What I’d Want in a Remastered Mass Effect Trilogy

There’s more and more chatter about EA finally relenting and considering a remastered Mass Effect trilogy for current gen consoles!

A lot of gamers complain that there are too many remasters and not enough originals, which yeah I can agree with, but Mass Effect is one that I’d gladly and without hesitation grab on day one.

Of course, we have no idea what a remaster would actually entail at this point, but why don’t we do some wild speculation! Now, I’m not proposing radical changes to the story, like “FIX THE ENDING!! IT SUXXX!!!!” I have my issues with the conclusion but I don’t believe Bioware is ever going to change anything so a remaster would almost exclusively be cosmetic.

Here are the things that I’d want in my Mass Effect Trilogy Remastered…

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HD graphics and textures.

This seems the most obvious and achievable. I’ve read that Bioware had all the elements at higher quality resolutions but had to downgrade to fit the last gen console requirements. Obviously that’s not a problem anymore and you wouldn’t expect a remaster without a nice new coat of paint anyway.

liaraKiss

All DLC content

Another easy one knock off. Most remastered game do this already so it’d be out of the norm if Bioware didn’t bundle all the extras here. Some of the content was hit or miss, but DLC such as “Lair of the Shadow Broker” and “Citadel” are some of the best moments in the entire trilogy. I’d be pretty peeved if I didn’t get to play those again in a remaster.

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Adapting ME3‘s shooting mechanics and inventory system into the whole trilogy

This might be a lot of work to achieve. Mass Effect 1 barely qualifies as a shooter and could desperately use better gameplay. But it might open up a hornet’s nest such as having to reconsider all the battle encounter stages (to include cover areas) and major changes to enemy AI. Mass Effect 2 was a huge step in the right direction and probably wouldn’t need more than a few tweaks.

That said, I believe the Uncharted Trilogy lifted Uncharted 3‘s shooting mechanics and made them universal to the rest of the games. So it’s not unheard of to do.

The inventory system is Mass Effect 1 is also a mess. It’s probably the biggest thing that keeps me from booting up my Xbox 360 and playing it again. Something would HAVE to be done about it. Seriously. I have nightmares about it.

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Better Shepard customization

One of the things that makes me most jealous about PC gaming is the modding. The custom characters that PC gamers are able to create are gorgeous, making the ones that console gamers have to settle for look ugly and downright weird looking.

If amateur modders can make better facial features and create a wider variety of hair options, why can’t the developers? Modders proved it can be done, relatively easily. Some people simply lifted Ashley’s long hair and placed it onto FemShep with no problem. Call me superficial but I want a better looking Shepard!

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Those are my requests. Again, not looking to “fix” plot issues or make big (if any) changes to any story elements. But these things seem like reasonable, doable features that would make me salivate over jumping back into that world.

Let me know what features you’d like to see!

Thoughts on No Man’s Sky

I’ve had a chance to dive into No Man’s Sky for about 6-7 hours, enough to get an impression of what this game has to offer (I think).

I can definitely see why there’s such a wide spectrum of opinions on this game. It’s not for everybody. I can imagine those who like online shooters like Call of Duty hating this game.

The mechanics of the gameplay can get pretty tedious. At one point, you have to craft a succession of four different items in order to get the right type of fuel for your ship. You can spend almost all of your time staring at the ground around you for minerals and crafting items. To me, I feel like I’m not exploring or taking in the wonder of the environments because I keep bee-lining to the next pinged location on the horizon. But that may just be my gaming tendency.

Isolation is a key word for this game. This is true despite running into NPCs at a surprisingly regular pace. They never feel like real characters so you still feel alone. But it sort of runs contrary to the idea of truly exploring new, undiscovered worlds when you can encounter settlements and outposts constantly.

Most of the planets I’ve explored are desolate rocks but a couple have had lush vegetation which livens up the experience. I’ve yet to come across a landscape teeming with animal life as shown in the trailer and it sounds like that was an exaggeration, yet I’m still hoping it happens. I also wish, but don’t really expect, to see a wide variety of planet types. Will there be a world covered in water? Will there actually be a planet with big cities? The last seems very doubtful but the not fully knowing is part of what makes this game wondrous.

