I don’t play too many games that are squad-based. Off the top of my head, the only two I can think of are the Gears of War series and the Fire Emblem series. While both of these games are great for their own reasons, the stake you as a player emotionally have for your teammates is negligible. In Gears of War, they’re essentially there to make you not feel alone, even though they won’t die and they don’t really help you, either. The back-story of your squad is practically non-existent, with only Dom having one major plot point to his name, and the others are there to shout expletive-filled one-liners. In Fire Emblem, that series does try to make you care through some back-story, endings for each character and the permanence of death, though ultimately each person feels more like a piece in your intricate game of chess more than anything.
Mass Effect has made me feel really weird about my squad in a way that other games haven’t for me. The game has so much story and so many moments where you can interact with them that you can’t help but build a weirdly fascinating connection to them.
As you’re introduced to each character, there is enough dialogue there for you to feel like these people had an existence before this game started. You’ll learn big things like how Asari mating works or why Wrex is part of an endangered race of Krogan, to small things like that one time Ashley’s sister punched her ex in the nose.
The game does a lot to make sure you’re constantly interacting with your team. On the battlefield, you always have the option to talk to each member whenever you like. You’re also constantly juggling their special abilities in order for your team to succeed. On the Normandy, you’re rewarded with XP for talking to your teammates as much as you can. Besides hoarding for XP, your interactions could lead to…other things.
Where the game’s squad mechanic really shines is when your Shepard is forced to make a major decision that affects your team. Without spoiling anything (even though this game is a few years old and everyone is playing Mass Effect 2 by now), some of the decisions you have to make in regards to your team have the weight to make you stop, think about it for a few minutes, then either be really happy that you did the right thing or horribly regret what you just did. Even things that maybe you took for granted hours before that moment can come back to haunt you, and when that happens, it sucks.
This game is some real mind-blasting stuff. I’ll have more to say about Mass Effect soon.