Reflecting on BioWare’s Mass Effect series and what made it stand out from other games over the last decade.
In the middle years of the last decade the search for a new sci-fi space opera in the spirit of Star Trek led not to television, dominated at the time as it was by the gritty Battlestar Galactica reboot and the world hopping Stargate and its spin-offs, but to videogames.
Here was a newer medium than the one Gene Roddenberry had used to image distant worlds and distinct yet humanoid species in the 1960s and though games fell, and continue to fall, short of the holodeck (at least for now), they proved to be the perfect place to launch Mass Effect.
There are numerous thematic and aesthetic similarities between BioWare’s saga and the adventures of the Enterprise crew. Humanity has, by and large, moved beyond the bitter disputes which have plagued much of our history thanks to technology.
In the case of Star Trek, the advent of the warp engine led to our meeting the Vulcan race and, ultimately, to the formation of the United Federation of Planets; an organisation that is not at all dissimilar in form and function to the Citadel Council.
Mass Effect’s initial reach into the stars was led to directly to conflict and the First Contact War bears heavily on the relations between species, and not only humans and turians; the participants, for decades to come.
Yet it was this confrontation, and the Systems Alliance’s effective response to it, that encouraged the formation of both the Alliance parliament and military and the effective surrender of national sovereignty in inter-planetary affairs.
And the Alliance itself was founded in order to make good on the discovery of the Prothean ruins on Mars and the scientific advances made as a result – which included the discovery of the Charon Relay in 2149 allowing for faster than light travel throughout the galaxy.
Countries remain and are spread spread out across the galaxy, the colony Watson, for instance, came into being following an Alliance brokered compact between the United North American States, the European Union, and the Chinese People’s Federation but for all intents-and-purposes the Alliance is the face of humanity in an often hostile environment in a similar fashion to Star Fleet.
Mass Effect was announced on October 4th, 2005 and in retrospect the description afforded the game fell far short of doing justice to the product which was eventually released in 2007.
Team Xbox’s Brent Soboleski wrote:
“As the first human Spectre – sworn defenders of galactic peace – your mission is to halt the advancing armies of a legendary agent gone rogue. But as you lead your elite team across hostile alien worlds, you will discover the true threat is far greater than anyone imagined.”
It sounds so utterly generic, doesn’t it?
When players ultimately got their hands on the game those “hostile alien worlds” were found to be worth visiting time and again for the story BioWare had crafted and the species which populated those planets.
The characters which populated Shepard’s team proved to be so popular that Garrus and Tali both became love interests in the later games while Wrex returned as a squad mate for Citadel. Their conversations in the elevators of the galaxy’s heart of government, the Presidium, illuminated a universe with an ornate history dating millennia.
As time passed and gamers delved deeper into the overarching narrative of the trilogy, it emerged that Mass Effect’s past covered hundreds of thousands of years if not longer and as with the Halo series, the technology which powered the galaxy was built on the remnants of those who had come before.
The species of the galaxy, humanity most obviously among them, lived in ignorance of what had come before. Indeed, the squid-like hanar took to worshipping the Protheans as deities labelled ‘the Enkindlers’ and in this regard Mass Effect diverged from Star Trek, with the notable exception of Deep Space Nine, in having fully fledged and practised religions for the krogan, asari, hanar, drell, and humanity who brought their faiths with them despite leaving Earth behind; Ashley is a Christian and Cerberus assassinated a Pope.
Commander Shepard encountered the Roman-esque turians who thrive on efficiency and the strength of their armies, it was Palavan’s misunderstanding of humanities extent which saw them gain Shanxi but lose the First Contact War. The spectre came to know the war-like krogan, brutally treated and bearing the punishment for crimes long forgotten in the form of the fertility-reducing genophage.
Then came the asari and most notably Liara who Yesika argues quite excellently was always intended as Shepard’s canon romance. We are informed through dialogue, the codex, and player interactions with members of their race, that the asari are the most advances of the Milky Way’s peoples and though Liara’s mother, Matriarch Benezia, comes to serve Saren there is little to dissuade that line of thought until Mass Effect 3 and the revelation of the Prothean Beacon on Thessia upon which asari civilisation is founded.
We are, of course, presented with many reputable asari as well, notably those who have joined the Eclipse mercenary group and to a certain extent it can be argued that the blue skinned race is the most varied throughout the trilogy with the possible exception of humans.
