Alright, my favorite part of this review will cover the story line and character development in ME2 and ME3. The story in both games is excellent. Mass Effect 2’s main plot deals with a technologically advanced race called the Collectors. They are working for the Reapers and are abducting humans (and humans only) from various colonies around the galaxy, and it’s your job to find out why and put a stop to them. The focus of the game is putting together a team to confront them, and it’s a “Dirty Dozen” style approach for those that are familiar with the movie. You’re not just recruiting convicts like the movie, but there are a couple of criminals in there. There is a ton of focus on character development throughout the game, and it’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game in general.
ME2 begins in one of the most dramatic ways possible: you die. You freakin’ die, el muerto! The Normandy gets attacked and destroyed by a mysterious ship and you are killed in the intro to the game! It’s fantastic, I loved it. As far as I know it’s unprecedented in gaming history, taking the main character from a previous game and killing them off like that. So how are you supposed to play the game? Cerberus, a humanity-first extremist faction that you actually fought against in the first game brings you back to life. In the PS3 version you are given an interactive comic book-style primer on what happened in ME1, which is great because you get to make decisions that will affect ME2 and ME3 as well as learn about the mass effect universe. It’s pretty crucial if this is where you start playing Mass Effect, because the second game doesn’t make it too friendly for those unfamiliar with the first. The entire intro itself is unskippable, which does suck on repeated playthroughs. There are returning characters like Garrus and Tali, and lots of new ones and each one is distinct and a joy to get to know.
Garrus may be the most likable companion in the Mass Effect games. He’s a Turian and his wise-cracks and sardonic sense of humor are pitch-perfect and in battle he’s just a rock, he’s like your strong right arm that never lets you down. Tali is a Quarian and is smart, sweet, young and several players’ choice as their love interest as the plot goes on. There are 10 (actually 11) new characters if you download the DLC and they’re all a lot of fun: Miranda Lawson, a genetically altered genius/model ice queen who doesn’t particularly like you, works for Cerberus, oh and headed up the project to bring you back to life; Jacob, also a Cerberus operative who’s a soldier like you, and didn’t want to have to deal with the bureaucracy of the Human Alliance; Mordin the bookish-but-also-special-op Salarian doctor/geneticist, who harbors a deep secret; Grunt, a genetically engineered “perfect” Krogan who was grown in a tank, has no idea who he really is and is mad about it; Jack, probably the most powerful human biotic in the galaxy who also happens to be a convict in a super-max prison that has one of the most painful pasts imaginable, and blames Cerberus for it; Samara, an Asari Justicar–basically a space paladin with an edge–who you find out has been hunting her mass-murdering daughter for hundreds of years; Thane Krios, a Drell who is the most skilled assassin in the galaxy, a seemingly emotionless killing machine except he has a fatal disease and wants to reconcile with his son; Kasumi, the best thief there is who wants your assistance on a heist that turns into more than it appears; Zaeed, the most feared bounty hunter/mercenary around, he’s in it only for the money and maybe a chance at revenge; Legion, one of the freakin’ Geth, the artificial life-forms you fought and killed by the hundreds in the first game. There’s even a hidden character that you can only get by killing off one of your companions in the process! Jacob felt a little generic, as did Grunt (only compared to Wrex), but I still like them both. I don’t think there’s an outright weak character in there.
I didn’t think it was really possible for ME3’s intro to be as good as 2, but I was wrong. ME3 begins with the Reaper invasion, and in the intro Earth itself falls. You’ve been out of action for two years following events at the end of ME2 (particularly if you played the DLC Arrival, more on that later) and there’s a real shift in the emotional tone and pace of the game: death has arrived. It was pretty jarring for me to see these skyscraper-high ships just land in the middle of a city and start tearing crap up, which was probably what they intended. ME3 is all about the Reaper War, and it feels like it. Throughout the game you feel as if everything’s hitting the fan, it’s crunch time, and you’d better come through. This tension is maintained particularly on the main-story missions, and it’s something you have to experience to understand. You feel insignificant and the war gets increasingly desperate. To make matters worse you’re fighting Cerberus as well. Good people die in ways that tug at your heart strings; there are a couple of instances on Thessia that particularly got to me. Along with this is the psychological toll that mounts due to all the things Shepard has been through, manifested by a couple of dream sequences and comments of concern from various characters. I didn’t care for it during my first playthrough, but now I have a better appreciation for them; it humanizes him a bit more. After all his burdens are great: he is the shepherd, the entire galaxy his flock.
