Musings on Mass Effect, Part 2: ME1

So, after playing through Mass Effect: Andromeda and Dragon Age: Inquisition (more on these in last week’s post), I signed up for Origin Access and hopped into Mass Effect 1. I know I played it several times back in the day, but my memories were pretty fuzzy. I decided to play as Jennifer Hale’s Shepard, because she’s awesome. BroShep, though I’ve played through with him before, just didn’t have the same impact on me. I also decided I’d go full renegade, but female Shepard (henceforth referred to simply as ‘Shepard’) as renegade is just terrifying, so I ended up with a fair number of paragon points by the end.

Unfortunately, a few hours into ME1, I realised just how poorly the game has aged. Now 10 years old, the game’s mechanics really show their age. The PC version has some annoying compatibility issues with Windows 10, with the game refusing to start on every other attempt. I eventually found a fix, but to say it was inconsistent would be an understatement. (I originally played ME on Xbox 360, so I never had to deal with this nonsense. I actually bought my first console just to play ME1!)

Fortunately, the graphics didn’t actually look all that bad given the age of the game. The characters have some awkward facial expressions (including that haunting Shepard ‘smile’), and the environments look good for the most part. I would share some pictures, but taking screenshots proved to be impossible (the pics in this post are courtesy of Google Image Search). Outside of the major locations, however, the environments are decidedly empty. I realise that this was a limitation of the technology back then, and something that I also noticed in DA:O, but boy is it boring running around blank environments.

I should note that I finished ME1 in about 15 hours, because after the first few side quests, I realised they were all identical: visit a boring planet, check out 4 or so points of interest, enter a building that looks just like the building from the last side quest (I think there were maybe 3 different side quest buildings in total?), kill tons of enemies, collect loot. Maybe talk to an NPC, if you’re lucky, or just collect some item, and read a short pop up. Rinse and repeat. Even for the side quests where the story stuff was interesting, this formula quickly wore thin.

Then there’s the decryption/hacking mini-game. It ported very poorly to mouse controls (and naturally the game lacked support for a controller), leading to a lot of frustration on the harder puzzles. But that wasn’t a problem later in the game, since I had omni-gel by the truckload, so I could just bypass everything. What was really weird, however, was the fact that surveying/mining minerals on a planet brings up the very same minigame. Decrypting minerals was… odd.

The story bits held up quite well, thanks to the excellent cast. However, getting to those story bits was tedious. No jump or out of combat sprint meant a leisurely jog through boring environments to get to the next fight or conversation. A lot of the story missions dumped you and your Mako into a long tunnel scattered with enemies, meaning a leisurely drive (again, no speed boosters!) along a highway or an aqueduct or whatever.

Normal difficulty turned out to be too tough for me, but switching to Casual made combat a bit of a joke. Cover became irrelevant, using powers optional, and I could kill most bosses with three or four shots. From my pistol. Killing enemies also netted huge piles of credits for some reason. I was a multimillionaire by the time I finished the game.

Some mechanics that I did like were the achievements, which give mechanical benefits like 10% extra shields, or unlocking abilities for future characters. I did enjoy being able to charm or intimidate people based on my paragon/renegade scores, though full renegade Shepard is a bit of a psychopath, so I ended up with a fair number of paragon points as well, especially when it came to interacting with my crew.

I still enjoyed the conversations, especially in the final missions. Shepard and Saren are still badasses, and characters like Anderson, Liara, Tali and Garrus remain memorable. I just feel the mechanics of the game outweighed that enjoyment, making for a somewhat tortuous 15 hours. I think this replay of Mass Effect 1 was my last. I find myself torn about recommending it to others who’ve never played any Mass Effect games. I mean, they’d be missing out on one of the most epic villains in the series, and the foundations of the relationships with some of the core characters. But I also think the dated gameplay would just be too off-putting, possibly leading some people to give up before getting to the amazing Mass Effect 2 and 3. But more on those games in the coming weeks.

Read part 3 of this series, my thoughts on Mass Effect 2.

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