Being a Mass Effect fan isn't always easy. It's been a turbulent trilogy for longtime fans and newcomers alike. From the good to the bad, there's a lot to cover. In addition to covering my opinion each individual game, I'll be talking about the overarching themes and of course... the ending.
The first in the series, and the the last one I got to play. It's certainly flawed, but many aspects of it showed such promise that I can't help but look back on it as a stepping stone that was largely ignored.
It terms of plot, it's easily the most intelligently written. It follows Shepard as they uncover the mystery of the Reapers and chasing down a rogue Spectre. It also introduced us to its rich universe, with a diverse cast of colourful characters. It was a deep RPG that offered a lot in the way of customisation and exploration.
This game is far from perfect, however. A lot of the environments were often dull, you couldn't play after completing the campaign (for no real reason), some of the side missions were tedious, exploration was often boring, and the main campaign was a bit on the short side.
There's one thing that people don't understand however, and it's that none of these facets of the were inherently bad. Indeed, they were merely a step in the right direction, a good first building block if you will. These things needed improvement; they didn't need to removed. Despite my love for the Mako, I can understand its flaws. The answer however, isn't taking away the open sandboxes and replacing them with a boring minigame. In many ways, I feel that after Mass Effect, BioWare missed a lot of opportunities to improve the formula.
Mass Effect 2
Which brings me to Mass Effect 2. In many ways, it's the Resident Evil 5 of the Mass Effect franchise. It's still entertaining and fun, and in some ways its a technical improvement over its predecessor, but it's still a step in the wrong direction, the consequences of which became apparent as the series went down in quality under EA's guidance. For one, the story (the main focus of the series) was dumbed down, and seemed to resemble a Michael Bay film more than a space opera epic. It felt like the writers were making baseless appeals to emotion and sensationalist set-pieces instead of crafting a logical and coherent plot. That isn't to say it was as bad as a Michael Bay film per se, I just feel that this was the beginning of the end for BioWare and this franchise.
Allow me to elaborate. Taken as a whole, Mass Effect 2 isn't a bad game. It's my favourite in fact. I just wish it was a masterpiece and not a guilty pleasure. Instead was the start of a lot of bad habits for the franchise.
As I said, the plot wasn't a complete debacle; it just felt out-of-place. There were some great scenes, but these are undermined by a lack of attention-to-detail. Everything is kicked off by Shepard's death and immediate resurrection. This feels sudden and jarring, which is good for a death scene I suppose, but then so is their resurrection. Shepard is killed off in the very first chapter, only to be brought back in a subsequent one. This makes this otherwise major plot point feel more like drama to create an attention-grabbing opening. I'm not saying this can't work, I just feel it wasn't properly executed. The idea that Shepard is now transhuman and essentially a living miracle isn't explored all that often throughout the series, and missed opportunities abound throughout the two games. For the sake of pacing, it may have been a better idea to kill off Shepard at the end of Mass Effect, since it was already teased, and Shepard doesn't really do anything important other than pick a counselor, a choice that wasn't even saved originally. Had Shepard died after the fall of Sovereign, this would make a bit more sense from a scientific standpoint, and would have stretched out the plot points between narratives. Doing so would also remove the ludicrousness of Shepard's survival. For some reason, Shepard's helmet is found on the planet, leading us to believe their brain was seperated, and thus not intact. This is compounded and contradicted with a Cerberus scientist telling The Illusive Man that Shepard was clinically brain dead. This isn't a perfect solution I understand, but looking back, it seems like an obvious alternative.
One other such scene occurs after Shepard installs the Reaper IFF. This scene impresses upon the player the threat the antagonist poses, and forces support character Joker to overcome his disability (though he doesn't seem to be having that much trouble in that regard). What I don't understand however, is why. A plot isn't just a series of events. It's a series of events with cause and effect. In order to have a plot, you must answer the "why" of the events. Characters need motivation, and events need causality.
This scene is a little short in that regard. The motivations of our antagonist, Harbinger, is already pretty vague. It says it wants Shepard for something, but we don't know what. Despite that, it had no problem with destroying Shepard and their ship. It's reasoning for doing so isn't fully explained, so it's hard to understand why it's even bothering. After all, aren't organic lifeforms just a mutation? Aren't organics nothing before the eternal Reapers?
So why exactly are the Reapers boarding the Normandy then? For a few crew members? The small crew of a stealth frigate doesn't seem worth the trouble, honestly. And if they're going to be abducting people, why not send in the Collector swarms instead of dragging people out by hand? Is Mordin's countermeasure protecting the entire ship? If so, some exposition on that would be nice.
