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Monday, April 15, 2024

Mass Effect

With Mass Effect, BioWare takes another crack at an original RPG universe with a science fiction inspired epic spanning three games and well over 100 hours of gameplay.  But is there something great to be found in their attempt, or does it just collapse under the weight of its own ambition?

Mass Effect is a game I was pretty unimpressed with even when it was new for a number of reasons.  I loved the Infinity Engine games on PC for their deep, strategic gameplay and storytelling, but like most digital RPGs they were a bit lacking in the, well, roleplaying department.  Whether you played a "good", "evil" or "neutral" character you were still walking through the exact same linear plot, beat for beat. The only difference is you could maybe resolve an encounter a slightly different way for a different reward or do a branching plotline for a short while, but in the end their replayability was derived from trying out different classes and party compositions much more than for their roleplaying potential.  

Mass Effect takes that hook away in favor of homogenized third-person cover-shooting action and gives very little back in exchange.  You get to choose one of three flat, predetermined backgrounds for your character (which just changes a line of dialog here and there and affects precisely nothing else) and as for classes... well, they're all just variations on "guy who shoots stuff and maybe has powers that make him more efficient at shooting stuff". Which makes no tangible difference in how you play anyway since the AI-controlled enemies are dumb as dirt and constantly leave huge portions of their body outside of cover for easy sniping.  There's no ammunition management to speak of, just cooldown between each shot, and virtually every enemy you kill drops more guns with randomized stats, so you'll be drowning in them unless you stop to inventory manage every ten minutes or so.  Also, you're required to carry one weapon of each type at all times even if you have no skill points in using them and even if you're playing a class that can't ever put any skill points into that weapon type, so you'll be pulling out the wrong weapons in the middle of a fight constantly. 

There are no decent diversions from all the shooting, either - every planet you visit is just another nondescript hallway full of cardboard targets to shoot, and the only 'puzzles' are lame minigames you've seen in dozens of other things.  But don't worry about having to think about these puzzles or spend more than 3 seconds solving them, because you can also just pay some omnigel and completely skip past them.  Vehicle segments exist but are just as boring, having you center every enemy on the screen and pump them full of infinitely-regenerating ammo until they're dead. I also figured out very quickly that quicksaving and reloading will top off your shields any time you want, so vehicle trips just serve to fill more runtime and give you free experience points in an exceptionally monotonous way. 

Mass Effect was lauded for its "choice based narrative", even though it's just as shallow and insubstantial as everything else it has on offer.  You periodically choose to be a nice guy ("Paragon!") or a jerkass ("Renegade!"), with more choices opening up later depending on how many such choices you made before; so of course you're locked into picking one or the other exclusively or you miss out on content later.  Like in Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale though, your choices make virtually no difference to how the story plays out - sure things change a little in that some races will be more friendly/hostile to you in future games (in cutscenes, almost never gameplay) and some characters will survive or die, but given how  they're almost all just exposition machines with no personalities, it's a bit hard to care.  Moreso because the game exhumes any actual worldbuilding in favor of relegating everything to a boring "plot codex" so you can bring the whole game to a dead stop and have paragraph after paragraph of dry Wikipedia text read to you to get caught up.  Having a cinematic presentation with narrated cutscenes or bits of lore to find in-game or doing literally anything more complex than shooting things and picking menu options would alienate the Halo-worshipping Xbox fanbase, you see.  Even the actors seem absolutely bored to be here, reading off line after line of their characters' dry text with all the passion of a text-to-speech program. That's some supremely bad direction and/or apathy in play, because there are big names here like Seth Green, Jennifer Hale and Keith David, and I know all of them are capable of turning in a quality performance.

