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This week, I have begun Mass Effect. Having resisted the franchise for years (it always seemed to me that its essential features—making freaky first contact with an array of alien species, and sticky cover shooting—could be satisfied more cheaply and efficiently with one of those Star Trek-themed porn films), it was finally time. I decided not to go with the new Mass Effect Legendary Edition, which has nipped, tucked, and trimmed the series to modern standards, but an Xbox 360 copy. I am a believer in playing the original version of anything, whether that entails squinting through a scumbled resolution or the retrieval of dusty hardware. Here are seven things—some good, some bad—that I have taken away from the first few hours.
Lacking the mental fortitude to spend fifteen minutes customising Shepard, swapping out noses and sanding down chins to suitably heroic proportions, I was relieved to find his default appearance not only fetching but oddly familiar. He was graced with a good jaw, closely cropped hair, eyes that signalled a sea of buried pain and an undousable drive for results, and (on the Xbox 360 version at least) a stylish plastic sheen. No wonder these games are celebrated for the choices they leave up to the player, I thought, this guy is Action Man!
Worthy of note early on are the Husks, a vacuum-dried mashup of zombie and robot; rebooted from death, they lumber towards you and burst like electric water balloons. Then there are the buglike Turians, with their back-brushed antennae, metallic carapaces and talons. One fellow, named Nihlus, appears to have decorated his face in fancy white paint, which makes him a dead ringer for Val Valentino, the masked trickster from Breaking the Magician’s Code. My favourite, however, has to be the Geth, which, by the looks of things, are a race of A.I.-powered shower heads. I wonder if they have nozzled their way through Earth’s history books, because their preferred tactic is to mount their foes on metal spikes, like Vlad the Impaler. What’s more, these spikes transform their guests into Husks, lending the Geth a hint of the galactically vampiric.
These are a travesty. At the outset, we meet the crew of the Normandy, who, not content with navigating an abyss of endless black, see fit to wrap themselves in clothes of equal or greater gloom. The captain, David Anderson, wears a blazer of mopey midnight blue. True, it does come with a stylish golden trim, but that only reminds me of those glorious, blinding-white uniforms that we see at the start of Halo 2—a far superior way to travel. Anderson should have taken his cue from William Shatner, who showed his vintage with a burgundy suede bomber jacket, worn over a turtleneck as soft and thick as marshmallow. For Shepard and his troops, things don’t fare much better down on the ground. We soon meet Ashley Williams, a lone soldier who arrives lacquered in a ghastly suit of pink-and-cream plastic. So far, on the basis of style, I’m rooting for the Geth.
Ah, yes. No space opera would be complete without its stage, and this one comes equipped with wings, an interior furnished with glowing props, and a curtain of silver draped across its nose cone. Apparently, the Normandy was built with help from the Turians, and you can detect their insectoid touch in the ship’s front mandibles and rear-mounted feelers. It is let down by its corridors—all luminous ovoids and brushed steel—but I can forgive that for the sleek meanness of its outer shell: a barbeque fork slashing through the void. If the UNSC and the Covenant put aside their quibbles in good faith and built a ship, I imagine it would have a similar blend of curves and dour colours.
When humans crack space travel, the first thing we do is find a home away from home: something that says, “We can leap through space, and we plan to explore, colonise, and conduct business lunches with extraterrestrials of all shapes and hues, but our first order of business is upsizing.” Gears of War has Sera, a cigar-brown substitute that comes in handy after Earth gets trashed in the “Great War of the 6th Millennium.” Halo, of course, has Reach, its very name redolent of humanity’s doughty and striving nature. And Mass Effect has Eden Prime. True to its name, it’s a prime chunk of Earthy real estate: blue, green, breathable, and boasting sixty-four-hour days. Our first trip to Eden Prime is during a blazing sunset and—in the unadorned Xbox 360 version—under a bloodied sky, and that’s the way I like it: Paradise, with a cost.
Congratulations must go to Drew Karpyshyn, the writer of Mass Effect, not for his branching constellations of plot but for the game’s first fifty-eight seconds. Within this fruitful time frame, the title is explained, and I for one breathed a sigh of relief. “In the year 2148,” an opening crawl informs us, “explorers on Mars discovered the remains of an ancient…” etc., etc. “These mysterious artifacts revealed startling new technologies,” yada yada yada. “A force that controlled the very fabric of space and time.” Whatever. Then, we get to the good stuff: “The civilisations of the galaxy call it…” And wait for the title splash: “MASS EFFECT.” Before playing, I always assumed “Mass Effect” would go the nebulous and milky way of titles like “Killzone” or “BioShock.” That being said, “Mass Effect” still isn’t exactly a good title; it sounds more like a description of the scientific process exerted on my waistline during lockdown than it does the start of a bracing sci-fi adventure.
In the spirit of getting names right, the Mako strikes me as a resounding success. This is a six-wheeled buggy, designed to rove and rumble over alien dunes, and there is much of the sharkish about it. Its body is long, pale, and composed of sharp lines. Its rear rises to a pair of finlike spoilers. And its snout juts forth over a dark maw, which, in a nice touch, turns out to be a smoked windscreen. Plus, just as some sharks must keep moving forwards, the better to enrich their blood with oxygen, the Mako in Mass Effect, through sheer force of fumbly controls, seems simply unwilling to stop lurching ahead. Driving it feels the way I imagine Angelina Jolie must have felt, in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—The Cradle of Life, as she gripped the dorsal fin of a great white and rode it toward the ocean’s surface. Thrilling. Dangerous. Awkward.