Mass Effect: The Stories So Far
Reap the spoilers: a review of the wider universe of books, comics and add-ons...
Looking forward to Mass Effect 3? Of course you are. If you've only played the first two games, though, you've barely scratched the surface of BioWare's amazing sci-fi universe. There are books, comics and of course, a whole stack of downloadable add-ons that fill in the gaps, take you to places Shepard doesn't get to go, and explain details you may have missed - like exactly why everyone hates Cerberus so much. But which ones are worth your time, which are essential if you want to appreciate the full story, and which can be skipped? We've checked them all out. For you.
Please note, we're only looking at the tie-ins that help develop the Mass Effect story or universe in some way, so you won't find things like the soundtrack discs or art books here. We've also skipped over the iOS game Mass Effect Galaxy, simply because it's no longer available for purchase. Don't worry though, it wasn't very good.
What of the rest? Let's jump straight into...
- The Downloadable Content
Mass Effect only had two DLC packs - and neither are worth picking up, even for completion value. Bring Down The Sky introduced recurring nasties the Batarians to the series, but they don't do anything very interesting here. The second, Pinnacle Station, was entirely combat-focused, and Mass Effect 2 does a much better job of making shooting aliens entertaining.
Mass Effect 2 has a better mix. We're ignoring the pure weapon and costume packs here, along with the vehicle-focused Firewalker expansion (free with the Cerberus Network anyway), which leaves six plot missions. Many of these come free with the PS3 version, though PC and Xbox 360 owners will have to spend BioWare or Microsoft points to fill in the gaps. Most plot DLC is priced at 560 of either of them, with BioWare points having a slightly better conversion into real money. Lair of the Shadow Broker is slightly more expensive, clocking in at 800.
Genesis is the 'story so far' comic included with the PlayStation 3 version of the game. It kicks in after the destruction of the Normandy, with the Shepard of your choice both explaining what happened in the first Mass Effect, and giving you the option to decide who lived, who died, and who he/she romanced, ready for the decisions to be continued in Mass Effect 2.
The comic itself is nothing special, and not only should it arguably have been a free download, it still irks that you didn't get to set these in the shuttle ride sequence at the start of the original Mass Effect 2. If you're playing on Xbox 360, it's a handy time-saver if you don't want to replay the first game to change BioWare's default choices (like picking Udina over Anderson, or the fate of the Council). On PC, just visit Mass Effect Saves and download a Shepard with the options you need, completely free.
Verdict: Skip It (PC) Maybe (Xbox 360)
Cerberus Network (Zaeed: The Price of Revenge / Normandy Crash Site)
If you bought Mass Effect 2 new, you already have this. With a second hand copy, it'll cost you a whopping 1200 BioWare or Microsoft points (around £10). Is it worth it? Plot-wise, not really. Normandy Crash Site is a very short vignette, while Zaeed's biggest contribution to the Mass Effect experience is letting you giggle at having Leslie Grantham on your ship. The new missions they add are OK, and worth playing if you've got them, but not buying separately. You don't need to have the Cerberus Network to download other DLC packages.
Verdict: Skip It (if you have to buy it)
There are reasons why nobody trusts AI in the Mass Effect universe, and Overlord is a good demonstration of these. It's a multi-stage mission involving science gone bad, and while basically unrelated to Shepard's battle against the Reapers, at least it's the kind of situation that warrants his/her personal attention. Forgettable compared to the DLC that came later, but a solid chunk of content with enough moments to justify taking the diversion on your next playthrough.
Kasumi: Stolen Memory
Kasumi Goto is the second and final bonus crew-member you can pick up - an intergalactically renowned thief with a love of action, willing to join your suicide mission. She's of limited use to it, but the quest that earns her loyalty is at least something a bit different. She wants to recover a 'greybox' from an unpleasant art collector, and her plan is to dress Shepard up in something a bit smarter than that old N7 armour and run a quick heist at a cocktail party.
It's a fun change of pace while it lasts, but could have done with being much longer and more involved. As is, it's not long before everything descends back into standard cover shooting, and not long after that before you're back on the Normandy, likely never to use Kasumi again. Go back and play it if she turns out to have a big role in ME3, but if not...
Verdict: Skip It
Lair of the Shadow Broker
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Lair of the Shadow Broker is an absolute must-play, especially if you were disappointed by Liara's limited face time in Mass Effect 2 proper. BioWare pulls out all the stops, turning Mass Effect 2 into an action spy movie for this one, as well as piling on the bonus content afterwards by letting you rummage through the shadowy information dealer's files to uncover your crew's hidden secrets and private e-mails. What transpires is of huge importance to both the Mass Effect universe and Liara's personal story, and told beautifully. It's exciting. It's funny. It's touching. It's the Mass Effect 2 DLC you absolutely have to play.
Verdict: Get It
Arrival is trickier. Technically, it should be a no-brainer. It's a bridge between the end of Mass Effect 2 and 3, explaining why Shepard is in his/her predicament at the start of the new game. It technically has some good story information about the Alliance's take on the Reapers. It gives you the chance to be there for a critically important decision - even if you are railroaded into it - that you'd otherwise only know about second-hand.
