The Mass Effect franchise is now ten years old, and in the decade since Mass Effect first launched for the Xbox 360, the series has grown into one of the biggest, most popular names in the industry. One way or another, for good or for bad, the series has been at the center of some fierce discussions and debates throughout the years. And while the Mass Effect trilogy has been on the receiving end of some fair criticism over the years, not least for the final fifteen to twenty minutes of the saga, there is absolutely no denying that with the trilogy, BioWare delivered 90-100 hours of excellent gameplay, a vast, rich universe, riveting stories and memorable character moments. From its solid, breathtaking inception with the original Mass Effect, to its sequel, which is regarded by many as one of the greatest games ever created, to the title that finished the story in a rather… well, controversial fashion, Mass Effect has always had something great for us in store.
And now, after a five-year hiatus, BioWare’s epic space opera series is making a comeback with Mass Effect: Andromeda. And so, in order to gear up for the launch, and to refresh our memories and remind ourselves just why the series is considered one of the best examples of games doing storytelling right, we’re going to take a look at the first three games of the series and try and recount, in the best and most accurate way possible, the story of the galaxy so far.
SPOILER WARNING! Do we even need to say it?
PART ONE- (NOT) A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY…
In part one of our journey from the beginning to the end of the Mass Effect trilogy, we will take a look at the general lore and backstory that serves as the foundation that the saga’s narrative is built on.
Although the very first game in the Mass Effect trilogy takes place in the year 2183, the fateful events leading up to the series actually occur much earlier.In the year 2148, explorers on Mars come across what seem to be the remains of an ancient spacefaring intelligent civilization, named the Protheans, who disappeared from all existence, for unknown reasons, close fifty thousand years ago. What they did leave behind, however, was a bunch of technology and information that would help the human race take to the stars.
Some years later, humans find that one of the satellites orbiting Pluto at the far edge of the solar system isn’t actually one of the planet’s moons, but rather a mass relay. Mass relays are massive devices that allow interstellar travel throughout the galaxy, allowing travel from one relay to another at not just faster than light speeds, but instantaneously. It turns out there’s a bunch of these scattered throughout the galaxy, and that they were (apparently) built by the long-gone Protheans.
And as the galaxy opens up before the human race thanks to the discovery of the mass relays, so do its other inhabitants. Yes, as you would expect, humans are not alone in the Milky Way galaxy- there’s a ton of different intelligent, sentient species roaming the stars. There’s the turians (cunning, merciless warriors and general badassases), the krogans (huge, aggressive tank-like brutes), the quarians (a nomadic, tech-savvy species that’s been having a rough time for ages), the asari (an old, dominant, female-only species strong with biotic powers), the salarians (eccentric, intelligent, funny looking and funny sounding) and the geth (synthetic, artificial intelligence that turned on its creators)… and that’s not even all. There’s also others like the volus, vorcha and the batarians, who are not that prevalent in general galactic politics, and others like the rachni, who’ve already been extinct for a long time.
And, not surprisingly, not all these alien species get along too well with each other. For instance, an ongoing, bloody and brutal conflict with the krogans and other species of the galaxy (mostly the turians) has dragged on for years. Years ago, to put a stop to these wars and battles once and for all, the turians, with the help of the salarians, created a biological weapon that was deployed against the entire krogan race. This weapon, called the genophage, drastically increased the mortality rate in krogan foetuses and infants, to the point that now, many years later, the species is close to extinction. That knowledge, in turn, has taken its toll on both them and their homeworld, wrecking them and tearing them apart to reflect their collective grim, fatalistic outlook. A krogan infant is now a rarity, something the species rarely sees anymore, and as such, they have become a brutal, barbaric race with violent infighting.
Another massive conflict that has shaped the look of the galaxy over the years is the once between the quarians and the synthetic species known as geth. When the quarians first created the geth, they were simply machines to be used for cheap manual labour, and did not possess actual artificial intelligence. To allow the geth to function more efficiently, though, the quarians allowed them to share data with each other, and as more and more geth were created, their intelligence grew, until finally they achieved proper artificial intelligence. Afraid of the repercussions and implications, the quarians tried to shut down all the geth. This, quite predictably, led to an all-out war between the two races. The geth ultimately prevailed, wiping out almost the entire quarian race, save a few million. These stragglers and survivors were forced to flee their home world and now roam the galaxy in their nomadic fleet without any planet they can call home. When they went to the galactic Council in seek of aid and refuge, they were turned around and stripped of their representative positions thanks to their role in creating actual artificial intelligence.
And yes, of course there’s a galactic council! The Milky Way would fall into chaos with all that conflict between the alien races and no form of government to try to broker some sort of peace between them. The Council has three representatives at the beginning of Mass Effect– one each for the asari, the turians and the salarians, which are, essentially, the three leading races in the galaxy. They’re based on a space station known as the Citadel, which is presumed to have been built by the Protheans, much like the mass relays.The Citadel basically serves as the hub of the entire galaxy, in terms of economy, politics, culture, society and every other way that could be considered important, and the mysterious, silent, multi-legged species known as the Keepers are the ones who keep the space-station up and running.
The Citadel Council, which can be thought of as a governmental body overseeing inter-species interactions and relations throughout the entire galaxy, also has a special branch of agents known as the Spectres. These are, essentially, highly trained and specialized soldiers with a vast number of skill sets- they are above galactic law, operate in secret, answer only to the Council and have a license to kill. Think spacefaring James Bond kicking alien butt.
However, things start going wrong when a certain turian Spectre known as Saren Arterius starts grossly misusing his powers, setting into motion events that would, ultimately, devastate the entire galaxy. This brings us to the beginning of the Mass Effect trilogy.
Mass Effect begins aboard the Alliance warship SSV Normandy. Commander Shepard has been tapped up to potentially become the first ever human Council Spectre, and while he is being observed for that role, he is being sent to the human colony of Eden Prime for a routine mission. However, thanks to the presence of Captain Anderson and turian Spectre Nihlus Kryik on the Normandy, the ship’s pilot Joker and the rest of the crew believe there’s a lot more to the mission than that.
When Shepard is briefed on his objective by Nihlus, that turns out to be true. His mission on Eden Prime isn’t just important because he will be assessed for a potential role as a Spectre, but also because a Prothean beacon has been discovered on the colony. Thanks to its incredible scientific value and the fact that it could be stolen or damaged by pirates or bandits in the vicinity, Shepard is tasked with securing and retrieving the beacon.
Things, quiet predictably, go wrong…
And that’s part one! In part two, we will look back at the events of the first Mass Effect game as well as a little bit of the setup for Mass Effect 2.