Mass Effect Versus Mode: Gameplay Round

Welcome to the first installment of my extensive comparative review of all three games in the Mass Effect series.

The first Mass Effect game introduces us to Shepard and her world. We learn about the human Alliance in relation to the Citadel Council aliens who actually control the known galaxy. The universe unfolds compellingly and beautifully. And this is coming from someone with a definite distaste for the shallow, technical nature of most science fiction. The Mass Effect universe is one of politics, glorious, intriguing, wonderful, adventure-filled politics. The moment I first stepped on to the grand Citadel as Shepard, I was hooked. The space magic that is “biotics” doesn’t hurt either.

Mass Effect 2 takes the world we received in the first game and makes it bigger, populates it with more interesting denizens and conflicts in truly epic fashion. Mass Effect 3 then takes the varied, exciting world and ties it all together.

But that’s just the beginning. I’ve played all three games through a few times, and I find they all have different appealing and unappealing qualities. So I’m going to pit them against each other and declare a winner. For this round, I’m not going to touch the story, because that’s a whole other universe.

Ready? Fight!

Many, many spoilers ahead.

Points of Comparison

Combat Controls

The original Mass Effect‘s PC controls are sufficient but a bit sloppy. I ended up playing mostly from the HUD on the space bar, which isn’t terrible, but it makes for a much slower game. Mass Effect 2 is more streamlined and sensible. Mass Effect 3 is even more so, with the addition of some new movement aspects. Unfortunately, because Mass Effect 3 gives almost every function to the space bar, that means walls are sticky when storming, which is problematic any time I’m trying to do something near a wall in a hurry, like healing a friend or running for my life.

I would give the point to ME2 for smoothness, but I can’t deny that ME3 was more interesting, so one point for ME3.

Skills and Abilities

I prefer the original Mass Effect’s skill charts. They are detailed with a lot of options, a couple points every level and you can put them where you like, unlocking new things as you go. ME2 and ME3’s skill point layouts are streamlined but less interesting. And because each rank of an ability costs more and more points, the sense of instant small reward is gone in favor of saving up for later.

I also prefer the original Mass Effect’s skill controls because each ability has its own cooldown. By the end of the game, as an Adept, I can effectively be a space wizard and never use my pistol. ME2 and 3 making each ability’s cooldown affect all abilities globally is a real downer. It means any ability that is less than amazing goes unused the whole game and that sucks. I like using all of my things. If the logic is to keep players feeling like soldiers instead of space wizards, fine, but I still disapprove.

Two points for the original.

I am a Space Wizard!

Mass Effect Adept Gameplay: Space Wizardry (.mov)

Equipment

Equipment in the original Mass Effect is ludicrously detailed and unwieldy. It’s too easy to spend more time making sure everybody has the best possible equipment and the best mods for the next particular fight. On the one hand, being able to dress my companions in hilarious armor is a joy. On the other, it feels like such a waste of time that I could be using to shoot things. The streamlining in ME2 takes most of that overkill out of my hands, thank goodness. I do miss playing dress-up with my companions. Having a couple alternate uniforms just isn’t the same. But the piece-by-piece or whole-suit uniforms for Shepard in ME2 and ME3 are so much easier to manage.

Pretty in pink

I like the idea of future space soldiers carrying every possible kind of weapon around with them everywhere they go, because why not, they’re cheap and light, and conveniently fit on your back in the original Mass Effect. But it was generally pointless having an Infiltrator with a shotgun or an Adept with a sniper rifle. ME2‘s weapon system goes in the opposite direction a bit too far, restricting my capacity for choice to which weapon of the types I’m allowed. ME3 does it best allowing me to choose whichever weapons I want, modify them in a much simpler manner than the original, and only restrict my choices based on how long I’m willing to let my ability cooldowns get. It’s an excellent balance of choice, smooth operation, and practicality.

As for ammunition, I much prefer the overheating system of the original Mass Effect. Running out of ammo and having none around to pick up when you aren’t a space magician by trade really sucks. Overheating punishes you for trying to do too much too fast or encountering something that sets your weapons on fire. Ammunition that runs out punishes you for having terrible aim. As someone who rarely plays shooters, that makes me cry.

You know how Zaeed has Jessie? Meet Gary.

Two points for ME3 for equipment and weapon systems, and a point for the original for not using ammunition.