On that note, why are they bothering to abduct the crew at all? There's nothing special about the crew, is there? They're just normal humans. What's so different about this time? Why not just blow up the Normandy like they did last time? Are you seriously telling me the Collectors are going to abduct the crew and just leave their one serious threat floating around in space?
The most egregious insult in the game however, is the Baby Terminator. Other than being derivative and unoriginal, it is also the biggest problem with Mass Effect 2. This mighty behemoth destroys all logic before it and leaves nothing but plot holes in its wake. It essentially exemplifies Mass Effect 2 and how disconnected it is from the rest of trilogy.
First off, why is it human-shaped exactly? The Reapers have been doing this cycle thing for a while now, yet almost all the Reapers are shaped like the Leviathans. Is it going to be put into a Leviathan shell? If so, what the hell is the point? If Reapers are meant to look like the species on which they are based, we should see a lot more variety in the Reaper's ranks. Wait, what's the point of this thing in general?
In Arrival, we discover the Reapers are going to use the Alpha Relay to enter the back door of the Citadel. Apart from being lore-breaking, this DLC completely invalidates the plot of Mass Effect 2. If the Reapers were going to use this as their plan B, what's the point of the Human-Reaper exactly? How exactly will this new Reaper fare any better than Sovereign, and what the hell is the point if the Reapers are just going to come in en masse using the Alpha Relay anyway?
This is far from the only problem with Arrival, however. In addition to subverting the plot of the core game, it's writing is sloppy all around. Its most glaring issue is its retcon of how indestructible the Mass Relays are. In Mass Effect, Matriarch Benezia tells Shepard that the Mu Relay was displaced by a supernova. Not destroyed. Displaced. That's incredible. For the uninitiated, a supernova is capable of creating and destroying stars. It's capable of outshining entire galaxies. It's pretty powerful, needless to say, and the Reapers built Mass Relays to last. If a Relay can survive a supernova, what can we do to destroy it?
Oh, okay. So this thing can survive a star exploding, but not a really big rock? That's just... stupid. Is that really the plan? All it takes to destroy these things is one big asteroid? The Reapers obviously built these things to survive any kind of cosmic event, so what makes them think a really big hunk of rock and metal will do anything?
But, by the grace of the plot, it works. Great. As it turns out, BioWare's love of retcons is more powerful than an exploding star. This bit of confusing retroactive continuity aside, Arrival also points out the biggest flaw with Mass Effect 2: it's entirely out-of-place. As much fun as it may be, it's place in the trilogy is questionable. It feels like filler, and since we know the Reapers were planning on using the Alpha Relay at the same time Baby Arnold was being constructed, and the Reapers attack full-force a few months later anyway, the scale of the conflict in Mass Effect 2 feels lessened as a result. The rest of the trilogy is about fighting the Reapers, yet the second instalment only deals with this indirectly. For the most part, it seems to only exist for padding out the series, so it could remain a trilogy. The Mass Effect series is by no means the only trilogy to commit the sin of a negligible "bridge" chapter, but it's a perpetrator nonetheless.
Aside from this being delegated to a mere side story, my biggest grievance with Mass Effect 2 was out it made Shepard's resurrection so pointless. They kill Shepard off from the onset, then immediately bring them back for the sake of drama. Why bring Shepard back, when they can hire an army for the same price? In the first game, Shepard was chosen as a candidate for the Spectres because of their noteworthy achievements. It made sense. Shepard was important to the plot arc because of their visions. In the second game, this is largely ignored. Anyone could have lead a team (or army) of soldiers on a suicide mission. Shepard may have been an excellent soldier, but hardly anyone worth investing billions into. Let's think about how stupid TIM, and by extension, the plot of Mass Effect 2 is. Shepard is brain dead. The Illusive Man decides to defy death itself, spending billions in the process, just to bring back a single soldier... because he has symbolic value, then sends said multi-billion dollar investment on an extremely expensive and cutting-edge ship into an unmapped alien location from which no one has ever returned, all with no intel.
First of all, there was the nasty ammunition retcon. For some poorly-explained reason, the entire galaxy decided having nigh-infinite ammo for your guns was stupid, and dropped them altogether. Though the supposed explanation (which again, doesn't make a whole lot of sense) might have a half-baked explanation, it's still a retcon that leaves gaping plot holes in its wake. This becomes especially apparent when, during Jacob's loyalty mission, the player encounters thermal clips, despite the fact that the MSV Hugo Gernsback crashed on 2175 Aeia before they were invented. At the very least, BioWare could have taken the opportunity to throw the player on their head, and force them to conserve ammo, or use one of the older guns. Instead, they took the low road.
