By: William Chandler
I’ve been meaning to replay the original Mass Effect for quite some time now. It stands as not only my favorite of the first two Mass Effect games but rounds out the holy trinity of Bioware games that is also comprised of KOTOR and Jade Empire. If I took the time to make a concrete top ten list of my favorite games, it would likely hold a pretty high spot. My love for the Mass Effect series is also tinged with regret. I’ve never actually even played Mass Effect 3 due to a lost save file that I carried through the first two games and a lack of motivation to start anew thanks to the quite controversial reception of the third game. After a nasty relapse and subsequent rage quit of my horrible addiction to ranked League of Legends, I decided to begin a full series play through in order to finally wrap things up for both Commander Shepard and myself.
Frankly, just thinking about how long it has been since the first Mass Effect came out makes me physically ill. It was nearly nine years ago and I was twelve years old. I did at least two full play throughs of the game in the week after its release, one renegade and one paragon, and I would later take my paragon file into Mass Effect 2. After which I wouldn’t ever play a Mass Effect game again. Well, until now that is.
For some reason the first things I thought of while installing Mass Effect onto my PC were the damned elevators. The ones on the ice planet of Noveria to be precise. I remembered their strange mosaic-like frosted glass windows that made them feel like they doubled as tacky bathrooms. I also remembered just how hated the elevators actually were at the time of the game’s release in 2007. The elevators served as some fairly lengthy and far too frequent loading screen cover ups which, if player reaction was anything to go by, was almost a worse idea than just having some long as shit loading bars. Back then I didn’t really mind them. Boy, was I tolerant. In the year of our Lord 2016, those things are actually the devil. They kill pacing and the frequent comrade conversations that I remembered from before actually are not all that frequent. I think I heard Garrus and Wrex (because those are the only two companions I ever use in ME1) bicker one time in my full 25-ish hours with the game.
Upon reaching the menu screen I felt some deep nostalgia from the music. I remembered it being great but, man, is it actually incredible. Honestly, the entire soundtrack is just aces. It’s one of the things from Mass Effect 1 that has held up the best. It’s highly electronic, of course, but it is sparse and tasteful enough that it never overstays its welcome and the incredible orchestral accompaniments are saved for some of the most memorable sections of the game. Outside of the soundtrack, however, the audio is surprisingly lackluster. Ambient audio is either barely acceptable or entirely not there and just about anything other than the bass filled gunshots are pretty bare. I think of my frequent MAKO drives along the surface of the empty side-planets and can really only call to mind the faint whirring of the MAKOs engines, another decidedly passable effect. At some point I just wound up turning on a podcast to fill in the silence.
Another thing I remember being better is the voice acting. The dialogue is often times
stilted and awkward, which is due in equal parts to writing and delivery, but the number of times I just laughed at something hammy was more than I thought it would be. A great many of the male Commander Shepard’s spicy comebacks when using a renegade
response sound like they should have a teasing “nyeh” at the end. Although, now that I think about it, that was likely part of the point. Companion interaction is still pretty top notch though. I talked to them as frequently as I possibly could and I found myself just as invested in the characters this time around. Kaiden, in particular, is someone I never cared for in the past but who came across much more genuine to me now. On the other hand, Liara’s naiveté I found to be frustratingly one dimensional.
Saren is also criminally underutilized as a villain. I chalked up my deep appreciation for Saren at the time of release as a side effect of my having read the Mass Effect novel that delves deeply into his character which came out just prior to the first game’s debut, but even years later I think he’s amazingly compelling. Not only do Saren’s motives make complete sense as you uncover them throughout the game but he becomes increasingly easy to sympathize with thanks to some smart writing. You really do feel like he’s just being taken advantage of by Sovereign, the lone Reaper in the first game as well as Saren’s ship, and that pretty much everyone can see it but him. This makes his end even more tragic. If you have enough points in the paragon path then you can briefly convince him of his error at the end of the game and he will choose to shoot himself in the head after a somber delivery of “Goodbye Shepard. Thank you.”, without even a slight hesitation. Then Sovereign chooses to activate and control only the mechanical parts of Saren’s body, horrifically maiming him and transforming him into a literal puppet. After which he dissolves into nothing. Like damn, give the guy a break. This sequence, of course, takes the form of a dull boss battle, but is made no less effective by that fact.
