Image by Fextralife
It’s been a little over a decade since the first Mass Effect game was released and established the foundation for gaming’s finest space opera unless you really, really like Halo, which I don’t. An epic planned trilogy originally meant to grace the PC and Xbox 360 exclusively until the series became big enough to warrant ports to the PlayStation platform and in the third game’s case, the Wiiu. It has elements of Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and the works of H.P. Lovecraft sprinkled in surrounding the series’ antagonists, the Reapers. What’s so ‘cough’ effective about the series is despite all the similarities, Bioware Studios made their universe distinctly its own thing rather than a carbon copy of other older works and the central thread that connects this fabric of a near perfect trilogy is Commander Shepard.
Shepard is your customizable protagonist, in which you shall decide what you want their gender, background, abilities and choices to be. You can be the stalwart yet humble Paragon, your own Buzz Lightyear, or a gritty anti-hero who will go to lengths few would cross for his mission as a Renegade. Or you can combine both just to see what could happen or to evolve a character through what you would do in the Commander’s boots or or what his chosen background would suggest. Choice in who the Commander courts or falls in love with during the course of the game is one of the most endearing and marketed aspects of not only Mass Effect but almost any given Bioware title, particularly its sister series, Dragon Age.
The first chapter of Shepard’s adventure to save the Milky Way’s trillions of denizens from death or a fate worse than death is the most contentious one for myself, even more so than the third. The one with the ever despised endings. Perhaps if I had experienced the original Mass Effect on the PC, I would think better, but alas I remain a console gamer. Whether I played it on the 360 or the PS3, as I recently did for this essay, it remains a game that is apparently not very easy to port to console. Performance is all over the place, muddy textures, lagging frame rate, some really long load times, there is a menagerie of issues that dampen the otherwise excellent first chapter.
But its not just performance. Mass Effect 1 compared to its sequels, just looks..old. Goes without saying being the first in series, but for a trilogy meant to be played together especially when you can import the save data to carry your Shepard into the next game, you have to put up with a lot. The world, while well crafted and most certainly well thought out if the expansive in-menu lore is anything to go by, feels less alive than the other games. The colors and locations feel sterile and too clean, which despite being a semi-optimistic view of the future, feels not quite in line with 2 and 3‘s more varied and breathing environments. The two least aged well proponents of 1 are the combat and the faces.
The series most recent entry, Andromeda, got a lot of earned heat for a laundry list of soul crushing reasons and the poor mannequin faces and bodily movements of supposedly the most state of the art game in the series stuck out terribly, to meme levels of derision. The first game a decade older does look better with occasionally solid moments of emotiveness that still look good, further digging Andromeda deeper. However, it still looks like a product which while truly amazing at the time has perhaps unavoidably not stayed that way. It even looks downright ugly in many ways. I would argue that if one were to remaster or even”Resident Evil” style remake the trilogy, improving the faces and bodies of just about everyone human or not would be a necessity.
The combat is also the sorest example of what Mass Effect 1 doesn’t get right. It could partially be the result of the bad ports the consoles offer, but actually fighting in Mass Effect 1 can be sloppy at best. The constant motion from the ruckus of guns firing, grenades exploding and that every single weapon relies on a “cooldown” system makes the experience of fighting a chore more than a thrill. Even worse when you pilot the Mako, an all terrain vehicle that even among fans is contentious. The awkward feel from the controls especially when engaging in vehicular combat never really leaves no matter how many times I’ve played. Navigating the many mountainous worlds across the galaxy can be just as frustrating when you can’t quite get over those damn crevices too many times! It’s also a pretty weak vehicle in terms of protection.
All of these frustrating things can’t keep Mass Effect from being overall, a great first step into a larger world. Bioware expertly crafts and opens up an interesting take on humanity’s early years as a space-faring civilization. Its interactions with other races, like those of the Citadel Council and its desire to be part of that galactic government, is what drives the story. It’s what drives Shepard him/herself: as a representative of how through their actions humanity will be judged. Shepard’s overall goal is track down a rogue Spectre called Saren , who has betrayed the Council by attacking a human colony, all for knowledge from a beacon of a bygone species. Shepard too experiences the beacon and learns through feverish, horrible visions that what Saren is trying to do through his treachery could spell doom for everyone.
In order to catch Saren, Shepard is made the first human Spectre to catch the alien traitor. Like almost any given role playing game, he acquires a squad of characters to follow him on his mission and a full blown ship to captain, the Normandy, piloted by Joker, himself portrayed with pure, perfect snark by Seth Green.
