MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE GAME BELOW PLEASE DO NOT SPOIL THIS MAGNIFICENT GAME FOR YOURSELF
Released in late 2007, Mass Effect was another science fiction AAA-blockbuster dropped into an industry saturated by contemporary big-budget shooters like Gears of War, Halo 3 and Half-Life 2: Episode 2. While Mass Effect came from an established studio with what was surely a blockbuster budget, it eschewed industry powerhouse trends in favor of a character-focused story and one of the most pure distillations of role-playing in popular games.
Exploration is at the heart of every good RPG. Humanity is so new to the galaxy, and the player to the Mass Effect universe. In a way, the player learns as Shepard does, about alien races and their cultures, conflicts and forgotten civilizations. There’s a galaxy to explore in the first game with desolate planets to land on with the Mako and a delicious plot to uncover.
Mass Effect’s biggest strength is its faith in its universe and the characters within. Its self-confidence releases the player with little guidance into a game with hours of content to see. Even the planets that compose the game’s main plot are tackled at the player’s discretion or delayed in favor of side quests.
A couple hours into the game, Shepard is given the magic ticket to go anywhere and do anything in the galaxy: Spectre status. As a Spectre, the resources of the galactic government are at his or her disposal. A state-of-the-art ship and a penchant for convincing aliens to join the crew, means there’s always a surprise around the corner.
Shepard finds a raving fan, deals with an agenda journalist, stops a consort from leaking politician secrets and brings three aliens onto his crew, and that’s just on the Citadel. There’s always a new conversation to overhear or another crisis to solve. Side quests branch out from every planet, sending the player to uncharted worlds and systems to investigate distress calls, clear gang outposts or retrieve an alien item.
Re-used assets aside, multiple planets reveal mysteries that only further cement that there is more to this universe than the player understands, even the planets that can only be observed from space. While some are quick to criticize the side-planets as vast expanses of rocky terrain, Mass Effect is faithful to its inspirations. Habitable planets are a rarity. Even with mass relays connecting solar systems, galactic civilizations can only expand so fast. Exploring with the Mako invokes a feeling of desolation, a grand reminder of how minute organic existence is.
On each of the main planets, the player finds stories driven by their inhabitants. Therum is driven solely by the search for Liara, a simple retrieval complicated by the young asari’s naivete and ineptitude. Feros is a curious colony where everything seems not quite right. Noveria is a hunt for Benezia and its rachni threat is barely foreshadowed through extraneous dialogue and Codex entries.
Without relying on a plot threading each planet together consecutively, and the fact that you can tackle them in any order you like, each one becomes a mystery. It becomes obvious to the player early on that finding Saren is not going to be as simple as landing somewhere and walking up to him. Mass Effect frames itself as a smarter game than that. Missions are about recruiting potential support, playing space detective on unfamiliar planets and finding clues in the most unrelated places. It turns Mass Effect away from being a game about shooting a big bad into a game about problem solving, investigation and discovery.
Even finally catching up with Saren on Virmire reveals that things are not quite as simple as they may seem in one of the greatest moments of the last generation. The galaxy is massive, the universe constantly expanding as the player learns more. The creeping realization is that their existence is infinitesimal.
But the player’s impact is massive. Good faith and support of a tired battlemaster saves the best hope for the krogan on Virmire. The player can stop the genocide of an entire forgotten race or even give a jaded beat cop a bit more faith and kindness. Choose to save a galactic government or not. Some of these decisions are mishandled in later games, but the possibility was immense. At the end of Mass Effect, it looked like everyone could have a different game than someone else.
And how could someone not? The characters in this game are so damn likable, or at least interesting, that it’s only natural that players have visceral reactions to them. Such a small cast allowed BioWare to focus and develop each individual as much as possible. Character interactivity, especially between each other, is one of this game’s greatest strengths. Every squadmate has special dialogue, quips and conversations with the other member of your party that the player brings along on missions.
They each react to player decisions and events in their own way. Take Liara to Noveria and watch her come to terms with how her mother’s life must end. Take Garrus and Wrex and face a much more treacherous decision with how to handle the fate of the rachni. Species politics boils over as Garrus condemns exterminating the rachni right next to a krogan that is slowly suffering the same fate.
For eons, humanity has looked up at the stars and wondered what’s out there. If there are other worlds to explore or aliens to meet. An endless expanse of black always answered, each twinkling star an unknown, a perhaps. There’s a childlike wonder in the realization that there is so much we to learn and even more we don’t know. Mass Effect captures that feeling and digitizes it into a charming sci-fi adventure in a way that only video games can. It’s why Mass Effect will remain cherished for years to come, even if later installments failed to live up to player imaginations. You just can’t help but be enchanted by all the possibilities.