For most of the history of video games, playing one has just been about pushing buttons, working out puzzles, and shooting things. As the technology advanced, video games expanded in what they offered. No longer just a hand-eye-coordination exercise, they offered epic stories about memorable characters. We’re not just talking about Mario, Sonic, or Master Chief. Some video games offer narrative experiences that rival films or even novels. It’s because of this that Mass Effect 1 is still a highly playable game, even though it’s technically ben surpassed by next-gen consoles. With the incredible graphics and expansive worlds of modern games, Mass Effect is still a triumph and fun to play, even if nostalgia isn’t a factor.
Of course, to admit my own bias, nostalgia is a factor. I wasn’t much of a gamer in the early years of the 21st century. However, I did play Knights of the Old Republic by BioWare while deployed to Iraq in 2003 on a squadmate’s original Xbox. It appealed to me in ways that other games didn’t. There wasn’t difficult button-combos or quick-response action. (Hell, the game automatically paused as soon as a fight broke out.) So, when I found out that Mass Effect was BioWare’s Star Wars-inspired original story, I decided to try it out.
At the time, I remember feeling awed at the way the scenes unfolded, especially that there were different dialogue options. Wandering around planets or the central hub, the space-station metropolis known as the Citadel, was amazing. It shared enough elements with KOTOR that it felt familiar, but it was also a wholly improved experience. The first time I played the game, I kept at it until sunrise.
What Makes Mass Effect 1 Still Playable In the Age of Next-Gen Consoles
Image via BioWare
At its most basic level, Mass Effect is two games. One is a third-person shooter and the other is a vehicle-combat exploring game. There are five “core” missions in the game that drive the plot forward. Each features a sequence of driving the Mako, a six-wheeled tank, to a place and fighting enemies along the way. This is usually preceded and followed by a dungeon-style shootout with the Geth, synthetic lifeforms bent on destroying organic sentient life. There are also side-missions, with mini-dungeon shootouts between pirates, mercenaries, or the mysterious Cerberus terrorist group. Then there are more conversation and exploration missions. The mechanics of the game are interesting and not very challenging for people who routinely beat games on their highest difficulty settings. While plenty fun, the mechanics of the game aren’t what keeps bringing people back.
BioWare project lead Casey Hudson and author Drew Karpyshyn (both KOTOR alumni) led a team of storytellers to shape an engaging narrative and immersive world. With Jack Wall’s score, a mix of spacey synth music and traditional orchestral composition, it creates an instantly engaging experience for the player. If you just want to run around and shoot stuff, there are better games for that. Mass Effect 1 remains playable alongside its counterparts for next-gen consoles precisely because of the story. In fact, it’s so good, it remains baffling that there hasn’t yet been a Mass Effect movie.
How Your Choices Create Difference Experiences In the Game
Image via BioWare
Again, looking back from where we are now, even the decision-based selling point of Mass Effect seems antiquated. You can choose different responses in conversations to merely get a different reading of the same line. Commander Shepard, the player character, will deliver the same dialogue with simply a different tone. If you chose the “Paragon” option, you get earnestness. If you choose the “Renegade” option, you get rudeness. The decisions in Mass Effect don’t really change much beyond how characters respond to you. The main points of the plot, including the death of a character, remain immutable. (Though, if you go Renegade, you can kill at least one more of your companions.) Yet, at the time, it offered players a way to get unique experiences on multiple playthroughs.
Along with being a sweetheart or an ass to your companions, you can also get lucky with one of them. Three characters are “romance-able” in the game. Kaidan Alenko or Ashley Williams are the human love interests, depending on whether you play a male or female character. Liara T’Soni, part of a monogendered species called asari, can be a love interest for characters of either gender. It’s worth noting that even in 2007, when the game came out, it’s a little strange that they didn’t offer same-gender romance options (at least until Mass Effect 3). Even when “FemShep,” the online shorthand for players who make Commander Shepard a woman, flirts with Liara, she responds with shock that asari are, essentially, bisexual. (Or, pansexual, more accurately.)
Still, especially when combined with Mass Effect 2 and 3, the choices you can make in the original game vary the experience enough that almost no one plays through the game just once.
How Video Game Modders Help Keep Mass Effect Fresh
Image via Nexus Mods
While the “vanilla” Mass Effect 1 game remains playable, even on next-gen consoles, gamers can make it “better.” A community of amateur programmers created a series of modifications for the base game that update textures, graphics, and even address the lack of same-sex romantic options. Finally, those “MShep” and Kaidan shippers have a playthrough just for them. Mostly these can be found for the PC port of the game by Demiurge Studios. While mods exist for consoles, it does require no small amount of skill “hacking” those devices.
Nonetheless, the Mass Effect modding community created mods that update the look and feel of the game. Some restore cut content and others alter the look of the game and the characters. Commander Shepard can get different casual outfits (Mass Effect 1 only has one option, unlike its sequels.) One even reduces the time spent in the infuriatingly slow elevators characters must take. There are also, of course, cheats that give the player advantages they wouldn’t have otherwise. Still, they change just enough so that Mass Effect 1 remains as triumphant today as it did when it was the hot new game on the market.
So, if you are looking for a game with a lot to do and a rich, engaging story filled with characters you care about, Mass Effect 1 is a great choice.
What do you think? Have you played the game? Share your own reviews, experiences, and thoughts about the franchise in the comments below.
Featured image via BioWare.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.