The original mass-effect planetary exploration was actually pretty good

A big part of the appeal of Mass Effect for me is that feeling of being in control of my own spaceship, exploring the depths of space, meeting alien aliens, getting on adventures, and generally living out my Star Trek fantasies. It’s something that runs through the entire trilogy, but it’s the only game that truly It makes me feel like the intrepid galactic explorer that is the original. People hated Mako’s unwieldy handling, which inspired BioWare to drastically overhaul his handling in recent remakes. But even at its most floaty and frustrating, I’ve always had a strange 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 a map of the galaxy, watch a few short scenes, and suddenly you’re on the surface. That’s fine, but exploring new worlds that are originally alien is a more complex experience. You fell on a planet and you are left to your own devices. You wander around the surface of Mako looking for points of interest, be it a distress beacon, a crashed satellite to rescue, a bandit hideout, or some valuable natural resource. You can stay in the car or leave it and run on foot, and finding everything on every available planet is very satisfying if you’re a completer.

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Well, basically every planet is a featureless desert of rock and dust. If BioWare had more time, money, and manpower, I’m sure they would have given their worlds their own unique terrain, flora and fauna. But for whatever reason, they’re all basically the same. But this does not mean that they are boring to look at. Quite the contrary. Spend enough time visiting these optional planets and you’ll see things that Roy Batty will admire. There are ancient pyramids, fiery blue suns, cosmic monoliths, and moons looming large on the horizon. It’s just a small corner of the universe, but there are some beautiful cosmic scenery out there.

There are some weird things too. On a grassy planet in the Kepler Verge, Shepard and the gang stumble upon a herd of strange-looking cows. Point at one and the game will highlight it as a “cheeky looking cow”, and when you turn your back on it you will start losing credits. This, as absurd as it sounds, is some kind of cow pickpocket. You can kill him, but another one will take his place and you won’t get your stolen money back. It’s a strange and funny encounter, but moments like this make all that time spent speeding in Mako worth it. I wish there was more to break up all the frequent geth battles and slave plundering.


There are some interesting pieces of storytelling hidden in the Mass Effect universe, too. Travel to a planet called Eletania, and if you have a special Citadel sidequest item, alien ruin can be activated on the surface. Doing so gives Shepherd a vision of being a Neanderthal on Earth thousands of years ago, being observed by beings almost higher than the Protheans. It’s an evocative little piece of sci-fi fiction based on Arthur C Clarke, and it can be totally missed if you decide not to engage with this part of the game. Again, it’s a shame these handcrafted encounters are so few and far between.

As much as I enjoy exploring planets in Mass Effect (there dozens from us), I admit it’s somewhat half-baked and poorly executed. But I do wish the rest of the trilogy expanded on it, rather than just ditching it entirely for a more streamlined, linear structure. Mass Effect: Andromeda brought back some of this with its larger, more open environments and Nomad, an easier-to-drive successor to Mako. But it still seems limited in scope compared to the original large selection of hopable star systems and planets. Hopefully, the next Mass Effect revival will continue what the first game started.

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