What’s Good About Mass Effect (Legendary Edition of Mass Effect 1)
And now for something, Completely Different.
I love Mass Effect. A lot as it turns out. Because the first thing I noticed is that when I was at the main menu screen for the remastered version of the original Mass Effect, I was getting a bit choked up. I felt like I was home. It felt like I was seeing an old friend for the first time in what felt like literal years (which is to say nothing of the current state of the world contributing to this). The Legendary Edition, a version of the Mass Effect Trilogy with all of the downloadable content (and sadly without 3’s multiplayer, which weirdly enough kind of slapped?) was released on Friday and I spent most of the weekend replaying the first game. It’s proven to be both a fantastic introduction to a wonderful universe and incredibly janky.
Me making the statement that Mass Effect 1 is janky is like saying water is wet at this point. This isn’t a new observation, the original Mass Effect has always had that mechanical roughness that served to make it kind of charming when taking the rest of the game into consideration. It’s just that the new additions have made it so that I don’t have to tone down the difficulty to the casual setting to get through Mass Effect 1 anymore, but it also highlights how much I genuinely dislike the game’s combat and RPG mechanics. I decided to go through the game as an Adept, the biotics specialist that can manipulate gravity in a means that can only be described as space magic. This was largely a mistake on my part because most enemies have this weird tendency to just run at you when you’re in cover, which feels weird considering the tactical feel the game is trying to go for. A lot of the skill proficiencies are just passive increases, which is fine but nothing too exciting and it’s all wrapped around quite possibly one of the worst inventory systems I’ve ever used in a game. And then there’s The Mako. The Mako is a point of contention amongst the fandom. There are people like me, who hate it because of how unwieldy it is and how it breaks up the flow of exploring on foot. And some people like it. Those people are wrong. The Legendary Edition makes a suite of changes to make Mass Effect 1 less janky, but it just highlights to me that many of the gameplay systems just don’t work very well. Sole mechanical exceptions being the dialogue wheel and Paragon/Renegade system that let you choose how to interact with the world as either what type of hero you want to be, aka “Do You Want to Be Picard or Kirk?” That whole system is fantastic.
But despite all of what I just mentioned, the game is worth sticking with. Because the world it builds, the stories it tells, and the characters you interact with are, for the most part, fucking amazing. Taking place in a hard sci-fi future where humanity shoulder checks its way into galactic politics and makes it work, you play as Commander Shepard; an N7 operative of the Human Systems Alliance Navy becomes a Spectre (basically a super spy) by the galactic council to track down and apprehend their former top operative, Saren Arterius after he leads an attack on one of humanity’s oldest colonies to get at a Prothean artifact (the Protheans being a galaxy-spanning empire that vanished 50,000 years in the past). It’s a story that starts dense and gets denser, especially once you take how all of the different races of the Milky Way interact with each other, how their politics and cultures interlink with that of the greater galactic community, and so on.
While not to the same degree as something like Pillars of Eternity, Mass Effect has characters talking in a layer or two deep of the setting’s context, and while it doesn’t expect the player to read up on the galactic codex between missions, it’s all so fleshed out that I find myself doing it anyway. Because the codex explains everything. From all the histories of the setting, major events on the galactic stage, how each species and culture relate to the others, and offers in-depth, damn near Silmarillion levels of context for how things work from the minute (to the way weapons and armor works) to the massive (the way the titular mass effect fields are generated and controlled, how mass relays work, and a greater explanation and history of those biotic powers I mentioned earlier). It makes for a deliciously hard science fiction setting that I find myself coming back to again and again.
And then there are the characters that you meet, most of whom are awesome. You get Captain Anderson, who is every reasonable authority figure played by Keith David, which is to say awesome. There’s also Garrus Vakarian, a Turian C-Sec agent who goes from doing his best in a flawed system to realizing said system is less than useless in terms of actually getting things done and helping those who need it; Tali’Zorah, who’s people the Quarians are living in a migrant fleet after being driven off their homeworld by their creations the Geth, the machine race of the setting and legitimately one of the coolest parts of Mass Effect; Urdnot Wrex, hands down the best character in the game. A surly, deadpan, and cynical Krogan Battlemaster turned mercenary who wants to do more for his people aside from fighting for credits and being bitter about the outcome of his people’s failed rebellion against the established order after saving the galaxy from a threat only they could, even if the outcome is more than enough reason to be bitter as fuck. And lastly, there’s Dr. Liara T’soni, an Asari Archaeologist specializing in the discovery of Prothean ruins who’s also a precious gem that I have to keep myself from falling in love with every time I meet her. And two other characters are with your squad, but they’re humans and the law of Mass Effect party members goes that the human team members (except for Jack in Mass Effect 2) are legally obligated to be the least interesting. Hell, even Saren is awesome, he’s still to me, the best antagonist in the entire trilogy because he’s an excellent foil to Shepherd and can’t be easily shunted into the background like the greater scope threat of the Reapers most of the time. The fact that he looks sick as hell helps, dude’s got a literal Geth arm for a prosthetic and he’s covered in cybernetic implants and enhancements.
As a game, I can’t recommend Mass Effect unless you’re willing to play on the lowest difficulty setting and go through the story. Which you should do anyway because as an introduction to a world and setting, it pulls that off flawlessly. It’s a fully realized world with endearing characters and an incredibly well-written hard science fiction story that is more than enough to carry the experience. And as someone who generally values gameplay over narrative (as no doubt noted by the work in this series), I consider that a fucking miracle.