There are less companions in ME3 than in 2, and three new ones. James is a new character, he’s your basic space marine. He is overall the least-developed and most generic character in the game; he never seems to rise to the point of actually being memorable. The designers said he was meant to represent someone new to the Mass Effect universe for whatever that’s worth. Javik, however, is very memorable. He’s an honest-to-God Prothean, and is a really well-developed character. He comes across as having values from 50,000 years ago, he does really well as a man out of time and is one of my favorites for ME3. You gain EDI as a squad mate and she is a welcome addition, her commentary and development as a life form is a pleasure to experience, as is her potential romance with Joker. Ashley or Kaidan return as a full-fledged squad mate for the first time since the first game, depending on your choices back then, and I like them. Ashley is a full-on soldier whereas Kaidan is more of a biotic. Whoever it is doesn’t really trust you because of your history with Cerberus, and this will come into play on a Citadel mission later on, where you may have to kill them. Tali and Garrus both return as does Liara, who (unless you had some DLC in ME2) hasn’t been a squad mate since the first game.
The plots for both games are excellent, and the character development is also first-class. I give ME3 the edge in plot, and ME2 the edge in characters. I really enjoyed 2’s plot, playing catch-up with the mysterious Collectors, working for a really shady organization and especially dealing with their leader, The Illusive Man. Martin Sheen provides his voice and is terrific. Each of the ME2 character intros is memorable, and some (like Jack’s) are simply outstanding. I found myself being intimidated by Zaeed at certain points, and he’s just a DLC squad mate! It was a blast, but 3 really delivers on the culmination on the build-up of the impending war in a big way–except for the ending. I’ll come to that later. With very few exceptions ME3’s missions are in the context of “there’s a war on” and acquiring war assets, which will ultimately determine how well the war goes. The atmosphere is incredibly immersive. The inter-squad banter in these games are great, and simply taking them along with you on missions lets you learn a lot about who these folks are and how they feel about each other. You can also check in with your squad mates on the ship after every mission, and they’ll say something different and often revealing when you do. Each of the characters from ME2 makes an appearance in ME3, and you really do care about them, at least I did. And they don’t all live this time, either.
The detail in these games is stunning. I’m not sure how to best articulate this, but the BioWare team seems to have a way of making something about every single mission potentially interesting, and building on the mythology of the universe as a whole at the same time. Here’s a quote from a GameSpot review: “deep reds and glowing indigos saturate certain scenes, making them richer and more sinister; eerie fog limits your vision in one side mission, while rain pours down upon you in another. Subtle, moody lighting gives certain interactions great impact.” There is a plaque on your ship in ME3 that lists the names of those who have died, and the names are specific to who has actually died during ME2 and ME3, for example. Characters that you’ve interacted with in previous games will return to reward or haunt you later on. The visuals, the sounds, and the depth to the large number of minor characters like Kelly Chambers, Dr. Chakwas, Diana Allers, Steve Cortez, Samantha Traynor, Aria T’Loak, Admirals Anderson and Hackett, and of course Joker make them seem as if they aren’t minor at all. For example there are two very minor characters, engineers Donnelly and Daniels. There isn’t much they do in 2 or 3, but by the end of 3 I cared about them enough to want to get them together. That’s the level of writing that permeates the mass effect games.
The missions themselves boast incredible variety. Some of them are pure combat, some of them have no combat at all. Some are pretty extensive, others take five minutes. One or two of them require you to do them solo. Some take place in space on an abandoned space station or ship, others on a jungle, ice, garden or desert planet, some in the middle of a city, some on the tops of skyscrapers, some underwater and some in a virtual world! I have to give a slight edge here to ME2 in terms of variety. ME3 has a lot of variety too, but to be fair I’m not sure how possible it would be for a game to have more diversity than 2 did. ME2 has you acquire missions in a fairly standard way, but you can also acquire them solely through exploration, and they can be chained which is great. In ME3 you can acquire missions just by overhearing conversations! There are also opportunities to do missions that are time dependent, wait too long and they’re gone, sometimes with disastrous results. One of my favorite ME2 side missions ever (don’t ask me why) is a small one where you go to this desert planet to fix a radiation shield that’s malfunctioned and endangering a research station. You can only find this mission via exploration, it lasts maybe five or ten minutes, there’s no combat at all–you’re just fixing the shield. Maybe I just like the idea of going about doing good, finding time to help in the midst of galactic upheaval.
