Published on May 11th, 2021 | by Blake Morrow0
The Mass Effect Trilogy
In advance of the release of the new Mass Effect remaster later this week, Blake Morrow plays through the original versions to get himself primed.
Growing up completely enthralled by the Star Wars universe, I’ve always had a deep love for science-fiction fantasy and the high concept ideas it can come with. When BioWare, the video game studio behind the role-playing classic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, brought forward their own original universe I was immediately intrigued. Playing Mass Effect for the first time quickly cemented it as my favourite video game series in existence. Following the exploits of Commander Shepard, humanity’s first Spectre and a veritable super-soldier, the Mass Effect series is renowned for its emphasis on player choices that have you making galaxy-defining decisions as you fight to save the Milky Way not once but three times. With BioWare releasing a remaster of the Mass Effect trilogy on May 14TH, I took it upon myself to play through the original versions to experience some of the greatest games ever made one more time.
BioWare did a great job establishing a somewhat plausible universe revolving around humanity’s quick ascent to the stars after the discovery of a powerful force called, wait for it, Mass Effect. The series lore is deep with an amazing attention to detail on how the galaxy functions with all of the distinct alien races and how humanity fits in as the new little brother on the big stage. Everyone has their favourite Mass Effect game and mine will always be the first entry. As a foundation for a sci-fi epic it doesn’t get any better. The original ME almost operates as a planet-hopping sci-fi mystery as Commander Shepard hunts the rogue Spectre Saren across the stars, trying to uncover the connection between the present day and the extinction of civilizations past. Following up ME was what is widely hailed as one of the greatest video games ever made. Mass Effect 2 takes the ominous intrigue of the original and condenses it into an intense action-adventure in the face of impossible odds. The bulk of ME2’s emotional heft comes from your connection to the crew, doubling from a manageable six to a robust twelve as Shepard is determined to take the squad on a suicide mission through the Omega-4 relay to save the galaxy all over again. The trilogy ends with one of the most contentious games ever. After years of tough choices deciding the fate of squadmates, colonies, and even entire species, Mass Effect 3 culminating in what many consider a controversial finish left a bad taste in more than a few fan’s mouths. What’s undeniable however is the epic scope of the final entry, delivering on storylines seeded in the original with more cinematic set-pieces than a Star Wars or Avengers movie. Regardless of one’s feelings on the finale, ME3 gave an unforgettable send off to a much-loved trilogy.
The combat gameplay of Mass Effect boils down to the use of skills divided between Tech, Biotic, or Combat branches based on which of the six classes you create your Shepard with. Being generally averse to close quarter combat, I’ve historically chosen the Adept class to unleash biotic superiority from afar. Shepard goes to battle with two squadmates with their own unique loadouts, meaning that you can cultivate a harmonious Tech, Biotic, and Combat superteam to face any foe. Alternatively, you can just ride or die with your favourite companions, advantages be damned. I typically go with my besties Tali and Garrus which makes for some nightmare battles against opponents immune to our skills at higher difficulties. The original ME is the weakest link in terms of combat gameplay. Between unrefined gun mechanics and spacious battle environments it’s a far cry from the streamlined action elements of the later two installments. That being said, there is more variation in terms of skills you assign to yourself and your teammates, making for an arguably deeper and truer RPG experience than the other two games.
In terms of presentation the original ME is very different compared to its sequels. Released early in the life cycle of a new set of consoles, cutscenes lack the crisp cinematic glow of ME2 and 3, with less defined character models, animations, and environments. ME is also the darkest looking of the three with persistently moody undertones as opposed to the lighter, fiery orange I associate with the sequels. At the end of the day preference of art comes down to personal taste. Although the series gets a progressively slicker blockbuster treatment, I’d have to say that my preference of style goes backwards from ME3 to ME1. Although there are hub areas in all of the games, going on missions in ME2 and 3 are a straightforward experience. This makes for undeniably electric action set-pieces, but it misses the feeling of epic scale imbued in the original. In that case there is tons of planetary exploration in the much-reviled Mako which will be subject to major overhauls in the remaster. I loved every minute navigating mountainous terrain however. Exploring empty worlds and wide-open environments injected me with a sense of wonder that the rest of the series couldn’t replicate. If there’s one constant throughout Mass Effect it’s a banger series of soundtracks rich with electronic, synth ear candy that make for more than a few memorable tracks.
