Look, if I were you, I’d be dubious of that headline, too. But I am going to go even further here, now, in the opening paragraph, now that you’ve clicked and I’ve got your attention. Mass Effect isn’t just the best RPG series of all time – I think it’s also some of the best sci-fi of all time.
No, I’m not being hyperbolic. I’m being deadly serious. I would put Bioware’s trilogy of games up there with Asimov, with Star Wars, with Ballard, and with Star Trek. Whether Mass Effect is taking you on a tour of sentient life in the universe and forcing you to examine the macro patterns that it all follows, or dialling down into the minutiae of a doomed, intimate romance, it is beautiful and it is tragic. It is hopeful and it is doomed. It captures and celebrates the paradox at the heart of everything.
And it’s free – free! – to download and play if you have a PS Plus Essential subscription in December 2022. Imagine that: to me, downloading this game via PSN represents the same value as being handed the entire Star Wars saga (including Rebels) on 4K UHD Blu-Ray by some random passer-by in the street. It’s the same as a rogue librarian palming off the collected works of Ursula K. Le Guin to you in a dusty old library, and telling you not to worry about bringing them back. It’s like getting all of the good Star Trek on Netflix. Oh, wait – that one you might be familiar with.
Mass Effect is essential sci-fi. It, somehow, covers all the things I care about most in science fiction: it breathlessly manages to flit between social division, the inevitably and cruelty of war, climate crisis, population control, AI and sentience, what it is to love, what it is to live – and what it might be to love and live without limits.
Following the story of the first human Spectre (read: space pig), you can choose to be an implement of an imperial pseudo-fascist regime and abuse your power to further humanity’s standing in a corrupt council… or you can choose to wield your power in the name of your crewmates and their own interests, instead. In pursuing your interests – or those of your ragtag, misfit crew – you’re given a unique lens through which to view this universe: a universe under threat of extinction, yet still wrapped up in its own intra-species conflicts and schisms.
Throughout all three games, you get to play the part of an ignorant (but noble) hero-type… that absolutely fascinates the various races you have the pleasure of meeting on your journey. Mankind, in this universe, is young; only recently folded into the cross-universe alliance that (just about) keeps things ticking over. For many races, the first time they saw a human was in living memory – and it was hostile. Of course it was; humans have always been frightened of what they don’t know and hungry for conquest.
But it’s the indomitable spirit of man that’s thrust into the limelight as an ancient and unknowable threat begins to manifest in the darkest regions of space – and suddenly, this curious unproven race holds the key to saving (or dooming) everything.
As a player, this is all put on your shoulders within hours. The first game, a flawed gem though it may be, establishes the stakes and the setting with deft ease – drawing in some of the finest choice-based RPG dialogue in the world whilst it’s at it. The second game (one of the best ever made) has this wonderful sense of doom and this distinct sense of menace humming in the background throughout. The third game – an unsatisfying ending for some, but a perfectly logical conclusion for others – wraps it all up nicely… even though you’ll have to forgive its focus on action, compared to the other two.
Then there’s the Normandy, your ship. Your home. This breathing, moving place that you come back to time and again. This hub where your protagonist unspools, in-universe, for some downtime. The place that you – player – come to decompress and study the world around you. Without this ship – this home, this anchor – the rest of the universe would feel adrift. By fixing you in this one place and bringing you back, you come to appreciate the constants in a world of flux. You come to look forward to the rituals; making the rounds to each of your crewmates, checking in on all the systems, hearing about Garrus’ calibrations.
The three Mass Effect games on offer in the Legendary Edition – originally released between 2007 and 2012 – have not aged a day. As a re-issued, updated complete trilogy, the games are made relevant to 2022 again and (like any good sci-fi) will remain relevant and touching and important for years – decades, generations – to come.
So do yourself a favour: play them. Or play them again. Or play them again, and again, and again.