It has been a long time coming – too damn long if you ask me – but the Private has been promoted to Commander… at least for the time being while playing the Mass Effect series. As a latecomer to the game franchise, I have seen the memes, the great cosplay and read the dissension from fans regarding the end of the third game. Yet for such an epic RPG, I never got into it until Artemis bought it for me for my birthday. Now that I am more than 2/3 through the trilogy, I have to say that this is one the best (if not THE best) Science Fiction franchise of any medium in the last 10 years. Period. It is a bold statement, considering games do not get such praise as a whole; however I believe the evidence exists to make such a claim.
For those not familiar with the series, it is set almost 200 years in the future where the humans have only recently begun joining the galactic community. With the discovery of ancient technology on Mars for a wide array of advances, including FTL travel, we eventually discover the Citadel: a massive space station which has become the center of government and commerce for the other space faring species of the galaxy. At the start of the game – which really puts the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books to shame – you play Commander Shepard; a character (whose backstory you choose) given the opportunity to join the Citadel Councils elite galactic special ops corps, the Spectres. On your trial run to secure a beacon created by a long dead civilization, the planet where it is located is attacked by a race of sentient androids known as the Geth. As the story unravels, a revelation is learned that puts all sentient species in the galaxy on the brink of extinction. Along the way you encounter a shadowy, privately-funded organization known as Cerberus who runs an array of operations throughout the different solar systems you visit.
Barring the highly customizable experience of this game that makes each players experience unique, the game series has a vast and diverse world that could even give Star Trek a run for its money. The more you play, the more you want to explore every world accessible to find their secrets. The alien races you encounter have their own uniqueness with diversities, rich histories and even their own speech patterns to make them all interesting. Many cultural and societal issues are reflected in the series, from the inter-species xenophobia and prejudice and the disproportionate distribution of the classes to experimentation on sapient species and genetic engineering. And whatever choices you make in the game – which impact the storyline – have no right or wrong answer; only the ones you may or may not agree with. The more interaction you have with the many characters and races in your travels, the more you appreciate the effort Bioware put into the game.
The characters you can interact with are probably some of the best put together in a sci-fi property in a while, with a great cast performing the voice acting. Whether it’s the Citadel Security officer turned rogue Garrus, The mercenary turned ally Wrex or the Asari archeologist Liara, the characters are all entertaining and interesting. They all have their own complexity with distinct personalities, and evolve throughout the series. The voice actors – who range from relatively unknowns up to the great Martin Sheen as the head of Cerberus – really make the characters come alive, providing an experience only big budget movies can provide.
Another detail that is used well in the series is the technology. A good portion of the science and tech used is, to an extent, within the realm of reality or believability. The first, major example would be the Mass Effect Relays (that the series is named after) which are huge devices that catapults ships in and out of FTL speeds. Another example are the kinetic barriers you and your teammates use in combat. At first glance they may be your standard particle shields trope, but the explanation on how these and the Mass Effect Relays work are similar in principle to Helms theory (using electromagnetism to repel, and even propel against, gravitational forces). It all adds another level of depth to this already vast universe that the audience can appreciate.
With how developed the world in this franchise is, there is a major factor of this series that makes me hope the Legendary Pictures recent attempt at a movie adaptation falls apart. The reason why is that with all this material to use, the best part is that the games are ultimately a unique experience to each player. As stated earlier, the story is customizable to not only how your character looks, but how you want him or her to be. You can choose to be a number of classes and ways to approach certain situations that have consequences. You can make your character to be a renegade biotic (a telekinetic) or a soldier who is a paragon of the human race. However you want to be in the game affects not only how characters interact with you, but how the entire story unfolds. The more you interact with the team of different species you pull together, the more the story unfolds. There are even several options to have intimate relations with team members. Every decision or action affects the story and how it plays out to its ultimate conclusion. To remove the component that makes the property so great will only cheapen the overall experience.
With everything this franchise has going for it, along with a very compelling main storyline, it clearly can stand toe to toe with shows like Battlestar Galactica or movies like Star Wars. If anything, it should be held in the same high regard as those other properties, instead of viewed by the sci-fi community at large as just a video game. If you enjoy a great sci-fi story, I highly recommend you try it out.