Of course, this wasn't done for story reasons. It was done to make Mass Effect 2 more like other shooters (namely Gears of War). This saddens me, because Mass Effect was unique. Instead of doing what all the other games in the shooter market did, players had to watch their rate of fire, lest their guns overheat. This added a different dynamic to gunfights, and dropping this entirely seems to be an attempt to grab a wider audience.
A compromise for this could have reached. Instead of having every gun use ammunition (which really seems like a step back), do both. They could have had both types of guns, when it was appropriate to have a higher DPS for that gun. This way, at least for the most part, this segregation of gameplay and story could have been rectified. In the Mass Effect 3: Citadel add-on, we got the M-7 Lancer, which was well-received by fans. We should have seen more of this throughout the trilogy. Instead of overhauling the entire weapons system, they could have implemented it in such a way that players new and old would get a choice as to how what type of weapon they used, giving even more variety and player choice to an already incredibly expansive series.
I could go on, but most of it has already been covered.
Mass Effect 3
Which brings us to Mass Effect 3, easily the most polarising and controversial of the franchise, due in no small part to a very confusing, rushed ending that many found largely ignored their choices throughout the trilogy. Many might claim that this shouldn't matter, because the other 99% of the game is great, but I think this wrong for two reasons. First, the ending of any story is more important than any other part. A sloppy start can be forgiven if the plot picks up later on, but a bad final act has the potential to completely overshadow the entire work of art, and undo all the work within it. The second reason this excuse is unacceptable is because the other 99% of the game wasn't great. Yes, there were some technical improvements, like the oddly absent weapon mods and inability for a marine to wield certain situational weapons, but I also found that many features were stripped away, and certain elements were made worse.
For one, the story progression felt a bit too linear, which can put a damper on replayability. This seems like a step backwards, because the first two games allowed you tackle missions in whatever order you wanted. With Mass Effect 3, we're railroaded into a linear succession of events. Of course, there's also side missions, but these have largely been streamlined to the point where they simply feel like chores. Instead of actually talking to people, or involving yourself in a subplot, you overhear a conversation, head across the galaxy (whilst entire civilisations burn) in search of a timeless relic, and continently find it with a single ping of your radar. You then bring it back to the person to whom you've never even spoken, likely days or weeks later, and give it to them for a minor boost in morale.
The worst part about this is how bare-bones it is. In Mass Effect, you'd actually explore uncharted worlds. In Mass Effect 3, you ping a few times, then you magically obtain it without any real struggle or challenge, thus turning side missions into errands. Gone is any sense of satisfaction or exploration. At this point, this resembles the grinding systems of popular MMOs.
All of this is punctuated by a streamlined dialogue system. Streamlining can be a force for good in some cases, such as a simplified UI, but in this case, it detracts from the depth the series had been known for. It's still there to be sure, but to the fullest extent, which is a shame, because sequels are supposed to improve, not remove. Auto-dialogue is more prevalent than ever, and dialogue is stripped down to an entirely binary level, putting it on par with BioShock's ludicrous morality system.
Instead of talking to people, Shepard creepily ease drops on everyone's conversations, then the player does the most bare bones of fetch quests. And not once is a dialogue wheel raised. Oh, and to make matters worse, the quest menu is completely lacking in detail, and a pain to maneuver through, whereas in previous games, you'd get plenty of detail on where to go and what to do-a godsend when you're spinning so many plates on a galactic scale. It's just one of many half-baked features, which is odd, when you consider that there was nothing wrong with the menus in the previous games.
In concept, the plot wasn't terrible. Unlike the abomination that is Dragon Age II, nearly every plot thread has purpose. The set-up for Mass Effect 3 is fairly simple. It's a standard story about coming together to stop a common threat. This is represented by the player's EMS, which keeps track of the player's forces. This ties everything the player has done rather nicely (ignoring how vague this is), but you cannot stop there. Whilst our choices may be represented by war assets, our war assets must be represented in the story. Unfortunately, this never comes to fruition.
Instead of a complex series of events playing out, all our choices result in assets, which then get lumped together into a singular score. This score is then represented in the end of the game on a linear scale. Worse yet, we see little to no evidence of each asset in the final battle. In fact, even though we were clearly told our decision regarding the rachni queen would have impact on the final battle, nothing is changed. Regardless of your choice, they still appear as generic enemies. In some instances, the EMS score doesn't make any sense in the context in which it determines outcomes.
