The Mass Effect trilogy, released between 2007 and 2012, is a landmark in interactive entertainment.
Even with all the success Canadian developer Bioware had had with titles prior like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire and especially Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and titles concurrent such as sister series Dragon Age, none have quite left a footprint on the public consciousness like the three-part story of Commander Shepard and friends.
In a very simple explanation, Mass Effect is the realization of the alluring power fantasy of being a space opera hero, more in the veins of Buzz Lightyear than Luke Skywalker but if played compellingly straight. Of being either a bold space captain of comrades human & alien or a gritty, whatever-it-takes antihero whose associations are at best allies if little else. Or more believably, a fusion of both to create a flawed, interesting figure that either fits your ideal space man/woman of action or falls into what you think a predetermined choice of background should and would entail.
This is a sci-fi future space odyssey that will begin with your character looking down onto Earth in the late 22nd century and will, controversially, end with them making an impossible choice with no clear cut happy outcome that was originally more aggravating due to the lack of clarity in what those choices would end your story on. Along the way, the narrative’s flavor, tone and who does and does not get to be with your Shepard on that path were up to you.
You can strive and toil for the strongest bittersweet conclusion possible or you can rush to the finish line and be ruthlessly punished for your haste and lack of foresight. You can fall in love, stay instead married to the job or you can tragically lose the one you chose Shepard to love before the finish line. More than once. You can do many things, but as echoed by a character voiced by Lance Henriksen, none of this would matter if there were no one in this galaxy that you believed in. Up to 19 characters can make up the party that follows Commander Shepard against the unyieldingly horrible menace that are the Reapers.
Six join his/her story in the first game, but only five can survive and you can potentially end up with only four if you’re especially uncareful or worse, indifferent. Ten more join in the sequel, accompanied by two from the original and if you play your cards hilariously wrong, none will survive and neither will Shepard. Your story will end anticlimactically and it will be all on you. The final game will have three more additions with up to four that can return. The continuity of your crew always having some familiar face does wonders on the emotional power of this trilogy.
The Mass Effect trilogy beautifully plays up the idea that you can be a super strong-willed space marine with charm, intimidation, strategical genius and have possibly the best social skills in all the Milky Way. Commander Shepard can appear perfect, nigh superhuman but as the trilogy wears on, especially by the third, you come to see a soldier who has witnessed so much horror, pain and sadness, a lot that the player can choose to add to their background before you even start controlling them, that you see a person slowly breaking down, hiding as best they can the unending weight of being a savior figure.
Without the people at Commander Shepard’s side, there would be absolutely no chance against the omnicidal reapers, who every 50,000 years destroy galactic civilizations and harvest entire species to “preserve” them for some grand purpose. With the group of friends and maybe a lover that Shepard can bring into their life, he/she have yet the greatest weapon against that colossal threat and if the player so decides, his/her true purpose to win.
Part 1: The first steps into a larger world (Mass Effect 1)
In spite of the clear quality of life improvements the Legendary Edition gives to the original Mass Effect from 2007, with improved graphics, better lighting, smoother frame-rate, significantly fewer textures that load in and an all terrain vehicle that handles less terribly, nothing can keep the original from escaping the feel of being the most aged. This is not exactly a criticism, as it is a game of its time that was pushing new ideas into the gaming mainstream with some experiments that to this day, have yet to gel as well as Bioware had hoped.
It’s the beginning of an ambitious planned game trilogy, so many of the rough edges have yet to be trimmed. But playing through with foresight, you know they will be trimmed, so you soldier on and enjoy what ME1 gets right. It’s amazing how well I can put up with one of the least intuitive inventory systems in a mainstream game when I know it will be alright in the end.
The first Mass Effect has you beginning Shepard’s journey to become the unsuspecting savior of a galaxy of trillions. In spite of the backgrounds you can give your Shepard, there is still a Tabula Rasa to who he or she will be in the player hands. You might have given them a background that literally reads “ruthless” but nothing is saying you should follow through on the presumed Renegade path. Maybe strive to be a Paragon, making amends for your past.
More than how Shepard’s moral character is to be shaped for games to come, this is also an introductory phase to an entire universe, where Bioware shows their skill in crafting their own space sci-fi world separate from the one there were given to play in with Star Wars. The famous codex available in the menu is more than happy to fill in the details that playing the game may not tell you or you might miss. So concerned was Bioware with ensuring Mass Effect’s commitment to detail through lore that the main entries boast a narrator who reads in an oratory voice the most important stuff.
