Mass Effect Trilogy

The Mass Effect games are ones that I got into at a late stage, as in I actually played the second ME game before I played the first, because they had both hit the twenty dollar mark, and 2 was at hand where I was.

The good news is, the second made me want to play the first, but I really hadn't realized just how different the two games would be from one another. Most games in a series can have a few noticeable differences, but in the case of these two it almost felt like a completely different game, with some of the same characters! Now, there is a lot of stuff to cover here, which admittedly is only part of the reason this has taken me so long to do, but that means a few change-ups to how I do these opinion-ations. To break up travel between sections, I'm going to do my best to add in-document hyperlinks, so you can jump straight to the section you want. The video (if/when added in) will also have a layer or two of editing to it, to help concisely convey some of the differences between the two games.

Every game that want's to get a good following really ends up needing a story. Now, to many it's a given that having a group like Bioware behind a game automatically means story. For some of us though, the "proof is in the pudding" so to speak.

For Mass Effect one, you pick from a few pre-generated background stories and pre-enlistment stories that essentially is the "who I was" part of the game. These come into effect later on in minor ways (how some people interact with you and a few side-quests mainly), but all in all don't really seem to do much outside of make your Shepard (man or woman) feel more personal. The rest is set up in a large portion of non-essential side quests that give a few things (mainly XP and loot) and may or may not have some effect later on in the series (like getting an email in game 2, or having an actual talk with the character in game. Bioware also shelled out a lot of believable science into the game (even if it is still mostly fictional), that stops it from seeming as far out there as star wars, but still more fantastic then star trek.

Aliens are abound in the universe, and humans are (at this stage) pretty much the "new kids on the block." A large portion of the main storyline involves this, and the play between the humans and the "council", a gathering of (better) aliens that works as the interstellar democracy, if you will. It's more like a three-headed monarchy with how similar the three think. So you, Shepard, start off simply tasked as trying to become a SPECTRE (intergalactic spec ops above the law, kind of a BIG deal) to cement Humanity's place in the council as a important species, and from there things spiral to chasing traitors, to saving the citadel (the main space-hub of civilization where the council is at), to pretty much saving every organic species in the entire existence. Yes sir, things ramp up pretty fast for poor Shepard.

In-process, you get a crew of aliens, some stay with you, others die (depending on your choices), and learn all about how legends get started with facts that turn to rumors. You can even romance members of your crew in both games (something I could honestly really, really care less about) if your into that kind of thing. The first game rewards you with much more 'risque' video clips than the second, but that may be because the first caught quite a bit of flack for it.

There is quite the scale in the first game, which plays mostly like a RPG with guns in it. This makes sense, as it lays out the entire backdrop of what's to come - the main villains, the main characters, the drama! Although some of the side quests have no real bearing on the overall story, they can help flesh out your character more (mostly due to your own choices anyways), and serve as a way to better get to know some of your fellow teammates (which you can do also by simply talking to them on your spaceship). You learn about planets, races, and all sorts of other things. Up until the very end of the game, you feel as though the scale of everything is massive, and when you finally beat it it gives you a nice treat of an ending that (at least for me) makes you walk away with a smile, and come back to play it again later.

Now, the second game is a much more narrow feeling scope to it. Yes, you still go across the universe, picking up crew (some of which return from the first game), but at the same time it also feels as though the game went from a galactic focus to a human-centric one, thanks to the fact that (with no choice) you end up working for a terrorist group named Cerberus, who you may have grown to hate if you played the first game. The game opens with you (and a lot of the original Normandy's - your spaceship- crew) dying off in a dramatic display, thus allowing for the segue into Cerberus "rebuilding" you, allowing you to change the looks or class of your ME1 Shepard, or play a brand new ME2 Shepard with some pre-set "previous events". Although importing is fun to see a few of the characters from the first, it really has no direct bearing on the events in the second what-so-ever as far as I have noticed - such that if a character died in the first that was supposed to have lines in the second, that character is simply replaced with a different one who has very, very similar lines. Now, you can interact with your crew still, picking up their back stories and quirks, much like in the first, and it directly effects the ending (the tag line totes "leading a suicide mission to save the universe"), which is much more impact than the not-needed socializing in the first, but that feels to the extent of the exploration that you are going to do. It's understandable, to an extent, as this is now the middle game, mostly everything needed has been introduced in the first game, and nothing can really be closed with the third coming behind it. Doesn't make you feel any better about it though.

