(Potential Spoilers for a decade-old game ahead)
Eventually I was going to get around to talking about my favorite videogame series.
Here’s the extent of my fandom: My living room used to be decorated in red and black and Systems Alliance colors. I have a dog named after a character in the series. The soundtrack of the game is in two different Spotify playlists. I defend the series and recommend them whenever someone wants recommendations for an engrossing RPG, it’s the first one I mention.
BioWare’s Mass Effect.
Wiki description crib:
The original trilogy largely revolves around a soldier of the Systems Alliance named Commander Shepard, whose mission is to save the galaxy from a race of powerful mechanical beings known as the reapers and their agents, including the first game’s antagonist Saren Arterius. The first game, released in 2007, sees Shepard investigating Saren, whom Shepard slwly comes to understand is operating under the guidance of Sovereign, a reaper left behind in the Milky Way tens of thousands of years before, whe the Reapers exterminated virtually all sentient organic life in the galaxy as part of a recurrent cycle of genocide for an unknown purpose. Sovereign’s purpose is to trigger the imminent return of the Reaper fleet hibernating in extra-galactic dark space, restarting the process of extermination.
Mass Effect 2 takes place two years later, and sees Shepard battling the Collectors, an alien race abducting entire human colonies in a plan to help the Reapers return to the Milky Way.
Mass Effect 3 centers on the war being waged against the Reapers.
I first got into the game around maybe 2009 or so, when the first one had been out for awhile. I played through it, really liked it, but didn’t play two because I had gotten caught up in real life stuff, I believe. Fast forward a year or so and I decide to Redbox Mass Effect 3. But in doing so, I realized that the decisions I had made in Mass Effect 1 in my original playthrough didn’t matter for squat. ADD kicked in and I resolved to play through the series at one point. That point didn’t come until 2012, and I decided to use a huge chunk of my first big boy paycheck to buy myself a TV and an Xbox360. I still had a few games, but I mostly used the 360 to watch Netflix and get out of my roommate’s hair since he tended to hog the living room television.
A few months later, I bought the trilogy, which had just been released in a comprehensive package that included some of the DLC.
And oh my God, I loved it.
I had gotten hooked on BioWare because my cousin had given/lent me Dragon Age. I played through that game in maybe a week or so and made the decision that I would support this BioWare company.
Aside: I’m not the kind of guy to get attached to a media/gaming company or person because they will inevitably disappoint you. I’ll give you guys three examples. The first is Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. I loved 300, and when I saw the trailer for Sucker Punch I saw mechas, and trench warfare, and girls, and samurai swords, and FANSERVICE. So I decided to splurge. Went to the Marqee Theater in Houston, got tickets for the Imax 3D experience, and even got popcorn and a coke. If it wasn’t for the fact that I dropped close to fifty bucks, I would have walked out. And ever since then, I haven’t seen a single Snyder movie in theaters and I’M OKAY WITH THAT. The other two examples are Tom Clancy (RIP) and Bernard Cornwell. Tom Clancy was one of my favorite authors, but in retrospect, I don’t know if the political references went over my head when I was younger but the last few books weren’t even trying to hide his stance and I was beat over the head with “HAHA THIS PRESIDENT RAN AGAIN BECAUSE DEMOCRATS SUCK AND ALSO AMERICA!”
Bernard Cornwell, author of one of my favorite book series (Sharpe), also wrote a historical fiction novel called Harlequin/The Archer’s Tale. I loved it. Then I read Azincourt and realized that it was the SAME DAMN NOVEL, pretty much. Now, you historical folk could draw a lot of comparisons between the two battles (Crecy and Agincourt) but to me it just felt like one was a fanfiction of the other.
Back to BioWare. Back to my bedroom. Back to sitting on the edge of my queen bed, playing the series fully for the first time.
The first thing, and always the hardest, was creating the character.
Now here’s one thing I like about BioWare. When you create a character, you’re creating a character in their own world, but it feels very real. Comparison: the Dragonborn in Skyrim and the Courier in Fallout New Vegas. But where your character avatar in the Bethesda games is just a blank face, I feel there’s much more personal involvement in Mass Effect.
So I create a commander Shepard, one who came through bad neighborhoods on Earth to eventually be a hero in a particular campaign, an act that would get him assigned to the Normandy, where he would quickly replaced the captain while he returned to the never-boring duty of helping out humanity’s best interests in the Council, the governing body.
Your actions here have ramifications down the line. And depending on what you pick your origin, it’ll have its own sidequest later on.
Then you have to pick the classes, each with pros and cons, based on three “talents”: biotic, tech, and combat.
For my first playthrough, played a Vannguard because there was something particularly satisfying about using your biotic abilities to charge up and then fly into a group of enemies and then ruining their shit.