At the same time, this is one of the earliest games, maybe the first game, where the player character actually says what the player chooses as dialogue. When it comes to the “investigate” portion of the dialogue wheel, where the player can ask whatever relevant question to a certain individual, Shepard’s manner of asking these questions feels too cookie cutter, repetitive. What do I mean by that?
“Tell me more about your culture.” “How does omni-gel work again?” “Why are the Turians skeptical of us?”
The manner in how Shepard asks just about any question feels too robotic. The sequels would make Shepard’s asking of questions feel much more natural, which in turn would make Shepard feel more natural as a result. For the first go around of Mass Effect, it would be the people in Shepard’s life that would have to do most of the heavy lifting. Let’s meet them, shall we?
Ashley and Kaidan
One of the running issues that may well be hard to fully reconcile is that in a fictional universe full of cool, exotic, fleshed out and of course romanceable aliens, why would Commander Shepard want to spend time with more of his own species? That is to say, why would the player? Of course, there are popular human members to Shepard’s team, more so in the sequels than here, but it’s not surprising that the most fan art, fan cosplay and fan attention is spent with Shepard’s pals and potential lovers from the stars. Nowhere is the comparable flatness of the human party members more present than in the original.
True, when Ashley(left) and Kaidan(right) return to the party in ME3, the weight of past games and Shepard’s evolved relationship with them does make them more interesting. One of the factors that almost naturally leads to them having something interesting to them is that both cannot make it to the sequels. In a famous moment late in the first game, Shepard is forced to leave one of his human squad members behind to die. The other will get to return and the baggage that comes with surviving they carry the whole trilogy. How Shepard feels about it (not well) is one area where I wish I was given more agency over Shepard, like how much he/she is bothered and continues to be bothered about one’s passing and the other’s survival.
Kaidan is the first overall squad member of the entire Mass Effect trilogy and his reputation continues to be mixed, especially with his portrayal in the first. He’s often described as the blandest character, with his defining trait being that he has migraines from becoming a biotic as a youth. Biotics are individuals who are capable of using Mass Effect technology, either biological in some alien cases or artificial in human cases to have blue and purple tinted superpowers. These include telekinetically controlling objects, creating waves of forceful power, weakening various materials, and creating barriers to protect oneself.
Kaidan’s lack of issues compared to the rest of the Normandy crew does make him less dramatically interesting certainly, but it is kinda neat to have a member of the crew with few if any real problems. He’s the normal joe brought into a situation far, far bigger than anything he could possibly imagine and this desire to fight not just for survival but a world with fewer concerns can have a compelling draw. The aspects of Kaidan that work come much more into focus should he make it to ME3 and rejoin the crew.
Kaidan’s most obvious purpose in ME1’s case was being first, an example of a “biotic” member in case the player didn’t choose Shepard to be biotic as well as to be a potential love interest for a female Shepard, endearingly called “Femshep” by fans and critics. In that department, Kaidan is hardly the worst choice and this is arguably the reason given for why someone might choose to save him in the original game.
To me, Kaidan’s most interesting aspect comes from a decision that Bioware made for Mass Effect 3. To make him bisexual. Retcon or not, Kaidan can become a love interest for a male Shepard assuming he was the one chosen to live. What makes this particular gay pairing interesting to me is that not only was it a case of Bioware listening to fans who thought that pairing would be interesting based on subtext from how Shepard and Kaidan can converse in the first two games, but that it is a somber demonstration of two coming together over shared loss, namely for Ashley.
A male Shepard and Kaidan coming together in ME3 is actually a great example of one of the trilogy’s most unique strengths: connections borne over not one epic-length title, but several. M/Shepard can’t get with Kaidan in the first game, most obviously because overt same-sex relationships were a no-go in 2007( Bioware had previously attempted a gay love interest in 2003″s Star Wars :KOTOR but that was, to many a fan’s dismay, scrapped during production).
