The Mass Effect Franchise is About Choices Steeped in Consequences

Close up of Mass Effect protagonist

This article was written by guest author, Richard Austin.

Canadian game developers, Bioware, came up with the concept for the third person shooter and RPG, Mass Effect in 2004. It was directed by Casey Hudson and the majority of the first two games were written by Drew Karpyshyn. Bioware wanted to create a big and memorable story, and this was a massive challenge that took nearly three years to complete. Starting with the planet Earth and humanity in the year 2183, they had to create a massive amount of detail for the Milky Way galaxy. Star systems, planets, races, and history all had to be done with enough depth to make them believable. What they ended up with was, according to them, the equivalent of five full novels, or twenty feature films, just for the first game, and it shows. The Mass Effect universe is one of the most well-developed science fiction landscapes ever created. Races like the Turians, Krogans, Salarians, and Asari all have complete histories that players can explore through the game. Knowing each race’s history and culture gives you the chance to have a rich experience and feel like you are actually there in a way that few other science fiction franchises can claim.

Mass Effect's cast of characters line up

The first game features over 400,000 words and more than 20,000 possible lines of dialogue. The original concept was envisaged as a trilogy that would have ‘cinematic power’ and what they ended up with was far more than that. They created one of the best game series and possibly one of the greatest science fiction franchises in any media in history. Commander Shepard travels through the galaxy fighting evil and, the most enjoyable part, building relatable friendships and romances with a host of characters. Playing as a customisable male or female Shepard, with a background history that you choose at the outset, you can be a hero or an anti-hero, you can be gay or straight, you can be a master of weapons, technology, or even the magical ‘biotic’ powers available, you can fight up close and personal, or from a hidden vantage point with your trusty sniper rifle, you can take your time and explore, or you can drive ahead with the main story. Each option brings its own unique experience and means that the game is endlessly repayable.

The first game, released in 2007, puts you straight into action as Commander Shepard, landing at a successful human colony on the planet Eden Prime to investigate a beacon that has been discovered; a relic left behind by the ancient race known as the Protheans. Once there, you discover that the colony has been overrun by a synthetic race called the Geth. After battling your way through hordes of these mechanical beings, which present like a more dangerous version of the Droid army from the Star Wars prequels, you uncover that they are being led by a rogue Turian agent called Saren. A near-death experience with the beacon itself infects your mind with seemingly random images and clues before it is destroyed.

What follows is an adventure across the galaxy to stop Saren, whom it turns out has been indoctrinated by a race of machines called Reapers, who predate even the Protheans.  The first game relies far more upon classic RPG elements, with an intuitive conversation system allowing Shepard to have believable interactions with various characters as he (or she) searches for Saren. The Universe created by Mass Effect is replete with back story and gives you the feeling of being thrust right into the middle of things. An extensive codex of information is at hand and is built upon as you progress through the game and learn more about the various races and how they fit into things. Manipulating the encounters you have, you get the opportunity to become multiple interpretations of your protagonist. You can choose the ‘Space Jesus’ route, building up what are called Paragon points by taking the high road in situations and trying to act in everyone’s best interests, or you can go for Renegade points by looking after number one and acting with brutal cruelty. Either way opens up a range of new options in conversations. You can exercise charm or intimidation in order to get what it is that you truly want.

The adventure of Mass Effect takes you on a fairly linear path through different planets, each with their own distinct environments, however there is a vast array of side quests you can embark upon. Whilst these usually end up with you battling it out in a very similar looking building or cave system on whatever planet you visit (just with a different furniture arrangement), the plots behind each one are nicely put together and it is quite easy to see each one being expanded into, for example, a single standalone episode of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. Many people bemoan the combat system of the first game, but once you are immersed in it, it makes for a great experience. The real joy of Mass Effect, however, is in the exploration and interaction across this wide galaxy. As you captain the Normandy through the galaxy, you have a real sense of progress towards a goal. Along the way there are some harrowing decisions to be made, such as sacrificing squad-mates you have come to know and love over the course of the game (even killing one of them yourself), or forcing races into extinction and choosing between hundreds of lives of one kind over another; nothing is off the table. Mass Effect is a wonderful initiation into the wider universe and sets up the rest of the trilogy perfectly, with your decisions coming back to haunt you in the second and third installments.