Resource Gathering

I love exploring and the original Mass Effect gives me ample opportunity to plop down on random different worlds and drive my clunky tank all over looking for secret surprises. It’s beautiful. I like that on some planets it’s dangerous to go outside. I find all sorts of exciting things, but ultimately they’re all just credits or omnigel. I like reading about things, but as far as a game that’s not very interesting. I did not like the Frogger hacking game, possibly because it requires real skill and I am terrible at Frogger.

Mass Effect 2 has more interesting resources, different metals for all different sorts of relevant upgrades. But scanning planets to get those metals has to be the most boring thing in the history of ever. I like how side missions pop up as surprise rewards for bothering with being extremely bored, but come on. Years ago, I got to land and drive around, or even walk around. Talk about a step backwards. On the plus side, I love the hacking mini-games. Memory and matching I can handle and I can do them at speed so I actually feel like an expert, instead of miserably slapping omnigel on everything.

Feeling excited yet? I’m so excite — zzzzzzzzzz.

Mass Effect 3’s resources are war-related, which is kind of neat. Unfortunately, the rewards you get for having a lot of war resources are… not. At all. They’re so brief as to be pointless. A middle choice at the end, and maybe a tiny half-second cutscene accompanying one of the endings. I maxed out my resources for that? Blargh. On the plus side, I absolutely loved scanning systems and waking up the Reapers. The secret to enjoying scanning is not just leaving the system when the Reapers show up and coming back later. Finding the best way to duck in and out of the system while avoiding the Reapers and leaving with everything there is to be had is damn exciting. On the minus side, again, ME3 takes away all the minigames. They’re all gone now in favor of progress bars. Lame! I’d rather have Frogger back than nothing at all. I guess we’re supposed to feel like we’re in a hurry, but being so in a hurry we don’t get to play is boring.

One point to each — one for planet landing, one for matching games, and one for Reaper dodging.

Boss Fights

Epic solutions to problems that threaten the whole galaxy should be chock full of awesome, am I right? Too bad the most interesting fight in any of the three games is with a Turian. The original Mass Effect had the Thorian, which is waves of bads, Benezia, waves of bads but interesting, and Saren. I love fighting Saren. I love having one definable bad guy who is very definitely bad. Saren is such a great antagonist in so many ways. The mechanics of Saren’s final fight are a bit stupid. As an Infiltrator, there was nowhere I could hide to line up a  sniper shot, and I spent hours trying to figure it out. Then as an Adept, I just made him float around the room and killed him in about 15 seconds. But the important part is that both ways felt like a great, epic, culminating confrontation.

/throws panties on stage

Mass Effect 2 relies almost exclusively on waves of bads to make up boss fights. Not that the original didn’t have lots of those, too, but where’s my single bad guy for me to build up hatred for? Clearly, it’s Harbinger! So. Much. Hate. But I never get to fight him, at least not in any way that doesn’t just have him popping up again in the nearest Collector. Irritated yawn here. The Thresher Maw is a nice big bad, but even that fight is full of waves. Don’t ever mention Horizon to me. Ever. Picking up Legion? Waves of bads. The final showdown with the human Reaper? Waves of bads. Sigh.

Mass Effect 3 is a bit stuck with the waves of bads theme, considering it’s supposed to be the war to end all wars. There’s no Sovereign. Harbinger has disappeared. Saren’s already dead. I know! The Illusive Man! I hate to disparage Martin Sheen in any way, but as a direct contact enemy he’s not very threatening. He needs his distance to have any menace to him. Who the hell is this Kato kid? Kai Leng? I hear rumors that he was in the novels, but to me he came out of nowhere and has no history with the game. I don’t like him. He’s intruding on the epic wrap-up of this story. His fights are Benezia-style, waves of bads but interesting. But I don’t know him or his motivations, so I don’t feel anywhere near the hate for him I had for Saren. We’re not going to talk about Thane here. Don’t get me started on the end of the game. Waves of bads, not only that, but avoidable waves of bads, just have to wait long enough to be able to dash past all the bad guys and hit a button. Woo, excitement. /sarcasm.

ME3 does have its good points, though. Thresher Maw versus Reaper is so cool, even if my job in it is… to fight past waves of bads. Shepard versus the Reaper on Rannoch is seriously epic. The fight mechanics themselves are boring as hell, dodge, fire, dodge, fire, but going toe-to-toe with a Reaper probably would be exciting even if it’s made of only quick time events.