So, ironically, by holding off on this romantic option being possible the first time around, Bioware creates a heartwarming new drama by having two old friends/comrades in arms reunited and realizing something about each other that they didn’t see before, wistfully wondering what could have been but all too happy with what they found in the present. It’s also possible to romance Ashley and the third ME1 love interest, Liara( more on her later), for the first time in ME3 and the tone is also similar in two friends coming together to be something more than what was there originally. Kaidan is unique because MaleShep never could be with him period in the first game so expressing love for him as a gay Shepard has a charm.
It plays off the idea that one of Mass Effect’s strengths is that there is satisfaction to be had in striving for long term gratification. Some of the best, most natural relationships in the series, including my undisputed favorite, don’t start in the first and can carry over multiple games. Almost as much as being ready to decisively face the Reapers, you have to commit to the people in your life.
Ashley is the other human team member and she is often chosen more to be the survivor over Kaidan. This stems from being the romance option for a male Shepard( the more often played sex initially) and because she is certainly more interesting in comparison to Kaidan off the bat. Whether or not that translates into “likable” is another question. Ashley “Ash” Williams, indeed named in honor of Bruce Campbell’s goofball character from the Evil Dead series, is divisive for reasons different than Kaidan.
She is meant to represent humanity overcoming the inevitable prejudices of co-existing with alien species. She is not a malicious racist towards aliens, though some of her off-color jokes would be concerning if I was an extraterrestrial next to her when she says it. She is the grand-daughter of the first human military leader to surrender to an alien force during the First Contact War, our species’ tumultuous introduction to galactic politics, to say the least.
Her military family took much heat unfairly for this legacy and both her father and herself suffered career wise in humanity’s military, the Systems Alliance. Only by being the sole survivor of a vicious attack in the game’s opening act and becoming the second squad member under Shepard does she finally go down a road that will do her family’s name proud.
As the series progresses and Ashley serves alongside aliens against what turns out to be existential odds does she start to throw away her bigoted side. By ME3, she has no racist inclinations towards any species save the AI Geth, the ones that slew her squad in ME1’s opening hours. She comes to see her alien comrades as brothers and sisters, which says much due to her unwavering commitment for her biological ones.
So, yes, Ashley does have a more interesting background than Kaidan’s and it’s a character arc not without some charm, but it was never enough to make me care about her as much as I would like. The potential role of Kaidan in ME3 is ultimately more engaging and her character design for that game never works for me. She goes from being a understated but tough female soldier to looking like a dolled-up fashion model who unwisely covers half her face with her long hair. Sure, it’s to indicate that she’s such a veteran that she doesn’t need complete spatial awareness I guess but Kaidan’s visual evolution is a lot better at making him feel the most grounded human ME1 character over Ashley.
Alright, enough about the puny earthlings: on to the alien members which for many help define Mass Effect’s appeal the best.
Wrex and Liara
Wrex and by extension his race, the Krogan, are meant to be the “proud warrior race” of aliens. You’ve seen them before. The Klingons of Star Trek, the Mandalorians of Star Wars, the Sontarans of Doctor Who. The difference here is that this “live for battle” mentality has severe consequences on the species itself and not just everyone else.
The Krogan, for reasons admittedly not wholly their own, have ruined their planet. There were given the tools of modern warfare a little too early by other alien species for the express purpose of fighting a monstrous race of arachnids called…the Rachni. Hey, not everything can be cleverly named here. Once they were done helping the galaxy defeat this species, they turned on their new galactic “friends” and on themselves, for the challenge and little else. Their homeworld of Tuchanka became an irradiated wasteworld and thankfully for the Krogan they are just tough enough to survive.
But it was the threat they posed to the rest of the galaxy that led to the extreme measure of the Genophage being brought upon them. A virus is put in the air of Tuchanka that ensures that only one in a thousand Krogan are born. With this brutal and ethically dire blow dealt to them, the “Krogan Rebellions” end. One of the witnesses to the long, horrible history that followed is Wrex.
Wrex, like your average Krogan, loves battle. It’s in the blood. That being said, he is a Krogan who wants a world for his people beyond just finding excuses to kill in combat. He thinks there is more to his people than just becoming a mercenary and spending whatever time remains of a slowly dying species wasting time affirming what everybody else thinks only a Krogan can do.
It’s rather telling that the four alien squad members of Mass Effect 1 have more far-reaching implications on what the galactic stage will become in the games to come than the human members. With Wrex, his survival in the first game and the friendship that he makes with Shepard will well decide not only the fate of his species, it will be instrumental to the galaxy itself. In just the friendship between the Commander and a very weary old warrior does the title “Mass Effect” very much live up to its intentions.
