Gameplay. This will be the largest section. Honestly, it’s hard to go backwards. While the second and third ME games were excellent and comparable, the first game has significant differences, and I have to admit my review will be influenced by that. The gameplay is similar in that it’s third-person, but the movement was pretty sluggish for me, and the combat seemed antiquated. The interface isn’t that sleek, using any biotics takes a while to launch which at first led me to attempting to use the same power multiple times before I realized what was going on. The directional controls can be used to direct your squad mates to specific areas, and I found it counter-intuitive compared to what I was used to. Even if I hadn’t played ME2 or 3 I think it would still be tough to learn. I’m used to hitting left to command one squadmate and right to command the other, and here the former makes them rally around you and the latter to attack your target. You can launch mines at enemies by sliding them along the floor at them; it wasn’t exactly easy to judge the distance and half the time I’d slide it right past them and detonate it harmlessly past the enemies I was aiming for, or I would hit the detonate button before or after the “magic window” and it wouldn’t go off at all.
The very worst part of ME1–by far–was decrypting items, which essentially is the equivalent of opening locked chests. ME2 has mini-games for bypassing or hacking terminals and they never really bothered me, however over half the boxes/crates in the first game have some kind of decryption on them that opens up a mini-game, and the mini-game is a nightmare. I’ve since learned that the PC has a different mini-game than the Xbox or PS3 versions of this game, so perhaps that version was better, but in my version there is a Simon-Says type of game where buttons would highlight and the player has to hit them in the order highlighted to open up or access the whatever-it-is. I’m going to give more detail here because this is by far the single most frustrating, maddening thing in the game. You have to input the pattern so fast that you will fail about half the time, and you only get one shot to get it right. Let me be clear, it’s not that you are shown a pattern and have to repeat it, it’s that you are shown one button at a time and have about 1/10 of a second to input it before the second button is highlighted. Easy decrypts means correctly pressing three buttons in a row, medium decrypt is five and hard decrypts are seven. IT got to the point I would actually would get nervous every time I came to any crate in the game, would save the game, and would have to reload about 70% of the time. Frequently I would have to reload multiple times. This is the primary reason why after beating the game on paragon I waited almost nine months before playing it again, it’s a horrible experience. There is an option for using omni-gel (which will automatically unlock a crate) but it’s a finite resource for the first half the game as to get some you have to break down any equipment you have or find. So the choice is either automatically unlocking a crate (saving yourself frustration) or selling what you have for desperately-needed credits. Don’t think you can have an easier time by setting the game on Easy either, it makes no difference. I have to admit I’ve fantasized about writing this very paragraph since last year, that’s how big an impact it had on me, especially during my first playthrough.I’d be remiss in analyzing gameplay without discussing the Mako. The Mako is an all-terrain vehicle that is used to explore every planet you land on, and is an integral part of the game in general. It’s been the source of significant disagreement, as some people love it and others flat-out hate it. I have to admit, on my first playthrough I did not like it at all due to the handling and trying to negotiate the crazy terrain of planet after planet. On my second playthrough though I didn’t mind it as much–I knew what I was getting into, and it would occasionally be fun to drive my Mako off the side of a huge cliff and actively try to turn it upside down (it won’t). Of course my second time through I didn’t feel the need to be as thorough, so I wasn’t spending as much time in it.
The other thing that cannot be omitted is elevators, and everyone who’s played ME1 knows exactly what I mean. The designers must have needed a way to give the game enough time to load between areas because there are elevators everywhere in this game, they take a long time and you cannot get away from them. To their credit the writers tried to entertain us a little by having party members banter with each other, or hearing news reports which occasionally lead to side quests, but really it gets old after a while. There are elevators of some sort in ME2 and 3 (they’re actually cool-looking load screens), but I think what makes it worse in the first game is the player just has to sit there and watch the characters ride the elevator. You ever watch someone ride an elevator several dozen times?
