With the recent release of the Citadel downloadable content, we have reached the end of the Mass Effect trilogy, it’s been a hugely ambitious undertaking by Bioware and one which will hold up as an example of what is possible with gaming as a storytelling vehicle for future generations.
I have to admit that when it was first announced for the Xbox 360 and Pc I was thinking that I wouldn’t pick it up, it was a space RPG that wasn’t Knight of the Old Republic 3 and as such it really didn’t appeal to me but I remember seeing the first trailer and from that point I was hooked and read everything I could about it and I found myself being fascinated with the prospect of being able to make choices that would affect the way people would react to you and I was also intrigued to find out how the game would work as a hybrid of third-person shooter and RPG.
I bought the first game for the Xbox 360 on day of release back in 2007 and immediately fell in love with it, the story was fairly standard in the sense that you’re trying to prevent galactic annihilation but it’s focus on characters immediately made it stand out, and the sheer number of side quests meant that a first playthrough could take upwards of 40 hours if you did everything. Playing through it the first time I found myself wanting to find all the resources available and complete every side quest as each quest seemed to provide more characters moments and characters like Garrus, Wrex and Tali are fantastically realised and even non-party characters like Anderson are done justice. The music has something of a retro vibe to it as there’s a definite hint of synth work to it but this somehow works too for the tone that the game is aiming for and make it even more atmospheric and there are some superb pieces such as the main theme when you’re initially introduced to Commander Shepard. That’s not to say there aren’t problems mind you, the fact that you need to level up your gun skills when you’re meant to be a veteran soldier is fairly silly, the inventory system is a bit arbitrary and the long elevator rides to mask loading aren’t great (though they do provide some cracking dialogue) and the Mako also isn’t a whole heap of fun to drive but these flaws somehow just make the whole package that little bit more endearing. The fact that they could marry the two different game styles together and come away with a game which is better than most third-person shooters and also better than a lot of RPGs is testament to the skill of the team at Bioware and the level of detail on the universe (available through the in-game codex) tells you just how much of a labour of love it was.
Downloadable content wise there were two packs released, the first pack was Bring Down the Sky in which Shepard is tasked with stopping an asteroid which has been set on a collision course with a human colony and the second pack was Pinnacle Station in which Shepard visits an Alliance training facility which is essentially a combat simulator and you try to achieve the best scores. Overall these packs were solid but felt like more of an experiment and the potential of the downloadable content would be better realised in later instalments of the series.
It was also released on the PS3, much later on, but this can only be a good thing as it gives Sony fans the opportunity to play through the whole trilogy from the very beginning and experience it the way it was originally envisaged by the developers and from a personal standpoint I’m not really into the whole console rivalry thing, I think that if a game is good it should be experienced by as many people as possible and this is a fantastic game.
Moving onto January 2010 I picked up Mass Effect 2, which I had been eagerly waiting for. And what a sequel it turned out to be, it looked fantastic, introduced more fascinating characters while also featuring favourites from the first game and allowed you to port your save file over from the first game which allowed for callbacks to the decisions made which was a nice touch. Bioware also came up with an ingenious way of taking you back to level one and also allowing Shepard to be altered from the look chosen by the player in the first game – Shepard is killed off in the first ten minutes during an attack on the Normandy which also destroys the ship in the process. This plot device also serves to radically shift the focus of the game as Shepard’s body is recovered by Cerberus, whose role in the first game had been an adversarial one, and resurrected as part of the Lazarus project which was created to bring Shepard back due to his talents as a leader and his experience dealing with Reapers. The story basically starts with an attack on the Cerberus facility used for the project and flows through to the fact that human colonies are being abducted and no one will help so the Illusive Man, the leader of Cerberus, entrusts Shepard with the Normandy SR-2 which is a new and improved version of the ship destroyed at the start of the game and tasks him with recruiting a squad to end the threat. You then travel around the galaxy and completing missions to the recruit these squad members, including old friends like Garrus and Tali while also introducing new faces such as Thane, Mordin and Legion. Once the squad is assembled you get the opportunity to undertake missions to gain their loyalty and upgrade the Normandy before leading a suicide mission to take on the faction responsible for the abductions.
There also some very large changes to the structure of the game, a lot of the RPG elements have been stripped away, there’s no inventory to speak of and rather than exploring planets in the Mako there is a mining mini-game which can be a bit tedious at times. These resources are then used to upgrade the Normandy, upgrade weapons and build heavy weapons which provide considerably more stopping power in a firefight. There is also no levelling of weapon skills this time around, instead the class you choose dictates which weapons are available for use. Also the unlimited ammunition/gun overheating mechanic is done away with and replaced with a more standard limited ammunition system. There was some controversy at the time due to a perceived dumbing down but when the game is vastly superior to most third-person shooters and RPGs this type of criticism seems excessively harsh and in my opinion, the changes just tightened the game up and it was comfortably the best game released in 2010.