There were lots of downloadable content, or DLC, for both ME2 and 3. The nice thing about ME2 is that some of them were free if you had the PS3 version, such as Kasumi, Overlord and Lair of the Shadow Broker. I think the only DLC I actually paid for was Arrival. I thought for sure the Cerberus Network bundle was free too, but a friend said she had to pay for it, so I’m not sure there. There were others that gave you additional weapons or alternate costumes, but I didn’t care so much about that. The DLC in ME2 was great: you get an extra vehicle, extra companions, and some really interesting adventures. Lair of the Shadow Broker was my favorite and lets you have Liara as a squad mate again. There’s a great sense of camaraderie in that one, and some of the backdrops are stunning. Overlord was my least favorite, recycling one of the most unenjoyable parts from the first game, but even it had some great creepy moments. Arrival is a pretty perfect bridge from ME2 to ME3. The DLC for ME3 was also high quality, but I had a problem with one of them. The first one, From Ashes, is where you can acquire Javik. The problem is it was released right after the game itself. This was a transparent attempt to get us to pay $10 for a character that was meant to be included in the game in the first place. Zaeed and Kasumi from ME2 were optional characters clearly; Javik, though, was well-integrated into the game, there was a lot to do with him and there’s even a main-story mission where he is a big influence. I have a problem with EA/BioWare trying to make an extra buck like that. So did others. That link also has info regarding the ending controversy, and states flat out how Javik was already on the game disc, and in fact if you own the PC version there’s a way to access him without even buying the DLC. Other ME3 DLC included Leviathan, Omega and Citadel. In my opinion they are all worth having. Leviathan was very good, Omega was nice because I was wanting more with Aria, and the Citadel has some nice nostalgia and is funnier than hell. You pay for all of them except the Extended Cut DLC which was free and by way of apology following the outrage about ME3’s ending, which I’ll come to right now.
The end mission of ME2 I thought was fantastic. You learn more about the Collectors as the game progresses, and their ties with the Reapers, but the prospect of going through the Omega 4 Relay becomes increasingly anxiety-provoking. It’s referred to as a suicide mission for several reasons, and by the time you actually go through it you have genuine trepidation and excitement as to what’s on the other side. The whole area over there is exciting and tense, and it’s easy as pie to have multiple party members die. In fact you get a trophy/achievement just for getting everyone through it alive. You might make it out with only two other squad mates, or you can beat the game and still die!
ME3’s ending is unfortunate. Everything leading up to it is great, the saying goodbye’s, the intense combat, the feeling of being in a war zone at ground zero. The ending–which takes place on the Citadel–does evoke feelings of great import; the right tone is struck, and it leaves you with two (or three) choices in how to end things. The problem is I don’t really agree with any of them, at least not the way they’re presented. Once you make your decision you were treated to the briefest possible ending that tells you exactly nothing, it was terrible. In fact it was such a big deal it was featured in a second article in Forbes magazine when BioWare finally released an “extended cut” that put a lot more stuff into the ending, hoping to please fans (careful, there are spoilers in that article). It’s controversial, and yeah endings are the hardest thing to write, but the dropping of the ball here was a blow. I also had a problem with the war assets aspect of ME3, in that you used to be required to play multiplayer to max them out and get the “best” endings. As I mentioned I don’t play multiplayer so this was a slap in the face to me, though thanks to the combination of DLC now you do not have to. But you still have to buy the DLC.
Overall, I don’t know if I’ve ever played a finer crafted couple of games than Mass Effect 2 and 3. Both are outstanding, and among the finest in modern gaming. If I have to pick one to ultimately like better, contrary to my initial article, I’ll say the following: ME2 feels like a great video game, ME3 feels like a great movie in which you are the star. It just becomes as seamless as anything I’ve ever played, and it’s a movie that lasts from 30-60 hours with great writing throughout (well, almost). Those of you who have read my Star Trek reviews know I can have pretty high standards, so great reviews don’t come along that often. However, I can wholeheartedly recommend these games to anyone with a pulse. These are not going to be the end of the games either: according to BioWare’s announcement they are developing a new game set during or before Shepard’s time, and Legendary Pictures is currently developing a movie as well. With luck, 30 years from now we’ll still be talking about this great universe called Mass Effect.