I have to give the point to the original. Saren is the only fight that actually feels like a culmination of a story. The human Reaper feels too much like a cliffhanger for next season, and ME3 is the essence of missed opportunity.

Graphics

Obviously, graphic designs and engines improve over time, but sometimes that just doesn’t matter even when it should.

Environments

The original Mass Effect has seriously beautiful planets to explore, just awe strikingly gorgeous. Even now that the graphics seem relatively clunky, those planets are still gorgeous. I love the ruined feeling of Feros and its sky highways. I love the claustrophobic overgrowth of Ilos. The Citadel is a fun introduction, especially at the end when Shepard gets to crawl all over it from a new angle. The Normandy… is a ship. I’m not big on ships.

Mass Effect 2 steps it up, but there aren’t as many beautiful planets to just walk around on. Aite from Project Overlord gives flashbacks to the vistas I enjoyed in the previous game, but it’s only one world. Tuchanka looks great for what it is. Illium’s skyscape is inspiring. The MSV Estevanico N7 side mission is absolutely breathtaking. It definitely makes me squeak a few times every time I play it. The Normandy becomes a luxury liner. I approve. I enjoy having my own room and repeatedly killing fish.

You can probably tell I don’t have overwhelming opinions on indoor environments. I am mildly miffed that I can’t explore the Presidium in the subsequent games. That was what made the Citadel’s seedy underbelly seem seedy, and it becomes nothing more than a referential backdrop. ME3’s Citadel is appropriately grungy and chaotic, but there’s very little fanservice for the people who’ve played the previous games. ME3’s Normandy is simplified, dirty, and nasty. Do not like.

ME3 takes us to some new places. We finally get to see the mythical home planets of the other races, Surresh — from inside a lab, Palaven — from the barren face of its moon, Thessia — from inside a temple. Really? Compared to Tuchanka and Illium or Feros and Ilos, we get to see almost nothing. It would be more compelling to see Palaven and Thessia destroyed if we see them whole first. I’m not all that impressed by the version of Earth, either. Phone booths? Really? And I genuinely expected to get a chance to drop in on Kahje and see how the work on that Kepral’s cure was coming. Nope. There are a few nice skyscapes. The ruins on Tuchanka are amazing.

This is a hard sell, so I’ll give them one point each. ME3 had potential to be so much more than it is, so much.

Character Models

The original character models are appropriately smooth BioWare fare. The FemShep eyes leave something to be desired and that applies through all the games. I tried to make my original Shepard as ugly as I could, and somehow I fell absolutely in love with him anyway. The Shepards lack a little bit of the detail that they get in later games, but I miss the scar options, stupid Cerberus. The humans look like humans. The ladies look like ladies without looking like they’re going to fall over. Hairstyles are a bit boring, but they’re soldiers, not celebrities.

The transfer of Shepards from ME to ME2 is decent. All the models are a bit smoother in perfectly lovely ways. No new hair, oh well. Scarface Garrus is gorgeous. Everyone already knows what I think about Thane. Samara is so wonderfully terrifying. Miranda is… Miranda. And poor Jacob. He looks good, but here is a very important life lesson: Never, ever ask a BioWare character model to smile. Ever. It will scar you for life.

Am I right, or am I right?

In ME3 everything goes mutant, what the hell? The detail on the skin — okay, yeah, it’s great that you can mimic reality better than ever before, but do you have to show us how hideous everyone is in reality? At least leave us with some sense of fantasy. Everyone’s face is melty and nasty. Key characters become nigh unrecognizable, such as TIM and Joker. I know Sheen and Green approve of the game because they voiced it, so why did their characters switch faces with strangers? Liara and Ashley get some serious implant work, do not want. FemShep got stretched. Seriously, her torso is strange. Her waist is so much higher than her hips it just freaks me out. And what happened to her skull? It’s all pinched and stretched like a newborn. It’s freaky! Don’t do that! So bad.

There isn’t a lot of variety as far as enemy models in any of the games, but I don’t expect a lot. I’d rather get comfortable with the world than be constantly fed new stuff just for the sake of newness. The enemies generally look great. The gore in ME3 is delicious.

Character model point goes to ME2. Nothing wrong with the original, but the second game improves on it.

Overall

In terms of each game in an overall playability sense, it’s hard to pick a favorite. They all have their positives and negatives, and I enjoy playing all of them. I award the point in the overall category to Mass Effect 2 because it has the least for me to vehemently complain about. I just wish the planet scanning was something else.

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

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