This is an RPG though, and it’s the most RPG-like of all the Mass Effect games. Experience points gain you levels, and how you level up your particular Commander Shepard is very customizable, which I liked. There are a host of talents you can develop based on your class, and even specialization classes you can take as well! Acquiring a specialization class in-game really makes no sense for the story itself, you just do a particular mission and then to your surprise you are granted one. Still, it’s cool as you gain additional abilities, just as you do when you become the first human Spectre, which is also very cool. In the second and third games being a Spectre is practically an afterthought, but here it’s special.
While some of the assignments (side missions) are cool, many more you just grind through: “Go find 7 Prothean Data Discs, scattered around the galaxy,” “go find 13 Turian insignias scattered throughout the galaxy,” “go find 10 League of One medallions scattered throughout the galaxy.” The rewards for doing those particular assignments are pathetic. Doing other ones are sometimes very enjoyable, but the design of the structures you tend to enter are repetitive. One thing that does really come up short is the design of many of the planetary buildings entered on your missions or assignments. I’m not kidding, you enter dozens of them if you do most of the side quests, and the designers just reused two or three layouts again and again. There are some areas that are tunnels and others where you are on a starship, but these are laid out very similarly as well. This stung because of the incredibly varied environments and structures in ME2, so I have to admit that was a letdown. Mass Effect is lonelier than it’s sequels, you’ll spend a lot of time driving over barren planets to find one tiny building, or a small cluster of buildings all by themselves. It’s pretty realistic, as you are often visiting distant outposts. This still occurs in ME2 and 3, but visiting those kinds of worlds are a vast improvement in the sequels.Graphics. The graphics are dated compared to the later entries, but still I think they look pretty darn good. The Citadel looks great and so do the character models. In fact for its time this game was downright beautiful, and some environments, particularly those of Virmire and Ilos, still look impressive. One loading screen shows the Normandy cruising through space blue-shifting and red-shifting, and it’s absolutely gorgeous–even more gorgeous than the comparable load screen in ME2. The Citadel itself was one of my favorite areas on ME2 and 3, so it was exciting to see new parts of it, such as the Krogan statue or the tower where the council meets, however for the most part things look somewhat empty, as if you’re in a house that’s very sparsely furnished. You navigate the galaxy using a gorgeous galaxy map on board your ship, and this was so successfully implemented that it continues essentially unchanged throughout the series. A tiny nitpick is that all the locations in the galaxy are on the “east” side, the other side is empty, which I thought was weird. Nobody said “hey let’s put some locations here too?” Having said that the textures on most surfaces (especially the characters) were terrific and cutting edge for their time, I don’t have a lot to complain about here.
Story. The story is great! I won’t go over the story in detail, but I suppose a short summary wouldn’t hurt. Mass Effect takes place in 2183, space travel in the galaxy is made possible by Mass Relays that slingshot ships from relay to relay. The protagonist, Commander Shepard, is a human who is sent to recover a beacon built by the Protheans, an ancient, dead race believed to have constructed the mass relays. While there he encounters Saren, a rogue Spectre agent who activates the beacon before leaving. Shepard sees a monstrous ship of unknown design in the sky, and gets sent visions of war and death by the beacon. Upon returning to the Citadel, he is unable to convince the Council (a conglomerate body of alien governments) of Saren’s treason, or the existence of an unknown alien race.
The primary villain, Saren, is working with the big baddies of the galaxy, the Reapers, and he commands the Geth, a race of artificial life forms who view the Reapers as gods. Indeed Mass Effect 1 is largely fought against the Geth.
You chase after Saren from planet to planet, not quite sure what he’s after, and when you finally do find his base you have to sacrifice one of your squad mates and possibly kill another in the process. The side quests introduce quite a bit of flavor to the Mass Effect universe, not the least of which is Cerberus, which becomes a major part of ME2 and 3. You get to make some pretty epic decisions, and can even affect the balance of power in the galaxy at the end. There are themes of racism and bigotry against alien races, not to mention other aliens’ feelings about humans, but the overarching theme here is man-vs-machine. It’s not my favorite story of all the ME games but Saren is a great villain and not a cookie cutter one either–you never quite sympathize with him, but by the end you can understand why he made the decisions he did, they just turned out to be the wrong ones.