An attention to detail is pervasive throughout the experience. Many fans will recall the Tali photoshop fiasco, which is indicative of a lack of craftsmanship. Even worse, the photo is inconsistent with Tali's body, meaning they were just being lazy and nothing else. Throughout the game, you get the feeling that this wasn't something they had planned from the get-go, and just BioWare making the best out of a bad situation.
Speaking of which, I must say I was surprised how well the deus ex machina device, The Crucible, was implemented. It is introduced in the second chapter, which means the rest of the plot hinges upon it. This also means the plot is very simple, and there's nothing wrong with that. Considering how horribly botched the execution of Dragon Age II was, I'd say this is a huge step up for BioWare. Sadly, it didn't last.
Ah yes, the ending. I know most people would rather forget it, but I think it's important we don't. Leaving something to rest is never a good idea in the literary world, and simply forgetting something isn't the best way to ensure that same mistake won't be repeated in the future.
Things start off in a rather silly fashion, with the Reapers, having an incredible sense of drama, decide to take the Citadel to Earth and cut off all the relays except the one leading to the Sol system, just in case all advanced Organic life wanted to fight them. How convenient! Isn't nice of the Reapers to leave that one relay open?
From there, things get even more contrived. For some odd reason, Command decides it would be a good idea to land in London and have a final desperate push to the beam. This is completely unnecessary, and exists only to pad out the final level. There's no reason for us to land on Earth at all, when we can just go to the Citadel directly. To make matters worse, the Conduit itself is completely ignored.
During Priority: Earth, we see two examples of sloppy design that epitomises just how rushed everything was. If Steve is shot down, Shepard and co. react with some of the worst and most-out-place lines I've seen since Heavy Rain, and that's saying something. Despite most of the dialogue and the voice acting in the game being very well done, this stands out as egregiously bad voice acting and animating. The second example is the out-of-place turret section that seems thrown in with zero regard for pacing. This comes right in between two segments in which Shepard has some final moments with their crewmembers. It shows how little attention to detail was put into the final hours when they splice an unnecessary turret section in the middle of several emotional goodbyes. In fact, the entire final mission lacks polish and coherent plot progression.
Of course, it's when Shepard reaches the beam that everything goes downhill. First, everyone decides it would be a good idea to throw all their eggs into one basket and bum rush the Reaper. After a laser beam explodes in front of Shepard, all of their weapons conveniently disintegrate along with some of their armour.
After that, we get a scene with TIM that draws a parallel and a heartfelt scene with Anderson as he dies. This scene is pretty confusing in itself, but what bothers me the most is how Shepard manages to kill the Illusive Man in one shot. Other than that this was pretty touching, but everything after this went completely downhill. One surreal magical elevator ride to heaven later, and Shepard meets the much maligned Catalyst AI. The introduction of this second deus ex machina device brings about a major plot hole. Much in the same way Arrival undermined Mass Effect 2, the Catalyst renders Mass Effect as pointless. If the Catalyst was a part of the Citadel the whole time, why was Sovereign or Saren ever necessary?
What follows is a very surreal final confrontation not entirely unlike the ending to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The only difference here is that in that game, the surreal nature of the ending was utilised as part of the narrative's themes, whereas here it's completely silly and out of place. Furthermore, the Catalyst inexplicably takes on the form of the child seen on Earth. This makes no sense whatsoever, and is given zero exposition.
Further declarations from the Catalyst continue to baffle the player. The Catalyst claims they need to wipe out advanced organic lifeforms before they are wiped out by a different race of synthetic lifeforms. This brings to mind one question: what's the difference between "death by Reaper" and "death by Geth"? What's the point of this supposed preservation? If they are going to go extinct naturally, they Reapers aren't doing anything to stop that. They are just self-imposing the problem and then cleaning up their self-fulfilling prophecy when they turn synthetic life against organic.
The major problem with this is that the Catalyst lacks sufficient examples to explain this absolute statement. The only major example of large-scale conflict between organics and synthetics was between the Geth and the quarians. Problem is, this runs counter to the Catalyst's logic. The geth didn't rebel, they reacted. The organics instigated the conflict, and the Geth merely retaliated. After they managed to repel the quarian threat, they could have wiped them out-but didn't. They had no intention of wiping out organic life; they just wanted to survive. The Geth only resurfaced as a threat to the galaxy after the Reapers coerced them to. The whole "organic vs. synthetic" conflict doesn't exist, or at least not in the narrative. Nearly every relevant example of a synthetic lifeform trying to destroy an organic lifeform was simply an indirect extension of the Reaper conflict. Mass Effect was very much an "us vs. them" space opera plot. It wasn't ever really a science fiction "Man vs. himself" plot, and this spiel is completely out of left field.