Shock Trooper (Soldier/Vanguard)
Specializations, Mass Effect 2/3:
Adept - > Bastion/Nemesis
Soldier - > Commando/Shock Trooper
Engineer -> Mechanic/Demolisher
Vanguard -> Champion/Destroyer
Sentinel -> Guardian/Raider
Infiltrator -> Agent/Assassin
I played Vanguard (Shock Trooper/Destroyer) in my first playthrough and then played Soldier (Commando) in the second one. Two playthroughs where I’ve literally sucked every bit of playability out. Eventually, I’ll do a third run-through and try something crazy like Medic or Engineer. Really, it goes to your playstyle. I’ve never been a stealth guy. I’m a cry havoc, rush in guns blazing kind of guy.
So your experience with gameplay may vary on this, but it’s all really fun. I preferred to shoot the ever-loving shit out of enemies with assault rifles or rush in with a biotic charge + shockwave combo that sent everyone flying. Other people might prefer sniper rifles. Some might prefer hacking everything and turning enemies on themselves.
The gameplay is reminiscent throughout all three games of Dragon Age: Origins, which is my point of reference for other BioWare games since I haven’t gotten around to playing the expansions or the rest of the games in the DA series. It’s a third person shooter, with the camera focusing on yourself and two allies. They also show up in cutscenes and will occasionally talk shit to the other ally-character (Which to me has always been one of the bonuses in BioWare games). The difference in combat between these games and Dragon Age is that in Mass Effect you don’t get the opportunity to switch between characters, however, you can still coordinate your teammates’ tactics based on what kind of character you’re playing. For instance, you can get your techy ally to disable a big robot’s armor, and then you can pour a lot of bullets into the weakened enemy while your biotic teammate runs crowd control and keeps enemy bodies away from you by flinging them around. Or you can have all three characters be the soldier type and just overwhelm the enemy with bullets. This is one of my favorite playstyles, especially when I can have Ashley (“Space Racist” as one of my friends calls her) and Wrex in the same squad.
And the thing about the gameplay is I think it gets better as each passing game improves on the issues of the preceding one. One of the biggest complaints people had about the first one is the Mako missions (it’s a tank) but I’ll take those clunky controls over the exploration elements that were quietly phased out in the ensuing games. Although, story-wise, it makes sense. Mass Effect 2 and 3, you’re on a bit of a time crunch so technically there’s not a lot of time for you to play space grab-ass.
The controls feel intuitive and once you get the hang of them it’s hard to forget. The biggest adjustment for me, I guess, was going from grenades to no grenades. But the grenades in ME1 were kinda shitty to begin with, so no big loss.
Weapon customization is awesome, and that’s one of those things that got better as the games progressed. Whereas in ME:1 you had to make sure to equip everyone with their armor and particular weaponry and make sure everything was tip-top shape. That got much more streamlined with the ensuing games.
Now, the DLC is AMAZING. I think Mass Effect was my first real brush with DLC and I loved all of them. If I had to pick a favorite, it’d be a dead tie between Omega, Overlord, and Citadel.
So I briefly talked about the story above but I think there’s a lot more to it than that and again, spoilers alert for those of you who are going to be upset by that kind of stuff. Not that the spoilers should detract from the opportunity to experience the game.
I think the writers did an excellent job building the Mass Effect storyline and the characters all feel fleshed out properly and you feel a direct connection to their lives.
Mass Effect is where I first grappled with morality in videogames. Like, since i was playing all three games in one playthrough, I knew that the decisions I took would affect my character down the line. (More on THIS, too, in a little bit)
For instance, the first game makes you take two fateful choices:
One, as part of the latter half of the game, right before you go into the Big Bad’s base of operations, one of your crewmembers pulls a gun on you because he suspects (with his lack of available data) that you’re just as bad as Big Bad. So you could talk him out of it, shoot him, or have one of your squadmates shoot him.
Then at the end of that particular mission, you’re thinking, whew, that was tough.
And then you realize you’re going to make another mission and this one is going to absolutely result in one of your squadmates sacrificing themselves. And you have to make the call. Decisions like these are riddled throughout the game, a good chunk of them get people killed.
Like in Mass Effect 2, do you go for expediency and skimp on some of the armor for your ship as it makes an almost, maybe, too close to, just about, literal suicide run and end with one of your crewmember speared through? Do you try and get all lovey-dovey with everyone only to have your time run out? Do you dilly-dally trying to get a few last-second things only to witness a potential love interest liquefied before your eyes? Do you turn that “just following orders, sir” tech into the authorities knowing she’s going to cost you in the long run because she’ll escape and turn a gun on someone you needed to, you know, not die; or do you cut out the middleman and kill her yourself?
