(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.
Here are my thoughts as I play through each game one last time… [spoilers within]
MASS EFFECT 2
Bioware had a certified hit, but the challenge now was that a high bar was set and expectations were high. The company was also bought by EA which caused a lot of gamers to groan. Still, a lot of goodwill had been generated towards Bioware and Mass Effect 2 looked like it was going to be bigger and better.
Everyone was waiting to see how the story with the Reapers would further unfold and how OUR Shepard would play a role. There was also eagerness to see how the consequences of the decisions made in the previous game would play out.
Amazingly, Bioware seemed to have listened to all the gripes about the first game and set out to address each one. More on that later.
At first glance, it didn’t seem like much had changed from the first game. Characters were pretty well rendered, if not still a little stilted in their movements. I was expecting more improvements on the Shepard features creator especially better hair options, but was disappointed. A lot of hair buns and weird hair lines.
But once I dove into the game, it was easy to see that the visual design had stabilized. Bioware seemed to have a better, definitive grasp of this universe and its setting.
What was also significantly improved was the lighting of scenes. In the first game, everything seemed to be under fluorescent lights, but the scenery had a more nuanced touch in Mass Effect 2. Take a look at Omega’s Afterlife as opposed to Chora’s Den in the first game. Miles above what had come before.
The unique armors and weapons were sadly dropped this time around, but it allowed for stronger character designs. Jack and Thane really stood out as unique looks, but meshed well with original designs like Tali and Garrus.
User Interface/Character System
Here’s where Bioware did a hefty amount of changing. The much maligned inventory system was eschewed altogether. While I don’t miss sifting through all the endless items, I think the producers actually went a little too far the other direction. Upgrades and items were pretty bare bones, if available at all. Ammo types were shifted to character abilities and newer, better weapons came along at rare intervals.
The one aspect I really missed was the character leveling up. Skills were so limited and options so few that it no longer felt like an RPG-type system.
Again, an area of the first game that was criticized was revamped. Actual shooting and combat were much smoother and natural this time around. The cover system was introduced which helped made my squad much easier to control and strategically place. Sniping was finally worked out into an effective option and cloaking was introduced (much to my pleasure).
After having played the third game, I did find that I missed the ability to roll or hop for evasion. My Shepard came off as a lot more stiff and awkward during fights.
Biotic detonations were introduced but I never realized the potential of them until the third game’s multiplayer. So this playthrough, I utilized the detonations more but they didn’t seem as effective.
The hacking portions dropped the Simon Says button matching to the node pairing and code matching challenges, which I felt were a good evolution.
Amazingly, the elevator rides and room scanning loading areas were completely nixed in the sequel. Plus, the texture pop-ins were almost completely resolved as well. I give Bioware huge kudos for working to remove these once necessary elements that players hated. The graphic diagram/schematic loading screens were a nice solution that added to the aura of the world in a new way. Although by the end of the game I definitely got tired of staring at the same ones over and over again.
Paragon/renegade actions were added and gave a nice element of impulse thinking, with interesting consequences. But the addition of ammo or heat sinks for weapons always had a clunky explanation. Why not just call it ammo clips? It was a gameplay evolution that really didn’t need us to think a lot about it.
I didn’t initially recall ammo being an issue but on my last playthrough I kept having to scour for ammo and treating it like a precious commodity, which affects how one plays a game where you’re supposed to shoot a lot of stuff.
Once again, Bioware took to heart a chief complaint and ditched the Mako planet scouring portion of the game. It was not missed. But the replacement was a taxing planet scanner, hunting for resources. In this case, Bioware didn’t really fix an issue, but swapped it with something just as rage-inducing. And it was even less fun. My roommate would see me play these portions and question if I was actually playing a GAME.
The side-quests were another story altogether. What was once a generic, predictable affair, became unique and interesting parts of the game. Each quest was made to be its own setting and objective and the game is a much better experience for it.
Bioware really upped the squad count on this adventure. Incredibly, pretty much every squad member had a distinctive look, point of view and demeanor. Though a few came off a little boring and generic (looking at you, Jacob), most of them became some of the most beloved of the series such as Legion, Thane and Mordin.
Most had very strong personalities that were on display from their first appearance, whether it was Miranda point blank shooting a seeming comrade, Thane quickly killing a team of hired guns, or Jack wiping out a group of mechs in a rage. I was disappointed that the character of Jack had been spoiled in promotional material, because the build up towards her introduction allowed for a memorable reveal.
Adding an actual Geth was also a surprising element of the game. It was an amazing feat to work Legion into the story, let alone make him a fan-favorite.