The problem here is how unclear the Reaper's motivations are. In the first game, we were told in a very Lovecraftian way that we couldn't comprehend it. Then, in the second game, a dark energy subplot is alluded to, but that plot thread was dropped. Now we have circular logic with no examples from the narrative to back it up. We have a narrative pulling in several separate directions at once here, and instead of a simple, cohesive answer, we get a very convoluted attempt at sounding sophisticated. Mass Effect it seems, was never built from the ground up with a clear vision for the rest of the franchise. This is very much a narrative that shot for the moon and burnt up in the atmosphere.
To make matters worse, player character railroading is in full force here. Shepard has nothing of value to add to this scene, and most of the plot progression is done at the behest of our newly introduced antagonist. Oh, did I mention how dumb it is to introduce anything this late in the plot? Because it is.
This whole scene is undermined by just how vague it all is. The Catalyst uses expressions like "all that you have" and "all that you are" without any real context. It's using arbitrary definitions of the words "synthetic" and "organic", which is especially terrifying when this machine is going to commit galactic genocide based on these parameters. If Shepard is considered "partly synthetic", what falls under this umbrella term? By what parameters does this patchwork device determine what is a "synthetic"? How does the machine discriminate the organisms from the synthetic machines? This scene is very vague, and suffers from a severe lack of exposition.
These outcomes simply don't make any sense. The player is expected to believe that somehow the Crucible is not only capable of wiping out all synthetic life, but also turning the Reapers into slaves and spreading Shepard's essence throughout the universe to be infused with every living thing. How does this work exactly? Why is this function here? How is this possible? What exactly does that even mean, beyond "everyone gets glowing parts magically"?
This is compounded by just how little research the writing team did here. The Catalyst claims that Shepard can start a chain reaction by jumping into a giant beam of light, sending out their everything and creating new deoxyribonucleic acid for everything in the galaxy. This makes no sense. Why do plants need Shepard's DNA? Why and how would they receive big glowing eyes and circuit boards embedded in their skin? I'm pretty sure this is not physically possible.
Furthermore, why do we need the Crucible? Why can't the Catalyst up and leave? Now that it's seen the error of its ways, why can't it simply end the cycle, without wiping out other organic species. If the sentient AI that controls the Reapers is willing to be destroyed anyway, why is the Crucible necessary here?
But hey, if you pick Destroy, thus resulting in needless genocide for the sake of drama, and you have a high EMS score (which has nothing to do with anything), you see a short scene of someone wearing N7 dogtags taking a breath. Funnily enough, we don't know how Shepard survives, why they're wearing different armour (maybe they dressed in layers) and why their dog tags are different. Regardless, this scene doesn't provide any closure or denouement, which is sort of the whole point of an ending.
In the end, the problems with the ending are numerous, and the reasons for them are vague, like everything else. It feels like the writers were simply trying too hard to make an amazing ending, and in doing so abandoned what made the series so great to begin with, and forgot what it was even about. Even if you could argue that "Organics vs. Synthesis" was a theme in the story, it was never at the forefront. Mass Effect is and was a character-driven science fiction space opera. It's setup and premise were simple, and thus needed a simple conclusion. Mac Walters wanted “lots of speculation for everyone!” but what the player needs is closure first. Speculation cannot take the place of answers. You need a solid foundation first, and then layer on allegory and interpretation later. Don't ask the player/reader/audience to invent your narrative for you. Give them a story with a solid structure, then leave room for interpretation. Don't make the entire thing an abstract art piece. This is a story, not some collage of radical ideas.
Actually, a collage would be the best way to describe the ending to Mass Effect 3. It's painfully derivative, uninspired, and lacks artistic merit. There's not a hint of originality to the work, which is usually fine, but sadly it's also incoherent. An ending is supposed to answer questions, not raise them, and if they do, they should meaningful and insightful questions that allow for introspection and interpretation. The Mass Effect 3 ending didn't do any of this, and for all the reasons I've listed above, and many more, it fails. The Extended Cut didn't solve any of these core issues, as the narrative needed an entire overhaul, not a few extra lines of exposition. The Citadel DLC might have been fun, and some might call that a nice conclusion to the series, but really, it's just Mass Effect's version of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It's just fan-service from beginning to end, and lacks any sense of self-worth or coherent, logical storytelling. It casts its net far too wide and doesn't stand up on its own. Sadly, all of the potential this series had was wasted, and we may never see the old BioWare again. This is easily the worst ending I've ever seen in any medium, ever. It serves as an example of what happens when you put sensationalism over logical storytelling. Instead of being remembered as an epic space opera trilogy, Mass Effect is remembered as an example of what not to do.
