Mass Effect Trilogy: A Retrospective Review (Part 3)

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.

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