There are a number of games that have been on my radar for a long time that I just haven’t quite gotten around to. I’m just putting the finishing touches on Red Dead Redemption for the first time, I recently posted my review following my first-time playthrough of Bioshock, I have another review for both Grand Theft Auto IV and Super Mario World on the way and the Ratchet and Clank trilogy is on the horizon. But ever since I first experienced Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare’s Mass Effect series has been at the top of my list of must-plays. And now finally, after years of anticipation, I got my hands on the PS3 trilogy and played through the first game. Despite a few rocky moments, there’s no doubt that Mass Effect was worth the wait.
There is so much to unpack about the introduction to arguably the most well-realized universe this side of George Lucas; Mass Effect kicks your ass from the first moment you take control of Commander Shepard as the robotic Geth invade at the hands of the double-crossing Spectre Saren. The combat systems are unforgiving, leveling up doesn’t often provide that instantaneous feeling of satisfaction and progression, and the story starts off slow after its initial shockwave as Shepard is tasked with recruiting his crew for the Normandy and spends the next hour or two wandering around the Citadel, a centralized location in the galaxy that serves as a melting pot of all of the space-faring races straight from the masterminds of the BioWare team. But Mass Effect also provides a wondrous sense of exploration and vastness from the moment Shepard is granted the rank of Spectre and set loose with his ship, the Normandy, to explore the cosmos and take down Saren in any way he (or she) sees fit with a squad of unique and interesting characters at his back. I will never forget the overwhelming feeling I felt when I realized that I could travel to such a gigantic number of planets in what seems like nearly innumerable star systems across the Milky Way. Yet the experience is also grounded with a sense of authenticity that few others can match. And with a story full of twists, tragedies, blockbuster moments and shocking revelations, it all comes together to create an almost perfect package. But there are two key issues that hold Mass Effect back from being the pinnacle of my gaming experiences.
The first is regarding the combat. Frankly, crafting satisfying battles has never been BioWare’s strong suit and their move from the turn-based combat of Knights of the Old Republic to third-person running and gunning was not seamless. Firefights can begin and end on a moment’s notice and enemies are armed with powerful weapons and astonishing precision from the get-go. I found myself struggling early with the legions of enemies that I came up against, particularly in one sequence involving a Krogan Battlemaster boss that sent my ass to the loading screen time and time again. This difficulty is compounded by a pretty steep character building curve; by the time you recognize which abilities or biotic powers (force-like abilities that allow you to push or levitate enemies at will) reign supreme, you may have already invested significantly in weaker skills and find yourself racing to play catch-up. I found this to be much less troublesome in the end-game when my Shepard had become a master of the all-powerful lift ability with his pistol proficiency leveled to deadly heights, but I will never forget the early frustrations I had with this system.
My second main criticism is more minor, but still present; for a universe as massive as Mass Effect’s there is a surprising lack of depth to investigating the impressive number of planets dotting it. Almost every location is made up of vast mountain ranges that are difficult to traverse in the crew’s Mako (love the name) ATV and contain destinations with cookie-cutter interiors and insignificant developments. I found myself traveling to all of the side worlds more out of obligation than sincere interest, particularly as the narrative ramped up and the game hurtled toward its action-packed close. Even the individual crew member missions are forgettable at best, a real shame considering the connection you come to feel with each of Shepard’s squad mates.
These gripes hold Mass Effect back from perfection but are by no means damning enough to warrant an overlook. Mass Effect is a hugely ambitious game that, I’m hoping gave way to even more satisfying sequels, but it succeeds on its own merit thanks to its remarkable authenticity, intriguing characters, engaging dialog system, difficult and significantly game-altering choices, and a gripping narrative that will stick with me for years to come.