Now, the third game (Shepard's "Final Episode" in the Mass Effect universe) was met very widely by a bunch of negativity. This isn't so much for the fact that the story itself is entirely bad - the journey to the end was still rather fun. You run into familiar faces (some for no more than a passing moment in a cinematic section, others in a brief-mention during an in-game "email"), and the story feels as a continuation from the others. This isn't entirely bullet proof yet, as some things seem, for lack of better words, "out of character." Here we have Shepard, who according to Downloadable Content for game 2 (and this is cannon, as the start of game three directly references it) you sacrifice an entire planet of Batarians (who are generally jerks anyways) and is familiar with loosing people, and yet a lot of the story elements this time around revolve around how watching one little kid he/she doesn't even know get laser-ed by Reapers haunts him/her the entire game. Now, you can get around it, even if it feels like an out of character tackiness to try and add more depth to a character that could quite possibly have been played as a ruthless murder-machine (at which point it would make even less since, what with being all evil-renegade kill all). The character interactions with/between on-ship teammates is the best it's been in the entire series. There is more of a feel to "this universe is huge," but at the same time it feels more claustrophobic than the first game in that you don't really associate with as many of the different races (primarily, the "sub races" such as Hanar and Volus are little givers of side-quests cash ins, if even), leaving it to feel again a bit human-centric ("Earth is attacked, you guys need to help us and forget about your own planets and problems").

The part that most people have an issue with story wise, is that from the first two parts to the third, there is a distinct lack of feeling that any of the choices you made had any for of significant impact. This may be due to the "war assets" numerical value associated with everything in the third game, but some of it also may be due to the limited interaction you have with anyone that you would previously have attached too (with a few exceptions). For side-story characters and others like them, this would be understandable, but even some of the characters that where party members from the other two simply show up as dialogue based "cinematics" making you wish that they would be fighting with you instead of X other guy. Beyond that, anyone who woul be reading about ME should by no know of the huge "Your ending is terrible, I want it changed because I spent 60 dollars on this and that means I own the entire property so you have to do what I say" debacle that formed from this.

If you don't, welcome to the internet and how it's changed our lives. The ending to the series (without spoilers), was what many would call "subpar." Personally, for me, I was a little mad about it (I've watched a lot of shows in my day where people beat impossible odds by using all sorts of courageous hot-blooded dedication to not giving up), but it did play out much like I had assumed it would. The problem isn't necessarily with the ending, but how it's presented that has the majority (I think) in the uproar. You play the games, enjoying yourselves and the universe, and you get to the end, and whereas the other games had all these subtle little plot changes based on choices, this one flat-out gives you specific choices, and that is pretty near the only thing that effects the ending. In theory, its exactly what the game's been championed for hasn't it? A game of choices ending with a choice? Even the presentation of the choices, however, left a bitter taste in many people's mouths, feeling almost out of place with everything that has gone on in the other games.

As a side note, however, it did lead to some very interesting and well thought out fan-theories about the endings (which in my humble opinion, where far better than anything that Bioware could have done to change/update/redact the ending they had). If you have fans that care so much as to come up with conspiratorial theories about how your game ACTUALLY ended, then that's a sign of love in my books.

Probably the shortest of the entries for this particular segment, audio is just as important at making you feel as any visual component. The first game does a spectacular job with sound effects, and when it comes to making you feel like your in space as well through music. Pretty much every song is rather atmospheric, which in turn can make the action seem a little less intense on the musics end (even though the weapons and moves all sound quite well). The voice acting is done well around the house, although I gotta admit, I find myself wanting to play the FemShep (as female Shepard has been come to be known) due more to the better VA (voice actor). Actually, the only song that really sounds like a song you would hear on the radio is the ending song, which is catchy and does have that feel-good "I just did that, survived, and looked good doing it" vibe.

