Mass Effect is one of those great games that managed to come before the decline of Bioware. In fact, this game pretty much came as they started to slip into their predictable, trite, money-grubbing ways. It’s really a miracle that this game was saved from all that.
It all starts with Saren, a Turian jagoff with a penchant for patronization and a deeply-rooted love for being a dick. He’s also a spectre, basically a glorified space cop with a little spy thrown in, meaning he can run around the galaxy being a dick without consequences. Naturally, we’re tasked with hunting him down. Most games would ham this up, and later games in the series really do put the “opera” in “space opera,” but this game actually shows quite a bit of restraint in that regard. The hunt for him never escalates into a completely random breakdown or existential crisis, because Mass Effect 1 knows what Bioware has forgotten—well-written characters don’t act like pre-teens.
Sovereign is a great character, capturing the “this is bigger than you’re capable of comprehending” vibe that later games wholly abandoned. Of course, it’s hardly a spoiler that it’s the first reaper you meet, and that it’s totally awesome. You almost want to let it win, just so you can smile at all of the little Reaper-isms it tends to throw around.
The shooting is more satisfying than you’d probably think, even if it has its clunky moments. It’s possible to get stuck on objects here and there, but this is a problem that’s plagued the entire series. Later games streamlined the combat to make it more of a shooter, but I actually prefer the combat in this first game because it reflects the fact that the game is an RPG. Guns can be upgraded to suit the occasion, and the team members you bring with you can often change the way you approach certain situations tactically; in later games, the weapons and powers were all streamlined to be so similar that they were basically interchangeable. Here, they have personality and distinctiveness, even if the number of upgrades and weapons and armors are kind of a mess to navigate and manage. Still, having too much freedom to customize is always preferable to having virtually none.
Shepard can be played however you want in terms of abilities and moral flexibility (though decisions usually come down to saving something or shooting it in the face with no middle ground between the two), but deep down he/she is always a badass. Whether you want him/her to be nice or to shoot first and ask questions later, he/she is a rock star among space marines.
Mass Effect is repetitive when it comes to side-missions, driving in the Mako is about as fun as a root canal, and PC versions shipped with some awful texture problems and disgusting DRM tacked on, but the whole thing is still worth playing on an Xbox. It’s one of those games that captures a certain kind of magic, and that’s something that not even the sequels could manage (unless you count space magic, in which case… mission accomplished). If you play them back-to-back-to-back you’ll see that this is clearly the best game in the entire series.
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