Much of the hype for this game was around how the game is largely built on dynamic algorithms. It’s been an interesting debate on whether a game is better by having truly random, unique environments or if a meticulously crafted experience (such as Uncharted 4) makes for a better video game.

I think my feelings are that the medium can’t be the message. The emphasis on the technology always seems misguided. A game can be a tech or graphic marvel but if I don’t care about the characters or story then I won’t want to play it.

What’s also getting lost on all the reviews and opinions that this is still essentially an indie game. Sure it’s got the backing of Sony but this isn’t a AAA product. People expecting the kitchen sink or a flawless game are piling too much hope onto this game.

My hesitation for jumping onto No Man’s Sky (and the hype bandwagon) was wondering if the game’s expansive scope would in actuality be a pretty desolate and boring playthrough. For now, I don’t think I’ve played enough to have that come to fruition, but I can see the possibility. 19 quintillions planets! How are you ever going to run across anyone else in that universe? I would’ve preferred a Journey approach where the encounters are a bit random and unplanned but at least possible.

For now, the exploration and the crafting are intriguing enough to keep me interested. The question is for how long?

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Now Playing

I know everyone’s on the No Man’s Sky kick, and my friend is really talking it up. But I really had no clue what the game was actually going to be so was waiting until I get a better consensus from everyone.

Meanwhile, I’ve been knocking out a bunch of indie games and still banging around on Star Wars: Battlefront.

Oxenfree

The first indie game on the list was Oxenfree. I’d heard a lot of intriguing things about it, like Life is Strange (and I ended up loving that one), so decided to make the leap.

It was an interesting game, but definitely lacked much of any actual gameplay. A lot of it is walking your character around as she talks to other characters and choosing dialogue options. I know that annoys some people but I usually have no problem with it as long as I’m interested in the characters and story.

There were definitely moments that had me on the edge of my seat. And some actual creep out instances that I wasn’t expecting.

It ended up being pretty short and not quite as mind-bending as it was starting to hint at, but I’m still glad I played it.

And I recorded the live stream which you can watch here.


 

Abzu

Next up was Abzu, which was a pretty new release by the people who made the masterpiece, Journey.

That was very evident as the art style, music, and general feel didn’t veer too far from the former at all. Not that that’s a bad thing. Journey was one of the more memorable, unique gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

The only knock against Abzu is probably that it’s doing a lot of what Journey already did so there’s a diminishing return on the impact.

Still, I kept feeling moments of quiet awe and expansive serenity. Several times during my playthrough, I thought to myself that this is a game I’d want to sit my mom down next to me and watch as I play. I could imagine her “oohing” and “ahhing” at the underwater scenery.


 

Firewatch

I was hesitant to check this one out because I’d heard conflicting reports. Some people gushed about this game while others were very dismissive.

I think my verdict is somewhere in between, edging slightly on the higher side.

To be fair, I think playing the three games in quick succession hampered my experience of Firewatch. If I’d just come off something like Uncharted 4, then maybe this would’ve felt more refreshing.

As it is, I still liked this game. The voice acting is great, considering they have to bring to life two characters that you never even really get to see in person. The art style is very solid. It’s tough to compete against AAA games the likes of Naughty Dog’s but I found this game’s depiction of wilderness just as immersive.

I think, like Oxenfree, there is a point in the story where it feels like it could open up into a larger conspiracy or crazier adventure, but it ultimately settles on a smaller scope.

I was very tempted to make this a Live Stream series too but coming so close off the coattails of my Oxenfree playthrough just didn’t seem right. Perhaps if it had more of a gaming element but it was basically another walking simulator with dialog choices.


 

That’s my current gaming lineup. Let me know if you had any thoughts on these games. And if you think there are any others out there that you think I should check out!

 

Mass Effect Trilogy: A Retrospective Review (Part 3)

(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 2.

