Mass Effect came out some 13 years ago and until now, I’ve only played it once back then. It wasn’t the best game I’ve ever played, but for about the week after I’ve finished it, I felt it was.
I’ve had wonderful memories of the game and I didn’t want to see them tarnished.
But it was also a game I was frequently comparing others (include the later ones in the series) to. So when the Legendary Edition came out, it was the perfect opportunity to see how that comparison really held up as well as experience the whole trilogy in one go. I’ve also never played any of the DLCs and they’re all included in the Legendary Edition.
This post will veer into the spoiler territory so if haven’t played Mass Effect yet, you can just leave with this:
Mass Effect has janky controls and it is dated in many areas (especially around the UI and combat), but it is a fantastic space opera in a wonderfully designed world with great characters. If you can handle the looks and gameplay, it’s well worth it.
First things first, it’s really fun to play it again actually knowing all the mysteries. You can discern some of the Shepard’s visions, know what the Reapers and Protheans and Keepers are all about. The purpose of the Citadel. It’s awesome.
You can also prioritise your missions properly and get Liara on the team (and therefore have the full squad) as soon as you leave the Citadel.
The freedom to visit significant places and events based on player’s discretion provides a lot of replay value in games. One of the things that made me go back to the original Fallout games or Dark Souls again (even though they are all massive) is the ability to do them in the right order. Where "right" meant important to me: whether it’s a companion I wanted from the get-go, an item, location, event, or anything else.
The game’s atmosphere, characters and the main story design — all of those are fantastic and absolutely hold up. Mass Effect 1 is an amazing sci-fi experience, the world feels real and I loved reading all the codex entries (which wasn’t true for any of the later games).
It felt like a real future. The doors opened automatically, but unlike in the real world, they worked perfectly. Never too slow, never in the way, as if they weren’t even there.
Similarly, the weapons don’t need any ammunition. They shoot energy and they never run out. The downside (a game mechanics conceit) is that they heat up and you need to give the shooting a break to cool down.
But it’s still amazing. You don’t need to bother with any ammo loot, you’ll never run out in the middle of combat. Really feels like the future.
Even the UI actually looked really slick and futuristic.
And the music is fantastic.
So yes, the things that stayed in my memory — the good things — remained good. As for the rest, well…
The controls are properly clunky. Everything from the inventory handling to the interactive prompts, switching weapons, the "open-the-lock" puzzles, the combat system — none of that feels particularly great.
Most of the off-world mission areas are built out of the same handful (literally like four or five) templates and they’re just filled with different enemies, furniture or crates.
All of this is annoying. It’s less annoying than if this was a shooter first and a sci-fi RPG second, but still.
And while we’re piling on the criticism: you ride a lot of elevators here and they’re sloooow (even though they were apparently sped-up from the original). The travel map doesn’t show you which sectors or planets you’ve explored already (I had to keep a separate checklist outside of the game). Similarly, you don’t know when your squad mates have new conversation options so a lot of the game is spent running around your ship chatting folks up only to rehash old conversations or have them tell you they’re busy.
The Mako (the vehicle you use to travel on a planet surface) is of course the stuff of legends and completely absent from the rest of the trilogy.
They’ve apparently made it faster and less bouncy in the remaster, but it still drives quite poorly and you end up with a lot of frustration trying to cross a mountain range to get to the next objective. Still, it’s a shame they scrapped it. Mass Effect: Andromeda fixed a lot of the issues and zipping around the planets is neat if done right.
The male gaze is pretty strong here and the face animations ride the Uncanny Valley hard. Especially Ashley Williams’s eyes are sometimes horrifying.
The first time around, I played as the male Sheperd, so I really wanted to play as the female one now. First, because I’ve started to enjoy protagonists and cast who don’t look like me and second, because of all the praise I’ve heard about Jennifer Hale’s voice performance.
