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What makes the Mass Effect series the great games that they are? Is it the narrative? The gameplay? The Asari consorts? Skin tight armour wearing Heroes and Heroines? I’m sure many people have different answers as to what they like most about the Mass Effect series and this is perhaps a testament to quality and/or appeal of the games. But I’m going to zone in on a few things I’ve given thought of late. And fair warning, spoilers be ahead.

The Characters

In the Mass Effect series, you play Commander Shepard, a Human soldier with the Alliance who is thrust into the middle of conflict that threatens the safety of the Galaxy. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that by and large Shepard is boring or at least what you would expect from a protagonist – leading the charge against the enemy, unwavering, unrelenting and dishing out ass whoopings left, right and center. Ok, so that is maybe selling Shepard short a little, but I digress.

For me, at least, it is not Shepard that makes Mass Effect interesting and compelling to play but rather the people he (or she) meets or recruits along the way. The games are teeming with characters that have hopes, dreams, fears and actual personality. No where else is this more prevalent than the party members you recruit along the way and a few of the support characters with larger roles. Take Jeff “Joker” Moreau for example. Here’s a guy with a crippling disease (Vrolik Syndrome for those playing at home) that has overcome the odds to become one of the best pilots the Alliance has.

Which is the role he serves on Shepard’s crew, though he also fills the comedy role at times too, throwing out quips here and there. This is in part that he seems to be a fairly carefree person, but also at other times it feels like a defensive mechanism. There’s a story behind it and you can find out about it. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Jack AKA Subject Zero, a woman who was tortured and experimented on by scientists as a child. She’s deranged, there is no denying it, but also with good reason. At times, you just want to draw her in, give her a big hug and let her know everything is going to be alright. The rest of the time is spent in a state of avoiding/trying not to piss her off (Which is very easy to do).

Your party members in particular, aren’t just there to help you punch through your way through the enemy, they are so much more – if you let them be. Talk to your crew – befriend them, romance them or if you’re that way inclined, piss them off and turn them into a rival/enemy. Yes, none of that is exactly new in games but the execution of it in the Mass Effect series is amongst the best I’ve seen in a game. Not only is there that interaction between Shepard and those characters, but the differing personalities of the crew members in particular when offering responses to the unfolding events serves to strengthen the narrative.

mass effect 2 joker screenshot

Decisions and Consequences

Building on experiences gained from both Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, BioWare expands on upon the idea of ‘every action has a reaction’. Again, doing something and the game reacting to it later down the track is nothing new, but the Mass Effect series has really taken this to a whole other level. Most games in the past typically only had 3 to 5 points in the game where decisions had to be made that would affect the game either immediately or later on.

There are major decisions to be made of course but there are a number of smaller decisions to be made as well, which the consequences of may not even be felt in the same game. The Mass Effect titles track a number of decisions across games, kind of like a spider web in a sense, which will only grow more complex (and intriguing) with Mass Effect 3. Help out someone in Mass Effect and who knows, they might pop up in Mass Effect 2 (or 3) to repay the favour. Scorn someone and they might just come looking for revenge later on.

We often talk about a game’s re-playability and the individual Mass Effect titles have that but the way BioWare have gone about their approach to decisions has given the entire series an element of re-playability. Doing things X way in Mass Effect will provide for Z experience in Mass Effect 2. Want something different? Go back to Mass Effect and do things differently. And when Mass Effect 3 is released to complete the trilogy, that element will only be increased.

That may sound like a chore to some, but for an RPG fan such as myself (Can you really call the Mass Effect games RPGs with the direction they are heading in? A discussion for another day perhaps) it is very welcome. But those are just two things I think come together to make the Mass Effect games (to date) as good as they have been. Agree, disagree? Let us know down below in the comments section.