Mass Effect

Developer: BioWare
U.S. Publisher: Microsoft
U.S. Release: November 21, 2007
Genre: RPG
Format: DVD

Based on: Star Wars pretending to be a completely generic science-fiction movie pretending to be an RPG.

Games | Xbox 360 | Mass Effect

Article by parish | January 17, 2008

Few things in this world make me as sad as Davin Felth.

Davin Felth, in case you don't know -- and I pity you if you do -- is the name of a Stormtrooper in the original Star Wars?. He's the one that holds up what appears to be an enormous washer, found in the middle of a planet-sized desert, and proclaims, "Look, sir, droids!"

This is not information I ever wanted to know. Ever. The fact that something so useless, so trivial, so asinine takes up a memory register in my brain depresses me, because it means I've likely forgotten something more important to make room for this inane trivium. I can't even imagine what is gone now. Because I've forgotten it, see. I just know that where a precious childhood memory should be is an empty void emblazoned with the name "Davin Felth."

I discovered Davin Felth and his whole pointless story long, long ago in a city far, far away. Back when I was in school. I'd occasionally balance the substance of my scholastic English class reading assignments with the lightweight fluff of Star Wars novels -- not something to be proud of, I knew, but certainly harmless enough; juvenile brain pablum to offset a week of late nights spent dissecting The Wasteland with the help of Ezra Pound's furious notes. Or so I thought, until I read the life story of Davin Felth and realized that someone had taken time -- and been paid actual American dollars! -- to write a story about a faceless bit actor in a full-body costume who had three lines of dialogue in about four seconds of screen time in a movie filmed nearly 20 years prior. And of course, it's that bit of info that lodged itself in my brain rather than, say, the symbolism of the Phoenician sailor's eyes having been replaced with pearls.

I had never heard the term "fanfiction" at that point in my life, a good twelve or thirteen years ago, and while I used the Internet with growing frequency I simply considered it a handy information resource. I hadn't yet stumbled upon Internet "culture," the dark side effect of bringing together social misfits without actually bringing them together, the tragic result of a social venue where the emotionally stunted no longer needed to interact, merely express, the obsessive and minutiae-obsessed madness that festers in the Internet's bowels, the frothing fanboys who live to nitpick the most obscure details about things they ostensibly love. Ah, innocent times.

Which brings us back to Davin Felth. Davin gave me a glimpse, see. He offered me what was perhaps my first realization that, yeah, maybe it's possible to take the concept of being a fan a little too far. He also made me realize that I was a complete doofus for paying money to read badly-written books about a trilogy of movies that, while childhood favorites, weren't exactly the pinnacle of creative achievement. My eyes opened, I quickly shifted my attention over to the likes of Asimov and Vonnegut and Herbert, and all was well. So when I finally stumbled across fanfic in the course of my Internet forays a year later, I was already prepared with the realization that most of it is no damn good, and that I should approach with caution. And that is why, until Mass Effect, I've avoided BioWare games.

BioWare may actually be unique in gaming: a company that's built a warm, positive reputation entirely on a foundation of fanfiction. Maybe that shouldn't be too surprising; the company is run by a pair of intellectuals, which is a short jump to "nerd," which is the demographic most likely to dabble in fan fiction. BioWare's critically-acclaimed fanfic has been for the nerdiest of possible endeavors, too: Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms, and -- oh yes -- Star Wars. Even their one "original" IP last generation, Jade Empire was a genre piece, wuxia -- basically a Chinese historical mythology fanfic. And then there's the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog? RPG. Against all odds, their take on Sonic actually looks pretty good, but let's face it: the rest of the Sonic fan oeuvre hovers somewhere between "obsessively wretched" and "vomitously horrifying."

So, I've been reluctant to commit to a BioWare RPG through the years. Ostensibly because their games only been available for systems I didn't game on, but also because part of me was completely turned off by the notion of spending 80 hours slogging through a D&D fan story. Could there be possibly be any one fictional setting that takes itself with more disproportionate seriousness relative to what it actually is up than D&D? Star Trek, maybe, but only if you count the dudes who speak fluent Klingonese.

