With the recently released Citadel add-on officially bringing an end to the Mass Effect trilogy, we felt it was good opportunity to look back on one of the most engaging, personal experiences to grace this generation. We’ll be talking about everything from the characters, the gameplay, and the aesthetics, to the fictional universe itself. So, find your favourite spot on the Normandy, get comfortable, grab a drink, and join us while we reflect on Commander Shepard's grand adventure.
Warning: this article includes spoilers, so if you haven't finished the full trilogy, look away now.
Of the Galaxy we call the Milky Way
Over the course of three games, developer BioWare has painstakingly crafted one of the most fantastic but believable fictional universes in gaming. Set in the not-so-distant future, mankind is the new kid on the block when it comes to galactic politics. Sure, races like the blue skinned Asari have led civilisations for thousands of years, but humanity’s arrival really shakes things up – to the displeasure of many. Suddenly, the balance of power has shifted dramatically, and Earth faring folk now sit with the elite of the galaxy.
This back story really paves the way for player interactions that uncover the history of the numerous alien cultures. Indeed, much of the universe’s inner workings are told through the franchise’s writing itself, rather than being directly shown. Each game in the trilogy features an enormous wealth of information tucked into the codex, a go-to guide that describes everything from ancient wars to how thermal clip weapons work. The best thing about the codex is that it isn’t necessary reading material – you can blitz through the entire series without once scanning its contents, yet the answers to all of your questions are there should you find yourself asking.
As previously mentioned, the universe of Mass Effect is eerily believable, despite being full of strange looking aliens and holographic technology. Perhaps it’s the attention to detail that makes it, or perhaps it’s that we’ve come to accept sci-fi as a norm; the series draws a lot of inspiration from the obviously well-known heavy hitters of the genre, but it does it in an original and interactive manner.
In many ways, the decision to split Mass Effect into a trilogy made life far easier for the Canadian developer. Instead of cramming a ridiculous amount of lore into one game, BioWare could spread things out, giving you information in sizeable chunks. The first title introduced a world unknown to the player, with the story itself hitting on various important points of interest, while the second further fleshed things out through character dialogue. The final instalment then solidified what we already knew about the universe, and brought many aspects to a concise conclusion. Events that we had heard about throughout the course of the series, like the genophage, found their conclusion in Mass Effect 3, giving the franchise a great sense of overall depth and consequence.
But what really sets the world apart are the individual alien species, and how they connect to one another. Arguably most of them conform to a particular stereotype – the Krogan, for example, are big, burly brutes who know little other than warfare. However, it’s the relationship with their galactic neighbours that gives them likeability; the rest of the galaxy all fear the Krogan to some degree, and this is portrayed extremely well throughout the trilogy. Gaining perspective on other races is a pivotal part of Mass Effect – it allows you to form your own opinion based on knowledge acquired from simply playing the games. This wouldn’t be possible without the care and attention that BioWare applied to each and every species, as well as the world that exists around them.
Best friends for life
Ah, the good times that we’ve had with Shepard and the gang. Specifically, the times we’ve spent talking to the gang. The cast of Mass Effect are given depth through dialogue; we learn about their motives, their lives, and their species’ cultures. Mainstays like Garrus Vakarian have revealed all that we need to know about the Turian race, since we haven't been given the opportunity to visit their home planet yet. Meanwhile, less central squadmates like Legion show us a completely new take on a race that we’ve been happily gunning down since the first game.
As always, it is BioWare’s writing that injects life into these personalities. The variety on offer is quite staggering, especially in Mass Effect 2, where you're given twelve of the galaxy’s elite to play around with. You only need to look at one part of the ship to realise how diverse the cast is – specifically the engineering deck, where you find the loveable, rather innocent Tali paired with the violent and psychotic Jack. Like many TV shows and movies, most characters in Mass Effect are penned by different writers, and perhaps that’s what gives them their uniqueness.
You can ask any fan who their favourites are, and you’ll most likely get a different response each time – it’s a key sign of great writing. Perhaps you sympathise with the terminally ill, merciless assassin that is Thane Krios? Or maybe you like the simple fun of Kasumi Goto, the galaxy’s best thief? Whatever your preference, everyone leaves the experience with at least one character that they loved, for better or for worse.
But we can’t forget the background characters, either. Remember that Salarian who spent his time selling video games on the Citadel in Mass Effect 2? We’ll never forget his subtle jabs at the video game industry. How about the guy who’s been trying to get a refund on a toaster throughout the entire trilogy? It’s a good job Shepard’s got a keen ear for gossip, or we may have missed out on numerous memorable moments.
Perhaps most importantly, we’ve gotten to know both enemies and allies that prompt an attachment. Genuine emotion in a video game is generally hard to come by, but when you’ve spent 40 hours getting comfortable with someone only to watch them get mauled by Collectors during the finale of Mass Effect 2, it’s hard not to care – and it’s also difficult to not feel guilt for something that you know could have been prevented.
Join us on the next page for a look back at Mass Effect's visual evolution.