A (Not So) Brief History of Mass Effect
- Mass Effect 3
- Mass Effect 2
- Mass Effect
With Mass Effect 3 due for release in a few short weeks and the multiplayer demo inbound on February 14th, we take a look back at the series regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi epics in videogame history.
Warning to the uninitiated: There will be SPOILERS ahead…
Dark, endlessly deep space hides dangers as silent and lethal as a plague, as white-hot and powerful as an atomic blast; heroes, willing and otherwise, clash with purposeful villains in contests that decide the fate of whole worlds, of entire races. Armies meet on the dust-blown battlefields of a distant No Man’s Land, so far from the hub of civilisation that those who fall are all but forgotten. Pirates and warriors and politicians and families travel millions of miles in mere moments, and a multitude of disparate, alien peoples vie for supremacy behind a thin veil of supposed alliance.
This is the universe of Mass Effect, an epic galactic stage that exists where multiple sci-fi realities converge; equal parts Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s Seven, Firefly and Babylon 5, with a peppering of Star Wars and the merest hint of Buck Rogers. It’s a galaxy at war, a cosmic arena made analogous to our own present day by racial tensions, rampant consumerism and the persistent threat of terrorism – but also by the heroes willing to sacrifice all for the greater good, and by the subtle-yet-all-pervading strength of the human spirit, both a theme of our time and a major thread weaved through the tapestry of Bioware’s epic. And, perhaps more than this, it’s a grand space opera unafraid to wear its illustrious influences on its carefully pressed lapels; an unashamedly cinematic action trip peopled by diverse, colourful characters and balls-out, edge-of-your-seat excitement.
This March, the main story arc of the Mass Effect universe reaches its epic conclusion: Commander Shepard will lead the galaxy to war against the genocidal Reapers and decide once and for all the fate of Council Space – but the extended universe will continue, of that we have no doubt. Either way, Shepard’s fight will finally be over – and so in recognition of the struggle, sacrifice and courage of the long-suffering crew of the Normandy SR2, we’re about to take you on a journey through the Mass Effect universe from its glorious beginning to its imminent end.
Sit back, strap in, and enjoy the ride.
MASS EFFECT (2007)
Shepard discusses tactics with Kaiden Alenko and Ashley Williams in Mass Effect
Originally devised as a trilogy, Mass Effect was intended to be (and in fact was) the first great sci-fi franchise of the current generation, a far cry from Bungie’s Halo but sharing many similarities (in terms of game design and mechanics) with Bioware’s own RPG, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. What no one expected, even Bioware, was the impact it would have on the industry.
Featuring not only top-notch writing and an incredible voice cast but also an unparalleled element of player choice, Mass Effect took everyone by surprise upon its release in 2007. From controversy surrounding the sex scenes (a naked ass is only ever a naked ass, despite neoconservative Kevin McCullough’s claim that “Mass Effect can be customised to sodomize whatever, whoever, however the game player wishes” – yeah, play it first, Kev) to an accidental early release by several retail outlets in the US, Mass Effect stole its fair share of the headlines. But for once, these headlines aren’t what people remember – a rarity indicative of the overall quality of Bioware’s space opera. Instead people remember the characters, the races, the worlds, the lore, the rich cocktail of ideas and action that makes Mass Effect one of the greatest sci-fi universes in any medium – not just videogames.
Set in the year 2183, Mass Effect details mankind’s struggle to be accepted as a major force amongst the many non-human species who inhabit our galaxy. It takes place three and a half decades after humanity’s discovery of an ancient technology on Mars; a technology which, though experimentation and study, eventually enabled travel beyond our solar system through devices known as Mass Relays. Once exploration of the Milky Way began, mankind came into contact with various alien species, forming the Human Systems Alliance to integrate with the extraterrestrial collective known as the Citadel Council. Whilst blundering around the galaxy activating dormant Mass Relays in the name of science and exploration, humanity managed to upset one of the major Council races – a species of warlike humanoids known as the Turians. The resulting conflict, known as the First Contact War, was costly to both sides, only coming to an end when the Citadel Council stepped in and granted the human race an embassy of its own.
