Five Star Re-Review: Mass Effect – The Best One, Really

When I first played Mass Effect, it felt more like a pilot episode than a game. I had all three titles in the wonderful N7 Edition bundle, but this was nothing like the smooth cover shooting, alien shagging adventure I was promised. It was slower, clunkier, and duller. Or so I thought.

Revisiting the series once again, I can appreciate the game on its own merits. When you’re not speeding through to get to the next game, Mass Effect is not only a fantastic introduction to the galaxy, but a brilliant game in its own right. If you’re a weird RPG boomer like me, you might even find yourself agreeing that this is the best entry in the series. Yes, even better than Mass Effect 2.

This is largely down to its differences from its sequels – as divisive as they can be. Being from the mid-’00s, it came at a time when BioWare hadn’t yet shed its turn-based RPG past. While it’s a third-person shooter as well as a BioWare game, that’s really the worst way to play it. Instead, I treated it like Baldur’s Gate.

Here, good aim and reflexes were not my friends. It’s all about the abilities. Forget telling your crew who to shoot at, just make sure they’re strategically placed to get the most out of their particular build. Oh, and make sure you’ve spent at least 20 minutes in the menu before the mission, micromanaging everyone’s inventory. Oh, I live for this.

You also feel this uniqueness that sets it apart from the other two Mass Effects and other titles in the genre in the game’s tone. Before the events of Mass Effect 2, Shepard still has a lot to prove. They’re an above-average soldier, sure, but still a soldier that has to operate within a set hierarchy and bureaucracy. And unlike Mass Effect 2, it doesn’t feel like this bureaucracy is being scoffed at wherever you look.

In Mass Effect, Paragon doesn’t mean you’re nice, and Renegade doesn’t make you an asshole – it’s all about your adherence to rules, and when you’re willing to stretch them. A Paragon Shep will play nice with the council, believing it would be unwise to throw the rulebook out and risk becoming just as bad as Saren. Yet they’ll let the professionalism drop around their crew, encouraging them to voice their disagreements and share their anxieties. Inversely, a Renegade will just want to get the job done. They’ll pull rank when it suits them – like getting their squad in line – but bend the rules when they get in the way of saving the galaxy.

Better yet, this divide is felt in smaller moments, too. Shepard’s personality changes how they view the universe as a whole. When you, Ashley and Kaidan race to the window to catch a glimpse of the Citadel, do you see a celebration of diversity, or a seat at the table that humanity has been denied? In the calm before the storm, we have time to contemplate these things.

This extends into the Normandy, which is far from the glamour of the second, Cerberus-funded model in the next game. It’s military through and through, and it was just unlucky enough to find itself thrust into the political spotlight. When you walk the halls, speaking to your surprisingly grounded crew, you’re far from the godlike figure you become during the Reaper war – and it’s fantastic.

Even so, Mass Effect as a series will always be remembered for its big set pieces, and that’s not without reason. But fans owe it to themselves to go back and find the beauty in the calm, as well as the chaos. The subtlety of long, extended conversations with your crewmates is just as engaging as the explosion-filled loyalty missions in the second game. Some of Mass Effect’s best moments come when everything slows down, and there’s no better example of that than the entirety of the first game.

In the discussions on old BioWare vs new BioWare, we often neglect the games stuck in the middle. The ones that were caught in the transition phase, a fusion of classic RPG challenge, and the accessibility of more modern games in the genre. Dragon Age: Origins, for example, is often ignored in favour of its flashier threequel, Inquisition. Jade Empire is locked out of the conversation altogether.

Despite being among these underappreciated greats, no game from this period perfected the marrying of these two different gaming philosophies better than the first Mass Effect. It’s slow, it’s thoughtful, and it’s exactly what it needs to be. It’s a beautiful mash-up of genres, and one we’ll never see again.

When I think of the end of Shepard’s journey, I think of their final conversation with Captain Anderson. Two soldiers, bleeding out after battling an enemy hellbent on galactic destruction. The lives of billions in your hands as you lose the man who has been your father figure throughout this entire journey. And then I think back to Shepard, Ashley, and Kaidan watching the traffic in the Citadel. They’re so far from the Reaper threat that they’re in awe of the number of people in this single lineup of spaceships. Mass Effect will always be about sci-fi wish fulfilments, but part of that fulfilment is the incalculable grandness of space, and how you place yourself in a universe so much bigger than you will ever know. The first Mass Effect knows this, and it cannot be overlooked.

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