Retrospective Review: The entire Mass Effect franchise
March 16, 2017

(EmP was cool enough to give me an actual review slot for this so if you wish to leave feedback, I'd prefer it to be there! Enjoy the read either way!)

Andromeda is coming out in a week (as of this writing) and I feel like I want to revisit the franchise. I’ve done a post like this a few years ago when my blog was new but didn’t really settle in on a style and it was kind of garbage with a lot of pointless paragraph breaks.

First, some quick insight. I was born in ‘89. That means I was too late to life to be considered an “80’s” kid, and the 90’s were half over before I was able to form real likes, dislikes, or memories. It’s a strange bit of flux because most of my “Nostalgia” is usually in the form of Legos as opposed to comics, games, movies, etc.

It’s a flux that’s kind of leaked into my daily life. My family is not, and never has been particularly affluent. Every extra ten dollars we find, we think “YES. A few days of gas” or “YES. Lunch money.” We’re not poor, we’ve never had a lot of room for amenities. We update our computers basically once every 5-10 years based primarily around income tax returns. Whatever hand-me-down I get from person who was able to afford their new computer, it was always better than what I had. A problem that has recently been remedied when I was employed for two and a half years as a part-time cashier still gave me enough to buy my own completely up to date computer that will last me the next five years on its own.

Stick with me, I’m getting to the point.

As a result of all of that, I tend to not be able to get games as they come out. Especially not games that turn into these huge franchises. A few games hold special places in my heart BECAUSE of the very fact that I was able to start with them.

Mass Effect is one of those series. I started with it on the Xbox, probably borrowing it from a friend initially and playing it in bite-sized chunks before getting it used (likely bought for me like everything else was).

The story starts out well. Your character (do I even really need to name them at this point?) is on the track to becoming a Spectre, a sort of special service agent for the entire alien government. During the screening process, another Spectre goes rogue and the entire game is building up a sort of power base against him while discovering a secret of the universe that may lead to the death of everyone in it. Damn. Ramped way the hell up, didn’t it? I suppose that’s fine, as studios don’t exactly expect all their games to shoot off the way they do sometimes.

Mass Effect was good for its time. A fairly basic shooter with some RPG elements, in the older days where putting a point in your skills increased damage by 4%, and other things like that. It was incremental, but it had a cool idea based around a boring mechanic. Every few levels in the huge variety of skills you had at your disposal, you’d get a new ability or some kind of boost. Put enough points in “Fitness” and you’d unlock an ability called Immunity, an active ability that reduced taken damage by a flat rate for a few seconds.

Mass Effect screenshot Mass Effect screenshot

It’s interesting how the following two games basically dropped that idea, gave you the same 4-5 abilities (that vary per class), called it a day, and just built everything around those. It made the second game a certain kind of boring because every playthrough was effectively the same. You hotkey your main one or two attacks and just shoot stuff when it’s on cooldown.

The second game’s story went sideways rather than forward, a point against its favor when looking back at the series as a whole. It continues, presumably a few months after the events of the first game and your ship gets shot out of space and Shepard literally dies immediately. In the introductory sequence establishes that you were picked up by the Cerberus organization and basically rebuilt like goddamn Robocop. I was expecting a “We have the technology!” type dialog but alas, we were deprived.

Cerberus was an organization briefly mentioned in some tiny fetch quest in ME1 when you discover a small outpost had been husk-ified. To their credit, this definitely tied into what they would end up doing en masse in ME3 but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. They come to ME2 full force as Shepard is more or less forced to work with them when the mere association makes the alien council backpedal their support for Shepard, whom they presumed dead. As a result, you don’t see a lot of them in ME2.

The whole story culminates in fighting a sort of human-based reaper that the collectors (who you later discover were reaper-possessed Protheans. Christ this series is weird) have been building by harvesting human colonies just on the edge of the government’s jurisdiction. Because of this they refuse to respond to the abductions and Shepard joins Cerberus to figure out this mystery and solve it. With bullets. Or whatever the hell comes out of guns in this universe. Something something mass effect fields.

The entire game is basically the Dragon Age 2 problem all over again. It feels like it takes place in a single setting even though it doesn’t. It’s mostly padding. Half the game is loyalty missions as you run around to make sure your minions are happy enough with their lot in life, so they’re suicidal enough to do the suicide mission at the end but not suicidal enough to shoot themselves on the Normandy because they’re just not quite sure their father is still alive or not. I never liked this aspect of the game. Every where I turned, someone on my team was whining about something that barely mattered in the grand scheme of things.

Mass Effect 2 screenshot Mass Effect 2 screenshot

You could argue that settling their business gives them enough drive and morality to survive the mission at the end. If they didn’t have the morale, maybe they would be too sad to move out of the way of certain bullets. I get that, morale is a huge thing and I suffer from the gain and drain of it on competitive multiplayer games. I feel it, but it’s exhausting to try and manage it across a 20 to 40 hour game. Especially since the mechanics were dumbed down as I alluded to earlier.

In the end, ME2 barely matters on a story standpoint and mostly served to update the graphics, systems, and mechanics from the first. To that end, they did fine. ME2 looks fine, even by today’s standards. In a more combat-oriented game, ME2 functions as a successor.

This brings up to ME3. It opens up about a full year after the events of the second game, where Shepard is being punished for their actions in the Arrival DLC of ME2. Never got around to doing that DLC? Tough shit, as they reference it throughout the entire first act of the game and even later when you meet a Batarian on his deathbed. I played through it maybe once and I still don’t really understand what happened or why it was my fault, but there you go.