The science of the Mass Effect universe revolves, unsurprisingly, around the “mass effect” itself, described by Project Director Casey Hudson as “a physics phenomenon that has properties along the lines of gravity and electromagnetism…” And just as some animals can sense and manipulate electromagnetism, so some humans and humanoids can manipulate mass effect fields. These individuals are known as Biotics, and play a major part in the overall storyline.
Depending on player actions, Chief Williams is a potential casualty of Mass Effect. Or a potential romance...
Fast-forwarding from 2157 to 2183, Mass Effect begins with Commander Shepard aboard the SS Normandy, a Systems Alliance vessel under the command of veteran officer David Anderson. Sent to accompany a SPECTRE (a covert, Council-sanctioned special operative given remit to work on the outer fringes of galactic law), Nihlus, on a mission to investigate disturbances on the human colony of Eden Prime, Shepard finds him or herself catapulted into a struggle against an ancient race of sentient machines known as the Reapers, who are intent on wiping out all civilisation in the galaxy as they did 50,000 years before.
Gathering a multi-racial crew of military professionals comprised of humans Kaiden Alenko and Ashley Williams, the Krogan warrior Wrex, a Turian security officer named Garrus, a Quarian called Tali and Liara T’Soni, an Asari scientist, Shepard heads out into the galaxy as the first human SPECTRE with a mission to uncover and put an end to the new threat to galactic civilisation.
One of the brightest feathers in Mass Effect’s cap is the element of choice. So many aspects of the story hinge on player decisions: whether to save the life of Ashley or Kaiden; whether to shoot crew-member Wrex in the head or talk him down when his desire to save his people jeopardises the all-important mission; whether to free a potentially deadly alien species who could just as easily become an enemy as an ally… All these moments and a score or so more help you to shape the details of Mass Effect’s story whilst the broad strokes (the Reaper threat, the stubborn Council’s refusal to work with Shepard, the involvement of the renegade SPECTRE, Saren) remain constant.
Mass Effect won multiple awards including RPG of the Year at the Spike TV Video Game Awards and New York Times’ Game of the Year; it was success that would ensure an exciting, eventful future for Bioware’s new franchise.
THE NOVELS AND EXTENDED UNIVERSE
The Reaper fleet makes short work of London in the reveal trailer for Mass Effect 3
As with many big videogame properties nowadays, it wasn’t long before Mass Effect spawned a series of spin-off novels. Unlike many such projects, however, the Mass Effect novels are not simply novelisations of in-game events, but instead tell separate stories that interweave with the established lore of the games.
Written by Mass Effect scripter Drew Karpyshyn, author of various Star Wars and Forgotten Realms novels and one of the main scriptwriters on Knights of the Old Republic, the first novel, Mass Effect: Revelation (2007) earned a great deal of acclaim from critics and fans alike. Telling the story of a young David Anderson in a more-detailed account of events briefly touched upon during the game, Revelation enriched the Mass Effect universe by filling in the backstory of one of the game’s best-loved characters.
His follow up novel, Mass Effect: Ascension (2008) filled in the gap between Mass Effect 1 and 2, introducing another new protagonist in the form of Paul Grayson, an operative for pro-human terrorist organisation Cerberus. This novel proved as popular as the first, and paved the way for Mass Effect: Retribution (2010), another tie-in novel, this time detailing the events that take place after Mass Effect 2 and Ascension.
Series favourite and all-round go-to guy, Garrus Vakarian
The first Mass Effect novel to be written by someone other than Karpyshyn has fared less well, however. Mass Effect: Deception, written by sci-fi author William Dietz and released this year, is so riddled with errors (both in universe canon and real world science) that it has attracted almost unanimous venom from critics and fans alike – so much so that many fans have petitioned Bioware to disregard the novel as canon. A public copy was even released onto the internet, inviting fans to edit and correct the host of errors throughout. Although we won’t go into too much detail, a more-comprehensive report on Dietz’s novel courtesy of Eurogamer can be found here.
