November 7th is known amongst the Mass Effect community as N7 Day, a day when fans and the team at Bioware come together to celebrate their love for the superb RPG series, its cast and characters. As such, today seems like the most appropriate day to take a look back on the franchise and one of this generations most iconic characters, Commander Shepard.
The history behind the Mass Effect series is a tumultuous one filled with huge critical acclaim, massive controversies and even an actual trip into space. It also cemented Bioware as one of the few developers who were truly willing to push the envelope not only in terms of typical RPG mechanics and storytelling, but with their attempts to create truly inclusive games that could directly appeal to anyone regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Mass Effect (2007)
Mass Effect was announced on October 4th 2005 as an Xbox 360 exclusive which came as a surprise to many gamers who had theorised that Bioware’s next game announcement was to be Jade Empire 2. Mass Effect was touted as “next-generation gaming defined” that would harness the full capabilities of the Xbox 360’s hardware and would present “photo-realistic, high definition graphics on an epic scale”. Reading what the Mass Effect announcement press release was promising seems rather funny now, especially as we’re on the cusp of yet another next generation console launch, but I don’t think anybody truly anticipated just how popular and important this new franchise would become.
I was fairly late to the Xbox 360 party and even later to Mass Effect. Having played and fallen in love with numerous games from Bioware’s back catalogue, including Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, picking up Mass Effect seemed like a total no brainer. Set in 2183, players took on the role of Commander Shepard – a protagonist whose appearance, gender, abilities and even military background could be customised to create a unique experience.
Combat mechanics have remained fairly consistent throughout the Mass Effect series and have players take on one of several classes, each with their own unique abilities – ranging from military to psychic powers. Like all good RPGs, equipment and weapons could be upgraded and customised as your progress throughout the game in addition the being able to upgrade the skills of Shepard himself in order to unlock new abilities. It was amazing to have such a diverse range of ways to play and a genuine incentive to replay the title over and over again.
In addition to players tackling the rogue Turian Spectre, Saren, in the games main plot, they could also engage in romantic subplot which included cutscenes of a suggested sexual encounter – a now staple of pretty much all Bioware RPG titles. The inclusion of this content created a fair bit of controversy shortly after the games release, including an attack from Fox News and earning the title a ban in Singapore primarily due to the fact that a female Shepard could be seen caressing an alien (Liara T’Soni).
This was the first piece of major controversy that Mass Effect had encountered, but it was far from the last.
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Mass Effect 2 was announced at GDC on March 17th, 2009 which also confirmed that for the first time the title would launch simultaneously on the Xbox 360 and the PC. Mass Effect 2 would also mark the franchises console crossover debut as it was also released on PlayStation 3 a year after it’s initial launch in January 2010. The game also allowed players to carry over their original Mass Effect save files, where the choices made in the debut title would impact on the the story in Mass Effect 2.
The game was greeted with glowing reviews and widely regarded by many critics and fans as the pinnacle of the series. The introduction of loyalty missions added a fantastic new layer of characterisation and empathy with your Normandy crew mates, an absolutely integral inclusion considering that by the end of Mass Effect 2 not everyone, including Shepard, would make it to the end of the game alive. However, the absence of being able to explore planets in the wider Mass Effect universe, replaced with a rather tedious resource farming mini-game, did leave a poor taste in the mouths of many fans who felt that an enjoyable subplot had been stripped away and hindered the overall Mass Effect experience.
Mass Effect 2 also went deeper into the Paragon and Renegade morality system by giving players the option to interrupt certain dialogue sections with an action which not only impacted Shepard’s morality, but also affected how others reacted to Shepard, rewards for completing missions, possible discounts from merchants, and romantic encounters. This level of player interaction would become a foreshadow for the Kinect integration that was to come in Mass Effect 3, allowing players to vocally respond and direct NPCs and squad mates.
By delving deeper into Mass Effect lore and giving players a much deadlier introduction to the universal threat of the Reapers, Mass Effect 2 is a shining example of how the correct use of RPG gameplay mechanics and an immersive narrative can offer a severely profound impact on a player. Nothing though could fully prepare Mass Effect fans for what was to come in Mass Effect 3.
Mass Effect 3 (2012)
The announcement of Mass Effect 3 was shrouded in mystery, with many gamers believing that Bioware were actually set to announce a new Shattered Steel game. The game was finally officially announced during the 2010 Spike TV Awards and was released in March 2012 on the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 before later arriving on the Wii U in December.
The game was also the first to introduce a default female Shepard model, a character who had become incredibly popular and highly valued by the female gaming community. Femshep, as she is commonly dubbed, was typically played into the background of Mass Effect promotions, however Mass Effect 3 saw the female protagonist brought into the spotlight. It was largely seen as a huge victory for female gamers to have a strong character given the full recognition she deserved.
Mass Effect 3 is arguably the most controversial title of the series, especially amongst the gaming community. Fans were outraged by the announcement of the “From Ashes” DLC which would give players the option to add a Prothean squad mate, Javik, to the roster as well as additional side mission. Due to the nature of the Prothean’s and their role in the Mass Effect universe, many fans deemed excluding what they felt to be such an integral part of Mass Effect lore from the game to be an absolute crime, leading many to boycott the title.
Having Jessica Chobot, who was at the time working as a games journalist for IGN, voicing the character of romanceable reporter Diana Allers also led to severely mixed reactions from the gaming community. Many felt that it blurred the lines between game developers and critics and would ultimately affect IGN’s review of the title as well as leave a black mark on the series.
Mass Effect 3 also introduced a multiplayer mode that had players worldwide team up to take on enemies and increase their Galactic Readiness score in the main campaigns narrative. Previously being a story that focused so heavily on a narrative driven campaign, fans were obviously concerned that the inclusion of a multiplayer mode would affect the overall quality of the main game. What most players found though was a fun addition to the series that allowed them to further share their love for the Mass Effect franchise with other fans worldwide and it is still supported and largely populated to this day.
Nothing was quite as controversial however as the ending to Mass Effect 3 which ultimately led to Bioware releasing an Extended Cut DLC that offered extended final scenes that set out to provide additional context and deeper insight to the conclusion of Commander Shepard’s journey.
Regardless of the controversy and how anyone else feels about Mass Effect 3, I have yet to find a game that has hit me as hard emotionally. I still vividly remember having to pause and take a break from playing after witnessing Mordin’s final moments – a beautifully crafted piece of narrative and cinematics. Mass Effect 3 is a true culmination of a series that has grown from strength to strength on every level.
Whilst Commander Shepard’s journey may be over, Bioware have confirmed that the Mass Effect series will continue into the next generation of consoles. Bioware have even gone as far as asking the fans for direct feedback as to what they want to see in Mass Effect 4.
Everyone who has been involved in the development of this series, no matter how big and small, should be incredibly proud of this incredible gift they’ve given to gaming. Mass Effect is a series that has left a firm imprint on gaming and will forever live on in the fan-favourite lists of the many gamers who still listen to the spectacular soundtracks, don their N7 gear and continue the fight in the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer – patiently awaiting the arrival of the next instalment of a universe they have grown to love so passionately.