Mass Effect Retrospective

The games of Mass Effect Trilogy have become some of my favourite games of all time, but (apart from my discussion about the Mass Effect 3 Ending) I haven’t actually reviewed any of them so far. So this week I thought I would take a quick look these games and discuss what made great, as well as some of the issues that have plagued the series.

The Mass Effect Trilogy

Mass Effect tells the story of Commander Shepard and his quest to unite the races of the galaxy in order to stop a powerful enemy, known as The Reapers. The story takes Shepard on a journey across the galaxy, meeting sexy aliens and fighting armies of robots and mercenaries. The games also were designed to be a trilogy and Bioware promised that your choices would have consequences that would carry over from game to game.

Mass Effect (1)

The first Mass Effect was a game that I very much enjoyed at the time. I loved the world, the story and the characters and there was a great sense that you were exploring a galaxy full of massive worlds.

But, while I still enjoy it, I have to admit that it seems a bit tedious now. Particularly on subsequent playthroughs, you find yourself wanting to rush through parts of it, but are unable to do so. I also find the game’s role-playing elements to be too complicated and cumbersome. I don’t like coming back from each mission with hundreds of items, weapons,  upgrades that I have to sort through and assign to myself and/or each of my team-mates, often only slightly improving the characters’ stats and regularly making them look ridiculous.

But these are only small frustrations in what is mostly a very enjoyable experience; a deep world and epic story; an interactive Star Wars-esque adventure.

Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 improved things quite a lot. The pacing was better, the action felt more intense and a lot of the extraneous stuff was stripped away. The storyline also got darker and more interesting, without losing the humour and interesting characters.

However, I did feel that they stripped a bit too much away; the vehicle sections vanished, the RPG elements became too simple (I know, there’s no pleasing me apparently) and the game world felt a lot smaller and somehow less real. They also added a very tedious planet scanning mini-game in as a core mechanic, which added a level of mind-numbing tedium to the process of gathering essential resources.

But, at the same time, the graphics and storytelling improved and the set-piece moments grew larger in scale and felt a lot more epic.

Mass Effect 3

Part three was a suitable conclusion to the trilogy, though there were some issues, particularly with the ending. I wasn’t as enraged about the ending as many people were, and they did fix most of the issues that I had with it via DLC, but some other issues with  still remain, primarily the fact that it turned out that your decisions didn’t carry as much weight as you might have expected.

There were still lots of great set-pieces, a great story and more quality time spent with my favourite characters. The sense of scale and epicness continued to improve and the RPG elements were slightly deeper, achieving a good balance between the systems from the first two games. Particularly with the release of the Extended Cut and Citadel DLC packs, this game was a suitably emotional, epic and enjoyable finale.

The Issues

A big, living world vs. ‘those bloody lift sequences’

I’m a big fan of games that give you lots to explore and discover and the first Mass Effect provided this experience. There were things that people didn’t like, however, such as the long lift journeys around the Citadel, doors that took a suspiciously long time to unlock and a regular delay before certain textures loaded at their full quality.  Then there were the vehicle sections. In ME1, there were dozens of planets that you could land on and explore in an armoured, six-wheeled rover.

Many people found these elements of the game tedious and, admittedly, the Mako did handle like a drunk hippo on a space hopper, but, like the lift sequences, they helped to make the world feel large and real. You actually had to land on a planet and make your way to the enemy base, or take a long lift journey full of dodgy music and awkward conversations, rather than just teleporting to the next level via a Loading Screen. In the later games, both of these things were removed and I think that’s a shame. The loading screens that replaced them just made the whole thing feel disconnected by comparison. The vehicle sections also added some variety to the game, allowing for vehicle-based exploration and combat to break up the parade of chest-high-wall shooting galleries.

I’d be heavily in favour of bringing these sequences back, just with some optimisations. A hovering ‘Hammerhead’ tank was added in DLC for the second game, which was a lot of fun and was easier to control. I just wish they had integrated it more into ME2 and included it ME3, where it was, again, conspicuously absent.

Consequences of your Actions

Another thing that I found slightly disappointing was how little your decisions and actions really seemed to matter. There were many scenarios where you had to make big choices, like letting one of your squad mates die or sacrificing some civilians to thwart an evil plan.

It should be said that I have seen many of the subtle ways in which the scenarios play out differently if you do make different choices, and it does lend a small amount of weight to your decisions (and replay value to the game), but they don’t have as big an impact as I had hoped. Certain conversations are different and you may find that certain characters are missing (or replaced by different characters who will react differently to you), but the war ultimately ends up playing out in the same way and you end up playing through the same missions, fighting the same enemies, just with the aforesaid variations in  dialogue options and character placement.

I understand that they probably didn’t want to penalise players or lock them out of any of any of the content, but it would have added a lot to the replayability of the games if there were, for example, certain missions you could only access if you had made certain decisions, or at least if some of them played out significantly differently based on your actions.

Final Thoughts

I do have a long list of niggling little issues with Mass Effect and you could be forgiven for thinking that I don’t like the games, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

I admire Bioware for creating such a rich and interesting world and for listening to their fans and trying to adapt the games to do what the fans wanted, rather than just remaking the first game for a quick profit. They took a lot of unfair flack for the ending and dealt with it magnificently.

As I’ve said, the games are now among my favourites of all time and I have compared the experience to watching Star Wars for the first time and, despite the issues (and lets face it, Star Wars is not without its fair share of issues and plot holes too!), I don’t think I can give them higher praise.