I promised that I will comment on the story and setting of Mass Effect once I’m done with it. A lot of people praised it it’s story as the single redeeming quality that made the game worth playing. But was it really? I purposefully held my judgment at the time, and I’m here now to throw in my 2 cents.
The story is ok – and I’m being generous here. Id say it’s better than KotOR2 but mostly because the game was released unfinished and never hand a proper ending. Mass effect does provide you with closure, but is also deeply flawed in the plot department.
Don’t get me wrong, there were things that I liked. For example, I thought that most of the so called “fluff” (ie. background information) was great. I enjoyed listening to and reading the Codex entries, which provided a ton of information about the in game technology, political structure of the galactic community as well as biology and culture of various races that inhabit the known space. It’s one of the few Space Opera type settings which actually attempts to explain the faster than light travel in a fairly original way. Most of the time people just hand-wave these things away using old stand-ins such as “hyperspace”, wormholes or unspecified “jump drive” technology that just works. Mass Effect doesn’t try to bypass or circumvent special relativity via inter dimensional travel or ripping holes in space-time continuum. It’s FTL works well within the boundaries set by special relativity – and revolves around manipulating mass of the moving objects using special properties of a rare Element Zero that can only be found in certain areas of the galaxy.
You can tell that a lot of thought was put into the background fluff of the game. This world building effort doesn’t always shine through in the actual game play so to really get into the background you have to read the Codex which is fairly extensive. I really do appreciate this level of attention to detail. Every time I had a question about how something works, I could usually find an appropriate codex entry.
I also liked parts of the main quest. For example the encounters with the Thorian and the Rachni were pretty good. But despite the seeming wealth of the background, the plot itself is not without serious flaws. Here is a list of my biggest gripes with the game:
Geth are Boring
Throughout the game you will be fighting mostly the Geth – the mute, synthetic minions of the main antagonist. While they come in various shapes and sizes (from regular foot soldiers, wall crawling sentinels, zombie like husks to flying scout drones and tank sized colossi) they are a rather boring bunch. You get to fight them mission after mission and nauseum. To add insult to injury, the game reuses the Geth models as stand-ins for other creatures as well. For example the Thorian drones are basically Geth Husks painted green. You get so used to fighting Geth and Geth like enemies than you get complacent. When the game gives you a different foe your company will likely get wiped out on the first try. For example, when I first encountered a squad of Krogan mercs I was totally unprepared for their bull-rush tactic and got wiped. My first encounter with the Rachni also ended with a TPK and a re-load.
The worst part is that there was no reason for this lack of variety. The game world was rich enough to offer a wide range of different enemies. You never actually fight with Turnan or Solarian forces for example, and there is only one point in the game where you actually get to fight a squad of Asari. It’s actually so bad that specking your weapons to deal high damage to organics is rather foolish, since you almost never actually fight them.
If you skip all the side quests (all of which are an exercise in how many times you can flip over your Mako vehicle) the game is very short and very linear. Linearity is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this particular example it only adds to the brevity of the game. You seem to be rushed from one mission to another, and there are few worthwhile distractions in between. Once you leave the Citadel (your starting location) you are given a free reign and are able to visit any planet you want just like in the Old Republic games. There are 4 major planets you have to visit in order to move the plot forward, and a dozen side quests. This may seem like a fair amount of content but it’s not. The main quest missions usually consist of a small settlement with a trader and 4-5 NPC’s and an extended dungeon crawl with one or two mandatory driving sections. Each can be probably knocked out in 2-3 hours if you know what you are doing.
Once you complete the 5 plot related quests (which, btw are the only interesting missions in the game) you are forcefully pushed into the endgame sequence which is an additional 2-3 hour long quest. After that you are done.
Someone told me this game is massive – no it is not. It is tiny! Disappointingly tiny. Unless of course you are a modern FPS fan used to paying $50 for a 3 hour technology demo. In that case the game would indeed seem large. But not for me.
