Monthly Archives: July 2016

Massive Effect 2: Mass Appeal

Introduction

If Mass Effect 1 was the game that got me to fall in love with the series, Mass Effect 2 was the one that made me annoying about it.  If Mass Effect 1 was the raw, proof of concept, then Mass Effect 2 was the refined work they wanted to make, but with a bit of the personality lost in the process.  Mass Effect 1 had to be loved despite (and sometimes because of) its flaws, but it is much easier to love Mass Effect 2.  That’s reflected in the amount of hours I’ve sunk into the games too, as I’ve played Mass Effect 1 maybe four times, but I’ve played the second one close to ten.  By late 2011 I was playing it over and over again, with my New Game Plus runs getting faster and faster.  At a fundamental level, the sequel fixed a core problem that the first game had, that no matter how much I loved it, the fact was that most of my time was spent on the activities of combat, inventory management and exploration that just did not feel all that good.  They were functional, and rarely were any of them actually bad, but whenever I went to replay Mass Effect 1, those bits would definitely slow me down.  Mass Effect 2 has the exact opposite sensibilities, and puts most of its effort into improving the aspects that the player will be spending most of their time on.  As a result, it is a much more enjoyable game to play overall.  Mass Effect 1 is a game of ups and downs: this bit of exposition is great, this bit of combat is a slog; this vocal performance is great, this ten-minute drive in the mako is borderline unplayable.  Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, holds a consistent level of quality throughout, which means that while some of the highs of the first game aren’t quite as high in the second, the lows are evened out much more.

The combat in Mass Effect 1 was tolerable at best; the combat in Mass Effect 2 is slick enough that I play it for its own sake.  The world in Mass Effect 1 was brimming was exposition, depth and interesting answers to interesting questions; Mass Effect 2 actually stuck you in the middle of it.  The characters in Mass Effect 1 were charming and lovable, the characters in Mass Effect 2 are so goddamn charismatic I don’t have enough hyperbole to express it.  That consistency of high but not highest quality makes it easy to get lost in Mass Effect 2, to play it over and over again because there are barely any of the moments that you would run into in the first game where, when faced with an hour-long sequence of combat and mako exploration, you just dreaded moving forward.  Everything feels like an incremental improvement, like the team finally got the budget they wanted and could bring their universe to life.  The game set the standard for how a modern RPG would work, and still finds its way into top ten lists six years after its release.  And while I genuinely love the first one more on a personal level, I know that that added consistency of quality makes going back to the original often very difficult.  I have multiple friends who started on the second game, loved it, but could never go back to play the original; the gap in quality is simply too big.  So many parts that work so well in the second game feel like they’re missing from the first.  But so too are there aspects in the original that feel missing in the sequel, and while this problem would only deepen in the third game, the makings of this redefinition of Mass Effect can be clearly seen in this game.  Mass Effect 1 was niche art; Mass Effect 2 needed mass appeal.  The difference between the two approaches, while it can be subtle at first, is one of the most fascinating things about the series.  Let’s dig into it.

Combat

When Mass Effect 2 came out, I hadn’t played Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, or any of the other myriad of cover shooters that were flooding the market, so cover shooting seemed like a cool idea at the time.  While the genre has almost completely lost its luster in the six years since, I still enjoy Mass Effect 2’s combat system, and I was freaking ecstatic about it at release.  Compared to the clunky, buggy combat of the first game, this felt fluid and slick.  I could move from cover to cover, pop off a few shots and activate a few biotic powers all without forgetting which button got you into cover and which one snapped your aiming to your eye line.  While the basic shooting is taken straight out of Gears, Mass Effect adds some fun twists to the formula that make it fun on a second-to-second level, but also have a bit of strategic depth.  In the first game, I rarely gave orders to my companions (despite beating the game on Insanity multiple times), and I rarely switched between guns.  In my last hour of playing Mass Effect 2 (running through the Overlord DLC), I was giving orders to my squadmates every time their powers came off cooldown, switching weapons based on the current defense type of enemies, and even ordering positions as enemies moved around the combat arena.  Simply put, the combat requires you to make more interesting decisions than its predecessor.  Even on my most recent playthrough (number 11, I think), I was learning new parts of the combat.  On Insanity difficulty, pretty much any improvement to your fighting style matters, so I finally selected a couple guns that worked better against each defense type.  Enemies in the game have four types of defense, and usually have two, while some of the tougher enemies have three.  Those layers are shields or biotic barriers, armor, and health.  Different weapons and damage types work better against each one, and certain powers are designed just to take down specific defense types.  This means that, while building my squad, I want to select members that have powers that react to the potentially most common damage type of the enemies I will be fighting.  Am I going up against geth enemies?  I should probably take Kasumi, Tali, or Garrus, since they have abilities that counter shields well.  Lots of weak humanoid enemies or husks?  Probably Jack, because her abilities only work on unshielded targets.  Collectors or highly-equipped humanoids?  Better keep my squad diverse so I can react to multiple types of defenses.  These are types of decisions you just didn’t have to make in Mass Effect 1, and squad choice was mostly based on who you liked the most.

A common criticism that has been leveled against the game, however, is its removal of traditional RPG elements from the combat.  In the first game, you had an inventory filled with different levels of armor, weapons, and amps.  You would get these items as loot from random enemies in the world, the same way you do in most RPGs.  However, you never really had to make any choices with these.  It was basically a matter of finding which thing had the highest numbers and using that.  It took time, and rewarded exploration, but you weren’t making interesting decisions that payed off in combat.  A YouTuber I really like, Noah Gervais, framed it really well in his video on the Mass Effect series, where he asked, “Which assault rifle was your favorite in Mass Effect 1?  How about Mass Effect 2?” and my answers to those two questions, respectively are “I don’t care, whichever one is the best” and “The Mattock, screw the Avenger, I’ll take the added precision and scope over higher damage and rate of fire any day.”  Those two questions and my subsequent answers were enough alone to convince me that I liked the inventory management system of the second game significantly more than the first, because even if there was less stuff to do, the decisions you were making mattered, and stuck with you.  I think it might have been a bit excessive to remove the inventory system completely, and I think the third game’s system of weapon customization over looting is probably the best option.

But, the second game did have a few unique ideas to replace the upgrade system of the previous game, in the form of the game’s most hated addition: planet scanning.  See, the game would let you find upgrades in the world or buy them from vendors that would do things like boost your shield capacity or increase biotic damage, and you would need to research them with resources harvested from planets.  You would get these resources from going to planets in the galaxy map and scanning them for resources, in a tedious process that involved moving your cursor over every square inch of the planet and clicking when the resources you want showed up in a great enough capacity.  The process took forever, especially before the speed upgrade, offered no real choices or really anything interesting to do other than move your mouse up and down, and was subsequently removed in the third game, so I think the developers learned their lesson.  Independent of the way you got resources, however, I like Mass Effect 2’s upgrade system.  It gives you unlocks and progress that rewards exploration and does require some decision making on which upgrades you will buy, without the clunky mess of the previous game’s inventory.  It got better in the sequel, but it’s pretty solid in this one as well.

Characters           

            However while the game’s changes in combat made it overall more replayable, what makes it truly great is the game’s characters.  They are the undeniably the meat of the game, the real reason people come to the series and remember this particular game so fondly.  Mass Effect 1’s characters definitely had their interesting moments, but most of that was in concept, not so much in execution.  The structure of the second game fundamentally changes to accommodate these characters, from the mostly linear plot of the first game that is structured more like a film, to the more open-ended, disconnected set of missions of Mass Effect 2, that play out more like a season of a TV show.  The majority of these missions are focused exclusively on the characters themselves, but are clustered together to give the game some semblance of progression.  Each act will begin with a plot-mission, related to the Collectors, the main antagonists of the game, and then is followed by three to four character recruitment missions, where the player involves themselves in the personal struggles of the person they are trying to recruit.  Then, each squad member is given a loyalty mission, further following their personal struggles in a way that is almost wholly disconnected from the main plot of “stop The Collectors”.  This means the the vast majority of the game isn’t focused on this main plot, but is instead an episodic bit of character development.  With this shift in focus, the game can really define itself as a character-focused work, not a plot one.

With that added freedom comes a more complex and focused look at each character.  Firefly creator Joss Whedon originally pitched the show as being about “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”, the Mass Effect 2 is a focused exploration of that same approach to sci-fi.  For many of these characters, we get to see how their experience with Shepard in the first game changed them, and how each one of them tried to interpret what made Shepard such a powerful force in the galaxy.  We get to see how each one of them tries to be Shepard.  Many of them have gone from the encyclopedia entries on their species to having a complex relationship with it.  Garrus calls himself, “A bad turian”, Tali is tried for treason, Grunt struggles to be accepted by his own species, Mordin is celebrated by his people but for the wrong reasons, and Liara is becoming uncomfortable more like the mother she killed in the first game.  These characters are much messier than they were in Mass Effect 1, they don’t embody their respective cultures, they struggle with them.  They become political leaders, begin their own projects and try to shape the galaxy in their own way with the absurd amount of influence they’ve gained.  Wrex is trying to unite his race and bring them into a renaissance, Liara is a busy information broker, and Ashley/Kaiden just go back to being a soldier in the alliance.   In a game that deifies the player character and places an almost masturbatory importance on the player’s own agency in the galaxy, telling the player “Sorry, I don’t have time to go adventuring with you” is both a brilliant piece of world-building, and a subtle rejection of the player’s omnipotence.  These characters shape the game’s world, and their relationship to Shepard defines both them and the player.  Any exploration of the game has to dig deep into those characters, since that is clearly what the game cares about.  So I’m going to devote a section to each (err, most) of them, and see what they have to teach us about the character, the game, and the world.

Garrus

People loved Garrus before, but Mass Effect 2 was what got him to meme status.  After spending just a few minutes with Garrus, it becomes very clear that the game is trying to cultivate this reaction.  When you find Garrus, he is on the space station Omega, the seedy underbelly of the galaxy that serves as an easy foil for The Citadel (and later Illium), and he is single-handedly taking on every gang on the station.  His identity isn’t revealed at first, but when you fight your way to him, and see, oh hey, it’s Garrus, the game plays it up, and does everything it can to give you the feeling of seeing a long-lost friend again.  And this becomes the perfect lens to explore Omega with.

