Breaking in used to be easier. The new thing would come out and the reasonable expectation would be that Space Adventure 3 or Spooky Show 2 would either catch you up on the story to date or at least be structured to invite you in. Now, though, even when games like Mass Effect: Andromeda drop numbers from the titles to help make new entries more inviting to first-timers, it’s hard to get over the intimidating crush of history. Do I need to marathon the whole series? Which versions should I play? Can I just start with the new one if I want to?

Complicated questions! But we do have the answers. If you’ve been curious about the Mass Effect series on the eve of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s release, here’s where to start, where to continue if you liked that first taste, and what to avoid.

Where to Start – Mass Effect 2 – PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One (backwards compatibility)

The original Mass Effect was a savvy, smart, but clunky stab at science-fiction world building from BioWare. The operatics of Star Wars were in place with Commander Shepard, the player’s custom hero, as the chosen hero archetype surrounded by colorful supporters who are alien (or at least alienated in some way). There are gun fights and super powers galore as Shepard helps humanity earn its place in the universal community while a seemingly omnipresent threat is pushed back. Grounding all those theatrics is BioWare’s penchant for interpersonal relationships; every new character you meet opens a new miniature soap opera where you learn about their lives, open personal missions, and more to deepen intimacy (that can, as is widely known, get physical.) Counterpointing all of this is a commitment to hard science fiction, using real theory and facts to inform the many planets and solar systems you visit over the course of the game.

The problem with Mass Effect 1 is that all of this high drama is dragged down by either partially functional or flat out broken play. The Xbox 360 version suffered from myriad glitches, but even the updated and widely modded PC edition suffers from fundamental issues like weak shooting, poorly balanced character abilities, and endless, boring planetary exploration. Unless you want to drive a busted micromachine space truck that seems to have half-inflated balloons for wheels, Mass Effect simply isn’t much fun to play. Which is why Mass Effect 2, which does all the spectacular world building, drama and sci-fi promised by the original but complemented by straightforward and fun shooting, is the Mass Effect to start with. 

Mass Effect 2 even acknowledged that the series needed to offer fresh entry by rebooting Shepard and her crew (Femshep, dear newbie, is best Shep) at the beginning. The Normandy, the Mass Effect hybridization of the Enterprise and Millennium Falcon into one homey home base, is all but destroyed in an attack, Shepard is killed, and is reborn in a cloned body by a shadowy organization trying to save the universe free of the central government’s bureaucracy. From there, the quest feels largely the same as the first but refined and reconsidered. 

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