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

Fleet

MASS EFFECT 3

Here it is. The culmination of all the hype and build up. Bioware created a vivid new universe with the first game, upped the ante with an improved installment in the sequel, and now had only to find a fitting and satisfying closure for everyone. No big deal, right?

The job might actually be easier this time around since there would be no need to account for variables for future sequels. Plus they proved that Mass Effect wasn’t a fluke with the second game that surpassed the it in just about every way possible. All they had to do this time was to stick the landing.

Normandy

Graphics
Again, Bioware didn’t do too much from the last game as far as visuals. Aside from texture, graphics weren’t noticeably better. And no they didn’t add or improve character hair options. This was disappointing to me especially since there were several characters who had better hair options than the ones given to my Shepard. Ashley had long flowing hair, which some other people ended up modding onto their Shepard characters, proving that it was technically feasible.

Having confidently established a visual design aesthetic in the previous game, the environmental elements didn’t change or improve too drastically this time around. I think it ended up working to create a cohesive feel from game to game.

They finally opened up the Citadel areas again after a frustratingly limited Mass Effect 2, although we never got much of an open world experience that I would’ve loved.

What Bioware continued to do was show off their improved sense of lighting. Maybe we didn’t need the J.J. Abrams light-flare technique, but the Normandy interiors never looked better or as atmospheric.

As for the character designs and outfits, Bioware stuck with the sequel’s philosophy of limited looks, but made them look as good as possible, even if I didn’t necessarily love the designs. They just weren’t as distinctive as the ones in Mass Effect 2.

Powers

User Interface/Character System
Again, Bioware opted to revise the interface system. While the actual play screen HUD wasn’t much different, the weapons and skills screens got an overhaul.

For the third time around, they opted to split the difference between the overcrowded skills and weapons of the first game, and the stripped down to bare bones approach of the sequel.

I think the biggest factor for its success was the redesigned layout, especially for the weapons. While it’s still not the easiest thing to use to compare various weapons, I found it much more intuitive to navigate than the first game. In fact, by the time you get most of the weapons in the multiplayer, you probably have as many or more options as in the first game.

Squad

Gameplay
The balance between shooter and RPG slid towards action in the sequel, and the tendency continues here. Action seems much more polished and my Shepard is more agile and maneuverable, with the addition of dodge moves and running.

The problem arises now with Bioware’s controller/button mapping. While I’m glad they kept the scheme consistent between games, the use of the A button for pretty much everything really starts to show the flaws of their setup. The A button is utilized to select items/actions, to run, to stick to cover, and to dodge. Many times in the heat of action, I’d try to run only to stop and place my back to a wall, allowing the enemy to shoot me to death.

The paragon/renegade actions are retained but they somehow feel less consequential in this game. It seemed as if my character would end up doing what Bioware wanted anyway even if I didn’t push the trigger. My Shepard restrained herself from killing Kei Leng when he tried to sneak up on me, but she ended up doing it anyway a few seconds later.

It seems like Bioware also ended up giving up on hacking challenges altogether. I thought they were nice attempts but I guess in the end, they didn’t add anything to the experience.

Galaxy Map

Exploration/Side-Quests
From the start, Bioware’s attempts at some sort of side game, whether it was the Mako driving or planet scanning, were much criticized for being the worst fun-sucking portions of the game. So again, they revised the concept and now the scanning is reduced to map-level pinging to find hidden items. The added feature was that too much pinging alerted nearby Reapers who would then chase you around the map. I think it was a nice idea in theory that made some sense to the story, but I ended up hating having to constantly outrun little Reapers on my screen when all I wanted to do was to explore the maps and planets to plot my next move.

Side missions worked out pretty well in the previous game so Bioware didn’t do much different here. Most of it was a mundane fetching of an object from a planet, but there were some more interesting missions where I’d have to take out a Cerberus outpost.

Squad

Characters
After having such a memorable and large roster in the last game, it seemed odd to have gone back to such a limited ensemble now. While nice to have sort of a reunion with some of the original characters like Liara, all the squadmates are basically Alliance soldiers which pales in comparison to the colorful rogues gallery I gathered for the Collector mission.

