Spoilers lie ahead for the Mass Effect trilogy
Five years after Commander Shepard took one of three momentous decisions in that ending, it’s finally time for Mass Effect: Andromeda. On March 23rd (21st in the US), we’ll move on from the classic trilogy, entering a new galaxy with a new player character. Depending on your choice, you’ll take on the role of either Sara or Scott Ryder, twin children of Alliance hero Alec Ryder, an explorer at the head of the mission to establish a settlement in the Andromeda galaxy. Things don’t go to plan, and you’re compelled to take on your dad’s role as Pathfinder, leading your trusty crew in dangerous expeditions to uncharted worlds as you make first contact with the intriguing alien races who currently rule the roost in your new patch of space.
We’re promised satisfying side quests, a full complement of intriguing new characters, and, in time-honoured BioWare fashion, the opportunity for a little romance. Shepard may be long gone, but – if the trailers we’ve seen so far are any guide – the Mass Effect spirit is still there to be recaptured.
The original Mass Effect, released in 2007, is an RPG with shades of earlier BioWare titles such as the Baldur’s Gate series, Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic. KOTOR’s lead writer, Drew Karpyshyn, took the same role on the first two Mass Effect games (his departure from BioWare in 2012, just before Mass Effect 2’s completion, meant that Mac Walters replaced him for the series’ final instalment). With its stellar voice cast and compelling sci-fi plotline, the first game still rewards those willing to overlook its slightly clunky combat with a thrilling adventure, accompanied by an unforgettable electronic soundtrack courtesy of Jack Wall and Sam Hulick.
Its two sequels shifted gear in the gameplay department to incorporate FPS elements while streamlining skills and weapons. Mass Effect 2’s kinetic, nerve-jarring approach to combat delighted some while disconcerting fans of the first game’s slower pace and greater focus on exploration. The sequel’s more involving side quests were an asset, although the sense of discovery created by its precursor’s planetary jaunts was missed by many, even if the Mako’s legendarily dodgy handling was less popular. My Shepard never tired of finding turian emblems balanced precariously on mountaintops, so the prospect of more time spent on lava-riddled alien worlds in Andromeda is a big draw. Let’s hope our new galaxy doesn’t have anything resembling thresher maws…
For those of us who’ve been enthralled by the Mass Effect universe ever since we first touched down on a devastated Eden Prime, it’s tough to imagine it with a Shepard-sized void at its heart. The genius of the original trilogy is to make Shepard’s concerns our own. From choosing a love interest to deciding which side to back in a centuries-long war, the first human Spectre’s sex, face and personality are ours to decide. The implementation of Mass Effect’s system of moral choices is far from perfect. ‘Paragon’ options can come across as sanctimonious on occasion, while ‘Renegade’ choices see you committing murder, thwarting galactic peace or, unforgivably, being rude to Garrus.
When it works, however, the pay-off is tremendous. Some maintain that the options on offer in Mass Effect 3’s final moments reveal that element of choice to be an illusion, destroying the carefully constructed moral world crafted by individual players. Regardless of your position on that subject, it’s fair to say that the intense feelings it still arouses are testament to the trilogy’s overall success in making us feel that our decisions as Shepard counted for something.
The series’ magnificent voice acting and strong writing are a huge part of its impact; on that score, Andromeda has a great deal to live up to. Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Brandon Keener, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Martin Sheen provide just a few of the fine performances in a uniformly strong cast. Shepard’s personality, however you choose to shape it, is conveyed brilliantly; voiced by Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer, the dauntless Commander – whether a hero of legend or a ruthless killer – makes an indelible impression. As for the supporting characters, it’s hard to know where to begin. A diverse squad can be drawn on in each game, with new arrivals and returning favourites enlivening the mix in the sequels.
The crack team of reprobates and renegades assembled for Mass Effect 2 brings the most variety, from laconic mercenary Zaeed to tortured biotic Jack and Legion, a strangely endearing representative of the dreaded synthetic geth. In many ways, though, the selection of allies found in the first game is the source of players’ deepest attachments. Human characters Kaidan and Ashley aren’t quite as engaging here as in later appearances – not that you’ll be seeing them both in the sequels, unless you’ve somehow discovered the Mass Effect equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru manoeuvre on that Virmire mission – but the aliens are a treat.
In addition to nervous asari archaeologist Liara T’Soni and shy quarian engineer Tali’Zorah, this is our first introduction to krogan mercenary Urdnot Wrex, whose laid-back approach to bloodshed is just what you need in a firefight. Then, of course, there’s Garrus Vakarian, the turian sniper as quick with a quip as a bullet and whose enduring loyalty to Shepard will provide the commander with either a fine bromance or a moving love affair, should you succeed in enticing him out of his usual spot in the battery.
While we’re on the subject of romance, there can be relatively few Shepards who don’t get close, however briefly, to one or more of the Normandy’s crew at some point in the trilogy. Your potential lovers have their own problems to contend with; tragic drell assassin Thane is grieving for his dead wife and grappling with a terminal illness as he struggles to rescue his errant son from a future of crime, while sweet-natured pilot Steve Cortez is still mourning the husband he lost in a Collector attack on the colony world they once called home.
Getting past the stumbling blocks presented by complex characters such as chilly Miranda and proud, stoical Jacob will challenge even the most determined Shepards. Not everyone can be wooed, but your options are varied enough to provide multiple playthroughs for the more amorous players. Let’s not allow a minor hiccup like the potential destruction of all advanced life in the galaxy to get in the way, eh?
Speaking of which, the overarching plot is quite enough to keep you coming back for more. The thematic richness of the Mass Effect universe benefits from repeat journeys, with its fascinating alien lore and thought-provoking sci-fi concepts providing ample rewards for players who take the time to work through the detailed codex of cultural, political and technological background. As the first human permitted to become an elite Spectre operative by the Council of the galaxy’s three dominant races – the asari, the salarians and the turians – Shepard’s faced with an ongoing tussle between human interests and those of the numerous alien powers determined to carve out a place for themselves in a political landscape littered with examples of the pitfalls faced by failed civilisations.
Established races are wary of the humans’ expansionist tendencies and bellicose nature, while the Alliance of which Shepard is a part faces opposition both from the warlike turians with whom it’s previously clashed and other races envious of the Earth-dwellers’ swift advancement up the galactic ladder. Grim parallels with the krogan fall from grace and the thwarted batarians’ voluntary isolation from the rest of the galaxy offer troubling hints of what could happen if the humans fail to play the diplomatic game correctly.
And all the while, the endgame is in sight, as the ruins of the lost Prothean civilisation reveal the dismal fate awaiting those whose technological prowess sees them achieve their longed-for dominance just as another 50,000-year cycle draws to a close. The mysterious Reapers, with their ancient and unknowable plans for the galaxy, will do their best to ensure that humanity’s ascent to the stars will prove to be one giant leap into the abyss. The constant echoes of a history that is long buried and yet endlessly repeating itself haunt Shepard throughout the trilogy.
Hope, however, springs eternal. We might one day learn just how the cycle was finally broken for the inhabitants of the Milky Way, but for now, it’s time to leave old friends and foes behind. Our next stop is Andromeda. This is Commander Shepard, signing off.