Launching five years after its original Xbox 360 debut, Mass Effect has finally landed on the PlayStation 3, completing the series' sci-fi trilogy on Sony's console. However, the title's late arrival places it in an awkward position, destined to be judged against the sequels it spawned. Has the classic aged gracefully? Not entirely.
Mass Effect tells the story of Shepard’s first mission as a Spectre, in which he or she must track down and stop Saren – another Spectre – who’s gone rogue. It’s a character driven plot that has numerous twists and turns – although the pacing at times feels off, especially near the beginning of the game. Get past the initial grind however, and Mass Effect’s story proves to be very engaging. It’s arguably the series’ best stand-alone tale, and it’s capped off by a superb conclusion.
BioWare’s talent for quality writing is evident throughout the game. From Shepard’s own speech to the most humble alien's, the dialogue is engrossing, and it’s made more entertaining thanks to the superb voice acting across the board. It’s also worth mentioning that Mass Effect probably features the most dialogue options in the trilogy – something that was significantly shaved down by the third instalment. These options allow you to shape your character’s personality by merely interacting with other characters. While the first game isn’t quite as cinematic as its sequels in this respect, the expanded dialogue gives it a more personal feel.
The voice work brings the many characters of Mass Effect to life, and those who have played the sequels will love seeing the origins of familiar faces such as Garrus and Wrex. Unlike the other games in the trilogy, though, Shepard’s entire squad is gathered relatively early in the game, giving you less time to get acquainted with each of them before they’re hurried onto the Normandy. Meanwhile, other characters like Donnel Udina and David Anderson – the Normandy’s pervious captain – get far more screen time and character development in Mass Effect than they do elsewhere in the series.
Unfortunately, recommending Mass Effect to PlayStation 3 users isn’t that easy – especially if you’ve already played the sequels. While there’s no doubt that the first game completes the trilogy in many meaningful ways, the gameplay is a stark reminder of how far the series has progressed since 2007.
It’s safe to say that every action-based gameplay mechanic in Mass Effect is a mess by today’s standards. Movement – especially when in combat – is clunky, unresponsive, and often nauseating due to a shaky third person camera. Gunplay fares even worse. Instead of reloading, weapons overheat and lose accuracy when fired for prolonged amounts of time. This mechanic makes many fire fights feel like you have almost no control over your own aim, and trying to make use of the near-hopeless cover system just compounds the problem further. It’s clear that BioWare were attempting to create something outside of their comfort zone.
On the other hand, Mass Effect’s poor shooting means you’ll often have to rely on powers. Each squad mate comes with their own set of powers – some unique and some shared with other characters. From biotic barrages to tech attacks, there’s a wide array of skills to master – and using them in battle allows for some deceptively deep, tactical gameplay. It’s a style of combat that feels like it was pulled straight from a traditional RPG, a genre the developer is more familiar with. Thankfully, it’s just enough to distract you from the unruly gunplay, making the combat at least bearable.
The RPG elements don’t stop there, either. The first game offers up an abundance of skill trees and loot drops to keep track of, and it often becomes a chore doing so. Opening containers and killing enemies yield immense amounts of loot, including new guns, armour, and mods that can be applied to either. Organizing and equipping this new equipment can take up far too much time thanks to an over-complex menu system, although the hardcore RPG crowd will no doubt love it.
Meanwhile, skill trees are huge, and you’ll be looking at them plenty since Shepard and his squad appear to level up so fast. While there aren’t any branching paths like those found in the third game, managing limited skill points is just as crucial. Levelling up your squad is an addictive experience with so many points to distribute, and many skills become overpowered with enough development. It gives the game a downward difficulty curve, but the sense of empowerment in later combat is satisfying nonetheless.
When it comes to enemies, Mass Effect doesn’t boast much variety. You’ll encounter a staggering amount of geth, most of which are your standard cover-using grunts. Outside of killer synthetics, however, the game does feature numerous boss fights – something its sequels mostly missed out on. These fights are some of the most memorable moments in the game, and they provide a real kick to a lot of the otherwise bleak action missions.
And there are plenty of missions. When travelling to locations from the galaxy map, you’ll sometimes receive incoming messages from Alliance command asking for assistance. These missions range from shutting down rogue AIs to taking out groups of smugglers. Each assignment has its own narrative, but they generally boil down to the same thing. They’re also hampered by recycled environments – it’s hard to have fun exploring the same warehouse for the tenth time.
Thankfully, the main story missions fare much better. They’re all extremely in-depth and lengthy, and feature plenty of side missions that add even more context to the plot. Usually these large chunks of the game are split into two parts – exploration and action. When you first arrive at the target location, Shepard and squad have to gather information from inhabitants and explore the surrounding area. From here, it’s usually a short trip in the Mako – a vehicle best described as a moon rover on steroids – to the nearest abandoned facility or ancient ruin in order to blow up some baddies.
The Mako itself is a cumbersome beast. It controls sluggishly, although arguably this is how a six-wheeled space tank should feel. The environments you’ll be taking it through are uninspired and empty, and trying to shoot turret defences with the Mako’s assortment of weapons usually makes the standard combat look good by comparison. It’s another element of gameplay that was completely removed from the sequels – barring Mass Effect 2’s hammerhead DLC missions – and it comes as no surprise. Exploration is considered to be a staple of the RPG genre, but the Mako rides only serve to detach from the experience.
Aesthetically Mass Effect is a mixed bag. There are plenty of brilliant character designs, and the art direction – while nowhere near as stylised as Mass Effect 2 – is pleasing to the eye. These aspects are let down by some poor graphics, though. Muddy textures are all too common and environments are consistently bland. It’s also a shock to see so many canned character animations from Mass Effect 2 and 3 appear here for the first time – embarrassingly it’s one aspect where the series has failed to evolve.
Where Mass Effect lacks a sense of atmosphere, it makes up for it in the audio department. As previously mentioned, the voice acting is superb, but the soundtrack steals the show. Mass Effect 2 players may recognise many of the songs that could be played in Shepard’s quarters, but hearing them in the context of the original game is joyous. The music itself is a relatively far departure from the orchestral scores that followed it – it’s mostly made up of electronic synth and menacing techno beats – but it’s unique and complements what’s happening on screen brilliantly.
Mass Effect’s gameplay is unashamedly stuck in 2007. It’s unpolished, frustrating, and much of it feels unnecessary. Fortunately, the plot and writing are enough to carry the experience. If you've already dipped into either of the series' superior sequels, prepare for a learning curve if you absolutely must explore the franchise's roots.