Omega is, as previously mentioned, the darker side of the galaxy.  Shepard is working outside of counsel space, he’s exploring areas that aren’t as cleanly under government control, so there is a lot more in-your-face crime and injustice for Shepard to play the superhero to.  This marks a pretty heavy tonal shift from the first to the second game, because while ME1 had a sort of golden age, idealistic take on sci-fi, ME2 takes on an aesthetic that is closer to cyberpunk.  High tech, low life is an apt description of how the game’s world works, Omega especially.  This gives your character a sense of being isolated from the rest of the game’s formal authority structures, as you spend most of your time on morally neutral actions.  Yeah, the overall frame narrative is pushing you towards saving people, but most of the time you’re just trying to find and recruit people.  As a result, renegade Shepards really come into their own here, because instead of playing the galactic space cop, you’re working for a shady organization recruiting the baddest of the bad so that you can eventually save the galaxy, but it’s going to take a lot of work before that.  Omega is perhaps the best example of this new theme.  It’s a criminal-run space station, dark and grimy, filled with the most dangerous types of people.  And this is where Garrus shows up after Shepard’s death at the beginning of the game (long story, she died for two years.  She got better.)  In the years of Shepard’s absence, Garrus tried to be her.  He put together a team to take down the gangs and mercenary groups on Omega, basically forming a Suicide Squad meets Avengers Superhero group.  I’m not going to go into too much detail about this and Garrus’ loyalty missions, but while Garrus serves as a big part of the game’s love of “the old days”, his story on Omega, of betrayal and murder, of crushed idealism on a corrupt space station, is a great summation of the game’s approach to tone.

Mordin 

            Also on Omega, the player meets the salarian doctor Mordin, one of the most beloved new character additions.  Mordin hides away in a corner of Omega, running a clinic with next to no resources while trying to cure a plague released on the station.  He is a brilliant scientist, and spent a great deal of his life in government work, working on the Krogan genophage, which I will expand on shortly.  Omega is the perfect setting to let Mordin shine, as it has both a great deal of people who need help, and a morally reprehensible criminal infrastructure that would come up against Mordin.  As a result, Mordin’s later-revealed role as “The Doctor Who Killed Millions” doesn’t feel out of place.  Mordin works tirelessly to save those infected by the plague, then kills the mercs who attack him without hesitation, leaving their bodies outside of his clinic as a warning sign to others.

Mordin is also a wonderfully charismatic bit of writing, though the person himself is much less so.  Mordin is socially clueless, talks in curt, efficient sentences designed to communicate quickly but not elegantly.  He tackles problems with brute force speed and efficiency, but most players can’t help but love him.  He is adorably awkward (especially later on when he starts singing), unintentionally funny, and refreshingly idealistic.  Conversations with Mordin run the gambit from genuinely unsettling, to intellectually fascinating, to laugh-out-loud hilarious, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mordin’s core conflict, though, centers around the previously mentioned genophage.  The genophage was released several hundred years before the events of the games as a response to the Krogan’s attempts to take over the galaxy soon after being given spaceflight technology by the salarians.  It limited their birth rate to somewhere around one in a thousand, crippling their population and crushing their dreams of an empire.  When the player visits Tuchanka, their homeworld, they find it in ruins not because of the results of the genophage, but because of centuries of war, nuclear and otherwise, between the various clans of the species.  The krogan seem inherently warlike, with a culture that has violence at its very core.  This, coupled with how bloody the Krogan rebellions were described to be, makes the release of the genophage seem less like the war crime it definitionally was, and more like a desperate last hope.  Still, even hundreds of years after its initial release, krogan civilization is crippled, disorganized, and just as warlike as it was before.  While a player can feel sympathy for the loss of krogan culture, it doesn’t seem like that culture was or ever will be anything other than warmongering.  However, if the player saved Wrex in the first game, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope.  Wrex, fresh from his work with Shepard, is working to unite the clans under one banner, slowly forming a unified krogan government based more on something akin to what we would call the social contract than a mite-makes-right approach that is so ingrained in their culture it isn’t even really questioned.  But the ruined state of their world and their civilization makes this difficult.  When the player first sees Wrex, he is sitting on a throne made from the rubble of buildings destroyed in countless wars, you get the symbolism pretty quickly.  And it is into this incredibly messy and complicated situation that Mordin enters.

Mordin was part of a team that noticed that the effects of the genophage were lessening.  The krogan birth rate was rising, not rapidly, but enough that it fell outside of the salarian projections.  So, Mordin and his team corrected that.  Despite the moral complexity of the genophage’s original release, they altered the plague to account for this, and the birth rate normalized.  These adjustments to the genophage probably border on a war crime, just as the original release did, and it’s implied that this isn’t the first time the salarians have done this.  Mordin is now partially culpable for this plague that wreaked havoc across krogan culture, and he doesn’t seem the least bit conflicted about it at first.  When the player confronts him about this, we start to see the first bit of what becomes Mordin’s tragic flaw, in the traditional literary sense: he is a classic example of not being able to see the little picture in the face of the big picture.  When you talk to Mordin about the geophage, he talks about high-level models and simulations they had run, testing the likelihood of more krogan rebellions, of the number of casualties that war with the rest of the galaxy would cost, and with your experience with the krogan, you might believe him at first.  But then comes Mordin’s loyalty mission, where you hunt down an allegedly kidnapped member of his team who, it turns out, was not kidnapped at all, but rather joined the krogan willingly to help them cure the genophage out of guilt for his actions.  Along the way, Mordin is forced to look at the smaller picture of his actions, seeing the death and cultural stagnation that his actions helped reinforce.  Throughout the mission, Mordin is thoroughly uncomfortable, and you see his composure slowly start to break with a subtlety that is far too uncommon in most game narratives.  Mordin leaves the mission undecided, considering that perhaps his actions were a mistake, and that he might revise them in the future.  It isn’t a dramatic change of heart, but it is the beginnings of one, and it is one that the series will expertly continue with and conclude in its final entry.

Jack

I have a whole lot to say about Jack, but not too much of it has a place in a piece (ostensibly) about the big-budget updating of the series.  But I’ll touch on a few points.  Yeah, Jack’s character design looks like they targeted marketing first, and actual character design second.  Yeah, her arc can be summed up as “broken woman needs a man in her life to fix her problems”.  But I actually like what they ended up doing with Jack’s character, even if I still agree with a lot of the criticism.  Importantly to this essay, though, Jack is a perfect example of the seedier side of the Mass Effect universe.  She’s got the fairly classic story of being kidnapped as a child and experimented on for her biotic abilities (classic in genre fiction, anyways), and as a result, hates everyone and everything.  The Alliance couldn’t help her, the Counsel and its influence couldn’t help her, no one even tried, so Jack serves as a perfect example of how, in a galaxy as big as this one, it is very easy to slip through the cracks.  Seeing a person so explicitly broken yet also so incredibly powerful helps the player see parts of the universe the normally wouldn’t. The series, especially the second game, sees the player interacting with the best of the best, the most competent, focused and driven individuals in the galaxy.  Having Jack on the team, however, lets the player see a bit of just how a completely but sympathetically broken person might live in the Mass Effect universe.  And even just for that, I am grateful that Jack is in the series.

Kasumi’s Heist

Before we move on to Act II of the game, there are two DLC packs that add characters that we can discuss.  The day-one DLC for the game added Zaeed to the franchise, a badass mercenary that I was so thoroughly bored with, I never talked to him after his recruitment and loyalty mission.  Not too much to say there.  Kasumi is mostly the same, since the DLC didn’t add many conversations for either of them, but that pack does have one of my favorite parts of the series: a heist mission.  Now, I love heists.  I love them in games, books, films, stage plays, interpretive dance, whatever, heists are freaking great. And despite how goddamn engaging every single heist bit I’ve played in a game has been, there are unforgivably few heist games.  Off the top of my head I can think of Payday 1 and 2, this mission in Mass Effect 2, a few 2D indie titles, and those few missions in GTA V.  Payday and GTA V are the closest we’ve gotten to actual heists in video games, and those were depressingly shallow.  Payday probably had the most potential, since it does have systems for stealth play, messing with security systems, and interaction with NPCs in ways other than killing, but it so quickly dissolves into an all-out gunfight that it is barely worth playing (hasn’t stopped me from putting over 20 hours into it, but still).  Basically, I love heists, and I need more of them in games.  Payday might have touched on the thrill of planning a heist with your friends and suddenly having it all go wrong at the last minute, but Mass Effect 2 tries to make that more narrative-focused by having you run a heist with a fictional friend instead.  There isn’t much mechanical depth to it, it plays mostly like one of the newer Telltale games, but the theming alone and my unquenchable thirst for more heist games has kept this mission as one that I look forward to on every playthrough.

 Tali

I kick off Act II by playing Tali’s recruitment mission first, though the game does give you multiple reasons to go to Illium as well.  But just like Virmire in the first game, I always save Illium for last.  Tali, fortunately, has evolved into a fascinating character in the time between the games.  Tali was basically a teenager when you met her in ME1; a wide-eyed girl seeing the outside world for the first time.  By the time you see her in ME2, she has changed from a caricature of an encyclopedia dump on quarians to a fully fleshed out person.  Tali is competent and confident, a science nerd, but with a bit of experience under her belt.  You find her leading a classified mission on a geth world, one hand on her gun and the other on a keyboard.  She is fiercely loyal to her people, but often at odds with her government.  You later hear her talk about how seeing the outside world radically shifted her feelings about her home, how it gave her more perspective to see what she loved and didn’t about the Flotilla.  And when she is charged with treason during her loyalty mission, that conflict is brought to the forefront.

