This mission really puts into perspective how motivation works in fiction by virtue of not really nailing the concept at all. There are many cool ideas floating through it, but the whole thing lacks some kind of central anchor – all you’re told going in is that Geth have been spotted around the colony, so it just feels like Shepard is walking around following random impulses. This is probably part of the game’s pacing issues, because I keep finding myself thinking “I know I’m helping people, but I also have no idea why I’m doing this.” Perhaps, for adventure stories set in some mysterious location, motivation is the one thing that absolutely has to be as specific and clear as possible. Perhaps control over tone is done through tracking character’s motivations – characters on The Shield desperately want things on a life-and-death level, and that story has a powerful punk rock energy; characters on Mad Men generally intently want something on a scene-by-scene basis, but it’s almost never a life-and-death and it rarely lasts longer than an episode, sometimes not longer than a scene, and that has a kind of pop-jazz energy. Shepard is just kind of lumbering about Feros with the vague goal of stopping Saren and a desire to help people, and so the energy lazily bounces about without any sense of direction or purpose. Continuing the music metaphor, this is a jam session, where sometimes the players get into a thing but overall things are either too long or too short and never really go anywhere.
That said, there are some really great parts to this. The central idea is that Shepard has stumbled upon a corporate conspiracy that’s gone terribly wrong – the company Exo-Geni set up a colony on top of a dead Prothean city, and in the process discovered a massive plant called the Thorian that has mind control capabilities, and they let it infect the colonists so they could study it (and then Saren came along; more on what he was doing in a second). What we’re looking at is Alien with one of the evil Star Trek villains as the xenomorph; Mass Effect clearly believes in the old academic saying that you steal from one person, it’s plagiarism, you steal from everyone, it’s research, though considering stories of corporate abuse show up over and over in the game, perhaps it adds on ‘steal from one person over and over, and it’s a theme’. The Thorian itself is fun, if not blazingly original, with one glorious exception: it absorbs an asari and makes plant-based clones of her to talk to and fight you, which effectively means you see a giant monster plant shit out a hot alien chick.
Said hot alien chick turns out to be Saren’s sidekick’s sidekick, Shiala, which is the reason this is the next major mission I always choose – you meet Benezia herself on Noveria, and aside from going from the #2 to the #3 is inevitably disappointing, I really enjoy hearing about Benezia through reputation before actually meeting her. Shiala lays out the relationship between Benezia and Saren, and while this doesn’t fully work (Saren must be absolutely evil to everyone about everything, double-crossing everyone), it’s at least theoretically interesting, a series of breadcrumbs that will add up to a person; the second game would play this kind of game much more effectively. Saren was after the Thorian because it was older than the Prothean Empire, and its psychic powers meant it had the Prothean mindset (which Shiala refers to as ‘the Cypher’) stored in its brain, and Saren needs that to process the information from the beacon. It’s a cool combination of world details – asari have a kind of psychic connection power that lets Shiara access the Cypher and then pass it on to both Saren and Shepard.
The sequence of Shiala passing on the Cypher is very effective. She gives a cool little speech about opening your mind, the vision from the beacon comes back, and Jack Wall’s music comes to a crescendo without resolution, much like the moment, before fading out and letting the crackling fires in the background take over. The shot of Shepard considering what she just saw is eerie and effective. Afterwards, you get one of the best choices in the game, when Shiala tells you she wants to stay in the colony and help them to make up for helping Saren. The Paragon choice is to say, you know, great idea, but the Renegade choice is that she’s done too much to be forgiven and has to die. The Paragon/Renegade morality was intended to be a true evolution of the Good/Evil morality of previous Bioware games and other RPGs, based not on goodness or evil but on your reputation. The kinder you are, the easier it is to be charming, and the meaner you are, the scarier you become. Unfortunately, even that has its limitations, and eventually Bioware would abandon any kind of moral scale in your choices.
Specifically, within this game, Paragon gets all the classic Good Guy choices and Renegade gets basically a big mess of douchebag stuff, often choices that don’t make any sense beyond just being a dick or murderer for no reason. Here, though, while I still wouldn’t do what Renegade Shepard does, I admire it as a consistent moral choice – Renegade Shep believes that there’s a line, and if you go too far, she has to kill you. It’s an old-school eye-for-an-eye morality that takes on an intense epic scale in this universe. What makes this extra awesome in this case is that Shiala happens to agree, and willingly submits to execution, making the whole thing more ritualistic, like there’s a part of humanity following it out into the galaxy.
Next to this intense epicness is some of my favourite mundaneness in the first game. Because this is a colony, people are dealing with everyday issues like food and water, and you get some subquests to help them deal with those issues (you can offer to bring in supplies from the Normandy, but as the colonists point out, that doesn’t solve their problems forever the way it needs to). My favourite thing about this series is how it’s genuinely interested in ordinary people doing ordinary things, and not everyone worth talking to is a genius or killer (which comes up a lot in genre fiction and especially video games). I like how it puts the adventuring into perspective, how it’s easier to want to take down Saren knowing that if he succeeds, people like these colonists will die.
(It also means the game earns the fantasy of being the Super Special Cool Person. There’s a sidequest where a techie hires you to find his data in a Geth-occupied building, commenting that it would be life or death for anyone else but probably fine for you; hilariously, your team quips how annoying it is, but that’s the price of being someone who gets shit done)
The gameplay is the real up-and-down element of this mission. The Thorian taking control of the colonists means Paragon Shepard has to rely on stun grenades (made out of trace amounts of nerve gas taken from the colonist’s pesticides, of all things), adding a fun extra layer of difficulty and tactics onto ordinary gameplay as you have to time your grenades right to preserve them. On the other hand, the climactic battle is difficult in a tedious way, monotonously taking down Thorian creepers with no real sense of tactics. The absolute worst thing in video games is when you lose and you’re absolutely certain it’s not your fault; I’d rather be humiliated by a game than insulted.