Video Games

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition – Catching Up with My Space Friends

I haven’t been playing video games like I used to. Maybe it’s because my relationship to entertainment has changed over the last year, maybe it’s because I’m just indescribably old. Or maybe I’m just not ready to spend a lot of money on a new console generation. Regardless, most of my game time has gone to Switch ports of Mario and Zelda games that I missed the first time around. But my favorite series, Mass Effect, just remastered the entire trilogy and re-released as Mass Effect: Legendary Edition and I dived back into a series I’ve completed multiple times all over again.

The Mass Effect games were originally released between 2007 and 2012. They’re hybrid action/role-playing games in a sci-fi setting, and they’re amazing. Set in a universe where humanity has joined intergalactic society, a threat that wiped out civilization 50,000 years ago has returned to do it all over again. The world-building is astonishing – the alien races you encounter are so well-developed and fully fleshed out. Like, you know how they extrapolate full backstories for characters who are onscreen for two seconds in Star Wars that point to this wild universe that official canon will never touch on? Well, that’s everything in Mass Effect only it actually matters to the story. It’s amazing. And you play as Commander Shepard. No first name because you decide Shepard’s gender along with their backstory and appearance. And then you build Shepard’s reputation and relationships through the choices you make, choices that carry over from game to game. Which, especially at the initial release, seemed like sorcery.  A game that came out three years later knows which crew member died on Virmire and whether I spared the Rachni Queen? How is that even possible? It made for an immensely satisfying experience that played out over around a hundred hours.

(At the time I first played the games, I remember telling my friend Sam about how you interacted with your crew members and your relationship would change as you got to know them and you’d get closer and more personal as the game went on. Sam said “So, like life?” and my response was “But better, because can do it.”)

As excited as I was, I figured I’d just dabble a little bit. Put in a few hours for the memories and eventually trail off because I am old and I can’t put that much time into any game, especially a series that I’ve played through multiple times. As it turns out, it’s a slower process that it would have been ten years ago, but I’ve played all the way through the first game and I’m starting on Mass Effect 2, which is a legitimate masterpiece. And when I say “played all the way through”, I mean I finished every side quest I could find. There was nothing left in Shepard’s seemingly endless journal. Every piece of content I could access has been thoroughly plumbed.  The second is so much bigger and I’ll probably do it the same way because I know the story. I’m not desperately trying to get from beat to beat just to find out what happens. I get to luxuriate in the world building and the character arcs and really just spend some time reconnecting with my outer space friends.

I don’t mean to shortchange the actual gameplay, which I find immensely fun. It’s mostly a third-person shooter with some exploration and a couple of puzzles. People who are much more into shooters than I am have always had issues with the series and the first game was notoriously janky. The remaster cleans a lot of that up and it feels perfectly smooth to me. Hardcore headshot weirdos will probably still have complaints but for the way I play games, it’s perfect. But I wouldn’t be sinking this kind of time into just shooting the Geth if it wasn’t for the milieu.

The story is big and complicated and involves things like beacons, a Conduit, the Citadel, Reapers, relays, Collectors, and all manner of things that sound like nonsense if you try to lay it all out at once. It’s compelling enough to pull you along even as it adds jargon and complications to stretch out the gameplay. The way it fleshes out the alien races and the characters you meet is incredible – that’s the real strength of the series. I’ve watched two seasons of The Mandalorian and I could not tell you what a darksaber is or why anybody cares about it even though they mention it all the time. But, man, I could tell you all about the Elchor, Mass Effect’s alien race that has no ability to modulate their voice so they open every sentence by telling you what their tone is. (“With curiosity, do you have news for me?”) We could talk for hours about the Qarian fleet or how the Asari are assumed by other species to be promiscuous. Krogan genophage? Yeah, I have strong feelings about that. And I was amazed at how it all came flooding back to me when I started playing again. 

What I wasn’t expecting was how strong my feelings for my squadmates still are. I’m not even really discovering new things anymore, aside from the details that have slipped my mind over the last decade, but I love these guys. (Mostly – male humans are giant buzzkills in all three games, but they tried at least.) Learning more about them between missions through well-written conversations is fun. They have fleshed out backstories and come from interesting cultures and building your relationships is really compelling. I’m going to take some time between missions and check in with all of my crew members and see who has new dialogue. Watching Garrus go from a cop-on-the-edge to somebody with a sophisticated morality and a positive outlook on life is really rewarding. After three games with the guy, you get a really nice scene near the end where Garrus and Shepard get drunk and shoot bottles off what I can only describe as a space overpass. I’ve never seen that before in a game and it’s just this perfect little interaction. 

And you have multiple options open to you – there’s a morality system that breaks down into “Paragon” and “Renegade” and accumulating points through in either category affects how other characters interact with you and sometimes allow additional choices as you go. I tend to play Paragon because I’m a nice man and it’s very important that these fictional characters like me and my Shepard can deliver a rousing speech or end conflicts peacefully. And while sometimes it seems like it would be fun to yell at your squadmates for wasting your time with their side missions, going Renegade means characters are more likely to die. And since your choices carry over, you miss out on a lot in future games when crew members who don’t trust you die in ME2’s legendary suicide mission. Tali Z’orah, arguably the best character in the series, only survives a heartbreaking scene in the third game if you made a series of correct choices in the previous games. And this includes a freaking courtroom drama in the second game. It’s so awesome.

The series, and maybe Bioware as a developer, is notorious for the “Romance” options. Certain characters in all three games can be romanced by Shepard, depending (or not) on the gender you choose and your overall alignment. And depending on a bunch of specifics, you might get a cutscene with Shepard featuring anything from a cute little date to some PG-13 sex. To be honest, the latter is faintly embarrassing at this point. I will guarantee 2011 EJ was much more enamored with this mechanic.  But, you know, I was a young man in my mid-thirties. A mere slip of a thing! I considered not pursuing a romance this time around because I don’t want to feel like a creeper, but the buildup is all so well-executed. The conversation options that lead you there are so natural and well-written and the supporting characters are so appealing and before I knew it, I was flirting with an alien again. (And in case anybody is keeping track, over the three games it’s Liara, Miranda, and then stay loyal to Miranda in the third game even though she’s stationed far away and you only get to call her, which is very me. Also, no flings. My Shepard is not a player.)

I haven’t finished the Avengers game that came out last year even though it’s very fun and you can play as the Hulk. I’m still picking away at Hitman 3 and even Hades, which is generally agreed to be incredibly engaging and addictive, is something that I check in with every couple of weeks. I haven’t been able to make time for games like I used to and then if I wait too long my skills atrophy and I’m in over your head on my save and so I get frustrated and then it’s not a fun hobby anymore. That’s on me. I still love you, video games. I will still read the magazines and follow upcoming releases and get really excited by a new triple-A game that I will never get around to buying or playing, despite my best intentions. But you put a long-ass series that I’ve completed multiple times of me with the promise of enhanced graphics, some DLC I missed, and the chance to spend some time with the outer space friends I missed so much, and you’ve got me.

Welcome back, Mass Effect!  

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