Mass Effect Trilogy: A Retrospective Review (Part 2)

(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.

Check out Part 1 and Part 3.

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

Relay

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.

Omega

Graphics
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.

Level Up Screen

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.

Thane and Jack

Gameplay
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.

Planet Scanner

Exploration/Side-Quests
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.

The Dirty Dozen

Characters
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.

The Illusive Man

Main Story
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.

Kiss

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.

Reapers

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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.