With Mass Effect: Andromeda now upon us, now is as good a time as any to take a retrospective look at the original Mass Effect games.
This sci-fi RPG trilogy sold a ludicrous number of copies and remains one of the most highly-acclaimed game series of all time. Just what was it about Bioware’s Mass Effect games that made them so appealing? Apart from the fact that they let you adopt the Captain Kirk approach to inter-species diplomacy.
WARNING: This contains spoilers for the entire Mass Effect series, so if you haven’t played the series, look away now.
Your Own Personal Shepard
If you’d asked any Mass Effect fan to tell you about ‘their’ Commander Shepard, the game’s central character, you’d have received a myriad of different answers. The only thing Mass Effect didn’t let you tailor was your main character’s surname, but everything else was entirely down to you. You could modify your character’s appearance, specialisation, backstory and gender. The latter option was particularly refreshing, since many story-driven games sported male leads. The level of customisation made it easier for you to “be” or “own” your character, which in turn leant weight to your subsequent decisions and actions.
It was your Commander Shepard who blasted their way through an archaeological dig to rescue an alien scientist. It was your Commander Shepard who chose to shoot a crime lord in the face rather than let the scum walk. It was your Commander Shepard who chose to gun down a terrorist, resulting in the deaths of his hostages. It was your Commander Shepard who smashed several pieces of valuable lab equipment while banging the alien scientist and… you get the general idea.
A Team Effort
As appealing as Mass Effect’s character customisation was, it would have fallen flat if it wasn’t for the ensemble of characters who you hooked up with – some literally – during the series. While the dangers you were trying to combat threatened the whole galaxy, it was your connection to these characters that made all the difference. You’d go through hell to protect Tali, the Quarian who had put her hopes and dreams in your hands. You’d step up and headbutt a heavily-armoured alien to help a friend. And woe betide anyone who tried to tell you that your cybernetic crewmate wasn’t a real boy.
It was the quality of Mass Effect‘s writing that made its characters so appealing. Each companion was a well-rounded individual with their own backstory and motivation. This extended to other NPCs, even those who were arguably the villains of the piece. Furthermore, the characters who survived each game – your game saves carried across your decisions – grew as people. Tali started off as a girl on her galactic gap year and ended up as a respected Quarian commander. Liara went from a meek scientist to an intergalactic information broker. And Kaidan… well, nobody’s perfect.
It’s All About Choice
Many games offer you choices yet all too often the options you’re offered are ludicrously black and white. Along the lines of “Do you give the orphan a sandwich, or strap them to an atomic bomb and drop them off a cliff?” – you’re either a saint or you’re breathlessly evil, with no middle ground. But what made Mass Effect‘s choices so appealing was that even though the game often referred to them as “Paragon” or “Renegade”, they were far from clear cut.
At one point, you were given the choice whether to help cure the Genophage, a manufactured plague that had largely sterilised a race. The race in question, however, were hugely aggressive and allowing them to breed could cause problems for the rest of the galaxy. With neither choice obviously the “right one”, you were left pondering the potentially grave consequences of your actions.
On another occasion you had to choose to sacrifice space racist Ashley, or tedious dullard Kaidan. I ended up letting Kaidan die because, while Ashley might change her views, he’d always be a pair of googly eyes glued to a plank. Your sense of unease at having made a questionable decision was further compounded by the possibility that you might not have to deal with the consequences until the next game.
The Lurking Horror
Although the scope of Mass Effect‘s story wasn’t revealed till the conclusion of the first game, the threat you faced was nothing short of horrifying. More often than not, games pitch you against a tangible threat. No matter how many soldiers the enemy has, you know that if you can fight your way through to their commander, you can end the war once and for all. Not so in Mass Effect. The foes who were orchestrating events were the Reapers, a race of massive sentient machines who would, upon their arrival, annihilate whole races.
They were Lovecraftian in their monstrosity, a threat so vast that it was almost impossible to comprehend. When the game’s ruling council denied their existence it wasn’t out of ignorance, despite evidence that the Reapers had “culled” sentient life many time before. They just couldn’t understand the vastness of the enemy that awaited them. Even when you witnessed the Reapers reach the edge of galaxy at the end of Mass Effect 2, you never really thought you were going to have to face them.
