Back before Mass Effect Andromeda muddied the series waters, audiences had great hope for BioWare’s Mass Effect series. A staple of the last generation – the series quickly evolved from Xbox 360 exclusive to one of the most intense story adventures within gaming. Join me as I revisit the original Mass Effect trilogy.
Mass Effect is a hugely important title for video games; unique in that it was a fully realized science fiction universe which not only stands up in terms of video games but transcends the media and manages to find itself compared to the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek. It’s rich back story and complex politics make the universe feel like a real place while the characters that inhabit it feel fully realized; packed to the brim with races, wars and the kind of drama that elevates proceedings.
The universe screams charm in every room, every choice of clothing and upon every neon-bathed surface within the games confides. It’s the contrast between the clean, hyper-futuristic Citadel and the gritty, dirty planet surfaces you have to fight your way across that lends the universe such a rich tapestry of diversity and variety. It’s the huge set-piece battles that make you tense up against the feeling of fighting through tight corridors as you scrap for survival that gives the game a strong sense of purpose. Very few video game universes strike this balance well – Mass Effect makes it feel effortless.
Yet all this is mere window dressing to the real star of the show – the personal relationships and the connections that gamers form with their crew mates. It’s the quiet moments of discussion that lend those moments of grandeur their splendor. It’s taking the time to learn about Garrus’s time in C-Sec throughout Mass Effect 1. It’s being pulled to the side in Mass Effect 2 by Tali as she opens up about her insecurities to Shepard. It’s watching Miranda’s icy exterior slowly melt as she becomes closer to you. It’s about sharing some fine Serrice Ice Brandy with Dr. Karin Chakwas. More than anything else; Mass Effect is a series that’s built on the interpersonal relationships that really lend it a sense of depth. Without these the game wouldn’t be anywhere near as enjoyable nor would gamers have much reason to care about the universe they’re exploring.
More than anything else; Mass Effect is a series that’s built on the interpersonal relationships that really lend it a sense of depth. Without these the game wouldn’t be anywhere near as enjoyable nor would gamers have much reason to care about the universe they’re exploring.
Throughout my playthrough’s I find myself enjoying these moments more than the grand set-pieces. It was stumbling into personal moments that had me hooked, and really hit me hard when conversations didn’t go the way I intended. I felt bad if a character I liked disapproved of my course of action – conversely I was delighted if they were all aboard for my mad plans. These interactions made the Normandy feel more alive than most video game locales – making every down-period between missions feel that much more special.
It’s the way characters develop their own relationships too that helps to foster this sense of grander scope. It’s the way that Tali and Garrus make jokes about the long elevator rides that populated the original game during Mass Effect 2; the way they trade ‘creepiest enemies we’ve ever shot at’ stories in Mass Effect 3 that makes you feel like these characters are bonding outside of your view. It’s also the touching moments that matter – such as entering Liara’s cabin in Mass Effect 3 and hearing her consoling Garrus over the radio. Subtle touches that lend this incredibly rich cast of characters the depth to move beyond cut-outs and become real to the gamer. Every character from Jack to Mordin feels like they’re on a journey with you, and it’s gratifying to see those journeys reach their natural conclusions – even if those conclusions are ultimately sad.
This isn’t to say Mass Effect got it right all the time. During the first game, some of the options afforded to the gamer feel notably clunky – in particular when it comes to romance options. Bioware still getting to grips with the important aspects of the world they were constructing left little subtlety for the gamer in this regard. It’s probably why during the second game all of the romance options from the first game are placed out of your reach; the game injecting new options in across the board and seemingly rebooting its efforts. It was a wise choice ultimately; giving more options that felt more logical (Seriously, why weren’t Tali or Garrus options out the gate?) while also giving a more adult approach to the way the game handled these romances.
It’s also worth noting that in one of the games biggest strengths it also delivers one of the series biggest weaknesses; the creation of endless choice means compromise in other areas, a compromise that can lead to an inferior playing experience for those who don’t tow the games line. There’s no official right and wrong answer to the games key decisions, but the game has subtle ways of subverting your choices if you try to wander too far from the optimal path. Kill Wrex for example and he’ll be replaced by a generic Krogan who’ll be less personal in the second game. Dispose of Legion and it won’t be his sacrifice that touches you during the course of Mass Effect 3 but instead that of a seemingly equal Geth. It’s an understandable limitation for Bioware but it’s one that can’t be ignored when talking about the franchise.
Andromeda failed to capture this magic of the series, pushing itself as something bigger and grander. Perhaps its biggest fault was in trying to be everything Mass Effect shouldn’t be. Instead of focussing on a strong story with well crafted characters, it bought too heavily into the dream of exploring a new galaxy. It’s why the original trilogy of Mass Effect games holds up so well, and why the series ultimately was better off remaining in the Milky Way.