In what is easily one of the best-written sections of the series, Tali is caught in the middle of a feud between two factions of her people, which she is only slightly involved in.  The issue is mired in the politics and history of the fleet, which requires a bit more explanation before I can go further.  The Quarians started out on their homeworld of Rannoch, but as they progressed as a species, the started developing AI.  This isn’t unusual for spacefaring species in the Mass Effect universe, but the Quarians pushed the technology far enough to create an entire species of sorts, the synthetic Geth.  The Geth slowly became self-aware, and when some Quarian scientists realized this, they tried to shut it down, to which the Geth responded by killing their Quarian masters to defend themselves.  This escalated from a single lab to the entire planet, leading to a full-scale war that forced the Quarians off the planet and into a migrant fleet.  The Geth eventually conquered all of the Quarian’s colonies, leaving the entire species confined to what would eventually become the largest fleet in the galaxy.  Because of the centuries they spent in space, their immune systems grew so weak that they were forced to wear environmental suits at all times, as even the slightest infection could kill them.  This lets the writers pull from all kinds of real-world history, and gives the Quarians a longing for a home that they most likely would never see again.  But, some of them still want to fight to return, chief among them, Tali’s father.  Promising to build his family a house on the homeworld, he worked tirelessly to create a weapon that might defeat the geth.  In the process, he accidentally activated a powerful network of geth on a Quarian ship, who quickly took it over and slaughtered every Quarian on board.  Because Tali had been sending him Geth parts, she had been implicated, and changed with treason.  Shepard and Tali clear the Geth from the ship to clear Tali’s name, and the conflict is resolved with Tali in high standing among her people, but the lingering conflict between the Quarians remain.  In an incredibly adept move of graying up the morality of the game, the person hell-bent on seeing Tali charged and exiled is actually against fighting to retake the homeworld.  He believes that war with the Geth would cost millions of Quarian lives and would have little return.  Meanwhile, Tali and Shepard mostly work with Quarians who support war with the Geth.  This leaves the player in a constant state of unease, working against the anti-war Quarians just because one of their friends got in their way.  I always leave that mission slightly uncomfortable, never really sure where I stand with the various factions and leaders of the species.  That plotline, fortunately, is also resolved brilliantly in the third game, making this mission easily one of my favorite in the series.

Legion

This jumps around in the game’s timeline a bit, but I think it’s important to talk about Legion at this point, partially because he’s a Geth, but also because of how his presence in the story contributes to the continued moral grayness of the series.  The Geth were basically cannon fodder in the first game.  Yeah, they were interesting from a lore perspective, but they were never ethically complex or interesting as characters.  Legion’s presence, and the lore he brings with him pulls off the brilliant move of turning a simple enemy into a complex one, continuing one of my favorite trends in this game.  In a strongly unique move for the series, the player first encounters Legion in a combat sequence, where he helps Shepard from a distance with sniper fire.  Starting out with a mechanical (heh) connection with Legion helps the player to quickly bond with him, which is necessary as Legion is usually the last new companion the player meets in the game.  Once out of combat, the player can talk to Legion, and he is thoroughly interesting from the get-go.  He explains how there are multiple, warring factions of geth, how Legion’s geth are at war with the geth the player has fought, and how the previously homogenous race of evil robots that they player had seen before was actually a fascinating exploration of science fiction genre tropes.  Coupled with the player learning about how Geth were created during their adventures with the quarians, the player is immediately predisposed to be sympathetic to them, and I know I personally wanted to learn every scrap of lore Legion had to offer.  My favorite moment with Legion is when the player realized that Legion is wearing a piece of Shepard’s armor, used to patch up a bullet hole.  When the player presses Legion on why he did this, he eventually ends with a pause and, “…No data available.”  The geth appear mechanical and alien, and they most certainly are, but there is a messy core of emotion underneath, and Mass Effect 2 loves exploring it.  This is something games centered around combat have a very difficult time doing, because they need hordes of endless enemies for the player to shoot without seeming like a monster.  For a lot of the series, the geth are that monster, simple and easy, but, even while fighting against the mechanical necessities of its genre and its medium, Mass Effect 2 managed to pull of making them complex and interesting.

Liara

Illium is always the last planet I go to when playing Mass Effect 2.  You get the option to go there about half-way through the game, but I love saving it for last.  When you first land on the planet, it seems as stark a contrast as possible from Omega, or the other grimy reaches of space you have spent the game exploring.  It invokes more traditional sci-fi than cyberpunk, with a hint of Star Wars’ Coruscant thrown in for good measure.  Illium is one of the asari’s most prosperous colonies, and gets the player a bit closer to understanding just how vast the asari’s influence and wealth truly is.  However, Illium sits right on the border of the Terminus Systems, serving as a connecting point between the lawless outer reaches of the galaxy and the orderly domain of asari space.  It is the perfect blend of the wealthy and high-class with the dangerous and low-class, and as such, it is the perfect capstone to the themes of Mass Effect 2.  The player has spent almost all of their time exploring planets where there SPECTER status barely has any meaning, and now the contrast of that world overlapping with the more respectable one is a perfect time for the themes the game has been building up to culminate.  A few hours into their time on Illium, the player will hear the line, “Illium is just Omega with expensive shoes”, and I think there is no greater summary of the planet.  This is where we find Liara.

Liara went through a very similar arc to Tali, changing from a wide-eyed, awkward, and nerdy character without too much of a defined personality into a cold, calculating information broker.  The first line the player hears her say is a threatening, “Have you ever faced an asari commando unit before? Few humans have” to a potential client, immediately showing her shift away from the socially clueless archeologist of the first game.  However, this line was also spoken by her mother, Benezia, during their fight with Shepard in the first game.  The implication that Liara is becoming more and more like her mother is not exactly a subtle one.  But, moral grayness aside, Liara is still a deeply good person, and willing to help Shepard to the best of her very considerable abilities.  Despite this, Liara is one of the first characters to tell Shepard, “No, I can’t go adventuring with you, I have a goddamn job.”  This stings particularly hard if you, say, romanced Liara in the first game and were hoping to go on a grand planet-hopping adventure with your space girlfriend (not naming any names).  And the game doesn’t back away from this.  An easy way to react to Liara not being present in much of Shepard’s affairs in the second game would be to just not make the content for her.  Cheap, easy, and narratively consistent.  But the writers committed to this, and have a cutscene specifically tailored for the player having romance Liara in the first game, but not romancing anyone else in the second.  It’s a quiet, brief bit of Shepard pacing around her quarters, frustrated, taking a longing glance at a picture of Liara that she keeps on her desk, then going back to work.  That is one of the moments where I see Shepard characterize most strongly, as she rarely is.  The player doesn’t really control the scene, though they are likely feeling similar emotions, and we see a bit of the pressure that Shepard is under, independent of the player.  I like that Liara can bring out these moments in Shepard, and while her absence is important, Bioware wasn’t going to leave us hanging.

Liara gets her own DLC pack, Lair of the Shadow Broker, and it is one of my favorite bits of DLC ever made.  Expanding on the small side quest and brief cutscene in the main game, Lair of the Shadow Broker takes the player on a hunt across Illium and later to one of the most beautifully designed areas in the game, with Liara taking center stage.  The mission starts with the eponymous Shadow Broker trying to assassinate Liara, and her escaping but leaving clues for Shepard to find her.  The game briefly turns into a goddamn police procedural (a full year before LA Noire!), with Shepard searching for clues, piecing together information, and figuring out where to go next.  Later sequences in the DLC include a flying car chase that mimics Star Wars Episode II’s take on that idea, a fight with a corrupt SPECTER, and a fight up the side of a spaceship that hovers right on a planet’s horizon.  Along the way, we see that Liara is just as complicated as the rest of the game’s characters, dealing with the power that her information broker status gets her, her genuine affection for her friends, and the past legacy of her mother.  Liara’s complexity is so refreshing given her starting point in the first game, and it feels like something the main game just couldn’t have done.  In retrospect, this DLC is probably what made me so positive about DLC as a concept, despite the horrendous business practices it has inspired in the industry.  It lets you get a big-budget focused mission that can experiment in a way the main game might not.

But my favorite sequence in the DLC remains Shepard and Liara’s date, which is even more surprising when you consider that it is entirely optional, and only applies to a subset of players.  Liara opens the sequence with, “I’m not sure people like us have dates, but I’m looking forward to it”.  I think the writing in this sequence conveys a really interesting take on romance as a subplot when your main plot is about saving the world or whatever.  Shepard and Liara are not exactly stable people, they’re going all over the galaxy righting wrong and altering intergalactic politics.  They’re as romantically inclined as the next all-powerful space superhero, but they don’t exactly have the lifestyle for moving in together and focusing on their relationship.  Shepard and Liara’s date gives them a brief chance to stop saving the world and focus on each other, and they both treat it like a treat, something temporary.  They are people with lives, friends, adventures and plans wholly separate from each other, and while they can get together from some hardcore romance every once in awhile, it’s not their default; not their normal.  Being motivated people trying to get shit done is their full-time job, and the game respects that.  Liara does not quit her job to become your space consort.  She’s a person with her own plans, and the player is not at the center of all of those.

Thane

Thane is one of the most explicitly tragic characters in Mass Effect 2’s lineup, and also probably my favorite. His character description of, “assassin with terminal disease” is loaded with enough irony to give the writers a strong base to work with, but they go much farther than that.  Thane tells you stories of a whole planet of tragedies that the player will never see, and weaves a narrative of a people dealing with an exodus that is every bit as tragic as the Quarians.  Thane’s people, the drell, were saved by the hanar moments before their world died.  Very few of them made it off the planet, leaving them with a handful of refugees on the hanar homeworld.  Unlike the Quarians, who have a unified government and home of sorts in the migrant fleet, the drell live with the hanar in a sort of gratitude-driven servitude, though they wouldn’t call it that.  The hanar resemble floating jellyfish, and while they are intellectually brilliant, aren’t the best assassins in the galaxy, so Thane was one of the drell chosen to take that role.  Thane, like all characters in Shepard’s squad, was one of the best at what he does, and when the player encounters him, he has just completed what he hopes to be his last job, an assassination of a prominent crime lord of Illium.  Thane quickly tells Shepard of his condition, an incurable, terminal disease that affects many members of his species.  He says that he will survive until the end of the mission, and that it won’t affect his performance, so for many characters, that is all the depth Thane has.  However, talk to him more, and you’ll learn a great deal more about the tragedy, in the literary sense, of his disease.  The drell lived in incredibly arid environments, and the Hanar homeworld on which so many of them are refugees is comparatively humid.  Over time, the drell developed this disease because of the conflict of environments.  Thane tells the player that it gets worse the longer her spends in human environments, where most of his jobs take place.  In a very real sense, his job is killing him, and little hints of his condition are scattered throughout the writing related to him, such as him staying in the life support area of the ship.  Talking to Thane is usually a somber experience, as he shows you bits and pieces of his life through his species ability for perfect recall.  He relives past moments of his life in perfect detail, an ability that he warns many drell can be consumed by.  Yet, from this tragic character, comes some of the most life-affirming moments of the game.

