Would Mass Effect even be a Western RPG series without promising a ton of stuff it would never pull off? Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that it almost managed this incredible feat – practically everything went off without a hitch besides that infamous ending. Not even the entire final act, but the last fifteen minutes was enough for certain people to toss aside the entirety of what was otherwise among the most fulfilling stories to emerge from gaming. We only got this invested in the first place due to the strong beginning.
It’s difficult to think of another game that establishes a new universe so effectively, especially in a science fiction setting. Humans are the latest species to join galactic civilization. An ancient network of relays allows near-instantaneous travel across space. Commander Shepard becomes the first human Spectre, special agents granted nearly unrestrained authority by the central governing body. Some great menace is lurking at the threshold, and it is Shepard’s job to both figure out what is happening and convince the Council to take this threat seriously.
What sets Mass Effect apart from so many other fantasy worlds is the intricate histories and conflicts of its various races. The battle between the quarians and geth starts off as the most straightforward. The quarians created an artificial race, grew nervous, and ended up losing a war against their own creations. With the quarians stuck aboard a Migrant Fleet and the geth now joining the bad guys, it’s easy to choose sides (for now).
The conflict between the krogans and salarians is a lot ickier. Galactic civilization was nearly overrun by another species known as rachni until the krogans were discovered. The salarians turned this primitive race into a weapon, only to neuter the species once they, too, started to be perceived as a threat. Both sides have a perfect argument. The salarians essentially committed genocide, but the krogan really are that dangerous. Of the major races, only the turians and asari really seem to have their stuff together.
The character designs are top-notch. All of these species have unforgettable appearances. Both the krogan and turians are reminiscent of dinosaurs, but in very different ways. The bulky krogans carry raw strength while the slender turians are far more graceful. Asari are more humanoid, though other species seem convinced of their own similarities. The quarians are mysteries, forced to wear full-body suits due to their weakened immune systems. Mass Effect avoids the trope of sci-fi stories tossing us dozens of bizarre designs as background characters; each of these species has an explanation for their evolution. Mixed with their rich histories, BioWare was able to emphasize the plights of these individual species with nuance.
In classic BioWare fashion, this game is all about an interactive narrative where the player can make big decisions. While the system they use offers little freedom (consistency is rewarded), the mere possibility of another path is compelling. The story is strong enough that I ended up doing three separate playthroughs (one good, one bad, one consistently making poor choices). The game is also loaded with side quests, most offering their own intense choices.
The party members are of varying quality – what would have otherwise been a jaw-dropping moment is reduced by the mundanity of the human party members – but the best are some of my favorite video game characters. Tali and Liara need the sequels to really come into their own, but krogan Urdnot Wrex and turian Garrus Vakarian are unforgettable. The krogan could have easily been a background species, existing more as a potential threat than true characters. Having one on the central team offers a perfect window into their disturbing history and disparate culture. Wrex’s blunt nature also leads into a lot of the best lines. Garrus’s character arc is one of the trilogy’s strongest suits, with his struggle between following the law and true justice being perfectly established here.
The combat system is something else – BioWare mixes third-person shooter mechanics with an RPG power system. While this can be a bit wonky and is perfected in the later games, the series really hit upon something with this combination. I mentioned playing through this game three times to see various ways the stories could unfold, but I would have never wasted my time if the gameplay wasn’t equally engrossing.
Mass Effect is the beginning of a beautiful trilogy; while the gameplay might show its age when compared to the sequels, its sense of world-building is matched by few others. By setting up an entire galaxy where half the species seem on the verge of slaughtering another, it established a complex narrative rife with palpable tension which would ultimately sustain the entire trilogy. While the sequels would feature more dangerous external threats, the original made sure to inform us the galaxy was doing a perfectly good job imploding on its own.