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Looking Back: The Best Things About the First Mass Effect

With Mass Effect: Andromeda on the horizon, it’s the perfect time to go back and reminisce on the aspects of the original trilogy that set the standard for the series and defined many of the aspects many players love about the Bioware brand. Starting with the original Mass Effect–which was released almost a decade ago–we’ll be visiting our favorite aspects of each of the original trilogy, discussing pros and cons across the games, and what hopes we have for Andromeda as the next installment in the Mass Effect universe.

Mass Effect, the first game in the trilogy, was released in November of 2007, and featured Commander Shepard in his/her quest to stop the rogue Spectre agent, Saren Arterius. Things rapidly go sideways, and Shepard gathers a mixed crew of aliens and humans to fight Saren’s army of sentient machines. They discover that he is merely a pawn of a group of machines called the Reapers, which appear every 50,000 years to harvest the galaxy in preparation for the next cycle. The time has come once again, and it’s up to Shepard and their team to stop Saren and Sovereign from summoning the Reapers waiting in black space to harvest them all.

Mass Effect established a broad, nuanced universe where humans were one of many sentient species, while also raising questions about the coexistence of synthetics and organics, and what that might mean for the future. Mass Effect still has many redeeming qualities, and we’re going to touch on three of them here.

The Story & Choice

Premiering alongside titles like Bioshock, Portal, and Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect helped Bioware stand out, providing a new twist on the spacescape of the future in an unexpected fashion. The game, headed by Casey Hudson, provided a unique twist on a history of human exploration sagas. What if humanity wasn’t the first to explore the galaxy? What if they happened to show up late to a galaxy that had united without their knowledge? What if the player could affect the outcome with their choices?

Mass Effect placed humanity in the place of the cocky newcomer who expected more than they had earned. After accidentally igniting a war with the Turians (the First Contact War/Relay 314 Incident), humanity did what humanity does best–pushed the boundaries. AI development is illegal? That’s ok, we’ll do it in secret. Colonization on the edge of the Terminus Systems? We’ll be fine. Human’s don’t have a seat on the Council? We can change that. Only there are multiple species in line for a position on the Council–a galaxy-wide, UN style governing body–and a species has to prove themselves worthy of such a prestigious position. 

The player comes into the narrative after humanity has established themselves and takes the role of Commander Shepard–an established Alliance soldier with an impressive military record. Shepard is customizable in both look, sex, and background providing players the opportunity to play as either male or female Shepard (an option that was less common at the time) and with a varied background that impacted a personal mission option in game. Shepard holds some clout as they’re considered for a position amidst the Spectres: a Council-managed, black ops group of elite operatives of all Council species. All the same, it’s their word against that of Saren, one of their best, and Shepard has to find hard evidence to bring him down. How that happens, however, is up to the player.

Saren’s rogue status is only a fraction of the broader narrative, providing the means for Shepard to build a team and make connections on the Citadel. Each of those options are just that, however–options. The player chooses how Shepard responds to each character, who they bring onto their ship, the Normandy, and who they turn away. The narrative is grounded in choices like these, even as the story expands beyond the hunt for evidence and opens up the wider galaxy for the player’s exploration. Overhanging it all, however, is the threat of Saren, Sovereign, and the Reapers, and the race to prevent the Reapers from harvesting the galaxy as they know it the same way they harvested the Protheans (an extinct, advanced alien race) 50,000 years before. There are multiple ways to stop them, and it’s up to the player to determine the route they take.

The original game is a space opera all to it’s own, featuring a nuanced, multi-faceted cast and wide reaching stakes. The galaxy hangs in the balance, yet how it plays out is in the player’s hands through the decisions Commander Shepard makes along the way. It all depends on the missions the player takes on, the team they collect. And, in the end, the story is their’s to shape.