Thane’s loyalty mission deals with him reconciling himself with his son, with whom Thane has grown apart from since his wife’s death. The actual reconnection between the two isn’t given much screentime; this isn’t about the player and they’re not really involved beyond helping Thane find him.  But in addition to the mission’s more literary strengths, it also lets you be a space cop again, which is always one of Mass Effect’s greatest strengths.  You are trying to stop Thane’s son from assassinating a politician, so you tail the politician from the rafters, give status updates to Thane, all good stuff.  But you also get the interrogation sequence earlier, which literally gives you the option of Good Cop or Bad Cop, with a decent amount of dialogue written out for each one based on your paragon/renegade score.  On my most recent playthrough, I had maxed out my paragon bar by this point, so I was going renegade as hell, and played bad cop without a second thought.  The guy left the interrogation room bloody and beaten, and, yeah, it was a little evil, but he sold kids into slavery or something so it was totally justified.

Samara

There’s one last character before we close this section out, and that’s Samara, one of the stranger character’s in the game’s lineup.  Samara is an asari justicar, an ancient religious order that acts in a similar fashion to the SPECTERs.  They can freely, though not entirely, disregard the law, the asari people respect them and fear them, they are both a product of an older version of asari society, and while they struggle for relevance as their numbers dwindle, are still important.  Some of the asari you talk to say they dreamed of growing up to be one when they were young, and they take on a mythic quality. All of this is a brilliant bit of world building that shows a role in an alien society that said aliens struggle to explain to humans because it doesn’t really have a perfect comparison.  It’s messy and complicated, mired in pages of societal wiki pages, and that complexity alone makes them feel distinctly alien.  Samara is largely defined by her justicar status, but that is not the whole of her character.  The core of the justicar’s role in society is their very strict code, which outlines how to act in every kind of situations so that they justicars can act without question.  Samara comments on this, saying, “In this age, people see many shades of gray.  The code of the justicars is black and white.  I might seem a hero to many, but I would kill all of them if I had to.”  Samara is a unique take on the moral grayness that has found its way into Mass Effect 2, responding to the uncertainty of an amoral galaxy with a code that provides absolute certainty.  Samara never visibly struggles with an ethical decision.  She is cold, calculating and, on the surface, little else.  The is the textbook definition of the D&D Lawful Neutral type.

When the player talks to Samara to gain more detail, this lawful neutral surface is not removed to reveal some amoral core, Samara sticks to how she presents herself, but further discussion does show that she chose that lifestyle for a reason, and also reveals a mountain not of uncertainties, but of regret and insecurities.  Samara firmly believes in the justicar code, but she chose to follow it out of the guilt of three of her daughters becoming ardat yakshi, a complicated asari genetic mutation that instantly kills anyone they “mate” with (asari sexuality is a really complicated topic, basically they mind meld) and a burning hunger to kill as many as they can.  Her loyalty mission involves hunting down her most dangerous daughter, Morinth, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but this adds a lot of depth to Samara’s character.  She didn’t just decide one that day a crazy-strict code was the way she wanted to live her life, she chose it to deal with the insecurities, guilt and messiness of giving birth to a monster.  Samara spends most of her time hunting down Morinth, and has been doing so for centuries.  During that time, her view of the galaxy has shifted to one that demands absolute certainty, because anything less would involve her facing the mountain of doubt that Morinth’s existence brings with it.  She’s hiding behind it.

The mission to actually bring Morinth to justice (lol), however, doesn’t involve Samara that much.  That’s frustrating, but it’s still a great mission regardless.  Samara tracks Morinth to Omega (because of course she’s on Omega), and Shepard begins a hunt to lure her out and take her down.  Part of the mission involves Shepard entering the VIP section of the Afterlife club and trying to lure Morinth out by seeming as edgy and cool as possible.  And goddamn is that fun.  Punch a dude in the face for pressuring an asari who clearly was not into him, buy everyone a round of drinks, dance awkwardly with another patron, have a staring contest with a krogan; I’m having the time of my life here.  And then Morinth finally calls you over and you have to out-edgy-hipster her by saying that your music is to obscure for her and boom, you’re back at her place awkwardly flirting before Samara bursts in.  Helping a guilty mother kill her monster of a daughter should not be described as fun, but goddamn if it isn’t one of the funniest sequences in the entire game.  Oh, and if you’re a goddamn idiot you can choose to save Morinth and kill Samara and Morinth joins your squad instead.  You can even romance her in a sex scene that literally is a fade to black with a goddamn Game Over screen.  Because she kills people that she has sex with.  Never change, Mass Effect.  Never change.

The Suicide Mission

            The characters of Mass Effect take center stage in this game, and, regardless of the final mission, they would have been great. But, for me, the game’s final mission is its crowning achievement, because it takes the character focus the game had been building up and uses it to build The Suicide Mission into something that few games have ever managed to do.  You walk into the suicide mission feeling the progression that RPGs so often focus on; you have the best gear, the best team, the best ship, the best tech.  You have the best of the best ready to go on this mission, and it emphasizes that feeling of growing power in a way few few other RPGs do. When I played my first few BioWare games, I never liked only having to pick two or three companions at a time, I was always hoping that the final mission would allow me to play with all of them.  The Suicide Mission finally did that.  You spend most of it coordinating different teams, picking different members for different jobs, and making life-or-death decisions about how the mission will play out.  And these are life-or-death choices; actual ones.  If you didn’t make the right decisions along the way, didn’t complete loyalty missions or upgrade your ship, send the wrong teammate to the wrong place, they will die, and that will carry over into the sequel.  Even Shepard can die at the game’s ending if the player loses enough teammates.  The fact that so much work was put into making the decisions you make feel meaningful is frankly astounding, especially considering how expensive that content is to produce.  The Suicide Mission feels like your best ironman run of XCOM, but with characters you are invested in both because of how they help you on a gameplay level, and because of how much you like them as people.  I can’t think of a single other mission in gaming that evokes this feeling so strongly, and through that feeling, you love the characters even more.  The game has been building up to this for twenty hours, and damn, does it pay off.

The first bit of real interaction the player has during the Suicide Mission is a planning sequence.  You made it to your enemy’s base, crashed on the surface, and are planning what looks like a one-way trip.  The song, suicide mission, plays in the background as you make your decisions, and the music adapts to the stage of the planning you’re currently at.  It adds to the brilliantly building tension that the narrative and gameplay decisions have created, making you focus on something that exists in other games, but is never as emphasized.  You pick your primary and secondary teams, a specialist for hacking into the base’s systems, and get ready to kick some Collector ass.  You feel like you are finally planning your own mission, not letting the game tell you what to do.  Even though the sequence is still fairly scripted, the decisions you make create an illusion of choice that is stronger than any of the game’s other missions.  At specific stages in the mission, you have to shuffle your team around, pick different specialists, and react to changes in the mission objectives.  On repeat playthroughs, I was worried it would lose its luster, since I knew each beat of the mission by heart, but nope, on my most recent playthrough, I was giddy as all hell, tabbing to my notes on the game to quickly type out some notes before tabbing back somehow getting even more excited.  The buildup and payoff is sublime, and each bit of game before the mission feels like it pays off during the mission.  The final boss fight is infamously lackluster, but by that point, I didn’t care.  I had pulled off the Suicide Mission, with an actual, game-recognized possibility of failure.  I felt like a goddamn space hero.

And that’s how Mass Effect 2 closes.  You get a quick moral choice about keeping or destroying your enemy’s base (which ends up not mattering at all), you blast out of there before the place blows up, and you get a quick cutscene of your team looking all badass while an army of reapers descend on the galaxy.  You can play some DLC or extra missions afterwards, but that’s how the game officially closes.  There are few games I have played that can hit that high of an ending note. 

Conclusion

I came into this playthrough of the game and accompanying essay expecting to write something very different.  I was going to write about how it watered down the world and strengths of the first game to create something with more mass appeal, how it toned down the literary influences in favor of a cinematic one.  But honest, now that I’ve finished it, I think I found more depth in it than I have in the first.  I still love Mass Effect 1, and I think it does have some strengths in world building that the second one does lose a bit, but the game’s greater commitment to showing you the parts of that world, to making it a bit messier, and somehow pulling this off while looking great, is enough to easily make it one of my favorite games ever made.  While Mass Effect 1 feels like a rough take on something brilliant, and Mass Effect 3 feels like a polished but ultimately less expansive entry, Mass Effect 2 feels the most complete of the trilogy.  It knows what it wants to do, and it executes it to near perfection.  It doesn’t feel confused about what it wants to do, and there are very few parts of it that feel incomplete.  It cares about a few things, it’s characters, building a complex world, and having fun while doing it, and it does all three of those things really damn well.  The first two games in this series had an enormous impact on how I looked at games (a massive effect, if you will), and Mass Effect 2 comes the closest to realizing the perfect version of that idea that affected me so profoundly.  During his final conversation, Grunt tell Shepard, “I have everything.  Clan, kin, and enemies to fight”.  I couldn’t think of a better summary.

Massive Effect (Get It?)

I started playing Mass Effect sometime around 2009.  This was before I even knew what Steam was and had just discovered internet piracy, so if a game sounded even remotely good, I was downloading it.  I had played Knights of the Old Republic a few months earlier and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it hadn’t affected me in the way its successor would.  But after messing with crack files and cursing my lack of disposable income, I got my first of many installs of Mass Effect running.  My laptop might have met the minimum specs for a AAA game released in 2004, so Mass Effect was running at an 800×600 resolution on the lowest possible settings that config file tweaks would allow.  So with my laptop was burning so hot it almost certainly wasn’t safe, I fired up (with every heat pun imaginable) what would undoubtedly become the most influential game of my life.

