This is a spoiler warning!!
Mass Effect is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest franchises in gaming. Even in spite of it's rocky conclusion, I believe that the Mass Effect trilogy will always hold a pivotal place in videogame history. With that said, I recently decided to dive back in to the franchise, starting with the original. It's a game I remember fondly, one that holds a special place in my heart. I thought that this time through I would be a bit more critical of one of my old favorites. So I busted out a spiral notebook and wrote some notes in anticipation of writing this blog, a blog looking back at Mass Effect.
Right off the bat I was struck by just how cool the character creator is. It's an awesome in universe system that tasks you with rebuilding your entry in the alliance database by picking your history, class, and appearance. It's a very clever way to get you into the game world immediately, and is representative of the attention to detail Bioware put into their fiction. Right after you're done making your custom Shepard you're quickly treated to dialogue custom matched to the background you chose. After a quick scene revealing Shepard face you take your first action in the game, which is a dialogue choice. It's indicative of Bioware's dedication to making Mass Effect a game that focused on the players choices. It's a promise that was seemingly broken by the end of the trilogy, but back in the day it was revolutionary.
At this point I was thoroughly impressed at how well the game held up. Sure I could already see the frame rate dipping, and the textbook unreal engine pop in was in full effect, but I was impressed by how good it still looked. Then I was dropped down for the first bit of action in the game, on a planet known as Eden Prime. Once my boots were on solid ground I was much less impressed with Mass Effect's staying power. The combat is straight up janky. That's the best word I can think of to describe the weird amalgamation of shooting and RPG mechanics. Even as a first attempt it's hard to forgive just how terrible the moment to moment action is. I had a vague recollection that once I was a little leveled up and had put some points into my skills combat would be smoother, but that theory proved false. Even late game the combat is barely tolerable. Thankfully it's not long before normal difficulty becomes a joke, and you can start rushing through the combat to get to the good stuff.
The plot of the original Mass Effect is essentially a set up for the rest of the trilogy, and in that sense it's a great success. The opening section on the citadel still remains one of the best sections of the entire game, thanks to it's incredible world building. In those opening few hours I was completely sucked into the worlds politics and history. Despite the fact that I'd played the game multiple times in the past I was still enthralled by the sheer density of information they hit you with. Bioware manages to sprinkle the pertinent bits around by setting up a ton of quests involving all the different species of the citadel. It's unfortunate that this pace doesn't last past the opening citadel jaunt.
Once you leave to start the game proper, you get peppered with a bunch of incredibly generic side quests. I thought this playthrough I would try to 100% the game so I could give a proper opinion, but I just couldn't deal with the endless stream of horrible side content. The basic formula is this: You get a message from someone or initiate a short conversation with a random person, then you do some combat in a generic location against generic enemies, finally you get about a paragraph of unfulfilling dialogue. The repetition really started to bother me about 10 hours in, and it's at that point that I pretty much gave up on the side quests and focused solely on the story.
After recruiting Liara in a pretty milquetoast mission, I headed to Feros. This planet was a complete slog of boring combat and even more boring conversations. Not much of consequence happens here, it's a complete throwaway of a main mission. So I went onward to Noveria, where I had a great time. Noveria to me represents whats great about the Mass Effect series. It has alternate paths through quests, great dialogue with a variety of interesting characters, a little bit of Mako but not enough to overstay it's welcome, and most importantly, an interesting final decision. It's the complete package, and if Feros was anywhere near as interesting as this, the game would be a much better package.
With that we get to Virmire, by far the best section of the entire game. It has all the great things Noveria does, but taken to the next level. It's a roller coaster of great moments that hit one after the other starting with trying to talk down Wrex, which is tense even to someone who knows the outcome. Following that is a fantastic speech by Captain Kirrahe about holding the line against all odds. Then you go into a lot of combat, but you get immersive radio chatter about the battles going on around you, keeping things interesting. Right when you start to get sick of combat you get your first chance to meet a reaper. This conversation with Sovereign gives me chills. Even though it's a short interaction the voice and tone of the speech gives you the impression that you're way out of your league with the reapers. Shortly afterward Saren makes an appearance for a boss fight. Here I have my only real issue with Virmire, which is that it embraces one of the oldest RPG tropes in the book. Even though I kicked Saren's ass the following cutscene shows that I lost the battle, which kind of takes me out of the experience. Even still I was riding a wave of nostalgia at this point, this was the Mass Effect I remembered. Topping it off is perhaps the biggest decision in the game, one where you hold your allies lives in your hand.