I can't say I blame them for only putting in the bare-minimum effort to get a paycheck, though, because there isn't the faintest hint of originality to be found in ME's story.  It lifts characterizations and plot points wholesale from earlier works like 2001, Star Trek, Star Control, Xenosaga and StarCraft while putting no new twists on any of tjem, leaving the player with any open-ended questions to consider or even attempting to capture any of the personality and/or humor that made those franchises so memorable.  It's also a pretty weak, thirty-hour-at-most plot at its core, pointlessly stretched out to a "trilogy" by cramming it with tedious filler, which seems to have set a pretty godawful precedent for modern gaming as a whole; thanks a lot for that, guys.  But it has boobs and almost-nudity and really forced romance scenes, so that automatically makes it good, right?  Never mind that when Star Control played on the already-long-dated clichรฉ of the green-skinned space babe in 1990 it was mostly for humor and Fallout 2 actively mocked cheap, shoehorned sex scenes in video games just like this in 1998, Mass Effect roars ahead with it in 2007 with no irony whatsoever!

In short, Mass Effect is an overlong subpar shooter glued to a boring, badly presented and shamelessly derivative RPG.  Like all lousy fan fiction, it's way too in love with itself over the sheer volume of its content to realize it has no ideas of its own or any talent to fit it all together into an actual story.  I honestly can't tell you why anyone considers this game a "classic", let alone one of the greatest video games ever made, when its triteness is plain as day to anyone who's remotely savvy about intelligent science fiction or digital roleplaying games.  The only way I can even see someone enjoying it is if they're in their early teens and have simply never played, read or watched anything better, in which case they should probably expand their horizons instead of settling for such a subpar mish-mash.  Just because Game Informer told you it's the absolute pinnacle of its genre and you never need to experience anything made before it doesn't mean it's true; I mean, it's not like they'd say anything to get you into the game store that owns and sells subscriptions to their magazine for an easy sale, right?  Again, just partake of any of the much better, smarter things it's lifting ideas from instead, or if you really set on playing an actiony space opera video game with a long and convoluted plotline, just play Kingdom Hearts instead.  Yes Kingdom Hearts is also a clichรฉd cheesefest and shamelessly retreads plot points from other things (sometimes word-for-word from the original movies), but at least it knows it has nothing poignant to say and refrains from taking itself so damn seriously.  Plays a lot better than Mass Effect, too.

And please, if you want cheap T&A, just go to Pornhub.  Stop buying crappy games just to see two seconds of booba before the camera cuts...

That's your reward for over 100 hours of repetitive gunfights, plagiarized plot points and trite, boringly-acted dialog. There, I just saved you a whole heap of money and time you can now spend on something decent.

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: 2007, 2008, 2012
Platforms: XBox 360, PC, PlayStation 3

P.S.: Kindly spare me the lame talking points about how not liking this series for any reason makes me a 'homophobe' because it features cheap, shoehorned-in gay romance options and how BioWare is so brave for taking a stand tokening on these important social issues and how I'm on the wrong side of history and I have no soul and and bla bla bla. Those are just red herrings dreamed up by EA's PR team so they can score more sales and make negative publicity of their company and games disappear by getting chronically-online Tumblr activists to false-flag unfavorable content and/or harass the families of its creators until they disappear out of fear for their safety.  I'm sure all the evangelical conservative millionaires on EA's board of directors are grateful for your support though, as are the super gross Neocon/MAGA politicians they routinely donate to in order to secure even bigger tax breaks for themselves and pass more laws oppressing people they hate; the very same ones you purportedly care about, in fact.  But hey, if your carefully curated cult of enablers still says you're doing good in the world despite all evidence to the contrary, that's good enough for you, right?  Actually doing anything beyond taking tough on the internet is for suckers; you can go to bed tonight with a dopamine high and a clear conscience because you spent your entire day stalking and bullying some random stranger over a review of a video game you have a purely performative attachment to and threatening your toadies with more of the same if they don't cheer you on the whole time.  But don't even consider using your time/disposable income to contribute to causes that actually help gay and trans people who get abused and abandoned by their parents or unjustly fired from their jobs or beaten to a pulp and left to suffer for hours by apathetic school and hospital staff, and definitely don't encourage your toadies to either - they should only be supporting YOU and YOUR selfless work!