Every games writer and player I know credits the games they played as a kid as having the largest influence on how they would look at games for the rest of their lives.  For most people my age, that game is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.  But I didn’t own an N64 as a kid, or any console, for that matter, so I never had access to that kind of experience.  I played some great PC games as a kid, and sunk and ungodly amount of time into World of WarCraft, but none of them had the life-altering influence I heard my friends talk about when discussing Ocarina.  Mass Effect would become that game for me.

The game starts pretty slowly, but already had me interested even a few moments in.  A classic sci-fi opening text crawl describing the basics of the universe and the discovery of the space magic that lets them explain away all the crazy shit you do.  You then create your character by picking a gender, class, and basic backstory in a future world where humans have encountered a galactic alliance of alien civilizations that are hopelessly more advanced than they are.  The opening bits of dialogue, with your character serving as a commander on a human spacecraft called the Normandy, move this idea out of the exposition dump and into the plot.  Humans are the new kids on the block, they’re too ambitious, taking too much power and territory, and the other races don’t like them.  Five minutes in, I was already hooked.  Humans are the underdogs?  They aren’t universally adored?  They don’t rule half the galaxy?  My experience of sci-fi was pretty limited to Star Wars, Star Trek, and…well that’s about it as far as space-faring sci-fi goes, so this twist on the genre was already pulling me into the world because, as much as it wore its influences on its sleeve, it was trying something I hadn’t seen before.

The game continues pretty comfortably: you’re starting a mission, it’s super important, you’re a cool dude with a cool squad, some important mystery about a human colony gone dark, everything you need for a good adventure.  The game gets a bit heavy on the exposition in the opening, as a lot of alternate world fiction has to, but the writers are mostly able to keep the pace snappy.  The world of Mass Effect is pretty dense, especially in the first game, so the characters explaining the technology and sociopolitical climate feels necessary, if narratively inelegant.  However, the game doesn’t dump it all on you if you’ve already played the game.  A great deal of exposition is done in the in-game codex that you can read at any time and is regularly updated as you find more information.  This means that the game doesn’t have to explain every bit of information on every technological, or political skirmish through a character that requires animation and voice acting to present.  However, the game also provides much of its exposition through optional questions that the player can ask.  The dialogue wheel often gives the player an “Investigate” submenu, which will list a few possible questions the player can follow up on with whoever they are talking to, leading the character to have a reason to go into exposition, but also twist the exposition in a way that gives us more detail about their character.  But all of this can be skipped on your second playthrough.  Already know who the Protheans are because you’ve beaten every game in the series like five times and don’t need an entry-level explanation of them?  Good!  The conversation structure of the game is designed to accommodate both players who do ask the questions and those who do not, and after multiple playthroughs, this feature is much appreciated.

It was around this point that I started to notice the game’s soundtrack.  Mass Effect has a bit of your traditional sci-fi epic score, but most of the music, especially the background stuff, is really bass-heavy, synth music, much more Blade Runner than Star Wars.  Now some of that was probably because synthesized music is a lot cheaper to produce than the full orchestral scores of the later games, but that music is part of what makes the first game feel so distinct from the next two.  Orchestral scores are great and all, I love the hell out of ME2 and 3s soundtracks and listen to them on at least a weekly basis, but ME1s soundtrack had a tone that the later games just don’t: alien.  Mass Effect’s world is supposed to feel both alien and familiar, and the soundtrack does a great job of emphasizing the alien part.  The music makes the admittedly sparse environments seem uncomfortable, ethereal, and otherworldly.  But as you played the game, you grew accustom to it, and it started to feel familiar.  I will absentmindedly hum a lot of the melodies to those songs, especially when playing the game.  And just through the catchiness of its alien music, you get a bit of one of the game’s themes: the alien becoming familiar.  This happens in the music, the characters, and the world, with unknowns becoming knowns, and the music helps ease this theme along.  It feeds into the game’s core theme of exploration, and taps into that Star Trek idealism of exploring strange new worlds, and seeking out new life and new civilizations.  All through music.

Now I wouldn’t have been thinking about this kind of stuff if I was as into sci-fi then as I am now.  In 2009, I hadn’t even seen Blade Runner, let alone fallen head-over-heels in love with it.  80s sci-fi, music and all, wasn’t really something I was aware of.  So Mass Effect being essentially a large amalgamation of other sci-fi influences that it clearly wore on its sleeve (I mean, the studio’s previous game was a Star Wars RPG in the same format), was lost on me.  But that didn’t mean my experience of the work was lessened – quite the opposite, actually.  Mass Effect served as an introductory work to the genre, whose abundance of references, influences and inspirations were instead more parts of the game to explore.  This made Mass Effect even richer, because I had so much more to learn.  Keeping with the music, I thoroughly enjoyed the soundtrack, so I Googled it and discovered that it was influenced by Blade Runner’s electronic soundtrack by Vangelis.  I listened to that soundtrack and really loved it, so why not check out the movie itself?  It had Harrison Ford in it, and I liked him.  Woah, Blade Runner is insanely cool, what’s this whole Cyberpunk thing?  And so on and so on.

Getting back to the game, Mass Effect’s tutorial mission is pretty standard.  It introduces the player to the alien race of turians, who had a messy first-contact war with humanity, but seem to be on at least okay terms with them by the time of the game.  You’re told by your captain and one of these turians that you’re being considered for the position of SPECTER, which is basically a space sheriff that can do whatever they want.  This mission is going to be your evaluation for the position, so, naturally, it goes to shit.  Your turian friend gets betrayed and killed by another turian named Saren who becomes the game’s main villain, some sort of space machine-god descends from the heavens to kind of do nothing except set that mystery in motion (you’ll just have to roll with me on this one if you haven’t played it), and everyone blames you for being shit at your job.  You don’t become a space sheriff.

I just realized that I’ve gotten this far into talking about Mass Effect and haven’t mentioned the protagonist, Shepard, by name.  The character creation in Mass Effect is a bit more defined than in other western RPGs.  In, say, Dragon Age: Origins, you get to define your character traits, how they act, what they think about things, and even their backstory, if loosely, but in Mass Effect, your character is always named Shepard.  You get to pick the gender and first name, but Shepard is, at least slightly, a character that the game has given you, already with the basics, just ready to be molded by you.  These days, I play as FemShep, because Jennifer Hale gives a way better vocal performance (I love you, Mark Meer, but your good-guy voice just isn’t as good as your bad-guy voice), but in my first playthrough, I was BroShep.  Male Shepard, pretty generic looking dude, same face you see on the cover.  Fans get pretty vocal about defending FemShep as the “real” Shepard, and by playthrough #2, I completely got it.  I regret the decision to start as BroShep and will be referring to Shepard, as she should be, with female pronouns, from now on.  It doesn’t affect much beyond who your character gets to romance anyways

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So you and your space team fly to The Citadel, which is this this enormous space station and the seat of galactic power that the alien races just sorta found and assumed it was built by a previous civilization (again, just roll with it here if you haven’t played) and it’s super cool and super important.  It also might be my favorite zone in the series.  You’ve got a series of missions to do on the station that involve you hunting down some information that proves Saren is actually evil and you are a cool dude and that you can totally be a space sheriff if they just give you the chance; whatever, plot stuff.  But the station itself…well, basically everything up to this point has been pretty linear.  The game tells you where to go and what to do, gives you narrow paths to run down (seriously, look at the map screen, they don’t even try to hide it), and outside of some optional conversations, you don’t have much say in where you go and what you do.  The Citadel is where the game really opens up.  Suddenly, you’ve got dozens of side missions that spring off from the main one, tons of friendly NPCs to talk to, vendors to buy stuff from, codex entries to read, mini power struggles you can get right in the middle of, and it’s all happening at once.  I mentioned before that I have the soundtrack for the game so thoroughly memorized that you could probably give me one or two notes and I’d know which song it was.  It’s become almost routine, maybe a little mundane.  Not The Citadel.  I’m listening to that song on loop as I write this section, and goddamn, I feel like I’m 14 again, huddled in the back of some classroom watching my computer teeter on the edge of spontaneous combustion as it struggles to render twenty glorious frames a second of that beautiful space station.  The game even has a little cutscene of your ship arriving at and docking with the station, as your teammates gawk at the size of the thing, a touch that I really wish the later games hadn’t cut out.  Landing on The Citadel is where the game gave me its first taste of exploration, and from that point on, I could not get enough.

In my most recent playthrough of the game, this was where I really got back into it.  It’s where I started raving about it to anyone who would listen like it was my first playthrough.  The best part of RPGs for me has always been exploring the big city/villages they give you, poking around for hidden quests and loot, meeting new characters, all that good stuff.  Dungeon crawling is fun and everything, but nothing really tops exploring a place with something other than a gun, sword, or portable nuke launcher.  While exploring The Citadel, you do end up in a couple fights, but they’re few and far between.  Mainly, you’re following up on leads, meeting side characters, and exploring.

Here is where you really start to figure out a lot of the game’s non-combat systems from digging into the conversation/moral choice that the game provides.  An early example is a man you run into whose wife was killed in the battle on Eden Prime (your first mission), and has been told that he will not be given her body for a funeral, and they won’t tell him why.  The player can (because this is totally optional) find the office in charge of the situation, who tells you that the woman’s body is being kept for study on how to fight the Geth, a race of synthetics who serve as the primary enemy/cannon fodder for the game.  The player gets a few choices to make here, but what is interesting is how they play into the game’s moral choice system.  You can convince the officer to return the body, arguing that the woman has served humanity as a soldier in life and doesn’t deserve to have that service be forced to continue, or you can return to the man and explain to him that his wife’s sacrifice may help save even more lives in death.  However, neither of these options is coded good or evil.  The game’s primary morality meter is split between Paragon and Renegade choices.  Paragon is your goody-two-shoes action hero, who saves everyone, rescues cats from trees, and sends everyone off with a pat on the head.  Renegade is your badass, Clint Eastwood-type semi-antihero, who isn’t necessarily evil, but isn’t willing to put up with bullshit or insubordination in their mission to get shit done.  The series would later shift this more towards a good-evil dichotomy, but the first game, at least most of the time, sticks to this boyscout-badass spectrum.  What I like about this mission in particular, is that both paragon and renegade players can make both choices: they can convince the officer or convince the man, the question is how they do it.  Pick the renegade intimidate option and Shepard will berate the officer for daring to betray everything The Alliance (the human government) has stood for, or you can pick a paragon persuade option to convince the man that his wife’s sacrifice is for the good of humanity, and that she will be an even greater hero than she already is.  Or, you can switch it around.

