The nature of Mass Effect is that you go from planet to planet. While the Normandy is your hub across all three games and the Citadel is your link to the wider universe, you journey to dozens upon dozens of worlds across the 100 plus hours of Commander Shepard’s journey. Because of how the plot evolves, though, you don’t get to see many of the major planets until the third game – replaying the trilogy in such a condensed fashion with Legendary Edition, this feels very anticlimactic.
While the first game is about understanding the universe, and the second is about building a team, the third game is about losing. You begin the game on the back foot as the Reapers come to Earth, and you never really get off it. You’re running for the entire game, fleeing from planet to planet, growing your meagre forces as worlds are destroyed or abandoned, desperately scrambling for time to build your last, best hope – a weapon that can turn the war on its head in an instant.
The galaxy is a very different place in Mass Effect 3 than it was in the first two games, and we see that through the landscapes of the planets. With an emphasis on exploration in the Mako, the first game uses lots of open, natural environments to build up our impressions of the universe. The second game then takes us indoors, focussing on architecture and urban settings to give the universe depth of character. We head to Omega, to Illium, and even join up with the Migrant Fleet during the perfection that is Tali’s loyalty mission. Mass Effect 3 is much more intimate.
Tali’s loyalty mission aside, we mostly head to far flung reaches of space in Mass Effect 2, meeting people on the edges of planetary society. They are not esteemed representatives of their races – Jack’s struggle is not about the humans at large, nor Thane’s the drell. Grunt has literally just been born, and is learning to piece together his place amongst the krogan. This is a suicide mission, so we’re recruiting people on borrowed time with nothing to lose or mercs who’ll take any job so long as it pays. Mass Effect 3’s struggles are represented by individuals, but they stand in for entire races. We get Garrus back on the team, but we recruit him while courting the political favour of the turians.
It’s while recruiting Garrus that we head to one of the moons of Palaven, the turian homeworld. It’s clear, from the Reaper presence and from the Marauders (basically turian Husks), that the turians are struggling. This is Mass Effect 3, a game all about losing, and the turians are clearly losing. Likewise, when you go to Thessia, the asari homeworld, the place is already in ruins.
Playing the series originally, seeing the worlds of the most esteemed races in the galaxy fall this way was quite the rug pull. If it can happen to Thessia, it can happen anywhere, right? But playing the trilogy through together, it doesn’t have the same punch. When we see London falling, we see the difference in our minds. This might be the London of 200 years in the future, but it’s still recognisably London. We understand what humanity has lost when we see the city ablaze. We only ever see Thessia in this state though, and that robs the destruction of its majesty.
All in the galaxy are not created equal. We see that in both the in-game hierarchy and the focus the game places on each race. The hanar are not on the Council, and likewise we see nothing of their homeworld – a quest involving the hanar was even cut from the first game. While content is cut all the time from games, it’s telling that it was the seemingly trivial hanar that got nixed.
That’s to be expected. Inequality has always existed, and while I wish some of my favourite races got a bit more spotlight – and I’ll be honest, that the militaristic and otherwise generally dull turians got a bit less – it makes Mass Effect’s universe far richer that it ebbs and flows like this.
In both Mass Effect’s reality and in the way the game presents it, the asari are key. While Liara and Samara the only asari squadmate we fight alongside, they are the race we encounter the most across the rest of the game after humans. They are the de facto leaders of the galaxy – and arguably through the Council, the actual leaders of the galaxy. Thessia is their homeworld, and while I appreciate that only ever seeing it on its knees is a great way to sell the formidable power of the Reapers, it steals the true Thessia away from us. This is the most advanced, most majestic world in existence, and all we see of it is rubble. Playing through the whole thing again, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed by that.
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