I have played a lot of Mass Effect since the remaster came out on Friday, but I haven't really... done anything. "I know we're busy hunting for Saren," a member of the crew will say, before asking if we can make a personal detour for them. I look back at our flight history: the last six planets we landed on had nothing but space debris and the occasional Thresher Maw. Since picking up Liara, we've essentially been on a joyride through every solar system in the galaxy. Look, Saren could be hiding on any one of these uncharted worlds - it would be irresponsible of me not to check everywhere.
So much fun stuff is hidden on those random little planets. From colonies of space monkeys that have stolen a data module, to a Prothean orb that makes Shepard relive the memories of a primitive human species. Some of the things you can find are so weird, so interesting and completely missable if you just mainline the game. "Hey Joker, where should we go next? Wrex wants to beat people up on that planet, but this other one has space cows!"
And sure, it can get repetitive. Almost every uncharted planet has the same mercenary complex to fight through, or the same pile of rocks to scan. While the latter gets old quickly, the former isn't exactly boring. In a lot of those buildings you'll find snippets of lore, or have conversations with space mobsters who'll you'll hear from again in future games. It all helps to establish the universe of Mass Effect. You uncover diplomats with their thumbs in one too many legally ambiguous pies, and see scraps of info about some ancient terror that existed thousands of years ago. You'll learn about them in more depth soon enough, but those seemingly inconsequential titbits are great foreshadowing.
There's something quite relaxing about exploring those backwater planets, too. Most of the time no one has asked you to be there. It's probably the most peace Shepard will experience for… well, a while. It's a lot less peaceful for your poor squadmates, I suppose, tumbling around in the back of the Mako as you attempt to launch it over a series of mountains. But look - a Prothean pyramid! Time for a rest stop; here Wrex, take a picture.
I'm endlessly amused by conversations Admiral Hackett, who frequently contacts Shepard to say something like: "I know you're working for the Council and Saren is your top priority, but you're still Alliance Navy. We need you to look into this."
Then he'll give me the location of a distress beacon that is absolutely a trap. Thanks very much for the tip-off about this cool deserted planet, Sir, but now I am surrounded by geth when I could be looting an alien mine.
It's this sort of exploration that redeems the first Mass Effect game for me. I'm a firm believer that ME2 and ME3 are better games - I prefer the combat and the more character-driven stories. But of all three, ME1 sticks to the RPG formula best, letting you roam wherever you want regardless of whether or not there's a quest attached. So for now, I'll be zipping around the cosmos salvaging probes. I'll find Saren eventually.