From a downloadable content point of view Mass Effect 2 had a lot released for it, ranging from new costumes for squad members, new weapons and armour and finally additional assignments and squad members. The additional characters, Zaeed and Kasumi, both have their own individual loyalty missions and are just as unique and individual as the other squad mates. The Normandy Crash Site offers a change of tone and pace by allowing you to visit the site where the original Normandy crashed and collect the dog tags of the crew members lost in the crash, it’s a sombre and reflective piece which does a good job of making you feel a genuine sense of loss which shows that the Normandy is very much a character in itself. The Firewalker Pack introduces the Hammerhead hover tank and a number of missions built around the vehicle, which are interesting to play and improve on the Mako segments in the first game. Overlord provides a more straightforward piece of content, a Cerberus facility has been taken over by an experimental virtual intelligence and it’s up to Shepard to sort it out, it’s not the best content available but does provide a nice moment in Mass Effect 3. Lair of the Shadow Broker is a huge piece of content that reintroduces Liara and follows Shepard as he tries to take down the Shadow Broker, there’s a lot to do on the course of this and ends with Liara taking on the role once you take him down, you then get access to the Shadow Broker’s intel centre. The final piece of content for Mass Effect 2 is called Arrival in which it becomes apparent that the Reapers have found a backdoor into the galaxy and it’s up to Shepard to close it off, it also ties into the start of Mass Effect 3 so is well worth playing. All in all, there was a lot more content available and the mission packs were of a good standard and added to the lore of the series, the weapons, armour and costume packs were there if you happened to want them but they didn’t provide anything to the story or character development.
Which brings us to Mass Effect 3, the final chapter of the saga of Commander Shepard. It also introduces multiplayer to the Mass Effect universe for the first time, this multiplayer has teams of 4 player characters taking on computer-controlled enemies in waves and trying to make it through to the end with experience being awarded to players and also galactic readiness being bestowed on the galaxy map on the main screen. This galactic readiness has a knock on effect with the single-player campaign in that it means the war assets you acquire are more effective in the context of your effective military strength which goes towards the final battle. Multiplayer has also received a lot of support from Bioware in the shape of downloadable content packs, these packs have contained new maps new species for players to play as and new weapons with Bioware offering these packs free of charge. Moving back to game itself it uses a new engine and looks even more stunning than the second game and plays in the same way as the previous game with the exception of the heavy weapon mechanic, rather than having these as part of your arsenal these weapons are found over the course of missions and have a limited amount of uses and also the side missions are predominantly finding war assets which get added to your EMS. Mass Effect 3 is also bigger in scope than previous games as rather than trying to assemble a squad you’re trying to bring together an army of the various species you have encountered over the games and this is where a lot of the emotion comes from and make no mistake there are a lot of emotional moments in the game, leaving Earth after the initial Reaper attack is effective in that you don’t want to leave but it makes you determined to come back with a force that will save the planet. Other standout moments include (and these are my choices, there are other connotations based on your choices in this game and from previous games) the curing of the Genophage, which was a disease introduced to the Krogans to stop them reproducing, the ending of the Morning War between the Quarians and Geth, I chose to make peace between the sides and it definitely felt like an organic and well-realised outcome. Thane’s appearances really hammer home just how much these characters have to mean to the player over the course of the series, as does the final conversation between Shepard and Anderson.
That’s not to say there weren’t problems in the original release of the game, the From the Ashes DLC contains a new squadmate in the form of the last Prothean, a race heavily tied up in the Mass Effect lore who were wiped out by the Reapers the last time they wiping out organic life 50000 years before the setting of the games, and as a result there is a fair amount of additional lore and backstory that’s come with him but the decision to make this paid DLC (unless you bought the special edition of the game) rather than being part of the game to start with was met with some controversy however the main and lasting outcry from fans was to do with the ending. The original ending contains 3 choices but the end cinematic is more or less the same except for a different colour being used as part of an explosion, there are also elements which aren’t clear such as why Joker, the Normandy pilot who has been with Shepard all the way through the series is escaping the system and also becomes a victim of it’s on lore in that the mass relays explode which has been established to essentially wipe out a solar systems essentially you stop the Reapers but destroy all galactic life, there is also a general lack of closure as you don’t get any idea of the impact of your actions. The outcry was so great that Bioware actually produced a free DLC called the Extended Cut which while keeping the essence of the original ending filled in these plot holes with additional scenes, changed the destruction of the relays to them just being damaged and added a kind of slideshow complete with a voiceover to add some closure to the whole thing. While it personally still wasn’t the ending that I wanted it was still a marked improvement over the original ending and it’s an amazing gesture for Bioware to genuinely listen to their community and act upon it. DLC wise beyond the multiplayer packs, the Beyond the Ashes pack and the Extended Cut pack there are the usual weapons packs and appearance packs but there are further 3 single player packs. The first of these is Leviathan in which Shepard is tasked with tracking down what appears to be a weapon capable of killing a Reaper and as the story progresses it actually provides some backstory on the origins of the Reapers which is in interesting. The second is Omega which follows on from a conversation you have with Aria in the main part of the game, who was the ruler of a space station called Omega which has been taken over by Cerberus and she wants your help to take it back, which you do. The final pack is Citadel which is the final piece of content of the Mass Effect trilogy, and it feels like a real labour of love by the developers, it has fun with the characters, with some nice in-jokes such as a moment where Shepard realises he says “I should go” a lot when ending a conversation. The story is a little hammy but has so much fun with it that you forgive it but the real standout of the DLC is the interplay between the characters and pretty much every squad member from each of the games is present and makes for a very enjoyable send-off.
All in all, I’m very glad I took a chance on the series as I would go so far as to say that it’s now my favourite series of games and one that I’ve played through numerous times. I’ve loved being able to steer the story by making choices in a way that I thought that my Shepard would, I think it was a real achievement to create a player character that feels so personal to each player. With all that said the things that will stay with me most is the sheer depth of lore and detail which was created for a fictional universe, though it will hopefully serve them if they choose to make further games in that same universe, and also the characters which I met over the course of those three games, from Garrus who was this tremendously realised, morally conflicted character but a steadfast and loyal ally at the same time, to Tali who started as a shy awkward outcast who matured and grew with each game, to every single other character. It’s rare to find such a group of characters who feel so vivid and real and that for me is the true magic of the Mass Effect series. And with all that said it feels like this should be wrapped up with a quote from Commander Shepard – I should go.