Mass Effect is a videogame franchise from renowned RPG developer Bioware, inaugurated with the launch of the original Mass Effect in 2007 and its two sequels in 2010 and 2012, as well as several ancillary products such as comic books, novels, and iPhone games.
The game is heavily influenced by traditional print media science fiction – novels and short stories by authors like Iain Banks, CJ Cherryh, and Poul Anderson – combined with the stark, iconic, Syd Mead-style visuals of classic sci-fi films such as Logan’s Run, Tron, Alien, Terminator and Blade Runner, topped off with a blend of synthesized and orchestral music reminiscent of Vangelis’s work on Blade Runner or Toto’s soundtrack for Dune.
Mass Effect’s story puts players in the boots and combat armor of heroic Commander Shepard, who can be any gender, race, or character class; the only constant is that Shepard is an elite N7 marine in the navy of the human Systems Alliance in the year 2183.
Not forty years earlier, humans discovered the ruins of a research facility near the south pole of Mars; our first hint at the reality of alien life. The facility, abandoned some 50,000 years earlier, contained data discs, starship drives, and most importantly, a store of exotic matter dubbed Element Zero. Reverse-engineered, these unlocked the secret of the mass effect – the ability to pass current through Element Zero to generate or cancel out gravitic acceleration and inertia, enabling all at once the creation of hovercraft, forcefields, and faster-than-light travel – all the old sci-fi dreams of humanity coming true at once.
It seemed that the facility had been left behind by enigmatic aliens dubbed the Protheans. But that wasn’t their only handiwork; buried beneath the ice of Pluto’s moon Charon was a gigantic Mass Relay, able to send ships hundreds of light years in an instant, and one node of a galaxy-spanning network left behind by the Protheans.
Humanity expanded and colonized new worlds, but quickly learned that we were not alone, as human ships unlocking a new relay near the colony of Shanxi were fired upon by unknown vessels. A brief war began – the First Contact War – against the aliens, known as Turians. But just as quickly, the powerful, militaristic Turians halted their attacks, ordered to stop by their superiors in the Citadel Council.
It seems that much of the galaxy is claimed and civilized by the Council, a galactic government run by three primary species: the long-lived, mono-gendered Asari, who resemble human women; the Turians themselves, an orderly, militaristic avian species; and the fast-living, fast-talking, and gecko-like Salarians. Housed in the ancient Citadel, a colossal Prothean space station located at the primary nexus of the mass relay network, the Council administers civil society for its member races and many client and minor species – and by unlocking dormant relays, opening up potentially dangerous new sectors of the galaxy, humanity had inadvertently violated galactic law.
Meanwhile, human scientists learned the secrets of Biotics, the wild “telekinetic” talent sometimes developed by sentients exposed to Element Zero, or “eezo,” in utero, and after a series of suspicious accidents spread clouds of eezo over several major population centers, a new breed of human biotics was born.
Humans began integrating into galactic society, though not without conflict, xenophobia, and economic dislocation. Galactic society at large tends to admire humanity’s vigorous energy while being deeply suspicious of their expansionist tendencies and ambitious nature, but those suspicions run keener in some species, like the isolationist and paranoid Batarians.
Into this world comes Commander Shepard, executive officer of the experimental Alliance stealth frigate SSV Normandy, who is first on the scene when robotic Geth troopers senselessly attack the idyllic colony of Eden Prime, killing thousands and making off with an ancient Prothean artifact. Tapped by the Council as a potential human candidate for the Spectres, Shepard tracks down the madman behind the attack – the rogue, human-hating Turian Spectre, Saren Arterius – hunting him across the galaxy, ultimately stopping Saren’s fleet (including a massive, unbelievably powerful salvaged Prothean warship called Sovereign) from annihilating the Council in an all-out attack on the Citadel, saving the Councilors and proving humanity’s worth.
That was two months ago. Shepard and the Normandy have been lost under obscure circumstances somewhere in the lawless Terminus Systems. The Geth have retreated into their distant home systems, and peace seems close at hand. But the galaxy’s need for heroes remains undiminished…