I want to start with a disclaimer. I was a shameless Mass Effect fan. I was also incredibly disappointed and bitter with the Mass Effect 3 ending. It is very likely that since you are reading this, you are at the very least a casual gamer, so not even living in a cave would have allowed you to escape the news of the controversy surrounding the ending to Mass Effect 3. Hence, I won’t go over what the big deal was. It took me about a week to complete Mass Effect 3 back in 2012 and I never picked the game up again as I swore off the franchise in bitterness and anger.
When Mass Effect Andromeda was announced several years ago, I casually shrugged and went on with my day. I had no plans to get it as I was still incensed. Then screenshots were released. I was impressed with the visuals, but still not swayed from my decision to move away from the franchise. Then I saw gameplay videos. “Hmmmmm…” I thought. “Andromeda actually shows a lot of potential.” Then I saw even more gameplay videos and a walkthrough online. My impenetrable wall of steadfast refusal began to crack. I began to admit that I actually liked what I saw. Unfortunately, there was still the nagging problem of Mass Effect 3 and my loss of trust. Which got me thinking…maybe I should go and play the entire trilogy back-to-back along with all of the story DLC from Mass Effect 3. I had already deleted the game from my hard drive by the time ME3 DLC released, so I really didn’t know what impact it had on the game. After more thought, I decided to do it.
Mass Effect 1
Originally, Mass Effect 1 was an Xbox 360 exclusive title. Any questions to BioWare about a PC version were responded to with statements that the Xbox 360 will be the supported platform for the foreseeable future. So I purchased the Xbox 360 version when it released. Three months later, BioWare announced that they were going to do a PC port. Yea.
The original Xbox 360 version was enjoyable for the time period, but also very rough around the edges. Load times were abysmally slow, especially in places where you wouldn’t think they should be, like in elevators moving between levels. When you brought up your character screen, the armor graphics and patterns would still be rendering on Commander Shepard. The physics model was janky. The Mako tank was laughably difficult to control and planets were barren wastelands with almost 1990s flight simulator level graphics.
I transitioned to the PC for Mass Effect 2 and 3, so I got a PC copy of Mass Effect 1 as well. Surprisingly, even though I was running an i7 with 12 gig of RAM and a GTX 970 FTW+ graphics card, Mass Effect 1 still had the same basic shortcomings of the Xbox 360 version. The load times were not abysmally slow, but they were still relatively slow considering my hardware. Graphics still occasionally rendered slowly on character screens, the physics model was still janky, and the Mako tank still controlled like a tank that weighed about 10 lbs and had the steering wheel operating in reverse.
That said, the game definitely looked a lot better than the Xbox 360 with sharper and more detailed textures and higher resolutions. The gameplay in ME1 feels sort of like a 3rd person Halo with no jumping. You run. You shoot. There is no sticky cover mechanic, so instead you just side step behind a wall or some generic box. Weapons use an overheat mechanic instead of ammunition. To be frank, I found the gameplay to be rather dated, especially when I considered the grind like nature of the Mako and side missions. However, the story and character development for ME1 is still amazing and it drives the game forward.
Mass Effect 2
BioWare made some big changes to gameplay in Mass Effect 2. The graphics on the PC were noticeably improved and a lot more art assets were added. The game ran smoothly with none of the graphical rendering problems that plagued ME1. They introduced a true cover system with sticky cover. Weapons were no longer cooldown based and instead had a more familiar ammo clip mechanic. Speaking of mechanics, the shooting combat was improved as well, but controversially, the powers and biotics went through an overhaul that took a number of RPG elements out of the game. The controls were much better, although still a bit clunky. The sticky cover didn’t always stick you to the cover you wanted while at other times, it would stick you to cover when you didn’t want to.
Thankfully, there was no Mako. A new hovertank called the Hammerhead was introduced and while it was a massive improvement over the Mako, it was only used in the Project Overlord DLC to any real effect. The state of the game had changed to where the Hammerhead really wasn’t needed. I appreciated the effort though. Side missions were much more focused and all had their own unique environments instead of the generic looking corridors and caves of ME 1. There was still a bit of a grind to obtain resources for weapon and ability upgrades, but it was far less than all the running around that you did in ME1.
