. The story and world immersion are the two big strong points, which makes it easier to forgive the clumsy gameplay and the AI, which at times is batshit stupid. It could be really frustrating taking on a base of pirates single-handedly, while both your followers could be two rooms away, trying to walk through each other and getting stuck on walls. When they are in the same general area as you, they mostly blow out all their powers in one go, really menacing the ceramic wall the raider captain is crouching behind.

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There is really only one more thing that can seriously go fuck itself, that being the notorious inventory management, which kept you switching gear every ten minutes, changing the weapon mods for marginal improvements and hocking the rest of it to the closest Hanar merchant. I was only halfway through the game when I maxed out on credits, with enough money to buy out an army of mercenaries to sort out Saren and his geth, rather than go through the mess of sorting it yourself.

Lots of people moan about the Mako vehicle handling like Shepard drives it using his/her arse, but I really liked exploring planets, blowing up pirates and driving in circles around Thresher Maws. It gave the galaxy size and depth, never knowing what you might find, be it slaver bases, ancient ruins or Asari strippers, and there was a real joy of discovery – even though all the planets were more or less the same barren planet, with different filters.

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The strong points are still really strong, the main ones being good story and fun characters, which is very nice since these very rarely get center stage in gaming. The universe is very well designed, heavily borrowing from Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5 and every other scifi-title ever, in the same way that masked men with guns sometimes borrow money from bank clerks. Mass Effect mostly does the best kind of borrowing, where you borrow the best bits and leave out the worst. ME universe is in many ways better than other franchises, and the 70s – 80s scifi-pastiche theme works really well, and especially during the first play-through it’s a real pleasure to read every bit of text from journal and codex entries, and learn more about the universe in dialogue. And fuck me is there always more dialogue. Even the bits that are kind of dodgy – such as explaining all difficult bits of scientific mechanics away as ‘mass effect’, or the blatant fetishism of sexy aliens in retro Star Trek spirit – are all part of the fun, and are more endearing to the series than annoying. The other races are absolutely fantastically realized, and particularly the Krogan are funny as all hell.

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It’s pretty safe to assume you already know the story, or at least figure it out in minutes of starting – this being sci-fi and there’s only so many ways it can play out – so bugger spoilers. Commander Shepard, whose gender, appearance and first name are pretty much optional, becomes a council Spectre (which is exactly like a Jedi, minus light saber) tasked with hunting down another rogue Spectre turned terrorist, Saren, and stop him before he can cause a galaxy-wide genocide of all sentient life. He gets his own prototype ship, quirky crew of murderers and free hands to sort the business out, so off he goes searching clues of the mythical threat of Reapers, who have wiped out all sentient life in the universe every 50.000 years for Reasons Beyond Our Comprehension, and stop them from coming back. After a few jobs on different worlds, Shepard realizes Saren, with all his lackeys, is no more than a brainwashed puppet of Sovereign, a Reaper left behind after the last genocide to monitor galactic evolution and decide when it would be a good time to come clean house again. In the end, Sovereign and Saren attack the galactic capital space-station Citadel. Shepard, who shall not put up with it, sorts it all out, everyone is happy and apocalypse is delayed, at least for a while.

The story is that old chestnut, saving the galaxy, which is almost as old in gaming as saving a princess from a giant reptilian rapist. Still, I had great fun putting on Shepard’s space pants: saved the galaxy, made out with alien hotties, saw one second of bare blue bum, shot more pirates than the British Commonwealth, lost some money on Quasar, made a weird fan and talked to everyone in the known galaxy. Also punched a speculative junk-journalist. And drove around planets, jumping off the tallest mountains in my Mako, going “wheeee!” all the way down. Also got stuck in walls alot.  

The story really doesn’t take any big risks, but it is very nice that the first Mass Effect doesn’t try to reveal much about the Reapers or their motives. They are only established to be motivated by reasons of their own that may be beyond organic comprehension, giving vague hints of their purpose behind controlling galactic evolution of organic races – only to wipe the slate clean again. Sovereign only says his motivations are beyond silly mortals, and that “the Cycle” must continue. This was much more fun the Reapers were mysterious and vague, before BioWare wanted to tie it all up in the last part of the trilogy.

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Despite all the bitching, Mass Effect is still the dogs bollocks, despite some clunky gameplay. As long as you get the console version. I do quite honestly think this is the best Science fiction franchise out there, especially since Star Wars titles have been bogged down by George Lucas’ “artistic vision”, and Star Trek is weighed down with as much shit as gold. The ME universe is crazily immersive, well built, designed and all around brilliant, and mostly sticks to what is at least believably within scientific possibility. The characters and companions are much better written than most mainstream movie characters, and are important in keeping people coming back to the series. At least there are no Star Trekian blob monsters or supernatural, pseudo-religious guiding force. And no one would stoop down low enough to go on about midichlorians.

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If you are still alien to the series, and are looking at trilogy packages at your local game retailer, you might want to pick up a console version, just because this first part has a bad case of the gremlins. Parts 2 & 3 have all the technicals sorted, and either way it is going to be well worth the money.

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