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Conversation with characters in the world usually plays out like this, and it is probably the biggest reason that I fell in love with the game.  The shooting in Mass Effect is below-average for the time, but the conversation was something I had almost never seen before.  I get to spend hours of gametime just…talking to people?  I get to pick what my character says?  I can choose if I want to get to know specific characters better, make friends and enemies, direct the flow of conversation, and have that be a core part of the game?  Knights of the Old Republic used a similar system, but Mass Effect’s was a step up in quality that made a serious difference for me.  It had bits that felt cinematic, but I didn’t feel like I was directing my own movie, like Until Dawn, or writing a bit of my own book, like KOTOR or older CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate.  This felt much more organic, like I was having conversations with people.  I had only played one other game with a real conversation system, KOTOR, so the novelty of this system had an enormous effect on me.  From that point on, Mass Effect was the game that I would compare every game to.  The depth of a game’s conversation system or the strength of its characters would now always be judged by how it compared to Mass Effect.  When I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution in 2011, part of why I enjoyed it so much was how much it reminded me of Mass Effect.  When I played Telltale’s Walking Dead, another of my all-time favorites, a great deal of the excitement I felt for it was how it iterated on the ideas I first got excited about while playing Mass Effect.  I’ll definitely come back to this later, but Mass Effect informed how I played games, what I looked for in games, and how I judged games.  It influenced the genres I was interested in, introduced me to giant, sprawling RPGs as a concept, and helped me realize that games had the potential to draw on literary and cinematic traditions in a way that enhanced them, not just emulated them.  I got to spend 30 hours per game on a system that got me this excited.  For 14-year-old me who had never really played an RPG before, this was exhilarating.

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One of the first characters you meet on The Citadel, who, probably not coincidentally, is a one of the game’s most beloved, is a turian named Garrus.  Garrus, like most of the characters in the series, is a bit of a cliché.  He’s a hyper-competent cop who’s tired of all the red tape that prevents him from getting his job done, so when he is given the opportunity to leave Citadel Security (the space cops) and join Shepard, he takes it.  Liberated from the rules and regulations of an institution as necessarily bureaucratic as an interplanetary law enforcement agency would have to be, Garrus starts out as a slightly troubling character.  His opinions line up with that of the renegade Shepard, the “get it done by any means necessary” type of player, perhaps best exemplified when he tells Shepard that, if they do catch Saren, they should just kill him, because the bureaucracy of Citadel politics might see him live.  For a paragon Shepard, however, this is a point of contention, and they might find themselves agreeing with Garrus’ father, who used to tell him, “Do things right or don’t do them at all.”  I loved that, depending on how they player was playing, their relationship to Garrus could be completely different, but these split paths later helped me understand a core problem that the series had at the beginning, which would only grow with time: that the player didn’t have to do anything about it.

Garrus’ dilemma provides an interesting set of questions for the player to ponder, but, ultimately, they don’t have to act much on it besides telling Garrus to back off or to indulge him.  This is a problem with the Mass Effect world as a whole, that it often can’t commit to the messier implications of its world, and something that is often apparent because of its role both as niche RPG and big-budget, mass-market AAA game.  In Mass Effect 1, this tension is much less present, but it is still there.  Primarily, because of the player’s role as a SPECTER.  Given the complexities of the planets, governments, local authorities and political squabbles of hundreds of worlds in the Mass Effect universe, interplanetary law enforcement would prove to be incredibly daunting, if not outright impossible.  C-SEC, Garrus’ original place of employment, was confined only to a single space station, and it was mired in bureaucratic dead ends.  Imagine trying to chase a fugitive who could jump between solar systems as easily as we can now jump between provinces.  Imagine trying to respect the sovereignty and laws of every one of those systems, even as the criminals you are chasing do not have to.  Seems impossible, right?  So, the Mass Effect universe figures, you need someone who isn’t bound by those rules, and wouldn’t it be nice if the player was just that person?  There is much to be said for how a great deal of modern media insists that the complexity of the modern world and the incompetence of its power structures requires an authoritarian group without limits (just look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for a great example), but in the Mass Effect universe, that argument seems much more plausible.  If you can’t name all the planets that your institution governs, let alone know the idiosyncrasies of their rules, how could you possibly enforce the law effectively?  The SPECTER is Mass Effect’s answer to that, a group of the best-trained agents in the galaxy, able to go anywhere and do anything.  This, the game posits, is the only way a criminal manhunt (well, turian-hunt, but you get the idea) could possibly be feasible, let alone easily adaptable to an action-centric video game while keeping the pace snappy.  This means that, while the player is involving themselves in the politics of other worlds, they are always an outsider, and never have to get *too* involved.  Don’t get me wrong, anyone who has played a Mass Effect game will spend hours jumping through hoops so the local governments let them do what they want, but the player never has to wait a few days for the paperwork to go through, so to speak.  This gives the player a freedom in the universe that makes writing their role on each world much easier, and lets them only get involved in political squabbles when the writers think it would be interesting.  So, to bring it back to Garrus, the player can have an internal debate about the merits of an “ends justify the means” approach to law enforcement versus a “by the book” one, but, paragon or renegade, they will be operating outside the system regardless.

Internal consistency and literary depth aside (a phrase I have to use with a frustrating frequency when discussing games), I loved the shit out of Garrus.  Garrus is a genetically engineered bro, bred in some writer’s lab from the ground up to be the perfect friend to the player.  Buddy cop, brother in arms, fellow spy, you name it, Garrus can serve that role.  The other teammates I had picked up by this point, Kaiden and Ashley, were interesting enough in their own right, but Garrus was the first one I met who felt like my friend.  This is something that most other games don’t do, yet it is something that pretty much only games can do.  Garrus doesn’t feel like Shepard’s friend, Garrus is my friend.  He saved my ass in more than a few firefights.  He helped me take down Saren (spoilers).  He cracked jokes with me while shooting soda cans out of the air on top of The Presidium.  I’ve got battle stories with Garrus, memories of real friendship, experiences of loss and struggle… and none of those feel like surrogate memories.  Those are mine.  It’s incredibly difficult to describe a friendship you feel like you have with a person who exists entirely in fiction (and believe me, it’s even harder to explain the romantic relationships), but Garrus is my friend.  Game developers and writers, myself included, go on and on about how games can let you experience, rather than empathize, and my friendship with Garrus is the best example I have to support that.  I know, obviously, that he is not a real person, that there is a finite amount of content that I can exhaust and that I am choosing from a list of prewritten options when talking to him, but Garrus is the best example I can think of of that artifice fading away and feeling real.

With Garrus, I gather enough evidence to incriminate Saren, and pick up two other teammates along the way, Wrex (Shepard.) and Tali.  Both are aliens, a krogan and a quarrian, respectively, and each highlight a bit of the weakness in early Mass Effect writing.  Tali and Wrex mostly serve as ambassadors for their respective races, who are present more to provide exposition than to be interesting characters in their own right.  This changes dramatically in the later games, as they both become complex in how they both accept and reject the cultures of their respective species, but in the first game, they aren’t too interesting.  I still enjoyed my conversations with both, but more because of the information I learned, not the people I was learning it from.  But, with this team assembled, I was able to leave The Citadel on my now government-approved search for Saren.  The Citadel Counsel, a triumvirate of leaders from the most powerful species in the galaxy (Salarian, Turian and Asari), serves as your supervisors of sorts, and they are who you report back to after each mission.  They finally grant you the role of SPECTER, the first human ever to bear the title, and send you on your way.  For complicated plot reasons, the ship’s captain, Anderson, is stripped of his command, and you are put in charge of the Normandy, but not before the political situation complicates a bit.  The two representatives of the human establishment you deal with are Captain Anderson, a fatherly old war buddy type, and Ambassador Udina, a self-serving politician who sees Shepard’s newly-earned SPECTER status as a way to increase humanity’s standing in the galactic political game.  You get a balance of Anderson’s fatherly approval and Udina’s calculated commands throughout the game, and it gives you a view of humanity both as an idealistic species, and one that is hungry for power, perhaps a little too hungry.  It is never made simple, even in the later titles, and that is something I have always liked about the game.  Many characters, including your shipmate Ashley Williams, hold racist and xenophobia views towards aliens, and you get to see that tempered by the acceptance and camaraderie of many of the other humans on your team.  So, you leave The Citadel with a bit of hesitance about just how humanity will deal with the growing power your actions are earning it.  But, you have a rogue SPECTER to catch.

You’re given three leads to follow, and can pick whichever one you want to start with.  I do them in the same order every time: Artemis Tau, Noveria, Feros.  After you complete two of the three leads, a mission on the planet Virmire opens up, but I always do that one last, for reasons I’ll go into later.