ME1 sets the trend here by having you fight an enemy while the Reapers remain in the background. It’s not until ME3 that the primary enemy are the actual Reapers, which to me is good pacing. The lone Reaper, Sovereign, is a god-like figure and your first encounter with him on Virmire is downright awesome and sets up the action in the following two games well. One oft-mentioned problem though is that many players either complained or just plain quit on the Citadel in the beginning. You are made a Spectre–which is awesome–but then you have a large amount of things to do on the huge, confusing Citadel before going and doing anything and it was a big turn off. This was a legitimate criticism, and honestly I just used the Wiki to get through it.Characters. Character development is a strength of the Mass Effect series, and this is a great start. Your background plays the biggest role here, as there are specific subquests based on it. I love those kinds of touches! You are already an N7, indicating the highest level of proficiency in the special forces, and you get to become the first Human Spectre, a kind of super-agent for the Citadel and a big chunk of the galaxy, and you are essentially above the law. Your companions are all pretty interesting, and my favorite is Wrex. That dude is cool, full of attitude, and within 30 seconds you know exactly what kind of a guy he is. I also got to see his transformation as he went from a gun-for-hire to a future leader of his people, which was wonderful.
Garrus is surprisingly bland in comparison with the truly excellent character he becomes in subsequent games, and you are in more of a position to shape his attitudes. Joker is also kind of bland too, in that he really didn’t do much, and only had an occasional comment throughout the game–still, his recognizable personality is there, if a bit nascent. Liara is such a kid, at least she came across that way to me, having been exposed to her only in her later appearances where she’s extremely competent–here she is a wide-eyed, bookish nerd which I actually found endearing. Tali seems pretty much the same here as ME2 & 3, and I’m realizing she didn’t change a lot throughout the series. Kaidan and Ashley are both pretty interesting but neither was particularly compelling for me.
Saren is great, but honestly I wish I’d seen more of him; you only interact with him about three times in the whole game which is something of a shame, especially in comparison with the Illusive Man later on in ME2. Matriarch Benezia, who it turns out is Liara’s mom, is almost an afterthought–she doesn’t do much for me. It’s a shame because there could have been a lot more there, but you know almost nothing about her until you finally fight her.
I have to say a word about Navigator Pressly. He’s essentially #2 on the Normandy, and the guy is the most useless character in the entire game. He’s there on the bridge the whole time and you literally can have two conversations with him, total. He has no personality and serves no purpose, he comes across as an idea the writers had for a character but then decided not to use. It actually bugs me that he’s in the game. Engineer Adams also doesn’t really have anything to do or say. I suppose he was written in because there’s always a Chief Engineer on Star Trek, but it’s not until ME2 that engineers become interesting.
Overall Impression and Recommendations. I have mixed feelings. There was some nostalgia in going back and watching the universe develop and take shape, and ME1 does a great job of this. I also loved seeing characters that I knew and learning how they got started and introduced. Another big reason I wanted to play it was obviously to get a more complete picture of the Mass Effect universe, and I feel I’ve gotten that now: when a character mentions Noveria, Feros, Virmire or Ilos I know exactly what they are referring to, they were blank pages to me previously. Another perk to playing through ME1 is that you can get additional characters (Conrad Verner!) and plot decisions come through an import into ME2 and even ME3 and that’s a big selling point for me, and is ultimately what led me to make a second journey through ME1. This game is very much open, and the second game follows suit which is nice.
Having said that, would I recommend this game to someone who was in my situation and had played the latter two games but never played the first one? I honestly don’t know if I would. In spite of what I did get out of it, for the casual player there are too many cons: using the Mako, the combat, the Citadel issues, the elevators, the somewhat boring side missions and of course the ubiquitous decryption issues. Overall it’s a very well-done game and the themes, characters and plot are excellent, but it’s not one I will be returning to anytime soon.