I was in a pretty unique spot when I eventually got to playing Mass Effect in early 2013. The core three games had been released, and Bioware had collected all three games as a Trilogy Box Set. As a PS3 gamer, I picked it up for that platform, and for the next two months I indulged myself in the completed world for the first time, from Eden Prime right up to Earth. I also took the time to play both sides of the morality coin; despite the Trilogy's enormity, when a game allows you to play Good and/or Bad, I feel like you haven't completed it unless you try both.
I soon found that my opinion of how the games were flawed was rather different from everybody else's, so I thought it'd be insightful if I put these thoughts out there. But before I head into it, I'll give full disclosure; I had not read any form of Bioware pre-release media before playing any of the games, significantly for the third game.
Let's do this.
Right upon starting Mass Effect 1 I had a problem. While I hadn't read any of the pre-release Bioware info, I was well aware that the trilogy was famed for allowing the player choice, and that many actions would have huge repercussions later in the story. However the game itself makes no attempt to explain how this comes into play and when, so as a result I spent the first three hours of the game tense and on the verge of wetting myself. If I was late to meeting with Anderson on the bridge, would I get Renegade points for small-talking with Jenkins? If I didn't follow Miranda's orders, would I be left for dead? I had no way of knowing.
A similarly unexplained game mechanic is the Conversation Wheel. While it's obvious enough that it is used for replying in conversations, I didn't know what it's structure was. What was this option on the left side for? Is it as important as the ones on the right? As a Paragon, which option should I pick? Is there a time limit on this thing? I didn't have a clue, and it took to consulting a friend of mine to get information on how the wheel worked, as none of the three games make any attempt at explaining it themselves. In the end I restarted the game after I knew how it worked so that I had a better experience, and after having the choices and convo. wheel explained to me I had a much more relaxed time.
Do I rack up the boo-boo points if I talk to you for too long?
A particularly major issue that I found in all three games is the level structure. In the first game, after completing the Citadel, the next three worlds are unlocked at once, and completing two of those unlocks a fourth. Now while these levels are very long even on the easiest difficulty, it makes the game feel shorter when you can see two-thirds of the game laid out in front of you. The second game suffers this too; by giving you half of the dossiers to you at once to complete as you like, you gaze on the Galaxy Map seeing a majority of the game just sitting there, and it would have been worse had the 360's use of DVDs not forced Bioware to split the dossiers up in the middle.
But easily overshadowing that is the handling of Assignments and DLC Missions. Throughout all three games, you will often unlock new worlds that don't have much to do with the over-arching story, but the game makes no attempt to organize them for you. The Galaxy Map and the Missions/Assignments menus are very quickly buried with task upon task, and Mass Effect 1 even unlocks new Uncharted worlds with their own objectives but makes no attempt to point this out to the player. On all three games I had to resort to the Mass Effect wiki to sort it all out, and as well-made as that wiki is, I don't feel like I should have to go to that in order to manage the tasks assigned to me.
"Anybody remember what we're supposed to be doing here?"
Mass Effect 2's biggest issue is one that, for me, renders it the least relevant game in the trilogy: the Collectors. Coming off the end of the first game and into the second, the Collectors came off as these sub-par villains that had very little relevance to the Reapers outside of a verbally-stated connection (the link to Harbinger isn't even hinted at until the end of the game). They acted basically as galactic boogiemen, taking yo' wives and doing... something to them. Pulling their teeth out? Offering them a luxury spa and masseuse? Mystery can enhance a story and make a villain feel threatening, but with the Collectors we didn't even know what they were doing until the end of the game, which seriously affected their threat credibility to me.
On top of that, what they were doing was very human-specific, and not (at first glance anyway) something that affected the galaxy at large like the Reaper threat. It makes Shepard feel less like a saviour of the galaxy and more of a janitor. And once the game is over... then what? What impact do the Collectors have to the story of the third game, or influence on the first? With the exception of some character backstories, absolutely none. It makes the second game feel like a filler episode of Naruto by coming up with a secondary villain right out of nowhere and then writing them off before the real bad guys show up.
"I'm a relevant threat, honest!"
Now my critique of the third game will be a little bit different. Instead of pointing out one of the major flaws, I'd like to debunk one of the reasons why people hated the ending: the lack of choice. More specifically than that, though, it's that the lack of choice came out of the blue when the games were, until that point, extremely flexible as to what the choices allowed you to do and how they affected the story.
I think that's a pile of Elcor dung because the games were never like that to me. You are certainly offered up many, many choices over the course of the trilogy that have lasting impacts. But they only really affect which characters live or die, and if they live, how those characters feel about you. No choice made in the entire trilogy every truly alters the course of the story except for, ironically, the very last one. You're still going to go to the same exact worlds doing the same exact things for the same exact reasons whether you're a faultless angel or a colossal anus.
Same speech, same beach, same reasons.
The first choice you make in the game, for example, has very little impact at all; Shepard's Bio and Service History. These can be wildly different from each other, but each and every one of them will result in a fairly identical Commander, and only alter a few lines of dialogue and a few unique missions in the first game. Shepard will go on to decide the fate of the entire galaxy, so you'd think that being that and the main character would affect her/his behaviour, right? As another example, while letting the Council perish at the end of 1 certainly increases friction with the other races on the Citadel in 2, it again does not affect the major missions and what happens in them.
Ultimately, what I think happened at the end of the third game was not that the player was given less choice, it was that the illusion of choice fell apart and revealed the truth of how the structure actually worked. You will always defend Earth from the Reapers in a last-ditch attempt to save civilization. You will always take on the Collector Base because the man in the suit said so. You will always rush up the Presidium Tower to prevent the galaxy from being overrun by Reapers. None of these events play out different, and almost every detail of the gameplay, be it the level itself or the enemies you fight, will be exactly the same no matter what you do. 3 gets most of the blame however because it was unable to capitalize on the choices made in the past two games.
Pick a card, choose a colour, or pull my finger.
That doesn't mean it's impossible to do. Games such as Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead are pushing the boundaries as to what impact the choices in video games mean, and I get the feeling that Mass Effect desperately wanted to be these games but never really got there. One can hope that Mass Effect "don't use four" and beyond will be able to implement the dramatic influences of choice that the original trilogy, for whatever reason, was not able to accomplish.
Ultimately though, I hugely enjoyed playing through the Trilogy despite the above issues. The music was fantastic, the world immersive, the characters distinct and varied, and the Citadel DLC is brilliant. As for my favourite one? Mass Effect 3, followed by 1 and then 2. 3 is epic, visually stunning, and has a focused level structure that makes the story feel much more composed and less random than the previous two.