Here’s the thing: The story and the character development is set up so that you feel a connection to the characters more so than you would in a game like Skyrim or Fallout. These aren’t just the people on board the ship, these are the people that fight, bleed, and die with you.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and you’re playing that all throughout the series. The appeal to me is that the gameplay and story advancement isn’t hinging on your ability to git gud at videogames, but rather in the tiny decisions.
Sometimes they’re political. Sometimes they’re just “I don’t like you.” like my situation with crewmember Kaidan Alenko. I just plain didn’t like him.
Oh, and there’s romance! Man on man, woman on woman, man on genderless alien race that looks feminine. My first playthrough I played the loyal BroShep with the undying love for Ashley Williams even though she thought he was dead. My second playthrough, I played as Elize Shepard, a FemShep who knows what she’s got and isn’t afraid to leave a trail of broken hearts and mattresses throughout the galaxy.
But then she falls in love with the head of the Space NSA and then ruins it by sleeping with the Yeoman Samantha Traynor, her personal assistant.
(In my ship we scuttled the HR department to make room for MOAR DAKKA)
And this is why HELLO, TANGENT TIME AGAIN
This is why it’s important to have diversity. I think one of the most heartwarming moments is when Steve Cortez, one of your pilots, talks to you about his husband. He doesn’t drop the “my partner is a DUDE. DUN DUN DUN” <surprised hamster> line. He just mentions his husband as if a man having a relationship with a man is completely normal. Which, you know, it fucking is. And this dude’s a burly black guy who spends his time in Mass Effect 3 in the hangar/docking area talking shit to Vega, a burly Latino dude. There’s clear camaraderie and friendship between the two. Like, it normalizes something that is still “not normal” to a lot of people.
Tell them, Louie.
And the women? They’re all badass. Miranda, Tali, Ashley, Liara, Samara, Morinth, Dr. Chakwas, Jack, Diana Allers. My favorite is Ashley, because she’ll quote Tennyson and she’ll carry a big gun and she’s a soldier’s soldier. Every one of them has something to prove.
Having people like that in fictional media is a great thing.
“What made Mass Effect different was the details. Dialogue wasn’t just expository. Characters could argue for multiple points of view – and none of those perspectives were necessarily right or wrong. You made decisions that rendered every play-through a little bit different. At the center of it all was your Shepard – male or female, diplomat or soldier, world weary or uncomplaining, straight or bisexual or gay or blue-fetish xenosexual – trying to save the galaxy.”
Back to the game and to my…
Segue (or how come I hear a lot of trash about Mass Effect 3 and the ending)
I mentioned how this is a story-driven game. The “ending sucks” movement is based out of the (I feel) erroneous expectation that the ending should have taken into account every single decision you made.
Franich nails it in a away I couldn’t possibly hope to replicate, so I’m snipping this part of his essay.
Recap: “At the end of Mass Effect 3, you’re given three choices: Destroy all synthetic life in the cosmos, including yourself and the villains; take control of villains; or convert the entire galaxy into half-synthetic and half-organic. No matter what you do, you die. I chose the third option, because it seemed appropriately magnificent -- that’s the 2001 option, really. My Shepard died doing a Ripley swan dive into a beam of energy, with memories of her friends flashing before her eyes … By forcing you to choose between three stark options that all provide the same result, some have argued that the ending reflects poorly on a series that had typically let you decide your own fate. But the decisions in Mass Effect were always less sweeping than they appeared to be. You could never decide to blow up a planet, or shoot one of your crew members in cold blood just because you didn’t like their tone. Heck, in Mass Effect 3, I got locked into that relationship with the Yeoman just because I decided to sleep with her before the bird alien I secretly loved got up the courage to ask me on a date. I couldn’t go tell the bird alien I loved him. It wasn’t in my Shepard’s programming. Mass Effect was always a more limited experience than players were willing to admit. … The joy of Mass Effect was that it let you slightly individualize a journey that always had one fundamental endpoint. That’s why people love the franchise in a way they’ll never love Elder Scrolls or Fallout -- franchises that are more open, but less vividly personal.
Franich describes the ending in four words: “fascinating, frustrating, movie and weird”, and calls it “the kind of the ending the videogame medium will need more of it if it intends to mature.”
I agree, but I’m going to take a step back and embrace the fact that I see Mass Effect 3, in its entirety, IS the ending. Anyone who thinks they don’t see the effects of their decisions probably didn’t do the side OR the main quests. What kind of leader is the leader of the Krogan if you killed Wrex? If you led Tali to disgrace, will the Quarians help out? What about the Geth?
You have Mordin, the *hums* very model of a scientist salarian, an ally, a friend, sacrifice his life to save the Krogan.
