Let’s Get Started
The Mass Effect series represents something very important, something noteworthy: Mass Effect is the space opera of my generation. The 80’s had Star Wars, the 90’s had Star Trek, we get Mass Effect. I need to take a moment here to make this very clear: I love Mass Effect. As far as space operas go, it’s awesome. It’s got everything Star Wars once did and has yet to be destroyed in the same manner (it might yet happen). The question is why? Why do I love Mass Effect so much? Why have I touted it as one of my favorite game series of all time? Well, let’s dive in, all the way down to the gritty details. The following several posts will break down Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, compare the two works to each other, and analyze what they mean to the games industry as a whole.
This review contains massive spoilers and relies heavily on the reader being at least generally familiar with the Mass Effect universe and the plot of the first two installments. Additionally, I will be presenting design, story, and character decisions as either Good, Neutral, or Bad in reverence to the Paragon/Renegade system. The items I note are completely opinionated but I will be applying my best game design and entertainment archetype knowledge to analyze this series.
Mass Effect did characters right, ‘nuff said. Every character in the game has a unique name, voice scheme, personality, temperament, and intricate backstory. Even the relatively insignificant characters like the biotech saleswoman on Noveria, the rogue AI on the Citadel, or the quirky salarian trader on Feros are distinguishable and compelling. Indeed, the characters flesh out the Mass Effect universe to a staggering degree.
Though I enjoyed the ability to mess with Shepard’s gender and appearance, I liked the idea of specifying Shepard’s backstory. Unfortunately, the backstory doesn’t seem to tie into other parts of the game as much as it (maybe) should have, but it was still an interesting way of characterizing Shepard without forcing the player into a certain role or mindset.
The fun thing about Shepard, for me, was some of the available reactions and dialog options. Shepard didn’t spurt terse memes to mirror the dialog option that I chose; instead the writers did a great job of expanding on dialog concepts and fleshing out Shepard’s word usage and interaction plausibility. Overall, Shepard is Neutral because (s)he’s supposed to be: the blank slate that the player is meant to explore and build through dialog and action.
I really liked Nihlus. While he was only around for the first five minutes of the game, he was surprisingly well developed as a character. He was receptive to assistance from human efforts and, while taking on the ‘Lone Wolf’ persona, felt like a suitable mentor for Shepard. Nihlus provided a nice cross-section into the first (and arguably most important) alien species in the game. Additionally, he revealed that while most of the Citadel species disliked humans, not all of them are xenophobic bastards.
Nihlus is a Neutral character design because I enjoyed him but he was killed off in the first ten minutes of the game with seemingly little purpose. In fact, Nihlus’s death doesn’t really make much sense when you sit down and think about it. Nihlus was unaware of Saren’s allegiance shift and didn’t suspect a thing at the time of his murder. Why did Saren kill him? Did Sovereign tell him to? If so, why? Eh, whatever. It seems that Nihlus’s death was simply used to establish Saren as ‘the bad guy’, but I wish this had been accomplished with a character I didn’t want to see developed.
Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams
Ashley is smart, strong, cynical, clean cut, pragmatic, and effective. She is the dramatic foil to Kaidan and one of the few human characters I really enjoy. Ashley embodies the ideal soldier: strong-willed and pragmatic while still being loyal and helpful. When the choice to save Alenko or Williams arose there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation; I like Williams and feel she made a great example of what Shepard is fighting for in terms of humanity’s stake on the galactic stage.
Alenko annoyed the crap out of me. He was mouthy, whiny, weak, and selfish. Plus, there were some hints that he was perhaps speciesist on some level. I enjoyed watching the interaction and contrast between Kaidan and Ashley since they are foils of one another, with obvious role reversal and everything.
I think that Kaidan represents the old philosophies of humanity and is meant to align the player more toward human considerations. However, this was very frustrating and annoying and I killed his ass off when the decision arose.
The ex-CSec turian, Garrus is sarcastic, pragmatic, sly, and loyal. I have a feeling that Garrus was one of the first characters to be designed because he really feels like a direct foil for Shepard. He fulfilled this role perfectly and his interactions with Shepard and other members of the crew felt incredibly natural and wholesome.
I am somewhat apathetic about Garrus, but his character is really well built and I enjoyed every moment he ended up on my team.
Wrex is awesome. Awarded for the best supporting character, Wrex is witty, gritty, calculating, and intimidating. Fitting the rough bounty hunter mold, Wrex has a fascinating backstory and some great interactions with Shepard. I love Wrex’s character and frequently bring him along just to hear some of his witty-yet-wise puns and dialog options.
Liara is a fantastic example of mold-breaking characterization that is worth noting. She’s an asari, so automatically assumed to be feminine. Fine, I can live with that. But, the great part about her is that she’s a shy, socially awkward ‘teen’ scientist; pretty much the exact opposite of what you might expect just looking at her. Massive amounts of characterization was done to show that she’s actually a rebellious teenager that has buried herself in her work. Additionally, because of her scientific tendencies, she divulges expository information about the asari without so much as a blink of an eye while reciprocating with questions about human behavior. This subtle, realistic interaction really caught my attention and brought Liara to the forefront in the awesome lineup of characters.
Tali’Zorah nar Rayya
And then there’s Tali. I LOVE Tali. She is one of my favorite characters of all time: brilliant, strong-willed, ambitious, and curious. The level of characterization and information provided for Tali’s backstory, mannerisms, and reactions is staggering (if you take the time). All of this is accomplished while still hiding her face behind a mask, which shows how awesome BioWare and Liz Sroka are at character building and the use of non-visual cues. Others loved Wrex, but my vote is for Tali.
