I came into some money a few weeks ago. A few guilt-ridden minutes later, I gave it a good wipe and gave it to EA in exchange for Mass Effect 3 and its DLC, and then ran a single save game all the way through the trilogy.
As the first instalment in this venerable series, Mass Effect I has aged rather poorly when compared to its successors. The inventory system is as intuitive and simple-to-use as a Rubix cube submerged in treacle, and both companions and enemies wander around the battlefield paying no attention to cover, so combat basically devolves into Brownian motion. Commander Bumwipe Shepard stares at everyone as if they’re all topless and he’s desperate to maintain eye contact, and the film grain effect gave me a headache until I turned it off.
Where ME1 shines is with its storytelling. Even the most passing reference to anything comes with a few paragraphs on the subject at hand, which works well as an in-game glossary (but not so much if you try to read the lot). The story is basic “evil dude wants to destroy the galaxy”, but this is small potatoes compared to all the political stuff going on around you.
There’s also some open-world sections in a somewhat floaty vehicle, the “Marmite” section of ME1. I personally really like these, as they make the universe feel larger than the few hundred prefabricated rooms interspersed with space vistas that permeate the rest of the game.
Then you have Mass Effect 2. It has a nice variety of missions, from recovering the logs from a crashed spaceship, to sabotaging mercenary bases, to finding evidence to exonerate a friend. The companion roster verges on being slightly too large – especially when you get the two DLC characters – but they’re all interesting and flawed in some way that lends more weight to proceedings. The combat is much improved and the Vanguard class turns this cover-based shooter into more of a run-and-gun affair (in case you get bored of living).
The companion roster verges on being too large, but they’re all interested and flawed in some way
The story is much less black-and-white than before, where you start off working for what was previously labelled a terrorist organisation that seem to be the only ones willing to face up to impending galactic doom. Easily my favourite game developed by Bioware. The only real issue I have with ME2 is that they ditched the open-world vehicle sections for material scanning (which brings all the excitement of wandering a beach with a metal detector), and that you can permanently gimp your damage with many weapons if you accidentally progress in a level before fully exploring the area.
Then finally, Mass Effect 3 brings up the rear (Andromeda doesn’t count). Unfortunately, this game came out when EA started making a conscientious effort to win the “worst company in America award” – twice. The infamous ending has since been patched to be a bit better, apparently. I wouldn’t know, I’ve only played the post-patch version. And on its own, even the patched ending seems nonsensical, but is a bit better explained in DLC, because of course it is. And they got rid of most of the scanning – woo – but they also got rid of most of the side-missions and exploration – boo.
That’s not to say ME3 doesn’t have its merits - the series’ gameplay is at its slickest here
That’s not to say that ME3 doesn’t have its merits. The gameplay is at its slickest, allowing customisable loadouts with their own strengths and weaknesses, giving you more tactical agency. Returning characters give a greater sense of danger, especially since some of them straight-up die (fuckin’ spoiler warning).
Its DLC is great, but this comes across as a bit of a double-edged sword, because it’s so well written it ends up overshadowing most of the baseline content. The Citadel pack in particular throws a wooden shoe into the works, what with its hilarious vaguely self-referential dialogue and occasional touching moments that form the absolute zenith of the franchise’s writing.
In all, this three-game odyssey has felt very much worth its investment. While the consistency between the three games is best equated to that of a chicken and gravel curry, on their own they are good, and strung together they form something greater than the sum of their parts.