And then there’s EDI. Who thought it was a good idea to turn her into a supermodel? Plus, with the original body being introduced as an enemy agent, the heavy reliance on EDI as the game went on, and the emphasis on her creation by Cerberus, I was expecting some sort of reveal or betrayal by a rogue AI. It all seemed to be a red herring though.

I hadn’t written much about the love interest portions of any of these games. My first time through the games I romanced Liara and stayed true to her even in Mass Effect 2 where she was largely absent. Later run-throughs with different partners, like Jack or Miranda, revealed some nice moments but on the whole it seemed like Bioware was really steering me towards Liara. Even without romancing her, I had a “special moment” right before the end. I’m sure my girl Miranda had an issue with it, and I wish they’d made it specific only having romanced Liara. Though not having tried it myself, I’ve heard that if you’d built up other romances (such as Thane or Jacob), they really get the shaft this time around. Pretty disappointing to hear.

Reaper

Main Story
I’ll say that throughout my first playthrough of this game, I was fully swept up in the intensity and scale of the story. The Reapers had finally attacked and the stakes felt real and the desperation of all the species was palpable. War was upon us, and the odds looked dire.

Seeing the giant Reapers off in the distance of Earth and on Palaven was a breathtaking sight. I truly got a sense of scale, not just physically but metaphorically. How was my Shepard supposed to take down an army of these towering giants?

While in Mass Effect 2, my job was to corral a few individuals to my cause, my task this time was to unite entire species and convince them to follow me into battle. Despite the challenge, Bioware handled this deftly. Each species, while seeing the threat, still held onto their own unique perspectives in the war, and I applaud the writers for working to make it all seem plausible.

With years of buildup, it was great to see that certain events were actually played out for us to see. The Krogan Genophage and the Geth/Quarian conflict were some of the most drawn out subjects in the series so it was amazing to not just witness but affect the outcomes.

The Krogan conflict was surprisingly emotional, especially Mordin’s sacrifice. Also, anyone who cared to play a second time or as a full renegade will know that his fate in this particular path was even more heart-breaking, and made me even hate my own character.

The Geth/Quarian war was able to shed more light on the situation and create a fascinating view of what happened. Not in a bad way, but effectively showing that no one side was completely in the right or wrong. The climactic battle with a Reaper was probably the high point in the game. It was a perfectly executed story by Bioware. As well as the ensuing moments with Tali on her homeworld.

What was a big letdown for me was how some of the choices made in the previous games ended up being washed out into inconsequential matters. Why was I forced to choose between destroying the heretic Geth or not, or whether or not to give the human Reaper over to Cerberus, when those decisions made NO DIFFERENCE AT ALL. This is a big problem, Bioware.

The inclusion of the little boy (even before the ending) was a little questionable. I get that Bioware was attempting to maintain the human element and remind us of the cost of war. The recurring nightmare scenarios helped add a more spiritual reflection and ominous tone to the story that hadn’t been a part of the series before. All of that seems great on paper, but upon playing, it just became a series of tedious moments. Honestly, I didn’t really care too much about the boy at any point. Maybe if he’d had some sort of actual connection to my Shepard, but seeing my Shepard hugging him in the dreams came off more… creepy (especially if playing as the male Shepard).

Another gripe I had was the emphasis on Earth. Again, I know that Bioware is trying to make this conflict as emotional and evocative as possible. So why not tug at the player’s heartstrings by heavily involving our home planet? The problem with this attempt is that Earth played such a minor role in the series so far. And despite being a human, I’m playing a game that is set in space, with many different worlds. In the Mass Effect universe, I didn’t have much connection with Earth. Thus, what should’ve hit close to home (no pun intended) really didn’t work for me, as opposed to seeing the Citadel in ruins in the first game after I’d spent so much of my game experience there.

More of a baffling development was Bioware’s decision to turn Cerberus into an all-out evil organization. They spent the entire last game trying to convince us that the matter wasn’t black and white, but a nuanced situation. I saw first hand how many of the members were decent and had the good of the galaxy (not just the human race) in mind. But now, they’ve become mindless antagonists who only serve to try to foil our attempts at every turn.