One of the most iconic moments in Mass Effect’s history is a showdown between Shepard and Wrex, right before the fateful choice the former must make to choose between Ashley and Kaidan. Wrex learns that the main antagonist of ME1, the foe you have been pursuing the entire game, is seemingly making a cure for the Genophage. Wrex has acted as if he had given up hope for his people. Here we learn he very much still cares and he’s angry.
In the hands of the villain Saren, these Krogan will be bad news for everyone and you can convince Wrex to stand down and realize that. Helping Wrex out by recovering some family armor by his request or serendipitously while out exploring the Milky Way will do wonders to resolve the conflict. If your paragon or renegade level is high enough, a special dialogue option will also talk him down from aiming a gun at you. Considering how popular, likable and easy it is to feel sorry for the guy, most players will strive for these options.
Or, if your conversation goes on too long, Ashley will shoot Wrex dead to the Commander and the player’s horror. In that moment, not that many players knew it back at the time in 2007, the galaxy’s future just became more grim. You can also shoot Wrex yourself and the reasons for why you choose to do it can’t wipe away the feeling you just made a mistake. Or, if you’re striving for the worst outcomes or are really aiming to make your Shepard a villainous protagonist, it might ironically feel quite good, in an uncomfortable sense.
Wrex is more than just a flashpoint in Mass Effect’s editable story, he’s more than a representative of one of many races you can encounter in this universe. He’s an example of a deconstruction of the trope he represents. The “proud warrior race” convention is copied over and over not only because it leads to enduringly popular fictional races to cosplay as (Klingons, Klingons, Klingons), but that they act as a representation for an undeniably dark yet still present impulse in the human condition.
We love war, we despise war. Klingons and Krogans are meant to represent the side of us that loves that impulse and the enthusiasm of seeing characters like Wrex and Star Trek’s Worf kick ass as those “fight for honor” figures impresses us. A later Krogan party member that originates in Mass Effect 2 takes that exploration of primal joy in combat further. Wrex has a side that does desire at least an alternative that still co-exists with his warrior side. Wrex doesn’t just enjoy fighting.
He wants to fight for more than just the fight. And gaining friendships with Shepard and the Normandy crew is a good place for him to begin his emergence from centuries of a gloomy rut. How Shepard and Wrex’s relationship can conclude in Mass Effect 3 can end up in two vastly different places.
One ends with Wrex proclaiming you a brother/sister to him. The other involves the player stabbing him in the back that is as heartbreaking as it is viciously disgusting on a moral level. It’s one of those moments that even hardcore Renegade players regret letting happen. And that moment is built on another soul-wrenching moment the player can decide to put themselves through. It’s not the most horribly painful “bad outcome” that you can allow in ME3( more on that when we get there), but it’s one moment that will make you feel vicariously like a scumbag. All the worse when you know there is a better alternative.
Liara is to me, the most divisive character in the trilogy. To a lot of people who read this, the biggest question mark pops into their head. Why, she’s a popular figure, don’t you know? She is incredibly important to the narrative of the trilogy, undergoes considerable character development and is a well-regarded romance option for both sexes of Commander Shepard. Hell, the acclaimed Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC for ME2, considered by many one of the best DLCs ever made, was created with the express purpose of allowing Liara to rejoin Commander Shepard’s story, at least for a little while, when she was absent before. Indeed, that DLC is awesome. What’s the problem?
It mostly boils down to Liara being a character that didn’t click for me where she clearly did for millions of others. I can’t entirely nail down why and that is extra odd considering how many times I have played through the trilogy. Her role in the first Mass Effect may have much to do with that. Ali Hillis, who otherwise does a great job with the character, gives Liara in her debut appearence a voice that makes her honestly kind of annoying.
It doesn’t help that during the course of the narrative, Liara essentially mind melds with Shepard to root out the plot of the game up to three times. In every instance, the dialogue feels written repetitively, maybe even copy and pasted between the scenes and when expressing mental fatigue from the meld, has this very unconvincing groan of pain that almost makes me laugh rather than feel sympathy.
