Ships Flying Is The Coolest Part Of Mass Effect

I'm playing through Mass Effect Legendary Edition and, as I've noted elsewhere, there's a huge jump in quality between the first game and the second. Mass Effect 2 is better at just about everything, with better character animations, better combat, better quest design, and a better Normandy.

But, one thing that’s consistently great between the two games is the way they show any action involving ships. Any time spaceships (or hover cars) are flying in a cutscene, it's consistently exciting and evocative. I noticed how important this was at the end of the first Mass Effect, when the Citadel is under attack by the Geth fleet, led by the massive Sovereign. When the ships appear at the mass relay and begin descending toward the Citadel, they look like black leeches against the lavender sky. It helps that BioWare sells the action in the same way that James Cameron does in the Avatar movies, with quick camera zooms that give a tactility to the action, despite it involving virtual objects.

I wrote recently about how cool Omega 2, the asteroid city from Mass Effect 2, is. A huge part of its appeal is the way the game shows the Normandy approaching it each time you land there, a shot that gives the floating city a sense of scale. The ship appears in the bottom left of the screen, causing the virtual camera to rattle as it passes, then flies toward Omega 2, which is bathed in a deep neon red. If you want players to get invested in a sci-fi universe, making it look cool as hell is a good way to do it.

On Ilium, Shepard shuttles to the Dantius Towers to recruit Thane to her squad. As an asari named Seryna pilots the hover car, the futuristic metropolis outside the window looks incredible. When the camera switches to an angle above the hover car, we see the purple, blue, and white lights of the city reflecting on the windshield. With the sun setting on the city, the sky is a mix of gold and ashen gray that feels mournful. This is the kind of stuff that made me fall in love with sci-fi as a kid.

Every shot of the Normandy looks better than the ones that focus on people. . But, why is that? Ships are easier to get right than people, for one thing. People are the hardest thing to create if your art style is going for anything near realism. (Around the time The Last of Us Part 2 released, indie developer Dan Hindes tweeted that a shot of Ellie removing her shirt without it clipping on her head was the most impressive thing he'd ever seen in a game). It's the same reason the toys in the original Toy Story look a lot better than the humans. Toys are mostly made of uniform plastic, but people are more detailed and complex. Capturing the way they interact with the world in a realistic way is really difficult.

For that reason, the scenes with ships are the parts of the Mass Effect trilogy that have aged the best in 2023. Ships don't need to convey emotion, they just need to convey how badass they look as starlight or city lights or cool Omega red neon glints off their exterior.

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