I have a lot to say about Mass Effect. I love it. I love it a lot. However, in trying to write something down about it–the rich universe, the memorable characters, the great story–I kept running into writer’s block. I’d start and inevitably at some point not too far in, it would start to feel wrong. I’d stop and not know why, or feel a strong urge not to write. My initial goal was to update my original blog post about Mass Effect 2 and 3, as I’ve revised my opinion. Whenever I would start though, again it seemed as if the task was too big, as though I had too much to say. Things would balloon up in my mind so quickly that it seemed futile to start, so I’ve decided for right now just to write whatever comes to mind.
I think I overall like ME3 more than ME2. This is a significant shift for me, and a very personal one. I feel self-conscious even talking about it in these terms, because after all it’s just a video game, right? When you think about that though, think about how folks today are still talking about Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, etc., discussing it, dissecting it, arguing about it, and this is long after we’ve read or seen the story. That’s how I feel about Mass Effect, it’s as if it inhabits me when I think about it.
I never played the first one (EDIT: I have since played the first game, read the review here). I’ve never been a fan of first-person (or third-person) shooters so that completely turned me off, and it wasn’t until ME2 that I overcame that, and thank goodness I did. Because of that I’ve been able to mingle with aliens, learn about the future history of humanity, and give everything I have to save the galaxy. It might sound silly when I say it like that, but when you play the game you really come to identify with Shepard, the main character. In some ways you’re kind of a perfect person in that you never get bones broken, get depressed, or traumatized like anyone who’s going through what he is would go through. In fact he’d be dead, there’s no way he would live. I’m saying “he” here even though you control the gender of Shepard because it’s easier than using gender neutral pronouns all the time. What’s wild though, is that I don’t typically think about the invincibility of the main character of a game, I just accept it and play him like everyone else. It’s a measure of the writing that I start thinking about the toll all this stuff must take on him. In fact it’s referenced in the odd conversation here and there in ME2, but it’s not until ME3 that you see the writers put in references for how shouldering such a burden and seeing the things he’s seen would start to affect you, and it’s just a sliver of the excellent writing in the franchise.
The universe is great. It has some things in common with Babylon 5, where humanity are relative newcomers to the galactic community, and we’re not even close to the most powerful things out there. The Citadel itself somewhat recalls Babylon 5 though there are differences. It’s a gigantic space station–close to 28 miles long–and is a relic from a bygone age and no one quite knows for sure who built it. The title of the game, Mass Effect, has reference to the science fiction around which the entire future is based. Mass Effect fields allow faster-than-light (FTL) travel, where enormous space relays (also built by creatures from long ago) essentially sling-shot you to different relays scattered throughout the galaxy. It’s a really nice concept which has to do with increasing and decreasing mass, but if you don’t care don’t worry about it. It’s just an entire scientific field they made up for the game! There is usually some concept for allowing galactic space travel in science fiction, but this one is just memorable, I love it.
Biotics are another feature of the game. They are basically super-powers, or a different take on the Force if you like. Just as in different Star Wars games, you get different abilities based on the class of character you choose, and depending on that they are either a large or a small part of your character. These are more science-based though, with a new element called Element Zero that catalyzes both the large mass effect fields that the relays use and the smaller ones that people can use. They’re weaponized allowing you to push, pull, create defensive barriers, tear down defensive barriers, inflict pain, burn things, etc. There are also specialized powers endemic to each character which are pretty cool.
It’s not all about biotics though, there are tech powers as well. In the era of this game almost everyone has an omni-tool, which is kind of the ultimate evolution of the personal computer. They are holographic and wrap around your forearm, and are more than just computers: they are multipurpose diagnostic and manufacturing tools, folks use them for everything. Some in-game uses include use as a flashlight, a scanner, to repair, dispense medi-gel (reviving other characters), programming and hacking, as a camera, video/audio communication, a melee weapon and most excitingly, using tech powers! Some characters don’t use biotics, but rather tech-based abilities. You can apply an effect to the bullets you shoot as well as most anything else you can imagine, including duplicating many of the effects of biotics. They’re similar, but different and cool. Each of these elements–mass effect fields, biotics, tech powers, element zero–are all tied together in a way that is coherent and exceptionally well thought-out. There is a codex with different entries that can be read during the game that enriches everything, and unlike most other games I’ve played some of it is actually interesting!