2010’s follow up, Mass Effect 2, features on many lists as one of the best games of all time. The developers kept the RPG format but also streamlined the combat options and made the gameplay a lot more fluid. The story is fantastically put together as well. We pick up the action with the Normandy being completely destroyed, along with our hero, Commander Shepard, by a mysterious and heavily armed ship. Fast forward a couple of years and Shepard has been cloned from some genetic material and is enlisted with the Illusive Man, leader of a morally questionable organisation known as Cerberus. The Reapers of the first game are put on a back burner for now as we are introduced to the game’s new antagonists, the Collectors. The Collectors are kidnapping humans from colonies across the galaxy and there seems to be no clue as to their motive. Shepard is tasked with putting together a team to investigate and destroy the Collectors before another colony can be pillaged. This sets up the main thrust of the game: assembling a squad. Each member you acquire brings something different to the table and each one comes with their own history and motive. The three dimensional nature of these characters is breathtaking and they open doors into whole new aspects of the galaxy that were only hinted at in the first game.

You character can choose a righteous path, or one a bit more suspect.

In amongst putting your team together is the task of finding the Collectors in time to stop them. To guarantee your squad’s usefulness and loyalty, you must talk to them and learn what it is that makes them tick. Each one comes with a special mission you can uncover that will turn them from a simple ally to a devoted right hand. Lots of familiar faces reappear in the second game and, having downloaded your choices from the first game, some of them come with baggage. On top of all this, there is the universe of side quests to take on, and places to explore and mine for resources that will improve your chances in the endgame. Beware though, as taking too much time to sight-see can lead to dire consequences later on. If you don’t want to see people you know get liquefied in front of your eyes, you need to keep your eyes on the prize. The game’s final ‘Suicide Mission’ is perhaps one of the best constructed pieces of gameplay I’ve ever encountered. Each member of your team has their talents and you must regularly choose the right people for the right jobs. Make a poor choice and someone dies. Two games and probably 48 hours worth of gameplay is a lot to put into something only to see your best friend shot in the head.

It’s worth mentioning at this point the brilliant soundtrack by Jack Wall, Sam Hulick and others that accompanies the Mass Effect franchise. The music is a major high point of the games, worthy of a place amongst some of the greats. The climax of Mass Effect 2 reveals the Collectors’ sinister motives and how they are, like Saren before them, only agents of the greatest evil; the Reapers, who are about to emerge from the shadows in the trilogy’s final installment.

Mass Effect 3 was released with great fanfare in 2012. It begins with Shepard under arrest and awaiting trial for an act of genocide that is only explained in some downloadable content for the second game. This is interrupted by the Reapers’ arrival on earth and the destruction of large portions of the planet under their bombardment. Shepard escapes Earth and then sets about trying to put together a massive force drawn from every friendly (and some previously unfriendly) race available in order to take Earth back and stop the Reapers once and for all. The game follows the same pattern as the previous ones, but you see the galaxy at war in a way that is hitherto undreamed of. Everywhere you go is under attack, and life is being exterminated on a massive scale. As usual you have some big decisions to make; decisions that can gain you allies and make you enemies. Yet again you are faced with choosing between friends, telling huge lies, and doing the unthinkable in order to achieve your ends. Every decision you make can lose you allies or build up strength for your final assault. Mass Effect 3 introduced multiplayer capabilities and these too can add to your readiness for the final battle.

The game’s divisive ending—if it can be called that—with the scant support it received from anyone, will be discussed in more detail below. Suffice to say, you fight your way through to one final decision, where you can decide the fate of the galaxy. The final fight, which takes place in the beautifully rendered rubble of London, is a wonderful conclusion to the trilogy in itself. Scattered in amongst the desperate battles are intimate moments to have a final conversation with squad mates, some of whom by this time, you have spent nearly 100 hours of gameplay with. There are marvelous moments throughout the game and it really is a fitting end to the trilogy. If the final five minutes do not live up to everyone’s expectations, it is only those; none that precede them.

Over the shoulder view of combat on the beautiful, red tinted planet

One cannot talk about Mass Effect 3, however, without touching on the ending. It is widely slammed as a waste of all the many hours of gameplay that went into the three games before it. In essence, the ending presents you with an NPC who ‘explains’ a lot and then gives you three choices. The three choices lead to incredibly similar-looking closing scenes, simply coloured in a different way. This was a massive let down to many fans of the franchise as it seemed to negate all the thought they had put into their decisions along the way. An extended ending was later added as a free download but it offered little more in the way of satisfaction.

