I’ve played through the whole Mass Effect trilogy six times. Additional hours were spent on save-load machinations to discover all of the story branches. I’m scared to think about how much time I invested into these games.
No matter how much you love the game, some of the magic wears off when you replay it so many times. I no longer feel the dramatic tension during the Suicide Mission, I’m no longer impressed by the scope of Reaper invasion, and I don’t even shed a tear when Mordin dies. But when Mass Effect: Legendary Edition was released and the final seventh playthrough began, seeing Shepard’s determined walk across the bridge of Normandy gave me goosebumps again.
This seventh playthrough was the most important to me. It was a farewell to one of the games I considered my favorites when deciding what games were your favorites seemed to mean something. It was also a distancing from and contextualization of the cultural text that impacted me heavily at a particular point in my life. Finally, it was a demonstration of things I really care about in videogames—they are the ones that still work enchanting my sight (or are these just tears in my eyes?).
The first Mass Effect is the most precious to me, and I was delighted enjoying it once again. The game’s opening sequence masterfully teases you with a foretaste of the great space adventure into the unknown. The story leads you through an intense lore-heavy world, compiled of the best ideas popular science fiction ever came up with—an ultimate summary of the genre.
Legendary Edition improves on every technical aspect of Mass Effect. Pushing its combat system to a full-fledged action territory, the game finally achieved its ultimate form. This is the only Mass Effect game I may still consider for a replay sometime in the (far) future. It’s no less than perfect—narrative hooks, mystery baiting, inter-character chemistry, a sense of frontier and discovery, and an overall atmosphere of good old classic sci-fi. Alas, the perfection not stays with the series for long.
Mass Effect 2 is the most popular and loved game in the franchise. I loved it too once. But looking at it from a distance, one may see that its pacing is a total shipwreck. The game’s story exits the highway of the momentum gathered by its predecessor and takes a long detour. The plot is fractured and modulated—for most of the game, Shepard assembles the new Normandy crew while the whole galaxy pretty much awaits when everybody’s ready. There are too many crew members, and their writing is inconsistent. Several DLCs add long questlines that, albeit exciting and enjoyable by themselves, contribute to the plot’s overall lack of direction. Narrative elements and themes are varied and abundant, making the story lose focus.
Nevertheless, the Suicide Mission is one of the most intense narrative experiences in the medium. It works precisely because the game’s main story is so fractured and modulated—everything (except most of the DLCs) gets assembled into a beautiful piece of drama in the end. The impact fades with each new playthrough, but I still vividly remember the first time I infiltrated the Collectors’ base—it’s one of the greatest moments in gaming!
Retrospectively, with all its weak sides, Mass Effect 2 suffered more from the flaws of the next game in the series. Overly invested in fan service and trying extensively to appease everyone, Mass Effect 3 achieved exactly the opposite. Disappointing ending aside, the plot rushed forward, abandoning too many narrative threads that began in Mass Effect 2 and avoiding so many details in the process that the series lost its sense of consistency at the most crucial point—its ending.
Mass Effect 3 succeeds in presenting a galactic war in a very cinematic Hollywood-like way—its epic as well as tragic aspects. The game also succeeds in bringing closure to the stories of dozens of characters—whether they are whole story arcs or mere threads. But like Mass Effect 2, its successes are local. On the more wide scope of things, the trilogy’s story as a whole is a mess.
The scope of ambition, the management chaos of massive projects, the DLC-fixated marketing approach, the pressure from the publisher—many reasons and factors attributed to the shaky, hole-ridden structure of the Mass Effect series. But the foundation and the façade are indeed works of art.
P.S. When inconsistencies are abundant, people tend to force everything into submission by abusing the power of pattern recognition. This way, conspiracy theories are born. The Mass Effect franchise is lucky to inspire one of the most fascinating, creative, and non-destructive conspiracy theories out there—Indoctrination Theory. It’s a masterpiece in its own right—a human superpower of inventing excuses elevated to the art form.