The Mass Effect trilogy is Bioware’s magnum opus; an original concept borne out of their penchant for textured characters, labyrinthine plots and role-playing strength. As the series has grown, so has controversy surrounding Bioware’s business decisions regarding their relationship with Electronic Arts and their creative direction with the beloved franchise. However, it is still mostly revered. As a whole, Mass Effect adds up to a monolithic, highly ambitious science fiction masterpiece; each game taken on its own merits is something special, but all have some little things that prevent them from being masterpieces. With the recent release of Mass Effect 3’s Leviathan DLC, the flame wars have started yet again about the ending, and I figured it was time for me to indulge and describe my overall feelings about the trilogy. Keep in mind this is an opinion and subjective. It is meant to be discussed and debated. Oh and SPOILERS AHOY!
Mass Effect 1
In 2007, Bioware released the first installment to rave reviews and commercial success. As a new intellectual property (IP), Mass Effect combined elements of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Bioware’s own ingenuity to deliver a space-opera of a storytelling quality that the medium rarely sees. The game converted new players into Bioware fans while satisfying their old with vast RPG elements and a fascinating story. With immense customization from your character’s gun attachments to your character him/herself, Mass Effect gave fans one of the first great sci-fi games of the generation.
It really did contain every conceivable part of an RPG; players could level up Sheperd in many different ways ranging from how they fought and talked and pick different classes. Environments were so littered with guns and gun modifications that I eventually found myself in a loop of finding items, dropping them, finding more, and selling others. Other squad members contributed their own talents. Multiple squad members with different abilities allowed players to pick whom they took on missions and customize and combine with to their hearts’ content. Players could customize almost every aspect of Commander Shepard: gender, class of soldier, armor, look, and even personality. The variety that the game allowed in these terms meant gamers had different characters with whom they identified with, and discussions about “who is the best squad mate” still bang on to this day.
The story is what made Mass Effect special, though, and for good reason. It emphasized textured characters and storytelling. The final act alone contains the biggest revelations in the entire franchise, with one mind-blowing twist delivered after another, adding substantial depth to the new universe. Shepard, and by extension, the player, had to deal with very real problems transplanted to space; problems like racism, overzealous colonialism, genocide and diplomatic tension. That method of storytelling is still not a popular thing, except for the few brave studios willing to discuss it in the medium.
But it was kind of broken…
Mass Effect was released early in the Xbox 360’s lifespan and it already hasn’t aged well. Reviews described frequent crashes as well as a frame rate that chugged when things got intense. Firefights lacked intensity and controls felt loose. It played more like a beta. As I played through recently, I noticed all of these things. For a highly ambitious game with superlative storytelling prowess, it carried technical flaws that most of us kindly overlooked; now, however, it’s hard to get through. The inventory itself extends the game unnecessarily for hours because you’ll have to scroll down to drop or sell something, then scroll all the way down again to do the same thing. You would have four kinds of the same ammo mod because the game didn’t stack them, so have fun sifting through that.
And the elevators. And the goddamn Mako that handled like a retarded pig had its feet cut off and somebody just attached old skate wheels to its stubs. I know some people like it, and they are sick, twisted individuals.
It’s only five years old and it hasn’t aged well at all.
We accepted it as the first in a promising series almost like a test run.
Mass Effect 2
What would Bioware do for its follow-up? After Electronic Arts acquired them, Bioware got a bigger marketing push for the sequel, and it sold well. Many consider this to be the finest entry in the series. Mass Effect 2 made remarkable improvements in gameplay.
Let’s stop acting like this series never tried to be a shooter. Mass Effect was an RPG-shooter; the shooting mechanics just sucked. Mass Effect 2’s shooting mechanics, even though they’re not as refined as Gears of War or even Mass Effect 3, are very good. You aim your gun and the people die. You press the cover button and you’re in cover. Adding to the action were memorable set-pieces involving a derelict Reaper and a human-Reaper larva. Mass Effect 2 definitely put the “epic” in sci-fi epic something-or-others. People still dismiss it as “just an action game”, but what’s wrong with a great action game and a great story?