The choice between Kaidan and Ashley on Virmire is a pivotal part of the game, but one that doesn't hold the weight I once thought it did. Kaidan is a character I never gave much of a chance before, but went out of my way to explore this time through. As a female Shepard I decided that I would romance him instead of Liara, in the hopes that he would be a more intriguing person as a love interest. I'll admit that this playthrough I did take a liking to Kaidan, but I never grew as attached to him as I did many other party members throughout the series. Ashley on the other hand is a piece of shit racist, who I sacrificed quite easily. In previous playthroughs I'd kept her alive because I felt at least she had some character, but this time around I was done with her shit. Both of these characters are easily the weakest of the entire franchise, and I wouldn't be bothered much if they both died honestly.
This brings us to the final sequence of the game. You're waylaid for a short time at the Citadel for some reason that is unclear to me. Udina seems to be able to lock Shepard out of her ship despite the fact that as a Spectre I hold supreme authority. After that pointless intervention you go to the final planet of Ilos. Here lies some old Prothean ruins that have been overtaken by nature. You find a few statues that show the Prothean form, but this form is later retconned from the series in favor of a more humanoid appearance. It's a fairly boring place up until you start your ride into an old Prothean research facility. Here you get to hear a massive info dump form a Prothean VI that somehow survived 50,000 years. The information he gives you answers a ton of lingering questions about the nature of the reapers, and adds a sense of urgency to the situation. It's now clear that if you don't stop Sovereign and Saren, the universe is doomed to extinction. It's also revealed that the small relay statue on the citadel is actually a working relay prototype, and you use it to reach the final battle.
Finally a space battle, something I was looking forward to all game long. Bioware delivers on it's sci-fi premise with a massive battle involving dozens of ships blowing the shit out of each other, and Sovereign just bowling over cruisers to reach the Citadel. After a short space walk on the walls of the citadel you finally reach Saren, who at this point is completely under Sovereigns mind control. With enough points in your intimidate/persuade skills, you can talk Saren into suicide, which I feel would make a fine ending to the game. It's too bad that this conversation is quickly undermined by Saren coming back to life as a husk, and engaging you in an annoying bullet sponge boss battle. Once Saren is dead for good you get the next to final choice in the game, whether or not to save the council. I hate this decision, because it's considered a renegade action for you to focus your ships on sovereign instead of rescuing the council. I feel that given the information you possess it only makes sense to target Sovereign, because the council can be rebuilt if lost. Instead if you make the logical choice you're railroaded into having an all human council in subsequent games, which seems like an impossible outcome in this universe. Humans are basically despised by most alien species, yet they save the citadel and suddenly they're the dominant force in the universe.
The first Mass Effect is an odd beast. In some ways it's a failed experiment in combining shooters and RPGs, but in other ways it's a masterpiece of cinematography and craft. It has so many little things that stand out from the rest of the franchise that I miss. Dozens of aesthetically different suits of armor, having all 4 weapons at the ready even if you can't use them, a basic loot system, omnigel to avoid boring mini games, and infinite ammo. It also is easily the most mind numbing game of the bunch, with numerous valleys and not quite enough peaks. It's a game I once remembered fondly but now remember as something of a mixed bag of concepts both failed and successful. On one hand I'd recommend everyone interested in the series to play this game to absorb the awesome universe, but on the other hand I'd worry that they would give up after trying to deal with the clunky combat and long stretches of mediocrity. Does Mass Effect hold up? I think at this point I'd have to say no, but you might want to play it anyway.
“You all know the mission and what is at stake. I have come to trust each of you with my life, but I have also heard murmurs of discontent. I share your concerns.
We are trained for espionage. We would be legends, but the records are sealed. Glory in battle is not our way.
Think of our heroes: the Silent Step, who defeated a nation with a single shot. Or the Ever Alert, who kept armies at bay with hidden facts.
These giants do not seem to give us solace here, but they are not all that we are. Before the network, there was the fleet. Before diplomacy, there were soldiers.
Our influence stopped the rachni, but before that, we held the line. Our influence stopped the krogan, but before that, we held the line!
Our influence will stop Saren! in the battle today, we will hold the line!”