Mass Effect review
Mass Effect is a series I used to really love. I think I first played the original when I was 12 or so. And I still think its combat system was good, although none of the incarnations were perfect. But over the next few years I became extremely disillusioned with the intense statism in the game.
Why you should be an anarchist
- In Mass Effect 1, you're a "Spectre", a special government agent with explicit permission to break the law in your service of the council.
- Mass Effect 2 is the least statist, but there are still some parts where you're forced to do or go along with unjust things, like the scene in Mordin's recruiment mission where the guard won't led a woman into the district that contains her house to get her belongings and you don't have a choice to do anything about it, not even a persuade option.
- In Mass Effect 3, a big deal is made out of protecting the council from assassination, despite that even most statists could probably see how unjust this form of government is (the council positions are inherited by race and only the four most popular races are represented) and that the council has basically been sabotaging your efforts to save the galaxy at every turn.
- In Mass Effect Andromeda, they go as far as having enemies literally labeled "Anarchist". They're not actual ararchists, just pirates.
I also accuse the first three games of misogyny. Of *most* of the alien races, you actually never see a single female across three games. The Asari don't make up for this, and aren't the right way to make up for it (they're a canonically all-female race with a culture closely based on human ideas of femininity). As a more minor point, it stands out to me that in Mass Effect 1 all three of the women in your squad are recruited after saving their lives (albeit only one of them is a true damsel in distress situation). This is true of none of the men.
Why representation matters
Andromeda does away with sexism, but at the cost of doubling down on the statism (see above).
Let me also make the case that all four games are *racist*. One facet to this is the way the games focus to a ridiculous extent on humanity.
- In all of the games you're working for the human sub-government (except Mass Effect 2 where you work for an outright human supremacist organization instead), and you're mostly given missions that serve the interests of humanity specifically.
- Mass Effect 2 is all about the Collectors trying to make a human Reaper. Why? The only explanation that's even hinted at is Shepard: they thought that if humanity could produce an individual like Shepard, then there must be something special about humanity. Except that that makes no sense! There isn't even anything special about Shepard in-universe.
- Mass Effect 3 is all about getting the races to work together... which of course means everyone pulling their forces away from their own planets to defend Earth.
Honestly, I think they should've made the player character an alien. Maybe not even have humans. Andromeda was a perfect opportunity to change to this since you're switching characters anyway. This is a huge missed opportunity to do something extremely unique and challenge the anti-alien slant that our sci-fi industry generally upholds.
Another facet is the way the races are treated by the writers as monolithic. The universe's history is filled with war between "*the* humans" and "*the* Turians", or between "*the* Krogans" and "*the* Turians".
Observations on linguistic connotations
Races are very diverse groups of people who have internally vastly different beliefs and values from each other; you would never have a war between two *entire* races in real life.
The nature of some of these wars themselves treat races as unrealistic hive minds. The Krogan Rebellions started with "the Krogans" invading other races' worlds unprovoked. If that were the case, surely *the vast majority* of Krogans wouldn't have been involved, and many would have even fought against their own as mercenaries (almost every Krogan you meet in the series is a mercenary). But there's no mention of anything like that, it was *the* Krogans, like they're a hive mind.
Most generally, the intense in-universe racism in the way the races feel separate from each other is fine as a world element, except that none of the story focuses on challenging that. When you put racism in your universe and make four big RPGs in it each with hundreds of quests and you never let the player seriously challenge the systemic racism, you're validating it.
I won't bother analyzing the plot in detail because Shamus Young has already done it better than I ever could.
Shamus Young's 75-part Mass Effect retrospective
I do believe Mass Effect is a genuinely good team tactical shooter. The concept of powers is really innovative; it adds so much depth over a game like Call of Duty where all that matters is your aim and taking cover. The ability to pause the otherwise real-time combat system and look around and think wasn't a source of serious degeneracy because it's a singleplayer game and unlimited reading doesn't apply to shooters likes it does to turn-based ones; on the contrary, it made the game deeper since it enabled you to act with more information (since you can look around from the power menu). In traditional shooters, since you can't see everything at once, you're always acting with blind spots.
The importance of turn timers
The Mass Effect games were very fair and fun to play on the highest difficulty, especially Mass Effect 2. (Mass Effect 1 insanity got too much of its difficulty from overstatting the enemies defensively, and 3 and Andromeda were honestly too easy on insanity.)
The biggest thing to improve about it would've been increased control over squadmates. You can use their powers and to some extent assign them positions, but that's it. You can't assign them targets or tell them to take cover when they're being shot (which they don't always do properly and that's a big problem, see below).
There are a few more things I want to say about the pros and cons of each implementation of the combat system.
I liked that Mass Effect 1 had separate power cooldowns so you were incentivized to use them all instead of just spamming your most upgraded one, and I also liked the diversity of the powers. There were actually different kinds: disablers, damage dealers, defensive powers, weapon enhancement powers, you name it.
But in 2 and 3 most of the powers do the same thing: damage. The only difference is which type of defense they're good against. Powers like Throw, while they still exist, were pretty useless because they only work on enemies with no armor, shields, or barrier (and when Throw does work it still seems to do more damage than debilitation). That said, I definitely liked the later games' idea of letting you wield any type of weapon instead of being limited to the pistol if you're not one of the Soldier classes.
In all the games your allies go down frequently and there's sometimes not much you can do about it.
- In Mass Effect 1, you can use the Unity power to bring them back up, so it's not a huge deal as long as it doesn't happen more than once per fight. Of course, the cooldown was ridiculous. That game was terrible about incentivizing you to wait between fights.
See: Healing in action games
- In Mass Effect 2, it's a bigger problem because you have to use limited medi-gel to revive them, and it doesn't even fully regenerate between missions!
- Mass Effect 3 finally fixed the problem for good by letting you revive your allies manually. It still has the limited use medi-gel ability, but manual revives are a more dangerous, more rewarding option. If only they had made the game a little harder to compensate...
- In Mass Effect 1 the equipment system was always more drudgery than fun. You find a new gun in almost every room and you don't care enough to look at it every time.
- In Mass Effect 2, they overcompensated by pretty much completely removing the equipment system. It was bad, yeah, but it did add some non-trivial decisions.
- Mass Effect 3 was the perfect balance. You don't find new gear everywhere you go, it doesn't take that long to configure, and there are meaningful decisions to be made with it.
- But then Andromeda comes along and... god, no, you gotta be kidding me. I have to *loot bodies* now? What the hell! Just because Skyrim did it doesn't mean you should! If there's no reason why I *wouldn't* pick up the loot, then Ryder should do it automatically.
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