I started working on a complete playthrough of the original Mass Effect trilogy back in March, around the time Andromeda was coming out. I’d never played any of them before (except that’s not true, is it, Henry), and I wanted to experience them. ME2 has been often acclaimed as the greatest PC game of all time – or at least in the top ten. I was mainly convinced by my friend and housemate, George Pell, who’s love for the Mass Effect series knows no bounds. Although you can’t trust all his opinions; he really liked Batman Vs. Superman. I have, in the past couple of days, completed Mass Effect 3, but we’ll get to that later.
Mass Effect 1 is 10 years old, but it doesn’t look it. The gameplay feels old, but I can only imagine what people must have thought of the graphics back in 2007. This game was a case of BioWare doing what they knew very well how to do, a classic RPG. BioWare, of course, has been well known as a studio for its excellent RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate. As a result of this, Mass Effect is slightly confused in what it wants to be. It has a lot of quite (at the time) innovative combat systems to make it an action game, but it also feels very slow. There are long sequences of the player doing nothing.
Most notably, the lift sequences. When you get into a lift, you experience the entire lift journey. You can’t move, you are required to just stand there and wait for the lift to arrive at its destination while a news bulletin (if there is one available that you haven’t listened to let) plays to you. If you want to get to somewhere, you have to walk quite a distance to get to that place. When you land on a planet to start a mission, you quite often arrive in a random location and you have to drive to the starting area. This is a style that BioWare had been using for a long time. I quite like it in some ways; you get a real feel of the scale of everything. I can, however, understand why the decision was taken to remove this.
But then you have the combat. The game has frustrating combat. I’m not really sure what it is about it, however. I think the difficulty level may be one thing, but I think it’s mostly that the combat system is complicated. If you were to use it properly and have some fun with it, you might find that it’s not so bad, but I didn’t know this. The problem is that one (me) might assume (as I did) that the combat is mainly about shooting stuff. One would be incorrect in this assumption. It’s more about using the so-called ‘biotic powers’. Basically, magic which allows you to do various things to your enemy, such as remove their shield, set them on fire and throw them into the air etc. I didn’t really pay attention to this very well, mainly because the system wasn’t explained to me. I didn’t use them really at all until one of the AI companions started using them and my friend told me I wasn’t using them enough.
I think the game has the same problem as the Witcher 2 had, in that the game has all of these cool systems which can (and should) be used, but at no point is any of it really explained. This means players such as me will have a hard time understanding these things and will leave frustrated. I really did not enjoy the combat in Mass Effect 1, but thankfully, that is not the main part of the game. George Pell put it to me that, “Mass Effect 1 is just a game you have to get through so you can play Mass Effect 2.” I don’t entirely agree with that. There are some very good aspects to the game.
The story of the game is simple, easy to understand and at no point goes high concept and overly convoluted. There are these things called ‘Reapers’ which a long time ago wiped out this ancient civilisation called the ‘Protheans’. Now the Reapers are coming back to kill everyone again, we don’t know why but you find out in the sequels or something when the writers think of something. You are Commander Shepard of the Normandy spaceship, and the super-cool intergalactic council made you a spectre. Now you have access to lots of funding and can do what you want to protect the galaxy from any threat. You do some stuff and no one believes the Reapers are a thing so no one takes any action, so you have to take matters into your own hands. A Reaper shows up and everyone kills it and then decides they should have listened to you in the first place. Fin.
On to Mass Effect 2 now, and BioWare has done a stunning job of cutting back the fat. Not removing it entirely, just trimming it to get the balance right. Gone are the big, open planets, the long lift sequences and convoluted combat, and here is a sleeker, cooler and much more enjoyable experience. There’s been a massive improvement to the graphics and the game feels a hell of a lot more modern overall. For a game released in 2010, it seems ahead of its time.
I want to take a moment to appreciate the coolest aspect of the series. When you make a character in Mass Effect 1, it stays with you until the end of Mass Effect 3. This includes all of your decisions and the state of the galaxy you left it in. All you have to do is load the latest save file from the previous game into the next game and it’ll continue you from there. Your actions, appearance and relationships with other characters are preserved. This is, I think, the coolest thing about the series, and I wish more games did it. There are some decisions made in ME1 which directly affect choices you can make in ME3. This adds more pressure to make good decisions because a bad choice will haunt you for the rest of the series, not just the one game. It also means that you can get so easily attached to the characters; my Commander Shepard felt personal to me, she had made my decisions and she was friends with all the characters I want her to be friends with.
Back to ME2, the combat has been simplified. You could, if you’re boring, just run into a room and shoot everything. This would take a long time but there’s nothing stopping you. The combat feels a little easier and lots more enjoyable. The story is as simple as 1 – not ridiculous, simple, makes sense, I can understand it. What’s really interesting is the system used to decide the ending. Basically, the ending is determined by how much work you put into the whole game. If you rush it, you’re unlikely to do very well at the end, but if you take the time to prepare, the ending will go well and you’ll have a great time. I think this is a good system. What’s really good is that fact you don’t know when you’ve done enough. You could go on forever, doing side quest after side quest until you’re blue in the face, but eventually, you have to bite the bullet and go for it, hoping you’re prepared for whatever comes next. It adds a lot of tension to the finale of the game.