There is an immense amount of downloadable content available for the games in the trilogy. Each separate story fits in to the larger canvas, and the vast majority of them are welcome and worthwhile additions. The jewels in the crown of DLC for the Mass Effect trilogy are, without doubt, Lair of the Shadow Broker, which was an additional story set during Mass Effect 2, and Citadel, a lighthearted romp set within the somber atmosphere of the third game. Lair of the Shadow Broker is an epic story in itself, in which you get to deepen your relationship with one of your squad mates and see a totally different part of the landscape that has been hinted at from very early on in the series. Citadel gives you the chance to see the characters in a far more comedic light, with some quality writing that riffs on your personal gaming style, right down to squad mates moaning about how they’re never chosen to go on missions with you. It ends with a party hosted at Shepard’s apartment that has to be experienced to be believed.

With the original trilogy in the bag, the developers (now subsumed into the corporate giant of EA Games) were forced to look elsewhere for inspiration. They had a massive franchise on their hands and they had effectively ended the story with no real way to move on. So, it was decided to ditch the Milky Way galaxy and move next door to Andromeda. This latest story hit the shelves in 2017, and the long journey to the galaxy next door had mixed results. Casey Hudson, the original director who had since been promoted to Executive Producer, left Bioware in 2014 and the development team was reportedly understaffed leading to delays and problems with some of the animations. There were other issues too.

Firstly, players had spent, as stated before, over 100 hours with a group of characters. None of those characters were now available and it was never going to be easy to come up with a new set of heroes and villains to fill the void. This, if nothing else, is what makes Mass Effect: Andromeda such a cold experience. Despite the gorgeous visuals offered by the next generation of consoles, and the massive open worlds to explore, you never seem to connect with the cast of characters that are assembled around you. Even the Ryder siblings, the new lead characters you choose from at the beginning of the game, seem to pale in comparison with what went before. It takes the lion’s share of the game before you start to embrace them in the same way you did Shepard and Garrus, Liara or Wrex.

That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy Andromeda. It’s a hugely enjoyable game, with great combat mechanics and gameplay and a well-written story of its own. It just seems more pedestrian. Also, the many side quests seem far less well-envisaged than those of the original trilogy. They feel much more like the generic ‘fetch-quests’ that you find in any other open world game. Much criticism was leveled at the developers for rushing out an unfinished game full of bugs and facial animations that were very poor. This all detracted from the aforementioned stunning visuals of some of the environments. There are lots of things to discover in the Andromeda galaxy; ice worlds, dense forests, and a desert planet with more than a few references to Frank Herbert’s Dune. It just lacks that special something that the original trilogy had.

A new cast of characters of human and alien race make up the cast of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Andromeda carried on the multiplayer element which was introduced in the third game. The multiplayer system in Mass Effect is a very enjoyable and addictive addition to the experience. Players can choose to play as members of different races and with a whole host of weapons and powers that you never get to explore in the main game. The multiplayer element also forsakes the traditional ‘Death-match’ scenarios in favour of cooperation and teamwork, which makes for a much more pleasant experience with other players. Your experience level can be tailored to appropriate groups so that you don’t feel overpowered, or like a passenger in each environment. You play as part of a foursome and everyone garners points just for completing the mission. If all of you survive, everyone gets more points. That put the onus on people to help each other rather than just going all out for themselves. As with all these types of game these days, there is the opportunity to spend more and more ‘real’ money on equipment and weapons, and it must be stated that this is a negative and can affect some gamers unduly. The game does give you various opportunities to earn rewards simply through gameplay, though. Multiplayer gives a good degree of longevity to the game, if the replay value of the original trilogy isn’t enough.

The Mass Effect franchise remains one with a high degree of brand loyalty and it will surely surface again in the future. There are already rumours abounding about a new game and the developers have confirmed that something is in ‘very early development’. Where next, though? There is something of a quandary in the choices available. Andromeda did set itself up for a sequel, but the poor performance of that game in comparison with the original trilogy means that it is not likely they will return there. The original trilogy ended on a very final note and picking up that story would also be problematic. Another rumour that has endured throughout the years has been the idea of a prequel story set during humanity’s first contact with the alien races. Wherever they choose to go, it will be vital that they learn the lessons from all four games that have come before, and include the best parts of each one. A new generation of consoles is just around the corner and this will present all sorts of opportunities for expansion into a wider universe. With the amount of time taken over the games in the past, it could be four years before we get to delve into this universe again, but if nothing else, this gives plenty of time for anticipation to build. If they can create something with the same breadth and scope as the original trilogy, with the visuals and mechanics of Andromeda, we’ll be in for something incredibly special.

Written by Richard Austin

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