Back to the future.
Mass Effect’s extremely late appearance on the PlayStation 3 seems to prove the old adage “nothing is impossible”. After all, Microsoft published the original game, which came to Xbox 360 in 2007 and PC in 2008. Even after Electronic Arts acquired developer BioWare in 2008, it appeared Microsoft’s stranglehold on the original remained as tight as ever, as PS3 gamers got Mass Effect 2 and 3 with no sign of the first third of the trilogy.
Yet, here it is: Mass Effect on PlayStation 3, running in much the same fashion as the original did on Xbox 360 some five years ago. It’s about as late to the party as you could possibly imagine, yet for PlayStation 3 gamers, it may be the very first chance you’ve ever had to play the first game in the trilogy. Whether it’ll be your maiden foray through the game or if you simply want to enjoy it again on a different platform, Mass Effect on PS3 is well worth your time and money.
S-S-S-Saren and the Geth
The original Mass Effect sets off the trilogy’s epic story by introducing you to a majority of the series’ important characters, namely Commander Shepard, the male or female avatar through which you experience the franchise’s events. Shepard is fully customizable; you’ll have full reign over your character’s gender, looks, background and class. And yes: many of the choices you make even at the outset, during character customization, can and will have lasting ramifications down the road, not only in Mass Effect but in its two sequels. Such choices are Mass Effect’s hallmark, and they truly shine in the original.
Mass Effect’s story, or at least what sets it off, is easy enough to understand. Through the discovery of ancient technology on both Mars and orbiting Pluto developed by an extinct space-faring race, humanity gains unfettered access to presumably unexplored parts of the Milky Way. Or so they thought, for humans end up stumbling across an already established group of alien races. After some initial battles with one race in particular – the Turians – the citizens of Earth are welcomed into the galactic community as its newest (and most untrusted) members.
Fast-forward several generations from that point, and you’ll collide head-on with the events that transpire in Mass Effect itself. Commander Shepard is a living and breathing sign of human progress to both the Alliance and alien species, invited to join the Spectres, a secretive and elite special forces group that does the bidding of the Council, the accepted UN-like organization binding the galaxy’s sentient races. And it’s from there that Mass Effect’s brilliant story sets off running. It’s, in essence, the very first part of what is perhaps the most interesting and engaging story ever told in gaming.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see – with five years’ of hindsight – how markedly different the original Mass Effect is from the two games that came after it. Its gameplay is loose, less exact and even a little bit muddled, a stark contrast to the far tighter gameplay developed as the series progressed. But it’s also different in ways that make it stand out positively from the otherwise superior Mass Effects 2 and 3, especially in one way in particular: Mass Effect is a tried-and-true RPG, not something with mere elements of the genre. It’s unclear why BioWare later abandoned the in-depth minutiae of the original’s complex experience, upgrading and customization options, but the developer did.
So as you run around alien worlds and mysterious ships, expect to earn experience points constantly. Hack a computer or open a box of items? You’ll get experience. Engage in a lengthy conversation or unlock new entries in your (exceptionally engrossing) codex? You’ll get experience. And of course, you’ll get experience for fighting enemies, discovering important items and materials on planets spanning the galaxy and more. It’s not like Mass Effect 2 and (especially) 3, where you get finite amounts of experience for completing certain tasks, and that’s it. Nearly everything you do in Mass Effect has the ability to, in turn, radically alter your characters’ growth trajectory, and other than its wonderful plot, this point in particular is the single biggest facet that makes Mass Effect so damn good.
All characters in your party, in turn, can be built up utilizing a number of classes and loadouts. When compared to the two games that followed it, Mass Effect – by far – gives players the most customization options, from weapon and armor loadouts to specific permutations of weapons and armor modified by items you find in the wild. Players will also be able to spend skill points earned by leveling up to make their character stronger, though you won’t get to fill in all of the powers unless you are playing for a second or third time, so choose carefully. Options like these open Mass Effect up to be played like a straight-forward shooter or a more tactical, third-person action game, or really anything else in between.
Mass Effect helps propel the oft-used feature of some of the best RPGs of all-time – non-linearity – to help give players an exceptionally gratifying sense of openness. Once you get through the beginning of the game, you can complete much of the meat of the game in any order you’d like. Side quests galore are there for the undertaking and dozens of systems demand your exploratory attention while the game’s primary arc rests in the background, waiting for you to undertake story-driven quests at your leisure. It’s easy to derive a great deal of gaming pleasure out of taking your time with Mass Effect, exploring and conversing. And since the game incessantly revolves around choice, there’s plenty of reason to play more than once.
Unfortunately, for as great as Mass Effect is, it’s weighed-down by many of the same problems found in the Xbox 360 original. The game’s graphics look great, especially for an early-in-the-generation game, but animations at times look stiff and even comical, and the framerate drops from time to time. There was a part in the game where the framerate dropped so severely (and permanently) that I had to manually restart my PlayStation 3.
Mass Effect is deservedly well-known for its stellar soundtrack, which is intact here, but voice acting – while superbly executed for the most part – doesn’t always sync up to any given character’s lips. For a game that revolves around how immersive it is, this is… well… the exact opposite of that.
Mass Effect on PS3 also suffers from the outrageous load times from the original, rife with pesky elevator rides and the like that barely obscure what the game’s trying to hide. If you die in battle, it’ll take 25 seconds or so to get back into the action, an excruciatingly long time. Frustrating texture pop-in is frequent. And should you keep auto-save on – and you absolutely should – expect the game to freeze for a few seconds every time it saves.
Then again, these technical problems, while at times glaring, don’t bring Mass Effect too far down. In this sense, Mass Effect reminds me a bit of Fallout 3: it’s a game with unavoidable technical problems that don’t bother most gamers nearly as much as they should because the product surrounding some shoddy tech is so amazing. Mass Effect is one of those games that make it easy to ignore its problems because the core of the game – its story, customization, non-linearity and more – make it such a pleasure to play.