Mass Effect Legendary Edition hit PC and consoles two weeks ago. For grizzled veterans and newcomers about to board the Normandy, it’s the best way to enjoy the legendary series.
I sank hundreds of hours into the original trilogy’s entries. I played through each game countless times, always changing up my Shepherd and shaping the galaxy differently. Returning to the series through the Legendary Edition is like coming back home after a long trip abroad.
However, just like any other series, not all entries are created equal. After playing through the games once again, I can confidently rank each one. To that end, here is how I see each game in the Mass Effect trilogy, ranked from the weakest to the strongest.
In this first part, we begin with the weakest entry in the series: Mass Effect.
Mass Effect (2007)
Some games leave such a lasting impression upon you that you can actually remember when and where you were when you bought them. Mass Effect is that game for me. It was early 2008 and I walked into the electronics section of my local Wal-Mart. I wasn’t looking to buy anything, I was just curious to see what was on display. My Xbox 360 collection wasn’t too bad, either. I had the staples: Halo 3, Modern Warfare, BioShock, Dead Rising, and Gears of War.
Suddenly, I saw Mass Effect. Something about the box art captured my attention. Of course, when I saw it was developed by BioWare, I just had to probe further. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is one of my favourite games of all time and I grew up playing Baldur’s Gate on my parents’ PC. I picked up the box and flipped it around.
“Interplanetary exploration of an epic proportion.”
“Incredible, real-time character interaction.”
“An ancient threat returns. One final hope emerges.”
An Epic Space Opera
I didn’t really know what to expect when I booted up Mass Effect. I certainly didn’t expect Jack Wall’s “Vigil.” The menu screen is one of those rare menus you can simply stare at for a while and listen to the music without touching any buttons.
Mass Effect‘s story is a sweeping space-opera. From relatively humble beginnings on a human colony called Eden Prime, you’re quickly swept up into a galaxy-shaping conflict of epic proportions. Along your galactic travels, you meet unique allies and battle deadly foes. You explore a variety of planets and discover their secrets.
But above all else, Mass Effect‘s story is your story.
Whoever your Commander Shepherd is, he or she is an extension of yourself. From physical appearance to personality, you have complete control. Is your Shepherd a ruthless soldier who will do whatever it takes to get what they want? Or maybe your Shepherd is scarred war hero who balances intimidation with charm depending on the situation?
Regardless of how you choose to play, there is no right or wrong. Will you have to take responsibility for your decisions? Yes. But although your alignment is measured in Blue Paragon and Red Renegade, not every choice is black and white.
Mass Effect is at its best when it puts players in morally conflicting situations that can only be resolved through dialog. Or, sometimes, with chunks of mass-accelerated metal if you’re a renegade. In any given conversation, you can choose how to reply using an intuitive speech wheel. You have an unlimited amount of time to choose how you want to answer, but there’s no turning back once you do.
Speaking of conversations, a lot of the game’s lore and backstory can be learned from talking with NPCs. Naturally, you’ll also spend a lot of time speaking with allies in order to learn more about them. Of course, if you’re more interested in action than narrative, there is no need to dive too deep into that.
On a side note, Mass Effect wins my prize for best conversation between a protagonist and an antagonist. Sovereign’s speech on Virmire should never be forgotten. It is one of the most intimidating pieces of dialog in gaming history. And he’s a hologram in that section.
Where Mass Effect Fails
Combat and Inventory Management
As graphically impressive as it was in 2007, Mass Effect suffered from serious issues in that regard. First, there was some pretty bad examples of texture pop-in. It’s kind of hard to admire Wrex’s scales and scars when they load in a second after he appears on-screen.
Frame rate dips were also relatively common, especially during intense battles and action-oriented cutscenes. And who can forget the interminable elevator rides? At least BioWare had the sense to add conversations between your allies during those sequences.
Most of all, Mass Effect falls short in combat. For as ambitious and engaging as dialog is, fighting just isn’t up to par.
For instance, you are always accompanied by two allies when you are off the Normandy. In combat, they are supposed to help. You can, in theory, order them around in a fight. Want Kaiden to use lift on a specific enemy while Tali uses overload on another? That’s an option, but probably not the best. Are things getting too hairy? You could order Wrex and Liara to take cover, but they probably won’t.
In short, the AI isn’t very good. This applies to both allies and enemies.
Beyond combat, anybody with experience in Mass Effect knows how terrible the inventory system is. Quite frankly, it’s a mess of submenus for armour, assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, sniper rifles, and mods. Want to equip Ashley with a new assault rifle? Open the menu, select inventory, scroll to Ashley, scroll to the assault rifles, scroll to the weapon you want. It gets intuitive after a while, but it’s far from an optimized menu system.
Furthermore, things get even more complicated for actual weapon classes. For example, the assault rifle class contains 17 different weapons. However, each weapon has a “level.” For instance, you begin the game with a Lancer assault rifle. As you progress, you might find a Lancer II, III, IV, V, and so on until X. Thus, it becomes a chore to manage a loaded inventory, especially around the endgame.
The name alone should be enough to make Mass Effect veterans cringe. The Mako is your primary method of transportation on on most planets. It’s actually unthinkable to make any kind of exploratory progress without it. For how vital it is, it controls horribly. Want to go left? It somehow goes right. Need to backup? Forward we go, full steam ahead. However, it does give Skyrim‘s horses a run for their money when it comes time to climb sheer cliffs.
Combat in the Mako isn’t much better. In fact, it’s pretty boring. Stay back, aim, fire, relocate, repeat. The satisfaction of blowing up a horde of enemies only comes once in a while and wears off pretty quick.
Mass Effect: Lasting Impression
It’s difficult to be hard on Mass Effect. On one hand, it launched one of the industry’s most iconic franchises. Dare I say, it’s the console equivalent of A New Hope. I have no doubt that many players explored the sci-fi genre in all its forms after experiencing the game. In 2007, it was a graphically impressive game. It was a narrative tour de force whose influence is still felt in games today.
On the other hand, there is no denying that it’s rough around the edges. Combat does the bare minimum to get a passing grade. Inventory management is overbearing. AI has the lights on, but the party’s over and its just your drunk uncle Harry that’s there.
That being said, Mass Effect laid the foundation of the series. The sequels built on everything it did. Its best parts were kept and improved even more. What didn’t work so well was cut out or completely reworked.
In the end, Mass Effect is far from the best entry in the series. Nonetheless, you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn’t have fond memories of their first playthrough.