No major spoilers.
With the all-but-confirmed upcoming remaster of the original Mass Effect trilogy, I thought it was time to look back at the entire series, beginning with the original 2007 RPG that started it all. A little bit unfortunate on the timing – this is now my second BioWare sci-fi RPG in three articles!
I chose to replay the game on Xbox One via Game Pass. I have it on disk for the 360 and on PC, but I wanted to see if there were any noticeable differences for the Game Pass version. There weren’t, as it’s not “Game Pass Enhanced”, as it were, but I thought why not check anyway – but, yeah, the elevators are just as long as you remember.
For the uninitiated, Mass Effect is an epic science-fiction space opera. Big stories, vast amounts of varied characters, and alien worlds galore. The story revolves around the return of an ancient alien species whose presence threatens all life in the galaxy. You take the role of Commander Shepard, a military leader as you go from planet to planet trying to stop this impending doom with your rag-tag crew.
As always, let’s start with my bias. I’m a big fan of the series. I’ve played through the original Mass Effect trilogy several times throughout the years, most recently in anticipation for Andromeda. That’s creeping up on four years ago, though, so my perspective is somewhat fresh. I’m also a pretty big fan of BioWare RPGs and western RPGs in general. As for this piece, I’m trying to view the game from the angle of a modern gamer picking the game up for the first time, or the first time in a while and whether it would hold their interest.
Since clickbait sucks, I like to do a TLDR before we get into the meat of my opinions. So! Does Mass Effect hold up? Well… it’s complicated. I think I’m going to have to go with a middle-of-the-road answer here. Some parts hold up exceptionally well, and others might be big enough to put off a modern gamer. Some games are truly timeless for a multitude of reasons, but Mass Effect, despite its numerous strengths, I fear will not be one of them for most audiences today. There’s a lot to say, so let’s get into it.
What Holds Up?
In terms of establishing an incredible science-fiction atmosphere, it just doesn’t get better than Mass Effect. That aspect, unequivocally, holds up. I, like many sci-fi fans (i.e. neeeerds), long for a universe that I can explore and learn about. If exploring a sci-fi environment isn’t your thing, that’s totally fine. It’s just not something that needs to appeal to everyone. But, if that’s something you’re interested in, this is a game you need to pick up today.
There just isn’t a game (or series of games) that does sci-fi wish fulfillment like Mass Effect. Do you want a Star Trek-like near-utopia where dozens of advanced, enlightened alien species work together? We’ve got it here. Do you want a crew of interesting characters from a variety of different alien species to command? Check. Do you wish you could explore the galaxy in an awesome spaceship and see alien worlds? Look no further.
Mass Effect is some nerdy-ass stuff, and that’s just not going to appeal to everyone. But this game was clearly a labor of love from people who love sci-fi/fantasy (just look at BioWare’s development history!). Mass Effect is the clear culmination of their ambitions and desires, and it comes through. If cosmology and space exploration are things that appeal to you, Mass Effect is a game that is going that will engross you from the get-go.
The game’s galaxy map, which serves as your portal into the galaxy, is a place where I found myself surprisingly getting sucked into. You can move your starship, the Normandy, from star system to star system. You can access every planet in each system to some degree. For most of them, that’s limited to zooming in on them and reading a couple of paragraphs, but it definitely helps solidify the game’s vast universe. Even if you can’t fully explore it all, knowing that it’s there is interesting. Reading about a frozen little planet in the far reaches of the Milky Way with a small colony of 6,000 scratches my sci-fi fan itch. I’d give anything for an hour with Wikipedia from the year 2200, but this is the next best thing. The level of detail in Mass Effect is superb for a game of its scale.
Sure, you can watch Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, or Firefly all you want, but Mass Effect was the first experience that, at the proper scale, truly let you vicariously experience a sci-fi universe like that. Every sci-fi geek has played or role-played a nerdy sci-fi story, but Mass Effect lets you go through and see the story with your own eyes. And, by making it an RPG, it let you make choices that influenced the world in interesting and impactful ways. In addition, it’s, thankfully, held together by some pretty stellar writing.
As I said in my Knights of the Old Republic retrospective, this era of BioWare is synonymous with masterful storytelling, and Mass Effect is no exception. Yes, the sci-fi wish fulfillment is as good as it gets, as I gushed about in the above paragraphs, but it’s held together by a tightly crafted story populated by an excellent cast of characters.