Where BioWare knocked it out of the park was the story for ME2. It was quite simply amazing. I found it far superior to ME 1. Revered teammates from the original returned or made an appearance while the new teammates that were introduced where just as interesting. You invest a lot into the story and characters. Your decisions carry weight and have major impacts on not just the outcome of the game, but the outcome of your team. I loved ME2 then and I found that I still loved it today. Sure, there are some things in the game that are dated, but for the most part, it holds up very well.
Mass Effect 3
And here we are. Mass Effect 3. When I started the game, the improvements in productions values are readily apparent. Even in Mass Effect 2, there were some low resolution art assets in the game, but Mass Effect 3 was absolutely gorgeous throughout. The controls were excellent and the cover system was refined to where you would stick to the wall you wanted and not inadvertently stick to a wall when you didn’t want to. It had finally shaken enough of the clunkiness of the previous two outings to be considered smooth…enough. The powers and biotics system went through another overhaul, but not as drastic as from ME1 to ME2. Shooting mechanics were refined and all around better. Side missions retained their unique look and feel, but carried a bit more importance. There was little to no grind for resources. Teammates from ME1 and ME2 returned or made cameos while even more teammates were introduced, both playable and unplayable. Until the controversial end, the story was absolutely amazing, to the point of motion picture quality. The feeling of desperation and sadness was expertly conveyed in the writing and voice acting. There were…sacrifices that really hit you in the feels. The story carried some very heavy weight and if you had been there from the beginning, it will caused any number of emotions to run through you.
Mass Effect 3 was a massive improvement in clearly measurable aspects compared to the first two…and yet the elephant in the room is still the ending. Again, I had not picked up the game since my original playthrough back in 2012. I had invested so much emotionally into the game only to be so utterly disappointed, I couldn’t bring myself to play it again. That was five years ago. Even though I knew what was going to happen at the end, the second playthrough was surprisingly a great experience. Yes…I was incredibly surprised myself. I actually have to walk back some of my biggest criticisms I felt from my first play experience. That said,there are tangible reasons why.
Mass Effect 3 Expansions
First, this is not the exact same game I played from the original release. There is additional DLC, the most important being the free Extended Cut DLC that Bioware released in an attempt to set things right with fans who felt cheated. As I mentioned before, I am not going to rehash the controversy because it has been savagely beaten to death. I will say that the Extended Cut seemed like a genuine effort to improve the ending and provide closure for longtime fans. I won’t say that it was the best closure, but it was an acceptable and appropriate enough closure for the trilogy, for Commander Shepard’s fate, the fate of his team, and the fate of the greater Mass Effect universe. I was…satisfied, even if sad.
The second most important DLC was Leviathan which was released five months after the original game. This is an area where BioWare and/or EA deserve a significant amount of scorn. Given the circumstances of the ending of ME3, the timing of the release of Leviathan breaks the continuity of the main story arc. You are literally playing this content after the plot has for better or worse been resolved. What makes this a huge issue is that Leviathan answered a number of very important questions about the Reapers. The answers provided in Leviathan were also integral in helping the player make sense of the ending scenes of the original game. It is absolutely outrageous that essential story based material was held back as payable DLC and released five months after the game came out.
The last two DLCs, Citadel and Omega, I enjoyed immensely. Neither was necessary to the plot of the overall game, but they both provided wonderful story arcs in their own right. Citadel provided a bit of mystery, action, reflection, and much needed humor that made your new and old companions even more endearing…and their possible loss all the more painful. Omega allowed you to explore the underworld of Aria and closed out a story arc that was initiated in the Mass Effect comic book series. Both DLCs were enjoyable, well designed, and did a great job of improving an already great overall story.
So what now?
So five years later, I find that I thoroughly enjoyed Mass Effect 3, to the point where I must come to terms that it was a much better overall game than my personal favorite, Mass Effect 2. The caveat is that Mass Effect 3 only achieves its greatness when played with the DLC content. I think it also achieves this greatness when you play the games back-to-back and are able to see the evolutionary improvements of each game in a shorter time of reference. I really wish that Mass Effect 3 had originally released with all the DLC content in it, but hopefully BioWare/EA has learned from what I feel was a big mistake.
That said, I hope that Mass Effect Andromeda doesn’t repeat those very public mistakes, but I guess I will find out soon since I am once again a shameless Mass Effect fan and have pre-ordered the game. We shall see.