I said the story was ok, but it is very, very lazy. You see, almost from the very beginning, the game builds up for this great shocking revelation at the end. You discover that there is this ancient race of sentient machines known only as Reapers. Most of the time they slumber somewhere in intergalactic space millions of light years away from civilized parts of the universe. But every once in a while they wake up and wipe all technologically advanced races from existence and go back to sleep for few thousand years. Why do they harvest sentient species? What is their motive? What drives them to commit unspeakable acts of genocide over and over again.
Eventually you get to speak to a Reaper, and some NPC’s that fought Reapers. How do they explain their motives? Get this, the big revelation is that:
“Reapers are unknowable. They are beyond our understanding. Whatever purposes they have, it is not something that we mortals could ever comprehend”
Yep. That’s it. That’s all you get. Half the game you are wondering why the hell do these things raep sophont creatures up the bum, and the other half of the game everyone just hand waves it away. I mean, they are Reapers, right? That’s what they do. They reap. Oh, they have some secret agenda, but we are dumb mortals and we will never get it.
FUCK YOU BIOWARE! This is the laziest excuse in the history of bad plot devices. “They are unknowable” is not an answer. It is a shitty excuse for not writing a compelling antagonist into the story. The Sovereign could have been much more scary and creepy if he actually had a reason for what he was doing other than a long standing tradition of genociding sufficiently advanced races every few thousand years. It’s a cop out, plain and simple.
Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed. I literally felt cheated out of something good. The story could have been so much better if the writers made some effort and at least made up something plausible.
Hell, I’ll do it myself. We know the Reapers are these super-intelligent AI space ship like beings. However, they don’t seem to be a singularity level beings – which leads me to believe that they hit an evolutionary dead end. They developed as much as they can with their current technology and are unable to move forward. So they leave their Mass Effect technology all over the galaxy to see what Organics can do with it. The point here being, that organic life developing on hundreds of worlds brings a much needed diversity to this equation. They bring fresh minds with unique perspectives and unorthodox approaches. Where Reaper science reached stagnation point, a less developed species may accidentally stumble onto some breakthrough which will allow Reapers to evolve. Of course they can’t let the organics live for too long, out of fear they will become more advanced than the Reapers themselves. So once they notice the organic life getting sufficiently advanced, they make a sweep collecting valuable gadgets and resetting technology level throughout the galaxy back to stone age.
See, it’s not that hard. Much better than “ooooh, they are unknoooowable!” excuse.
Humans are Superior
Oh, btw – did you know why humans don’t have much political power in the galactic society yet? It’s not because they are the youngest race accepted into the fold of that society. It is not because they are the least technologically advanced race. No, most other species are actually a bit afraid of humans because they are so fucking awesome.
We are the most flexible, most adaptable, the fastest growing, fastest learning, most innovative, have the biggest hearts and etc. Cause fuck, HUMANS ARE SUPERIOOOR!!! Every time you speak with an alien, they go out of their way to let you know how awesome the humans are is compared to other sentient races. Unless of course you talk to one of the xenophobic characters that hates humans. But these characters hate us because they are afraid of us.
This is a really, really popular trope – and one I personally hate it. Why can’t we for once be an inferior race? Why do humans always have to be special? It really takes out all the fun out of playing an underdog, when you know you are a member of the chosen race, destined to lead the Galaxy. But again, I think this is just lazy writing.
Mass Effect had a great potential. I liked the background fluff, and parts of the main quest. Sadly boring side quests and lack of variety in enemy types made the whole whole experience seem short, rushed and rather monotonous. This along with the Reaper cop out diminished the game play experience quite a bit. The game is definitely not the masterpiece some made it out to be. It had great potential but IMHO it was squandered.
Bioware is bragging that Dragon Age Origins is more than twice the size of Mass Effect. Ugh… That really doesn’t say a lot, does it? By my calculations this should be around what? 6 hours of non-boring gameplay, compared to Mass Effect’s 3 and a half hours? Seriously, I hope they did better than that, or else I will be forced to write another negative review here.