Rob’s Three Favorite Mass Effect Games, Ranked

3. Mass Effect 2: Without mild, polite contrarianism, I am nothing. Therefore, the consensus best game of the original Mass Effect trilogy finds itself glued to the bottom of this list. But ME2 is not here just so I can be an insufferable hipster; ME2 does the worst job of the three of being anything other than a cover shooter. You march down hallways, you take cover, and you wait for an opening in the enemy’s firing patterns to take your own shots. The whole game is like this, and the special abilities of the various non-soldier classes don’t actually do much to open up combat. Later in the game, certain classes may find better opportunities to open up combat without getting Shepard’s head blown off, but it’s going to be a while.

Missions are extremely linear, and encounters have an unfortunate tendency to stock enemies in areas that Shepard can’t get to, because they’re considered out of bounds. The weapon upgrade system is so simplistic, I’m not sure why they bothered. ME2 also offers the least and least interesting exploration; side quests are almost non-existent, which I suppose isn’t the end of the world since there’s a ton of story missions to get through, but further demonstrates how ME2 is a game with few interesting wrinkles. Also, Lair of the Shadow Broker is the best part of the game, by far, and it was originally DLC. Granted, it’s included with Legendary Edition and just about every other version of the game you’re likely to come across these days, but a better game wouldn’t have needed to add on its own coolest mission, you know?

2. Mass Effect: I still love the first Mass Effect, warts and all. With the exception of the stat-based weapon aiming – hindsight is 20/20 and all, but in hindsight it’s really, really hard to see what possessed the development team to make weapon aim stat-based – I can’t help but admire the first game’s commitment to weirdness. First and foremost, this is the only game in the trilogy that lets you truly explore optional planets. The Mako tank gets a lot of hate, but you could power that S.O.B. up an 80-degree incline if you were patient, and possessed the courage of your convictions. The mineral retrieval minigame was a little too simplistic, but poking around trying to find each planet’s deposits was a delight. Mako combat was a bit sluggish, to be sure, as the dang thing simply didn’t have tight enough controls and took an eternity and a half to repair, but it’s especially fun to rampage all over normal enemies in that thing like it’s no problem at all.

Since I’m on the subject of exploration, I must acknowledge that yes, almost every optional dungeon is a layout swap of some other optional dungeon (there’s maybe 5 or 6 unique layouts, total). That’s a drag, but if you ask me, ME2 may have unique map layouts for every mission, but even though they’re unique, they’re all the same; march in, take cover, go on offense when you can. Even with its janky combat, ME1 gives the player a lot of freedom to wreck encounter groups as they see fit; you needn’t glue yourself to the nearest cover and wait to pick your spots. All of that said, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the inventory management, which is a baffling ordeal. Have fun sorting through piles and piles of obsolete weapons and armor until the heat death of the universe.

1. Mass Effect 3: ME3 is my favorite game in the series, by far, because it does the best job of integrating its cover shooter and RPG elements. The battle environments are fully open – if you can see it, you can probably access it – so even a Soldier Shepard will have plenty of opportunities to bust out of cover and use their abilities to wreck the enemy plans. The player also has a vast suite of simple, but intriguing build options. Each class has a new ability that adds fun new wrinkles to combat, and there are all sorts of fun build combinations. The melee function, introduced in ME2, has been made useful, giving you even more tactical options. I also love how you can choose which guns to bring each mission, but bringing more guns slows your power recharge times. It forces you to make decisions on how much you’ll rely on guns and how much you’ll rely on powers. The weapon modification system is simple, but presents enough unique combinations to be interesting, and I appreciate that you can buy the best weapons in the game. Like, in a shop. Crazy, right? All of these mechanics are streamlined and implemented in a simple way, but present enough unique wrinkles to make every playthrough feel different. This is exactly the kind of variety ME2 is missing.

All of that said, I have two big beefs with this game. The first is the lack of enemy variety. There are really only three different types of enemies, and one of them is only present in a substantial but not-terribly-long cluster of missions. Speaking as someone who had tons of fun with the game’s online multiplayer mode back in the day, I would have gladly sacrificed said multiplayer for more enemy variety, without hesitation. Also, I have to talk about the ending. Without spoiling anything, I gotta say, the ending is fucking garbage.

The early 2010’s were a confusing and insecure time for video games. There was a lot of debate going on back then about whether video games were works of art, and for a while a lot of the more ambitious titles, the Mass Effect trilogy included, attempted to establish their artistic bonafides through depth of storytelling. Over the course of the last decade, this debate receded as pop discourse became less snobbish and game designers realized that the artistic merit of games was not derived from story alone, but rather how the game design itself informs the story being told.

Mass Effect 3, however, was made prior to this enlightenment, and the ending suffers because BioWare didn’t understand the actual theme of its own series. When story and gameplay are considered together, the unambiguous theme of the Mass Effect trilogy is that there is no problem that can’t be overcome with violence, awesomeness, and the power of friendship. Moral choice may be a component, but it sure as heck isn’t the core theme. No matter what choices you make, you always play through the same events; the consequences of your choices are window dressing. If a game is about the player’s choices affecting the story, it’s more than reasonable to expect that those choices can change the actual story path! That is not the case in any Mass Effect. Nor is the trilogy’s core theme centered around any of its other philosophical pretentions; they only inform the story, not the gameplay, since the gameplay is centered around blowing stuff up, with limited exceptions. The end of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t understand this, and clearly views its own themes as purely story related. Therefore, every possible ending of Mass Effect 3 is a dour, depressing wet fart of a conclusion that betrays the spirit of camaraderie and space magic explosions that lies at the heart of the series. The Citadel DLC corrected this blunder somewhat by celebrating everything Mass Effect is, but even with the Citadel installed, you still have to suffer the endgame. It’s a damn shame.

Anyway, rant over. I should go.

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