Artemis Tau is the least eventful of the three, as you’re given instructions to search the star cluster for an asari scientist, Liara.  You find her through some fair uninspired combat encounters, but the information you learn from her incredibly important.  I’ve held off talking about the game’s larger setting of Protheans and Reapers until now because it really requires some background of the universe to understand, but Liara helps clarify most of it, so I figure now is the best time to explain.  A great deal of the game’s main plot is uncovering the mystery of two races, the protheans and the Reapers.  But, for the sake of clarity, I’m just going to spoil it all now.  Around 50,000 years before the start of Mass Effect, a race called the protheans ruled the galaxy.  They were credited with building the Citadel, and the mass relays that the player uses to get around the galaxy, though it is later revealed that they built neither.  At some point, they suddenly vanished, leaving almost no trace of themselves.  However, long after their disappearance, the major players in the era the player is a part of found bits and pieces of their technology, and reverse engineered them to create faster than light travel, most of their weapons, and biotics (space magic).   Because of the information that the protheans left behind, the structures of the civilizations that they player encounters were able to exist.  The game’s opening mission Dark_space_-_reaper_armada_awakening.pngon Eden Prime happened because colonists on the planet had found a prothean beacon, and hoped the information could be used to further enhance their technology.  When Shepard arrived, the beacon broke, but transferred a message to her telepathically, warning her of some sort of coming apocalypse.  Liara explains that this apocalypse will come in the form of the Reapers, a race of incredibly powerful machines that serve as the game’s actual primary antagonists.  For some reason (which I won’t even bother to explain in this piece), the Reapers built the Citadel and the mass relays, wipe out the protheans at the height of their civilization, then disappeared.  But, Liara explains, they will be coming back, and Saren and the geth are helping that happen.  That machine-god I briefly mentioned in the first mission?  That was a Reaper, basically a sentient spaceship.  I haven’t explained the Reaper’s motivations or anything, and this is already getting too complex, so I’ll leave it at that.  The player doesn’t even know half of this stuff yet, it gets dished out in a series of revelations over the course of the game, but those are the basics.

Once this is established, I go on to Feros, which is probably my least favorite planet, so I’m going to skip over most of the details.  You fight some geth, save some colonists, and get the next McGuffin you need to continue the plot.  Here is probably a good time to talk about the combat system, since I don’t have too much to say on those elsewhere.  The combat in Mass Effect 1 is, by any objective measure, pretty bad.  The game came out in 2007, the same year as the original Modern Warfare, and a year after Gears of War, which is probably its closest comparison in terms of combat.  Even with its age in mind, Mass Effect’s shooting was pretty bad for the time.  The cover system is awkward as hell, and you have to use it constantly because you’ll die in just a few hits.  None of the guns feel particularly good, the biotic powers feel like you’re aiming with a trackpad (and it’s even worse when you actually are aiming with a trackpad).  But, weirdly enough, I still kind of enjoy it.  At the time, I hadn’t played any cover shooters, so I didn’t know how bad it was, but even today, I enjoy it because it feels less like a shitty version of modern games and more like a novel, antiquated system.  It’s a sort of variant on the uncanny valley effect, where the closer a game’s combat gets to good, the more apparent its flaws become, but the farther away it gets, the more interesting they become.  I don’t love Mass Effect’s combat; I definitely wouldn’t play it on its own, but it’s engaging enough.

Up next is Noveria, one of my favorite planets in the game.  It is perhaps one of the best examples of how Mass Effect plays with genre, as it dabbles in the themes of cyberpunk without pulling from the visual aesthetics.  Noveria is a barely-life-sustaining planet owned entirely by a corporation.  This corporation exists so that other multiplanetary corporations can conduct experiments that would be illegal on pretty much any other planet in Citadel-controlled space.  You don’t spend your time on the planet talking to the local governor or community leader, you talk to the CEO of the planet.  Noveria has all the trappings of a cyberpunk dystopia, just without the visuals.  By this point in the game, I had gotten used to the idea of my SPECTER status carrying some weight in the galaxy, so when I walked up to the administrator’s office to request access to a lab owned by Matriarch Benezia, one of Saren’s allies, I was pretty surprised to be given a flat-out “No.”  The in-game codex, which I read sparingly, said that my SPECTER status should be respected, but basically not to take it for granted.  That bit of disconnect between the distanced, objective perspective of what is essentially an in-game Wikipedia, and the game’s actions, always made me enjoy Noveria just a little bit more when visiting the place.

Since your SPECTER status is basically ignored, you spend your most of your time on the planet poking around the facility, making deals with local corporate employees, and working your way into getting a pass to get to the Peak 15 facility, Benezia’s lab.  This is a pretty classic RPG tradition, I’ve seen it in both of the KOTOR games (I think), The Witcher, and probably a few Dragon Age games.  It’s a robust mission structure, where you are encouraged to visit a bunch of different locations and talk to various NPCs, gives you opportunities for a few moral choices, and can engage in some side missions while you’re at it.  Even though it’s basically just a “find a way to get a McGuffin” quest, it works because it helps to build anticipation for the area you’ll be going to next.  I can see why RPG writers like to use it.

While poking around the planet, I run into two side quests that I always make sure to do, both related to the interesting politics that a planet Noveria.  The first, simply called “Smuggling”, pops up when I’m talking to one of the NPC shopkeepers to get some upgraded gear, and he offers to give me some top-quality weapons if I smuggle some supplies for him.  Even in the Capitalist heaven of Noveria, there are enough restrictions that smuggling is profitable, apparently, and I’m given a number of choices ranging from turning him in, doing the job, or agreeing to smuggle the supplies and just taking them for myself.  Mass Effect 1 does this type of choice especially well, providing the player with a variety of interesting choices, instead of just good-evil, but the series looses a bit of that as it goes on.  The second side-quest, however, is another good example of how the series did it well.  “Espionage” gives me a bunch of different potential outcomes, each providing a different amount of paragon or renegade points depending on what I chose to do and why I chose to do it.   The complexity of ending states for a lot of the game’s side-quests was something to look forward to on repeat playthroughs, since I can mess around with their outcomes for fun after I’ve made a serious choice on my “cannon” playthrough.  It makes the world feel much more dynamic, that I’m making individual decisions instead of picking the same choice (good or evil, depending on the playthrough) that I always pick.

Noveria really picks up when I get the pass to go to Peak 15, where one of the game’s iconic Paragon-Renegade choices is introduced.  If you talk to someone about Mass Effect 1 for long enough, you will probably end up discussing this choice, though it’s luster has certainly faded since the third game revealed that your choice ended up not mattering at all.  The choice involves the fate of a race called the Rachni, an insectoid hive-mind species that was nearly wiped out, but the sole-surviving queen is locked up in Peak 15.  I get to choose if the queen lives or dies, keeping in mind that the species had previously nearly wiped out all life in Citadel space.  So, do you finish the genocide started 2,000 years ago, or give the species a second chance?  You had to make a serious choice between idealism and practicality, choosing to risk the destruction of all races on a belief of second chances, or destroying another race entirely.  It wasn’t exactly Shakespeare, but it was an interesting enough choice that it stuck out for fans of the series.  Of course, then the third game came out, and there was a rachni queen whether or not you saved them, but whatever.

However, to get to the Rachni, you need to go through Matriarch Benezia (voiced by Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran Marina Sirtis).  Benezia is an asari matriarch, meaning she’s way older than you and one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy (Reapers excepted).  The game builds her and her squad of commandos up to be a big threat, and at that point in the game, they definitely are.  The combat encounter is tough as hell, and the fight feels as tough as the game tells you it is.  However a tough combat encounter in a game with below-average combat is nothing to write home about, but what makes the Benezia encounter unique is who you can bring with you: Liara.  Benezia is actually Liara’s mother, which makes for a well-executed dramatic confrontation that, while competent, is something you’ve seen before, but the twist is that Liara doesn’t have to be there.  I mentioned that I did Artemis Tau before Noveria, and this is the main reason.  You can go through the Benezia fight without having even recruited Liara, or you can just choose not to add her to your party, which means that the scene has to be written to play out both with and without her.  This is an interesting bit of narrative work that really doesn’t exist in other mediums, and, having played both, I can attest that the scene feels natural regardless of Liara’s presence.

That about wraps up Noveria, which means it is finally time to go to Virmire, perhaps the best-known mission from the game, and probably the dramatic climax of it as well.  I could go through the mission-point by point, but there are only two real points that stand out, and oh man, do they stand out.  The first moment takes place shortly after you land, when you find a unit of salarians who have discovered a science facility run by Saren to mass-produce krogan warriors.   The krogan are easily the toughest race in the galaxy, and with an army of them, Saren would become significantly more dangerous.  In the face of these astronomical odds, the leader of the salarian team, Captain Kirrahe gives what is perhaps the most famous speech in the series: “Hold the Line.”  Every time I hear those words, I get all these weird feelings of patriotism for a nation that doesn’t exist.  I don’t know a Mass Effect fan alive isn’t fired up and ready to go to hell and back to save the galaxy after hearing that speech.  It, like the rest of the series, may be filled to the brim with cheese, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t some of the best cheese this side of Counsel space.

Of course, this moment has to be followed by a crushing one, and it only gets worse if you don’t play your cards right.  Wrex, one of your teammates, is a krogan himself, and that pulls you right in to one of the game’s best-executed subplots, across each entry in the trilogy, which requires a bit of backstory.  See, the krogan didn’t actually figure out space travel on their own, they were given it by the salarians in their war against the rachni.  The galaxy was a breaking point, and needed the strength of the krogan to defeat them, which they did.  But once the war ended, the krogan decided to expand their territory, and fight other Counsel races that were already settled there, leading to the bloody Krogan Rebellions against the turians.  This ended when the turians contracted the salarians to construct the genophage to keep the krogan population in check, devastating the krogan numbers and keeping their population at near-extinction.  This happened roughly around 700 CE, and with the game set in the year 2183, every krogan alive has only know their wrex_and_shepard_by_donabruja-d4pxv0c.jpgspecies post-genophage.  So, in order to produce his army of krogan, Saren found a cure for the disease.  The only way to stop him is to destroy his lab, including all information about the cure.  Wrex is, understandably, not thrilled with this idea, and pulls a gun on Shepard when she insists that they go through with the plan.  If the player has the right amount of points in persuasion or intimidate, and says the right things, Wrex will stand down, but if they don’t, Shepard will shoot Wrex on the spot, killing him for the rest of the trilogy.  I can’t really explain how mind-blowing this was at the time, that a major character could just die halfway through, despite having writing done for him to live far beyond this choice.  Later in the trilogy, if he survived, Wrex becomes a leader for the fractured krogan tribes, reuniting them and eventually seeing the genophage cured and the krogan creating a new society.  If Shepard isn’t smart enough, he bleeds out on the beaches of Virmire.  Static media, like film or literature, can try to emphasize the loss of a character by exploring what could have been if they hadn’t died, but in Mass Effect, you can straight-up see the life this character would have lived if you hadn’t messed up.  You can watch videos of it on YouTube and you can feel like shit because some twelve-year-old on the internet figured out how not to get Wrex killed and you didn’t, and they get to experience what Wrex’s future would have been like, and you didn’t.

