The Greatest Games: Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Developed by BioWare

Being the middle episode of a planned trilogy can come with some issues. The first episode gets to capture our imaginations with whatever new world the story is introducing to us, while the third will hopefully be able to tie together all those concepts established in the earlier entries. The second entry is essentially the load-bearing beam, sometimes serving as an extended second act. In something like Mass Effect, this second episode has to build up the threat established in the first game while doing little to truly advance the resolution.

While carrying this burden, Mass Effect 2 manages to excel by focusing on a different part of its narrative. Where the other two are stories of the galaxy at large, Mass Effect 2 hones in on the personal. This is Seven Samurai in space, the story of Commander Shepard as he brings together the perfect team for an apparent suicide mission.

Part of the excellence of this series is the deeply intriguing species. In the first game, the alien party members could sometimes feel overly expository, like they were teaching courses in Quarian 101. The characters in Mass Effect 2 tend to come from extremes in their society, resulting in more specific viewpoints. Samara is a justicar, a force which upholds justice within asari society. Grunt is a krogan grown in a tube purely for combat purposes. Thane Krios introduces the drell species, who appear doomed to shortened life spans after the decline of their homeworld. Saved by the hanar, Thane was raised from his childhood to be an assassin for this other species. While introducing a new species and adding heavier lore to a minor species from the original, Thane’s story is still focused on his personal struggle coping with his history and disease. Even Garrus has abandoned the disciplined nature of his species and gone rogue. This is a band of outsiders, only willing to join Shepard out of righteousness or recklessness.

Of course, plenty of other video games imitate the Seven Samurai narrative – that is essentially the central formula of the JRPG. Unfortunately, many of these games feature little beyond a bit of back story and some dialogue. In something like Final Fantasy, only a few party member ever seem to get extended focus; party members operate more as a collective than individuals.

It’s no coincidence that my two favorite RPG games are structured around learning about the party members. In Mass Effect 2, the central missions in the first half of the game involve gathering these people from their disparate locations. These episodes set the scene, establishing what makes this specific character special. In the second half, Shepard is also given the option to pursue loyalty missions, diving deeper into their personal concerns. Thus, most characters get not just one but two full segments dedicated to them specifically. Additionally, with all the inherent tension of the races and organizations involved, there are some moments where two party members come into conflict, requiring Shepard to talk them down. These are brief but necessary reminders about how this galactic civilization is barely holding itself together.

This also makes the finale more effective. On a suicide run where literally any character can die, having well-defined party members is essential. The structure of this finale is also exceptional. The game thankfully drops the good vs. bad system and instead relies on the player actually picking the right choices for each job, while also punishing the player for not investing into their ship and allies. This can obviously be negated by the save system, but much like Undertale, simply knowing the possibility for absolute failure actually exists changes the perspective. Unfortunately, the idiot Shepard I created in the first Mass Effect met an untimely end.

On a gameplay level, this is a total improvement over the original Mass Effect. This is the third-person shooter at its best, throwing in some fun extras; while Mass Effect 3 refined this further, it’s still excellent here. With the various loyalty missions requiring the participation of the relevant party member, there’s also a reason to make a full tour of each member’s ability. The level design is also a major improvement – in the original Mass Effect, side quests reused the same assets constantly. Here, each location has a unique design. Any story-rich video game I have played multiple times for the gameplay itself is an obvious winner.

Despite the middle episode of a trilogy traditionally serving as a bridge, Mass Effect 2 is the rare example which could stand on its own. The narrative dives deeper into lore beyond grand historical conflicts, the ending is perhaps the most explosive finale a game has ever pulled off, and this is all while featuring one of the strongest casts the medium has ever seen. With all of this being backed by an inventive and addictive action-RPG hybrid system, Mass Effect 2 is an unforgettable experience.

The Greatest Games: Mass Effect 3 (2012)

Mass Effect 3 (2012)
Developed by BioWare

How wonderful it would have been to experience a game like this before the internet outrage machine. It felt as though everyone had made up their mind about this game’s awful ending before even touching the game itself. And that ending certainly put a damper on my experience – after playing the first two Mass Effect games multiple times, I only bothered with a single playthrough of Mass Effect 3. There seemed to be little point in seeing how my choices would affect things when the series ended in a funnel. But this is an epic RPG, and focusing so much on a failed landing ignores everything else which this game does remarkably well.

Mass Effect 2 transformed the original game’s wonky combat system into one of the best I have ever experienced, and Mass Effect 3 builds upon that. The RPG mechanics naturally lock the player into a certain role, but the addition of cooperative multiplayer missions give the option to experience tons of styles. I mentioned before that I only played through this game once, and while part of that was due to the ending, another part is that the game simply offered more chances to experience all the different styles without needing to start a new campaign. While integrating success here into the campaign was a questionable choice, this decision did force an active community into what turned out to be one of the game’s strongest aspects. There’s also the simple pleasure of finally being able to play as the other species in the series, each coming with their own abilities.