Jeff “Joker” Moreau
Joker is the comic relief, constantly spouting witticisms and silly asides. Joker’s characterization is strong, but I found him to be slightly annoying at times: a somber set of events has transpired and the crew is currently at each other’s throats, but Joker injects some inane pun and dissolves the tension. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen often. On the flip side, he does have some truly humorous moments and blends with the Normandy to give not only himself, but the ship as well, a unique identity.
The rogue Specter, Saren allies himself with Sovereign after indoctrination and psychotic determination sway his judgement. Saren was a mediocre villain, set up as an antagonist because of somewhat contrived circumstances. Nonetheless, he represents important pieces of the Mass Effect mythos: indoctrination, Sovereign’s strength, the tense state of turian-human relations, etc.
Saren reveals that he sided with Sovereign to “prove the worth of organic life” but I find this rationalization to be incredibly weak. I feel it would have been more appropriate to use the coward’s route: Saren should have acknowledged the Reaper’s power and advantage and simply stated it is “better to be at the monster’s side than in it’s path.” This would have done much more to reinforce Saren as a ruthless, heartless, cowardly, and ultimately evil opposing force. If Saren had been shown in such a cowardly position, his potential betrayal of Sovereign in the last part of the game would have been that much more meaningful and powerful.
Captain David Anderson
Captain Anderson is, sadly, the token military higher-up that takes Shepard and the crew of the Normandy under his wing. Anderson felt somewhat blank to me, providing much needed insight into the current state of human and alien affairs as well as being a sounding board for plot decisions. While this is useful from a world-building perspective, it left Anderson as a flat character.
I found The Council to be fascinating and yet frustrating. The Citadel was set up as this massive, grandiose center of the civilized galaxy. A decent bit of Codex information is devoted to explaining the Citadel and Council’s roles in galactic politics which sets the background nicely for the Council’s importance and giving credence to threats against the Citadel.
But then you meet the Council. It’s literally 3 aliens: a turian, a salarian, and an asari. This doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. The Council is supposed to represent all of the species on the galactic stage. Doesn’t that seem like a bit of an important matter to devote to a small handful of individuals? We’re talking 10 billion citizens per species and they have three people making all of the decisions. I know it’s supposed to be the future, but come on!
That aside, however, we’ll look at the Council itself. Their personalities are cynical, cold, and the turian is obviously speciesist against humans. These are the guys we’re supposed to give a shit about and report to as a Specter?! Frequently after important missions Shepard checks in with the Council and they usually bitch about something or other and rarely back Shepard’s decisions despite Shepard’s standing as “the Council’s right hand.” This becomes even more annoying when Shepard and the crew are forced to rebel, steal the Normandy, and ultimately save the day against the Council’s orders.
I suppose the real issue is that the Council is totally forgettable and are laughably useless as figureheads in the game. Their primary purpose is exposition and plot development, totally dropping the opportunity to give the player a deeper taste of the other races.
I LOVE Sovereign. When I first encountered it on Virmire with it’s booming mechanical voice, ominous message, and cold resolve I literally had shivers running down my spine. Sovereign and the Reapers are awesome antagonists and really make Saren kind of pitiful after their reveal. The contrast of Sovereign’s size and strength as it approached the Citadel was jaw dropping and I was whooping in fist-pumping exhilaration as the Citadel Fleet blew Sovereign into minced biomechanical bits. Needless to say, Sovereign was one of the best parts of Mass Effect: unambiguously against the player, unbelievably daunting and intimidating, resourceful and intelligent, and spiteful to the end.
Let’s take a moment to look into Sovereign’s role in the game to further cement why it is one of the best antagonists in games to date:
Sovereign was larger and more powerful than any ship in the entire Citadel Fleet; even more powerful than the much-touted Ascension dreadnaught. This made Sovereign a viable threat, which is absolutely necessary for a proper antagonist. Additionally, this made the entire Reaper invasion a serious threat: if one is awesome imagine hundreds of thousands of them. Finally, Sovereign’s strength required the cooperation of every (Citadel space) race to overcome, bringing forward the “look what we can accomplish when we work together” message which runs counter to the surprisingly large number of speciesist characters and undertones.
Sovereign’s cold, mechanical tone and demeanor set it apart from anything the galaxy had ever seen before. This reinforced that Sovereign and the Reapers couldn’t be guilted, couldn’t be dissuaded from their task. All organic lifeforms were going to be purged and that’s the way it was gonna be because the Reapers say so. Talk about ominous.
Finally, indoctrination and other minor factors of Sovereign and the Reapers show that they are deep enigmas with the ability to manipulate organic life in powerful and subtle ways. These mysteries serve to make the Reapers that much more fascinating and effective as antagonists.
All of this sums to a fantastic finale of overcoming an immense obstacle through the cooperation of disparate and conflicting peoples in a moment of inspired bravery. I’ll miss you Sovereign!
The Thorian was a fantastic little aside that tied into the plot well. Having to use non-lethal force to subdue the enthralled inhabitants of Zhu’s Hope was an interesting twist on the combat mechanics that fit well into the Paragon/Renegade system. Not to mention the Thorian itself was pretty awesome: a giant, ancient sapient plant that had seen the rise and fall of countless species. Though the “boss fight” involving the Thorian was kinda crappy, I truly felt remorse at it’s death.
— Stay tuned for more Mass Effect: An In-Depth Analysis —