Although this year’s E3 was something of a non-event in terms of Mass Effect: Andromeda news, a sub-two minute long trailer confirmed what we already knew, it’s coming, though we still don’t know when, or what form the game will take. The team at BioWare have often spoken of reintroducing more RPG elements into the series, to create an experience closer to the one they originally envisioned. Thus far, the nearest that we have gotten to that is undoubtedly the original and best entry in the series, which brings me to this third and final look back at what made it so very special. I will once again ignore the wonderful visuals and audio work, and instead concentrate on the character designs and setting, the scope of the game is astonishing, and in truth, it warrants even further dissection, yet for now, our journey will end here. So for now, let us venture into the farthest reaches of known space just one more time…
The character of Shepard, regardless of paragon status, class or gender, is the protagonist of the story, his/her background is presented as a choice of three different options that the player must choose from at the very start of the game; each one is designed to impact upon the character of Shepard, affecting how other NPCs will react to the character’s presence and altering the many dialogue options that are available to them. Ultimately though, the traits that define Shepard are determined by the way in which the player traverses through the game; are they more prone to open lines of dialogue with a character to resolve a situation, or will they simply resort to the use of violence? Whilst it would be a fallacy to claim that no two Shepard’s are alike, the game somehow creates the feeling that this is indeed the case, which greatly enhances the level of immersion and personal connection that a player has to their character, their crew and the experience as a whole. Regardless of what is chosen, however, Shepard must be strong, a born leader, and he/she must be able to carry with them the weight of expectation that comes from being the galaxy’s saviour, with billions of lives hanging in the balance, and it is only Commander Shepard that can save them all.
The most interesting aspects of character design are not, as one might imagine, spent on the hero of the game, but rather on the squad mates that the player will accumulate throughout their travels, particularly the alien races who come across as fully realised, three-dimensional characters. Mass Effect 2 would see the level of characterisation in the series hit its peak, yet in the original game, the list of heroes who follow Shepard into battle includes several of gaming’s finest creations. Garrus Vakarian, a Turian, is a character that is driven by honour and the desire to do good; at the beginning of the game, he is found to be working as a C-Sec officer (Citadel Security) where he had been attempting to investigate the actions of Saren, but, due to the antagonist’s ranking as a member of the Spectre outfit, he simply found himself embroiled in red tape and teamed up with Shepard to escape the bureaucracy of the organisation. Garrus is depicted as a very kind and courteous character who bonds effortlessly with the entire team, yet in battle he is a very different customer altogether and is something of a sharpshooter. There is perhaps a hint of naivety to Garrus, yet is he such a grounded creation who hunts Saren for many reasons, including the reflection that he feels the rogue Spectre creates of his entire species. Despite his fondness for others, he is a character that enjoys solitude, which a side of him that is delved into more thoroughly in the second game. Little snippets of characterisation are created in each and every conversation with a Mass Effect character, and with such well-rounded handiworks as Garrus, it is no small wonder that gamers enjoy simply meeting and conversing with their favourite characters in the game.
Each squad member has their own take on situations, and differing motivations to explain their role within the overarching narrative, they are deep, complex characters that are simply unrivalled in any other example within the medium of videogames. From the Keith David voiced Captain Anderson (the game’s Mentor, according to Jung archetype’s), Earth’s representative on the Citadel-Donnel Udina (Trickster), allies such as Garrus and the battle scarred Wrex Urdnot to the vanguard of the galaxy’s destruction, Sovereign (Shadow), they form a rather varied collection of beings that bring unparalleled depth and realism to the setting of Mass Effect.
The original Mass Effect features a game world of such vast depth and scale, and it is packed full of creative, yet realistic locales that are simply a joy to explore; from the central seat of the galactic government to the desolate plains of some remote, forbidding world, Mass Effect created a depiction of our universe that was at once so familiar and yet utterly alien and mysterious, meaning that it was simply impossible to ignore. At the very centre of it all, there can be found the Citadel, a gargantuan space station believed to have been left behind by the Protheans, it is the very definition of the art style that would permeate every facet of the game’s environments. Curved, city sized arms stretch out into the distance, with a ring structure that encapsulates all five of these. All manner of walkways and buildings crisscross their way far beyond what the eye can see, whilst in the centre there lays an organic shelf of water, plant life and trees, where the Citadel Tower sprouts forth to hold at its summit the Galactic Council. It is the very definition of “futuristic” in its design, the perfect blend of nature and technology.
