*Note: This was a review written by me for a previous website.
With the loss of the Star Wars license coming at the end of this year Dark Horse is in something of a scramble mode to get something out there to fill the holes in their lineup. The Mass Effect license is one of those ones that they will want to be strengthening in the coming months so that it can hopefully support multiple titles. Combined with some more recent acquisitions like Halo and Tomb Raider Dark Horse is well on their way to plugging the hole in their line, but even with all that it probably is not enough to account for how huge a phenomenon Star Wars is.
There is a problem with the Mass Effect license, though: unlike Star Wars, or most conventional licenses, Mass Effect does not have a static anchor series to tie everything into. The trilogy of Mass Effect games is built upon the idea that the player has a say in what happens in the story, and the choices made will impact what happens and does not happen. While it may be debatable exactly how much your choices impacted the finale, it is certainly true that each player can (and often did) reach the finale in vastly different ways. In the first game alone at least one character is guaranteed to die, but not always the same one, and a second character could potentially be buried. The second games ends with a suicide run that can literally result in the loss of almost your entire crew… or be run without a single casualty. Heck, even the gender of the main character (Shepard) is chosen at the beginning of the game and can be different from player to player. Since Bioware (the game’s creators) have not released an “official” storyline of what happened, this all adds up to incoming writers having to tread carefully around plots involving characters who may or may not even be still alive. Shepard him/herself can only be alluded to in the vaguest of terms.
Unfortunately, even though these are stories told around the periphery you do need to have some basic understanding of the Mass Effect plot or there are parts that just will not make sense. For instance, why is there a giant ship just appearing in Ashley’s story, and then never mentioned again? Fans will recognize Sovereign from the first game, but people who have not played the game will probably wonder what the heck that was about and why it had a page devoted to it before disappearing. That is probably the most glaring example that I can think of, but there are few others (such as not bothering to explain much about psionics, even though Alenko’s chapter is set entirely in a psionics training facility).
How are you supposed to tell stories when your most recognizable characters — the ones your audience has grown to love through three long video games — are off-limits to even mention in passing? Dark Horse’s answer so far has been to tell a combination of prequel stories and to tell the tales of periphery characters. Specifically we are looking at a new lead character, Rasa, who gets recruited by Cerberus (a pro-human, anti-alien organization that plays something of an antagonist role in the games) and her near encounters with the members of Shepard’s crew. In practice what we are actually getting, though, is a series of origin stories for many of the games’ recurring characters and crew members. Ashley Williams and Kaiden Alenko (the first two people who will join your crew in the first game) each get a full issue dedicated to them, and Wrex (an alien bounty hunter, also from the first game) gets most of another issue. How telling is it, though, that I actually had to go back and doublecheck who the second issue was about (Wrex) even though I finished reading the book for a second time only a few hours ago? Clearly it has left a marked impact on my thoughts.
There are many problems here, unfortunately. The main one being that, so far, this has been a sequence of unconnected origin stories in what is supposed to be an ongoing series. It is true that Rasa is leading the plot with some sort of mission for her boss, the Illusive Man, but this barely gets two or three pages an issue to breathe with the origin stories taking up the bulk of the tale. Origin stories are important, certainly, but we have already had a four-issue mini-series dedicated to origins of some of the characters, and frankly when I signed on to start buying a Mass Effect comic I really was looking for more “further adventures of…” style stories, rather than jumping back into the past again.
None of this would really matter too much, though, if the stories were particularly revealing about these characters, but with the exception of Alenko there is not much we do not already know. Wrex was a damned good bounty hunter and Ashley had her squad shot out from under her on a routine patrol on a safe planet. This is not new information, and in the case of Ashley this is already well covered territory. The Wrex story does at least provide amusement as Rasa keeps trying to slow him from getting to his target, often with humorous results, but it is hardly a major selling point for the book. Kaiden’s story, at least, covers a part of his past that is not particularly well known, and manages to get an interesting morality tale out of it in the process. It is the fourth and final chapter of the book, and that is not a particularly good selling point.
The first story is actually the best of the bunch precisely because it covers new territory from start to finish, and has an interesting twist ending to boot. I do not know this character, nor what to expect from her story. Rasa (which is a name I suspect is intentionally meant to invoke the idea of Tabula Rasa) has potential as a character, except that after her origin story in book one she gets shuffled off to the periphery for the remaining three books. It is interesting to see her track and follow Shepard’s crew in the background of Mass Effect 1, but that only gets you so far.
All of this is not to say that Mass Effect: Foundation v1 is a bad book. It is fairly well executed, though I question how accessible it will be to people who have not played the games (and since these are origin stories that says volumes), and it is nice to revisit with some friends from the games again. But it is not necessarily what I am looking for in a Mass Effect book. This is only compounded when you realize that of the four Mass Effect mini-series that proceeded this book two are origin stories (one for the Illusive Man, and one for four other crew members), one bridges the gap between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, and the third sets up one of the subplots for Mass Effect 3. There need to be stories that do not directly tie into the games, or this franchise is going to wither from lack of innovation. Also on the plus side is the art, which does a good job shifting between action scenes (of which there are many), and the quieter talking scenes. Some parts, particularly in the final chapter, can be a bit crowded and hard to decipher, but on the whole this is some good, solid art.
Even with the problems inherent in a license that has no set story there are possibilities. Build a crime procedural around C-Sec, tell stories from the Krogan/Salarian war that left the Krogans all but sterile, follow Wrex’s pre-Shepard bounty hunting days (or, better yet, Thane’s assassin days; now there is a character I would love to learn more about), or even tell stories about some of the Spectres (special operations soldiers combined with James Bond spycraft). There are a ton of possibilities in this universe, and none of them are getting tapped in favor of more origin stories. We need real content, real meat if it is going to be worth our time to continue spending money on this franchise.
Some of the best Star Wars comics do not feature any characters we know (looking at you, Crimson Empire) or only have them on the periphery. Sure we love seeing stories about Luke, Leia and the gang, but they do not always need to be the main characters. Most of the Halo books and comics do not even have appearances from Master Chief, and they have some great books out there for that series. I love my Mass Effect crew members (except Miranda, she can get sucked out an airlock for all I care), but not every story needs to be about them or feature them. Expand the universe and tell new stories. The franchise spans galaxies, it is time to begin utilizing that. As I said above, Mass Effect Foundation v1 is not a bad book, but it is not the book I want to be reading right now. There are thousands of possible stories in this universe — dozens of characters we only briefly meet in the games who could easily hold their own tales — there is no reason we should be treading the same ground over and over again here.
Mass Effect Foundation v1 is available on Amazon and at your local comic shop.