Mass Effect and the joy of exploring strange new worlds

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What I love about the Mass Effect series is that feeling of being in command of my own starship. Wandering the decks of the Normandy, talking to the crew as I decide what exciting space adventure to have next, I’ve never felt more like Kirk or Picard. But while this sense of ownership and freedom is present in all three games, it’s only the original Mass Effect that makes me feel like I’m really exploring space. The Mako has a bad reputation, but I’ve always had a soft spot for it. When I land on those alien worlds, bouncing around on the surface, I feel like I’m exploring an uncharted cosmos, rather than just triggering missions on the galaxy map

OK, so most of the planets are barren and rocky, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to see. Some of the vistas are beautiful, their burning blue suns, ancient pyramids, mystical monoliths, and horizon-dwarfing moons all reminding you that you are very far from home. The universe could be a lot more detailed and vibrant, but it’s an enjoyable aside to the main story. You don’t have to explore all these planets to finish the game, but there are some interesting rewards for doing so.

My favourite secret is on Eletania in the Attican Beta cluster. If you have the trinket from the Asari Consort mission, you’ll be able to activate an alien ruin on the surface of the planet. This gives Shepard a vision in which he’s a primitive human on Earth thousands of years ago, being observed by a strange creature made of ‘shining silver’ that ‘flies without wings’. The implication here is that the Protheans were studying humans long before we developed space travel. They could never have guessed that an ancestor of one of those cavemen would, thousands of generations later, become a key player in the destruction of the Reapers and avenge the Prothean extinction.

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On the planet Ontarom in the Kepler Verge you find a herd of four-legged, two-armed alien cows, one of which the game labels as ‘shifty looking cow.’ Turn your back on it and you’ll notice you start losing credits. You can kill it, but it’ll respawn and you won’t get your credits back. It’s this kind of incident that makes space exploration fun for me, even if they are few and far between. For every neat Easter egg there are ten caves filled with Geth, slavers or other space-jerks.

Another memorable moment is flying to the Moon and seeing the Earth looming over you. In the Mass Effect universe a trip to the Moon is probably like taking a bus two stops down the road, but for us it’s a distance we can understand, which hammers home the point that, wow, I’m in space. Just don’t look at the sprite for too long or you’ll realise that it’s the wrong way around. Some Mass Effect novel probably retcons this, saying that the Earth was flipped with magical space-lasers to stop the reversal of the Gulf Stream or something. Hey, why am I not writing these spin-off books? That’s gold.

On the planet Ontarom in the Kepler Verge you find a herd of four-legged, two-armed alien cows.

Playing Mass Effect again, I realise how much more control I have compared to the sequels. When I finished it the first time and moved on to Mass Effect 2, I missed being able to manage my inventory and mod my armour. The newer games are definitely slicker to play, but the RPG elements were either sidelined or heavily simplified. Combat is dramatically worse in the original, but I never felt like I could customise Shepard or his party to the same satisfying degree again. Being able to mix and match armour upgrades depending on the type of enemy you’re about to face is really handy. For example, installing the shock absorber mod to stop those pesky biotics from knocking you on your arse.

Although the original game is still fun, some things haven’t aged that well. Those slow, boring elevator rides between areas are as deeply tedious as they were before, but I did enjoy the way BioWare poked fun at it in Mass Effect 2: “Ever miss those talks we had on the elevator?” asks Garrus. “No,” replies Tali, curtly. Brilliant.

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It’s not as handsome as Mass Effect 3, but I still love the way it looks. The cinematic noise filter gives the visuals grit and texture. This is not the gleaming, perfect future we’re used to seeing in games. It’s understated, stylish and lived-in, taking its cues from classic ’60s and ’70s science fiction films such as 2001, Alien, Silent Running and Solaris. It does a great job of drawing you into its mythology, and it’s one of the few games that I’m totally invested in—yeah, even after the ending of Mass Effect 3. I liked that before they caved in to angry internet pressure and released the Wayne’s World-style ‘mega happy ending’ as DLC.

In each game the interior of the Normandy has a different feel. In the original, which is my favourite of the three, it’s much darker and more atmospheric than Cerberus’s orange-tinged refit, and the less said about Mass Effect 3’s messy corridors the better. But the layout is always vaguely the same, and the ship has become one of my favourite videogame places. The fact that it’s my ship only makes it more special. Seeing it destroyed by the Collectors at the beginning of the second game was a sad moment, and cleverly made veterans of the original even more determined to exact revenge upon the insectoid cads.

Mass Effect is regarded by most as an RPG, but I think of it more like a totally competent third-person shooter saved by being attached to a brilliantly dramatic space opera. I really care about these characters, and this bond only gets stronger as I repeatedly save the galaxy alongside them in the next two games. It’s not quite a masterpiece of storytelling, but it is confidently written, well acted, and set in a rich, fleshed-out universe. A new game is already in the works at BioWare Montreal, and I’m not sure what direction they’ll take it in, but the first game still holds up on PC if you feel like reliving the trilogy.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.