Discovery, Demons and War: A Look Back at ‘Mass Effect’



The next entry in the seminal science-fiction series Mass Effect is coming out sometime in March of next year. Despite being a flagship franchise for EA and a having a release window less than half a year away, very little has been said or shown of Mass Effect: Andromeda except for:

  • This 4K gameplay bit rendered on a PlayStation Neo, which looks no different from 1080p unless you watched on a 4K screen;
  • The EA Play kind-of trailer that showed off the franchise in the Frostbite engine;
  • The player character’s name is Ryder, and the story might have something to do with some family drama. Both the male and female versions of the protagonist are siblings, and the mysterious N7 armor-clad man from the announcement trailer is their father.

Nov. 7, EA and Mass Effect’s celebrated N7 Day, will likely reveal more. But in the meantime, I needed Mass Effect now. In the span of two weeks, I played roughly 70 hours across three games. The original Mass Effect trilogy maintains the themes of organic versus synthetic life, leadership and fighting against all odds (literally everything is against the player in each game—the council, the Collectors, the Reapers; it’s a wonder Shepard kept trying).

While those themes permeate across all three games, sometimes falling beneath the surface, each entry manages to maintain a unique identity from discovery to demons to war.

Discovery and Mass Effect

The first release in the franchise had the hardest job: Sell people on Mass Effect. In order to hit that point, BioWare played it safe thematically by making the most straight-forward space opera in the series. It had all the best aspects of a good space opera, too: interesting worlds, a ragtag team, a plain-and-simple villainous villain and a climatic space battle. That’s not to be dismissive, either, because they built a damn good universe.

Commander Shepard plays the stand-in role for the player, knowing enough about the world around him/her to be curious and not idiotic. That’s a fine line to play with. From there, it’s the sense of discovery that makes the game successful, climbing in the MAKO and dropping to barren landscapes in hopes of finding something new and mysterious.

That carries over into the main-story environments, as well. From the abandoned research center in the snowy mountain tops to the tropical lab nestled in the jungle or the ancient, vine-covered ruins, these locations offered a sense of discovery and exploration on worlds in this fictional yet realistic-feeling universe. They are all places that when you look at them, you know they carry answers to be found.

From the Geth and Quarian conflict to the doomsday, machine-race Reapers, this is all the game that establishes the rest of the series. Mass Effect kept to a safe format to pull everyone in, all while setting up so much more.

The Demons of Mass Effect 2

The main story of Mass Effect 2 keeps course with the whole series, but it’s not what makes this game fascinating. The crew Shepard gathers is what makes this a stand-out release.

This game is the Seven Samurai but in space. A protagonist has to gather a team of unique individuals, all with special skills or abilities, in order to take on an impossible task. Here, though, players have the chance to not only see a glimpse of each companion’s personal demons but also help them find peace with them.

Many of the characters are actively escaping their past even. The salarian geneticist Mordin Solus founded a clinic to reconcile the pseudo genocide he helped create; Thane Krios is trying to rid the world of villains as he nears death, running from his past as an assassin; Garrus Vakarian, who we saw in the first game, joins the team shortly after the murder of his entire squad of vigilantes, an end he blames himself for.

For others, the actions of their families come back to haunt them. Jacob Taylor finds a clue of his long-lost father; Tali’Zorah nar Rayya is tried for treason due to her father’s secrecy; the asari justicar Samara learns where her serial killer daughter, who she swore to hunt down, is hiding.

Characters drive the game, funneling down to the main story where everyone may die in a suicide mission. But that adds emotional punch that I just drank up. The loyalty missions, where Shepard accompanies each squad member to address their demons, also provide vignettes in the smaller themes of power, corruption, love, duty and closure, all for the sake of tying loose ends before death.

Mass Effect 3 is a War Story

It’s a shame Mass Effect 3 will go down in history for dropping the ball. I don’t even mind the few macro choices at the end as much as I hate the deus ex machina star boy who exists only to explain a whole bunch of nonsense in the eleventh hour.

The other 95 percent of that game is incredible, though. The third and final iteration of the series is arguably the best in the series. After two games of a looming threat, the Reapers are finally here and the galaxy is at war.

War stories are often two-sided. There’s the frontlines, and then there’s the home front. Mass Effect 3 manages to show both sides, albeit, at times, clumsily. The game is filled to the brim with micro-stories, little narratives that you can miss if you don’t stop and listen.

Throughout the Citadel, characters start to develop through conversations. The player can never talk to them directly, nor will they ever know their names, but they are there, and they are suffering.

There’s the young girl who routinely talks to the turian dockworker about her missing parents. As the game moves on, her optimism continually shrinks when they never arrive. And then there’s the struggling wife who talks to an embassy employee about getting her daughter to safety from the battlefields to her spouse’s family because her family won’t take the child of a cross-species relationship.

The brilliant part of the game is how the situation gets visually worse as the story progresses. Hospitals fill up, refugee sectors grow crowded and memorial walls get packed. The world just feels desperate and, at times, hopeless.

Squad members are all personally affected, as well. From heroic sacrifices to emotional collapses as someone watches their home planet burn, BioWare doesn’t hold back when it comes to players’ emotions. The developers even try to tackle PTSD with Shepard, albeit rather clumsily again. As you leave Earth to slowly turn to rubble, you watch a little boy die in the distance. This repeatedly comes back to haunt Shepard in dreams. It’s a shallow attempt to take on a serious mental condition, but there’s nothing offensive about the take.

What could have easily been a fight-driven romp against giant robots became a dark narrative about the personal costs of war.

Mass Effect feels like a brave series, one that tries to tell bigger, more complicated stories. It doesn’t always succeed, but it gets a lot of credit for trying in a medium that loves explosions. I can only wonder what Mass Effect: Andromeda will be like.

Will this team of new adventurers deal with galactic issues with a sense of naivety compared to the weathered soldier in Shepard? Will the expansion into a new galaxy mean a chance to explore the ideas of colonization and territory? Are there Reapers there?

It’s exciting because BioWare is using a setting that has so many possibilities. Here’s hoping they don’t fall short.