It’s not just Shepard and the player’s choice based role in shaping him/her that is at the heart of Mass Effect’s most enduring quality, it’s those that take up arms along them that counts. The first batch of squad members are the most important overall, as their impact on the trilogy, assuming who among them survives 1, is the clearest in retrospect. The two human compatriots of Shepard, Kaidan and Ashley, are probably among the most divisive in terms of how well written or likable they are compared to the Alien crew.
Kaidan’s relative blandness grew on me surprisingly, as he felt in some ways one of the most real characters on the crew; his lack of ambition, desire to be a decent Lieutenant on Shepard’s ship and ultimately depending on gender, lover, is very sweet. The most baggage he has is migraines from an implant in his head which gives him “biotic” abilities that manipulate telekinetically objects and himself but his lack of drama is in the long run quite novel. Ashley represents the near inevitable prejudice humanity would engender when living in a time when sentient alien life was a common day reality. Ashley is not an out and out bigot but being connected to a military family with connections to humanity’s first defeat at alien hands has painted a biased yet willing to adapt perspective.
The other four are the characters who remain possibly the most beloved in the entire series. There’s Garrus, the spiny bird/cat looking alien from the Turian race, the same species as Saren. He is a Citadel police officer whose desire for justice at almost any cost butts heads with his people’s strict disciplinary stance. He reflects Shepard’s divergent paths from the Renegade to the Paragon in terms of problem solving and how the two of them interact is one of the best loved moments in the whole trilogy. Many prefer to see Shepard and Garrus become badass brothers-from-another-mother style friends and if you choose a female Shepard by the second game the two can become more than friends in one of the most tender relationships games have ever produced. But more on that later.
Tali is the other fan favorite that was so popular that like Garrus, was made a squad member for the rest of the trilogy. She is a Quarian, a species that live nearly their entire lives in suits due to living generation-ally on ships that in turn weaken their immune system. A tech expert searching for something to help her nomadic people on her traditional “pilgrimage”, she gets more than she bargains for when she joins Shepard on the hunt for Saren. Her shy and unquestionably cute personality made her like Garrus the perennial favorite, that she became a love interest for a male Shepard in the subsequent games that is in its own way, is also one of the most tender relationships games have ever produced, as well as my favorite for Shepard’s embrace. You have to wait till the second game for either of these two to get this close with the Commander.
Finally there’s Wrex the Krogan and Liara the Asari. Wrex is a lizard-like big alien who grumbles cynically on his warlike people’s bleak prospects as a species and becomes perhaps the truest friend Shepard can make aside from Joker that he/she can’t in turn romance. What adds to Wrex’s compelling place in the trilogy and in the first game especially is his divergent fate. The possibility of death that Wrex can face and its dire ramifications going forward is one of the key examples for what Mass Effect did well as a series that other franchises weren’t at the time. Liara is for the player-base a much loved character whose role in all three games is especially important. Some even consider her to be the default love interest of the series, due to her never being an expendable figure in the storyline up until the end of the series. She is a key plot figure in helping Shepard figure out the role the Reapers play in the narrative and I can’t say I’m a fan of her.
She does improve for my taste in the later games, but in 1 her shrill, hammy always inquisitive mood and voice was more exasperating than adorable as the consensus declares. That she is often thrust as the main or default assumption for Shepard’s love regardless of gender strikes me as breaking with the theme of the player being the decider of who Shepard and their relations are. It’s a shame for myself that I never could see the same magic others saw in her and always wished they could have dialed down her heavy emphasis in Shepard’s life despite the many, many variables the player can thread.
The Mass Effect Trilogy, in an odd unintended sense, connects with the original Star Wars Trilogy in terms of my subjective opinion. The second one is the best, the third is my second best and the first is the weakest IMO. This goes against the grain of the Star Wars community who view second movie best, first second best and third weakest but I digress. Perhaps for me both ME1 and A New Hope are the least enjoyed by myself in how they both reflect their age the strongest. The promising worlds both first entries introduce show promise but it doesn’t feel as if enough of it has been seen or realized until later installments. The effects are weaker, the dialogue is weaker and the sense of awe and enjoyment isn’t as high as what is to come.
Ultimately the promise of grander, better celestial adventures is what makes it worthwhile to experience the first game always before the first two. Imagine if the viewer of A New Hope could manipulate to a certain extent the events of Luke’s first chapter and how it would affect The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. You would want to experience the movies chronologically now wouldn’t you? The planting of seeds is the savior of an imperfect yet almost paradoxically impeccable introduction.