With the Mass Effect series blasting off to a new galaxy this week in the much-anticipated Mass Effect: Andromeda, it’s perhaps a good time to look back at what made us fall in love with the series in the first place. The original trilogy of games were three of the most beloved of the last generation of consoles, and the stories they told of Commander Shepard and the Reapers became some of the most popular in gaming history thanks to their often perfect blend of high-octane action, political intrigue, galactic exploration, alien romance and Lovecraftian death machines.
Not all storylines were created equal, however, and so with a new Mass Effect finding its way into the hands of gamers as we speak, it’s practically law that we celebrate with a list of our favourite moments in the original trilogy of space opera games while we’re waiting for Amazon to deliver our copy of Andomeda. We’ll be separating the wheat from the chaff, and the Kaidens from the Ashleys, all for your reading pleasure.
It should go without saying that there’s going to be spoilers for everything up to the ending of Mass Effect 3 here, so if you’re half-way through the series you should probably stop reading at this point. For everyone else, here’s our top ten most memorable moments in the Mass Effect trilogy for you to look over and then get mad about.
10. The Reapers Attack (Mass Effect 3)
Mass Effect 3’s opening didn’t generate quite as much hate as the much maligned ending did, but the death of the small boy that Shepard tries to save in the first minutes of the game was seen by a lot of people (including yours truly) as a cheap ploy Bioware used to try and instil a little more emotional gravitas into the proceedings right from the word go. While the death of the nameless boy has always felt a little exploitative, the rest of the opening to the third game is superb, with the much ballyhooed Reapers finally turning up on Earth and acting a damned fool.
After two games of politicians scoffing at Commander Shepard’s dire warnings about the impending arrival of a race of sentient, town-sized, intergalactic death robots, the Reapers landing on Earth and causing a scene made for the ultimate “I told you so” moment. Of course, Shepard had little time to be smug since (s)he was immediately thrown into a war against overwhelming odds for the very survival of all life in the galaxy, but hey, at least they could go into battle knowing they’d been right all along.
Explosive, action-packed, and surprisingly affective, the arrival of the Reapers on Earth marked an irreversible change for the Mass Effect series. From that point on, every race, every planet, every character that we’d grown to care about would be under threat, and they’d never be the same again.
9. Mordin Sings Gilbert & Sullivan (Mass Effect 2)
Not all Mass Effect moments are about blowing things up real good. Some of the most memorable parts of the original trilogy were the quieter moments in which we got to know our various crew members and see what made them tick. Mass Effect 2 introduced a dirty dozen of lovable rogues for Commander Shepard to team up with in order to take down a race of evil aliens known as The Collectors, and the dubious moral integrity of the characters you’d be fighting alongside made for some compelling interactions.
Mordin Solus was a Salarian scientist that always acted for what he believed was the greater good. While he disliked the idea of taking a life for no reason, he had no qualms about murdering people or even condemning an entire race if he felt it was the more advantageous choice for galactic life going forward. Being a Salarian with a high metabolism and short life span, he also didn’t like to waste time, and this disinterest in meaningless small talk combined with his ruthless streak made the amphibious doctor seem a tad unapproachable when he first joined Shepard’s crew, but after a few conversations to butter him up we get to see his softer side.
After spending a little time talking about Salarian art and culture, Mordin reveals that in his youth he learned about human musicals, and ever since has had a penchant for the works of Gilbert & Sullivan. Keep pressing the matter and he’ll launch into an improvised rendition of The Major-General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance, that is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. The link to it is here, for your listening (dis)pleasure.
8. The Death of Kai Leng (Mass Effect 3)
There are many memorable deaths in the Mass Effect series, but few are memorable because they’re so god-damned enjoyable.
Introduced in Mass Effect 3 as the primary henchman of the previously-morally-ambiguous-but-now-full-blown-Bond-villain The Illusive Man, Kai Leng seems like he was designed by a committee specifically to be the hopelessly generic, badass ninja villain that Bioware obviously felt the series was lacking. He has no discernible personality, no interesting character traits, and spends most of the game as an annoying, perennial thorn in the side for Shepard as he and his Cerberus forces completely arse everything up for no good reason over and over again.
Towards the end of the game, Kai Leng is finally cornered by Shepard and crew, and finds himself impaled on the business end of the good Commander’s omni-tool, saving us all from any more of his counterproductive, credulity-stretching shenanigans. Kai Leng fucking sucks.
