Mass Effect 1 & 2: a design review

Mass Effect is BioWare’s critically acclaimed space opera RPG series. It features original IP in terms of narrative, and in terms of core gameplay it also has made some very interesting design decisions.


The series is much praised for its excellent writing. I’m not a huge sci-fi buff so I won’t dwell on this too much, but the series’ positioning of mankind as up-and-comers fighting for its rights in a mult-racial galaxy (its struggle to get acceptance into the powerful Council) is fairly refreshing. In this regard most of the praise belongs to the original Mass Effect. Another point of praise is the emphasis on player choice and consequence – players literally choose which characters live and die, making the narrative much more impactful and thought-provoking (do you save your loved one, or your loyal friend?).

In the sequel, from a narrative point-of-view the game takes a somewhat lazy approach. By setting the bulk of the story as a series of recruiting missions to build up your team, the narrative becomes a series of origin / character background stories. These are effective, and the characters are admittedly distinctive, but the overall story definitely pales compared to Mass Effect 1. There’s no sense of epic-ness in 2, compared to the historic struggle in the original, especially the climatical battle at the end of Mass Effect 1.


Mass Effect 1 is more conventional in terms of RPG elements. It is strictly single-player. It has a familiar inventory system, based on the characters’ various weapons classes, tools and armor systems. Players manage a team of 6 characters at max, and any given time the player can field 3 characters. Interestingly, characters that are not active are not punished; they level up along with the active members. This means there is less emphasis on prioritizing which team-members to develop (or make a choice early on regarding which characters will be used primarily). There is a class system in place, with unique skill-trees per class. This adds a lot of replayability to the game.

Combat is in real-time with a pause function to allow the player to setup complex tactics. It is in a 3rd person shooter perspective, and utilize cover mechanics. The game does not feature mana or any type of energy resource; there isn’t even the concept of ammo. Instead, special abilities rely on cool-down timers, while weapons can overheat if the player is too trigger happy. Another type of combat utilizes a moon buggy type of vehicle, which has two types of ammo and unfortunately has fairly awful controls.

Besides combat, there is major emphasis on dialogs, with players being presented various dialog options that affect the narrative. There is a moral system in place – performing heroic and just actions accumulate “Paragon” points, while cold-blooded acts that mainly focus on the outcome (the end justifies the means) accumulate “Renegade” points. Both Paragon and Renegade points unlock hidden dialog options, so while players could accumulate both (one does not offset the other), from a practical point of view the player should be consistent in one type of action. Thus the moral system also adds a layer of replayability to the game.

Besides combat, leveling up and collecting items, the game also offers character interaction in the form of romance. Romance is purely dialog driven – i.e. it doesn’t include a game mechanic where you increase the chances of romance by making a character active in duty.

In Mass Effect 2, BioWare made a number of interesting choices in reworking the gameplay. The inventory system is drastically streamlined, to the point where it is almost completely removed – players still manage different types of weapons, but they are not dropped by enemies nor do they have item quantities; instead, weapons are researched/discovered, and once you unlock one weapon, all characters that could use the weapon can equip it. Classes are also reworked, with condensed skill-trees – the typical character has about 5 spells to use throughout the game, with 1-2 of the spells being ammo modifiers (passive spells). The redesigned skill-trees also introduce a progressive points system – each spell has 4 ranks, and each higher rank costs more upgrade points to unlock. Upon unlocking the highest rank, the player can choose from one of two advanced upgrades – usually a more potent single target nuke vs. an AOE version of the spell. This again seems mainly aimed at increasing replayability, as there are more options for the player to explore.

From a combat perspective, Mass Effect 2 also took some cues from popular straight-up 3rd person shooters such as Gears of War. The cover system is less buggy, and combat in general feels more tense. The game also introduced a significant global cool-down timer, which means players could no longer spam spells in rapid succession. The health bar now auto regenerates if you stop taking damage, which again is taking cue from popular shooters.

Mass Effect 2 removed the moon buggy vehicle, while injecting a few new alternative game modes. There are two mini-games positioned as computer hacking in the game, and both are based on finding patterns. Another mini-game revolves around the collection of resources, which is done by scanning planets for minerals using a radar and collecting minerals when the scanner picks up a strong signal. The resources are used for tech upgrade research, so they are significant, but that also makes this mini-game tedious. In general, these mini-games seem positioned to balance the pace of the game – a small break in a long combat mission, or a break from progressing the story while just scanning unchartered planets for resources.

For die-hard RPG fans, Mass Effect 2 will feel like a hybrid game. It feels more like a 3rd-person shooter with strong storytelling, especially when you run the game at normal difficulty and usually don’t need to pause the game during combat for tactical micro-management.


Mass Effect 1 definitely suffered from some bugginess in terms of its combat. Players could get trapped entering / exiting cover. While 2 made some big progress in this regard, the 3rd person shooter angle still meant that in the heat of the battle it was common to lose track of where your AI team-mates were – and since the combat is based on tactical management and team composition matters (e.g. you want to effectively send in your tanky team-mate to soak up damage), this meant combat still is frustrating at times.

Also, in both 1 and 2 the game relies on dialog to progress character interaction (namely, romance and additional backstories). This became fairly mechanical and repetitive as the player learns he needs to visit the support cast scattered around the spaceship after a couple of completed missions if he wants to unlock new dialog. A better way would be to have such major developments embedded in missions.

Another criticism is around UX. This is a minor point, but on the PC I expect to be able to double click in menus; yet the series forces me to click the respective “select” buttons to confirm an action. This becomes increasingly annoying as time progresses.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.