The aliens themselves are a big piece of the charm of this universe, so I’ll go on for a bit. They are varied, have great depth, are well thought-out and are very different from each other. Click on any of the links in this paragraph to get a picture of what they look like. The Asari are the oldest folks around, the most respected and probably the most powerful. They live to be 1,000 years old, they are all female, and most are pretty powerful biotics. They can reproduce with any species, but their offspring are always Asari. They were the first to discover the Citadel, yadda yadda. The Salarians are a little amphibious-looking, and are great scientists and great spies also. They’re really smart, mature very fast and die young–they only live to be about 40. They discovered the Citadel just a couple of decades after the Asari and are one of the founding races of the Council. The Turians are militaristic and disciplined, but they live in a meritocracy, so it’s as if the military were actually done right! They have the largest number of dreadnoughts in the galaxy, but they are also famous for their dedication to public service in general. The Krogans are the tanks, baby! They are seven feet tall and in full armor weigh about a ton. They have a war-like culture where clan is everything, don’t get in their way. They were uplifted (taken from a 20th-century state of development and given advanced tech to join the galactic community) by the Salarians to fight off a galactic enemy. The only problem is the Krogan started expanding after they won the war, and since one female can breed over 1000 young, and each lives to be 1000 years old, that was a problem. They were just about unstoppable until the Turians unleashed the Salarian-developed Genophage which essentially made the Krogan all but sterile. They’re a proud but largely broken race when Mass Effect begins. The Quarians are a race without a home. They were the first to develop true artificial intelligence, the Geth, and (surprise) their creations turned on them, driving them off of their home planet and into a migrant fleet of ships moving nomad-like throughout the galaxy for the past 300 years. Over centuries of living in a sterile ship environment their immune systems are so weak that they have to live in environment suits full-time. Nobody knows what they look like anymore. This is just the barest of sketches of only the major races of Mass Effect. I haven’t even mentioned the other races, such as the Drell, Hanar, Batarians, Elcor, Volus, Vorcha, the Collectors and of course, the all-powerful Reapers. Each of them are distinct, cool, fully fleshed out, and you interact with all of them. It doesn’t hurt that you can romance several of them too.
The thing is, these aliens aren’t stereotypes, though a couple may seem that way at first. You won’t be able to equate them with aliens from the Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5 or other universes, though there are bound to be a couple of similarities. The Quarians have some elements of their situation in common with humans in the Battlestar Galactica universe, a race displaced from their home-world by a synthetic life form, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s similar with the Krogan and the Klingons from Star Trek–superficial similarities, but very distinctive differences. The Citadel itself may have some similarities to Babylon 5, but it has far more differences. The concept of “uplifting” was first coined by David Brin the sci-fi author in an excellent series of novels. The thing that Mass Effect seems to do is take from some sources, cultivate and adapt them, then seamlessly blend them to add to a unique universe that is much more than the sum of its parts. The aliens alone are far more developed than any in Star Wars, for example. The technology for FTL travel is just as realistic as warp travel in Star Trek or “jumping” in BSG. There is great variability in creating Shepard, the character you will play, too. Want to play a soldier? You got it. Want someone with cool tech powers? You’ve got them. Want to play someone with Force powers? Done. Want to play some combination of each of those? Got that too. More than just picking the gender, class and face of Shepard, the real creation is based on choices you make. You can save the galaxy, but in a way that is as a noble hero who tries to preserve as much life as he can, or as a ruthless war monger that will sacrifice anyone to win. How enthralling is the Mass Effect universe? Heck, there’s even an article outlining why ME is better than Star Wars.
Part one turned out to be a discussion of the Mass Effect universe itself, and why I think it’s a great setting/backdrop for the story. But the real reason anyone cares about this is because of the story and the characters. I’ll go into that, as well as specifics about ME2 and ME3 in parts two and three.