I adore the plot to the Mass Effect trilogy. I really do. It’s one of my favorite sci-fi stories, in fact. It tackles so many interesting cosmological and philosophical questions. For instance, the plot, without getting too spoiler-y, inadvertently deals with one of the solutions to the Fermi paradox. That’s so cool to me! Even now, nearly fifteen years later, I have yet to play a game or series that handles super nerdy sci-fi like Mass Effect at the scale that it does.
What’s a story without characters? While Commander Shepard is a bit of a flatline (likely by design so that you can imprint yourself onto the character), the cast that supports him/her is excellent. Your crew is comprised of a wide variety of different types of characters, both visually and in regards to their personality, and each character is written very well. You understand their motivations and quirks immediately, and there’s enough variety to each character that assembling the team you want is a thrill.
Non-party supporting characters are also well-represented. Characters like your former mentor David Anderson (voiced by the wonderful Keith David) and grumpy bureaucrat Udina round out a great cast of side characters. This is BioWare at their very best. Most of the top creatives who worked for BioWare in this era have since left the company, but their works will live on and deserve to be experienced by those who appreciate that sort of thing.
As for whether it holds up visually, that’s tough given how subjective that is. I remember being utterly stunned at how the visuals looked in 2007. Obviously, they’re clearly showing their age today, but compared to something like Knights of the Old Republic, which was released only four years prior, it still looks okay. The facial models specifically still look pretty good.
We’ve come a long way in terms of shadows, textures, and particles, and there’s no way that Mass Effect would fool anyone into thinking it was a modern game (my significant other, who knows literally nothing about video games, guessed that the game came out in 2003. Could you imagine?!), but it mostly isn’t a complete eyesore to look at. Take that however you want. There were also a lot of framerate issues and pop-in graphics, but I’m sure playing it on PC (and stuffing in a bunch of mods) will result in a cleaner experience.
In terms of its sounds and sound design, this is a place where the game struggled, even when it was released. The guns don’t sound great, and the general ambiance leaves a lot to be desired. Still, I would be remiss not to compliment the (mostly) great voice acting. I’m also a big fan of the score. It’s a very classic-sounding synth score, evoking sci-fi films and TV shows from the ’70s and ’80s. The game itself borrows a lot of its themes, ideas, and style from that era of sci-fi, so it works great.
What Doesn’t Hold Up?
The biggest problems with Mass Effect are its gameplay and some of the RPG elements related to the gameplay. I would compare Mass Effect‘s strengths and weaknesses a lot with Knights of the Old Republic. As described in the above section, the stuff that I feel works excellently in Mass Effect has to do with its writing. Great characters, great side stories, all wrapped up in a tense, lofty science-fiction story. I can’t overstate this enough – that aspect of the game holds up incredibly well. But the issues are real. Let’s start with the gameplay.
When I can’t tell if the game I’m playing is difficult or just incredibly clunky, there’s a problem. I chose to play the game on a fresh file on normal difficulty just to get through it at a steady pace. I tried my very best to tear off the rose-tinted glasses that had sewn themselves to my face and see what I was playing from a fresh perspective, and boy, does the gameplay just not hold up. I mean, for what it’s worth, the gameplay wasn’t exactly top-of-the-line material when it launched back in ’07, but boy, this type of material would not fly in a AAA title in 2020.
The third-person shooting is awkward and sluggish. There’s very little weight to your shooting, either. I mean, they’re lasers, I get it, but even a shot from your sniper rifle feels like you’re shooting spitballs. There are some attempts to make the shooting challenging – things like severe weapon sway when you ADS with your sniper or your crosshair ballooning faster than the inflation period of the early universe when you fire two shots from your assault rifle – but putting artificial barriers to combat doesn’t add the level of depth that the combat needs. Notably, whether you hit an enemy with your bullets is determined by RNG, not direct aiming, which adds another bizarre (and unnecessary, as future titles in the series got rid of this system) component to the combat. You also have a few powers in the form of your biotic and tech abilities, but even they feel unrefined and not particularly satisfying.
Typical battles entail standard cover-based shooting at other humanoids stuffed with not-particularly-smart AI. There’s a decent amount of enemy variety, but nothing to write home about. Some enemies will have rockets, others snipers, some have more shields than others – standard stuff. Not great in the moment, but there is a certain level of effort there that’s noticeable.
There’s also just a lot of clunky stuff from a game design standpoint. In my recent playthrough, there were a couple of instances where I died and lost hours of progress due to the game’s truly abysmal checkpoint/auto-save feature. If you were to take away anything from this piece before you play or replay the game, it would be to save often.