Among the rest of the planets that the player can land upon there are Virmire, Therum, Noveria, Eden Prime, Ilos and Feros, along with many, many others. Eden Prime is the first location that the player visits for the opening mission, it is referred to as being a paradise, yet by the time that the player arrives there, it has already been ravaged by Sovereign, it was intended to be a paradise of rolling green hills and pools of perfect blue water, scarred only by the tram system that was used by the residents to transport goods back and forth. It is a powerful means of opening the game, giving players an insight very early on into the destructive capabilities of the Reapers, and convincing them, as if this needed to be done, of why the dreaded machines simply must be stopped. In a similar fashion, the player’s arrival on Feros sees a similar trick being used. Here, the player must do battle with the Geth across a mammoth skyway; a series of bridges that connect the gargantuan, kilometre high skyscrapers. Again, by the time that the player sets out to help the populace left stranded because of the fighting, there isn’t much left to see, and this reinvigorates the player’s determination to put a stop to their foes once and for all.
There is much that could be said about every setting in the game, but for now, Ilos will serve nicely. This is the final location that the player travels to before entering into the final confrontation aboard the Citadel, and what a milieu it is. Ilos is a dying planet, the colour seems to be drained out of it to the point that it might appear to the player as though they have wandered into a monochrome painting, with every aspect of it feeling overly subdued. Naturally, the Geth have taken hold of the planet, and it is up to the player to fight through their occupying forces to stop Saren and Sovereign from allowing the rest of the Reaper forces from entering into the system via the Mass Relay Gates. It is on Ilos where the last bastion of Prothean life was also maintained, in a science facility governed by an advanced AI in a lost city now overgrown with plants, and eerily lit by the designers to make it seem as though it is both alien and foreboding. In essence, Ilos is a relic of the past, a survivor of the last invasion, and yet at this point in the series’ overarching tale, it holds within it the key to the future of all sentient life in the universe.
Across the many less populated worlds where the player can indulge in exploration and side quests, there are typically small outposts that can be discovered and searched. A criticism that the game came up against was that these locations, and particularly the structures that they housed, were all far too similar. However, what at first might appear as a weakness is in fact a strength of the first Mass Effect game. If, or when, mankind has the technology to venture off into the stars to begin the colonisation of other planets, such buildings will undoubtedly be entirely comprised of pre-fabricated units that will be both cost effective to produce and simple to assemble, so naturally, the human structures that Shepard discovers on his/her journey are all the same, beacuse they had to be. If it had been any other way, the game would have lost a great deal of its realism, it well be a work of science fiction, but indisputably, the greatest works in this field are all grounded in reality, it allows us to form an affinity with them, and therefore allows them to have the greatest impact possible upon us. And Mass Effect is no exception.
From the outset, a great deal of the universe is traversable via the galaxy map, though the completion of story missions unlocks more locations and additional missions that can be completed. Story missions are typically quite long in length compared to the many optional quests which mostly involve either discovering an item, relic, remains of a missing person or the eradication of a group of enemies. Thankfully, the game employs both a checkpoint as well as manual save systems, thus allowing players to quit the game at almost any point, should they feel the need to. However, Mass Effect is such an engrossing experience that it will encourage most gamers to play for extended periods at a time so that they might savour as much of the game as quickly as they possibly can. And speaking from experience, this has been a resounding success.
The main story is played out in a fairly rigid, linear fashion, except perhaps for the initial section after the player has earned themselves Spectre status and are given command of the SSV Nomandy, at which point three missions are made available and the player is given the choice of what order they tackle them in. This has no actual impact on the game directly, yet by garnering more experience and boosting one’s Talents, there may be more opportunities to handle situations in different ways, such as having a high enough paragon level to open up additional dialogue options. Some missions and areas will only become available once the player has performed certain actions or completed specific missions, and once the decision has been made to make the assault on the facility on Virmire, the game enters into its final stretch, relinquishing any control that the player has over the destination that they are taken to. Essentially from this point in the game, it becomes wholly linear, though in terms of pacing, this allows Mass Effect to maintain momentum and embroil its players in a truly desperate race against time.
BioWare’s Mass Effect is an extraordinary work of such grandiose vision, powered by an epic and enthralling story of a truly magnificent scale, the likes of which has not, and quite possibly will not, be seen in the medium of videogames ever again. It is a masterwork of creative ambition which was to be sadly curtailed in the name of more widespread appeal and further commercial success, yet the series - which will still rank as one the greatest yet created in the field of gaming – is a very high watermark that more creators must aim to emulate, and if possible, better. Though frankly, the chances of anyone ever actually achieving this are invariably slim at best. Good luck, Shepard out.