Exploring planets in the original Mass Effect was really cool

A big part of the appeal of Mass Effect for me is the feeling of being in command of my own starship, exploring the depths of space, meeting weird aliens, going on adventures, and generally living out all my Star Trek fantasies. It’s something that runs through the entire trilogy, but the only game that Really makes me feel like a daring galactic explorer is the original. People hated the Mako’s bouncy, unwieldy handling, which inspired BioWare to radically overhaul its handling in recent remasters. But even at its most floaty and frustrating, I’ve always had an odd soft spot for these divisive sections of the first game.


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In Mass Effect 2 and 3, you select a planet on the galaxy map, watch a few short scenes, and suddenly you’re on the surface. That’s fine, but exploring strange new worlds in the original is a much more complicated experience. They drop you on a planet and leave you to fend for yourself. You scour the surface in the Mako looking for points of interest, be it a distress beacon, a crashed satellite to salvage, a hidden bandit hideout, or some valuable natural resources. You can stay in the vehicle or leave it and run on foot, and finding everything on every available planet is very satisfying if you’re a completionist.

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Alright, basically every planet is a dreary desert of rock and dust. If BioWare had more time, money, and manpower, I’m sure they would have given their worlds unique terrain, flora, and fauna. But for whatever reason, they are all essentially the same. But that doesn’t mean they’re boring to watch. Quite the opposite. Spend enough time visiting these optional planets and you’ll witness things that would impress Roy Batty. There are ancient pyramids, fiery blue suns, alien monoliths, and moons looming dramatically over the horizon. It’s just a small corner of the universe, but there’s a beautiful cosmic landscape out there.

There are also weird things. On a grassy planet in the Kepler Verge, Shepard and the gang stumble upon a herd of strange-looking alien cows. Point to one and the game will highlight it as a ‘sly looking cow’, and when you turn your back on it you’ll start losing credits. This is, as silly as it sounds, a kind of bovine pickpockets. You can kill him, but another will replace him and you will not get back the stolen money. It’s a weird and ridiculous encounter, but it’s moments like this that make all the time spent revving in the Mako worth it. I just wish there was more to break up all the repetitive Geth and slaver battles.

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There are also some interesting nuggets of storytelling hidden in the Mass Effect universe. Travel to a planet called Eletania, and if you have a special item from a Citadel side quest, an alien ruin can be activated on the surface. Doing so gives Shepard a vision of being a primitive human on Earth thousands of years ago, being watched by superior beings who are almost certainly the Protheans. It’s an evocative little piece of Arthur C. Clarke-inspired sci-fi, and it’s completely unmissable if he decides not to participate in this part of the game. Again, it’s a shame that these crafted encounters are so few and far between.

As much as I enjoy the planetary exploration of Mass Effect (there are dozens from us), I admit that it is a bit half-baked and poorly implemented. But I wish the rest of the trilogy had expanded on it, rather than just ditching it entirely for a more streamlined, linear structure. Mass Effect: Andromeda recaptured some of this with its larger, more open environments and the Nomad, an easier-to-drive successor to the Mako. But it still felt limited in its scope compared to the original large selection of star systems and landable planets. Hopefully, the next Mass Effect revival will pick up where the first game started.

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