Mass Effect Trilogy: A Retrospective Review (Part 1)

(Originally posted Sept 20, 2013)

This is a review of the Bioware trilogy after having played them as each game came out and then once again after seeing the bigger picture. It was interesting to go through the games and stories to see how the pieces fit (or didn’t fit) as well as the progression and improvements of the gameplay.

As a primer, I hadn’t followed many game franchises very seriously before Mass Effect. GTA, Gears of War, Call of Duty, Halo… none of these meant much to me. But somehow Mass Effect got to me. I felt invested and immersed. Perhaps they were tapping into the deep felt love of the Star Wars universe, with it’s space travel, strange species and exotic worlds. Or that they were able to make me feel like I was creating my own hero, who followed a unique path throughout the story, and stayed with me through each game. Nonetheless, I played each game several times through to catch all the options and branching storylines. I played first as a Paragon (choosing all the “good” choices) then went through again as a Renegade to relive the experience through more roguish eyes.

Here are my thoughts as I play through each game one last time… [spoilers within]

Mass Effect Relay

MASS EFFECT

The one that started it all. Right off the bat, the game experience felt big. The setup of my character, a female paragon named Eve Shepard, seemed instantly personalized with the backstory options. I had hoped the choice of background added more diversive play, such as if a sole survivor had different options or reactions than if Eve had been Earth-born. But maybe that was too much for Bioware to work in. Still, it had a good effect of making Eve feel like my character all along rather than just someone that I was dropped into at this point in the story.

It’s impressive how much of a fully realized universe Bioware created from scratch. As species and locations get introduced, it felt as if everything had been around a long time.

It was exciting to think about the possibilities of what I could explore as the game(s) went on. Some were disappointingly never realized, such as why we never got to go onto a mass relay station ever, or why we pretty much never got to see the females of some species.

Gameplay

Graphics
After playing through the rest of the games, the graphics do seem flawed. While the texture pop ins didn’t seem as prominent as I first remembered them, some of the facial effects of my character seemed off-putting, such as the constant furrowed brow wrinkle between her eyebrows.

The designs of the various races come off as strong. Beings within the species had different looks to them which helped. Although humans seem to be the only race that evolved with hair.

But I did enjoy the RPG elements of the game, such as a wide variety of outfits and weapons. Getting a new armor and then seeing it on one of my characters was deeply satisfying, harkening back to my Diablo-playing days. It was sad to see these options get ditched in further installments.

Inventory Screen

User Interface/Character System
One thing I didn’t miss was the mystifying and maddening inventory system. As a somewhat OCD person, it was infuriating to not be able to easily compare and take stock of what was in my collection of items. It wouldn’t allow you to see what all of your characters had equipped, and similar items weren’t grouped together (such as Cryo Ammo I and Cryo Ammo II), so sorting and organizing was a huge chore.

The leveling up process wasn’t as bad though. I’ve read complaints about the system, which lead to it being stripped down in the sequels, but I felt it was pretty much fine as an RPG system. It was nice to see how each next level would improve stats, but it would’ve been nice (and logical) to be able to view overall stats in general.

The galaxy map was always one of the coolest features of the series. I loved seeing the beautiful renderings of the different systems and being able to navigate my ship through them. I had a few quibbles with the inconsistent button mapping, but more in depth hating on the interface I think is best left to this site.

Galaxy Map

Gameplay
Here’s where playing through the subsequent games really highlighted the flaws of the original. Initial reviews harped on the shooting mechanics, but as a gamer who never really got into FPS games, I wasn’t as vexed as others. But after playing Mass Effect 3, especially the multiplayer, it was a drastic step back to go back to the first game.

Aiming was difficult and the inability to take cover made the fighting portions very awkward. Seeing characters hold sniper rifles out like they would a pistol just showed how little Bioware had cared for this portion of the game. While we’re on the subject, sniping was impossible, even after committing as many experience points possible to it as an infiltrator. I discovered a knack for sniping in the ensuing games to my surprise, probably since I thought I sucked at it when I first tried it in Mass Effect 1.

It was fun to see some powers and abilities fully realized right off the bat such as the biotic charge, but I was surprised to realize that cloaking wasn’t a part of the first game. It seems like such a natural extension of the infiltrator class that I thought it’d been there all along.

Like I said, I was never a serious shooter in games, so the power/weapon wheels that you could pop up were welcomed breaks in the action. Whenever I came across a crowd of enemies, it was a good way to pause the scene to assess what to do. But I knew that was pretty much the opposite of what other gamers want, and I see how it can be a detriment to the fun-factor.