Due to the confusing UI, I didn’t customise my character at all and ended with the defaults for everything (looks, background, speciality, etc.) and noticed it all too late to go back.
And I don’t like the default female Shepard look that much. I’ve played with the default male one with no issues, but admittedly: that was thirteen years ago and he’s just a Dude Duderston with a buzz cut. Can’t go terribly wrong there.
Still she’s a bad-arse lady who grew on to me and you get a pretty legitimate reason to change her appearance in the second game so I might do that.
The actual voice performance is great, but it’s been so long that I’m unable to make any comparisons to the male one.
And on the writing side of things, I’m not keen with the military outlook that pervades the whole game. I get why it’s there, but it also means that your character will commit between one and two total genocides without blinking an eye.
Some of the writing that wraps up a mission (which generally just appears as a message box with a couple of paragraphs) is a little underwhelming as well — like most of the side missions themselves.
This is perfectly fine in text-heavy games like the original Fallouts, Planescape: Torment or say Age of Decadence. But given how cinematic Mass Effect is, ending a mission with a text box just feels lazy and out of place.
But even with all these issues, Mass Effect is absolutely a game worth playing.
This is a game that is very much about "the friends we made along the way" and all the companions are fantastic. Even Ashley Williams (whom I now saved to change things up) isn’t as bad as I remembered (though definitely not my fav).
But the overall story and the mysteries you encounter are still awesome.
Replaying it, I’ve noticed a few really neat things as well.
One of the first optional quests you get on the Citadel is to scan 20 Keepers. This is awesome because it naturally drives you to explore all the nooks and crannies and make sure you don’t miss any other important stuff.
But it also lets you pay more attention to the creatures and all the mysteries surrounding them. Which then provides for a much better pay off towards the end of the game.
And yet, it’s still a completely optional quest that feels like you’ve stumbled into it by accident, getting you care more than if the game actually made you do it.
I’ve really enjoyed the game’s ending too. So many other games either drag on far too long or just are either poorly written towards the end. Mass Effect’s one is just the right length and it just lands really well.
It is the ending along with a huge helping of the credits music that made me feel like this was the best game I’d ever played after finishing it. It’s not true on reflection, but the feeling persisted for a few days before objectivity set in.
The music is really good overall and I want to highlight the visual work as well. While even the remaster looks dated, Mass Effect was the first game that felt like a movie.
They literally have a setting called "Movie Grain" (on by default) which is basically a filter that makes the game look grainier, but in a way that looks like film.
It’s really weird — you literally get worse visual quality, but it feels better. And they’ve done a lot of good work with the camera. Every time you talk to someone, their actions and the camera makes it all feel like a movie rather than a game.
In a similar vein, when you’re landing on a planet, the camera is very reminiscent of the likes of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica: it looks at the sky, trying to track the ship flying past. Once the ship drops the payload (the Mako vehicle with you inside), the camera focuses on that — but crucially, none of this is a perfect tracking. It’s as if someone literally held the camera and then tried to focus first on the ship and then on the drop. The movement falls behind.
This along with the all the crew conversations within the ship was giving me a really strong Firefly vibe and it still works great.
The last thing I wanted to mention is not really to do with the game itself, but rather, my memory of it. I am well aware of how malleable and unreliable human memory is, but experiencing it first-hand is still absolutely bizarre.
I haven’t really made anything up as such, but it turns out all three games got kind of mixed in despite being years apart and having clear thematic differences.
What I thought was the Normandy’s layout is really a mix of all three games.
The commander’s room I so clearly remember is actually closest to the one in Mass Effect 2. So is having EDI and their relationship with Joker as well as the dynamic engineering duo at the lower decks. Oh and dating Tali. I thought all that was in the first game and was really surprised to not see it there.
I was waiting for the reveal that the Citadel’s Keepers are genetically engineered Proteans, but that also didn’t happen. The Proteans were turned into the Collectors in the second game and similarly, Udina’s betrayal only happened in the third.