As for the returning characters, Garrus and Tali came back with better developed personas and were able to build of the nostalgia from the first game. Others took surprising turns, such as Liara becoming more ruthless and powerful.
The Illusive Man was a nice mysterious character. His motivations and attitude were nuanced and multi-dimensional (for this game anyway). Props to Martin Sheen for his excellent performance.
Revisiting this world after the first game came along with certain expectations, and Bioware literally kicked us off with a bang in the sequel. Within the first few minutes, my ship was destroyed and my Shepard was blown out into space with oxygen leaking out of her suit. Shocked and breathless are words that came to mind.
That led to being resurrected by Cerberus, which at the time I believed was a way for Bioware to allow the player to rebuild their Shepard differently from the first game if they wanted. A somewhat good excuse, but then it didn’t make much sense to do the character alterations again in the third game without the story explanation.
Tonally, it was clear that Bioware was taking things in a darker, grittier, more Empire Strikes Back direction. My Shepard instantly became an outcast, traveling to seedier parts of the galaxy, and generally dealing with bleaker odds than before. And assembling a bad-ass team for the mission had a Dirty Dozen feel to it, which looking back made for the most memorable cast of characters.
Working for Cerberus was a nice twist in the story. However, now having seen the full story, it seems problematic, and probably not entirely thought out at this point. Throughout the game I have characters treating me with suspicion for working alongside this shady organization, and members of that organization have to work so hard to prove that they’re with me for the right reasons. All the members I encounter in my ship are just as virtuous and honorable as ones I used to run around with, so all the wariness seemed so misplaced. Further, when I encounter Ashley/Kaiden, she/he comes off as a paranoid asshole for the mistrust.
But then you get to the third game later and find out they were right all along and that Cerberus is a bunch of insane zealots. It just seems like the writers thought it’d be a nice twist for the second game but didn’t know where they’d eventually have to take it by the end. I think it hurt the overall story. Maybe that should be addressed more in the last part of these reviews.
For this installment, it was a deft way to steer the series onto an unpredictable path, and I commend the creators for having the guts to shake things up so drastically.
What never worked for me was how widely the disbelief of the Reapers permeated. No one wants to believe my Shepard about the Reaper threat even though most of them had a knock-down, drag-out space battle with one? It trashed and nearly took over the Citadel! There were attempts to rationalize this attitude, such as that no one wants to believe there’s such an ominous threat out there, but none of it really sat well with me.
I’m thinking that the writers wanted to keep the feeling of being an outcast against long odds. I can understand that, and they did so much well that it becomes slightly nitpicky to dive into it.
The missions were wonderfully varied in their settings, enemies and goals. Some of them after a few playthroughs were tedious to experience again (Jacob, again) but others were a total joy to play again, like Tali’s tense trial or uncovering Archangel or Thane’s spy adventure.
Further, some of the DLC really showed that Bioware had developed a solid grasp on what works well for the gameplay and series. Kasumi’s party crashing was a wonderfully unique mission that had a more espionage flair. Lair of the Shadow Broker was the perfect combination of an intriguing story that built off of established relationships, great dialogue with a touch of self-aware humor, an awe-inspiring setting on the hull of a ship during a storm, and a fun vehicle chase through a city. Arrival was an intriguing addition that actually felt like it was having impact on the overall story, but was hurt a bit by not having squadmate interactions. Those came after Firewalker, which was a tedious vehicle navigating DLC that had negligible impact on the rest of the story.
Now the ending… The suicide run was a great build up and a tension filled experience. It was great to feel like I was taking my entire team along with me and using members in interesting ways. But the reveal of the human Reaper was… underwhelming. I imagine I was supposed to be more blown away by the revelation, but all I could think was “So I’m fighting a giant Terminator?”
I’ll also add that some of the story decisions really felt like they had weight in this game. I remember the first time I played, I really deliberated over some of the choices, such as whether to kill off the Geth, or to salvage the human Reaper for the Illusive Man. I had expectations that these would have huge ramifications for the third game. My disappointment will have to be addressed in the last review.
Overall Impression within the Series
Despite a few issues, I was really impressed with how much Bioware stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park. They really seemed to have made it a point to take each flaw from the first game and either fix or eliminate it from the sequel.
Not only that, they advanced the story in surprising ways and added memorable characters to the cast. Yet somehow the Reapers were just as far away as they were by the end of the first game. I was confused as to why they needed to introduce the Collectors, and still feel like they could’ve handled the Reaper threat in a better way.