Should Mass Effect Abandon The Milky Way For Good?
Our home galaxy still has so much to offer the Mass Effect universe - maybe leaving it behind wasn't the best choice.
Mass Effect Andromeda is upon us, and if you couldn’t tell from the title, it’s a little different from previous entries. It features a pretty big shift in focus; galactic in fact, which has certainly been cause for debate. Many series’ choose to move away from their original settings, to new cities, countries, planets, etc, but a whole other galaxy? That’s a leap few, if any, series can boast. Is it a leap too far. though? Should Mass Effect leave the Milky Way behind for good?
The original Mass Effect trilogy featured alien races, intimate relationships and galactic exploration all against the backdrop of A.I. Armageddon. It was a hugely ambitious series that became a critical and fan favourite; the task of a follow up has clearly been a long journey.
You can’t blame developer BioWare for wanting a fresh start in a whole new galaxy. After populating the Milky Way, completing its three entries-long storyline and seeing it become an instant classic, BioWare has created a legacy that they will not want to tarnish. The fallout from Mass Effect 3’s original ending gave them a harsh reminder that fans can be fickle and will turn fast when things don’t live up to expectations.
The jump to Andromeda from BioWare is commendable, a risky undertaking – whilst not as critically successful as its predecessors, it certainly embodies the spirit of adventure. But when you have the whole Milky Way at your disposal, surely there are still stories to be told. Transplanting the Mass Effect ethos to a new galaxy may bring short-term change, but to ignore the potential left behind would be an oversight for any future entries.
Outside of Shepard and Co. the original Mass Effect trilogy suggested a huge history and a wealth of diverse worlds teeming with opportunity. There are signs of promise that lend themselves to potential future entries without stepping on the originals’ toes.
When we first met Shepard, humanity was already established with the rest of the galactic races, but there were tales of man’s first contact, both through characters and the game’s voluminous codex. The discovery of a Mass Effect relay and the conflict with the Turian race would serve as a set up of the events to come and could potentially feature series alums Admiral Anderson and Jack Harper A.K.A The Illusive Man. Andromeda also reveals Ryder’s father Alec would have been present at this time, potentially a means of connecting the two current series.
Exploring humanity’s first foray outside the Solar System would imbue the series sense of frontiersmanship and pioneer spirit, along with the awe and wonder of discovering new worlds. It could also provide dramatic irony for players who know what the future holds, highlighting moments or characters that were hinted at the first time around.
Dealing with first contact would also incorporate another of the series’ themes – racial tension. Mass Effect took cues from series like Star Trek to use alien conflict as a thinly veiled examination of contemporary society; this would have to be the driving force behind the dramatic elements. Examining xenophobia may be nothing new for Mass Effect, but it remains one of series’ most successful thematic elements and an effective way of maintaining the series core.
First contact also gives the opportunity to explore different locations in the Milky Way; The Turian homeworld of Palaven was only ever viewed from a distance and Earth was never fully realised in the originals. Development and exploration of these would add some variety alongside familiar locations in the galaxy.
This story would the best to fit the current Mass Effect template, helming your own ship and crew, exploring different worlds and engaging with alien life forms.
Despite the galactic jump, Andromeda still retains these elements from the originals, elements that BioWare seem to value as vital to the Mass Effect experience. But what if the series tried to move in a new direction, mechanically rather than physically, and re-imagined its core components.
Exploration has been a key part of the series since the beginning, and has become one of the main components of Andromeda. Using the galaxy map to jump between planets is clearly something BioWare is fond of, but could exploration be condensed down, focusing on one location rather than many?
There are many colourful locales in the Milky Way, whose scope and scale is only hinted at such as Omega, Illium, Thessia and the series main hub The Citadel.
These are densely populated worlds full to the brim with all manners of species; this would offer a sharp contrast to Andromeda’s sparse new worlds. Despite being familiar, there is enough diversity to merit returning to old haunts; the Mass Effect 3 DLC proved that even after three entries, The Citadel could still provide new places to explore.
Mass Effect has always aimed to craft big stories with the threat of Armageddon, A.I. uprisings and gene-harvesting super aliens. Sure, when you’re developing a galactic canvas it would seem appropriate to go big or go home, but how many times can you save the galaxy before it starts to wear thin? Instead of trying to up the ante, perhaps it would be worth creating something a smaller, more focused scale.