Our galaxy is populated with many other species as well, the malleable business-centric volus, the aggressive vorcha, and the rigorously hated batarians. There are many batarians in the games but only a very select few, one of whom works with Garrus on Omega and Balak, who can be convinced to abandon his plan for revenge on Shepard to take on the Reapers and save, of all place, Earth, are presented as anything other than terrorists or slavers.
Still, the Mass Effect universe is vast and one of the standout attributes of the first game is the ability of players to explore the worlds they find and travel in any direction that takes their fancy. The negativity expressed towards the Mako, the tank-like vehicle which players used to do so, resulted in a tighter experience in Mass Effect 2 and 3 and that in turn led to more varied levels but the loss of the chance to discover for ourselves.
Many of the planets Shepard was given the opportunity to explore were home to the vicious experiments of Cerberus, an organisation dedicated to the advancement of humanity which split away from the Alliance military, killing an admiral in the process, to become a threat to the very existence of organic life in the galaxy.
Both Saren, that “legendary agent gone rogue” spoken of by Team Xbox, and The Illusive Man prove to be more menacing and effective enemies than Shepard’s ultimate enemies, the Reapers. April wrote that the Reapers are boring and perhaps they are, their ultimate goal is the annihilation of the most advanced species in the galaxy, a process which might have been repeated ad infinitum were it not for Shepard’s intervention.
Saren and The Illusive Man are more immediate threats, more menacing in many ways simply because they people with motivations powered by their own misguided desires rather than by a taste for genocide in a bid to prevent genocide (a questionable logic, but the one offered by the Catalyst as explanation for the cycles of extinction).
It was Mass Effect 2, the game which provided the most abstract of the series’ villains, the Collectors, which proved to be the most accomplished of the three. With Mass Effect 2 BioWare had the franchise’s Two Towers, its Empire Strikes Back. A darker game but a more personal one as well.
Some have argued that the game was a diversion from Shepard’s main story arc, bringing the Commander away from the task of stopping the Reapers to saving isolated human colonies at risk from the Collectors. It introduced me to Miranda who became my love interest for the reasons I illuminate here. Mass Effect 2 was a game for Shepard’s companions, their recuritment, and the acquisition of their loyalty. The game created a bond with those characters few other titles have ever dared to attempt.
While the fact that players can lose that fealty by disagreeing with squad mates during pivotal argument may be harsh, BioWare crafted a game that encouraged thorough playthroughs – though some of the side missions could prove irksome (the YMIR mech escort missions springs to mind) – and the loyalty of the squad was incentive enough to carry on. Knowing that the survival of your team demanded in large part on their loyalty provided ample cause to finish the game as prepared as possible for the Suicide Mission.
And speaking of the Suicide Mission; the conclusion of that game, perhaps more than any other point in the trilogy highlighted the franchise’s musical score which began with the haunting, synth sci-fi tracks of the first game to the soaring operatic trends of the second and third.
The tranisition in music arguably accompanied the change in the nature of the series from a core RPG in Mass Effect 1 to an action adventure by the third installment.
While the change may not have been universally welcomed, it’s no secret that combat was one of the first game’s greatest weaknesses and BioWare crafted not only a competent third person shooter but also a multiplayer mode which continued to appeal for quite some time after Mass Effect 3’s launch.
No look at BioWare’s series would be complete without a moment to reflect on how it ended. The controversies which arose from the conclusion of the trilogy sparked a backlash which continues even now.
Over the weekend Gerry Pugliese, a self-proclaimed “huge Mass Effect fan” published Mass Effect 3: Vindication; a 400 page fan revision, and blueprint, for fixing Mass Effect 3.” The project has taken two years and includes new missions, character interactions, and romance options.
Whether or not Mass Effect 3 needs “fixing” is an argument which will never be solved to the satisfaction of everyone. BioWare released Citadel, an extensive DLC which offered a chance for Shepard and players to say goodbye.
This followed in the wake of the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut which did much to allay the furore. They did this for free and while Pugliese and others may never be satisfied with how Shepard’s story finished BioWare was never under any obligation to alter their story and must be commended for doing so.
Mass Effect was one of the most important franchises of the last decade and with development of the next game well into development there’s an opportunity to move beyond whatever mistakes may have been made until this point.
I don’t regret a moment of it.