Even some of the things that I felt hold up well have some issues. For instance, I talked about how great of a sci-fi simulator the game is. I really enjoy the game’s galaxy map. However, most planets that you can explore (outside of the (generally solid) main story-mission planets) are barren, rocky wastelands that you drive around on with the Mako, your (controversial) ground-based vehicle. They might have a singular base on them that has a tiny, generally identical interior with a few enemies to fight, but the experience is, frankly, kind of lame. In terms of wish fulfillment, it’s cool landing on other planets and exploring them, but there’s just so little to do that it’ll likely bore even the most hardcore sci-fi nerd.
It’s worth noting that these gameplay issues are completely fixed come Mass Effect 2. I won’t get too deep into it (DIHU for it coming soon!), but just about everything I’m complaining about here in regards to the combat and planetary exploration is rectified in the sequel.
In my Demon’s Souls retrospective, I mentioned how it has the rather unfounded reputation of being a rough draft to its big brother Dark Souls. While not an accurate representation of that particular series, I definitely got that vibe in my revisit of Mass Effect. According to lead gameplay designer Christina Norman, they focused entirely on gameplay first when developing Mass Effect 2, starting essentially from scratch (though using Mass Effect 1 as a baseline) and adding any RPG elements later.
As for me personally, I found that I just generally ignore the gameplay when I play Mass Effect. In fact, during my replay of the game for this piece, I caught myself rushing through the gameplay just to get to the next planet or story beat. The gameplay should not feel like a chore to be rewarded with a cutscene or new vista. Those aspects can help make a gaming experience better, certainly, but they should not be the entire experience themselves (obviously there are exceptions to this rule. Don’t jump down my throat, fellow Firewatch fans!).
You can have all the great worldbuilding, characters, and atmosphere you want, but at the end of the day, this is a video game. The game part of that is important for most people. As I described in my positives section of this retrospective, Mass Effect is the ultimate sci-fi simulator – I just think that that’ll have a relatively limited appeal today.
In 2007, when an experience like Mass Effect (as I’ve said before, at its scale) was fresh, I could see it having a more broad appeal. But now, fifteen years and many, many excellent RPGs that blend story and gameplay much better later, I can see a lot of people being turned off by how clunky the gameplay is. That’s why I have to give this game a general thumbs down in terms of holding up. That said, if you are looking for a great sci-fi simulator, this is definitely a game to pick up, even today.
This is also an RPG, and, unfortunately, there are a lot of issues with this aspect of the game as well. There is some good, certainly, but the negatives outweigh the positives. I like that there are a few ways to play the game. You can be a gun-slinging soldier, but you can also focus on biotic abilities, which are sort of like magic powers, and tech abilities, which allow you to use various forms of technology in combat.
I didn’t think I would get to this point this early on in this project, but here we are. I wanted to make a definitive statement with each piece, but man, I just couldn’t bring myself to for this one. It’s basically a coin flip for me. I think some people will still get a lot out of it and enjoy it, and the other half of the population just won’t.
There’s a lot of detail to Mass Effect. There are plenty of excellent sci-fi books, tv shows, and movies to experience, but something about you yourself moving through a fascinating science-fiction world has an appeal that only a video game can provide. Even now, nearly fifteen years later, I loved walking up to a big window and seeing the Citadel, the hub for the Mass Effect world’s central government body, in all its futuristic glory and just imaging what could be going on out there. If you’re a fan of science-fiction, there’s a level of wish fulfillment in Mass Effect unlike any other. You get to be the captain of an awesome spaceship with an awesome crew. You get to experience a grand, far-reaching sci-fi story.
As a futurist and lover of sci-fi myself, it just doesn’t get better than this series in terms of atmosphere and worldbuilding in a science-fiction setting. But, as a video game, its shortcomings, ironically, will likely tower over the rest of the experience for most gamers today. So, as I said at the start of this piece, I’m sort of pulled in two different directions on as to whether or not the game holds up today.
The gameplay and RPG elements in general just do not. They were clunky even back in 2007. It’s just not a fun video game to play. Now, not every video game needs to be Super Mario Bros. 3, but the awkwardness might, understandably, be a dealbreaker for a lot of people. But, if you’re in the somewhat limited pool of people who want an excellent simulation of a sci-fi universe to explore, this is a series you need to play, starting with the original.