And then, when they descended upon Earth at the beginning of Mass Effect 3, you finally understood that this could the beginning of the end, for everything. You knew that, in theory, the game had to give you the ability to “win”. But when you witnessed these colossal monstrosities raze a city to the ground, victory seemed terrifyingly impossible.
The Devil’s in the Details
The Mass Effect trilogy succeeded in creating an expansive, varied universe that, right until the Reapers turned up on the doorstep, kept on ticking. The locations you visited, despite the fact you could usually only explore a relatively small part of them, felt fully-realised. As important as your quest was, your travails brought you into contact with all manner of other individuals, each with their own problems. And while you could sometimes lend a hand, usually by undertaking some sort of sidequest, you were often left to gaze impotently on. You’d encounter refugees, gambling addicts, criminals, would-be-heroes and more. Even the throwaway lines you overheard as you roamed through the various locales reminded you that even though the apocalypse could be weeks away, life went on.
A Cinematic Space Opera
You spent most of Mass Effect’s story and side-missions on foot, gunning down enemies with your teammates. The game didn’t subject you to endless chases or boss battles, nor were you bombarded with lengthy cut scenes every five minutes. But when the trilogy did pull out all the stops, they were truly something to behold. Mass Effect 3’s final battle scene was undeniably grandiose but the second game’s attack on the Collector Base was, for me, the series finest cinematic moment.
Having upgraded your ship through a series of side-quests, you finally took the fight to the Reapers’ stooges, the Collectors, who had destroyed your previous ship and left you for dead. While some games might have subjected you to quick-time event after quick-time event, Mass Effect 2 avoided this trope. In fact, the series was, for the most part, mercifully free of sci-fi cliches.
Barring a small in-ship combat sequence, the game let you watch as your ships new weapons annihilated the selfsame ship that had nearly spelt your doom. Vengeance was never so glorious. Bioware’s decision to use longer cutscenes sparingly ensured that they had greater impact, resulting in an experience that, coupled with some fantastic writing, felt truly epic in scope.
For the most part, it’s hard to find fault with the Mass Effect trilogy. The combat sections weren’t all that great but they usually didn’t outstay their welcome. The romance options felt a little tacked-on, particularly when all you needed to do to win your paramour’s affection was to complete a side-quest. While I’ve made smutty jokes about the game’s “sex” scenes – and will continue to do so – they were almost incidental. Though they did draw the attention of one particularly ill-informed media pundit who, infamously, aired her views on Fox News.
The real space-fly in the ointment, however, was the ending. The original ending felt rushed, offering you little real resolution. Bioware did, however, expand upon the ending, patching in an expanded ending. Even so, it still remained a bone of contention and it’s not hard to see why.
For a game that was all about choice, going so far as to highlight this in its advertising campaign, Mass Effect 3’s ending railroaded players. You’d spent the trilogy trying to find ways to combat the Reapers, pledging to stop them before they carried out their heinous purpose. But ultimately, no matter what you’d done during the series, you ended up confronting the artificial intelligence that controlled the Reapers.
Yet the choices you were offered felt limited in scope. The Reaper AI’s raison d’être was to prevent conflict between humans and robots, something you could accomplish during the course of the game. I wanted to be able to point out that I’d brokered peace between the Geth and their creators, proving that there was hope for harmony. This option was, however, absent. It seemed absurd that in a dialogue-heavy game, you couldn’t resolve your problems by talking.
Bioware did rather write themselves into a corner, making the Reaper threat so monumental that there was no way you could defeat them head-on. You were no more capable of punching out Cthulhu. Looking back, while the lack of a peaceful option was a little disappointing, the ending was reasonably satisfying. It certainly wasn’t the crushing disappointment that some people made it out to be.
At the time, it seemed insanely optimistic for Bioware to declare that Mass Effect would be the first in a trilogy, given that it was an entirely new IP. Yet ten years later, Mass Effect remains one of the most accomplished and compelling series ever crafted. Mass Effect’s superb writing, excellent characterization and emphasis on player agency have rightly earned it a place in gaming history. True, you don’t need to have played any of the original games to enjoy Mass Effect: Andromeda. But you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least dip a toe into Mass Effect’s morally-ambigous, galaxy-saving, reporter-punching, alien-bedding world.