Mass Effect: Andromeda came out last week, and from what I hear it’s huge. I’m sure I’ll be posting as I play through it, but I figured now is a good time to look back on the original Mass Effect trilogy.
Mass Effect 1
I heard about Mass Effect after it came out. Apparently, there was a lot of hype around this game before it came out, but I was still in the “honeymoon” phase of dating my wife at the time (not my actual honeymoon) so I wasn’t really paying attention to video games. A guy at work told me about it and said I should get it. I picked it up at Best Buy and started it that night at home. I had just recently purchased the new Xbox 360, and I remember the resolution on the game was so high that my crappy little TV wasn’t able to render the text of the game sharply enough to read.
Mass Effect was a revelation for me. It was a watershed moment. It told an adult story set in an infinitely interesting universe, and showed me that video games could be made for adults. As I mentioned above, at the time I had kind of moved beyond video games in favor of more mature pursuits. But the first Mass Effect brought me back in a big way.
These games are set in the nearish future, about 150 years from now. Humanity has moved deep into galactic space and met up with several other alien civilizations. The player character Shepard is given freedom to explore the galaxy as a Specter, a champion for the human race. The story involves Shepard discovering an alien conspiracy to kill all sentient life in the universe and preventing it from happening. The story is great, and the characters are even better. Tali, Garrus, Wrex, Liara, and several other characters immediately felt like real friends to me. You recruit these human and alien allies into your crew and go on space adventures with them. The story is interesting, but the character development and interactions with each other are really what made these games so special. It was really astonishing to me that a video game was able to convey this level of characterization.
I’ve since found out that this game came as a reaction to the fact that Bioware lost the Star Wars license, and it clearly shows. The game is set in space, it’s full of aliens, there’s a “force” like power called biotics, etc. The only thing it’s missing is lightsabers. The in game codex narrates itself as you hover over entries. The first time I played through this game I used that codex like a book. I listened to every single entry, hungry for every last morsel of information I could get about the Mass Effect universe. There are many choices that you make in this game that have implications on the later games in the series. You can carry over a save file from this game into the next two and your choices are reflected in the world.
The combat, even at the time, sucked. And it definitely hasn’t aged well. But the universe and characters are so fascinating that after we got married, I got my wife into Mass Effect. She’s played through all the games several times over herself. It’s really that great.
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 is the best RPG I’ve ever played hands down, and probably my favorite game of all time. I loved the world and the characters of the first Mass Effect, and when the sequel came out, I had a ridiculous amount of excitement leading up to release. Usually when there is that much anticipation, you are never satisfied with the result. Mass Effect 2 lived up to the anticipation and surpassed it in almost every way.
First off, all of the ally characters in your ship are interesting and have a fleshed out background. The sense of characterization is even better in this game than the first, and the allies you get are diverse, interesting, and fully realized. Each ally has loyalty missions that you can complete to unlock additional abilities. These loyalty missions also flesh out more of the ally’s motivations and personality. By the end of the game, you feel like you really know these people. You care about them like you care about your friends.
The combat is also vastly improved from the last game. The first game had terrible shooting and a glut of abilities. This game pared down the abilities and tightened up the shooting. It is not the best shooter ever, but it is definitely competent. It feels great to slow down time, pick off three targets with abilities, and keep shooting.
The ending to this game is also incredible. Throughout the game, you pick up upgrades for your ship and your allies. There is a series of choices that you make in the final mission. If you don’t have the ship and your allies upgraded properly, some of those allies will die. If you make the wrong choice or send an ally to fulfill the wrong role, they will die. I’ve heard you can even fail the mission and have everyone die. In a series that is built on characterization and player choice, this structure is perfect. You care about the people in the game and your choices have a direct impact on their survival. It creates a tense and thrilling ending with high stakes, even if the last boss is kind of dumb.
Again, this game specifically really hit me hard. I love it. I’ve played through the whole game countless times. I’ve unlocked every single Xbox achievement, I’ve romanced every possible character, I’ve chosen every possible combination of choices. The storytelling and the characters in this game is, for me, the gold standard for what video games can achieve.
Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 was a letdown. The returning characters were great as always, but I did not connect with any of the new allies. The story was also a big bummer. The ending was ridiculous and tropey. The biggest strength of the first two games was in their writing and their characterization. The story in this game went into some weird spirituality thing that didn’t make any sense in the Mass Effect universe. And the final decision Shepard made was so large and far reaching in the Mass Effect canon that the next game in the series had to move to a new galaxy to avoid the ramifications. The thing that I loved about the first two games was missing in Mass Effect 3. The storytelling and the characterization that I fell in love with was gone. Or more accurately, it was intermittent.
The choices you made in the first two games certainly had resolution, but a lot of that resolution felt forced. It felt almost like the developers felt pressured to have Shepard run into everyone he had met over the course of two games and have some kind of interaction. It didn’t feel natural to me. Some of it was good though, in particular the resolution of the genophage side story.
The side missions in this game are also terrible, and an indication of where Bioware was headed. Your quest log fills up very quickly with meaningless fetch quests, and they are often obtained by running by someone on the citadel. There’s very little in the way of meaningful, interesting side content in the game. When you’re racing around picking up 10 “somethings” that some nameless NPC asked you to pick up (without even having a Mass Effect conversation), it drains any fun out of the side quests. This was also reflected in Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game they put out a few years later. That game is filled with filler side content that adds almost nothing meaningful to the game. I don’t have anything written up for the new Mass Effect: Andromeda yet, but unfortunately it looks like that trend has continued into that game as well.
It’s not all bad though. The combat in this game is the best out of any of the games. The shooting was as tighter than the last game, which I felt was the only weakness in Mass Effect 2. It also made the new multiplayer component really fun. The multiplayer is made up of co-op, wave based survival maps. You and several other players survive wave after wave of enemies. If the shooting was weak, this multiplayer would have been terrible. Thankfully, it’s probably the bright spot in this game.
The first Mass Effect trilogy is great. The storytelling and characterization in the first two games is unparalleled, and while the third game forgot what made the first two great, it’s still worth the time to play through. Mass Effect 2 is probably my favorite game of all time, so if you like sci-fi and shooting, I can’t recommend this trilogy enough.