Mass Effect 1 has firmly planted itself as being one of my favorite games of all time- and that’s not something I say lightly. While not moving past the likes of Kingdom Hearts and Shadow of the Colossus, Mass Effect 1 definitely sets itself up as one of the heavy hitters in my own personal gaming list. Mainly because Mass Effect 1, for lack of a better word, is simply vast. Especially nowadays being nearly 10 years old, this game had some incredible ambitions that it actually pulled off. Like all games however, Mass Effect isn’t perfect, it has many short-comings and some antiquated technology, but like I said- it’s 10 years old, a millennia in video game time.
Mass Effect 1 is set at the apex of an age. Human-kind has just been accepted into the galactic federation of major alien species after discovering a piece of ancient alien technology on Mars. Humankind found the buried ruins of a small fragment of a civilization known only as the “Protheans.” This civilization was so advanced that they could construct machinery of incredible complexity and usefulness, so much so that humanity jumped 200 years ahead technologically after its discovery. After mastering space flight, shortly after the Mars discovery, humanity was greeted with one of the marvels of the Prothean civilization, the Mass Effect Relay. These relays are scattered throughout the galaxy and grant the ability to be flung across space at faster-than-light speeds while still being almost entirely safe. However, upon first use of the Milky Way relay, galactic civilization was waiting to meet humanity and determine whether its intentions were peaceful or aggressive. After deeming humanity’s intentions to be peaceful, though very stubborn, they were accepted as a major new species of the galaxy- and this is where you come in. You are given control of a man (or woman) named Commander Shepard, a loyal and trusted leader of the human-led Alliance. All of this is covered in about the first 10 minutes of the game and serves to be not even scratching the surface on how incredibly deep the lore actually goes. Every species in galactic civilization is characterized by its common traits. For example, humanity is known to be very confrontational and stubborn, which has made the rest of the galaxy believe that humanity does nothing but bully other civilizations into getting what they want. The Krogan, a civilization composed of reptile-like, mountains of muscle are known to be very aggressive, tribal, war-like and often thought to be completely unable to develop complex thoughts. However, as with every grouping of people, there are outliers and Mass Effect takes that into account. Throughout my time with the game I saw beings that completely contradicted their species stereotypes and I loved that. I saw a Krogan scientist at one point, a sight that various characters openly mocked because it was so out of the ordinary. The main species that you encounter are: the Asari, a race composed of entirely blue females who can interbreed with any species and live to be roughly one-thousand years old; the Krogan; the Salarians, a race of incredibly intelligent aliens that have about triple the metabolism of most other species; and the Turians, a species of alien who are highly renowned for their discipline and military prowess. However, the galaxy is racist (species-ist?) and more often than not you encounter hate from many species for just being a human, while on the flip side you can automatically hate certain races because you know exactly how the conversation is going to go just from seeing them.
It’s interesting to have to dodge around the different species stereotypes and know how they interact with other species to peacefully (or not so peacefully) resolve a conflict. All of this is built from a lore that is incredibly deep and complicated. Situations that you have to resolve rarely turn out the way you want them too and the game is so much better for that. The failures that you experience in Mass Effect are the moments that give it character and depth. More than once you are put in charge of the life of another being (or beings) and if you fail- they die. A death which would have been entirely avoidable if not for your decision or actions and that honestly struck me. Most games today try to gloss over the player’s actions by making them be entirely inconsequential (I’m looking at you Watch Dogs 2), yet Mass Effect puts the player in a place where they have to choose a terrible option or a worse option with no actual “super heroic save everyone” option to be seen and I believe that this is the case because they started with the plan of a trilogy of games. The simple fact they started with such a long time-frame means that they took their time with the story telling and character building because they weren’t in a rush for time. This payed out in dividends when experienced as the player because the story and the characters are fantastically crafted and believable. The main antagonist, Saren, had so many moments where I genuinely felt bad for him and other moments (sometimes in the same minute) that I would completely hate him and that is what a villain should be. No villain in the game was the stereotypical “I just want to watch the world burn” type of character; instead they all had ambitions and in a way, they were in the right. Occasionally Saren would explain himself throughout the length of the game and I would have to stop and actually think if I was really doing the right thing. Sure, we were both trying to accomplish the same goal but Saren was taking a much bloodier and violent route to get there. Multiple times Mass Effect confronts you with Saren and the other main antagonists and has you talk to them and learn why they are doing what they are doing because it wants you to understand them and really see where they are coming from.
Not once does this game point you in a direction and say “this person is bad, kill them because they are bad.” Far more often it tells you to slow down and evaluate your options and situations to come to an accurate conclusion. This especially comes into play with almost every moment with the Council. The Council is the foremost governing body in the known universe and is composed of a member of almost every major race, totaling around 5 to 6 members. Throughout the game, you are given the ability to give status reports to the council to try and convince them of the threat to the universe- or not. You can also leave them completely in the dark at your own disposal with very little consequence. I often left them in the dark because of the vast amount of red tape that they had to cut through to give me any kind of ‘go ahead.’ Most of the governing bodies and even the local citadel police force (otherwise known as CSEC) must operate under the strictest protocols because of the number of differing species they represent. The only thing that really holds this game back is some of the antiquated gameplay elements that exist in the game. The slow pace of combat wasn’t really helped by the speed in which you or your comrades die. The amount of times I had to hide behind a barrel while surviving a barrage of enemy fire all while waiting for my ‘revive party’ ability to recharge was staggering. Not mention the Sniper Geth who, for the first third of the game, will kill you in one hit with nearly perfect accuracy before you can click the wrong button to hide behind the wrong side of cover and fire one of your biotic powers straight into the ground dealing damage to absolutely no one. Now, this may have been an issue with the fact that Mass Effect wasn’t built for PC and was ported from the Xbox console; but seeing as how I had to play with keyboard and mouse it should function as well as a controller. The combat is where the antiquity shows the most but it is definitely passable enough to not cause too much of a problem, especially near the end of the game when (between your biotic powers and your armor) you can don a suit of nearly impenetrable armor and withstand the most brutal attacks with ease. The odd difficulty curve reminded me a lot of The Witcher 2- if you can get through the first few missions in the game without rage-quitting the universe that will unfold before you is unseemingly vast and incredibly complex.
Also, the Mako rover that you drive on the surface of planets is the most lovable, stupid, physics defying thing I have ever seen in a video game. Excepting of course the horse from Skyrim.