For the second game, the soundtrack is much more diverse, and its no better shown than the difference between the "club" music played throughout the different bars/clubs in the games three major ports. You actually feel as though you are in such a place should you close your eyes, with the loud musics and each has its own distinct feel. Song quality changes during battles as too, where the music picks up to remind you that there is a fight going on, and noticeably so. The downside is that some of the games sound effects feel like they lost some gusto from ME1 to ME2. The best showcase of this is the actual Mass Effect Relay. In the first, it was like a crack of thunder with a silent rumble that shook the walls around your surround sound unit. In the second game, however, its like normal "psshaaa" of a sound effect. Its essentially still the same sound, but it feels like its lacking the same heart as the first one. They do, however, make some sounds more noticeable, such as the recharge of a Kinetic Barrier, which I believe is more to do with gameplay changes then simple sound effects.Again, everything is still done talk-wise with VA's and they all do a wonderful job, and again the FemShep's VA seems to be more on-the-ball with being believable then the male counterpart. Still fun to play both of them though, don't get me wrong. Here, however, the Krogan "Grunt" steals the show for me, as the way he 'croaks' out "Shepard" whenever you talk to him can single-handedly amuse me for half an hour or more. There is a lack, however, of an ending song that actually makes me feel accomplished and sit through the entire credits. I guess it's awesomeness was divided up to all the other songs.

The final piece of the trilogy is actually a pretty decent mix. The ambiance of the first meats with some of the finer points of the second, allowing you to not only get a feel from the scene through music alone, but really grasp that you aren't just running around planets exploring, but actually trying to save the very known universe from its demise. Also more prevalent than ever is the reapers, sounding like all the creepy mutated freak-shows that you would expect them to sound like. The strangest part is, and I don't know anymore if I failed to realize it in the other games, or it's just so pronounced in this final chapter that it's impossible to miss, that the Reapers make a sound very similar to the horn from the movie Inception every time the show up. It's does a great job at doing what it does, but I do wonder why exactly the Reapers are flying around honking at me. The ending theme, again, fails short of making me feel as achieved as I did in the first game though, but the music over the course of the game more than makes up for it.

Now, 3 also introduces a multiplayer component, which adds another tier of VA for the many, many races they (continually) add to that aspect. Nearly every race has a spin on the phrase "For (home planet)" with the exception of the Human characters. Some guns have slightly different audio, but all of them have that satisfying Mass Effect sound, particularly with the heavier weapons (I could listen to the Revenant or the Typhoon all day long). These little extra pieces are something that could easily have been ignored, and it helps the team aspect live up to the same audio par-grade as the single player side.

The biggest section of the game right here, as is it the biggest review change. Both games controls where rather polished, and the major difference comes from changes between the two. The biggest control letdown for the first game, however, was the awkward way of attaching oneself to cover, which didn't always guarantee you would actually attach to cover like you had meant to. There's a slight shift in squad commands as well, switching from four different squad commands in the first to three versions of one command (move here for each and both) and one regroup command in the second. The third streamlines the second's controls even more, giving you more options through integration with the connect as opposed to quick-buttons of the old game. When it comes to glitches, the first game also has a lot more than the second. Beyond the normal texture-jump that can happen in a lot of xbox games, I have also been stuck in walls, and had a few talks not trigger. In the second game, the only glitch I have seen outside of a quest not properly updating is an instance of an entire chat segment being skipped. The third seemingly has less glitches than the others, but I must confess that I haven't played it nearly as much as the others, so it would be easier for me to not see them either.

For the rest, I'll repeat the same pattern as the top of the list, so you can quick-link to what you want:

The first game, much like any other RPG, has a ridiculous amount of gear to find/buy/get. Multiple suits of armor, guns, and accessories where abound. Although the armor many times was a simple change of colors, there where enough there to make it feel as though there was unique armor in it, with the "bulk up" as an armor goes from light to heavy especially satisfactory. Weapons, similarly, had only a few different skins but many color changes. The accessories had no real appearance, but offered various different boosts/buffs. All the gear at this point had a large amount of Levels attached to it (in the form of Roman Numerals). Grenades (or Mines, if I remember correctly) where also an item of sorts.

In the change to Mass Effect 2, however, the series made a jump to a more streamlined, pick-up and play shooter format that effect gear in a heavy way. Armor was now in pieces, allowing for a more customizable character, but always either found in a box or bought from a store, and the distinguishable nature between light and heavy was gone with the weight designations, as armor had no effect on anything but some small specific stat boosts (Extra ammo, cooldown speed increase). Weapons became more unique, getting their own names for each look, and each with its own stats. The downside to this was that there was now drastically less weapons coupled with the game's mechanic of allowing specific classes to use specific weapons only. Also gone where the accessories. In addition, Heavy Weapons where added, which had very limited ammo, but nothing was quite as satisfactory as causing a radiation-less nuclear explosion on a particularly rough enemy. Grenades where replaced by these very weapons.

