Close your eyes and think back to it: It's fall of 2007. That's quite a while ago. Take your current age and subtract five. That's about how old you were. That's how long ago Mass Effect game out.
Think about the game itself. How simple it was, how innocent! An Xbox 360 exclusive, released near Thanksgiving with comparatively minimal pomp and circumstance, bolstered by a single piece of downloadable content, then an additional one more than a year later. Compare that to the transmedia blitz that was last year's megablockbuster Mass Effect 3. Marvel at how much has changed in the last half-decade.
Assuming you played Mass Effect at launch, that meant you owned an Xbox 360, probably still fresh and clean off-white. You hoped that you wouldn't get the "three red lights," because this was before the term "red-ring" became a verb. You bought it because you wanted to play Oblivion and maybe check out this game BioShock that everyone was talking about.
Okay, okay, the "you" in the above paragraph is really "me." Your story may well be different. I remember picking up a 360 after taking several years away from video games entirely. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I'd mostly gotten it so that I could finally play the new Elder Scrolls game, but look at all this other great stuff! It was 2007, better known as the best year for video games since 1998. It was a good time to own an Xbox 360.
In addition to the BioShocks and the Orange Boxes and the Modern Warfares, there was also this game called Mass Effect. I saw everyone on gaming websites talking about how excited they were for the game, but I remember watching preview videos that were… well, humorously low-key, considering what ads for video games are like today. The one that sticks in my mind was, more or less, a video of this scene:
I remember watching that video of Wrex and being rapt. Look at his face! Look at how cool he is! It's like a movie! (Man, it really was a different time then.)
If a single series has "defined" the current generation of consoles, there's a good argument that it's Call of Duty. Mass Effect is a bit different, but no less important: Perhaps more than any other single collection of games, BioWare's series acted as a mirror, reflecting the many ways that video games changed over the past half-decade.
Let's take stock:
Platforms: Released as an Xbox 360 exclusive, with later versions for PC and eventually PS3.
Mobile Tie-In: None to speak of.
Role in the Xbox Agenda: It was an Xbox 360 exclusive! (At first.)
Actors: Voice cast consisted almost entirely of BioWare regulars, and Seth Green.
Combat was: …not great.
DLC: Two pieces of DLC, one released several months after the game came out, the other more than a year after that.
FemShep Status: A footnote. Several reviews noted that Jennifer Hale gave a great performance, but the mainstream didn't really notice her.
Multiplayer: Multiplayer? Don't be silly!
Vehicle: You drove around in the Mako, a hilariously clunky space ATV.
Decisions! They matter!
The Controversy: Upon hearing that it was possible to have sex with a character in the game, several right-wing pundits flipped the fuck out, prompting the now infamous Fox News "SexBox" controversy. Which may seem quaint now, but at the time was a pretty big deal. And really, thanks to Fox, to a lot of people who don't play games, the Mass Effect series will always be thought of as "the one where you could have graphic sex with an alien."
Mass Effect 2
Platforms: Simultaneous Xbox and PC releases, later release on PS3.
Mobile Tie-In: Was preceded by Mass Effect Galaxy, a lackluster iOS game and the first attempt at putting a Mass Effect game on a mobile device.
Role in the Xbox Agenda: None, really, though the PS3 version came out significantly later than the 360 and PC.
Actors: Voice cast was an all-star lineup of famous sci fi and television actors, including Adam Baldwin, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan, Yvonne Strahovski and Martin Sheen. And Seth Green.
Combat was: …much, much better.
DLC: Seven pieces of DLC, including two free pieces of day-one DLC.
FemShep Status: Cult icon. At this point, Mass Effect was popular enough that plenty of players, male and female alike, had grown attached to their own female Commander Shepard.
Multiplayer: Multiplayer? Don't be silly!
Vehicle: You didn't really have a vehicle for the main game (sorry, Mako!) but the Firewalker DLC pack added the Hammerhead vehicle, which was actually pretty fun to pilot.
Your teammates! They matter!
The Controversy: The second game was probably the least controversial of the three, with a number of smaller controversies following what was generally a well-received game. The focus on Miranda's posterior drew ire from several corners of the internet, as did the inclusion of several lesbian romantic options but no gay male options. The final boss fight was something of a dud, though the tense, will-they-survive finale made up for that. There were those who were unhappy that the second game focused more on combat than the first game and lost some of its retro charm.
Mass Effect 3
Platforms: Simultaneous release on Xbox, PC and PS3. It was later ported to Wii U.
