To play or not to play… Mass Effect 1 I – Character creation and Introduction

Welcome to the beginning of my showcase of Mass Effect 1!

(Archived video available here; I don’t suggest watching it all!)

In this part, I go through the process of character creation and the intro aboard the Normandy. Please note that I won’t go into much detail about the basics of gameplay and menus, as there are countless videos and resources available online, the series’ wiki chief among them. I will try however to point out novel or interesting features.

Starting a new career is the way to begin a new game, and we actually encounter our first noteworthy feature here: the process of creating a new Shepard is framed as attempting to access his/her information within the Alliance Military Personnel Database. Our first task is naming our hero, and I bid you say welcome to Hamletic Shepard – and here is a good occasion to mention I will be using the male pronoun throughout, in line with my choice of gender, in an effort to streamline the flow of the text.

Since we selected a  custom start, we are now treated to a neat gimmick of the requested data being corrupted and having to be rebuilt. This might work well in theory, but in practice it means having to sit through the 15+ seconds of animation (and no way to skip it). For a game that is clearly built around replayability, having to endure a lenghty set of screens each time we want to create a new Shepard is not exactly user-friendly; this might not seem much of an issue, and in truth it isn’t, but it does showcase one of the flaws underlying the game: the trade-off between user experience and game design integrity is skewed towards the latter to the point it at times ends up hurting the enjoyment of the game.

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The first choices made available to us are meant for us to find our place along the paragon/renegade axis. There is no good-evil dichotomy as far as the player is concerned, but rather a continuum between “for the greater good” (paragon) and “for the mission” (renegade) – it is actually often the case that the renegade option is pretty ironically named, as it seems to most resemble the course of action a soldier would take to ensure the success of a mission, while it is the paragon choice that often leads to bending, breaking, or outright ignoring mission briefs.

For our run, we are going for a “Spacer” background (meaning the military runs in our blood, just like royalty would…), with a “War Hero” past. This places us firmly into the Paragon corner of roleplaying, and that is indeed how I plan to play this Shepard (for this game at least; if we ever make it to the next installement, I am sure some cynicism will creep in… but that’s getting way ahead of ourselves).

Next we need to choose our specialization. Briefly, there are three main and three hybrid classes: soldiers are tanks that specialize in weapons, adepts take advantage of their ability to manipulate the laws of physics to achieve great crowd control, engineers are experts at using their omni-tools to tinker with technology; infiltrators combine their expertise in sniper rifles with tech power, vanguards are biotically-gifted frontline fighters, and sentinels forego most martial training in order to master biotic and tech powers in equal measure. Hamletic Shepard will be a Sentinel, for a couple of reasons: first, I want to be able to showcase a little of both sets of powers; next, it is good to have flexibility in Shepard, as this frees us of constraints when it comes to choosing our companions; finally, the one drawback of the Sentinel – their inability to use anything but pistols effectively – is somewhat mitigated by the fact that, having finished the game with a soldier previously, I can pick training in Assault Rifles as my bonus power (that, and the fact that pistols are the strongest class of weapons in the game).

After that, we could go and modify our face, but it is a tricky process that I don’t enjoy much, so we will stick with the rugged good looks of standard Shepard.

Once all the options have been picked, we are asked to review our choices one last time before the point of no-return

And off we go into the bright future!

The introduction is, in my opinion, very well done; in a few seconds, it highlights many of the most important themes underlying the game: the off-scene voices discussing Shepard’s past foreshadowing one of the main drives behind the plot; the Normandy – already in this game as important a device as any NPCs – leaving Earth, blowing by well-known planets on its way to the Mass Relay, signalling a move away from familiar territory into the unknown, all the while introducing us to the key piece that allows interstellar travel; Shepard’s walk through a bridge manned exclusively by humans in uniforms – a military man in a military situation; more foreshadowing brought on by the lone alien in this piece: the Turian and spectre Nihlus. And then..

Joker: You remember to zip up your jumpsuit on the way out of the bathroom? That’s good. I just jumped us halfway across the galaxy and hit a target the size of a pinhear. So that’s incredible!

Here comes Joker, who in a few lines lets us know that he is a great pilot, that he doesn’t like people crowding in on him, and that he will provide us with the necessary (and sometimes superfluous) comic relief throughout the game.

On our way forward we overhear an exchange between Navigator Pressly and chief Engineer Adams

Navigator Pressly: If all we’re supposed to do is test out the stealth system, why is Captain Anderson in charge? And then there’s Nihlus

Our own exchange with Pressly reveals a few things: that this run might be more than it appears, that there is still lingering resentment towards Turians among humans, dating back from the First Contact War, and that dialogues in this game are serious business. The first thing turns out to be true, the first of many bait-and-switches the game will pull on the player; the second is a truly interesting piece of writing for a game, a bold move to introduce this of kind dissent that goes against the tone of the game (and, presumably, the interests of a gamer who wants to meet and discover alien races), which becomes unfortunately quickly marginalized before outright being ignored and disappearing; the third touches one of the cornerstones of the game’s design; much of the lore is hidden behind dialogue options, and many possible quest resolutions are available by rooting through dialogue; the hints provided to help us choose an option, which invariably differ from what is actually said once selecting it, are interesting but sometimes criminally misleading. Fortunately, in general top means paragon, bottom means renegade, middle means neutral, and left means more exposition options. I will try to present most dialogue trees in my videos, unless they are mostly a repetition of information we have already gathered.

Moving on, we make our first encounter with Doctor Chakwas and Corporal Jenkins. From them, we hear more about how the specters are able to operate above the law, as well as some more information on Elysium, the planet we are about to reach… and then we offer this advice to the good Corporal

Shepard: You’re young, Corporal. You have a long career ahead of you. Don’t do something stupid to mess it up.

to which he dutifully answers “Don’t worry sir, I’m not gonna screw this up”. All right then, I am sure all will be just fine

More words with Nihlus and Anderson, and finally we discover the true purpose of this trip (to recover an ancient artifact), and of Nihlus’ presence (Shepard is in position to become the first human spectre); we also learn how the galaxy holds a great debt to the Protheans, the civilization that so misteriously disappeard 50’000 years ago, and that most modern technology is based on Prothean design; all plot hooks appear valid enough, but then the game veers in a different direction, and suddenly someone else seems interested in that Prothean beacon…

this is the kind of foreshadowing that the game loves to pull – perhaps hoping to help draw players into a second playthrough: how many such moments can you catch?

And now that the mission just got a lot more complicated, we are to be deployed on the ground, while Nihlus – who was supposed to stick with us to evaluate our conduct – runs ahead to scout the situation.