The Cast

Shepard wouldn’t be able to take on a god-race of sentient machine squid all by themselves,even if they wanted to. The cast of Mass Effect is colorful, creative, and defined much of what Bioware is known for today: their character writing. Be it the sweet-if-naive Tali Zorah, the hotheaded C-SEC Detective Garrus Vakarian, the guarded Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams, the brusque and clever Wrex Urdnot, the brilliant-yet-awkward Liara T’Soni, or even the loyal biotic Kadian Alenko; each character is approachable, unique, and feels true to life.

Bioware has always had solid character writing, from Neverwinter Nights to Knights of the Old Republic. In Mass Effect, they pushed the writing further, creating a cast that would work with Shepard across the three games, and would linger with the player when they’d put their controller away. Each character is relatable, has a family, has motivations that push them and makes their goals clear to the player: Garrus grew up in the shadow of his father, and chafes as his desire to help is met with the resistance of bureaucracy; Wrex is a gruff, bitter krogan mercenary who actually cares deeply for the future of his people, and would do anything to help them end the genophage; Ashley is a practical, no-nonsense soldier, who’s lived in the wake of her grandfather’s perceived sins and only wishes to walk her own path to make her family proud. Each of the cast has a story, a goal to fulfill, a personality that is shaped by their experiences and their desires. It makes them relatable, makes the player care, and is part of why Mass Effect is so impactful.

Mass Effect also has player choice directly impact the characters they interact with: each character is given a loyalty mission, and Shepard can directly or indirectly influence each character’s development though their actions and conversation. A great example of this is Garrus, as he struggles with the red-tape of doing things “by the book” when it’s easier to simply take action. Upon Shepard’s first combat interaction with him, the player has the choice to praise a shot he took on a mercenary who was holding a hostage, or condemn his actions as reckless. This comes up again in his loyalty mission, where Shepard tracks down a rogue Salarian doctor and can either shoot him point blank, or try to arrest him. Either way, the doctor resists and is killed, but if the player chose to try to arrest him, they can make the point to Garrus that the way one goes about things matters, rather than encourage a more direct mode of action. It’s a beautiful mechanic that stretches across the entire cast, and again drives home how much player choice can shape and impact the narrative, down to individual characters.

The Romances

One cannot discuss a Bioware game today without discussing the romance options offered. Introduced in Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware’s romance mechanic has become a centerpiece of their games and many options are much anticipated by fans. Mass Effect was Bioware’s first full launch of a relationship system that allowed players to have more than a singular romantic option, and featured full, intimate sex scenes with each option.

Ashley, Liara, and Kaidan were the romantic options for the first game: Liara being accessible to both male and female Shepard, while Ashley was an option for male Shepard and Kaidan was an option for female Shepard. Each relationship feels genuine–you, as the player, care about the characters, and you chose who to involve yourself with. Liara is sweet, if a little fumbling at first, and her intellect appeals to many players of a variety of genders. Ashley is friendly, if reserved, and only breaks regs after Shepard’s taken the ship and gone rogue, at Captain Anderson’s (their previous CO’s) orders. Kadian has a flirty bashfulness about him as he toes the line, ultimately falling for the Commander before the end. If you court two different characters, they’ll even go so far as to confront you and make you choose, so only pick one!

Each romantic arc is capped with a ‘Romance Scene’, depicting Shepard and their lover in an intimate evening before everything goes to hell–in this case, before the final confrontation with Saren and Sovereign. Mass Effect’s romance scenes were met with much enthusiasm, as well as controversy. Many players enjoyed the depiction of intimate time with their partner of choice, nudity included. However, some conservative sources pushed back against it, claiming that the scenes were “obscene,” and, “pornographic”. Two of the major dissenters ultimately apologized, but it was an instance that colored the game’s reception amongst some of their consumer crowd.

These are only a sample of the things that made the original Mass Effect game great, and there are many other aspects of the game that could also be discussed. The story, the characters, and the romances have been the center of discussion for the trilogy as a whole, as well as what they may look like for Andromeda and beyond. We hope that Bioware maintains their quality, character driven narratives that ask difficult question and provide players with empathetic, nuanced characters. And, let’s be honest–those sex scenes are pretty great too.

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