The main problem with the ending is how it completely undermines the entire trilogy. Okay, that's a bit extensive; let's narrow it down a bit. One of the biggest reasons the trilogy has been undone is because it completely subverts the motivation and purpose of the Reapers, the main antagonistic body of the series.
In the original game, all we knew was that the Reapers were going to wipe out our civilisations. That's honestly all we needed to know. However, with the ending of Mass Effect 3 and the Extended Cut DLC, we got a heap of logical fallacies compounding nonsensical gibberish. Let's take a look at a few of the problems with the Catalyst's spiel.
- If life will just spring up naturally, what’s the point of wiping out organic life before synthetics can? What’s the difference between “galactic genocide” and “self-annihilation” on a cosmic evolutionary scale? The Reapers bring all advanced organic life to extinction. If say, the geth did the very same thing, what would the difference be? If you're going to liquefy these species, what's being "preserved" exactly?
- How many Reapers are created each new cycle exactly? We saw plenty of Reapers get blown up during this cycle. The Reapers are powerful, but are by no means invincible. In order for this cycle to work, you have to maintain a harvesting ratio of at least 1:1, that is, create a reapers for everyone destroyed. If enough cycles manage to kill just one more Reaper than they create, the plan will fail. Also, if these Reapers are supposed to preserve life, why are you putting them on the frontlines?
- The Catalyst claims that their solution won't work anymore. Why? It brought Shepard up through its magical space elevator thing. How does this disprove the validity of the cycle?
- Why is the Crucible necessary? What's stopping the Catalyst from simply telling the Reapers to turn off? This thing is the embodiment of the Reapers. Why is it unable to control the Reapers all of the sudden?
- Synthesis makes no sense, and is described in very vague terminology. What is Shepard’s essence? What energy are you using? Even if you broke Shepard down and spread them around, there wouldn't be enough of Shepard's "essence" to go around.
- How do you "perfect" organics with technology? How does giving Synthetics "understanding" solve anything? Legion itself stated a lack of understanding wasn't the cause of the problem. And how is this even remotely possible? How does breaking Shepard down reveal limitless perfect knowledge of all life? How can they even handle all that information? All of these are egregious examples of absolutes with no exposition.
- If the Reapers are concerned with organics being wiped out, why do they assist the aggressors? They clearly have the power, so why not look over them and aid them? Wouldn't it make more sense to aid the organics, since they are the ones you are trying to protect? Simply give them the means to defend themselves, or do it yourselves. Committing genocide to avoid self-annihilation is just superfluous.
- Use of absolutism. How can you guarantee every cycle will create genocidal synthetics? What if organics kill each other? We do have that technology, believe it or not. They're called nukes. What about transhumanism? How do you know organic life will always be wiped out, and how do you know it will always be at the hands of sentient AI?
- Which brings me to the Catalyst's biggest flaw. It lacks evidence. There is no evidence in the narrative to suggest that this absolute will ever happen. In fact, there is more evidence running contrary to this. Shepard, an cyborg, along with the help of Legion, a synthetic, ended a conflict the Reapers instigated. Let's not forget that the Geth only ever took Rannoch in the first place because they were being threatened. It had nothing to do with a lack of understanding, or conflict as a result of wanting to better ourselves.
You know, sometimes, having an enticing mystery is better than any answer. So why didn't we get "lots of speculation for everyone" in that regard? It's very clear the writers didn't know what they were doing when they wrote this. It's obvious they know very little about science fiction themes or tropes, and it's very clear they don't know how to write.
On a slightly more positive note, I'd like to say that the music throughout the series was incredibly impeccable. It was creepy, ominous, and foreboding when it needed to be, conveying the Lovecraftian themes and inspiration. At times it was emotional, helping to drive home those especially evocative moments. It always gave me a great vibe that got me pumped for whatever I was doing. Mass Effect had really enticing music, Mass Effect 3 was powerful, and Mass Effect 2 is just perfect. In fact, the "Suicide Mission" soundtrack is the entire reason Mass Effect 2 remains my favourite in the series? Is that a bit silly? Well, then again, I still hold Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater as my favourite in that franchise, and that's just because of the "Snake Eater" theme song. So yeah, even though the writing ranged from genius to sloppy to the worst I've ever seen (save for Heavy Rain of course), but the music was always great. That's something at least, right?