The third keeps the second's systems in place, but diversifies by adding even more armor and weapons to the mix. It also (thankfully) did away with the second's class limitation mechanic on weapons, replacing it with a "weight" system that would reduce skill cooldown instead. Secondary characters, however, retain the weapon restriction of the second, being only allowed to use two specific weapon types. Heavy weapons where dropped, only appearing briefly as something you pick up in the story mode. The single player mode aspects carry over to the multiplayer mode as well. Grenades where incorporated as a skill move at this point, but work on independent ammo system.

"I am a biotic god!" This phrase really shows how you feel in the first game, if you ever could figure out its chaotic cluster of point-spending skill system. This cluttered system gave you small benefits for every point spent, but unlocked moves or other point chains as you got to certain intervals amongst chains. Some rewards (like hacking) where used for interactive purposes (such as opening treasure boxes or doors), while other where moves you could use for combat purposes (like stasis). As far as combat went, each move you could unlock had an independent cooldown. This made characters that where biotics feel impossibly strong in comparison to something like a soldier, for the fact that while you had Stasis cooling down, you could still push or overload to your hearts content. The soldier made up for this by taking less damage thanks to the heavier-armor they could wear by skill paths, and that weapon skill paths would make you more effective (deal better damage, weapon spreads less accuracy wise) with more guns.

The second game underwent a MASSIVE overhaul in this area. From a large cluster of point-driven skills that was nearly daunting in size (although limited in use), everything was dumbed down into a mere six paths, one of which was a passive upgrade, while for Secondary characters they where limited down to four paths, of these one of which was passive and another required the character to be 'loyal'. On the main character's paths, some paths would only become unlocked after another path reached a certain point (such as rank two). All paths ended at rank four, with the only viable "choice" in the path being that final step (which usually resulted in greater effect or larger radius). After the first game's more RPG-like structuring, this felt greatly restrictive, and coupled with the now universal cooldown across skills, made biotic characters feel quite a bit down-played as opposed to the original. The game was still fun, but for the soldier class, it become possible to actually run out of ammo for your guns, leaving you without any way of defending yourself (outside of commanding teammates to use their attack skills), as the class only had one move (concussive shot) that against bosses was much like throwing feathers.

For the third game, Bioware listened to the complaints of it's fans, realizing that the second game had become to constrictive with powers and that people wanted more. Skill paths now had six ranks to obtain, with a two-option choice at both stage five and six, leading to more diversity amongst moves. Shepard now has six power paths, with an additional two passive trait lines. Secondary character's are much the same as in the second game, having four power paths and one passive path. The universal cooldown is retained from the second game, although most powers returning receive some form of adjustment statistically. In multiplayer, selectable characters have three power paths with two passives, and will only ever earn enough points to fully max out four of the five paths.

Combat has minor changes throughout the series (such as cover mechanics), but the most intense changes happen between Mass Effect 1 and 2, as the game shifts from a role playing feel to that of an over-the-shoulder shooting game. From this, we will talk largely about that difference, as outside of Kinect integration, 2 and 3 are similar enough as to not largely necessitate discussion.

In the 1st ME game, we have a large set of skills that independently cool down (as opposed to the later games which had a universal cooldown), and more than anything else we have a completely different weapon system. Although much like in the 3rd game characters can equip any weapon they want, the first game makes you less effective with a weapon unless you have spent points in that weapons training path. Beyond this, weapons required no "ammo" in the first game (which was a great system that many are saddened to see be lost in the later installments), instead working on a system of overheating. Every time a weapon was fired, a certain amount of heat would be produced, which would then immediately start to dissipate (as shown on the HUD's heat graphic), and if too much was produced in quick succession (or single shot), the gun would "overheat," causing it to not be able to fire until it had fully cooled down. The later games moved to a more normalized "X number of bullets per magazine" familiar to the average shooting game, in turn loosing some of the charm and unique tactical nature of combat in the first game. It is said this was done due to many complaints, but personally I have never heard such complaints and find it silly - to each their own however.

