I don’t think anything in the first Mass Effect is a better demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of the franchise – and especially of this entry – than the mission on Noveria. When I was a teenager, the big thing in nerd culture was the idea of genre blending, where the thing to aspire to was mixing and matching different genre tropes, Kill Bill style (which, if you want to be snarky, was because it rewards the viewer for doing nothing more than consuming a whole bunch of pop culture and remembering obscure information). Mass Effect applies that kind of thinking exclusively to science fiction media, switching from the rules of one subgenre to another as necessary. If this is less a story and more a worldbuilding exercise masquerading as one, that’s actually a brilliant move, filling out the details of that world with rules that already exist. Noveria is divided into three sections, and the first section combines elements of a Western, cop show, and spy story, layered over the galaxy we already have. The planet is owned by a giant corporation, with labs built across it and rented out to other big corporations to do borderline illegal experiments because it technically sits outside Council space. The government is a board of directors who tolerate things like corruption so long as nobody rocks the boat or costs the company money; Shepard coming in is a real Yojimbo or Fistful Of Dollars situation where you’re caught between the corrupt-in-the-bad-way administrator, the undercover cop investigating him, and a businessman lower on the totem pole. Your goal is to get permission to get to the facility Benezia went to, and you can help any of these people or play them off each other; the fastest way to get through is to report a hanar for smuggling, and the most badass way is to trick the cop and administrator into gunning each other down, putting the businessman on top, but my preferred way as a Paragon Shepard has always been to get the businessman to testify for the cop and arrest the administrator. If nothing else, it’s hilarious to see the guy who’s bigoted against you (no matter what your backstory) to get totally owned out of nowhere.
Once you get to Peak 15, it turns into an Alien-esque horror story. You find the facility in ruins and crawling with both Geth and horrible aliens, and as you go through, you find out that the company renting the lab found the egg of the long-extinct Rachni and hatched it, hoping to create a race of super-soldiers, only to have the Rachni completely overwhelm the facility, making it exactly like Aliens. This speaks to the pacing issues of this game, because the story of getting to Peak 15 in the first place was a whole story in itself, one that added nothing to the story of Benezia, let alone Saren. It doesn’t help that Peak 15 itself is split in two parts, with the first part being the painstaking procedure of restarting the tram lines to get to the specific lab, which is exactly as emotionally involving as it sounds. This is not a story gradually building in tension, or a rollercoaster of emotion; this is a story driving in one direction, suddenly slamming the brakes on, then finally picking up speed and going where it was supposed to go in the first place. This is something the series will get much better about.
Once you do get to the facility Benezia is in, things pick way the hell up. There’s one simply point of inspiration that drives the story forward: Benezia left a bunch of mercenaries to ambush you when you rocked up, and the unleashing of the Rachni screwed that plan to hell. Everyone is tired and on edge, some people having been awake for days, and you can feel the trauma hanging over everyone; there’s a volus scientist who was the sole survivor of the initial attack, talking in a monotone and casually revealing everything and anything he knows no matter how secret it’s supposed to be. I like the little sidequest where you help a doctor formulate an antidote to a virus he was working on, because it’s both a direct consequence to the rachni escape (the power went out, turning the quarantine off) and a chance for the player to characterise Shepard. At its best, this feels like a real world that existed before you walked in and will exist afterwards, and with time the series will casually have this feeling all the time. It’s using a dramatic tool to accomplish a non-dramatic goal.
(It’s also how you get a hint that these soldiers were waiting for you, when the doctor decides to tell you he thinks they were expecting you)
On the other hand, the game also shoots itself in the foot by going too complicated. An expectation amongst both players and creators is that more choice is always better, and Mass Effect will occasionally make something more complicated under the guise of giving the player more freedom, which at minimum means the player will have to spend time making decisions that are uninteresting (biggest example: the needlessly complicated equipment system the game has) and at worst can cause the player to accidentally cut off parts of the story. It’s possible here to cut off basically all the sidequests by heading to the Hot Labs where the Rachni escape originated first, and it’s possible to miss out on the major emotional edge of this story by not bringing Liara. Benezia is her mother, and she has complicated feelings towards the Matriarch. The mother-daughter stuff is annoyingly forced – there’s a line where Benezia says something to her that’s clearly supposed to be something she said to Liara as a child, but it all comes off as appealing to a generic understanding of mothers and daughters as opposed to Liara and Benezia specifically, and so my reaction itself is vague and generic. What lands a lot harder is the relationship between Liara and Shepard. One of my favourite moments in the whole game is a point where Liara takes you aside as you go into Noveria.
“I imagine you want to talk to me, Shepard. About my mother.”
“No, I don’t. I trust you, Liara. You may not be military, but you’re a part of my crew.”
“Thank you, Shepard. That means a great deal to me.”
That’s specifically a Paragon response – the Renegade response is to be suspicious, and there’s a neutral option where you do talk to her without judgement – but if anything that makes it more meaningful to me. This game is a power fantasy, and Paragon Shepard gives you the chance to live out the fantasy of being Malcolm Reynolds, crying out “You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me!” Beloved Soluter DJ JD remarked that he initially took Liara as a nerd fantasy and never ended up taking her anywhere, and while I can see where he’s coming from, I feel like a lot of Mass Effect will bend to whatever you want to get out of it (perhaps because of the fact that it’s a world you’re supposed to play in). For me, all the characters end up being ‘my crew’, with the same relationship towards me that Mal’s crew had towards him – people to be protected and fought alongside, knowing they’d have my back in return but just generally providing positive vibes. It helps to have this happen near the end of the game, after eleven or twelve hours of kicking ass with her. In that respect, it doesn’t fully matter that the mother/daughter stuff doesn’t land, because it was more about helping Liara than it was doing anything to Benezia. Once again, this is something the series would do better.
The final choice of the mission is also one of the best in the entire game. You find the Rachni Queen that the company hatched, and she seizes control of a near-death asari commando to try and explain what’s happened and beg you to release her. It’s a great example of the game managing to achieve an eerie alienness by leaning as far in on literalism as possible, because the distinctly inhuman Rachni Queen uses language that’s offbeat but also strangely logical – she says ‘sings’ instead of ‘speaks’, and describes thoughts and language as ‘colours’. It makes sense for a psychic sentient insect with a hive mind mentality to think of the world in that way. She tells you the reason the rachni you have seen have killed everyone is because they’re children who have essentially gone feral because they weren’t raised with their mother’s song. If you have Wrex with you, he loudly insists you kill the Rachni (many of his people having died to wipe them out in the first place) and is deeply pissed if you don’t, and I get why people would finish off the people who nearly wiped out the galaxy that one time, but I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of committing genocide in any context. At the same time, it’s hard not to worry you’ve done the wrong thing when you watch the Queen slide out into the snow.
- You also have an example of the game’s needless sexualisation when Benezia dies in a way that perfectly frames her boobs in shadow.
- There’s a rare case of a human character clearly speaking a language other than English that’s being translated for you the same as any alien language when you meet a Japanese woman dropping honorifics into her speech.
- There’s a tiny sidequest where a corporate asari hires you to spy for her. Paragon Shepard can righteously turn her down with a line I always felt expressed a part of my worldview: “What they might be doing somewhere else doesn’t justify my acting against them here.”
- I like the undercover cop, Gianna Parasini, tough and professional. “I’m ecstatic, but right now I feel like a long day at work just ended.”