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.
Exploration of planets is done using the Normandy’s probing tools and looking at readouts of information, which sounds boring in theory but is entrancing in practice. A quick scan for weapon or shipbuilding resources on a new planet can easily turn into an hour or obsessive probing and reading about the geological makeup of distant worlds which proves a way more palatable complement to getting to know your crew. That crew is also made up of a perfect balance of old friends like dependable, lovably self-conscious bug soldier Garrus and awkward idealist Tali as well as genre-best new additions like the fussy, surprisingly musical alien scientist Mordin. This is all layered on top of action that never feels as nuanced as in something like Uncharted where shooting is the primary activity but still feels natural and strategic. The efforts to keep the fighting feeling somewhat related to stat-based RPGs like BioWare’s other games is abandoned and Mass Effect is better for it.
For those worried about losing out on the best of the first Mass Effect’s story, there is a recap of events. An excellent, artfully made interactive comic book called Mass Effect: Genesis is available in all versions of Mass Effect 2. It may not help you fall in love with legacy characters like Liara but it will at least let you know who she and other principal players are before they show up in later games. Plus, Genesis lets you make some pivotal story choices that shape the world that carries between the three original games.
Mass Effect 2 is also readily available on Xbox One while the original is not, so modern console gamers have the obvious choice. After playing it, though, you might want to consider also playing one of its DLC expansions. Of the multiple released for Mass Effect 2, only Mass Effect 2: Arrival feels truly essential as it acts as a plot bridge between the ending and the big threat that emerges in Mass Effect 3.
What to play next – Mass Effect 3 – PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One (backwards compatibility)
Mass Effect 3 is, in all ways, a direct continuation of Mass Effect 2. It picks up immediately after that game’s cliffhanger ending, it stars many of the same characters while adding a selection of new squadmates, and provides a definitive, , ending to the story that started in the original Mass Effect. So while Mass Effect 3 is definitely not a good jumping on point, it’s absolutely a solid choice to keep going if you liked Mass Effect 2. There are two significant changes that you should know about before playing, though. The first is that the tone is, from start to finish, much more bleak than Mass Effect 2. That’s not to say the previous game is all sunshine and lollipops, what with mass extinction being a core subject of the whole series, but Mass Effect 3 is first and foremost a war story told from the point of view of the people who are losing. Losing bad. The quiet humor that informs Mass Effect 2 is present here but even more subdued in favor of stressing dire circumstances.
The second change is less important than it was when the first game came out. Being made as it was in 2012, Mass Effect 3 came at a time when every giant game publisher thought that the key to maintaining blockbuster sales was to put multiplayer into every game on the planet regardless of whether or not it made sense. As a story first, action second game, Mass Effect wasn’t ideally suited to multiplayer but the online team shooter grafted onto the game is actually a lot of fun. Teaming up with a few other players, you shoot it out in territories contested in the larger story’s conflict, leveling up and earning points to purchase better gear for your faceless multiplayer avatar (thankfully, there isn’t an inexplicable legion of Shepards duking it out.) The problematic part of all this was that when the game first released, it almost required you to play the multiplayer to build Shepard’s “war readiness” to head into the game’s ending, better ensuring your crew’s survival. Given that the first release of the game had an already abrupt ending and that the multiplayer was focused on encouraging you to purchase weapons and items with real world money, this mode left a bad taste in players’ mouths even while it was enjoyable to play.
All this is to say that playing Mass Effect 3 today gives you a far better experience than if you’d played it in 2012. The multiplayer can be safely ignored in pursuing the main plot (which is vital because unsurprisingly not many people play it anymore.) All of its expansions are finished and playable from the start, though playing the best of Mass Effect 3’s DLC is a little more tricky than it should be. Mass Effect 3: From Ashes, an essential expansion that introduces a character that alters the whole series’ story, is a separate download. (It is, however, included on disc in Mass Effect 3: Special Edition on Wii U, though the other other expansions aren’t included. Plus, with no other games in the series on the platform, the Wii U option is hard to recommend.) The other highly recommended story expansion is Mass Effect 3: Citadel, which brings back all surviving squad mates from previous games for a proper send off before the final battle. It too has to be purchased separately, but it is then integrated into the regular story.
Like Mass Effect 2, you can also play this on Xbox One.
For the truly hardcore – Mass Effect comics from Dark Horse, Mass Effect novels
As with more big BioWare properties, there are some nice non-game tie-ins for the series. If you particularly loved Mass Effect 2 or BioWare classics like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the writer of both actually penned three of the five Mass Effect novels already out. (An additional two are coming this year and tie in to Mass Effect Andromeda.) Drew Karpyshyn’s novels fill in story gaps around secondary characters in the original Mass Effect trilogy, particularly the villainous Saren from Mass Effect 1.
Dark Horse Comics has also published multiple Mass Effect limited series that are easily digestible at just a few issues long and widely available on digital comics services. Mass Effect Redemption is particularly good if you like Liara, the Asari scientist who’s a principle character throughout the whole series. The writing is as good as the games and is cartoony but nicely representative of the series as a whole.
What to avoid – Mass Effect Galaxy and Mass Effect Infiltrator on iOS, the Mass Effect Paragon Lost animated movie
Given the strength of Unreal Engine 3 games on modern tablets and phones, it’s surprising that EA hasn’t flat out ported Mass Effect 2 or 3 to mobile devices in the five years since the last game. Unfortunately mobile players are out of luck as the only options out there are these two stinkers. Galaxy, a light action RPG, that came out all the way back in 2009 and Mass Effect Infiltrator, a shooter that tied directly into the war readiness of your squad in Mass Effect 3 just like that game’s multiplayer mode, are both deeply mediocre shooters that are best avoided at all costs. Even if you want to check them out for completionist purposes, though, neither is still for sale on Apple’s App Store. Galaxy was delisted in 2012 and Infiltrator was delisted in 2015. Anyone dead set on playing them can still find them on the internet if they go hunting, but they’re no longer officially in circulation.
Mass Effect Paragon Lost, an animated prequel to Mass Effect 3, is just not very good. It’s not terrible by any means, but its story about Mass Effect 3’s James Vega is far more interesting when told by him in dialogue in the actual game. The animation, produced by the typically excellent Production IG of Ghost in the Shell fame, is also no great shakes. There are worse things to watch, but there’s far better Mass Effect to be had elsewhere.