7. The Quarian Conundrum (Mass Effect 3)
We’re introduced to the Quarians in the original Mass Effect through Tali, the masked engineer who helps Shepard in tracking down Saren and Sovereign. Years before the start of the game, the Quarians created the Geth – an artificial intelligence species that inhabit robotic bodies – and were thrown off their own planet in an uprising, ever since surviving as a nomadic race. They live on huge spaceships and travel the galaxy, hoping one day to reclaim their home-world, Rannoch, from the robot overlords that evicted them years previous.
After discovering that not all of the Geth are hostile to organic life, and making friends with a representative of the friendly Geth, named Legion, Shepard leads a mission to reclaim Rannoch from the evil robots in an effort to broker peace between the two long-warring species. It’s a thought provoking narrative arc that touches on the very nature of what it means to be part of a species that was created by another, and an action packed conclusion to a long running storyline in the series.
Depending on how well prepared you are for the mission, it can either end with peace between the Quarians and the Geth, or it can end tragically with Legion sacrificing himself, and Tali committing suicide as the rest of her species is wiped out in orbit above the planet. Seriously, be prepared. It’s the Boy Scout motto for a reason.
6. Confronting the Shadow Broker (Mass Effect 2, Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC)
The Shadow Broker is alluded to in the first Mass Effect game, but it’s not until a downloadable content mission for Mass Effect 2 that we actually get to meet him in person. The mission sees Shepard team up with Dr. Liara T’Soni to investigate the mysterious Broker, and after some light detective work and lots of people getting shot in the face, it’s revealed that the sinister information merchant lives aboard small ship held in stasis in the stormy atmosphere of the planet Hagalaz.
Upon infiltrating the base, Shepard and Liara wipe out many of the Shadow Broker’s forces and rescue an old acquaintance of the Asari doctor, before finally coming face to face with the nefarious head of the clandestine, hi-tech, mercenary operation. It’s revealed that the Shadow Broker is a Yahg – an aggressive, pre-spaceflight species – that must have been taken from his home-world by the original Broker as a pet, before usurping him and taking over the regime unbeknownst to the Broker’s clients who never met him face to face.
The Shadow Broker doesn’t take kindly to his guests throwing around accusations like that in his own office, and a massive fight ensues, ending with the Yahg villain’s demise, and Liara taking over his role as Shadow Broker to ensure a steady supply of intel for Shepard in the fight against the Reapers. As a little treat, once the Broker is defeated you can peruse his files on many of the characters from the Mass Effect series, learning secrets about them that you’d otherwise not know, including chat logs from Miranda Lawson’s dating site interactions to Legion’s online gaming history.
5. Sovereign Speaks (Mass Effect)
Much of the first Mass Effect game is spent in pursuit of a rogue Spectre agent named Saren, who is believed to be in league with the Geth as part of some sort of presumably evil plot to overthrow the Council. Saren is in command of an enormous spaceship of unknown origin, and everyone is a little worried.
Later in the story things go from bad to worse when it’s discovered that Saren isn’t in control of the massive spaceship at all – the massive spaceship is in control of him. It’s a living machine named Sovereign that can gain control of organic beings through an insidious technique known as indoctrination, and while he’s game for a little chat during a mission on the planet Virmire, he’s not exactly friendly. Sovereign’s race – the Reapers – are coming to the Milky Way to wipe out all organic life as part of a cycle they’ve been undertaking every 50,000 years going back millenia, and they’re not about to stop just because we asked them nicely.
The conversation with Sovereign marks a surprising shift in the narrative of Mass Effect. What started out as a simple mission to track down a traitor turns into a quest to save all life in the galaxy, and the chilling lack of empathy displayed by Sovereign in speaking on behalf of his genocidal, robotic brethren solidifies the Reapers as formidable and compelling villains.
4. The Final Hurrah (Mass Effect 3, Citadel DLC)
The ending to Mass Effect 3 might have been the worst thing to ever happen to anyone ever if some corners of the Internet are to be believed, but Bioware nailed it in providing a final DLC mission to give characters a fitting send-off that was oddly lacking in the finale to the vanilla game.
The Citadel DLC sees Shepard and crew taking down a new villain in a mission that isn’t quite vintage Mass Effect, but is fortunately, mercifully brief, before the real crux of the episode kicks into gear. While Shepard’s ship is docked for repairs, the crew decide to throw a party to really let their hair down one last time before heading into the final battle against the Reapers.
