Game Review: The Mass Effect Trilogy, Part 2

Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 at

Rated Mature; Reviewed on PS3 and PC

Part 1 of this series discussed how I’ve spent my time with Mass Effect and the promise of the game.  While we’ll get into the story of the game later every gamer knows the gameplay has to be solid.  While some of us will suffer through terrible gameplay for a good story the reverse is much more often true.  If your gameplay is solid the story can be secondary (or non-existent).  Of course true classics offer both.

One recurring theme here will be that things tended to get simpler as the games were released.  The largest change was between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 where literally dozens of mechanics were simply abandoned (rather than, as many of us had hoped, being improved).  The changes then made to Mass Effect 3 were more subtle but still in the direction of simplification.

This may have been to allow the game to appeal to a broader audience, to allow the team to focus more on the story or simply to meet time and budget targets.  No matter the reason most of the changes most felt like a rather harsh dumbing-down of the gameplay.


The core gameplay of Mass Effect is that of cover-based combat with some tactical squad mechanics.  While specific combat mechanics varied between the games the basic tempo of combat never changed.  As would be expected the mechanics were refined as the games progressed with features like weapon heat, power cool-down, power interactions and so forth being tweaked and expanded with each game.

Combat is based on a rather simple four-state defense system and combat styles determined by a class system.  Combatants (including yourself) feature health, armor, shields or biotic barriers.  Weapons and powers are tuned to be specifically effective against specific defenses.  An additional refinement is that combatants may be either organic or synthetic and, of course, specific weapons and powers have different impacts depending on the target type.

Due to this combat quickly becomes very much a paint-by-numbers affair.  While there are deeper tactics available you rarely needed them to progress.  Enter the combat zone and find cover.  See a barrier?  Use Overload.  See armor?  Use Incinerate.  Shoot while the power recharges with the appropriate ammo.  As these effects (and even indicators for which powers would be effective against the targeted enemy) appear in the HUD you never really need to know much about your foes.  I’ve written a small poem to help you remember:

If you see Red, shoot ’till they dead.
If you see yellow, burn that fellow.
If you see blue, Overload’s for you.
If you see purple, Warp should be hurtled.

Got it?  The system is essentially a sci-fi variation on the traditional elemental strengths and weaknesses featured in pretty much every fantasy RPG.

Combat mechanics changed as the games evolved; generally for the better.  The “steadiness” issues with untrained snipers from the first game essentially disappeared as did weapon-based skill levels for that matter.  Mass Effect 3 did add a little welcome meat to the melee option but in truth it was really very little.  It also expanded the effects each power hand eliminating the issue of a character too weighted towards specific enemy types.

The Mass Effect Trilogy shares a fundamental problem with most open-world role-playing games in that combat tends to become repetitive as the hours pile up.  The roster of enemies is limited and their combat intelligence even more so.  Throughout the games we take on Geth, pirates, various mercenary bands, slavers, Cerberus soldiers and reaper hordes… but they all tend toward similar tactics and more importantly can generally be defeated with the same tactics.  Combat is solid and fun but there are any number of games that do it just as well or better.

The Economy

The economy of the Mass Effect universe is based almost exclusively on weapons.  Weapons, weapons, some armor, weapons, a few fish and model spaceships and more weapons.  Every merchant is an arms dealer.  “Credits” may be the unit of currency, but all credits are good for is buying weapons (and, yes, the occasional fish).

Mass Effect featured crates, boxes, trucks, lockers and hidey-holes – all full of weapons.  You managed your loadout via a complex inventory system of weapons, upgrades and armor.  Unwanted items could be converted to “Omni-gel” (basically tech juice that allowed you to attempt hacks and bypasses if your skills were adequate) but not sold or traded.  The equipment modification system was clumsy and difficult to manage as resources were singular (an upgrade could only be used by one character at a time) and it lacked a centralized interface.  The differences in the various weapons (multiple manufacturers with ten quality levels for each) were obtuse and too subtle to matter most of the time.

Mass Effect 2 eliminated almost all of this.  Weapons could no longer be modified and upgrades became found items funded by extremely simple resource gathering.  Area collection devolved to a few simple targets which yielded credits, upgrades or mission information.  There were far fewer weapons available and as they could be used by all characters at the same time no inventory system was needed.  Only the main character could wear armor and secondary characters were limited to a very small subset of weapons making character management almost meaningless.

Mass Effect 3 returned the weapon modification system but eliminated the upgrade system.  Weapons were more plentiful with several levels of each but secondary characters were still heavily restricted and still had no armor options.  In all the system used in ME3 was more engaging than that used in ME2 but still radically more simplistic than that of ME.

Personally I felt that was a bit of shame.  Like many role-playing gamers I do find some joy in outfitting my characters and trying different combinations of offense and defense.  An interface that would have allowed one to manage the gear of all the characters at once would have solved nearly all my concerns from Mass Effect, but instead they scrapped the entire concept.

Additionally I would have liked to have seen a more fully realized economy.  There were many obvious opportunities for salable items and resource collection. Thresher Maw claws?  Varren teeth?  Collecting and hoarding crap and selling it to fund weapon upgrades is a time-honored tradition in RPGs.  While the latter two games introduced basic decorations for my cabin (limited to either fish or model spacecraft) and there were several one-off purchases related to fetch quests there was never any sense of inhabiting a living, breathing galactic market.

Exploration (or “Where the Hell is my little Car?”)

Exploration in Mass Effect was admittedly broken but existed in a meaningful way.  Visiting each and every planet was worthwhile.  You couldn’t always land but sometimes you found something anyway.  When you could land you did so in your little car and were able to drive around scouring the surface for resources (which immediately became credits to fuel the gun-based economy), crashed probes, random pirate bases and other points of interest.  Sometimes you got attacked – by giant thresher maws, Geth or pirates and had to retaliate.  You could leverage the vehicle’s weapons or decide to exit it and take enemies from afar with your sniper rifle or barrel in guns blazing.  The choice was yours.

Instead of improving this flawed but enjoyable mechanic in the second game they basically eliminated it.  Exploration reduced to an orbital mini-game that was simply tedious rather than fun.  While very rarely you would be looking for a landing zone that you’d been informed of most of this effort was to collect raw materials that could be spent on the various upgrade options that you had found or purchased.  The problem was that it took very little time to collect enough resources to fund all your upgrades.  Coupled with the marked lack of random encounters this made the whole system just fade into uselessness early in the game.

Mass Effect 3 simplified things even further.  The entire concept of resource-based upgrades was eliminated as was random planetary probing.  Now entire systems could be scanned quickly (if slightly more dangerously) and only those few planets with useful items (almost exclusively oddly placed, non-interactive war assets) could then be found.  In both ME2 and ME3 your cool little car was replaced by an incredibly ugly shuttle that you never get to actually drive.

(It is worth noting that a more agile little car made a welcome, if brief, appearance as DLC for Mass Effect 2.  It really wasn’t the same however and just felt like cheap, but still appreciated, fan service.)

The Verdict

All three of the games were very good, however by making the decision to radically simplify the gameplay as the series progressed players were left without many options.  Managing inventory, haggling with merchants, crafting and exploring unknown areas provide us RPG players with down-time.  It’s something else to do within the game when we’ve overloaded on combat or the seriousness of the main story or just want to spend few minutes in-game without a lot of pressure.

By all but eliminating these options Mass Effect does tighten the player’s focus but also reduces their investment in the world and other characters.  I believe that overall these trade-offs worked for Bioware, but do regret not seeing how much they could have brought to the table had they chosen the alternate paths.

In the third part of the series I’ll focus on the character and story development in the Mass Effect universe.


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