Granted, Knights of the Old Republic largely dodged this particular bullet by taking place several thousand years before the actual films, which mercifully prevented ill-advised Jar-Jar cameos. But I'm still held back by the grim prospect of a Davin Felth moment. (Well, and the fact that KOTOR runs like crap on Xbox 360.)

Mass Effect, though... Mass Effect is its own thing. Which isn't to say it's wholly original; on the contrary, the story appears to have been constructed largely out of the basic building blocks of modern sci-fi. Malevolent extragalactic threat? Check. Earth as a fledgling member of a strained galactic federation? Check. Various races whose entire homogeneous existence can be summed up in a single collective attitude? Yes. Lost, ancient civilizations whose scattered remains form much of the basis of the galaxy's current state of the art? Aw, how'd you guess?

Does it matter, though? Mass Effect's appeal isn't in any single component of the game, but rather in how all of its pieces fit together. Like any role-playing game, it has a heavy emphasis on both action and story. Like any BioWare creation, it has much less of a church-and-state division between these elements than your usual RPG. Something like Metal Gear Solid offers a clear demarcation -- you have your interactive bits followed by your sit-and-watch bits, and aside from occasionally being able to press R1 to ogle Eva's chest the twain shall never, ever meet.

Not so, here. Mass Effect has plenty of shooty bits where things explode, and it has a fair number of passive sequences where you sit and watch. But generally speaking, you remain engaged even in the interactive portions, guiding the flow of conversations, who you fight and, ultimately, the outcome of the story -- even how the final boss shakes out. Hell, play your cards right and Mass Effect is the second game in 2007 wherein a major adversary elects to kill himself before your very eyes. I spent about five consecutive hours near the beginning of the game without leaving its main city, the Citadel, only rarely fighting random ruffians... but I nevertheless managed to level up quite a bit thanks to the fact that BioWare deems conversations worthy of netting experience points. Not merely for finishing sidequests, either, but simply for conversing with people and learning about the game world(s). As you enhance your characters, you're also enriching your immersion within Mass Effect's universe. It's a touch carried over from the company's previous titles, but seems more significant here since, after all, you can't fall back on your familiarity with a licensed property to get you through. BioWare rewards you for taking the time to soak in the details of the universe it's constructed, like a proud dungeon master handing out bonus loot to a group who thoroughly enjoyed his campaign -- the first of many areas in which the game's D&D roots show through, but hardly the first.

At the game's heart is a unique branching dialogue system that allows the player to shape the story with remarkable efficacy. Or rather, "unique."

Branching dialogue, of course, is hardly anything new, especially where BioWare is concerned. The concept has been around for years, even before BioWare made it their schtick. Mass Effect, however, sets itself apart with its implementation of the concept: where each user choice in their previous games was the sum total of the main character's response, here they're brief paraphrasings that offer a general impression of the feel and content of protagonist Commander Shepard's comments. Responses are arranged around a ring of menu options that consistently segregates dialogue options by tone. After a while you don't even need to read the possible response cues -- you can simply press automatically in the direction that corresponds to polite, threatening, wheedling, neutral, sexy, or however ever you want to respond to the person in question. Selecting by tenor rather than by text keeps things moving quickly enough to prevent gaps in the characters' spoken delivery. This creates a fluid and convincingly conversational flow to the in-game dialogue, a sense that you're participating in a natural discussion with the game's NPCs. Or at least the closest thing to "natural" that you're going to see in a video game for the time being, anyway.

The conversation system wholly redeems Mass Effect's story. Yes, the general plot is constructed on a foundation of fairly generic concepts, but those broad strokes work because the in-game dialogue fills in the fine details so effectively. You're thrust into a situation that seems vaguely familiar, though never quite familiar enough to feel like a blatant rip-off of any single work -- you're presumed a certain fluency with the vocabulary of sci-fi, then given free rein to tell the story your own way. When you customize your hero (or preferably heroine, as Jennifer Hale's performance blows away her male counterpart's) the first attributes you define aren't character class or skill specialization but rather backstory. Do you play as a loner, a survivor, a dutiful soldier? Besides shaping the moral alignment of the character you role, this choice also affects a few subquests and a surprising amount of incidental dialogue.