Bioware expertly played with nostalgia, and with the affinity that fans had for many of the characters in the series, giving them a chance to shine in a funny, frequently touching series of scenes. There’s drunken banter, appalling flirting, and some emotional tributes to characters that couldn’t join in with the festivities thanks to being dead. It’s the perfect goodbye to a wonderful, memorable cast of characters, and a much-needed, crowd pleasing final hurrah for the Commander Shepard trilogy of games.
3. The Virmire Decision (Mass Effect)
The mission on the planet Virmire in the original Mass Effect is a humdinger. Not only does it include the aforementioned first meeting with the Reapers, but it’s also the home of the legendary sadistic choice imposed upon the player in which you must decide which of your squad-mates is going to be pushing up daisies in the very immediate future.
Kaiden and Ashley are the two human – and therefore, the two most boring – allies available to come on missions with Shepard in the first Mass Effect, and during the mission on Virmire they become separated from the rest of the squad. After a series of unfortunate events it quickly becomes apparent that Shepard only has enough time to save one of them, and the game leaves it up to the player to decide who’ll live, in what is one of the most famous examples of a morally grey conundrum in gaming history. There’s no right or wrong here – you just have to pick who lives and who dies and then live with the consequences.
Morality decisions in gaming far too often rely upon banal good and evil options that don’t give you much to think about unless you have severe issues, and so it was refreshing to see a game give us a decision in which there were simply no good options. The death of either Kaiden or Ashley haunts Shepard for the rest of the trilogy, and acts as a constant reminder that none of the cast of characters are safe going forward.
The correct choice is to save Kaiden, by the way. Ashley is awful.
2. The Fate of Tuchanka (Mass Effect 3)
While there were numerous narrative mis-steps in Mass Effect 3, when Bioware got it right they got it really right. The story arc taking place on Tuchanka is one of those occasions, providing a satisfying, emotional conclusion to the Genophage story arc, and making sure that that you’ll be reaching for the tissues by the time it’s all said and done.
In order to secure the support of the Krogran people in the battle against the Reapers, Shepard must help cure them of a sterilising disease known as the Genophage, which was created by the Salarians as a counter-measure to quick Krogan breeding and a propensity for violence causing issues for the rest of the galaxy going forward. Understandably, the Krogan are none-too-pleased about the disease stopping them from making little Krogans as they see fit, and it’s up to Shepard and the Salarian scientist Mordin Solus to finally provide them with a cure.
After some explosive scenes and a little treachery involving the Salarian council member, Shepard and Mordin are about to free the Krogan homeworld of Tuchanka from the shackles of the Genophage when they discover that the spire they’re going to use to spread the cure is damaged, and the mission can only be completed by someone sacrificing themselves to disperse the cure manually. Mordin Solus, as the only person qualified for such a task, volunteers to give up his life for the good of the Krogan people, completing his mission while humming a little Gilbert & Sullivan before he’s engulfed in a massive explosion. There’s not a dry eye in the house.
Goodnight, sweet prince.
1. The Suicide Mission (Mass Effect 2)
The final mission in Mass Effect 2 is the perfect encapsulation of everything that makes the series so enjoyable.
At the end of the game, Shepard and friends are tasked with travelling to the Collector home-world to rescue members of their crew, and wipe out the Collectors in order to strike a blow against their masters, the Reapers. Depending entirely upon your actions as Shepard throughout the game, and the decisions you make as to which squad members will perform various tasks throughout the mission, the characters you take with you may or may not make it out alive.
It’s a fantastically exciting mission, and while the end boss might be a tad silly upon reflection, the drama as your squad fights for their lives against an overwhelming enemy threat is palpable. Much loved characters can buy the farm one after another with little warning, and knowing that it’s all your fault when they do can be heartbreaking. With careful planning and ensuring that squad mates only do jobs that they’re perfectly suited for you can get everyone out alive, but not knowing whether you’ve got it right makes for an exhilarating ride.
The perfect blend of consequences for your actions within the game, bombastic action, and a villain you just want to punch squarely in the brow, the suicide mission is Mass Effect at its finest, and the greatest demonstration of why the series is so popular today.
What are your favourite Mass Effect moments? Let us know how wrong we are in the comments below.