It also carried a darkness that the first game didn’t have. In ME1, you’re thrust into an almost light-hearted space-opera that’s all about sweeping cinematic scale. It really is akin to the original Star Wars, except better written better acted, and not boring. ME2 on the other hand drops Shepard into the grimiest parts of the galaxy. Omega is a steamy, smoky example of urban decay. Poverty and anarchy are ways of life, with one crime lord ruling over it all from her comfy nightclub. While themes of racism and genocide are still explored, ME2 mostly goes a different direction with the storytelling. Through the loyalty missions of the squad mates, ME2 explores much more personal themes like vengeance, guilt, sins of parents, prisoner abuse, and the battle between idealism and cynical pragmatism, this time explored in more polarized forms of Paragon and Renegade Shepard (a hilarious sociopath), respectively.
The game only gets darker as the main plot goes on. The derelict Reaper is a stunning example of pacing. The game slowly ramps up the intensity, constantly teasing plot revelations. ME1 did this beautifully as well, and with bigger plot revelations, but it didn’t do it amidst a sense of unavoidable dread. In the suicide mission at the Collector Base, you are constantly aware that your decisions could lead to your favorite character dying horribly, something that many RPG’s don’t even try to deliver on. In this literal hive, filled with millions of human corpses that have either been liquefied, or are about to be liquefied, you are surrounded by death, looking at the horrors of the base and its haunting set-design. This is the game that established that the universe of Mass Effect can be just as horrifying as it is fascinating.
You know all those cool customization options in Mass Effect? The ones that allowed you to change the kind of ammo specialty you had, the numerous armor types and their modifications? Well, most of them were gone. Bioware went a little too far in streamlining things to the point where customization felt like a tacked-on addition to brag about on the back of the box. Powers were still customizable, to a lesser extent. You had less of them, this time, as did your squad mates. Armor customization was only available in Shepard’s private room, and there wasn’t much of it. I get three different kinds of gauntlets? And two kinds of leg braces? Yay.
And for the inventory, Bioware didn’t streamline it so much as they just removed it. Instead of improving it, they just omitted it completely. These things caused many fans to cry foul and refuse to recognize it as a Role-Playing Game. It is, but it’s a different kind. It emphasizes character choice, not weapon mods, which I respect, but, damn, those design decisions are still baffling.
Mass Effect 3
So after two critically acclaimed, commercially successful entries in their sci-fi trilogy, Bioware released Mass Effect 3 in 2012. The Big One. The Daddy. It certainly spared no time when it came to action; this is the most action-oriented of the trilogy. Everything is designed to be a set-piece. The entire galaxy is literally on the line. Dozens of enemy types and an incredibly adept construction of scale meant Shepard fought Reaper ground troops while a BIG-ASS REAPER IS IN THE BACKGROUND DESTROYING SHIT.
Combat here is the best the series has been. Bioware finally succeeded in ripping off Gears of War’s one-button cover system. Moving from cover to cover is fluid and shooting is satisfying and smooth, even on console. Enemies react to gunfire and will attack intelligently, mostly. Squad powers are devastating, especially when combined, creating a tech burst or that unforgettable sound of a biotic explosion. The addition of a hard melee also gave players more options in attack and defense. ME3 is a great shooter. Even its multiplayer is good. Who would have thought?
Story makes or breaks the series, though, and this story had its strengths in terms of emotion. Bioware succeeded in giving many subplots emotional endings. The endings to the genophage, Quarian-Geth War, Rachni plotline, and many others can all result in deaths of beloved characters. If certain characters died in the suicide mission, then more characters will die in ME3. You will be locked out of some options that ensure happy endings and kick yourself for screwing up. Playing Renegade will ensure Shepard does some heinous things in search of victory. The Renegade decisions on Tuchanka still shake me.
This story is by far the most serious and grim. Even ME2’s unrelenting darkness doesn’t hit as hard as ME3’s unrelenting hopelessness: life-or-death choices with beloved characters, morally ambiguous choices, and gut-wrenching decisions on handling the aftermath.