Beyond all of the stylistic nitty-gritty, the main factor behind Mass Effect’s greatness is its writing and the cascading effect choices have throughout the trilogy. From Shepard’s approach to human-council relations, to the Quarian exile from their homeworld at the hands of their AI creations the Geth, to the long-lasting impact of a genophage released on the Krogan, Shepard will have the opportunity to shape the face of galactic power at a whim. All of this is done with copious amounts of adult humour that Star Wars wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Throughout your journey you’ll be faced with a volus drunk on biotic power, get to hear about the exploits of a badass hanar Spectre, and be able to unleash Shepard’s devastating dance moves at helpless nightclubs. Character choices in dialogue are presented through a Paragon/Renegade gameplay design where you have the choice to make your Shepard a diplomatic saint or a genocidal bastard. I’ll admit that I had always done Paragon playthroughs because it’s so much funner to make everyone happy, but this time I forced myself against my nature to be a Renegade. The horrifically scarred face was worth the variations in dialogue and consequences, lending itself to Mass Effect’s insane replayability factor. While these Paragon/Renegade choices are solely dialogue wheel options in ME, the cinematic cutscenes in ME2 and 3 sometimes let you make Paragon and Renegade interrupts at the pull of a trigger. In one instance watching my Shepard blast his way to a console in a cutscene, a quick-reflex pull of the right trigger led me to accidentally ventilate a few thousand innocent civilians. Whoops, my bad.
The Mass Effect series would be nothing without memorable teammates to fill the long hours saving the galaxy. Over the course of the trilogy you can recruit twenty different companions to Shepard’s ship, the Normandy. Every teammate has a fleshed out back story and unique abilities and dialogue in battle. Of course, not every squadmate is written equally. Most of the humans to join Shepard’s crew are painfully bland or in Jack’s case just plain psychotic. I guess the great thing about Mass Effect is that everyone has their favourites. In addition, what would be the point of saving the galaxy without a little romance? The Normandy is the horniest bucket of bolts in the galaxy even with the threat of extinction looming over everyone’s head. You’ll need the restraint of an asari justicar to keep your crew from jumping Shepard’s bones at every opportunity.
Like anything there’s a variation in the quality of Mass Effect’s downloadable content across the trilogy. Occasionally they offer nothing but cosmetics or the buffer of a few extra missions like ME2’s Firewalker Pack (fuck the Hammerhead (Mako Gang for life)). Others offer substantial missions full of hours of gameplay and meaningful stories. The best of these focus on reunions you have with squadmates bonded with over the course of previous games, with ME2’s Lair of the Shadow Broker and ME3’s celebrated Citadel standing out as my personal favourites. ME and ME2’s base games are strong enough that the DLC is largely just for fun while ME3’s quality greatly improves with its involvement. Beyond the goofy Citadel DLC, both Leviathan and Omega standout as terrific standalone content that serve as welcome diversions from the game’s grim main campaign. While I never used any of the DLC characters outside of their ME2 loyalty missions, all of them give out different mileage. Zaeed was my least favourite crewmate based on the few times I bumped into him by accident in the Nomandy’s cargo hold. Kasumi was spunky fun with a memorably slick heist mission to gain her loyalty. For ME3’s Javik it was just a shame he wasn’t a part of the base game. For an entry sorely lacking in memorable new squadmates, he would have made a great addition had he not been edited in to the background of cutscenes as a $10 afterthought. The fact that all of these great extras will be included with the remaster is terrific news and will make it worth buying nearly by itself.
All of the laudatory remarks aside, I have to admit that there’s hesitation for me waiting for Mass Effect’s remaster. How hard can it be to make some graphical and gameplay updates without destroying the originals? A mass exodus of talent and several recent letdowns by BioWare, namely in the way of the misguided Anthem and the dreadful spinoff Mass Effect: Andromeda, the most disappointing video game experience I’ve ever had, have left me skeptical. After a takeover by EA in time for ME2, BioWare managed to stay true to their storytelling prowess for the remainder of the trilogy before gradually morphing into a bastardized version of themselves. Regardless of how much I love the original ME’s wonky Mako controls and hour-long elevator rides, a facelift to bring it up to the industry’s current standards and more in line with ME2 and 3 will introduce the full series to a slough of new gamers. The focus I’ve seen on BioWare’s efforts to streamline that experience, particularly in the first entry, worries me that it won’t stay completely true to the original version. No matter what the future has in store for the studio or the remaster, it’s a great comfort to know that BioWare’s original Mass Effect trilogy remains the quintessential sci-fi RPG epic it always has been.