As long as we’re picking on Cerberus, how the hell did they get so many faceless soldiers to fight for them? In various scenes, I could see whole armies swarming towards my squad only to get mowed down in gun-fire, with little consequence to Cerberus’ resources. They would’ve been useful in my suicide run in the second game.

I’m not really going to touch on the use of the Crucible as a plot point. Some might gripe that it was weak writing and a deus ex machina, but I’m willing to let it slide since they built up the Reapers to be unbeatable conventionally. (Even though by the end I’d killed about four Reapers already.)

One thing I do have a bone to pick about is Kei Leng. The Illusive Man’s lackey, who was never heard from or mentioned before. This is where the overall story as a trilogy really gets weak. Wouldn’t it have been much stronger and impactful if this character had some sort of tie with Saren from the first game (who is basically forgotten by this point)? Cerberus had pulled off the impossible by resurrecting my Shepard, what if they’d been able to do the same with Saren himself? Or if they were intent on keeping Kei Leng, why not plant seeds of his existence earlier on? Bioware had planned this series as a trilogy from the start, yet seemed to be making it up as they went.

As with Mass Effect 2‘s DLC offerings, Bioware continued to show that they had evolved and learned enough to really make these shine. The From Ashes DLC was controversial because it was a Day One release that required payment. But in the end, it added an interesting character and a nice twist on our expectations of who the Protheans were and how they should act.

Leviathan added some interesting backstory to the Reapers, with a cool mystery-solving element that took cues from Kasumi’s DLC. Omega gave a huge resolution to a plot that arguably should’ve been included on the game discs.

And the Citadel was probably the best work Bioware had done for the entire series. In many ways it was the true send off for the characters and the story. The clone story was a bit hokey, but the real treat was the ensuing party with virtually all of the people I’d met along the way. Bioware built off of my existing relationships with these characters and provided a ton of in-jokes and nostalgia that just isn’t seen in too many video games. I felt as if these were actual friends of mine and we were having one last party together.

Conduit

The Ending
By now, everyone’s had a chance to voice an opinion on the ending. I’ll try to refrain from rehashing most of it. But yes, it was disappointing to have been fed the perception that my choices throughout all three games would have profound impact on the resolution of the story. That turned out to be not so true.

Hints of this letdown came earlier in the game, such as the Rachni queen or subsequent identical replacement if you’d killed her off in the first game. In that moment of choice, I deliberated with myself hard, wondering what repercussions would ensue. Imagine my disappointment that it didn’t matter AT ALL.

So here we come to the end. The Illusive Man proves himself to be totally evil and manipulated, despite the story working so hard previously to paint him as not just a cartoonish villain.

And there’s the ghost-child God figure who explains everything to my Shepard.

Things really broke down here logically. How was he controlling the Reapers exactly? How was he on the Citadel this whole time? What was the logic of killing whole races in order to save them? Did it only break down to organics vs synthetics? If so, didn’t I totally prove that wrong by resolving the Quarian/Geth conflict, let alone uniting all the various species together for one cause?

So that leads us to the Indoctrination Theory. A popular (or at least widely discussed) fan speculation of what really happens at the end. I wont go into it in depth but basically the ending was so unsatisfying and flat out strange that many people believed that Bioware was crafting a meta experience where we the video game players weren’t seeing the real ending but actual Reaper indoctrination first hand. Read more in detail here.

I’ll admit there are seemingly valid points in the theory. Shepard had by that point experienced a lot of exposure to Reapers; more than many other characters who ended up as Reaper thralls. In the Mass Effect 2 DLC: Arrival, she spent two entire days in the vicinity of a Reaper artifact that had taken over everyone else. Other hints such as James asking if anyone else hears a weird buzzing on the Normandy suggest that something was afoot.

