Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Mass Effect: Legendary Edition and its ending.
Though the release of the underwhelming Mass Effect: Legendary Edition earlier this year was partly a money-making ploy on the part of BioWare and Electronic Arts, there is another significant factor in the development of what we’ll generously call a “remaster.” Legendary Edition had the task of rehabilitating the series’ reputation following the disappointment of Mass Effect: Andromeda, and was also tasked with bringing in new fans – as well as getting existing fans hyped up – in time for the upcoming release of Mass Effect 4. In that sense, Legendary Edition does seem to have largely succeeded, as excitement for the next entry in the series is higher than it’s ever been.
No details have yet been announced for Mass Effect 4, and we’ve only had the tiniest of teases in the form of a CGI teaser trailer, so any details of the game’s story are complete unknowns. But based on what we know about the Mass Effect galaxy, perhaps it isn’t too early to speculate about what might come next for Commander Shepard and their crew… assuming Shepard is coming back, of course!
One of the key things Mass Effect 4 will have to balance is the scale of its story. Whether we get to play as Shepard or not, Mass Effect 4 will almost certainly be picking up the story in the aftermath of the Reaper War. This conflict saw the whole galaxy – led by Shepard – fighting for its very survival against a seemingly unstoppable foe, so from a narrative point of view that kind of epic tale can be hard to top.
This was the fundamental problem that befell Mass Effect: Andromeda. Even if that game had been launched in a better condition, without the bugs and visual glitches that would go on to define it for many players, the underlying story still felt anticlimactic. I’ve described Andromeda in the past as a game that feels like an overblown side-quest, and partly this is because of the story that came immediately before it. Andromeda was an attempt to branch out, to take Mass Effect away from Commander Shepard and spin it out into a larger franchise. But it failed not because of its bugs and other technical issues – though those were catastrophic in their own right – but because it told a story that many players simply weren’t interested in.
Coming on the heels of the Reaper War, Mass Effect 4 has to avoid feeling anticlimactic in the way Andromeda did. But it has to balance that against telling a story that’s too derivative or repetitive; another galactic-scale threat caused by invaders from beyond the galaxy would feel like a cheap knock-off of what came before. Look to Star Wars’ old Expanded Universe for countless examples of this, as fan-fiction versions of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia battled clone after clone of Palpatine and fought dozens of bland, derivative Sith Lords and Imperial wannabes.
What comes next for the Mass Effect galaxy has to feel consistent, too, with what we already know about the setting. After Shepard succeeded at uniting the forces of practically every major faction in the galaxy, having one of them turn on the others and become an antagonist wouldn’t only be difficult to pull off narratively, it would risk upsetting fans and coming across as annoying.
So I think we can rule out stories like a krogan or turian uprising, or the sudden return of the long-dead Protheans looking to conquer the galaxy! Those kinds of stories might seem interesting – and perhaps the game will ultimately try to go down a similar path – but for the reasons mentioned I think they’d be too difficult to execute in a satisfying way.
Instead I want to focus on a faction from Mass Effect 3′s DLC – the Leviathans. The Leviathan DLC is integrated into Mass Effect: Legendary Edition (albeit not especially well; there are some issues which arise from the timing of its insertion into the story) so I think we can safely assume that it’s fully canon and that most Mass Effect fans will have played it. Leviathan introduced Commander Shepard to the titular Leviathans – ancient lifeforms with the power to control minds.
The Leviathans revealed to Commander Shepard that their species created the Reapers; much like the way the quarians created the geth, the Reapers were artificial intelligences designed to aid the Leviathans. Of course, they soon betrayed their masters, having interpreted their directive to “preserve” all life in an apocalyptic manner.
Commander Shepard encountered a handful of Leviathans hiding deep below the surface of an uncharted ocean world. These were the survivors – or more likely the descendants of survivors – of a race whose empire once spanned the entire galaxy. The Leviathans were unapologetic for their dominance of other “lesser” races, who they forced to worship them as gods. The survivor who spoke with Commander Shepard had little regard for humans or other races, and seemed only willing to act in the Reaper War out of self-interest.