Yeah, I got Wrex killed on my first playthrough.  I’m not gonna forget that one.

Keeping with the theme of trauma, the next sequence forces you to choose between saving one of two teammates.  Yeah, the game got a bit brutal here.  In a situation that feels only a bit contrived, you can only make it to one of your teammates, Ashley of Kaiden, and the other is going to die, again, for the rest of the series.  Ashley was my Shepard’s romance option on my playthrough, so I obviously picked her, but even on subsequent, perfect, Garrus-romancing playthroughs, I always pick Ash anyways because Kaiden is so aggressively boring that I don’t even want to talk about him any more.  So, the choice wasn’t anywhere near as difficult as dealing with Wrex, but it sticks out to fans of the series more because you’re picking which person you want to have by your side or see grow as a person for the rest of the trilogy.  The fact that there is actually a canonical situation in which the other lives makes that choice even harder, and as much as I’m bored with Kaiden, it’s never easy.

However, one more important event happens on Virmire: the player meets Soverign, a reaper that seems to be pulling the strings.  Soverign reveals the reaper’s core plans to Shepard (destroy all life, rinse, repeat), and explains that there is an entire fleet of reapers lying dormant in dark space outside of the galaxy, enough to easily accomplish those plans.  Saren, at first thought to be the primary antagonist, is revealed to basically be mind-controlled by the reapers, making him at least a slightly sympathetic villain.  Soverign and his allies are the true enemies.

Now that the player has a healthy dose of emotional trauma AND the threat of galactic annihilation, you can finally go back to The Citadel for the endgame.  Liara helps you figure out that you actually need to go to some planet called Ilos because Saren is going to attack The Citadel, and the Counsel, being the shortsighted assholes that they are, place a fleet at the mass relay you have to go through to get to The Citadel, and call it a day.  Oh, you want to follow Sarne to Ilos and see if you can stop him?  They decide that you’re too reckless and lock you out of your own ship.  But you’re Commander Shepard.  Of course you break out and fly to Ilos.   And Ilos is, actually, this time, the actual last mission.  So now the romance subplots that the game has been teasing for the past twenty hours finally have something happen.

Romancing is one of Mass Effect’s best-known qualities, and the variety and likability of weird aliens you get to bang is one of the series main strengths.  In the first game…not so much.  You get three options in the first game, Kaiden (who, as I’ve already mentioned, is as boring as the codex entry on how to fire your damn gun), Ash, and Liara.  The later games would expand this number greatly, and you’ll regularly hear pretty passionate debates about the best romance option in the game (the correct answer is Garrus, sorry everyone).  While you get to spend a decent amount of time talking to every character, romancing each one opens up more dialogue options, lets you learn a bit more about them and, of course, see your character rolling around in your bunk with them in a terribly-animated sexytime cutscene.  And, dear god, are they terribly animated.  You do not know awkward until you’ve seen two 3D models stare at each other with dead fish eyes while making kiss-like motions with their mouths that aren’t actually touching while stiffly moving their bodies in a manner so sexless that it makes certain episodes of Lost look like hardcore porn.  And it amazes me that anyone could see these scenes and think this is somehow porn (looking at you, Fox News), because if this is in any way titillating to anyone, then I don’t know how they survive a single day on the internet in 2016.  I go through the romance subplots for the dialogue and to get a piece of Garrus’ steamy alien bod.  That’s it.

Anyways, the first character I romanced was Ash, because I was freaking 14 and romancing a weird blue alien seemed out of the question.  But despite my regretting that decision, Ash is actually an interesting character with a least a bit of nuance.  Ash is constantly trying to outlive the legacy of her grandfather, who surrendered to the turians during their First Contact War with the humans, and stands as the only human ever to surrender to an alien force.  Despite this disgrace, everyone in Ash’s family since her grandfather has ashley_williams_34_by_johntesh-d4v99ln.jpgenlisted in the Alliance military.  Ash is hypercompetant and hyperfocused, and at first appears like she will be a clichéd, no-nonsense soldier.  But, if the player talks to her more, you start to find a bit more depth.  Ash is the oldest of four sisters, and helped raise them while her father was deployed.  She’s got strong, healthy relationships with them, and we even see bits and pieces of them from overheard conversations.  In a universe dominated by robot gods and strange aliens, seeing a normal relationship between a group of sisters is refreshingly human, and a touch I wish the series had more of.  It grounds Ash, makes her feel like someone who could be alive today, and that only goes further the more you learn about her.  Ash is religious, in an undefined deist sense, but doesn’t talk about it unless the player asks.  Her faith is important to her character, and while she believes in it strongly, she avoids falling into the religious fanatic template that pretty much every video game seems to cast anyone religious as.  She’s a regular person who is also religious.  Imagine that.  She quotes Alfred Tennyson poems, is a bit racist towards aliens, and is a bit of a romantic.  Most players don’t see this depth to her though, because she’s written off regularly as “Racist Human Lady.”  Still, I’m glad that it’s there.

The other romance option for a male Shepard is Liara, an asari archeologist and prothean nerd that is about as socially awkward as you can get when you first meet her.  She is one liara_t__soni_wallpaper_by_squint911-d2ye01y.pngof the first asari that Shepard runs into, and while other alien characters in the first game serve as ambassadors for the species, Liara is actually fairly different from most other asari.  The asari are a race of all-female humanoids who are the longest-lived and perhaps
tmost powerful race in the galaxy.  Liara is a recluse who prefers to spend her time studying long-dead civilizations.  She grows a lot over the course of the series, turning from an awkward nerd into a competent and driven information broker, but that’s a story for the later games.

To get to those games, though, we first need to go through Ilos, and after the (aforementioned awkward) sex scene, you arrive, equipped with the max level gear and the best squad you can piece together.  On Ilos, you find the ruins of a prothean archive, and a nearly-dead AI that explains a decent amount of the prothean’s history, along with one important tidbit: the Citadel itself is a dormant mass relay, and once Sovereign gets to it, he can open a gate that will let every reaper jump directly to the Citadel, easily annihilating the Counsel fleet. This is clearly a bad thing, so it’s time for Shepard and her team to take the conveniently-placed mini-mass relay to the Citadel, and kick Saren and Sovereign’s ass for good.  In one of the few moments of raw visual spectacle in the first game, where Saren has hacked the Citadel and reverses the gravity or something, so you and your team fight your way up the side of the inverted Presidium while an epic space battle is going on around you between the Citadel fleet and Saren’s geth fleet plus Sovereign.  Nearly a decade after the game’s release, this fight still looks damn gorgeous, and fighting your way to the Counsel chamber and duking it out with Saren is a visual feast.  They add one little touch to that fight that I love in conversation-based RPGs, where you can talk the final boss down and avoid a fight entirely, but this on leads to Saren realizing that he is indoctrinated (reaper mind control) and shooting himself, turning him into the second final boss, which is just like Saren except he jumps around a lot.  So you beat Saren, command the fleed to victory, kick Soverign’s ass, decide if you feel like saving the Counsel, and nominate Anderson for a seat on the Counsel once you single-handedly save the galaxy.  Then, Shepard walks off into the distance, saying some dramatic line about how “There’s work to be done”, and boom.  Roll credits.  You’re done.

Except I certainly wasn’t done.  Mass Effect 1 had some DLC that took a decent amount of work to get running on PC.  It had a few mods to push up the graphical fidelity once I had a computer that was powerful enough to run it.  I had a renegade playthrough to do, different romance options to try, side quests to complete, hidden planets to explore, and a perfect save file to generate on repeat playthroughs for when I finally got Mass Effect 2 running.  A lot has been said about “games as services” recently, a lot of it by EA, ironically enough, but Mass Effect very much did not feel like an in-and-out experience where I consumed all of the game’s content and moved on with it.  I kept getting more from the game the more I put in, and to a certain extent, with this retrospective, I still am.  I attribute a lot of this to how much playing Mass Effect shows you all of the love that the developers put into the game, how much they cared about their genre, their characters, their setting, their music, whatever you can think of.  And discovering the excitement that the developers had for the media landscape that they were releasing Mass Effect into was part of what made the game stick with me.  I got to learn about cyberpunk, old, crappy sci-fi TV shows, various early-20th century writers, and even freaking Alfred Tennyson all because the developers of the game cared enough about their creation to stick those little references and allusions in there.  I said earlier that Mass Effect is a dense text in how it approaches its science fiction explanations (YouTuber MrBtongue calls it “Talky Techy”), but it also is a dense text in the amount of different things that are packed into it.  Games, by being such collaborative works, often feel more disconnected from their creators, because every person’s say is much more muted, but Mass Effect feels like BioWare got a group of people who were really excited about a great many things, and let the pack it to the brim with that excitement.  The later games might go on to be more refined and polished, and lose some of that soul in the process, but the first game is a shining example to me of just how to create a game out of something you are excited about.  Passion project feels like an appropriate, if overused moniker, just because of how transferable that passion is.  But in a dozen different ways, Mass Effect kept transferring that passion to me, long after the credits rolled.

When I first finished Mass Effect, I was definitely excited about video games.  I had played a ton of World of WarCraft, messed around with the KOTOR games, and learned a ton from Age of Empires II and its expansions.  But I wasn’t anywhere near as invested in games on a personal level as I am now.  I got that they were art, sure, but I didn’t see the kind of depth in them that I saw in other art forms.  Mass Effect was probably the first time I saw that in a way that I didn’t have to follow up with, “It’s pretty good, for a video game.”  And, over six years later, that excitement is probably what kept me going for being as invested in the medium as I am today.  It made me ask for more from the games I played, demand a higher level of quality, passion and depth, and helped me realize that story in games didn’t just have to mean non-interactive cutscenes, but a living world that I could interact with.  It expanded both the kinds of games I would love, and the way I would think, talk and write about games from that point on.  I guess you could say it had a Massive Effect on me!  Ha.  Haha.  God, I need to change that title.

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