Revisiting Mass Effect: Part 2

If you missed out on part 1 be sure to check it out.

Kylie Shepard’s hunt for the rogue Spectre Saren continues. After spending most of the first 13 hours focusing on side quests and reacquainting myself with the world of Mass Effect it’s time to check back in with Shepard. She has now recruited an Asari scientist, stopped a Batarian terrorist plot and turned down romantic overtures from her crew.

Gameplay revisited

Shepard has found that very few disputes can't be solved with an assault rifle.

Shepard has found that very few disputes can't be solved with an assault rifle.

Before getting into the plot and choices Shepard made it's important to reflect on how the gameplay feels after another 10 hours. The Mako and exploring planets has finally begun to overstay its welcome. After coming to the conclusion that it isn’t as bad as people remember, I have started to sour on it. The repetitive nature of the planetary surfaces and the buildings on them have taken their toll. While I am still grinding through each and every planet I am not getting the same rush of discovery anymore. Instead it’s become a race to finish each planet as quickly as possible and move on.

Combat has gone from being frustrating to trivial over the same timeframe. In true RPG fashion as I have leveled up and acquired better gear most of my complaints about combat slowly faded. I have found stable and accurate assault rifles and armor able to keep my team alive without constant healing. However, while I have become stronger and better equipped my enemies have not. Instead of finding a balance the game has swung to the other extreme. Even without using some of the more overpowered abilities, such as Immunity, I am making short work of most encounters. Anything less than a rocket does little to no damage to my squad and most enemies are unable to withstand more than a second or two of damage from my weapons. The end result is still the same, combat ultimately feels unbalanced and isn’t satisfying.

Liara and the dig site

The first major mission I decided to tackle was rescuing Dr. Liara T’soni. From a player driven perspective this made the most sense as the result of this mission is another team member and I wanted to maximize the time I had with my crew. However, part of the ground rules I established for the playthrough was that I would do my best to make every decision in character without using the knowledge gained from multiple playthroughs. To that end Shepard reasoned that if Saren was searching for a Prothean beacon and his right hand, Matriarch Benezia, had a daughter who was an expert in Prothean technology they would likely try to contact her. If they hadn’t it was only a matter of time and Shepard needed to ensure she got to her first.

The mission itself is probably the most straightforward major mission in the game. There are few lines of dialogue, especially in the first half, and no branching choices to make. The purpose of this mission is to introduce players to Liara and give you a brief idea of her personality.

I don't think you are doing that right doctor.

I don't think you are doing that right doctor.

The most interesting plot points and character development don’t happen until you have finished the mission. Back aboard the Normandy Liara reveals that the Prothean extinction was another in a long cycle of civilizations mysteriously vanishing at their apex. It’s during this time that Liara’s social awkwardness begins to get played up. She fumbles through sentences and makes unintentional but insulting remarks. She always qualifies it by reminding everyone she isn’t used to dealing with other species. In the end it’s a fairly unremarkable mission that is only necessary as a means to introduce Liara.

Do you like me?

After recruiting Liara, Shepard spent some time doing some more side quests and also talking to her crew. Outside of the missions talking to your crew aboard the Normandy is where you will spend most of your time. Mass Effect allows you to enter into a relationship with certain characters based on the way you talk to them on the ship. In this case Kaidan and Liara both expressed interest in me and it made me realize how difficult it is to be nice to crew members without also giving them the idea that you want to be romantically involved.

The dialogue options often lead to 3 possible outcomes. From top to bottom on the conversation wheel you have the paragon, neutral and renegade option. Getting into more detail, you can expect the paragon option to be very nice and friendly, and occasionally flirty. The neutral option is usually professional with Shepard often telling crew members now is not the time or place to discuss whatever topic they brought up. Lastly the renegade option is dismissive and at times even rude.

The problem is that the lines Shepard speaks often don’t indicate any romantic interest at all. The paragon options are often not flirty; they are just kind. Shepard might express sympathy for an awful event in someone’s life or tell them they are a valuable member of the crew. Your crew however takes even the slightest bit of kindness as an indication that you want to date them. I was shocked when I spoke to both Kaidan and Liara and they both came on to me. Our previous conversations never indicated that Shepard was being anything more than kind. On top of that, I had taken neutral and renegade choices in conversation as in-character Shepard was not interested in either of these two. In the end I had to shoot both characters down but it presented another problem, it weakened them as characters. These were two successful people who apparently get weak at the knees whenever someone gives them the smallest bit of kindness or validation. Perhaps it was a product of the time but I didn’t remember the relationships being this poorly implemented.