You can then build on this history to play Shepard as a virtuous saint of intergalactic peace or a complete jerk, depending on your preference. BioWare notably rejiggered its morality system to be somewhat less weighted this time around -- instead of being good or evil, you're either a "paragon" or a "renegade." This basically comes down to whether you prefer to coexist in harmony with the rest of the galaxy or put humanity's interests first. It's a test of personal politics, really. Do you think the United Nations is awesome, or do you prefer determined isolationism and occasional bombings? If you want to crank up that paragon rating, your heart will bleed so much it'll make Jimmy Carter look like Bill O'Reilly.

The predominance and flexibility of Mass Effect's story and role-playing elements represent an evolution of the game design concepts the developer has been kicking around and refining since Baldur's Gate. Hell, I've barely even touched their previous games and I can still tell that much. In fact, one could reasonably opine that this is the game the company's been building toward for the past decade -- yes, it's anemic in some areas, but it also features some clever innovations.

Take combat, for instance. Somewhere, deep inside, it's still derived from the same basic D20 concepts that were displayed nakedly in Neverwinter Nights and even KOTOR. But it's dressed up as a straightforward action game. It's an interesting hybrid of two very different genres -- role-playing, obviously, but also the Gears of War third-person shooter format. (Strangely, people have frequently criticized Mass Effect for feeling like a "clumsy first-person shooter" -- an unusual feat, seeing as the first-person perspective is never once used in the game.)

It's also a confusing hybrid, at first, since you pick it up and expect it to play like, well, a shooter. But then you find that your aim sucks and your AI companions are kind of dumb and that your powers and abilities are poorly explained and why the hell is my grenade just floating in midair and aaaaargh. But with a little exploration, experimentation and patience you start to understand the rules: the accuracy and damage of your shots are determined by the roll of an invisible die, affected by the stats of your gear. Biotics are basically simplified magic while hacking is a different school of magic that allows for debuffs and mind control. What initially seems bewildering thanks to the uncharacteristic (though not entirely unwelcome) lack of tutorials slowly begins to make sense as you assign skill points and upgrade your gear. By the end of the game, you're nothing less than a monster of pure destruction. With the proper skill boosts and gear, the biotics that once seemed so ineffectual can turn the tide of battle, and sniper rifles that were initially infuriating to use are steady and powerful, capable of knocking down or freezing or poisoning foes. Or at least the ones they don't kill in a single shot.

So yes, Mass Effect's cross-genre gameplay takes some getting used to, but it's manageable. And like the story, it consists of familiar elements arranged in new ways -- a sort of contextual underpinning to make it all flow together. Come to think of it, that's kinda what fanfic is, too: a way for aspiring authors to practice their craft by shuffling around someone else's original creation. See, it all comes full circle.

But even once you've gotten a handle on the flow of combat and how to shoot the sniper rifle without the reticle bobbing all over god's creation, Mass Effect is a virtual buffet of annoying shortcomings. One of the major sidequests is driving around in a space buggy across identical, featureless planetary surface, which ceases to be amusing after the tenth or so identical, featureless planet. The writing quality varies dramatically from "exceptional" (helped in large part, no doubt, by the vastly-above-average voice acting) to "kind of embarrassing." The romance sequences in particular are likely to feel contrived and unconvincing to anyone who's ever actually kissed a girl. Or boy. Or hermaphroditic tentacle-headed alien.

Ultimately, though, if you're willing to overlook a few rough patches and remember to balance out the tedious exploration portions by working steadily through the more structured plot-based segments, Mass Effect's strengths vastly outstrip its failings. The universe BioWare has created teeters at the brink of cliché but always manages to pull itself away and strike out in an interesting new direction... or at least travel down an old, familiar path in an interesting way. And it's wonderfully flexible, offering story missions that can be approached in whichever sequence you see fit, along with dozens of sidequests that vary according to your attitude toward the non-human life with which you share the galaxy. And it does a pretty good job of offering a complete story while still providing plenty of hooks for the sequels.

It's enough to make me regret having passed on KOTOR all these years. At least I can take some small satisfaction in knowing that Davin Felth was retconned out of existence when Lucas decided that Stormtroopers are all clones of Jango Fett. Suck on that, fanfic.