With Mass Effect 3 came the addition of online multiplayer. Controversies aside, I thought this was really well done. It tied in to the story (mostly), managed to make an RPG work in a multiplayer setting, and best of all, it was actually fun to play, though I mainly just attribute this to the really refined combat system in the core experience.
And, as the cherry on top, EA wasn't afraid to support it with some free DLC, which is always a good idea. Garnering goodwill is something BioWare needs more of, and this certainly helps. These add-ons gave us crazy new characters (volus anyone?) and classes, along with a bunch of new maps and even a new enemy type. Sadly, there's only one game mode. Sure, there's a lot to unlock and BioWare wasn't afraid to slap a bunch of new paint jobs to a fun combat system, but there's no variety to the gameplay itself. This is the biggest missed opportunity of the multiplayer aspect: a lack of additional game modes. Character, weapon, skin, and enemy variety helped to keep it fresh, but no new game modes meant it got old after a while. I enjoyed the time I spent with it, but I've never spent any extended periods of time with it. If it had some sort of story mode like Uncharted 3 or an endless survival mode with no restrictions like "Nazi Zombies", I might have more reason to return. Still, it's worthy of commendation how well it turned out, considering it could have been a lot worse. With games like Dead Space 2 and BioShock 2 having horrible and unbalanced tacked-on multiplayer modes, I'm just happy to see one that's functional and fun.
Dialogue and Development
Dialogue is the hallmark of the Mass Effect franchise. After playing The Walking Dead: The Game, I slowly began to realise how inferior the dialogue system in the Mass Effect trilogy was. First, it had a tendency to be misleading in its summarisation of what Shepard would actually say. This results in the player feeling a disconnect as they player loses control over what their avatar is saying.
For example, when talking to Garrus in regards to murdering Dr. Saleon, saying "We're done here" results in Shepard saying "Good. Remember that feeling. That’s how it should be." When saying "I can shut him up", you end up punching a character in the face. This leads to moments where the player no longer feels in control, and BioWare's agreement with the player feels lost. These summaries don't need to be here; just show us the actual line.
When it came to characterisation, Shepard didn't get any, whereas the side characters (squadmates) got it all. They were all well fleshed out and interesting, and even if their reason for being here was a little iffy, the backstories they opened up were genuinely interesting. Well, not Jacob's. But no one likes him.
Sadly, our protagonist doesn't ever really develop on any kind of character arc. Shepard can have an emotional response to something, but it rarely ever changes them in any way. Despite being the most important character in the story, Shepard remains a static, boring brick. He's not as undefined and boring as Gordon Freeman, but he's certainly not a good character by any stretch of the imagination. Truth is, Shepard just fills their role. They run through the motions, like the player, but they're actions seem almost erratic and random at times. Sadly, Shepard is just another tabula rasa non-character.
So Shepard might be static, and the plot was silly and contrived, does that mean it's all bad? In spite of my many criticisms and observations, there's one thing I think they did incredibly well, which convinces me BioWare has the potential for proper storytelling. Their light shining in the darkness of course, is the characters.
Despite a few overlookable hiccups, most of BioWare's characters are interesting and colourful, and tend to be leagues ahead of the writing for characters in most other games. The first game gave us a unique handful of iconic characters, the sequel gave us a huge cast of fleshed out characters who could actually during the endgame. Sure, this was a bit contrived, but it at least added some replayability and gave some accountability to the player. Mass Effect 3 gave the player a good mix of old and new faces to choose from, though I didn't care for most of them.
I always felt as though these characters were the highlight of the story, even if they felt a bit out-of-place at times. It seems a little contrived that we need a master thief for a suicide mission, especially when we know so little about it. Aside from a few oddballs in Mass Effect 2 that needed a bit more explanation, I feel the characters are some of the best I've seen in this medium. BioWare may not always be able to write the most logical or coherent plot, but they do know how to characterise side characters. Interacting with these characters enriches the colourful universe we're told to explore; without them, it'd all be nothing but shooting aliens in the face.
Don't Remove, Improve
As the series went on, things were improved, like the combat system. Some of the more complex systems were streamlined. At the same time, the Mass Effect trilogy devolved somewhat. Entire features were stripped away or oversimplified where they needed depth and expansion. Looking back, there were many missed opportunities to improve parts of the game. Instead however, many of these features were removed or replaced, and not always for the better.