Bring down the sky

I really, really don't like Batarians.

I really, really don't like Batarians.

The last mission Shepard undertook was stopping Batarian terrorists from dropping an asteroid on Terra Nova, humanity’s largest extrasolar colony. This mission was originally DLC, however newer versions of the game include it as part of the package and I find it is an essential part of the story.

This is the first time in the Mass Effect series that the player is introduced to the Batarians. When humanity first arrived to the galactic community they competed with the Batarians for colony worlds in the Skyllian Verge. The Batarians, having been there first, petitioned the Council to declare that region a zone of Batarian interest and prohibit humanity from settling there. For political reasons the Council declined and the Batarians voiced their displeasure by breaking their alliance with the Council. Without the firepower to battle the human Systems Alliance Navy in conventional warfare the Batarian government has instead funneled its resources to funding pirates, terrorists and guerilla fighters who attack human colonies and ships throughout the region.

This covert funding of terrorist cells brings us to Terra Nova. The colony was moving an asteroid into orbit with the intent to mine it out and use it as the shell of a space station. The Batarian terrorist Balak hijacks the asteroid and sets its course for the planet. The impact would create an extinction level event similar to the death of the dinosaurs.

The mission presents Shepard with two key choices, both at the end of the mission. The first comes when Shepard finally encounters Balak. He has taken hostages and will kill them if Shepard tries to pursue him. If Shepard decides to confront Balak she then has to decide what to do with him after he is defeated. Both choices present interesting roleplaying opportunities for the player.

After Shepard stops the asteroid from impacting the planet she confronts Balak. The hostages he has taken include Kate Bowman; a member of the team overseeing the asteroid’s movement into orbit. Throughout the mission Kate Bowman has been feeding Shepard intel on the Batarians. From a game design perspective her inclusion is obvious. She is there to provide the player with some connection to the hostages to make the decision tougher. Instead of nameless unseen hostages we are given a link to try to make us emotionally invested in them.

This is one of the better choices in the game. There isn’t any right answer and both occupy a gray area. With so many moral choice systems in games often presenting binary options of good and evil it’s always refreshing to see something present shades of gray. If Shepard pursues Balak people will die however if she lets him go who knows how many others will suffer eventually at his hands. Ultimately for Kylie Shepard the decision came down to saving the most lives. Balak has already shown that he isn’t above murdering millions of people and he will not stop trying to destroy human lives if Shepard lets him go. Stopping Balak now is the only way to ensure he doesn’t do something like this again.

True to his word, Balak does execute the hostages and after a firefight he lays wounded with his fate in Shepard’s hands. You are given three options; you can let him bleed out and die, you can finish him yourself or you can deliver him to the Alliance for judgment. As you talk to him he continues to taunt you, making it very clear that he isn’t the only one and others will continue his crusade against humanity. At this point Shepard was pissed and killing him became a very real possibility, so much so that during the conversation she shot him again in the arm just to hurt him. Again Shepard had to show restraint and make the decision that would save lives. Balak mentioned others like him and he clearly knows more about the Batarian terrorist plots. That knowledge could save lives if he can provide names, locations or targets. With that possibility Shepard decided to deliver him to the Alliance military. While it didn’t satisfy Shepard’s thirst for revenge it was, at least in her mind, the best option available.

With Feros and Noveria left and a majority of the side missions out of the way it feels like the game is going to start rushing towards the conclusion. At this point I have seen that while there is still a lot to like the gameplay hasn’t aged particularly well. This retrospective has been difficult at times; looking back I have often ignored the warts on this game (and series as a whole) and simply heaped praise on it. Confronting them head on, and being prepared to criticize them as necessary, has given insight into what aspects really carry a game for me and what I can overlook. The journey has been great so far and I am genuinely excited to see what’s in store as Shepard moves forward with her mission.