How to have fun in Mass Effect?

So I’ve complained about it. I re-discovered it. Now I’m done with it. Yesterday I got my last achievement. I’ve finished the game 3 times. I’ve seen both – the evil and the good ending. I started additional 2 games which I quit before the final dungeon. I’ve seen all romance plot permutations. I’ve tried all three “pure” classes. What’s my verdict?

It’s a very ambitious game which didn’t even come close to accomplish what they have originally set out to do. It becomes apparent if you check out the quite enlightening art book. I called it “dancing bearware” at the beginning and it’s still true. They cut corners a lot. It’s especially apparent in the side missions but it even caries over into the main quest. At least two of the 5 missions you play feel half-finished and rushed. I once mentioned how games like Call of Duty 4 have no filler. Mass Effect is ALL filler. You can clearly see how the developers were desperate to create just STUFF in order to get their checklists done. So even in rather polished missions like Feros you get 4 fetch quests which can ALL be solved in ONE big room. You can clearly see how initially, there was a much more complex environment planned which had to be slowly reduced to this single room simply because there was no time for something more complex. In the end, there wasn’t even time for some basic tutorials. It’s been a long time since I had to look in the manual to figure out how things work.

But it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it.

  • Play as a female
    Fellow bloggers have recently criticized Fallout 3 for not really supporting the playtrough as a female character. I found that Mass Effect was actually MORE fun with a female character. Especially going badass, punching reporters in the face and whatnot. I always though Captain Janeway was long overdue. The script for a female Shepard is actually well polished and every line has a separate female version when needed. The costumes are unusually tight for armor which look weird (I’m struggling not to say “gay”) if you are a guy but actually quite fashionable for a kick-ass space gal.
    But most of all, the lesbian alien sex romance plot permutation is the most enjoyable one. Kaidan may be the best looking character in the game but flirting with him was pretty dull and uninspired. Flirting with Ashley was better written but I thought she was poorly modeled. Besides she is characterized as a racist, religious, militaristic fanatic. Hardly an attractive love interest. Which leaves us with Liara. And here is the deal with her: her entire romance plot is insultingly hypocritical. Her entire race was designed from the ground up to serve as a kinky alien-sex excuse. Yet, when it actually comes down to it it’s all about puritan bullshit like “a melding of the minds” and “I want this to be special” and “I’m not ready”. Fuck this! If you are doing kinky sex scenes then you can at least have the balls to go all the way. That’s why lesbian alien sex is the better choice here.
  • Play it on hard
    Even on Insanity, the game becomes trivial by the end. Good equipment and leveling up will allow you to obliterate any kind of resistance you encounter. So you might just as well crank the difficulty up to the max. If you do, you will have a hard time at the very beginning but a reasonable period where the game is in the “sweet spot”. Playing on low difficulty makes the combat, equipment and character management very boring and dull. It’s only advisable if you ONLY want the plot. And trust me, the plot alone isn’t worth it.
  • Play it with the same characters
    The game lets you select two supporting characters at the beginning of each mission. Even though you can select from up to 6 different characters, it’s more reasonable to lock down to two of them early in the game. The reason is because it simplifies the choices you need to make when distributing equipment. The sheer ammount of time that goes into equipping all 6 characters (PLUS the player character) is staggering and will wear you down quickly. So select the two you like, stick with them and ignore the others as far as equipment or leveling goes. The game even gives out achievements for preferring characters.
  • Play it as Adept
    You can select among as many as 6 classes when you roll a character. There are 3 “pure” classes (Soldier, Adept and Engineer) and 3 additional cross-over classes which are always combinations of two pure ones. I haven’t tried the cross-overs but from the pure classes Soldier and Adept were the most fun. Soldier is good in combat so you will be able to dive right into action but gets repetitive rather quickly. Adept requires a more careful approach but is more satisfying in the long run. Also the Adept’s “magic” powers are sometimes pretty neat… or unintentionally hilarious. In any case, stay away from the Engineer. He doesn’t fight well and the powers are basically all the same.
  • Play the main quest only
    The most polished missions are the main ones. It’s always pretty obvious what the main missions are. Don’t do the assignments and CERTAINLY don’t do the item/resource deposits collecting stuff. The assignments are basically all the same so you’ve seen it all after the first two or so. They will just take time, have nothing to do with the story and have no interesting plots. The item collecting will take A LOT of time and will get you even less. The worst thing about the side missions is that they make you use the Mako a lot which is the most frustrating experience in the whole game. Oh yeah and don’t buy the DLC, it’s not even worth the time.

I must admit I had some fun with the game. There are some nice aesthetic details here and there. The plot is not revolutionary and sometimes cheesy but quite cinematic and well-polished. And especially in the main missions there are moments where you can see glimpses of the game it was meant to be. I’m curious if Mass Effect 2 will finally live up to it’s own expectations.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

7 responses to “How to have fun in Mass Effect?”