“Had to be me. Somebody else might have gotten it wrong.”
That was my Sephiroth killing Aeris moment. Just as sad.
Here’s a good look, although I disagree with this other author in his conclusions about the overall ending.
(Yes, there’s ways to make Mordin survive, but for the sake of the ending, it works so much better if he dies)
And then there’s this rousing score as the Krogan as a race are saved, and you feel the planet-wide elation while at the same time knowing in your heart that you’ve lost a friend.
Which, by the way, is ANOTHER GOOD thing about the game. Every member that dies gets immortalized in an In Memoriam wall in your ship in the third game. And at first, it’s the crewmembers that died in the explosion that kicked off the first game.
But then the names start adding up…
So I mentioned the music
Jack Wall composed the music for the first two games and then Clint Mansell (of Requiem for a Dream fame) composed the music for Mass Effect 3, both backed by a team comprised of Christopher Lennertz, Cris Velasco, Sam Hulick, and Sascha Dikiciyan.
I use the Mass Effect soundtrack as the backbone for one of my writing playlists because it is so beautiful. It’s rousing orchestra meets sci-fi and it all works. That hauntingly beautiful music that plays while the Krogan are saved? Hits you right in the guts. Then The Fleets Arrive which is right up there with Independence Day’s score for “alright, we’re getting the gang back together and we’re going to kick serious ass”
Like with Final Fantasy X, which was another game whose music I’ve really enjoyed, Mass Effect’s music fits perfectly with every moment in the game. Whether it’s love scenes, or action, or whatever. It’s good.
The music you hear the most is likely the music you hear when you’re in the Normandy and even that is soothing. If I was a crewmember I wouldn’t mind listening to that all the time. It’s actually better than the other kind of music that you’re able to customize it with in M:E2 and M:E3.
This game comes with a lot of DLC, but I think my favorites are Overlord (M:E2), Omega, and Citadel (M:E3)
Overlord, just because it’s SPOOKY. Like, there are some side missions in the normal games where it does get kind of creepy, but Overlord just ramps it up with the music and the ploth. It’s Dead Space-lite, and as creeped out as I ever was in the course of the game.
The other awesome sauce one is Omega. It’s challenging, you get to play with one of the series villains/anti-heroes (perspective, I reckon) as part of your party, and it’s a lot of fun. Also, it’s long. Like, I think it’s one of the longer DLCs in the game.
But I think my favorite was Citadel.
Alright, so maybe Citadel came out as a bit of a response to the angry people complaining about the ending.
Maybe it’s nothing but fanservice.
But even then…
Citadel should, thematically, be played right before you head to the Cerberus base. It’s basically a game where there’s some gun battles, some very minor plot advancement, but mostly a RnR for the crew before the endgame’s endgame. It’s also the last time you have them all together, you get to call them up to the swanky apartment you have on the Citadel (it was given to you by Admiral Anderson since he’s busy on Earth keeping humanity alive) and have one-on-one moments with them that are really deep.
Then, of course, you have a house party with different kinds of outcomes depending on what kind of party you choose to have.
But in ends with one of my favorite moments:
Right before you head back to the Normandy, the survivors of your crew throughout three games get together post-party and take a group shot. It’s the kind of photo that, once the endgame is through, one of the crewmembers would look back at it and touch the faces of the fallen.
Another is, again, spoilers, but, Mass Effect 2 opens with the first version of the Normandy shot down and kaboom’d in space by the baddies you end up fighting as part of the second game. In that explosion, you see a lot of crewmembers die (and you, technically, die, too) while the rest escape in escape pods. The Normandy crashes on some random planet and you never really see it again. (The Normandy in Mass Effect 2 is basically a Cerberus [baddies/good guys...ish in second game] design of the original Normandy with a different paint job. The Normandy in Mass Effect 3 is that one, just re-painted and some rooms retooled).
But in the Normandy Crash Site DLC, you get to explore the crash site. And it’s, something else. Like, talk about a cinematic experience. It’s not really a ‘mission’ mission and you don’t really do much other than collect a few items and dog-tag mementos that trigger cutscenes when you find them, and it’s very moving.
Another amazing moment is near the end, when The Fleets Arrive score plays while you’re making your speech to every ship in your side. SO AWESOME.
And in Mass Effect 1, right in the mission where you can lose 1-2 allies, you’re assisting a suicide squadron of Salarian specialists. And their commander manages his own awesome speech right before the battle begins.
But Jesus, it feels like every side character was fully fleshed out.
I’ve gone on more than I needed to in this review, but please, if you ever get a chance, play through the series. Make the decisions you want to make, live them, be a paragon or a renegade, or a little bit of both.