By the end dash towards the conduit, things got very surreal. Why had my Shepard suddenly changed outfits? Why were there weird piles of bodies around in what looked like the original armors of Kaiden and Ashley? How had Anderson reached the Citadel before my Shepard? Why was the chatter over the radio explicitly saying that no one else made it to the conduit even though I was clearly walking towards it? And if I rejected the options to control or merge with the Reapers, why was there a cutscene where my Shepard took a breath while amidst the seeming wreckage of London (where she would’ve been if she had been hit by the Reaper beam and kept her from getting to the conduit)?

I believe this breath scene is where the root of Indoctrination Theory sprung up. Since she rejected Reaper control with the God child, Shepard was breaking free of indoctrination and waking up right after the events of running up to the conduit and getting hit by the Reaper lasers, and thus would kick off the ACTUAL ending. If you chose any of the other endings, you ended the game under the complete control of the Reapers.

All this added up to too much more than sloppy, rushed writing. So fans, myself included, wanted to believe that Bioware wouldn’t botch the ending to such a meticulously crafted game series.

In the end, the Indoctrination Theory turned out to be just that: a theory. Bioware after receiving huge backlash, decided to release an extended cut ending, which didn’t really fix anything but made some things more plausible.

I feel that the ending was a letdown, especially since the whole rest of the game was so breath-takingly executed. Did it ruin the experience? No. I still felt a close connection with my character and the supporting cast in a way that no video game has ever made me feel. The story had built up so much expectation that Bioware just failed to live up to them.

Volus

Multiplayer
One of the biggest head-scratchers before the game was released was the announcement of a multiplayer element for Mass Effect 3. The story of the series had been such a personal journey that no one seemed to know how Bioware was going to incorporate multiplayer into the story. People were skeptical to say the least.

However after trying out this aspect of the game, I have to say that I got deeply hooked. Addicted, even. I’d never been one to really be into multiplayer games, let alone shooters. Also Mass Effect 3‘s version seemed very limited compared to other games. Yet the combination of familiar settings, species, powers and enemies made me feel comfortable from the onset.

I’ll say that the countless hours of playing in this mode really honed my skills for any of the battles in the single player mode. Everything seemed so much easier afterwards. I used to be so grateful for the slow-down sniper scope, but eventually didn’t even need it. I also really learned the ins and outs of all the powers presented in the game, much more thoroughly than I ever did in the solo missions.

What really helped was that Bioware kept upgrading the multiplayer mode with free DLC releases, adding characters, weapons, maps and challenges. By the end of the last update, the mode seemed so far advanced from where it started.

Some players have even said that it was the best part of the game. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.

Cast

Overall Impression within the Series
Upon looking back, each game had severe flaws to go along with its many accomplishments. Most people forget this fact when they heavily criticize the last section of this game. I would ultimately say that everything about Mass Effect 3 up to the conduit run was executed beyond my expectations.

Regardless, Bioware set out to create an experience of unprecedented scope and largely pulled it off. Playing through all three games again gave me a chance to view all the events as part of a whole, which showed that a lot of it hadn’t been truly thought out but also what a tough job it was.

Some things worked really well, such as the genophage and the geth/quarian conflict. The death of a team member in the first game resonated through to the third. And Wrex’s survival had probably the richest payoff of any choice I had to make in any of the games.

Other things Bioware seemed to hint at but never fully expounded upon. Such as the mystery of dark energy. Although there are rumors that it was supposed to play a more vital role in the ending and the motives of the Reapers.

Also, there were many discussions about my Shepard’s resurrection in the beginning of the second game. Enough to create some doubt as to whether or not the Shepard I was using was the REAL Shepard. It seemed like Bioware was laying some foundation for a story thread but ultimately chose to not go in that direction.

In the grand scheme, Bioware will continue to get criticism for where they took the story (or how they botched it). And each game’s play structure will be viewed as imperfect.

What Bioware got right though, they nailed from the beginning. They created a strong, memorable protagonist that managed to feel like a unique extension of each player’s persona. They established a rich, intriguing universe. And they filled it with a strong cast of lovable characters. That’s what matters most and will endure beyond the games themselves.

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