(Note: There are spoilers in this article.)
Finding a video game series that is well thought out and has a fully fleshed out history to its name is a rare thing. One such series that does so is the Mass Effect “Commander Shepherd” Trilogy. I don’t know of any other franchise on the same level, but the Mass Effect series sets the bar for how to make a trilogy outstanding. Though the overall ending presented with Mass Effect 3 left many fans disappointed, that shouldn’t take away from the quality of the games as a whole.
The sci-fi series kicks off with the introduction of Shepherd, the second-in-command officer of a starship called the Normandy who leads a team to save a colony under siege. Though only one colonist is found alive, he reveals the perpetrator as Saren, a member of an elite and exclusive galactic policing organization (SPECTRE) who’s gone rogue. In addition, Shepherd comes into contact with an alien artifact that gives him or her a cryptic vision of a cataclysmic event to come.
Those are just the basic plot points that set the stage for a huge epic adventure that takes three games to tell. Unfortunately, the setup doesn’t do much for telling just how great the trilogy is, so here is my top ten list of what makes the Mass Effect games so fantastic.
10) History/Backstory – The first game introduces players to a dozen different alien races. While each race has a distinct look that makes them intriguing enough, the game’s developers took the time to establish detailed backgrounds for each and every one of them – even the Elcor and Hanar though they don’t play a central role in the story. I don’t know of many sci-fi games that would build up a cultural and economic history for alien races who don’t get a lot of screen time, so kudos to the production team.
9) Game-save imports – It is not necessary to play all three games in the trilogy to understand the overall story, but it is recommended if the player wants to make the most of their experience. There are at least a hundred different characters to interact with in Mass Effect 1 – most of whom Shepherd merely engages in conversation with. However, supporting characters, provided they survive, will only appear in the subsequent chapters of the trilogy if the player imports a save containing data of what occurred in the preceding installment. These imports add more depth to the overall story. For example, saving or sacrificing a seemingly unimportant character in the first game has an impact of on how the second or third installment plays out.
Two versions of Commander Shepherd as created by me.
8) Character Customization – I know that there are other games that allow the player to decide how the main character looks or what their name should be, but the Mass Effect trilogy takes it to another level. Shepherd’s look is not set in stone from one game to the next, even if a save is imported. For example, Shepherd dies within the first fifteen minutes of Mass Effect 2, only to be brought back to life by expensive scientific means by one of the trilogy’s more shady characters, The Illusive Man. Upon his or her resurrection, Shepherd’s appearance can be altered by the player if desired. Though there is no clear reason given for why Shepherd’s appearance is prone to change between the second and third games, the option to alter the main character’s look is also present in Mass Effect 3.
7) Variety – One of the things I love most about the trilogy is how versatile the story is. There are so many variants present in the games that you would have to replay them multiple times to experience everything. Whether you’d like to see Commander Shepherd as male or female, peacemaker or badass, or engage in a relationship with one of the many romanceable crew members available, there is guaranteed to be enough variety to keep the games from ever getting stale.
6) Unavoidable decisions – Since nothing particularly bad happens to any of Shepherd’s squad mates\team members through much of Mass Effect 1, it’s easy to get attached to all of them. So when a mission to take down Saren on the planet, Virmire, comes around late in the game, the player is forced to make a tough call. Two squad mates – Kaiden Alenko and Ashley Williams – each come under heavy fire at separate ends of Saren’s complex, and Shepherd can only save one of them at the expense of the other. While decisions don’t carry as much weight in the second game, there are several in Mass Effect 3 that pack the same kind of punch.
5) Multiplayer mode – In addition to its main story, Mass Effect 3 has a multiplayer mode where up to four players can team up via internet connection for a skirmish against one of the enemy armies present in the trilogy. In this setting, you can choose to be a human combatant or one of the humanoid aliens present in the main game. My personal preference is to play as a Quarian Engineer since their sentry turrets come in handy in keeping enemy units from sneaking up behind you. For the most part, I like doing solo runs though those are mostly limited to easy/bronze mode. Maybe one day I’ll actually get good enough to make it through a hardcore/platinum mode (which has the toughest units from all four enemy armies coming at you right off the bat) on my own.
4) Personal pratfalls – As much as I love the trilogy for its story, variety, and engaging characters, there are a few dumb things I’ve done at points that made it a truly unique experience. For instance, I’ve come to learn from a number of games that I suck when it comes to steering a ground-based vehicle. I can’t count the number of times I’ve crashed a car into something within a video game, but in Mass Effect 1, I somehow managed to drive off the edge of a wide cloud-level platform multiple times. During my first playthrough of Mass Effect 2, I thought I was doing fine until I undertook the mission to recruit Archangel/Garrus as a team member – I got confused on what I was supposed to be doing and personally gunned him down myself. In addition, I would often play the second game when I was dead tired. This sometimes resulted in me jolting awake in front of the computer to find myself holding down the forward arrow key and Shepherd face-planted against a wall.
3) Monsters – No matter the game, there is nothing more jarring than being forced to combat someone you think of as an ally. Mass Effect 3 uses this premise in spades by pitting Commander Shepherd against monstrous versions of the alien races that players had come to know and love. While most are easy to take out with the right weapon or skill set, none of them are more frightening than the mutated Asari, or Banshees. A long-limbed grotesque creature with a distinctive scream and the ability to teleport toward you at a fast pace, any one Banshee can kill Shepherd/the player with one blow if he or she isn’t careful. FYI, Banshees are also included on my list of video game monsters that terrify me.
2) Romances – Pursuing a relationship in the Mass Effect trilogy is quite the experience in itself. Between the three games, including the expansion packs, there are a total of 18 characters (or 19 if Aria T’Loak even counts) that Shepherd can get up close and personal with. Romances are something that greatly add to the versatility of the games. Shepherd can choose to stay true to his or her love interest from the first or second game or move on with someone else. In most games that offer character customization, I prefer to play as a female character. However, I have made an exception with the Mass Effect trilogy in the interest of pursuing a romance with one of Shepherd’s female teammates.
1) Humor\One-liners – The one thing that makes the Mass Effect series truly memorable is its unique wit. The trilogy is filled with zingers guaranteed to get people chuckling. Whether it’s Shepherd’s trademark statement for ending a conversation (“I should go.”), a snappy comeback to someone who confuses Shepherd with a very distinctive-looking alien (“Here’s a tip. Two eyes – human. Four eyes – Batarian.”), or humorous one-liners such as “I don’t need luck, I have ammo,” there is certain to be one bit of the dialogue in the games that will elicit a laugh.
This video game trilogy depicting the adventures of Commander Shepherd will always hold a special place in my heart, even if there is a forthcoming game to be released in March 2017 that may surpass them. The upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda will be completely removed from the original trilogy by taking place 600 hundred years later in a separate galaxy and featuring an all-new cast of characters. I don’t know much of what to expect from this upcoming game. But if it retains the same elements that made its predecessors so great, I’m sure I’ll find it immensely entertaining.
I hope you all enjoyed this article, and please leave a comment below if you did. Be sure to tune in next month for my first impressions of the soon-to-be-released Resident Evil 7.
©January 18, 2017