Because of the richness of its lore and backstory, the Mass Effect franchise has also spawned a series of comics published by Dark Horse. Focusing on series characters like Liara T’Soni and Aria T’Loak, or else travelling back to document the events of the First Contact War, the comics are a diverse collection of short stories that explore events connected to, but outside of, the main canon.
Whether or not you’re interested in spin-offs will always come down to personal preference, but for die-hard fans of the series they provide invaluable insights into the lore and motivations of some of the franchise’s biggest and most popular characters.
MASS EFFECT: GALAXY (2009)
The iOS spin-off Galaxy features a vastly different art design and gameplay style to the main trilogy
Taking its cue from the novels, Mass Effect: Galaxy was a spin-off rather than a sequel, designed to fill in some details between Mass Effect 1 & 2 but not “required reading” for players. Developed for the iOS, Galaxy cast the player as Jacob Taylor, a biotic who would later appear as a main character in Mass Effect 2.
Although not tied to the main events of the games, Mass Effect: Galaxy went some way to explaining the relationship between Jacob and Miranda Lawson, another major character from 2. Presented as a top-down shooter with storyline divulged by way of animated comic book panels, it documented Jacob’s battle against a group of batarian terrorists led by renegade ambassador Jath’Amon,
Criticised for its short play time and a lack of real imagination, Galaxy was seen as little more than a temporary distraction for fans of the series. Despite offering in-game rewards for those Mass Effect 2 owners who played Galaxy while logged into their EA account, there was little to keep people interested beyond the initial loyalty to canon.
MASS EFFECT 2 (2010)
Commander Shepard, Miranda Lawson and Grunt engage in some purposeful walking in Mass Effect 2
The only major criticism levelled against Mass Effect was that, amidst all the levelling up, dialogue options and moral choices, the combat was a little staid. Whilst critics loosed less venom upon the dull space travel element and the not-so-user-friendly equipment upgrading, the lion’s share of moaning and groaning was reserved for the shooting. A less than precise cover mechanic coupled with guns that packed all the punch of a dive-bombing mosquito meant that Mass Effect’s combat sections (of which there were many) left many fans cold. It was functional, to a point, but not enough to keep excitement levels high.
So Bioware did what Bioware do and listened to the feedback – then promptly rolled everything back to zero before dialling it all up to 10. Mass Effect 2 was darker, more effecting, more demanding, with combat much more defined and better in keeping with the contextual, militaristic themes of the established universe. Gone were the universal magazines in favour of a more traditional approach to ammo management; gone was the loose, half-arsed cover system, replaced by a snap-to-cover button similar to the one employed and made famous by Epic’s Gears of War. Out went the equipment screen and squad micromanagement, cast aside to usher in a much simpler system designed more around the aesthetics of Shepard’s combat suit and the weaponry carried by his team; goodybye to imprecise, weak-wash side-arms and hello to powerful boomsticks and precision pistols.
One of Mass Effect 2's more complex characters, Jack is a tough nut to crack - but a deadly ally once you win her trust
But it wasn’t only the combat mechanics that received an overhaul. The story was now much darker, the danger that much more immediate, as Mass Effect 2 opened with Shepard’s death. Found and resurrected by Cerberus’ “Lazarus Project”, Shepard was soon working for the enemy alongside Mass Effect: Galaxy’s Jacob Taylor and Miranda Lawson, trawling Council Space for a team of uber-skilled misfits accomplished and crazy enough to stand against the Collectors – an alien race deployed by the Reapers to enslave civilisation and lay the groundwork for their galaxy-wide invasion.
In true Bioware style, this mostly involved lashings of violence, a dash of sex and a side order of see-sawing morality. A massive supporting cast added colour and personality to an emotionally-charged journey to the heart of Reaper-controlled space and a suicide mission that – depending on player choices – could potentially see every crew member, Shepard included, die a heroic-yet-messy death in the final assault. Future DLC came in a variety of flavours from awesomeberry (Lair of the Shadow Broker) to lamesauce (Overlord), but the adventure had to end with a final choice for Shepard – and an ominous shot of a Reaper fleet closing on our very own Planet Earth…
THE “FEMSHEP MOVEMENT” AND OTHER ASIDES
For many fans, this is the "true" face of Commander Shepard - and will feature on the box art of the Collector's Edition
In the space between Mass Effect 2 and 3, the ever-faithful fans kept the franchise alive with a stadium’s worth of internet chatter, speculation and wishful thinking – but also with a debate that has steadily gathered in pace and volume for the last two years: Is the “true” Shepard a chiselled space marine with Calvin Klein model looks, or a ball-breaking, name-taking gal about the galaxy?