Mass Effect was by no means a perfect game, but it's flaws weren't the result of inherently faulty systems and features. People give the Mako a lot of shit, but it wasn't entirely bad. Going down and exploring planets helped make the universe feel open and expansive. It may have been boring, but it didn't have to be. The sequel replaced this with planet scanning, a tedious resource gathering mechanic. I wouldn't have minded this so much if it complemented the already existing exploration system. Mass Effect 2 could have tweaked the Mako's controls, or given us a better vehicle (that's not the Hammerhead), or anything to appease fans who didn't like the Mako's tank controls. Mass Effect 3 removed this sense of exploration entirely, replacing it with overly basic pinging.
Over time, other gameplay elements were removed as well. Grenades became abilities for some reason, and Shepard lost the ability to crouch, for example, though this is somewhat understandable due to the implementation of a more robust cover system. What is less understandable however, is the switch from guns that overheated to guns that used ammunition. Aside from the egregious plot hole I mentioned earlier, this switch bothers me because of how derivative it makes the combat feel. In Mass Effect, the combat felt unique. It forced you to watch how many shots you fired; you couldn't just blast away haphazardly. And whilst I don't necessarily dislike the ammunition system better, I would have rather seen it along side an equal amount of "overheat guns".
Customisation is one of those things that more or less got better as the series went on. On the one hand, looting better armour was really fun, and I always enjoyed making sure everyone (except Ashley) was well-prepared for the next mission. It gave missions a more methodical feel to them. I wish this could have been something upon which they expanded upon.
However, one thing I do appreciate was how they chose quality over quantity for weapon and armour customisation. From Mass Effect 2 on, you could customise each individual component of your armour, resulting in more varied (and silly) results. Weapons were also improved from a gameplay perspective, but the RPG element was mostly removed. In favour of several different guns with varying stats that largely all shot the same, we got less guns that felt different to the player, which is always a good thing in my book. However, I think there could have been room for both. On top of those unique weapon types, there could have been more variety, skins, and stats to keep the player engaged.
The one aspect that shouldn't have been removed was upgrade slots for weapons and armour. Weapon customisation was added and improved in Mass Effect 3, but ammo mods were moved to the power wheel and armour upgrades were streamlined into a more linear upgrade path.
Another facet of gameplay that felt more like oversimplification was the removal of Omni-gel as a healing item in favour of regenerating health, like Call of Duty. Having to heal up using Omni-gel forced you to be tactical and conservative in combat. In Mass Effect 3, only partially depleted segments of your health bar regenerated which, to me, struck a pretty decent balance. In fact, speaking strictly in terms of combat, Mass Effect 3 is certainly superior.
One thing Mass Effect 3 also nailed was class restrictions. In Mass Effect, Shepard could use every gun, but the ones in which the player was untrained were virtually useless, since Shepard somehow can't look through the scope of a sniper rifle. Things got worst in Mass Effect 2, where Shepard completely forgot how to use certain guns, but picking one up in a random derelict ship somehow helps them remember. I guess picking up a shotgun and pulling the trigger is really hard. In Mass Effect 3, you can equip every weapon at once, but each one carries a weight penalty that increases the cooldown time of all your powers. This means you could either go in light with a heavier focus on techs/biotics, or you could go in guns blazing with a weapon for every situation. It was a nice balance that actually made me think about how I was going to proceed with missions. We should have seen more of this methodical, strategic gameplay evolve throughout the series.
Playing through the entire trilogy gives me a simultaneous sense of satisfaction and longing. On the one hand, it's interesting to see how various mechanics were logically improved as the trilogy moved forward. On the other, there were a lot of missed opportunities that could have made Mass Effect and its sequels something even greater than what they are.
Also, I really miss being able to hang up on the council. Is it just me, or should they have really worked this into the sequels?
Mass Effect may never be my favourite franchise, but it holds a special place in my heart because of its well-fleshed out characters as well as its colourful and rich universe, retcons and contradictions aside. At some point, BioWare simply stopped writing logical plots for the most part, but the potential is always there. A lot of our choices weren't all that impactful, but the same is true of many role-playing games that advertise player choice on the back of the box. Retcons and handwaving aren't anything alien to BioWare, and I expect to see more of that in the franchise's future. I don't say this because I hate BioWare or Mass Effect. In fact, it's a universe I love. The fact that I've written this retrospective is proof that I love this franchise. However, I want to love it for what it is, flaws and all. This is a series that I'd like to see grow and improve, which is why it pains me whenever it falls.
If someone told me they couldn't play Mass Effect anymore, I wouldn't really blame them; the ending undermines and overshadows the trilogy, so it's not hard to see how some might not want or even be able to come back. For those who endure however, there's still plenty to love here, in spite of the trilogy's shortcomings.