This is the smallest cast in a BioWare game to date, but, as is often the case, quantity isn’t indicative of quality. They’re a compelling bunch, including representatives of four different alien species, which gives you a significant sample of galactic culture. Note that neither Garrus nor Wrex are actually compulsory (everyone else is), but they’re two of the most popular characters in the entire series, so I’m not sure why you wouldn’t recruit them. Each squadmate either has a personal sidequest or extra dialogue in another quest/mission. As in all WRPGs, Shepard is yours to customise as you see fit, except that s/he can only be human. In what has become a tradition in BW games, you can also choose to have her/him pursue a romantic relationship with one of her/his squadmates, which will carry over to the sequels. There’s a morality system at play as in previous BW games, with humane decisions granting Paragon points (blue meter), while ruthless decisions grant Renegade points (red meter). This doesn’t affect which characters join the team, but is the basis of one of my biggest gripes. You see, each character represents a point on the Paragon-Renegade spectrum (although you can influence Kaidan, Ashley and Garrus pretty dramatically). However, the developers decided that, for some reason, Shepard needed to hear both a Paragon and a Renegade point of view for each major decision that s/he takes. So, for example, if you have Tali and Wrex on your team, Tali will advocate the Paragon side. However, should you replace Wrex with Kaidan, who is higher on the Paragon scale than Tali, she will be advocating the Renegade side, which is rather jarring in terms of character consistency.
One word of warning: you can’t finish the game with both Kaidan and Ashley on the team. On Virmire, one of them will be forced to leave permanently. The choice is clearly signposted, so don’t worry about missing it, but do keep in mind that it will happen.
Shepard: You can customise most of what pertains to the Commander, such as her/his gender, appearance, first name (defaults are Jane and John, as in ‘Doe’) or responses in conversations. One major change from previous BW games is that Shepard is fully voiced, FemShep notably benefiting from some outstanding work by BW veteran and overall prolific VA Jennifer Hale. The default MaleShep is based on Dutch model Mark Vanderloo (which is why he’s known as “Sheploo” among fans): rugged good looks, close-cropped black hair and blue eyes. The default FemShep isn’t so lucky: she’s not based on anyone and looks rather plain, despite her red hair and green eyes (redhead fetish alert!). Gender equality, you say? A famous figure in the Alliance, the Commander has a knack for beating seemingly impossible odds. You can define her/his personality by picking from three pre-service histories and three psychological profiles in a smartly crafted introductory sequence. This is a subtler variation on the D&D morality grid; it affects some sidequests and grants bonuses to Shepard’s Paragon and/or Renegade scores. The pre-service history defines Shepard’s childhood, family ties and exposure to aliens, while the psychological profile is more indicative of her/his outlook on life. In the game, Shepard witnesses Saren’s attack on Eden Prime, then accidentally comes into contact with a functional prothean beacon that imprints a strange vision into her/his mind. Discovering its meaning, foiling Saren’s plans and stopping the Reaper threat then becomes Shepard’s goal. S/he can pick one of six classes and one of two possible specialisations at level 20 (with some overlap between them), something which her/his squadmates can’t do. S/he’s also the only one who can use grenades and revive fallen squadmates, and gains extra stat boosts from Spectre Training.
Kaidan: A black-haired and brown-eyed Alliance soldier with a hint of Latino descent (his face is based on a Brazilian model), Kaidan serves as a Staff Lieutenant (a lower rank than Commander) on the Normandy, despite being a couple of years older than Shepard. He’s generally tolerant of aliens, but isn’t fond of bureaucracy and, if prompted, won’t hesitate to berate the Council’s indecisiveness. Although, due to his admiration for Shepard, he can be influenced to become more xenophobic, if you’re so inclined. Kaidan causes FemShep’s exposure to the beacon on Eden Prime by accidentally activating it. She jumps in to drag him away, which makes him feel guilty, especially since he appears to be quite receptive to her charms. Kaidan is an L2 biotic, meaning that he has neural implants that are a liability to his health, but, fortunately, they only cause occasional migraines. He’s sympathetic to fellow biotics (which can influence a sidequest), especially since he’s had unpleasant experiences as one of the first biotics to be semi-legally trained by the Alliance. This has made him prudent, reasonable and self-possessed, with the result that many players find him boring, especially when compared to the other, more colourful members of the cast. I don’t mind him, but that’s probably telling in itself, in that he doesn’t really spark any strong feelings either way. However, the fact that he shares his VA with Carth from Knights of the Old Republic doesn’t help his case. Kaidan is a Sentinel, a support unit with both techs and biotics at his command. This makes him a good, versatile teammate, who will fit into most teams, even though he can only wear light armour and only has training with pistols.