  1. Simon Ferrari

    The whole concept of this piece is totally bizarre to me! Because it is exactly what it claims to be – an explanation of how to maximize your enjoyment with the artifact on one playthrough. Yet, by taking away the player’s self-determination to play the game how they want to play it, maybe you’re taking away a big part of the fun?

    What this piece should be called is: “So you’ve just beaten Mass Effect and hated it. Please, before you run off, try playing it like this?” It basically relies on the player having played through once and wasted their time to really grab their attention and make them say, “Yeah, maybe I should try it like that!”

    In any case, in almost total agreement (except for the sex stuff, I found the conversations with Ashley really engaging despite her xenophobia–it made her a more complex, less idealized person).

    What you said about the Feros fetch quests totally makes sense, and makes me really afraid of the prospect of being a level designer (pretty sure I’m going for a professorship, but who knows?). The idea of working on a complex labyrinth for a week just to turn it in and have somebody down-size it to one room with some wolf rats in it sickens me.

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Of course you are completely right. The caption is just an excuse for me to rant about my experience of playing the game for so long. A major part of this experience was of course the learning process and the frustration of trying the less polished bits of the game. So in a way, your caption is more sincere. But it is less catchy. ;-)

    I agree that the Ashley script was better written. I just couldn’t get over her character traits. She’s this hardcore right-wing traditionalist. Plus, her face is really ugly. Some modeler made a mistake or two there. But it’s certainly a matter of taste. But we do agree that Kaiden doesn’t work, right?

    The Feros thing is just an example among many. If you read the Art Book they will actually admit that they planned Therum to be a much bigger mission – the size of Noveria or Feros. But they had to cut it down. I think it clearly shows. They even built some parts of that bigger Therum and recycled them in the DLC. And here I was thinking it was new content.

    Also, I think Ilos suffered from the same problem. That mission goes really downhill once you get into that long straight tunnel. You literally can see them running out of resources to create more geometry.

  3. Simon Ferrari

    Oh I definitely agree that yours is more catchy! I’m really, really, really bad at naming things.

    And Kaidan is really boring! I’m pretty sure the only way to write a decent romance for a female avatar talking to a male NPC would be to have a team of female writers melding their minds to write dialogue that would actually appeal to them in real life, and I doubt that was done here.

    Thanks for the insights on the level design!

  4. steffenj

    Thank god there's another sane person out there who also was disappointed with Mass Effect (or at least can point out the obvious flaws).

    I've written about it in the past and i've added another post on my blog as a response:

  5. Scott Juster

    It's weird, but I'm kind of a fan of these "this is how to play the game" type posts. It's kind of like when someone first introduces you to different kinds of beers and explains how to best enjoy them, if that makes any sense.

    I'm assuming "insanity" was the hardest difficulty option? Your description makes it seem like even though it wasn't the default, it may have been how the designers meant to play the game. I always assume the default difficulty is the intended one, but perhaps not?

  6. Krystian Majewski

    Thanks Scott.

    You are probably be right, that thought also somewhat crossed my mind. It makes sense. As a developer, you spend so much time with it and get so good at it that in oder to enjoy it yourself, you will automatically set the initial difficulty way too high. It could very well be that they developed the game with "Insanity" set as default and then tuned the other difficulty levels later… not quite considering how it undermines all the game mechanics they have set up.

    And yeah, Mass Effect is one of those games where I wished somebody would tell me how to play. No tutorials, no nothing. You are lost at the beginning. And not the Fallout 3 kind of lost.

  7. Hal Mayne

    When I first started Mass Effect, I hated it. Most of the initial missions at the citadel space station really, we boring. I also found the pause combat abhorrent to the way I would usually play a shooter, especially trying to use the assault rifles effectively or finding a place to use the sniper rifles. I gave it another shot, after a while and tried playing as an engineer. After getting the ship and being able to go out exploring, I started to really get into the game.

    First, I found using the pistol to be far more effective in combat than either type of rifle. With the upgrades it’s basically becomes a semi-automatic sniper with no recoil. All the engineer skills, as I got more comfortable with the radial special attack menu, I was able to get through combat much more quickly. (And if you played KOTOR you’ll get a sense of what a step forward ME is in combat, you actually control your shots, even. )

    I, too, disliked being forced to drive the mako about to find quests, and mineral deposits, but soon found myself enjoying it. I think they saved it by making it nigh indestructible (while driving). I found myself taking huge jumps off cliffs, doing barrel rolls, or just trying to see if I could get the thing to land upside down. And if a climbing part was getting frustrating I’d just use the jump jets to through the mako, off the wall face and tumble down to find a new path.

    While, I see your frustrations, I think the game got enough right, to really let me get into the ME universe and enjoy it.

    *I agree, having a renegade female MC is was the most fun.

    **I’d advise you against trying out dragon age. While I did enjoy it, I think, it was much harder to find the fun, and about 10 ways more frustrating. :)


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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