The problem is that it's not very good. You're alone, the mission isn't particularly exciting, and the result is more of a teaser than a plot continuation. That was annoying when it was going to be months until the continuation. Now, it feels a little pointless, especially knowing going in that everything is locked down, and you don't have the power to fix anything you deem is going wrong, not least because we know how Mass Effect 3 starts. It should have been a must buy. It's not quite a skip. It's the definition of...
- The Novels
There are currently four novels, the first three written by former BioWare writer Drew Karpyshyn. They're set throughout the Mass Effect series, with plenty of connections to events in the game. They spend just as much time on their own stories and characters though, like scientist Kahlee Sanders and messed up father/daughter Paul and Gillian Grayson, so if you're planning to read them anyway, do so in order. But if you just want to skip to the timeframe that interests you, here's what you can expect.
This is a prequel to the original Mass Effect, focusing on Anderson's attempts to become the first human Spectre and Saren, prior to being driven crazy by Sovereign. The latter is the most interesting part. We never got to see much of him in the original game, or how he treated his position in the universe compared to Shepard's heroism. This novel fills in many of the gaps, as well as setting up the new elements for the later novels. Whether you plan to read the rest or not, this is the place to start.
Verdict: Read It
Ascension is a pre-Mass Effect 2 look at Cerberus, though one more focused on the novel universe's characters than anyone you care about from the games. It's OK for what it is, but the main ground covered is done much better in some of the tie-in comics, which we'll get to in a minute. The other plot points of note here mostly come from getting to see the galaxy's response to Sovereign's attack at the end of the first game, which Shepard largely missed out on due to being unavoidably dead, and a continuation of the first novel's new threads. Not a bad book, but without the original's immediate hook if you're not working through the entire series.
Verdict: Skip it
Set after Mass Effect 2, and features a return of several important characters - the Illusive Man, Aria T'Loak and Anderson. As before though, it largely continues the novels' story, but there are enough familiar faces to be able to jump in as long as you've finished the game. In return, you'll get plenty of insight into Cerberus (in extra-dickish form) and what's been going on since Shepard dealt with the Collector threat. For the novels-specific plot, you may find the story-so-far on the Mass Effect 2 wiki helpful reading.
Verdict: Read it
Something of a controversial release, this one. Deception is the first novel not written by Karpyshyn, and has been savaged by fans for its canonical inaccuracies. Whether you care or not, BioWare has acknowledged this and promised to release an updated version, so you should probably wait for that.
Verdict: Skip It
- The Comics
Not in the mood for a full novel? The tie-in comics offer both key off-screen moments and vignettes in a more easily digestible form, as well as making it clear that BioWare really, really likes getting people to draw pictures of Asari. The main ones - Redemption, Evolution and Invasion - are four-part arcs currently available in trade paperback form, with Redemption also available electronically as a set of apps on the iTunes store. The other, shorter, ones are vignettes set around the Mass Effect universe, and available for free on various different sites.
How did Cerberus get its hands on Shepard's body? When did the once-bookish scientist Liara become such a badass? Redemption explains everything, as well as setting up one of the key characters in the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC and giving us a chance to see our Cerberus colleagues when they don't have Shepard making them play nicely with aliens.
It's not an amazing comic, and if you've played the game, you know the rough gist already. It cracks along at a decent pace though, bringing in plenty of familiar faces and filling in a few gaps. As with Shadow Broker, it's an important part of Liara's character arc as much as a slice of the universe itself, and for that reason alone, worth checking out if you have the chance.
Verdict: Read It
Explaining Evolution's place in the series a bit of a spoiler, but since just opening it up reveals that the artists don't care, to hell with it. This is the story of how he came to be the man we don't know today, involving the Turians, Saren and the Great Contact War. It's a solid offering, especially if you want to see more of the alien side of the universe, but don't expect too much of the inner machinations of Mr. Illusive or Cerberus themselves - both of their stories really kick off after this one ends.
Set on Omega after Mass Effect 2, this is a fun but largely inconsequential story pitting Mass Effect 2's main chessmasters - the Illusive Man and pirate queen Aria T'Loak against both forces from beyond the Omega 4 relay and each other. Aria seems to be something of a pet character for BioWare, regardless of her limited screen time so far, and it's interesting to see how she deals with a threat to her empire when not just sitting around in a booth at a strip club. There's not a vast amount to the story though, and it's a pain to track down. Copies of individual issues are on eBay, but the trade collection isn't due until April. Check it out if Mass Effect 3 decides to continue Omega's story in the actual game. Otherwise, you can safely give it a miss.
Verdict: Skip it
- The Shorts (Incursion, Conviction, Inquisition)
Finally, there are three standalone comics, each eight-page vignettes, and two of them available to read online right now. Inquisition is a day in the life of C-SEC officer Bailey, available free in Flash format over on USA Today. Incursion is yet another trip back to Omega to catch up with Aria, this time setting up the Collector threat before the loss of the Normandy.
The third is trickier. While (cough) copies aren't difficult to find online, you can only legally get your hands on it through a special Dark Horse comics promotion. That's a shame, as while it's little but a glorified bar brawl, it is the only one of the set to tie into Mass Effect 3 by introducing new crewmember James Vega. Will he turn out to be yet another First BioWare NPC who never gets to leave the ship on account of being duller than a balsa wood statue of himself? No idea. But if the write-up on the wiki is anything to go by, he's not going to be a diplomat.
Verdict: Read Them