Like so many other choice-based experiences, Mass Effect 3 makes up for a lack of true control by having consistently stellar writing – the real reason the ending is so bad is not the lack of impact from previous decisions but by the entire experience feeling disconnected and poorly written when compared to everything else. They tried to go the 2001 route without surrealism, and this is simply not what the series was building toward. This feels particularly egregious because the rest of the game juggles so much more with style.

Each of the Mass Effect games capture the galaxy in a different atmosphere, and the apocalyptic nature of 3 fulfills what the series was promising would happen. Watching these worlds being attacked is devastating, which really emphasizes our investment in these alien species.  The biggest success in this story is managing to focus on the interspecies conflicts which have been brewing since the first installment. Everything comes to a head here. One would think people would come together in such dire circumstances, but so many of these species have been pushed to the edge. A galactic civilization built upon acts of genocide, several species doubt their survival whether or not the reapers kill them all. Many games with dire situations can feel like the protagonist is being distracted by minor squabbles, but this game benefits from the series having weaved an intricate political web. Even with the entire galaxy falling apart, every minor issue has a sense of urgency because Shepard needs everyone unified without distractions.

Despite one glaring flaw, Mass Effect 3 feels like everything fans could have wanted – an oppressive atmosphere, strong writing and callbacks, all wrapped around a perfect third-person shooter/RPG hybrid.

The Greatest Games: Mass Effect (2007)

Mass Effect (2007)
Developed by BioWare

Would Mass Effect even be a Western RPG series without promising a ton of stuff it would never pull off? Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that it almost managed this incredible feat – practically everything went off without a hitch besides that infamous ending. Not even the entire final act, but the last fifteen minutes was enough for certain people to toss aside the entirety of what was otherwise among the most fulfilling stories to emerge from gaming. We only got this invested in the first place due to the strong beginning.

It’s difficult to think of another game that establishes a new universe so effectively, especially in a science fiction setting. Humans are the latest species to join galactic civilization. An ancient network of relays allows near-instantaneous travel across space. Commander Shepard becomes the first human Spectre, special agents granted nearly unrestrained authority by the central governing body. Some great menace is lurking at the threshold, and it is Shepard’s job to both figure out what is happening and convince the Council to take this threat seriously.

What sets Mass Effect apart from so many other fantasy worlds is the intricate histories and conflicts of its various races. The battle between the quarians and geth starts off as the most straightforward. The quarians created an artificial race, grew nervous, and ended up losing a war against their own creations. With the quarians stuck aboard a Migrant Fleet and the geth now joining the bad guys, it’s easy to choose sides (for now).

The conflict between the krogans and salarians is a lot ickier. Galactic civilization was nearly overrun by another species known as rachni until the krogans were discovered. The salarians turned this primitive race into a weapon, only to neuter the species once they, too, started to be perceived as a threat. Both sides have a perfect argument. The salarians essentially committed genocide, but the krogan really are that dangerous. Of the major races, only the turians and asari really seem to have their stuff together.

The character designs are top-notch. All of these species have unforgettable appearances. Both the krogan and turians are reminiscent of dinosaurs, but in very different ways. The bulky krogans carry raw strength while the slender turians are far more graceful. Asari are more humanoid, though other species seem convinced of their own similarities. The quarians are mysteries, forced to wear full-body suits due to their weakened immune systems. Mass Effect avoids the trope of sci-fi stories tossing us dozens of bizarre designs as background characters; each of these species has an explanation for their evolution. Mixed with their rich histories, BioWare was able to emphasize the plights of these individual species with nuance.

In classic BioWare fashion, this game is all about an interactive narrative where the player can make big decisions. While the system they use offers little freedom (consistency is rewarded), the mere possibility of another path is compelling. The story is strong enough that I ended up doing three separate playthroughs (one good, one bad, one consistently making poor choices). The game is also loaded with side quests, most offering their own intense choices.

The party members are of varying quality – what would have otherwise been a jaw-dropping moment is reduced by the mundanity of the human party members – but the best are some of my favorite video game characters. Tali and Liara need the sequels to really come into their own, but krogan Urdnot Wrex and turian Garrus Vakarian are unforgettable. The krogan could have easily been a background species, existing more as a potential threat than true characters. Having one on the central team offers a perfect window into their disturbing history and disparate culture. Wrex’s blunt nature also leads into a lot of the best lines. Garrus’s character arc is one of the trilogy’s strongest suits, with his struggle between following the law and true justice being perfectly established here.

The combat system is something else – BioWare mixes third-person shooter mechanics with an RPG power system. While this can be a bit wonky and is perfected in the later games, the series really hit upon something with this combination. I mentioned playing through this game three times to see various ways the stories could unfold, but I would have never wasted my time if the gameplay wasn’t equally engrossing.

Mass Effect is the beginning of a beautiful trilogy; while the gameplay might show its age when compared to the sequels, its sense of world-building is matched by few others. By setting up an entire galaxy where half the species seem on the verge of slaughtering another, it established a complex narrative rife with palpable tension which would ultimately sustain the entire trilogy. While the sequels would feature more dangerous external threats, the original made sure to inform us the galaxy was doing a perfectly good job imploding on its own.