Despite being in hiding for millions of years – perhaps longer – the Leviathans’ sense of self-importance was undimmed. They regard themselves as the galaxy’s “apex race,” and used their mind control powers to attack or kill anyone they perceived as even a minor threat.
The Leviathans seem to regard the entire Milky Way galaxy as their own personal fiefdom; their domain. Sharing power or joining a broader galactic community is simply not on their agenda, and with the destruction or removal of the Reapers, it seems at least plausible that they might seize the opportunity to emerge from hiding to reclaim the empire they had lost in the distant past.
On a much smaller scale, this was the Protheans’ idea. At least two Prothean facilities – on Eden Prime and Ilos – were designed to host hundreds of thousands of Protheans in hibernation, to emerge after the Reaper threat had passed. The Protheans failed in their goal – though a single individual did survive – but the Leviathans didn’t. They managed to sustain a viable population at the bottom of the ocean on an uncharted world, and although we only saw a few individuals it’s possible that there are hundreds, thousands, or even more Leviathans. They may even have populations on other worlds.
Of the three endings offered to the player at the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, a Leviathan return works best with the “destroy” ending. If Shepard opted to take control of the Reapers, it stands to reason that the Leviathans would still consider them to be a threat, whereas if Shepard chose the “synthesis” ending then presumably the fusing of organic and synthetic DNA across the galaxy would also have affected the Leviathans.
But if the Reapers were destroyed – the most popular ending choice – suddenly the Leviathans could find themselves in a galaxy where their biggest foe has been vanquished. Not only that, but with the Mass Relay network critically damaged and the combined fleets and forces of the galaxy all massed around Earth (and feeling a lot worse for wear after months of conflict, no doubt), the Milky Way might appear to them to be practically undefended – and ripe for the taking.
Striking out from their hidden undersea base, the Leviathans could use similar tactics to the Reapers to gain control of key worlds – using their mind control abilities to sway military and political leaders and bring them into the fold. From there, Leviathans could abandon their base, taking up residence at key locations around the galaxy before the survivors of the battle for Earth even realise what’s happened.
Repairing the Mass Relays will take time – if the assembled scientific minds can even figure out how to do so – and with communications and travel disrupted across the galaxy on account of the long war, the Leviathans could establish a commanding position even if they didn’t make their move immediately.
A power vacuum on this scale is chaotic – and many war-weary citizens and refugees might even welcome Leviathan rule if it were accompanied by stability, and if the Leviathans could provide them with basic supplies like food and shelter. By the time the Council races realise what’s happened, large swathes of the galaxy could already be under Leviathan control – perhaps even including three of the four Council homeworlds.
Fighting the Leviathans would be similar, in some ways, to fighting the Reapers – their armies would largely consist of enthralled mind controlled victims of the galaxy’s races. The difference might be that taking on an actual Leviathan would be comparatively rare – unlike the Reapers, the Leviathans don’t seem like they’d want to get involved on the front lines, preferring instead to sit back (or hide) and let their enthralled victims do their dirty work.
So that’s the extent of this theory, really. To summarise it in a single sentence: with the Reapers defeated, the Leviathans finally emerge from hiding, intent on reclaiming a galaxy they’ve always considered to be “theirs.” Commander Shepard may be pressed back into action to save the galaxy all over again, or maybe we’ll take on the role of a new character when Mass Effect 4 is ready. Please keep in mind that, as always, I don’t have any “insider information.” This is nothing more than a fan theory – and it may very well be completely wrong!
Despite how I felt about Legendary Edition, I do like the Mass Effect series. In fact, the reason I was upset at BioWare for the sloppy work and unimpressive upgrades that Legendary Edition offered was because the games are so enjoyable – the series has the potential to be so much more than Legendary Edition made of it. I’m hopeful that Mass Effect 4 will be a game worth getting excited about – but there’s no rush. If BioWare and Electronic Arts have learned anything from recent releases, it should be to take their time!
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. A new Mass Effect game – referred to above as Mass Effect 4 – is currently in development, but no release date has been announced. The Mass Effect series – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of BioWare and Electronic Arts. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.