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24 February 2022

Mass Effect Review

by Florian

I bought Mass Effect Legendary Edition over Christmas and I’ve been playing through the series again for the first time in ages.

The original Mass Effect is a really solid, 8/10 game that’s remembered for being a lot worse than it actually is.

There’s a solid (albeit typical) story about the end of the galaxy due an unknown threat from “deep space.” The combat is a decent shoot-em-up and the character writing is top notch. None of it is perfect, but it comes together as a better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts game.

The Worldbuilding

Science fiction is often described as a reflection on the society it’s written in, and Mass Effect leans into this premise - hard. There’s a dozen (?) or so alien species and all of them are racist in some form or another. Turians hate humans. Humans hate Turians. The Salarians and Turians quite literally commit genocide against the Krogan. The Krogan commit genocide against the sentient Rachni. Earth is a messy place and by extension so is the galaxy.

Mass Effect’s universe is why you play Mass Effect. It’s totally original and really well built. Each species is vying for different things and everybody occupies a morally grey space - including the humans. Are all species alike in their lust for power? Is it possible to form a multi-species democracy? Great stuff.

The Turians, Asari, Quarians, and Salarians

These were probably the least interesting set of aliens to me. I lamented in my Speaker for the Dead review that too many portrayals of aliens are just blue humans. And the Turians, Asari, Quarians, and Salarians are essentially blue humans. Especially the Turians.

They have interesting backstories and lore, but ultimately they felt like trait accentuated humanity. Asari are humans but with telekenisis! Salarians are humans but super scientific! Quarians are… jewish/gypsies?

Like I said, the game makes up for this by making them interesting twists on humanity, but they’re all too human for me. I’m optimistic that the later games will make up for this, but in the original iteration, they just feel like reskins of somewhat tired tropes.

The Geth

The Geth fall a little into the above category too, but I actually found them quite interesting. An enduring and poignant question the game asks is: When do you recognize another species as “worthy” to enter the galactic council?

The Geth may be strange but I find it surprising that they are so blanketly evil in Mass Effect. The Krogans rebelled and killed countless galactic lives, but they’re recognized and respected as are the Batarians who are literal slavers. I’m not saying they deserve to be on the Council or whatever, but I do find it interesting how castigated the Geth are. Which leads into a broader, more interesting conversation…

The Council is a crumbled power structure

Mass Effect does a great job of reflecting reality, and the Council is a failing Rome that’s doing nothing but preserving the power and wealth it already has. I’m not sure if this is the intended message of the game, but it was my takeaway:

  1. The Council are extremely hesitant to admit and share power with species who already rival them (humans in this case).
  2. They denude any species which has the potential to oppose them.
  3. They recongize no power other than force.

This is all classic totalitarian leadership and the Council masks it by marketing themselves as democratic, shared leadership.

Let’s take these points beat-by-beat. Why are humans not on the Council? Is it because they are relative newcomers? That’s the excuse that’s given, but then why aren’t the Krogan on the council? Or the Batarians? Or the Quarians?

These are all free, sentient species that deserve representation, no? The Council seems to only exist to serve the interests of the races on the Council not represent the galactic people. At best, it’s a racial oligarch.

The Geth are a great example of this. Pause and view things from their perspective - as a fully sentient, “human” species. They’ve been forcibly enslaved by an alien people (the Quarians), successfully revolted and declared independence and now are… banished from peaceful space. Granted, they’re a warmongering people, but still nobody seems all that interested in even attempting peaceful communication with them. No wonder they side with the Reapers!

Next, look to how the Council dealt with the Krogan. They practically commit a genocide against them to prevent them from “being too aggressive.” The Krogan population was expected to grow some 10x+ and was industrializing fast. Instead of welcoming them, or coming to some (literal) space sharing agreement, the Council neuters the species. You can’t help but think there was a power preservation motive behind this not just “wanting to maintain peace.”

I’m not saying there’s never a good justification for the use of force, but it does seem to be the default measure here, not a last resort.

Finally, let’s look at two of the more original species: The Volus and the Elcor. These are two completely peaceful species that have no representation on the council. The Volus are lauded as superb traders and the Elcor are a simple, conservative people with a notable space presence. Why are neither of them represented on the Council? It’s because they have no combat abilities. They cannot intimidate with force and thus are not respected or given representation. The Council only respects physical power.

I understand this is a combat centric video game, but Mass Effect as a game reinforces this hierarchy too. You can only recruit, and deeply interact with, the aforementioned combative species. It would have been kind of cool to have a be able to recruit an Elcor who’s just a bullet shield or a Volus who throws you found credits/supplies a-la Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite. I get that that’s a reach for a new IP, but it does seem a shame.

The Mako

The Mako is a really dumb addition to this game. It’s been said before and I’ll echo it here. The sections where you drive across (largely) barren planets are mostly dull, trodding affairs. The Mako itself is so overpowered that you can just snipe enemies from a distance and then fly past them.

To offer a slight defense, though, the Mako sections do break up the typical gameplay loop of go here, fight people, talk to people, go elsewhere. It’s not great, but it’s definitely something different and I appreciated the effort.

I watched a Mandalore video about Advent Rising recently that talked about how games of that era were so desperately trying to be Halo clones or Halo “killers” in some way and I wonder if Mass Effect falls into that trap. The Mako is essentially a budget Warthog and I wonder if the dev teams just threw it in there because it’d be familar to players.

The Difficulty

This game has a bit of a difficulty problem, though not gamebreaking. It’s just too easy. Money (credits) are trivially easy to come by and you can buy all of the best guns while on the Normandy itself. You don’t have to explore around every nook and cranny like in Skyrim or anything - you just walk up to the store and buy the best in slot item.

It’s a little disappointing and takes a bit away from the whole “Space Epic” feel. Once you’re geared up properly, the enemies are pretty trivial to kill, even on harder difficulties.

The final boss fight with Saren was pretty challenging, though, and I felt like the combat supported the worldbuilding and storylines solidly “OK.”


This is a game dipping its toes in the water. It has a lot of strengths, but it’s not confident enough with itself to bend the genre or player expectations in any fundamental way. As a result, you get a really great game that leaves you wanting just a bit more.

Luckily, Mass Effect 2 delivers in spades.

tags: posts - video games