I get where they were going with this character and it’s not a bad place. She is a young alien archeologist who is fascinated by the extinct Prothean race, the forerunners to modern Galactic civilization. Her interest in the Protheans and how they relate to Shepard’s hunt for Saren makes her invaluable to the story.
The execution of Liara as a character right out the gate of the trilogy-spanning story dampens my liking of this character even as ME2 and ME3 do a decent job of making her more interesting, easier on my ears and important to the narrative that doesn’t feel as forced. That being said, a lot of indications are present that Liara is the product of creator favoritism on Bioware’s part.
I get it, any creator or curator of a piece of narrative art will have favorites to choose from in the line-up of characters they make. The writers for the Mass Effect trilogy gravitated most towards Liara and found ways to make her integral to the plot of the whole trilogy, in spite of the many different changes Shepard can make to the galaxy. If I must say it, I will: Liara is the most clear cut example of a Mass Effect character having plot armor.
For a series that boasted and for the most part delivered on the idea that your choices as Shepard could have dire consequences, such as who lived or died, having even one character be totally safe from that fate(up until the very, very end, mind you) goes against the grain of that element. Of course, there have to be some characters who must survive to carry the plot forward and there was no getting around that. Maybe if I digged Liara more than I do, I would be more accepting.
I’m also kind of annoyed that Liara can be interpreted as the “default” love interest for Commander Shepard out of the many choices out there. That she can be romanced by a male and female Shepard, that their love story can begin in the first and endure the whole trilogy and her strong connection to the overall narrative supports this idea. Again, if my preferred love interest for Shepard had the same position in place of Liara, I would likely be holding a hypocritical stance. At the same time, it makes me understand the idea that in the world of Mass Effect, “to each their own” is more or less king. I just wish Bioware didn’t make their preference complete with neon signs.
Now, let’s hit you with the really good stuff.
Garrus and Tali
Garrus and Tali, whether you have them get together with Shepard or not, are possibly the most impactful party members in the entire trilogy.
They are most emblematic about what makes the Mass Effect trilogy feel so special to so many people, let alone myself. They are the only two characters who can be in Commander Shepard’s team for the entire trilogy. It probably wouldn’t have happened had they not caught player’s hearts the first time around.
Let’s start with Garrus, who barring a tragic set of choices in Mass Effect 2, either becomes arguably Commander Shepard’s best friend and for a female Shepard, the most fascinating and novel example of an human-alien love story I’ve possibly seen.
On the surface, Garrus is not cut from the freshest cloth. He’s basically a cop on the Citadel, the giant Babylon 5-like space station that acts as the central hub for the trilogy. He has grown tired of how the rules for C-Sec, the police force for the Citadel, often prevent him from exacting justice and protecting the innocent. He’s a Turian, a species that is perhaps the biggest stickler for being “by the book” in all things.
Garrus wants to be a good Turian, to do all he can to make life in the galaxy as safe and orderly as possible, and not just for his own species. But he thinks he can do all that by bending the rules or ignoring them outright so long as justice is served. It’s up to your Commander Shepard to see what kind of rebel he will be. But very little can keep him from being a badass no matter what you do.
It’s Brandon Keener’s voice that really sells Garrus. It has an audio filter that gives a distinctly not-human reverb to his voice, yet it still effortlessly toes the line between sounding just cool enough without risking Clint Eastwood or Seagal levels of self-parody. In tone, Garrus Vakarian miraculously becomes an eighties’ action hero that you can 100% take seriously.
When it comes to Garrus’ character arc and this can really apply to most if not all romanceable figures in the series, there is two maybe three directions. The difference between the default “friendship” arc and the romance arc feels the closest to being the same though that is hardly detrimental. It kinda cements how close Shepard and Garrus will become no matter what happens in the common scenario in that the latter makes it into all three games.
The romance arc for Garrus is also my preferred choice for being my Femshep’s true love, though because it is a romance obviously aimed more at Mass Effect’s considerable female playerbase than not, it doesn’t hit me the same way a romance between male Shepard and Tali does. But it has its moments, make no mistake.
The Garrus and Tali romances that can begin in Mass Effect 2 likely only came out of fan’s confusion over these compelling and likable characters not being romanceable in the first place. So, by popular demand, two of the best interactive love stories of all time( in my not at all humble opinion) were created. Sometimes, appeasing the fans isn’t the recipe for trouble that it often is.