Mass Effect 2 introduces you to a rich array of new characters to meet and get to know. The writing here is really good. I felt very attached to these characters by the end of the game – even some of the ones I thought would be really boring at first. Seeing them again in Mass Effect 3 was a nice experience, even though I’d only finished 2 about three or four days prior to starting 3. There are many break-downs of what it is that makes this the best game in the series, but I’ll give you a quick version. Every character on the crew has a ‘loyalty mission’. They approach you with a problem and you say, “Okay, mate! I’ll get right on that!” And eventually, you get around to it. These missions are reminiscent of some of the particular-character-centric episodes of Star Trek TNG, where the point of the mission is more to get to know the crew member better and grow attached to them. They are very well designed missions and I really enjoyed doing them. You don’t have to complete them all, but it is highly recommended you do.
2012 now and Mass Effect 3 now exists. The highly anticipated end to the series where everything will be explained and we’ll all feel super satisfied and we can all die happy. More on this later. Mass Effect 3 trims yet more fat from the game – too much if you ask me. The game feels a lot more high action, wave-after-wave combat, and I don’t think that is a good thing. The first thing that struck me about the game is how much more cinematic it all was. Featuring much longer cut-scenes and action sequences. Environments feel smaller and cosier, which just means there’s less to explore and everything feels a bit more cramped. And the fabled lift sequences of old? Well, the lift door on the Normandy doesn’t even open anymore in Mass Effect 3, you just click on it and tell the game what deck you want to be on, so you can sit through a boring loading screen.
And speaking of clicking and controlling stuff, WHY IS EVERYTHING DONE WITH THE ‘A’ BUTTON? There are so many buttons on the controller, but interact, roll, cover and run are all performed with the same button. I’ve been in countless scenarios where I’ve needed to run away but instead, I’ve rolled, or got into cover on the wrong side, exposing myself to enemy fire. I checked – the ‘Y’ button and the bumpers are not used for anything. The combat was reasonably entertaining but got a little stale after a while. I found myself more often just waiting for the combat scene to end than really enjoying myself with it.
So, the story. My, my – what a story. It starts out as good as expected, and indeed, most of the story is as good as expected, and then you have the end, but more on that later. For the most part, we have a sensible, simple and easy to understand story, which is both satisfying and intriguing – everything a growing plot needs. It does, however, feel like a big conclusion. By which I mean, the story is split up into three sections, the first two are about resolving some conflicts that have been around since the first game. In this way, the game doesn;t really stand up on its own and the story feels oddly structured. The whole thing feels like a film rather than an open world expansive universe. It feels like Return of the King, where the whole story was just about bringing an epic story to a close.
Okay, let’s talk about the ending. If you weren’t aware, Mass Effect 3 is infamous for having a really very bad ending. At the time people were absolutely furious at BioWare, prompting them to release an extended version of the ending for free, giving a little bit more detail about what was actually going on. I had psyched myself up for disappointment, but it was all futile, Mass Effect 3’s ending is a let down in ways no one could possibly predict.
It just doesn’t make any sense. I’ve gone through it in my mind over and over again and I still do not understand what they were getting at. It’s convoluted and unnecessary. The whole reason the Reapers exist and the whole reason they want to kill everything makes exactly 0 sense at all – and that matters. It ruins their whole image for me. Like how the prequels to Star Wars went a long way to completely ruining the character of Darth Vader. They suddenly don’t seem so cool anymore. And then you get choices for how you want to deal with the Reapers. You have three options and they all suck – there are two which go against everything you’ve worked towards for the past 80 hours of gameplay, and one which magically solves all the problems somehow and doesn’t explain it. You know why? Because it makes no sense! Without the DLC, the ending isn’t explained at all, and with the DLC it’s all explained a little better, but still not well enough to count. Think of the ending to The Matrix Revolutions – that ending makes perfect sense and is a great ending in comparison (I make this comparison because the general gist of both endings is similar). It’s not something I can easily put into words, It’s just something you have to experience.
I don’t know if it was just me, but I had some big issues with getting the games to work properly. It was because of my CPU architecture that at certain points in 1, all animated entities became pixelated black boxes, which meant I had to disable all lighting to correct it. It was, admittedly my mods which cause 3 to crash just before the final cut scene after downloading the Extended Cut DLC. But it was not my fault that 3 pauses slightly every time something new loads into the UI, like a quest marker or a new load of dialogue options. And for God’s sake, why is the use of a controller not supported on PC? I had to enable this with mods. All the assets are there, it’s just that controllers are disabled. Why?
For me, the series, in quality terms follows the Alien franchise. 1 was good in the way that it had a cult following and was a slower sort of thing. 2 was a lot more action oriented and people generally liked it a lot more. 3 felt a little rushed and lacked something fairly fundamental so it just felt lacking. It was trying to live up to the previous instalment too much and was too scared to try and stand on it’s own. It’s a real shame because the quality of the series has been so high and then the end happened and It’s hard to come back from that. I really enjoyed the games and I would definitely play them all again. The ending just left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Just like the ending of all my posts.