Mass Effect: Andromeda comes out this week, marking the end of a long wait for fans of BioWare’s scifi action RPG franchise. We’re big fans of Mass Effect here at io9 and have decided to celebrate the occasion by looking back at our most-loved instances from the long-running series.
Along with myself, io9 staffers Beth Elderkin and James Whitbrook have all played the previous Mass Effect titles and are looking forward to exploring a whole new galaxy in the series’ next game. To me, the biggest success of previous Mass Effect games was making the player feel like they were at the crux of turning points of (future) history. There was a lot of established lore and culture in the Mass Effect universe in the story of the first game and that gave the proceedings a certain amount of weight. But two of my favorite moments were the ones where it felt like my Commander Shepard was the one making decisions that would later be written about in the codex entries passed down for generations.
It’s not necessary to know anything about the older trilogy to appreciate Andromeda but we still wanted to reminisce about the sagas of our Shepards before warping into another sector of space.
This is the exact moment when Mass Effect stopped being another tweak-your-stats, space soldier shoot-em-up and, for me, became a story about the larger existential threat that the universe faced. Sovereign—the petrifying giant squid robot revealed as part of the race behind the Mass Effect’s initial “rogue operative” storyline coming to destroy the galaxy—felt frighteningly aloof, like the voice that might come from the sole of a boot about to crush an ant. Talking with the consciousness inside of a member of the giant robot species made me feel like dealing with the Reapers would require a huge undertaking. The scope of the adventure ahead came into focus and I felt so very, very small.
I’ve written elsewhere about how deeply the plight of the Krogan race resonated with me in Mass Effect 1. Their fictional history clearly alludes to the way that non-white people were used as enslaved labor to benefit a white ruling class, and the artificially induced disease that’s rendered them nearly extinct, the Genophage, can be read as a metaphor for Jim Crow, redlining, and other real-world decrees meant to keep people from a specific population in a particular—usually lower—social stratum.
So, the chance to right this great wrong—curing the Genophage and letting the Krogan breed again—was a powerful goal for me. But, because of gameplay choices I made, I wasn’t able to do that. Instead, after an intense argument I had to watch space racist party member Ashley kill my Krogan buddy Wrex, and wonder what kind of future would be left for the warrior race that had once saved the entire galaxy.
To this day, I hold the DLC story missions for Mass Effect 2 as a high point of what’s possible when adding content to a single-player, narrative-based game. They added tonal variance to the universe and, in the case of the Kasumi mission, Stolen Memory, leavened the so-serious tone of the main game with heist-caper humor. Overlord told the story of two brothers torn apart by a rogue experiment that tried to fuse artificial and human intelligences, giving players a haunted house adventure that worked an emotional vein in a different way.
No moment brings me more joy in Mass Effect 2 than when Mordin Solus—a quick talking alien doctor you recruit for your mission against the collectors, busts out his Gilbert and Sullivan verse, joyously singing about being a “scientist Salarian” in the middle of the lab. It’s one of the many reasons why his final goodbye in Mass Effect 3 is so heartbreaking. If you agree to help Mordin (rather than sabotage his cure for the Genophage, which his people inflected on the Krogan, like a dick), he gets to right the mistakes of his past, sadly sacrificing himself in the process. In his final moments, he softly sings about being “the very model of a scientist Salarian.” It is a beautiful moment, but a tragic one for one of the series’ most intriguing characters. Forever more, these will be the saddest seven words in Mass Effect, when Mordin tells Shepard that he has to be the one to die so that the Krogan might live: “Somebody else might have gotten it wrong.”
I always play Mass Effect as a virtuous Paragon, making the best and noblest choices I can in the game’s patented morality system (inspired by the light and dark side of the force morality of Bioware’s Star Wars RPG series, Knights of the Old Republic). I’ve tried Renegade—the option of being an uncompromising asshole/badass—but I always end up feeling guilty about all the shitty things I’m saying and doing to my friends. However, there’s one character who always brings out the villain in me: Khalisah al-Jilani, a bitchy reporter fond of harassing Commander Shepard and embellishing her stories on them. She’s one of those side characters who shows up in every single game, like Conrad Verner the crazy Commander Shepard superfan, but al-Jilani is no fan of yours. She’s always out to get you, even if you’re doing every goddamn thing you can to save the galaxy. You can try and plead your case, show your true colors, but she’ll always find a way to twist your words in her favor. She’s not just a bad person, she’s a terrible reporter. That’s why I punch her lights out. Every. Single. Time.