What’s important to recognize here is that compared to most of the romances in the Mass Effect trilogy, especially revolving around Liara and human characters, Garrus and Tali are more tasteful when it comes to the love scenes, where the intimacy that certainly takes place is left almost entirely to the imagination. I don’t know if it’s respect for the characters or if Bioware didn’t want to risk making a roll around in the bed here look…awkward, but letting the emotions of those moments Shepard can share with those two take precedent is part of why they feel the most effective. To me, again to each their own.
As I inferred to earlier, while the love story between Femshep and Garrus is definitely romantic, it can half the time feel like the tightest friendship imaginable. For a lot of people, being in love is the most powerful friendship. Shepard and Garrus here are just as committed as comrades in arms as they are in lovingly embracing each other and this connection of business and pleasure intermingling makes it quite the novel approach.
As the above image suggests, for all of Garrus’ effortless skill with a rifle and all kinds of weapons of war and espionage, he is not as tactful when it comes to letting his guard down, especially due to the circumstances you find him in ME2. He has lost much and he could never forgive himself for screwing up any kind of relationship with the one human he has the most respect for. To see it all work out in the end, based on the player’s own volition as Commander Shepard, is something to see.
Now let’s talk about my easy favorite for Shepard’s true love, assuming I’m playing a straight male Commander Shepard. I often do because of the love story between that Shepard and Tali.
Having Shepard and Tali falling in love would obviously not be as great a story if Tali wasn’t independently a great character. Well, she is my favorite overall character in the trilogy so she already passes that qualification. For those who might be wondering right now, Tali is always in a suit due to her species having weakened immune systems from being space nomads on account of them having been forced off their homeworld by the Geth, the artificial intelligence of their own creation. That does sound an awful lot like Battlestar Galactica, you say. Well, Bioware takes that conceit and runs it in a fascinating direction.
The humans of Battlestar Galactica are banished from their worlds by the Cylons but don’t live in an intergalactic society like the one in Mass Effect. They instead begin a dangerous odyssey to find a new world to colonize and protect against the Cylons: Earth. In ME, the Quarians, Tali’s species, were already part of an interconnected civilization and that same civilization watched the Quarians’ banishment with a mix of pity and bemusement over letting that happen to them.
A massive armada of ships, The Migrant Fleet, became the ever mobile home of the Quarians and Tali was born into a society where everyone depended on everyone. They couldn’t afford not to. Being unable to find a suitable new planet, they lived inside their ships over generations and the already middling immune systems they had back on their homeworld of Rannoch grew weaker. Eventually, living inside body covering suits was the way of life and very few people can appreciate or remember what a Quarian looked like.
In Tali’s culture, everyone else comes first, herself second if there is time for that and rarely there is. Eventually, after coming of age she is sent on a pilgrimage, a rite of passage where a young Quarian goes out into the galaxy to find anything out there that could help the fleet be maintained. It’s safe to say that by the end of ME1, Tali doesn’t just succeed, she excels beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Tali’s introduction to Shepard and co. mirrors Liara in the sense that she is actually in one instance vitally important to the narrative. She comes across information that will reveal to the galaxy that Saren is up to no good and will allow Shepard to begin his journey to defeat him. Without Tali’s efforts in finding that information, without meeting Shepard, the galaxy was likely doomed then and there.
Like with Garrus, Tali is not romanceable in the first entry. This is actually great as it allows the players to come to like even love both characters just as themselves. Shepard can come to see them as compatriots and friends first. Together, they discover and face a threat gravely vast in its enormity. The idea that Shepard knew those two at all for a good space of time before any overt romantic affection is shown actually makes Tali and Garrus one of the more believable and natural love stories as their story wasn’t just meant for courtship opportunities.
In the interest of time due to how crazy long this entry has gotten, the first of three, I will continue on this line of thought involving Shepard and Tali and other romances in the later articles. I’m now going to move it back to the main narrative and what the first chapter boils down to, no matter the decisions you make along the way.
Saren, the Turian big bad of the first Mass Effect, is meant to be an echo of Shepard. They are both Spectres, agents that serve as the most special of special forces for the Citadel Council, the largest governing body in the Milky Way, essentially space U.N. but only marginally more effective due to the Spectres.