Ashley: While exploring Eden Prime, Shepard rescues a lone soldier fighting for her life. She introduces herself as Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams and explains that her unit got wiped out. She then proceeds to guide the Commander to the prothean beacon and is subsequently invited to join the Normandy’s crew. A tough, cocky, optimistic gal with black hair and brown eyes, and also a hint of Latino descent (it’s possible she’s based on a Puerto Rican actress), she has a tendency to be blunt, emotional and rash, as a direct foil to Kaidan’s level-headedness. Her grandfather was forced to surrender to the turians during the First Contact War, thus disgracing his family name with the Alliance. This made Ashley’s career very difficult, as she was relegated to low-ranking posts despite her skill. Confusingly enough, it also made her very distrustful of aliens, if not downright xenophobic (surely it’s the Alliance she should be blaming…?), which is my main problem with her – one of her comments on the Citadel is genuinely shocking –, even if Shepard can mitigate her views somewhat. She comes from a large, close-knit family and is the only overtly religious member of the team. She also loves poetry, despite being TERRIBLE at reciting it (my condolences to Tennyson and Whitman). Similarly to Kaidan, she causes MaleShep’s exposure to the prothean beacon and also feels guilty about it, which makes her all the more grateful for being given a chance to prove her worth. She also has some input in a Citadel sidequest involving a soldier she used to serve with. Ashley is a Soldier, i.e. a one-trick pony. She’s proficient with all types of weapons, can wear medium and heavy armour…and that’s it. If all you need is more firepower or an extra sniper, she can do it, but she has no biotics, no techs, and both Wrex and Garrus are more versatile than she is. I usually have her warming the bench with no regrets.
Garrus: One of the most popular characters in the series and my personal favourite, although you have to wait for ME2 for him to really come into his own. Garrus is a turian: his species looks like a cross between an insect, a bird, a feline and a raptor. Turians have a highly disciplined, militaristic society, but Garrus is a hothead and an idealist who’s not big on following rules. He has a grey carapace, blue eyes and a distinctive blue facial tattoo. He works at C-Sec (i.e. police) on the Citadel, but has authority issues because of his abhorrence of red tape and protocol. Initially assigned to investigate Saren after the Eden Prime attack, he is promptly pulled off the case just as he realises that something fishy is going on and takes the matter as a personal affront. Shepard tracks him down to ask for his help in incriminating Saren, which he is more than happy to do. Once Shepard becomes a Spectre, Garrus ditches his job and joins the Normandy crew, as the prospect of working without bureaucratic hassles is extremely appealing to him. He sees Shepard as a role model and a mentor, and even becomes an awkwardly sweet romance option for FemSheps in ME2. Therefore s/he may either encourage him to continue disregarding rules or show him that shooting first doesn’t always solve problems, especially once he approaches her/him with an old case of his. Garrus is both impulsive and respectful, enthusiastic and loyal, and also has a snarky streak. He starts out somewhat prejudiced against quarians and krogan, but working with Tali and Wrex changes his views. His class is Turian Agent, the equivalent of an Infiltrator: he has a good array of tech skills and can use sniper and assault rifles (rather than pistols), as well as medium armour. His only drawback is the awkward setup of his skill tree: he will be quite frail at the start and takes a while to learn his useful skills. However, once that’s taken care of, he will be deadly.
