The first time I played through Mass Effect 2 I was nonplussed; it seemed to have less of the rough and experimental charm of the first game, which seemed to be a haphazard evolution of Knights of the Old Republic into an attempt to create the definitive, ne plus ultra, science-fiction RPG which would encompass everything the genre had to offer. It had aliens, and a planet-hopping plot, and exploration of uncharted worlds, and xenophilia if you liked, and upgradeable weapons with dozens of options. The result was uneven, and often clumsy, but it was quite unlike most games in its attempted scope and as a result I defended it quite vehemently as a good game. The second, by contrast, was more elegant and simplistic – all of the aspects of Mass Effect were present but in a form which worked without any inconsistencies or awkwardness – and as a result at first seemed too clinical and perfunctory.
Yet a second run of both the first and second games, with much of the supplementary story material added (something I usually avoid doing) quite changed my view. Mass Effect‘s idiosyncrasies were endearing for a period but quickly became too awkward to be truly enjoyable – that the game could be played while ignoring the features in question showed up quite significantly as a shortcoming. The game’s ambition still showed through – it still aspired, in a clumsy way, to be a comprehensive science-fiction experience with everything possible thrown in. The characters were still endearing and the setting still a compelling homage to all manner of science-fiction works. Furthermore, it was short – even with the supplementary missions – sufficiently so that it never became actively boring or difficult to play. My overall impression, however, was that it was a game which was kept from greatness by its mechanical awkwardness. When I continued into the second game, the changes – the move towards a more mechanically slimline and polished base for telling the same kind of story in the same way – seemed more welcome. They were still not ideal – the game, in its attempts to open up the capacity for exploration in some ways while removing others made suspending disbelief difficult (although not as much as the still-further streamlined exploration of the third game.) Similarly the weapons were too far scaled back in granularity and diversity to be rewarding or worth collecting and upgrading (something the third game ultimately fixed with its system that was an able compromise between the two extremes.)
What, ultimately, changed my estimation of the Mass Effect games was completing them all for the first time. The move towards clean, simple mechanics and the erosion of the awkward edges made quite clear that the series was intended to tell a story; not to specifically allow the player to forge their own narrative as something like Skyrim or Dwarf Fortress might, but to give a limited amount of agency – or the illusion of such – in the telling of a narrative. In essence, it was a shooter game with hub levels. The player was presented at each chapter of the plot with a range of missions, one of which was plot-critical. They could complete them in any order, gather items and characters, gain new abilities and then approach new challenges. If it was an RPG, it was a much more linear and constrained one than perhaps I wanted it to be. Yet understanding what it was – this kind of compromise between the linear shooter and the open-world RPG – made it far easier to enjoy. Arguably this is simply ignoring shortcomings – the series was not specifically marketed as a linear or semi-linear shooter with a fixed start and end point – but it provides a foundation which allows a player to see exactly what the series does well. Any two players’ anecdotes of favourite Mass Effect moments are likely to be very similar; this is not a game with any specific scope for emergent gameplay or randomness, it is a game where the player is expected to see all of the narrative points of interest and interact with them.
A common criticism of heavily single-narrative driven games is that the player has no agency and no illusion of agency over the direction of the story. They are the spectator, often with only limited control over how capable their character is if the narrative demands certain things happen. What Mass Effect does with its conversation trees, and choice of level order, and completely inconsequential diversions and between-mission banter, is make the player feel, even if they are but a spectator in a fixed story, that it is being told the way they want it. Every time one plays the Mass Effect series Shepard will go from the first Promethean relic all the way to fighting Saren, to recruiting a team, to traversing the Omega 4 Relay, to fighting on Mars and on Earth and then choosing the fate of the world. Trying to claim that one has any degree of agency at this level is false (and that the games were talked up as having this is a major criticism of them, for sure). But disregarding this – playing the games long after the arguments have died down, long after their value and nature have been discussed – their real merits show through. What remains, beneath the promises and the shortcomings, are a series of games that tell a story and allow the player to alter the fine details – the memorable ones. The actual story missions of both of the first two games are quite unremarkable. What I remember of my most recent playthrough are things like my character failing to resolve a row between Tali and Legion just before the final mission, and so I made the decision to keep the one I agreed with by my side and let the other take their chances (with tragic results). Or that my constant pangs of conscience and attempts to do the best for friends while being disdainful of others resulted in my character being neither forceful enough nor conciliatory enough to successfully press their viewpoint in big arguments and having to rely instead on threats and bluster to muddle through.
In conclusion I think replaying the first two Mass Effect games taught me two things about the series. The first is that neither is, on a fundamental level, a mechanically sound game. The first game is over-ambitious in its attempt to be comprehensive and ends up feeling like awkward busywork. The second is far too pared-back and focused on story-telling over providing mechanical choice and so feels superficial. This is where the third succeeded; it found the missing mid-point on a fundamental, behind-the-scenes level and was probably the best game. Yet here is where my second point comes in. Properly seeing where Mass Effect shines relies on understanding what it is – and what it is is not what it was described as. The amount of agency that the player has the illusion of was ultimately unsustainable across three games and so the continued claims that it existed ultimately fell through. The result is a story with fixed start and end points and a procession of known events in the meantime – not an open-world RPG with divergent or emergent stories. And this, ultimately, is where the first two entries – mechanically unsound as they are – succeed far more than the third. The illusion of agency is far better presented, the superficial choices far more memorable. The third game overreached in trying to exceed this foundation and as a result the failures in suspension of disbelief – a constant shortcoming around which the early games skirted – became too great.