Locations like The Citadel or Omega offer a breath of story opportunities; both were always a hotbed of activity and conspiracy, and could feature aspects from previous series such as C-Sec, the Spectres or the Blue Suns, or even smaller characters like Aria T’Loak and the Shadow Broker. A less high-stakes adventure of this nature, whilst being able to hark back to the originals, would certainly be a test as whether Mass Effect could survive without its more traditional aspects.
There is one core aspect that will undoubtedly remain regardless of how Mass Effect continues to develop, and that is character customisation. Being able to choose the main character’s gender, background and skills has always been one of the series most successful facets; when players can match their own diversity it allows them to get closer and more involved in the story. Or they can even go in the opposite direction and explore a different gender to offer a new viewpoint on proceedings. But perhaps in a universe populated with so many species, continually playing as a human could be growing tired.
In a series that aims to promote racial harmony, surely its time to allow players to control another species. It may require a lot more development, more voice acting, character animations and fleshing out of heritages and historical backgrounds to cover the number of species available, but definitely rewarding for players.
Returning to the Milky Way also presents the choice of where to focus on the Mass Effect timeline, before or after Shepard and Co. or even during – all options have pros and cons. Setting events prior to the originals would allow for embellishment on established elements in the series, and as previously mentioned, dramatic irony.
But on a larger scale players would know how things were going to turn out, the same goes for setting events during the originals; it might be interesting to see the story from different perspectives, but when the endgame is already established it removes any sense of drama or intrigue. There are however some existing stories with characters like Paul Grayson that may prove interesting to see in the original timeline.
Perhaps the option that shows the most unknown potential is to set event post-Mass Effect 3. The controversial original ending showed an uncertain fate for the galaxy, with several options open for players to decide between. One of these would have to be chosen, undoubtedly alienating players who chose another path, but clarification would be needed moving forward.
Whatever ending that would be used, it’s clear that the events of the originals leave a pretty big cleaning up job for the survivors, and whilst peace may have been reached, it often never lasts. There might not be a threat as big as the reapers, but peacetime always finds its dissenters.
Themes like rebuilding the galaxy and quashing any new threats could offer the chance for a clean slate in the Milky Way, and create potential parallels with humanities own post-war optimism. But also show how quickly peace can turn, keeping in line with Mass Effects aim to be socially conscious.
This also allows for new characters, new enemies and the chance for new Mass Effect era, but more controversially it could offer the chance to see returning characters. The story of Shepard may have been completed and companions have gone their separate ways, but is that really the end of their potential?
Although they would probably be wise to distance themselves from the originals for now with Andromeda, BioWare still has a set of hugely loved characters on their hands; any kind of return for them may be tricky and polarising, but undeniably worth exploring. A precarious balancing act in any case, the most difficult part being the return of Shepard himself/herself.
While player choices could see Shepard and potentially all crewmates meet their bitter end during the originals, there are circumstances where some, if not all can survive the reaper Armageddon. How they deal with events after this could the greatest dramatic heft of any potential future Mass Effect entry.
Recent games like Uncharted 4 have proved that AAA games don’t have to be all action to be a success, with the smaller, quieter moments proving just as memorable. Mass Effect’s original cast could easily benefit from such an approach, seeing Shepard look for a new focus in life, deal with unwanted attention or even obscurity and trying to maintain relationships would certainly be more affecting than trying to invest in a whole new cast of characters.
A return to the Spectres or the N7 program could also be leveraged to provide the obligatory combat, and perhaps some sort of galactic ambassador role created in order to facilitate the exploration, providing a new purpose. But any return for Shepard will surely prove polarising for fans, to see the old characters again may be intriguing, but if not handled carefully could prove damaging to their legacy. It would be a very high-risk move for BioWare for sure.
Andromeda is an admirable move by BioWare; you can’t accuse them of taking it easy, but when you already have a whole galaxy of opportunities to explore, a future return to the Milky Way would surely bear fruit. Andromeda may fulfill short-term goals, but looking forward, the best direction may be to move back.