Wrex: Another extremely popular character, Wrex is a krogan: his species looks like giant hulking bipedal lizards. Having originated in a hostile environment, krogan are extremely resilient (duplicate organs and 1,000-year lifespans) and prolific, but also violent, competitive and rather uncouth. They were mobilised for war against the rachni by the turians, then essentially sterilised by the salarians to stymie a mass rebellion and control their population, something which has left them justifiably pissed off. Wrex has a red crest, red eyes and claw marks across his face, and he’s bitter at the way krogan deal with their issues: they become mercenaries or join gangs, rather than trying to remedy the situation. Not that Wrex himself is very different: he’s also a mercenary and has been hired by the Shadow Broker, a powerful information dealer, to take out one of his former informants, Fist, who is now working for Saren. As luck would have it, Shepard also finds her/himself on Fist’s trail while looking for evidence against Saren. Wrex therefore joins the team, as he knows Shepard’s reputation, then stays out of a distaste for Saren. He’s blunt, crusty and cynical, has a pronounced tendency to shoot without asking questions and no pity for weakness. Oh, and he’s not very fond of Garrus, due to him being a turian. However, spending time with Shepard can get him to mellow out a tiny bit, as he gains respect for the Commander, especially if s/he helps him recover his grandfather’s armour. Wrex’s class is Krogan Battlemaster, the equivalent of a Vanguard: he can use shotguns and assault rifles (rather than pistols), and has a selection of biotic skills to back him up, although he swaps Lift for the arguably less useful Stasis. He can also wear medium and heavy armour and, as all krogan, has stupidly high HP and natural regenerative abilities. So if you want someone who can both take and dish out some punishment, look no further.
Tali: Yet another fan-favourite, Tali is a young quarian: her species is humanoid (except for their strangely shaped legs, hands and feet) and very tech-savvy. Unfortunately, they had the bad idea of creating the geth, robots who eventually gained self-awareness and massacred 99% of the quarian population when they tried shutting them down. Since A.Is are illegal, the remaining quarians were banned from Council space and now wander the galaxy as pariahs on board of the Migrant Fleet. Tali is on her Pilgrimage, a rite of passage that entails bringing something useful back to the Fleet. Due to the ecology of their native planet, all quarians have weak immune systems and must wear full-body enviro-suits, so all you ever see of Tali’s face are a pair of bioluminescent eyes and the outline of a nose behind her visor. While out gathering information about geth, she finds a recording of Saren discussing his plans with his sidekick, Matriarch Benezia. Realising the implications of this intel, she tries selling it to the Shadow Broker through Fist in exchange for protection, but since Fist is working for Saren, he tries to kill her. Shepard helps her out, and she shares her info with the Council out of gratitude. This kickstarts Shepard’s mission, and Tali decides to tag along to stop Saren, putting her Pilgrimage on hold. However, Shepard may later allow her to copy a geth recording to bring back to the Fleet. Tali is intelligent, dedicated, a little geeky and very supportive of her people. She admires Shepard (becoming a romance option for MaleSheps in ME2), and loves all things mechanical. She starts off on a bad foot with Garrus, but that eventually dissipates. Tali’s class is Quarian Machinist, the equivalent of an Engineer, with the added perk of being able to use a shotgun. She has a full array of tech skills and strong shields to compensate for how rare and light quarian armour is. Needless to say, she’s very handy against geth.
Liara: If the concept of ‘space-babe’ means anything to you, then you’ve got Liara (and most of her species) pegged. Some say that she’s a twist on the concept, but I’m still waiting to see where the twist is. She’s an asari: her species is the most advanced in Council space and looks like blue humanoid women with tentacle-like cartilage on their heads. They have a 1,000-year lifespan, are mono-gendered and can reproduce via a form of parthenogenesis with any other species and any gender, the resulting children always being asari (*cough* parasites *cough*). Liara is a young, blue-eyed and baby-faced prothean specialist, and, unlike all other asari except her mother, has drawn-on eyebrows; probably a designer’s choice to make her look even more human (which makes no sense story-wise, as she has very little experience with humans when you first meet her). She also happens to be Matriarch Benezia’s daughter, and Shepard is prompted to look for her after discovering the recording of Saren talking to her mother. S/he finds Liara at a prothean dig site, trapped and assailed by geth. After being rescued, she joins the team, concerned by Saren’s threat and her mother’s involvement. The Commander also intrigues her on more than one level, and she will express her attraction independently of Shepard’s gender. Unless you save her recruitment mission for last, in which case, the romance won’t have time to develop. Apart from that, she’s reclusive and socially awkward, and keeps the rest of the team at arm’s length. I also find her VA’s delivery (same as Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII) particularly wooden. Liara’s class is Asari Scientist, the equivalent of an Adept, albeit with one tech skill to her name. She has no weapon skills (so pistols are your safest bet, since they’re the most accurate) and can only wear human models of light armour, but biotics rock this game, so she’s more useful than Ashley. Still, I can’t stand her, so I also usually have her warming the bench.