Every year I replay BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy, but I have to admit I don’t always take my time playing the first game. Sometimes I’ll rush through or load an old save towards the end so I can quickly move on to the next game. Despite the wonderful nostalgia that hits as soon as I hear the menu music start to play, the shortcomings can sometimes make it difficult to enjoy a return visit to the installment that started it all. With Mass Effect celebrating a big ten-year anniversary this month though, I decided to take my time during my replay this year and was reminded that even with its frustrating flaws, this game remains one of the most classic science fiction video games of our time.
From the very beginning it’s clear that Mass Effect was trying to break the mold and elevate how you can tell a story in a video game. Even compared to the games BioWare had released before this, Mass Effect was attempting something on a new level and it’s here that the original game continues to shine the brightest after all these years. The story was unique because of the different elements that make it so much more than playing through the usual narrative. One of those elements is the world building. As soon as you enter this universe, you’re introduced to a galaxy made up of multiple alien species. Humans are the newest arrivals on the larger galactic scene, but have still been around in the community awhile by the time the first game starts. You’re starting your story on an incredible foundation. BioWare built a highly-detailed world for you to be a part of and learn about as much as you want. You might be fine learning what you can just through dialogue or events in the game, but you can also spend time exploring the codex entries that give you even more insight into the different parts of this universe.
The characters are the second essential element to making the story developed on this foundation stand out. Your own character immediately has a history of your choosing that allows you to start to shape who you want your Shepard to be right at the beginning. This is just the first of many ways your Shepard can be unique from the Shepard any other player creates. The side characters you meet on your ship and various locations throughout the game also have their own histories and layers that help add to the depth of the world and allow you to connect with them in different ways. Even the villains turn out to be more interesting than they first appear. While Saren at first seems to be a typical bad guy you have to stop at all costs, you find out later that his motivations are actually much deeper than the usual villain bent on destruction. Then there’s learning more about the Reapers, who are the real threat, but left mysterious enough to add a sense of foreboding to the game even as you win. I can still remember the chill meeting Sovereign for the first time on Virmire gave me.
Out of all the characters, it’s the companions that truly shine though. You can pick up a number of companions who each have their own backgrounds and stories that you can explore. Each member of your squad will have different reactions to what you’re doing in the story and the more you talk to them, the more you grow to love or hate the characters. Perhaps it was the voiced protagonist of Shepard or just the attention to every detail BioWare put into these characters for this game, but this was the first RPG where I felt a deeper connection to these characters than to characters in previous games. Here you care about them and yes, can even romance them, but your connections with companions goes beyond the love stories. I remember being almost surprised by how many other players I would later learn formed similar relationships to some characters as me on just a friendship level. Garrus and Liara were becoming my Shepard’s best friends by the end, and Tali was like a sister. Nowhere in the game do I ever get to say this to the characters, and yet it’s still a bond you feel by the time you finish the game.
All of this makes the story choices, the final element of the epic world built in Mass Effect, some of the most intense in gaming and even the entire trilogy. Each one would have an impact on the world and people around you. In fact, Virmire is still for me the toughest decision I made in the series. The decisions were hard and emotional because of how much you felt invested in the story, its world, and its characters. It wasn’t even just these big decisions either. Even dialogue choices and the added paragon and renegade options left much to consider when playing. You just knew a character would remember what you were about to say!
Of course, the game did have flaws. For me the biggest failing was always the combat. Fighting enemies is just not an enjoyable experience here. It feels slow and awkward, and like my Shepard was never able to move around the battle field effectively. This extended to taking the time to use abilities or biotics. While the repetitive environments don’t bother me as much, the NPC enemies shouted catch phrases are also extremely annoying as across the galaxy people always shout “enemies everywhere” or “hold the line” in fights apparently. If Kirrahe isn’t saying hold the line, I don’t want to hear it! It was also a pain dealing with equipment and items in your inventory. Compared to the other games, I spent less time on upgrades and dealing with inventory in this one because the system and menus are a pain to deal with.
Then there are the things that would become kind of fond remembrances and even jokes in the series, until you later remember why you disliked them in the original game so much. For example, elevator rides. Looking back I tend to think, ‘oh yea those were fun.’ You heard what future space elevator music was like and what companions talk to each other about, but then I play the game and remember they’re so slow! While a creative idea for loading new areas, after awhile that music starts to get to you.
Let’s not forget the Mako either. The beloved and terrible way you could explore planets. When I replay, I often start off thinking ‘oh yes, this is a great way to explore and makes sense for the game!’ I immediately go zooming off to adventure. Then I’m quickly reminded just how horrible it is for exploration. Soon I’m stuck upside down and unable to right myself or stuck in a mountain range because I had to struggle to drive there to reach something for a side quest. The Mako became more troublesome than useful!
Yet, even with flaws that might make the game hard to get through a decade later, the game is still a classic. The good outweighs the bad because of the world BioWare managed to create. What you get to explore and experience is an epic science fiction adventure. What was built here became the foundation for the rest of trilogy, which would make changes and attempt to improve the areas where this game faltered.
I can’t say that the original Mass Effect is definitely my favorite of the trilogy, but when I do sit down to play it the reasons for why it’s a great game come flooding back. Out of all of them, it’s the one that feels the most magical. Flaws and all, what they tried to achieve here comes through and makes the original a stand out entry in gaming and sci-fi.