To play or not to play Mass Effect 1.VIII – Normandy

Ambassador Udina: I’ve got big news for you, Shepard. Captain Anderson is stepping down as commanding officer of the Normandy. The ship is yours now.

(Archived video available here; I don’t suggest watching it, there’s no gameplay to speak of.)

In this part, we will aquire our ship and explore it; we will also exhaust all currently available dialogue options for our squadmates. The result is that there is little actual gameplay in this update.

Last time, we were left on top of the Citadel Tower, from where we are supposed to meet with Udina and Anderson at the docks. The first person we encounter on the way there is Rear Admiral Kahoku, who is having trouble locating some of his troops after he lost contact with them – there seems to be something shady going on.

Rear Admiral Kahoku: I’m getting stonewalled by bureaucratic assholes. Nothing new.

We agree to help him; we are Spectres now, so we can cut straight through the red tape. Only, instead of actually making contact with whoever the good Rear Admiral was talking to, we are sent to the last known place the soldiers made contact from; I guess we are the kind of Spectres that prefers action in the field. This relatively intricate quest line will introduce some elements that will grow in importance as the trilogy progresses, though whether that was meant to be the case already at this early stage is a good question.

Being spectres, we can now confidently tackle Mr. Bhatia’s problem. We meet the relevant clerk and convince him that holding the body is wrong: no matter how many lives its examination could spare, doing so denies the very humanity we are sworn to protect. I find this dialogue very well staged: the clerk is quite in awe with Shepard’s accomplishments. Being a member of the diplomatic corp, it is difficult to understand whether he is a truly good guy, or only acting his part. This quest also portrays some of the difficulties inherent in the paragon/renegade system: any kind of Shepard should be able to finish this quest, either through reasoning of by forcing the issue. The problem however becomes that, in doing so, the lines of moral demarcation become blurred: which would be the truly paragon choice? To bring peace to one man, or to think of the greater good that could come from withholding the body? Having this kind of “grey area” in the morality of the game is a good thing! It injects complexity, and makes the choice that little more important for the player. The problem, however, is that a game must enable a player, allow him to finish any quest available. If any quest can be completed equally well through either end of the morality spectrum, then morality itself becomes secondary, a side-wrinkle, nothing more than dressing. This is a real problem: the discounting of a very important aspect of the lore (the paragon/renegade system) for gameplay reasons is a huge catch-22 for this game, and for its successors as well.

We next backtrack to Fist’s office, in order to pick up some files that prove his connections to the underworld; we then proceed to hand them over to Emily Wong, the reporter, without bothering to provide copies to the authorities. I am making this comment in half-jest, but for a game that prides itself in realism and being consequent within its own confines, there are quite many slips such as this one. By themselves they are almost inconsequential, but too many of them can undermine our suspension of disbelief, or at least make the final product appear sloppier than it needs be.

We push on, and by taking the one long elevator ride that cannot be bypassed, we reach the Normandy’s dock. Before initiating our dialogue with Udina and Anderson, we head over and scan the last keeper left, therefore finishing this quest. The following dialogue exposes how Anderson is stepping down from his post aboard the Normandy, letting us take control of the ship We are given three leads that might lead to information regarding Saren’s whereabouts. This is a glorified explanation of how the game will continue: from the linear path we have been following until now, it now opens up with three major quest branches, that can be tackled in any order we decide. This modularity is the reason for the variation in enemies’ levels; they are not fixed, but will instead adjust to our own level, so that every encounter we face will be challenging without being too hard (in theory). The downside, of course, is that this takes a bit of “magic” out of the game, somewhat rendering the whole point of gaining levels a bit moot; it is however, in my opinion a good trade-off, as opening the game world up has an enabling effect on players. Udina also seems to regain his practicality, by expressing his doubts as to whether the Reapers exist – perhaps he was just being diplomatically quiet earlier; in any case, it is a nice detail that further strengthens is character as a realist.

Ambassardor Udina: I’m with the council on this one, Shepard. I’m not sure they [the Reapers] even exist.
Once Udina leaves, we grill Anderson further on his mission with Saren. We have already heard most of this, but here it sounds a bit hollow: by now, we have much bigger reasons to chase Saren.

We finally enter the Normandy as her captain. Our first order of business is giving an inspiring speech to the crew, then we exchange a few words with Joker. Turns out our pilot is cursed with brittle bones disease. By going through the dialogue here, it seems the game wants to set Joker up as very goal-driven, someone who is not happy with just accepting or even overcoming his situation, instead deciding to excel, to beat everyone else; in particular the bit over how he got his nickname is very telling. This is interesting, because in the later games, his character will morph substantially: his drive will be downplayed, and his nickname – completely ironic when he first got it, and still partially ironic at this stage – will become his dominant characteristic, and he will be relegated to the role of comedic relief.

Joker: Look, I didn’t pick the name. One of the instructors in flight school used to bug me about never smiling. She started calling me Joker, and it stuck.

The Normandy consists of three bridges. In the uppermost, we find Joker in the pilot’s seat, Navigator Pressly by the Galaxy Map, from which we can move around the galaxy, and the Comm Room, which will serve as our boardroom of sorts. In the middle bridge, we have the living quarters, such as they are, and Dr. Chackwas’ laboratory; Kaidan Alenko haunts this place, and this is where we will find him, though for now he has nothing to say to us. The lowest deck is home to the Mako, the requisition officer, and most of our squadmates. We exhaust our dialogue options with Wrex, to glean more information as to what the Genophage – a sterility plague that affects every Krogan in existance, engineered by the Salarians and deployed by the Turians – did to their people; we exchange a few words with Ash and with Garrus, who seems to see Spectres as loose cannons, then we check in with the requisition officer; all the licenses we will buy from different vendors allow him to stash gear from that specific brand. Finally, we head to the Engine Room where we meet Engineer Adams and have a long exchange with Tali on how the Quarians live, as well as her point of view on the Geth, which is unsurprisingly, that they are monsters. We can argue that some of the fault lies on the Quarians for not taking into proper account the possibility of them gaining consciousness, but it will not budge her from her position. I will not go into detail on everything we discussed with our squadmates here, but will instead opt to pepper the more action-oriented future segments with commentary on some background lore of the different species.

And now that we have done all we can on the Normandy, it is time to head to the Galaxy Map and choose our first destination!