Mass effect: illusion of choice

BioWare and sci-fi go together like hummus and bagels. There’s no questioning how well their approach to dialogue and role-playing meshes with the massive, complex universe they’ve established with the Mass Effect franchise thus far.

EA Access members have had their eager hands on it since the 16th and I’ve rounded up some of the series’ biggest choices so newbies can get an idea of just what’s in store for them, and veterans can join me in crying inconsolably at our collective desks.

A few notes. We’re not going to spend any time talking about the polarising ending as that’s been done to death. But, naturally, there are some spoilers ahead so, if you’re intending on visiting the Shepard saga for the first time soon, you might want to give this one a miss.

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We’re not pulling any punches here it is easily one of the series’ biggest moments, wrapped up in so many smaller scenes that are just as potent.

Shepard’s squad arrives on Virmire, hot on the trail of the story’s big bad Saren, who appears to have found a cure for the Krogan genophage - a sort of species-wide castration for the Krogan, large, violent warriors who used to be able to breed in massive numbers. Saren is using this knowledge to breed an army of Krogan for his own dark intentions.

Throughout the crew’s time on Virmire, Shepard has to stop his own Krogan crewmate from going rogue in an incredibly tense confrontation. He discovers the truth behind Saren’s plan, and hears a rousing speech from the verbose Captain Kirrahe (hold the line!). The mission comes to a gut-wrenching climax when you’re forced to choose between two squad mates to stay behind and defend a bomb as it detonates. Kaidan and Ashley have both been with you since the start of the | game, and they’re two very different and interesting characters.

It’s a great moment because, generally speaking, games don’t ‘take’ from us in any sort of permanent way most of the time, so when they do, it has an impact. Like when Aerith died in Final Fantasy VII, or again in Final Fantasy XV when all the fun died during Chapter 13.

Safe to say most people made the decision based on who they were romancing at the time or just down to petty personal dislikes. I figured Shepard - at least the ruthless, renegade sole survivor type mine was - would let the grunt die in favour of the more experienced soldier.

In a game dominated by ‘good’ and ‘evil’ points, Virmire’s choice stands out because it’s not about being a selfless superhero or journalist-punching jerk, it’s about the reality of leadership. You’re not just losing a teammate, you’re actively sending one to their death, because that’s what being someone like Commander Shepard demands.

As an aside, Ashley dies every time in my game. It’s like I’ve got a one man crusade against poetry-spouting Space Christians.

The original suicide squad

Mass Effect 2 is possibly Shepard’s finest moment. With the original Normandy blown to pieces, the crew scattered across the galaxy, and Shepard left for dead in the cold expanse of the void, the future is bleak in the face of looming intergalactic terror.

Cerberus - a shadowy human organisation run by Martin Sheen, evil Power Ranger samurais and Australian actresses, spares no expense in bringing the galaxy’s greatest hero back to life, so he/she can fight the good fight once more.

Missions play out almost like episodes, as Shepard recruits a mix of old and new allies to go on a suicide mission through the deadly Omega Relay and put a stop to the Collector threat. As a result, the big, dramatic moments of the first game are condensed down to smaller, more personal dramas, all linking up together into the grander scheme of things.

Decisions are much more intimate, but the potential for loss is much greater. It’s not enough to recruit them, Shepard has to put the time in with the squad. You need to earn their loyalty if you want everyone to pull through.

It’s an interesting change of pace from the first game’s set of about four or five massive decisions. Instead, you make lots of little ones within several interconnecting smaller stories that shape events and the way people react to Shepard. It’s not all dialogue, either.

Even things like not pursuing certain ship upgrades which seem pointless at the time or dawdling as an invisible timer ticks away in the background will have a catastrophic effect on your success. You can even mess things up so badly that no-one’s alive to grab Shep’s outstretched hand at the end as he jumps for his life.

Mass Effect was a massive love letter to those old sci-fi shows and no part of the series so far has so embodied that spirit as the first sequel did.

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Had to be me…

Shepard’s journey comes to an all-guns blazing conclusion, the journey there filled with massive action set pieces, plot twists, and tender, heartstring-tugging moments. It’s a huge game with a lot of loose ends to tie up, and one of the stand-out moments has to be Tuchanka.

You’re given the ability to cure the Krogan of the genophage once and for all - save some dodgy political manoeuvres by the race responsible for it in the first place - but echoing that moment all that time ago on Virmire, somebody’s gotta die to do it.

Depending on your actions in 2, that could be previous squad mate Mordin Solus, one of the scientists who created the genophage. After fighting your way past Reapers and ancient desert worm monsters, Mordin will sacrifice himself to distribute the cure.

This being Mass Effect, you have choices, and there’s a handful of different outcomes, but most roads lead to Mordin dying and redeeming himself all at once. The facility begins to collapse around you as he steps towards an elevator and says “Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.”

The Krogan genophage is one of the more interesting subplots of the Mass Effect universe, and you get up close and personal with both sides of the argument several times throughout. Despite playing as a dedicated Renegade (super-jerk) throughout most of my play throughs, I just have to cure it every time. I can’t let my buddy Wrex down.

So much happens in Mass Effect 3 that it’s hard to pick just one subplot. The series plays out like all your favourite sci-fi TV shows crammed into one, lovingly referencing both itself and genre classics. Although Andromeda is garnering some conflicting reviews, a plethora of new alien species, planets, and a new dialogue system allowing for greater depth and moral ambiguity will inevitably pave the way for some fascinating moments and tough choices.

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