This original also had a certain point in the skill progression where you would hack into an enemies weapon, causing it to overheat and be unable to fire, which was quite useful sometimes (especially at harder difficulties). Given how the mechanics changed, I guess the fact that this "overheating" of weapons vanished by the final entry into the trilogy isn't too surprising, instead having moves that would just "stagger" the enemy.

Across all three games, cover mechanics exist with very minor changes (3 adds the ability to move from cover to cover, 2 had the ability to duck while in cover), and squad controls likewise exist to varying degrees (some allowed you to place specific characters in designated spots, and with the Kinect implementation in 3 you could tell them to by voice to do nearly anything). Controls are responsive, and when a player died it never felt as though the controls themselves where at fault. The first two games of the series also had Vehicular use (in specific missions of 2, and every planet you explore in 1), where again the controls where responsive for combat purposes. Each type of weapon felt different enough from each other that you could tell what you where using, even if some made more sense than others (why use a pistol when you have an automatic rifle?) and is probably why the restrictive weapon load outs of other games where added in. Shields and Barriers became more noticeable in the latter games, announcing their status with loud audibles and more noteworthy visual effects as the trilogy continued. The 2nd added environmental hazards (one planet had light that could and would actually burn through your character's shields and health), which where added in to some of extent the multiplayer of the 3rd.

This is very hit-or-miss, as some people love them and some don't. Thankfully, this is my opinion's, so I needn't account for anyone but myself. The 1st game has a bypass based mini game that is essentially Simon Says, but was nice enough to allow you to use Omni-gel (a resource removed from the later games) to simply skip it with automatic success, assuming a squad member had the adequate level of decryption/electronics. By ME2, however, the Decryption and Electronics skill paths where removed, instead just automatically letting you attempt to bypass and hack. Rather than Simon Says, bypassing objects now became a game of Memory, where the goal was to match all of the symbols to each other before the time expired (as though one was re-soldering nodes to bypass circuits). For Hacking, we instead are treated to a matching game where a specific image of text is shown (with specific colors), and the player navigates the scrolling three columns of text images (avoiding big red "X" boxes) to select this "target" text. That process repeats three times, or until the player fails. When we finally get to ME3, hacking/bypassing is simply "push A" and wait.

There is also the exploration factor that I consider to be a mini game of its own right. In ME1, this was simply done by making you hop out in your tank (which although fun at first grows old after the thirtieth planet of bouncing around like a hyperactive squirrel in a box) on a planet, and driving around to find things (collectables such as minerals and diaries). This would then be repeated on every single planet the player came across, for fear of missing something (side quests also took place on these planets and finished in a similar hap-hazard way). For ME2, it became apparent that maybe this was overkill, and instead the game was switched over to the "Probe" mini game. This consisted of spinning a planet around with the controller as you held the "scan" button, waiting for a little graphics equalizer looking graph on the screen to start popping up to indicate "X material" is in high supply there. On certain planets, side quests could also be found, being indicated by an on-screen arrow pointing to where the probe needed to land to start the mission. To be honest, I would have preferred the original system (had they made the planets a bit more diverse in looks). The final entry in the trilogy (ME3) found a great balance of these systems. You still fly through space on your ship, scanning planets, however the "probe" is more of a radar ping that comes from your ship and emanates outwards, indicating where something is (and requiring no more than a simple "push A"). To make it more difficult, they added a "reaper warning", that if you scan too much all of a sudden the Reapers show up (with their Inception horn), and if they touch your ship, "Game over man, game over!" The dredging grind of acquiring X of Y material so that you can research Z upgrade of 2 is gone here, but unfortunately so is the exploration of worlds that was present in 1, as most of this was for nothing more than side quests (which would in turn raise your 'war assets').

Wrap up

Overall, I would say the Trilogy is well worth picking up - but I strongly would suggest that you start at Mass Effect 1 if you plan to do so. For me, at least, the game is so much more about your connection to the characters than it is the overall story or mechanics, and the best way I can phrase it is like this:
If you hop into Lord of the Rings at the scenes in Moria, having no knowledge of what happens prior or later, do you fully care as to why everyone is so sad after the "You shall not pass!" scene?
Don't deny yourself the connection to the characters. Play it from the start, enjoy the journey (even if the super-end is a little lackluster), and then enjoy playing the multiplayer (which for the most part thus far has been free content updates). It's a fun universe to get into, and you rarely get to see this kind of fine tuning and change across a series of games.