Mobile Tie-In: Was accompanied by Mass Effect: Infiltrator, which directly tied into the "Galaxy at War" function of the core game, as well as a non-game "Datapad App" that let you check in with characters from the game and keep track of how the war effort was going.
Role in the Xbox Agenda: Microsoft very much wanted you to know that this game was better with Kinect voice-activation. It was... not, really. Though I did like commanding doors to open.
Actors: Voice cast had most of the same luminaries as the second game, and added a few more, including Freddie Prinze, Jr. and stunt-cast Jessica Chobot. Seth Green remained.
Combat was: ...faster, punchier, more grenade-y.
DLC: Five pieces of single-player DLC, one of which was offered on the day of release, for money, and offered a by-all-accounts fantastic party member. (I wouldn't know, I never bought From Ashes. I hear I missed out.) This, understandably, angered fans. Speaking of angered fans, one entire piece of free DLC, the "Extended Cut," was aimed at placating fans upset over the game's ending. Additionally, several "weapon packs" and multiplayer maps were offerend, since the third game was the first to feature a multiplayer component.
FemShep Status: Female Commander Shepard finally arrived with Mass Effect 3. Somewhere in the ramp-up to the game's release, it became clear that a large, vocal number of people played the game with a female main character, and those people began clamoring to see their version of the game represented more. The result was a poll to decide the "official" appearance of female Shepard, a blonde who later became a redhead, and a reversible box-cover that would let you put her on the cover of your copy of the game.
Multiplayer: Yes, actually. And it's surprisingly good!
Vehicle: No vehicles for Mass Effect 3, but there was a pretty good Mako vs. Hammerhead joke in Citadel.
Live-action people fighting! They matter! Better with Kinect!
The Controversy: Obviously, the biggest controversy of the entire series run revolved around Mass Effect 3's ending. I've never seen fan ire reach such a deafening roar, nor had BioWare. That eventually led to the Extended Cut DLC, which placated some but wasn't enough for many. By the time the wonderful Citadel DLC arrived to give everyone real closure, it was too late for some.
Changing With The Times
More so than perhaps any other series from this generation, the many ways that the Mass Effect series changed reflect many of the ways the video game industry itself has changed.
It started as a simple product—a video game. But it diversified and spread, morphing into a trans-media experience consisting of books, comics, video games, tie-in mobile games, board games, companion apps, and films both animated and live-action. While the first game's DLC felt like an afterthought, DLC eventually became a core component of the release strategy, with the second two games receiving regular updates over the course of a year or more. While the first game wrestled with (and eventually backed off of) SecuROM DRM on the PC, later games opted to embrace online activations for free DLC and multiplayer functionality. The third game even managed the previously unthinkable feat of adding multiplayer and having it actually be pretty fun.
The series took several healthy, deliberate steps toward inclusivity, adding multiple same-sex partners in the second game and finally adding two characters in the third game—a gay woman and a gay man—who only preferred same-sex partners. The female version of commander Shepard, once an afterthought, eventually attracted enough fans to merit her own canonical look and her own version of the cover, as well as a spot in one of the game's major trailers.
The series also reflected the ways that the relationship between game-makers and their fans has changed. The ending controversy involved an incredible amount of fan organization, all of which prompted BioWare to undertake the nigh-unprecedented act of actually going and modifying the ending to a work that'd been years in development. The Mass Effect 3 ending controversy is an effective encapsulation of just how different the dialogue between fans and game studios is today than it was in 2007.
What does all that mean we can expect from the series' future? Many of these changes were tied to the strategy of publisher Electronic Arts, who bought BioWare just a month before the release of the first Mass Effect. EA will be shepherding Mass Effect into the next console generation, so it stands to reason that whatever EA's policies will be for their games in the future, those policies will also define Mass Effect.
While BioWare and EA are leaving every possible option open for the next game in the series, it's a safe bet that we'll continue to see Mass Effect moving outward from its more humble origins. We'll see more transmedia stuff, more non-core games. The word "social" will get thrown around. Some of that stuff will be cool, some of it will probably not be that cool. That said, the central games will likely remain about the same. The characters we love may not return, but the universe we love will. And chances are it'll look pretty good on next-gen hardware.
The saga of Commander Shepard defined the Mass Effect trilogy just as the Mass Effect trilogy reflected the often turbulent changes of the last five years. And so it seems fitting that as the curtain lowers on the current console generation, it also lowers on Mass Effect.
It's Mass Effect Week at Kotaku. All week, we'll be taking a look back at the last five and a half years of galaxy-saving heroism, cross-species romance, and awkward dancing. You can follow along here.