They say your first is always the one you remember the strongest. It's certainly true of the first planetary landing you make in Mass Effect. There may be greener, denser, more populated spheres, but your first landing is special. It's one of those moments. The kind of event that, ten or twenty years from now when the mainstream media are no longer scared of all the flashy lights and loud bangs, will be at the business end of those pitiful 'Top 100 Gaming Moments' list things that Channel 4 commission so very, very often. You can imagine how it would go.
"It was terrible," offers a burnt-out Jamie Theakson, looking around the darkened room with empty eyes. "I remember it like it was yesterday. We landed on this small mining planet. Looking for survivors, we were. But... I don't know what they were excavating down there... but it changed them. They were no more men than husks. We had to... kill them all. I was emotionally scarred by Mass Effect, and that's why I [Libellous content removed - Legal Ed] those [And again - Legal Ed] up the [Sigh - Legal Ed]. So when can we bring back Live & Kicking?"
Our first landing (and you'll forgive us for spoiling this one, as there's plenty more) was a very small, barren, meteor-prone sandstone planet named Edious, located in the Artemis Tau cluster. It was just a routine survey that piqued our interest; a weak distress signal that warranted a closer look. Landing near the signal's source in our all-wheel drive, we crawled over the rocky terrain toward our destination. The distress beacon, we discover, was a set-up. But for what? We don't get much information from the crew of a rescue ship that beat us to the location, because their crew is a bit on the dead side.
Suddenly, the ground rumbles beneath us and things become a bit clearer; a gigantic astroworm funnels out of the ground, spitting out acidic phlegm left right and centre. We dash for the hills in a blind panic, but the worm telegraphs our cowardice and bursts up from underneath, sending us arcing through the air. We escape with our lives; and when you find time to contemplate things during the warmdown, that's when you realise that this isn't just Jade Empire with space marines.
The events as detailed aren't an integral part of the storyline. On the contrary, in fact: miss a conversation here or there, or just let the assignment thread get lost amid a blizzard of other trivial assignments, and it becomes increasingly unlikely that you'll ever set foot on Edious. If you want to just play Mass Effect's main storyline, it probably won't take you that long. But the basic human thirst for exploration, coupled with the size of Mass Effect's universe, dictates that you won't want to do that. You'll want to go from A to B via C, D, E F and G - and by the time you get back on track, you might find that B is an entirely different proposition than it was before.
Lend us your linears
BioWare claim that Mass Effect is the least linear RPG that they've ever assembled, and they're not wrong; aside from all the side-quests, even the main storyline can pan out differently depending on your demeanour. Those who have experienced past BioWare games such as Knights Of The Old Republic will know that they're big on allowing your decisions and interaction to dictate how the NPCs react to you. Mass Effect copies that game's Light/Dark Side mechanic by grafting you the equivalent Paragon/Renegade points every time you make a 'good' or 'bad' decision. But in practice Mass Effect offers so much more than this.