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Over at PC Gamer, the prolific RPG scholar Richard Cobbett looks back at BioWare's Mass Effect series and tries to analyze what worked there and what didn't, ultimately coming to a conclusion that even for all its flaws, Mass Effect is a “truly magnificent trilogy.”
Of course, I vehemently disagree with the notion that your choices over the course of that trilogy matter in any way, shape, or form, since no matter what you do or whom you manage to murk during your playthrough, the predetermined story beats will happen regardless. But, if you can look past that, or share Richard Cobbett's opinion that the journey matters more than the destination in that particular case, then this article is a great way to reminisce about BioWare's highly praised and inarguably memorable series of sci-fi RPGs.
Out of this world
Mass Effect remains arguably BioWare’s tightest and most successful series, and one that’s as much a departure from the company’s comfort zone as it was a natural continuation of its direction back in the mid-2000s. Knights of the Old Republic in 2003 was an attempt to make RPG combat especially look cinematic and exciting despite being overtly based on D&D rules and not afraid to drop terms like THAC0 in polite company, while Jade Empire attempted to both look like a Wuxia movie and combine arcade action with RPG stats and storytelling. Dragon Age: Origins would re-target the fans won over by Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights—at least for one game, before looking to a wider audience. Mass Effect meanwhile would start out by looking to the future and an AAA audience up for an epic adventure, but that didn’t want want to roll dice or juggle a million stats just to kick a little alien ass. It was still an RPG at heart, but a considerably faster paced one than most of the audience was used to.
The premise is a simple one. Humanity is very much the newcomer in the intergalactic community, and not particularly trusted—not least because our first contact with the avian Turian race led to what became known as the “First Contact War’. Ouch. Luckily, since then things have improved, and we’re bopping around the galaxy to explore and colonise with the help of a network of ancient relays and their hub, the Citadel. Now, we’re ready to make our next big step towards legitimacy with the appointment of our hero Commander Shepard as the first human Spectre—a space-cop with pretty much unlimited authority and autonomy, if not apparently a regular pay cheque. Good timing too, as a Lovecraftian threat from the darkest parts of space—the Reapers—is about to threaten the entire galaxy… and nobody believes they even exist.
The first game was a big hit, but a distinctly flawed diamond. Many of its quirks would later become in-jokes, like the endless elevator rides used to poorly hide new areas loading in, or the fun-vacuum Mako rover that made exploring new planets about as much fun as getting a root canal on a Wurlitzer.
By far the biggest weakness though was combat. Much like KOTOR before it, it was caught between its RPG core and Hollywood longings, only this time with the RPG side buckling under the pressure. The result was a game where combat was something of a chore—not much fun, mechanically fiddly, and with enemies slightly dumber than toast. Later games would fix this by doubling-down, simplifying even further, and effectively becoming an all-out third-person shooter broken up with extended conversations and social zones. It made for some awkward lore moments, like guns that canonically had effectively unlimited ammo now conveniently needing pick-ups, but no matter.
Luckily, underneath all of this, the world that BioWare created immediately established itself as a place worth dealing with all this and more to experience. On a broad level, It’s every great SF trope mixed together, from the sexy all-female asari race to the central plot about wise precursors and enemies from beyond the stars. We’ve seen more of this before, in some form at least, with Mass Effect’s universe owing a particular debt to Babylon 5 in terms of both setting and aesthetic, and Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation sites for big plot.
Zoom in, though, and BioWare’s universe is stuffed with originality, with humour, with sharp writing, great characters, and relationships that aren’t just beautifully written, but take full advantage of the trilogy format to grow. Your initial team-mates, Kaidan and Ashley, aren’t perpetually locked in your shadow, and have their own military careers going on. By the time Shepard and his/her Turian BFF Garrus take time out to go target shooting in Mass Effect 3, you’ve been part of that relationship and emotionally invested in what happens next in their romance or friends for the best part of 60 hours and several years of actual game. Likewise, you’ve seen Tali’Zorah go from scared child on the run to military badass and potential saviour, Liara T’Soni from simple archeologist into the all-powerful Shadow Broker, Miranda from a cold human supremacist with a vacuum packed bottom into a defrosted ice-princess with a vacuum packed bottom, and Jacob Taylor… well, Jacob is there too.
While not all of these plots start in the first game, it’s hard to look back on the first Mass Effect without factoring in what everything became. Rather than piling on new lore with each new instalment, BioWare instead chose to dig a bit deeper. You hear about the quarian fleet in the first game, for instance, but it’s not until the second that you get to pay it a visit. Likewise, the alien homeworlds are saved for the third game where their destruction can feel meaningful, for the same reason that the Star Trek reboot opted to blow up Vulcan rather than some random little world in the beta quadrant.
That’s not including some of the bigger decisions that don’t simply affect the fate of the galaxy, but some of your best friends. Where does loyalty to them end and the needs of the wider universe begin? Can you risk starting a galactic war in the name of ending one? Who do you pick when both sides have equal value to their claim, but a classic Star Trek diplomatic situation is off the table? At least in your current run through things.
While big decisions are part and parcel of many an RPG, few have done a better job of creating thought-provoking ones where there may be no ‘right’ answer, or a past decision may have shifted things dramatically between games. The two biggest in the original Mass Effect are whether or not to release an alien threat called the Rachni, which seems reasonable enough, and which of your starting crew members will die on the planet Vermire. There’s no getting around making that choice, and whichever you pick to make the sacrifice is gone for the rest of the series, along with hope of slipping in a quick romance.
While covering it properly means skipping ahead a little, the biggest example set up in the first game is the krogan genophage. Krogan are a species of incredibly fast, territorial, aggressive breeders that once threatened the galaxy simply by existing. To deal with this, another race created the genophage as a viral way to curtail their overexpansion—specifically by rendering most of them sterile. Unfortunately, that just means they're now dying off, and unsurprisingly pissed with the rest of the galaxy.
In Mass Effect 3, you have the chance to fix things… but will that just doom the galaxy down the line? Making things more interesting is that at this point in the series they can have one of two leaders, former party member and rough diamond with hidden depths Urdnot Wrex, or if he’s dead, his more aggressive cousin Wreav. Neither is exactly a dove, but Wreav is unquestionably the more hawkish and vengeful of the pair, and longs to harness krogan resentment to launch a war against their oppressors. The catch is that long before any of this, still in the first game, Wrex discovers that the villain, Saren, may have an outright cure and he’s willing to kill Shepard over it. How many other games introduce plot choices and dilemmas that take five years to finish finally playing out?
While inevitably the nature of the story means you don’t necessarily face the true consequences, the games do a fantastic job of both setting up the stakes for these beyond the pragmatic ‘get 25 War Assets’ change by showing every side of it in characters that you’ve hopefully come to respect and like. Whether galactic scale or personal, every quest matters deeply to someone, and usually characters you’ve known and hung out with for at least a couple of games by the point that their big quest starts. Everyone comes to the mission with baggage, and how you deal with it can be as important as any action bit.