I’d forgotten all about the button-matching mini-game of ME1 and while it never bothered me too much, I was glad it was ditched in the later games.

What definitely remained annoying were the long elevator rides. Presumably for loading next sections, they were dreaded elements when playing. The inter-squad banter helped but wasn’t as prominent the last time I played. I recalled there being more  chatter than I guess there really was.

Mako

Exploration/Side-Quests
One of the biggest complaints about the game was the hated Mako. Traversing over various worlds in the vehicle were some of the most tedious moments of the series. So much time was spent trying to uncover every corner of every world just to find some slightly brownish rock. It wasn’t my idea of fun. But I am a completionist so endured. I have nightmares about trying to navigate my Mako up some vertical slope of a mountain or trying to wheel back and forth to avoid missile attacks. The physics of the vehicle and the way it moved about just seemed off in general.

On my last play-through, I didn’t find the experience as awful as I was expecting. Probably since I had built it up in my head as the worst thing ever, or more likely that I wasn’t as committed to finding every item on the map this time around.

The side-quests though were severely lacking. Environments and building layouts were pretty much copy and paste jobs. It was a big gripe among players and it’s valid. The cookie-cutter quests really hurt the expansive, big-budget feel that Bioware was going for.

Squad Selection

Characters
Coming back around to the introduction of the series characters was a nice nostalgic feeling. It was nice to see Garrus before his confident idealist persona developed or before Ashley became such a hateful shrew. I gleefully recalled how mistrustful I initially was of Tali, who eventually became such a soulful, integral part of the journey.

Everyone had such a great humble beginning in this chapter, that it’s amazing to see what vital roles they played in their own species/governments later on.

Another thing that Bioware handled expertly was the portrayal of each species as multi-faceted and varied. This wasn’t Star Trek where each species had one defining quality. In Mass Effect, I ran across Asari who were brave, arrogant, respectable, but also some who were meek or outlaws. Some were more one-note such as the Volus, but overall I feel that the creators tried to paint a spectrum within each species.

Asari

Main Story
The story kicked off pretty quickly and never really let up. Sure there were plenty of side quests, but it never felt like it was dragging. Also, I tend to try to do all the side missions for completionist sake and didn’t think they were actually necessary for the story experience.

But everywhere I went, it felt like I was making changes to the world. Decisions had weight. The joy/dread of anticipation of what some of my decisions meant in future installments was great. A lot of those sadly didn’t pan out (ie. Rachni) but at the time, a lot of deliberating went on in my head. Probably the most lasting repercussions came from the face-off with Wrex. Several playthroughs revealed how much richer the sequels were with him around.

As far as the antagonists, I’d mostly forgotten about Saren as the series went on. It was surprising to play again and to see how big a role he had in the first game. The Reapers and the Geth showed up later on in the game and were mainly kept in mystery. I recall not really knowing what to make of the Geth, but the reveal of Sovereign blew my mind away as to the true scope of the story.

The Protheans were also kept shrouded in mystery which helped the intensity of the story. But it also seemed obvious that Bioware hadn’t truly figured out who and what they were. It hurts the cohesive feeling of the series, but it’s understandable that they probably needed to kick that down the road at this point in time.

Towards the end, from the timed run on Ilos on, the feeling was very frantic and epic. I was fully hooked at this point. Even after playing all of the games, this was one of the more memorable, best executed moments in the game. After having spent so much time walking around the Citadel, to see it as a smoking ruin was incredible. Coupled with the cut scenes of the outside battle in space, the stakes truly felt high.

Game Cover

Overall Impression within the Series
Bioware from the start did a lot of things well. The universe-building alone was a great achievement, but to make a character that felt like mine was what sealed the deal.

I think the first game is still the favorite among many fans. Possibly due to how it’s the closest to a true RPG game as opposed to the sequels. It probably had the easiest job of story architecture since it didn’t have to take into account things that happened in previous games.

It also helped that they got top-notch voice talent. That could’ve really hurt the series, and honestly the male Shepard voice never quite worked for me. But everyone else, from the lead female to Tali to Liara to Joker, were all embodiments of those characters.

Of course the game had its flaws, but mostly those were in the game mechanics. Story-wise the future looked bright… even with Reapers lurking in the distance.

Check out Part 2 and Part 3.

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