For me, personally, Shepard will always be a feisty red-headed hard-nut with a ruthless streak, the by-product of a troubled upbringing on the mean streets of some off-world colony and an inability to accept the possibility of failure in combat. Jennifer Hale’s exceptional voicework as “Female Shepard” just seems to work the script better – which is in no way intended to cast aspersions on Mark Meer’s turn as the male version, either.
Whether or not FemShep is actually feminine enough to be a feminist symbol in a world that has traditionally been dominated by males is a bone of contention – and you can take the term “world” to mean what you will; either the militaristic universe of Mass Effect, our own plane of existence that shockingly still struggles to recognise that men and women occupy even ground, or the videogames industry in general that still markets games to fat, bearded, man-sized children living in their mum’s spare room, dressing exclusively in rawk t-shirts and drinking Red Bull.
Commander Shepard, Miranda and Garrus introduce ass to whoopin' in Mass Effect 2
But whether equal rights champion or feminist life-line (of which she is arguably neither), Jennifer Hale’s FemShep has proved to be a more popular videogame heroine than Lara Croft or Samus Aran ever were, somehow wearing the role of galactic saviour better given her penchant for stern scowls as opposed to catalogue-model poses. Whatever your stance, it’s the rarest of things to find a game with a narrative that genuinely feels different depending on the gender of your protagonist – which is perhaps more a testament to Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale than it is to Bioware’s accomplished writing.
Besides debates concerning sexuality, Mass Effect caught headlines in the summer of 2010 when EA announced that Legendary Pictures had acquired the rights to make a film (!). It was confirmed late last year that the movie had been “green-lit” for production and would feature a story faithful to the first game. Traditionally, game-to-movie adaptations are masterclasses in the art of shatto-rama and, while it’s unlikely that the Mass Effect movie will prove any different, its affiliations with Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. ensure a hefty budget and the involvement of Mark Protosevich (a script-writer who’s credits include Thor and I Am Legend) at least means there will be some calibre in the screenplay.
Recently, bioware announced two (TWO) new iOS apps in Datapad and Infiltrator. The former has been described as "Bioware's love letter to Mass Effect fans" and will act like the familiar "Codex" system from the first two games, featuring a host of information that ties to your Origin account and updates as you play. Able to integrated with the iPad and iPhone, the free Datapad app will withhold certain spoilers that will only be unlocked over time. The latter app, Infiltrator, is a 3rd-Person cover shooter featuring disillusioned Cerberus operative Randall Enzo, a deep cover agent who has turned against Cerberus to help Shepard's cause. Things you discover and unlock in Infiltrator will work towards Shepard's "Galactic Readiness" and help you out in Mass Effect 3 - but Bioware have made it clear that you won't have to play Infiltrator to achieve the best ending to ME3. At the time of writing, neither has been given a release date.
You can rest assured the Collectors will return in Mass Effect 3
The recently launched Mass Effect “Mission Command” is yet another arm of what has lately become as much a brand as a franchise, giving Facebook users the opportunity to indulge in some simple “missions” (like recruiting friends and sharing movies) to unlock items for use within Mass Effect 3. Less a game spin-off like Infiltrator or useful tool like Datapad than a semi-interesting distraction, Mission Command is little more than an aside to keep fans dreaming of March 6th, when the final instalment in the Mass Effect trilogy will see Shepard’s involvement end, and the war against the Reapers settled – one way or another...
For more information on just how the fate of the galaxy will be decided, read our huge Mass Effect 3 preview here.
Words by Mick Fraser (@Jedi_Beats_Tank)
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