So, the combination of impeccable technical proficiency and Bioware’s immaculate storytelling chops combined to make the best, most complete, and satisfying game in the trilogy, right?
Well, there’s that one BIG THING, but we’ll wait to talk about that. I’ll just write about the rest of the story flaws. One of which is pacing; by starting the game on Earth at the point of the Reaper’s invasion, Bioware cripples the pacing. Anything you do in the game that doesn’t contribute to the war feels like a waste of time in that world. Shepard wouldn’t kick it at the Citadel with Bailey or Garrus; he would be running around trying to do shit. And in that time, a couple of weeks in-game, Earth should be rubble. Yes, the Reapers aren’t trying to outright destroy humanity, but they are trying to harvest them. And since they’re trying to kill the soldiers anyway, they could have just used their beams to take out the military forces, and then take the civilians for themselves.
Then, there’s that damn kid, a clumsy attempt to pull heartstrings. It’s a cheap and overly melodramatic way to try to gain the audience’s sympathy for a character. What’s even more baffling is that the writers do try clever ways of inciting emotional responses from the player, yet also rely on this hackneyed approach.
This laziness might be my biggest gripe with the game because the game will throw these tricks out at you periodically. The issue that got blown up to the point of Forbes coverage only happens once. But it’s still a mess.
The ending. First and foremost, I dislike the ending. I don’t hate, it, but I do find it frustratingly vague and lazy. I haven’t been able to think of a better example of a deus ex machina. The “starchild” as the internet has dubbed it, is literally a “God in the machine”. It comes out of the Citadel, revealing himself as the Conduit, dumps a load of exposition on you, and gives you three to four options depending on your Galactic Readiness level. It’s a lot for the player to take in and it’s an attempt to simplify a large, complex narrative, which it does. It boils the sweeping scope and ambition down to one mechanic: press the right color. I’ll give Bioware credit for two things here: one, they did an admirable, yet unsatisfactory, job in allowing the player to question the Conduit further in the Extended Cut. Two, there are a lot of high concepts in here. The Conduit reasons, pessimistically, that humans will always be killed by the synthetics they create, so the race that created it created the Reapers as a solution.
It poses the theory that the Reapers and the race that created the Reapers are logically flawed. Many gamers have interpreted this as meaning that Bioware’s logic is flawed in the manner of the Reapers’ motivations. I think it is Bioware giving these omnipotent beings character flaws. There are other Bioware reasoning flaws:
Why does the Conduit look like the human child?
Why does the Conduit give you an option to destroy the Reapers if it’s so convinced in its reasoning?
How did Anderson get up to the room where Shepard got to just beforehand?
Why did Shepard have a gunshot wound to the stomach, when the Marauder shot him in the shoulder?
Why would Shepard be able to control the Reapers when the Ilusive Man couldn’t? Only because the Conduit, the thing controlling the Reapers, said so?
There are just too many lapses in logic and contradictory evidence to invalidate the surprising straightforwardness of the final result in an otherwise cerebral final scene. What sucks is that this ending has brought a lot of interesting conversations, but the guttermouth that is the internet has spewed vomit all over it. And it is a fundamentally flawed ending, but it got so far out of hand, I wouldn’t want to be an employee at Bioware, ever.
As a writer who found himself under the pressure of a deadline many times, I understand trying to find an easy way out to wrap up a story, and that could have been the case here. The Mass Effect 3 ending comes out of left field hard and the deus ex machina was never foreshadowed, as far as I know. It’s not a bad thing to make up a story as you gAo as long as you have a layout of the future, minus the details, you leave yourself options, and you make sure it all comes together cohesively. This doesn’t.
Shepard’s story is over, except for optional DLC, but there will be more Mass Effect games. They are popular, after all. And even though Bioware’s former fans feel their once favorite developer has been sullied in their eyes with their recent decisions, the Mass Effect trilogy stands as an ambitious achievement in video games, and the craze surrounding it stands as a cautionary tale of fandom and corporate takeovers.