Shepard becomes the first human Spectre after finding the evidence(thanks to Tali) that pins him as having attacked a human colony and betrayed the Council. The Council in turn does one of the very few wise things in the Trilogy and makes Shepard not only that first human Spectre but tasks him with finding and getting Saren: dead or alive.
Saren is to me one of the more clumsily handled characters that still sticks the landing in the end. For most of his appearance in Mass Effect, he is not only presented as an obvious bad dude, but his behavior and mannerisms are more B-movie schlocky than his overall character arc would suggest.
There is one honest to God hilarious scene following the opening mission on the colony he attacks where he is evilly brooding aboard his ship when Marina Sirtis’ character comes in, Matriarch Benezia, Liara’s mother. She gives a status report on what happened to the colony after he left and something that Shepard did gets Saren pissed. He makes a bunch of angry noises that sound closer to a dog chewing vigorously on a steak, clomps up to Benezia and commands her to eliminate Shepard in his best Bond villain impression possible. All while we get an uncomfortably good look at Benezia’s cleavage. If you put this scene in a vacuum from the rest of the series, you would imagine it belonged to a lower class of melodrama than what Mass Effect is in.
However, by the third act’s start, once you reach his base on Virmire, the same place where the fates of Wrex, Ashley and Kaidan are made, Saren becomes a better if still overly dramatic antagonist. It’s due to Saren’s motivations being not wholly evil or misguided. If anything, you come to recognize Saren as being something of a victim, if not indeed a victim, of the Reapers.
To date, one of the things that makes the Reapers such intimidating foes isn’t just that they are absurdly powerful, resilient, intelligent and to top it all off, number in the tens of thousands, it’s that they have a very difficult weapon to shield against: Indoctrination.
In a sinister twist on Shepard’s uncanny ability to use social skills to save the day, the Reapers use utterly insidious brainwashing abilities to control their targets and have them work for them. This is especially cruel yet nonetheless effective when they use that skill on those that oppose them. Saren discovers the Reapers’ existence sometime before the game opens and immediately recognizes them as a “Holy f**k” threat to the galaxy. He wants to stop them, that’s his job.
However, the Reapers twist his mind to think that the only way Saren can succeed in saving the galaxy is by working with them. To ensure that some survive the harvest that comes every 50,000 years. The harvest that claimed the Protheans. While there was plenty of evidence that Saren was not a swell guy before indoctrination, such as his racist hatred of humanity and other more than questionable methods he has used as a Spectre, Saren never stopped believing in protecting the galaxy as a whole. On a certain level, he never forsakes what the Spectres are.
He was told by the Council that any means necessary to get the job done are permitted. If the only way to save the galaxy and complete his duty is by the Reapers’ suggestion, why wouldn’t he do it? He doesn’t just act as a dark reflection of Shepard, he also acts as a mirror image of a very Renegade Shepard who has the same absolute rule of whatever-the-cost means. The only real difference there is that Shepard isn’t indoctrinated and will never allow it. So strong willed can you make Shepard that he can even convince Saren there is a severe way of escaping the reapers’ control. With a bullet.
Mass Effect 1’s third act is where the game’s enjoyment factor is at its best. Mass Effect 1 can feel the slowest paced due to the many optional planets you can explore with the all-terrain vehicle the Mako. There are certainly some worthwhile side quests which can pay dividends in surprising ways in later games. But you do have to put with the Mako’s controls( though now less wonky) and a depressing number of copy and paste buildings to venture through. But the good stuff that lies in wait is genuinely good and you will get something out of it not just in this game but the games to come.
That third act begins with the many consequential events I’ve described on Virmire and then comes to involve breaking out your ship the Normandy from dry dock like with the Enterprise in Star Trek 3, a possible night of passion if you pursued the affections of Ashley, Kaidan or Liara( which I rarely have), a daring mission to a planet full of Prothean ruins and insight on their fate and finally a still spectacular climax involving space battles, walking up a skyscraper with magnetized boots in space, all with a giant reaper looming in the background and one hell of a final encounter( or two) with Saren.
The amount of applause moments that comes one right after the other not only makes up for a possibly sluggish pace but also gets you deservedly amped for what Mass Effect 2 will offer. Thankfully, the wait is very. Much. Worth it.
The second part will, of course, be about Mass Effect 2 and its host of new party members as well as delving more into pre-established characters that get more focus and of course more about that trademark Bioware romance.