Basically, in the second scene the reapers attack and fucking finally, the government lets Shephard get their best murder on and fly out to kick some actual ass. This is even lampshaded by Legion (a Geth teammate you acquire in late-game ME2) who told their own people that the reapers were coming and were believed immediately and began prepping. “Must be nice”, Shepard says. Indeed.

The entire game is spent gathering war assets for the finale of the series. The more you have, the better it goes on a story standpoint. If you scrape for every asset you are capable of, there will be less loss of life. More soldiers on the field, more field assistance, and generally a slightly less bleak atmosphere (which is still pretty goddamn bleak).

The mechanics are a crisper version of ME2′s. You still only have 4-5 main abilities to use per class but the leveling system is a bit more nuanced and more in-depth than before, which edged towards ME1′s style without being too stupidly gratuitous like adding 4% to damage. They saved that for actual gun modifications. The cover system has remained through the entire franchise (As it will continue in Andromeda) and it mostly serves to give you shield recharge while reloading your gun and not much else.

Mass Effect 3 is probably my favorite of the entire franchise. Some are beholden to the first game as classic nostalgia, and I don’t know many who talk about 2 very much. However mostly decry the third game for its flawed ending and I chalk that up to a PR misunderstanding, or just bad wording on Bioware’s part. See, the sting mostly comes from when they claimed that “Oh the ending won’t be a simple A, B, C matter...” That’s exactly what it became. In the end you had the choice between destroying ALL synthetic life, taking control of the reapers for yourself and effectively fusing your consciousness with them, or if you gathered enough assets, full on synthesis. This basically fuses organic life with synthetic code, making everyone a sort of hybrid and thus rendering the Reaper’s flawed logic completely moot, and they fuck off into the void of space all over again.

However for those who actually watched the endings, with the help of the extended cut, there’s a lot of nuances that that simple choice does not immediately seem apparent. In the extended cut you can see the multitude of your choices play out. Did you cure the genophage? You witness the rebirth of Tuchanka and see it get rebuilt in grand buildings with Krogan mothers celebrating their children. What did you do about the Geth/Quarian conflict? You see the results of that as well. Yes, the ending decision did boil down to an ABC choice but the ramifications of a few choices that you made since the first game still absolutely had an effect. A mass effect, if you will (please kill me).

Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360) image

Ultimately I feel like there’s a lot more to do in ME3. I’ve played it for a few hundred hours, changing something big every time I do it. I take on a different lover, I switch sides and sabotage the genophage (which I will never ever do again because holy shit). I hop between Paragon and Renegade because it’s fun to watch the world change before my eyes as I decide to murder people that I would not otherwise have done. I do run out of things to do however as the level cap is 60, and if you’ve imported a ME2 save you’re probably already level 25-30 so it takes a single playthrough to max out. After that point, doing NG+’s only change a bonus power and maybe you can fiddle around with different weapon types and adjust playstyles. Which I did often.

While I wrap this up with a sort of game-by-game summary, I want to give an honorable mention to ME3′s DLC, The Citadel. It’s often considered the ‘true’ ending to the series and is my personal headcanon post-final battle regardless of lives lost. It takes place on the Citadel (obviously) while most of your crew is on shore leave while the Normany gets cleaned up as it presumably does every time you dock anywhere across the franchise. Shepard’s life is never simple as it turns out there’s a plot against their life and must scramble to figure out another mystery. It’s an incredibly funny DLC with a ton of humor and mostly acts as a tone-shifting breather for the general “We’re all fucked” aura the game mostly gives you. It even ends on a “We’re all in this together” high note with most of your crew (And some from ME2 come back!) overlook a beautiful view while in the titular Citadel.

So. We’ve reached the conclusion with my overarching thoughts on the franchise as a whole. It’s good. It’s an experience, and I highly recommend playing through it because there’s a lot to talk about. I’ll give a basic rundown.

Mass Effect 1: Fine game, but has not aged well on a visual standpoint. Story is perfectly solid and moderately self-contained without originally relying on a whole franchise to carry it. RPG elements are excessive and each individual upgrade doesn’t feel like it does much until the higher levels.
Mass Effect 2: Basically sidesteps its predecessor. Weak story that takes the plot nowhere but with crisper, actionized mechanics and less inventory menus to worry about.
Mass Effect 3: Is the culmination of everything they learned from the last two games. More nuanced RPG systems that seem like a middleground between 1 and 2. Story comes to a solid conclusion, and I don’t agree with all the constant whining about how the endings ruined the entire game for some people. Grow up.

I’m sure the game has some kind of anthology pack you can buy on sale at this point and I’d recommend giving it a go. If you’re a newcomer to the franchise, be prepared to set aside anywhere from 50 to 200 hours between the three games. If not, Andromeda takes place between the events of 2 and 3 while taking place in a completely different galaxy and will very likely only slightly reference the previous games. There’s the occasional nod, like you meet a sibling of the Turian female in Omega. Other little nods like that but it won’t be necessary to go through all three to enjoy the full experience of Andromeda. Can’t wait!

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joseph_valencia joseph_valencia - March 17, 2017 (01:10 AM)
The first one was the only good one. I don't like that the sequels downplayed the RPG elements, or that the much touted "choices" amounted to nothing.

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