PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Mass Effect

One of the major themes of Mass Effect is xenophobia and the reasons that certain species hate or mistrust the others.

Publisher: Microsoft
Genres: Action RPG
Price: $59.99
Multimedia: Mass Effect
Platforms: Xbox 360
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Mature
Developer: BioWare
US release date: 2007-11-20
Amazon UK affiliate
Amazon affiliate
Developer website

Led by a horde of Final Fantasy and Diablo clones, console role playing games have arguably been stuck in a creative rut for most of the last 15 years. Recently, however, a batch of interesting new titles have emerged that have helped lead RPGs away from the slow-paced, menu-driven "Boy and ragtag band of warriors grow up/fight evil wizard" or "hack and slash everything that moves" ghetto.

A lot of the credit for the rebirth of the RPG should go to BioWare, whose Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire games combined an old school emphasis on story and dialogue with action-packed lightsaber battles and kung-fu fighting respectively. BioWare's next step in innovation is Mass Effect for the Xbox 360, a game that successfully fuses a third-person squad shooter with role playing elements in a completely original outer space science fiction setting.

While the game has a host of serious and annoying flaws that threaten to drag it into mediocrity, Mass Effect's utterly engrossing plotline, incredibly detailed high-definition visuals and engaging characters and dialogue make the game an unforgettable experience.

In Mass Effect you play the role of Commander Shepard, a mid-level military officer who must pursue a rogue Spectre -- the intergalactic equivalent of a CIA operative. Mass Effect's story is full of well-tread sci-fi clichés, but it's written well enough that you don't care that it's not completely original. Much of the universe is run by a massive interstellar United Nations-type organization called, you guessed it, the Alliance. But whereas humanity is the key race in many sci-fi tales, they are the proverbial "Canada" in Mass Effect, playing a small role in the grand scheme of galactic government.

Most of the first few hours of the game is spent talking to diplomats, bartenders and regular citizens of the Alliance capital, as a sort of tutorial into this world of peculiar politics and alien races. It doesn't take long to find that one of the major themes of Mass Effect is xenophobia and the reasons that certain species hate or mistrust the others. The beauty of it is the complex way it's handled by the game's writers.

Where can I get a visor like that?

In theory, it seems better to support the effort of getting humanity into the alliance's council (the equivalent of the UN's Security Council) but the council itself acts with some suspicion toward humans and seems to have some sort of secret agenda. It's a credit to Bioware that they make you think critically about issues that have some relevance to a real world that sees the United States making moral choices about being part of a greater world coalition or acting out of its own interests.

It's your decision in the game as to how you want to decide the issue, and in fact, it's largely up to you to decide who Commander Shepard is exactly. Unlike many games, where the choices made in the character creation screen are largely cosmetic, Mass Effect allows you to choose your backstory, origin, and even your sex, and each of these things has unique effects on the dialogue and story. For example, you can decide to be a hardy survivor of a tragic incident on another planet or a street-savvy orphan from Earth who became a shoot-first badass once joining the military. As in Fable, many NPCs around the world of Mass Effect know you and your reputation and will speak about it ("Hey, weren't you the hero of so-and-so?!").

Picking your sex is the most drastic choice because not only do you have a different voice actor speaking the dialogue, but it changes your options for romance (and yes, the rumors are true, you can choose the path of lesbian if you pick a female) and people will react to you differently. For example, when in a seedy bar you approach a drunk former police officer. If you're male he merely acts belligerent towards you, but if you're female he starts out by hitting on you and making crude sexual remarks.

Thanks to the game's wonderful dialogue and renegade/paragon moral choice system, you usually have flexibility in the way that you want to respond to such situations. If you like playing the peacemaker, you can ignore threats, but if you're the renegade, you can threaten them yourself with violence, or sometimes just shoot them down.

The dialogue is integral to the Mass Effect experience.

Even if Mass Effect sometimes "tricks" you into thinking you have more choices than you actually do, there's certainly enough choice such that you could play the game through a second time and experience a lot of different material.

That's the good of Mass Effect. Combat, on the other hand, is a mixed bag.

Mass Effect utilizes a third-person squad shooter combat system that feels more like Gears of War or Ghost Recon than Dungeons and Dragons. It's fast-paced and fun at times, especially with the use of "biotic" powers to take the place of magic, but it's frustrating when you can't control your squad like you'd want to. Worse, get into a decent sized firefight and the framerate drops down to near slideshow-style performance.

The more you play Mass Effect, the more you'll find nagging problems. The inventory system can be confounding, the side mission worlds are often barren and empty, and the giant worms can insta-kill you at any moment. There were also a few times I had to restart the game because I got stuck in various environments.

It seems like Mass Effect could have used a few more months in QA before being released, but I assume they rushed it out for the big holiday season, which is a shame. With a spit shine and a few fixes, Mass Effect might have been one of the greatest video games ever made, but as it is, it's still one of the best titles of the year.

Comparatively, old-style RPGs like Blue Dragon feel absolutely antiquated. With apologies to another famous piece of science fiction, Mass Effect may well be the final frontier of console role playing games.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.