I said a lot of nasty things about Mass Effect yesterday. I stand by those things (even the ones I had to look up), but I wouldn't have devoted five days to a video game trilogy I've only played 1.5 games of if I didn't think it was the best damned game out there right now.
Okay, one of the best games out there (I forgot how good Fallout 3 is. Also...Portal? How do you even compare that?). None the less, if Mass Effect isn't the best, it's one intelligently-placed bomb away from being the best. Is it perfect? No. But if it wasn't so great, no one would care about it, its warts, or its ending.
The best thing Mass Effect has going for it are its characters and the relationships you have with them. You guys know I love Mordin Solus by now and that Garrus is my bro. You may have picked up on the fact that I'd leave Chief Ashley Williams to die on Virmire twice if I could. Even when you hate them, you hate them for being believable, consistent people, consistent enough that every conversation with them rekindles that fire of loathing. I was yelling at Josh just this week over how he'd let Mordin die in one of his ME2 games because Mordin is awesome! I ask Garrus about his calibrations every time I come on board the Normany in ME2 because I wanna see how he's doing. The characters in Mass Effect engender feeling in me, which sets it apart from almost any game at all which failed to engender more than hate for an exposition character in me.
As awkward as the animations and expressions are, there's no more use of this than in the romantic entanglements available for Shepard. Sure, the camera rests on Miranda's ass a bit too much and the Asari Matriarchs like tanning their boobs whenever, wherever, but the relationships in Mass Effect are often emotional affairs. Say what you will about Jack's story completion being dependent on knocking space boots, but that only happens if you care enough to form a connection with her as a human being. You can actually have sex with her--no questions asked--early on. She's like, "let's get this over and done, buddy." The interactions with Jack as a whole establish a line between meaningless sex and sex with an emotional context.
Of course, Mass Effect (and considering, Dragon Age, Bioware itself) is strong enough to deliver content that some people find controversial, mature or not. Whether it's the apparent female-female relationship potential in Mass Effect 2 or the slightly mentioned male-male relationship in ME3 where Cortez is portrayed as a man who's bereaved at the loss of his husband. While they don't get much press, things like Shepard's recreation from death, freedom of religion being raised as a shield to protect Batarian slaving practices, and the near-Palestinian nature of the Quarian migrant fleet are all inciteful, controversial topics. Any of them could have—if seized upon by the blogosphere or a major news network—harmed the sales of the game, but they did it anyway. I'll never know why, but I'd like to think that they made a good game to make a good game, not to make trouble.
See, no small part of Mass Effect's uncovered controversies are derived from the depth of the setting. I mentioned yesterday the problems with defining Asari gender. Why so strange? Because it's complicated, as any alien race would be to an uninitiated human. It's that complexity which gives self-centered males playing a "hot alien chick" trope to buy in to. A trope with a reasonable cause to bang human males; a method of reproduction that ignores the messy intricacies of alien junk. The logical conclusion of that is that traditional male/female relationships don't matter to them either. Hard questions about doing things differently are never raised in a static environment, but when that environment has grounded, fleshed-out aliens, the controversy is inevitable.
And Mass Effect's settings and races are just as fleshed-out as their individual characters. To pick just one race, Krogans are the stock hearty, warrior race, but they both accept the inevitable decline of their civilization as a result of that and have a culture that allows for diversity within it. Krogans have mechanics, shamen, and geneticists, all of which are warriors in addition to their other skills. They even share a well-founded sense of opportunistic xenophobia which varies from Krogan to Krogan. Even as a race that has problems reproducing, they have a deep-seated dislike of clones. That they can be so believably unreasonable is an impressive feat, but even more amazing is that fact that all that development is on the surface. If you look a little deeper, you meet Krogan diplomats (who are considered some of the best warriors, since they represent their clans to other Krogans) and Krogan merchants, who are more than happy to deal with offworlders for rare local luxury goods which other Krogans love. Then you can open up the game's codex and read yet more about them.
Or you can ignore all that, find the guy you need, start a conversation, and hang out on the right side of the dialog wheel until he either tells you the next guy to talk to or forwards you to the important business of hurling bullets and space magic at the guys in red brackets, only slowing down long enough to make sure you're picking the right Renegade/Paragon options. There's nothing wrong with that, because you're playing it at your own interest level. The opening cinematics fucking bullet point the differences between the present and Mass Effect, then roll directly into the story.
I'm saying is that Mass Effect has an impressive depth, but doesn't smother you with it. It's something truly personal in a way that goes beyond the choices your character makes. It doesn't create a massive expanse of countryside constructed in excruciating detail simply to fill space. What it does do is give a few expanses of literal space between distinctive, important locales, establishing a sense of scale that familiarizes a player with individual buildings and worlds, as well as galaxies themselves. Most Mass Effect players have a few stories they can tell about hijinks at Ilium, Afterlife, and the Citadel because, while they're small rendered areas connected by recycled docking sequences and a star map, they have an aesthetic and cast that leave memorable, distinct impressions.
The experience is intimate and personal. Penny Arcade mentioned as much earlier this week, and they weren't wrong. The choices a player makes in Mass Effect are a strange chemical mix between sticking to your alignment and saving your NPC friends. When a player breaks their Renegade stride to save Mordin, or goes on a Paragon streak just so their Renegade seems that much more hurtfully Renegade in Miranda's loyalty mission, there's more going on there than shooting the bad dudes and gaining XP 'til the credits roll.
I criticized the morality system yesterday, but to be honest, its unevenness is a strength. If Paragon and Renegade paths were less wildly inconsistent, it might be easier to just stick with one. I can't vouch for the Paragon path, but being Renegade forces you to sign off on some messed up shit. Even though I'm committed to that, I spend a lot of time mulling over those options. Sure, at the end of Mass Effect 3, Shepard is dead and The Reapers are probably stopped. Fair enough. Maybe Wrex unites the Krogan, maybe no one does. Maybe you've never heard a Salarian sing Gilbert and Sullivan. Not all of your decisions change big things. Some of the big things can't be changed. That's nothing new. What I'm saying is that the choices that matter do so because Mass Effect creates a universe with characters and worlds that you love and hate and makes you care about how your decisions can change their lives and the lives of their inhabitants. Since you never know the exact proportions of dickitude Shepard is willing to sink to, you have to be constantly invested in the game instead of churning out one set of morality points as much as possible.
Just like yesterday's criticisms, I could go on about how lean the game is with its planetville planets, how those thermal clips finally made me use my biotics, and how the story spirals out logically from that of an Executive Officer on a shakedown cruise who becomes the savior of the galaxy (mostly), but here's my point: even the rough parts of the dialog, the morality, and the uncanny valley faces are more the effect of Mass Effect scratching at the lower end of the next tier in great games, not a lack of quality in this one.
I know this one was long. Thanks for reading all of it.
 Dan Staines and Malcolm Ryan "Ethical Choices in Videogames: Lessons from Moral Psychology" http://wordsonplay.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/ethical-choices-in-videogames-lessons-from-moral-psychology/