With the Mass Effect back catalogue recently becoming available as backwards compatible Xbox One titles, I decided, fresh from the newly premiered Mass Effect: Andromeda cinematic trailer, to revisit the original. The reasons for this were a two-fold: First, purely and simply, The Andromeda trailer has whet my appetite, and as a huge fan of the original trilogy, I was pining to return to that incredible world. Secondly, I’ve always felt like a return to the very start might be fun, but I’ve always unfailingly talked myself out of it.
What I remember from my single playthrough years ago is a fantastic story, but gameplay that was decidedly loose in comparison to the later games in the series. I suppose I was always a bit worried that my rose-tinted memories would be cruelly exposed as a product of nostalgia.
Were my fears justified?
Well not entirely, but nervous-me definitely had a point.
Dive in, and the menu hits you first, along with a warm wave of lush, smooth synth. The score, rest assured, has not dated in the least. And despite a lack of pin-sharp textures, and facial animation that is less-than fantastic by today’s standards, the in-engine cut scenes still do a great job of telling the story. Little touches like the way the opening introduces the Normandy and its crew, whilst building to a dramatic reveal of your Shepard’s face, is a great example of how Bioware really succeeded in constructing a geinuinely cinematic narrative, right down to the look and feel of individual scenes.
It’s this stuff that, right from the start, marked Mass Effect out as an outstanding top-tier action RPG. And I think the things it does so well — the slick sci-fi aesthetic, the cinematic sensibility, and above all, the incredible, epic world building — did a great job of masking some seriously shonky gameplay mechanics.
There was clearly an effort to sex-up the action that Bioware had transitioned over from its Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games, to give this original sci-fi property a more action-oriented feel. The problem is that by moving the focus away from the game’s RPG elements, you start to invite comparisons with straight-up third-person actioners, and, a year previous to Mass Effect came the release of a particularly superlative one; another Xbox 360 exclusive title, Gears Of War. That game achieved a brand of meaty, solid feeling combat that has been refined by the series again and again over the years (most recently in Gears 4), not to mention imitated, at least to some degree, in practically every third person action game since — including Mass Effect’s own sequels.
Next to pretty much everything since, then, Mass Effect’s combat feels…not outright terrible, but certainly deeply unsatisfying. Movement is unresponsive and floaty, while gunplay lacks any sort of tangible feedback — I frequently wasn’t quite sure whether my shots were connecting or doing significant damage to the enemies.
It definitely mars the experience. But is it a reason not to bother returning to the original?
I would say no. The overall experience of Mass Effect is, for me, absolutely worth the annoyance that arises from these awkward mechanics. And until Bioware decide to remaster their classic series (they’ve gone backwards and forwards on this issue in recent years) it’s the only way to relive the opening chapter in the trilogy. Sure, it would be great to have Mass Effect 3’s much more weighty combat in the original, but for now, and with Bioware forging ahead with new games in the series, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
My advice to a Mass Effect fan wondering whether to take that step back? Start a new game on ‘Casual’ difficulty and breeze through the combat. Because that narrative, epic in scale, rich in character, definitely deserves another go.