With Storm Legion just over a week away I’ve spent a lot of time in RIFT lately, but yesterday I felt the urge for something different. It was time to put away modern games and go back to an old classic, Mass Effect 1.
Mass Effect was originally released in 2007, and it certainly feels like a game from a different era. The graphics are old and a little clunky now, of course, but more than that the entire “open world” game design has fallen out of favor in the last few years. Yes, the sequels still followed the adventures of Shepard, space hero and rad person, but the gameplay itself was greatly streamlined. I’m not even sure a game like Mass Effect 1 could be released today, and that makes me a little sad.
How is it different? Well, to start, I haven’t finished the game yet and I’ve already put 58 hours into it according to Steam. In fact I’m not sure I’ve seen even half of the main storyline.
Exploration itself is much more free-form in Mass Effect 1. There are many more worlds to explore, whether it’s via scanning or away team, and it seems to me to have many more spontaneous side quests to go with those worlds. There are collection quests that give you no indication of where the items might be — “we need 8 dog tags from fallen soldiers that are in different places in the universe so good luck” — but reward careful exploration and investigation. And, of course, ME1 allows players to land on planets and explore their surface, whether anything interesting is located there or not.
If that sounds grindy as hell, that’s because it is. Mass Effect 2 streamlined the space exploration by removing the away team aspect and adding an email system, and ME 3 simplified it even more by making scanning for resources fast and easy. Most of the universe is already open to the player right from the start of ME1, whereas in 3 in particular gates much of the space content with quests and additionally discourages players from doing any lingering exploration with the new Reaper radar mechanic.
There’s also a total change in the character of space between the games. In 2 and 3 space is portrayed as a pretty populated place. The world of Mass Effect 1, on the other hand, is much more lonely. Shepard and her team drive around empty planets in the Mako and explore abandoned space pods while eerie, echoey music plays on the soundtrack. I feel much more like an explorer in a dangerous land in the first game. By contrast, Shepard is much more of a space cowboy than an explorer in 2 and 3, finding new races and punching them in the face. Don’t get me wrong — being a space cowboy is great fun, but it’s a huge tone change from the first game.
Speaking of which, the writing has never been better than it was in Mass Effect 1. Characters are flawed without being evil and go through some actual development as the game progresses. Having not played the first game before I finished 2 and 3 I was always kind of sceptical of Liara — bisexual blue alien pleasure race who are all female, huh — but as it turns out I’m quite enjoying her company. The writing feels less shoehorned into a Paragon/Renegade system, and the moral choices are legitimately difficult.
There are certainly things that improved in the Mass Effect franchise as it went along. Inventory management has always kind of been the bane of the series, but 3 arguably had the best system. And of course one of the great things about the series as a whole is the way your choices moved with you through the games, a feature that obviously couldn’t exist for ME1. Squad tactics certainly improved as the series went on, and Garrus got a lot better at shooting things.
Perhaps I’m just missing some obvious titles, but I feel like this game would never be made today. An open world game where the player can decide to totally avoid the main story for a great deal of the time, where the lead character may not get to walk away heroically from an explosion, where there’s no obvious path and the completionist will have to sink tens of hours into puttering around planets in the Mako* checking the map for ore. It’s difficult, it’s gritty, it’s grindy, and it’s one hell of a game.
* Oh, the Mako. I’m fond of it, but it IS like driving a blimp with bad tires.