The most often praised aspect of the original Mass Effect is its world building and I have to agree that this is far and away the best part of the game. From the minute you are dropped into its world until the instant the credits roll, and frankly even long after, everything about the universe that encompasses Mass Effect 1 is fascinating. The inter-species politics are a major focus and are made more interesting by the idea that humanity are the scrappy upstarts in the galaxy, sticking their noses where the other, more storied races believe they don’t belong. This manifests itself in some pretty staunch racism from some people on all sides in a slightly unbelievable directness, but is still very compelling as a backdrop. How humanity as a whole will be viewed as a result of your actions as Commander Shepard means the stakes always feel greater than even just the parties directly involved in whatever decisions you make.
Far more interesting, though, is the characterization of the various other galactic inhabitants. Every single alien race is very well defined through some succinct and surprisingly deep characteristics that don’t often need to be explained and can frequently be observed. Probably my favorites, the Turians, are an almost overly serious collection of what can only be described as straight up haters and naysayers. They always seem to be the first to be dicks in any conversation but are also the ones most likely to be offended by an appropriate comeback. They put on an overly tough front but are clearly prone to deep fragility and are highly self critical, which is a trait very rarely shown to outsiders. Except for Garrus because he trusts me and is my husbando.
Ahem. Moving on. Turians are clearly one of the favorites back at Bioware HQ as well because they are quite heavily featured throughout the game. As are the other two races that have a seat on the council, the scientifically focused and almost annoyingly blunt bug eyed Salarians, and the all-female, hyper sexualized race of prim and proper trained killers and geniuses, the Asari. The latter of which are probably the cheesiest group in the whole bunch. But even some of the more minor races, like the Elcor and the Volus, are quite well realized in their limited screen time.
Funnily enough, these two actually have a bit early on in the game where they complain about having seemingly taken a back seat in galactic politics compared to all of the other races. The Elcor are perhaps the least human-like of all of the intelligent races, and not just in their almost space cow appearance. They have to start every single sentence with a description of either what they are feeling or what the tone of the sentence is intended to be because their outward emotions are so subtle to outsiders than they are imperceivable. The Volus are pretty much just angry accountants in personality but are fascinating when used properly, like the early encounter with Barla Von on the Citadel; a Volus informant for the omniscient Shadow Broker, an information dealer.
There is a pretty distinct lack of flora and fauna in Mass Effect, though. Pretty much the only animals you ever see are giant worms called
thresher maws or packs of rabid dog things. It is somewhat odd. There’s only 1 plant that I can think of in the entire game and it is like 5 stories tall and tries to kill you.
Speaking of things trying to kill you… A less often praised aspect of the game is its
combat. And, honestly, I didn’t mind it much back in 2007 and I still find it to be pretty fun now. Don’t get me wrong, the systems at work in Mass Effect’s combat are clearly held tenuously together by glue and tape, all teetering atop a massive house of cards. I rolled a Vanguard as I did in my initial Renegade play through and found it somewhat challenging at first. The starting planet and a little bit of exploration I did early on was often spent sending in my subordinates first during firefights to soak up all of the damage and potentially die because there were no consequences for whatever happened to them and I was about as squishy as physically possible. The mistake I made was primarily putting points into pistols instead of the completely and utterly broken shotguns which deal stupid amounts of damage and have basically the same range.
Later, on Noveria, moderate challenge turned into absolute frustration during the boss battle with Matriarch Benezia in which I stupidly brought along Liara, her daughter, just to see if things turned out any differently. They didn’t. And Liara made for just about the worst bullet sponge one could hope for. Not only that, but Geth snipers could almost 1 shot me from full health, and I was very rarely at full health. But, almost immediately after this battle, thanks to some halfway decent armor, I became unkillable and the game shifted gears into ridiculously easy territory with an almost audible clunk. By the end I was 1 shotting standard get with a shotgun and 2 or 3 shotting everything else. But, you know what? Thanks to the loud space guns, silly rag doll, and the shoulder cam which made every encounter feel up close and visceral, I was never not having fun. And I suppose that’s the most you can ask for from a genre where the actual “game” part of the game is usually the weakest.
I am glad to have replayed Mass Effect at this point in my life. That is to say, I’ve got a somewhat new perspective to view one of my favorite games from. Time has naturally made its flaws feel all the more glaring but what’s surprising is that the feeling of wonder and intrigue you get from just wandering around the Citadel or driving the MAKO across the tenth copy-pasted planet is still intact despite just how dated the game looks and feels. The core of Mass Effect is still very strong and if you don’t stray too far from the critical path then the game rewards you with a well paced, well written and pretty damned fun space romp.