This is easily one of the most badass set pieces in the entire series. During the mission where Shepard works to cure (or sabotage) the Genophage, disaster strikes. Oh shit, here’s a Reaper and it’s out for blood. Humans aren’t equipped with the right weapons to take them out, and Goddess knows the near-extinction Krogan aren’t going to have what it takes. Luckily, Mother Nature steps in to kick its ass. In one of the tensest fight scenes of the game, if not the series, Shepard has to dodge Reaper attacks and fight scores of enemies to ring a bell summoning the the mother of all Thresher Maws—a giant, Dune-esque sandworm native to the Krogan homeworld. The Thresher rises like a phoenix from the Dust, wraps itself around the Reaper, and drags it down to hell where it belongs. Damn, what an incredible sight! Never send a machine to do a monster’s job.
My primary Commander Shepard, Lucas, never had the chance to romance Mass Effect’s wry Turian space cop, but dammit if I didn’t try anyway. A persistent party member throughout all three games, Garrus Vakarian’s evolution from disgruntled security officer to sniper merc to homeworld hero is one of the most enduring character arcs of the entire series—especially if he’s by your Shepard’s side throughout, building a wonderful banter and rapport with the Commander.
Jokes, war story swapping, Shepard’s relationship with Garrus (whether platonically as a male Commander, or romantically as a female one) is the closest thing Mass Effect can do to a buddy cop adventure. Its sweetest moment culminates in the third game, when Garrus invites you to hang out on the rafters of the Citadel space station—the hub present throughout all of the games, and where you first met Garrus back in Mass Effect—and shoot the shit (and get some target practice in), two best friends hanging out one last time before entering the end, once and for all. Regardless of whether you were Paragon or Renegade, John or Jane, there’s no Shepard without Vakarian.
I’ve never been so nervous playing a video game as I was the first time I played the Suicide Mission in Mass Effect 2, the game’s action epic finale where you assaulted the villain’s base in a do-or-die attack. I’d done all the loyalty missions, as much side content as I could, leveled up Shepard and every party member as much as I could in preparation. I’d made my first choices, including to have Miranda Lawson, your antagonistic but trustworthy second-in-command throughout the game, lead a second fire team of party members while Shepard took the vanguard. Providing covering fire as Shepard’s team enters a doorway, an unmistakable sound shattered through my TV speakers: Miranda took a bullet just as the doors closed behind us. I audibly yelped in shock—even though I didn’t like her that much, I felt like I’d messed up and already gotten a party member killed. My hard work, all for nothing, and Miranda’s blood on my digital hands.
Turns out, a sufficiently “loyal” Miranda—as in, you did all the side content for her throughout the game—can take a bullet in that sequence and shrug the attack off to live, unlike pretty much any other character you can select for that fire team leader role. When that appeared to be the case, my abject shock quickly gave way to several loud curses. It’s a moment I’ll forever remember as a testament to how much you grow to care about the motley crew Shepard builds in Mass Effect 2.
The controversy surrounding Mass Effect 3's ending still incites fiery discussion today, five years after the fact. Its decision to rob consequence from the player in its final moments—in order to shuffle the into one of three specific choices for BioWare’s mandated ending—is one thing, but many felt Mass Effect 3 also didn’t do enough to give you a sufficiently fond farewell to the characters you’d fallen in love with over the entire series.
The post-release add-on Citadel provided exactly that, the final story content to be added to the game, and the last time to see these characters again. A heartwarming, self-referential character-driven piece that climaxes with a drunken party at Shepard’s pad on the titular Citadel, it’s a sentimental celebration of the fun and friends you’d made along the way in this long journey. It was a goodbye to the series at large as much as it was a goodbye to Mass Effect 3, and the perfect coda to a beloved saga.
Have your own favorite moments from Mass Effect? Share them in the comments below. We’ll have more on Mass Effect: Andromeda later this week.