Two years ago, I wrote up Mass Effect 2 as a list of ten things gone terribly wrong. I dismissed it as “a confused attempt to streamline an RPG, flesh out a shooter, cram a story between space dungeons, and pick up the loose ends from the first game”. But then you people bought it in droves, said adoring things about it, and put it on your various Best Game Ever lists. Nice move. Now we’re all going to get more of the same in Mass Effect 3.

Or — after the jump — are we?

Surprise, surprise, I really like Mass Effect 3. Mostly as a game, but even a bit as a story. Bioware spins a grand saga about uniting squabbling nations to fight the greater threat, which they then proceed to do for a big finale. We’ve seen it all before because it’s timeless and effective. Dragon Age, Babylon 5, Lord of the Rings, Europe. And Bioware certainly knows how to add the requisite space porn.

So how is it that I hated Mass Effect 2 and really like Mass Effect 3? Let me count the ways by going down my list of things gone terribly wrong in Mass Effect 3.

10) Coming out so soon after Dragon Age
Dragon Age is a tough act for any game to follow. Especially a story-heavy RPG from the same developer. Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 are very different approaches to the same genre, but when one of them is so richly detailed and shrewdly written, the shortcomings of the other are that much more conspicuous.

I’m not sure what the competition is for Mass Effect 3, but I can’t think of any traditional RPG since The Witcher 2 that would threaten to upstage it. It towers above anything else Bioware has made. As a design, it is their most sure-footed, confident, and cohesive design since the original Knights of the Old Republic.

9) It’s mostly a shooter
The core gameplay in Mass Effect 2 is a cover-based shooter, built around a narrow set of resistance/attack types. There are also exploding barrels. Oh, and ammo is called “thermal clips” for some reason. Bioware occasionally tries to vary the action by adding gimmicks, generally involving a timer bar or limitations on where you can stand. It’s decent enough, I suppose. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a cover-based shooter. But when you make the core gameplay so simple, it has a ripple effect through the rest of the game world. Everything in Mass Effect 2 has to be related to an anemic shooter.

Mass Effect 3 is still mostly a shooter. Although this time, it’s a far better shooter, with a more developed RPG foundation. It’s as if Bioware made an RPG for Mass Effect 1, scrapped most of it so it wouldn’t get in the way of the shootering for Mass Effect 2, and then fixed the shootering and restored some focused RPG elements for Mass Effect 3. There’s a sense of, “ah, this is what they were trying to do!”

8) Character development
The stripped down shootering hurts the game most in terms of character development. Obviously a lot of thought went into backstories for the characters. But each character’s gameplay is determined by a couple of skills and a couple of gun types. And that’s it. I didn’t care much who tagged along with me for a mission, because a stripped-down shooter leads to stripped down characters.

With better gameplay comes a greater sense of importance for the playing pieces. The heartier shootering and more developed RPGing help a lot with the characters, especially since Mass Effect 3 is a game I want to savor enough that I’m replaying it on the hardest difficulty level. And therefore character skills matter so much more. I’m a bit disappointed that the characters aren’t quite as chatty as they were in Dragon Age, or even Saints Row 3. But this is a grim story, without any room for chatting or goofing around. Even Joker seems a bit grim.

7) Space dungeons
Bioware assembles worlds from sparsely populated boxes connected by lots of codex text. In the fantasy world of Dragon Age, this works well enough. String together dungeons to represent villages, castles, patches of countryside, and, of course, dungeons. Fair enough. But a space opera is another matter entirely. When you’re trying to build a galaxy of different worlds and ships and space stations, teeming with alien life, this basic model is really long in the tooth. I knew that every single quest in Mass Effect 2 — every single one! — was going to involve me shootering my way to the far end of a linear space dungeon.

Here’s where Mass Effect 3 really pulls out the stops. It still takes place in space dungeons. But Bioware has done a great job hiding the fact that they’re space dungeons, either by slathering them with spectacle, widening them into broader space combat sandboxes, mixing up the gameplay with smartly disguised gimmicks, or using the same maps as the multiplayer co-op.

Furthermore, Citadel Station and even the Normandy seem a bit more lively this time around. I could do with fewer loading screens, particularly on the Normandy. But at least the Citadel gets some more gameplay attention this time around. And whereas it used to remind me of something you would use to core an apple, now I can’t help but look at it and think of a vacuum cleaner attachment.

6) Non-interactive environments
To the credit of Bioware’s artists, there’s a lot of detail in the space dungeons. But it’s almost entirely non-interactive. You get a few conspicuously placed hackable points among environments full of containers, doors, and control panels that do absolutely nothing.

The environments are still mostly non-interactive and they could do with a little destruction. At least let stuff on the tables go flying. Come on, Bioware, this is a shooter we’re playing! However, the loot you pick up feels less contrived. You’ll still find a mod that reduces the weight of your SMG in some war-torn ruin on the krogan homeworld or a datapad with 3000 credits lying on some salarian’s desk, but they fit neatly into the RPG system.

5) Minigames
I’ve done the classes in Bully, the conversations in Oblivion, the guitar solos in Brutal Legend, the dancing in Sid Meier’s Pirates, the Pipe Dream hacks in BioShock, and every minigame in every single Ratchet & Clank game. I have never seen minigames as sorely out of place as the three minigames in Mass Effect 2. The two types of hacking are bad enough, but then you get to the planetary scanning. Ye gods, what tedium! I hoped I would be delivered when I finally bought tech to speed up the cursor speed for scanning. No such luck. Slightly sped up tedium is still tedium.

There is nary a minigame to be found in Mass Effect 3! You do scan planets, but it’s not really a minigame. It’s more like an elaborate chest opening animation.

4) Loot
Tedious minigames are the key to the economy in Mass Effect 2. You need to scan planets to earn minerals. You need the minerals to buy the weapons and tech upgrades you’ve found or purchased with good old fashioned space bucks. But all this loot chasing is funneled into nothing more than a list of minor global bonuses. There are also bits of armor that I kept forgetting to retire to my quarters to equip. So much for that +10% to an intimidation value that I never got to see anyway. The loot chase is an important part of an RPG. In Mass Effect 2, it is an afterthought locked behind tedium.

Mass Effect 3 restores a meaningful loot chase with the weapons and armor system. And on a larger scale, although I’m not convinced it’s a meaningful payoff, the RPG elements of gathering resources to fight the Reapers is a wonderful hook. It’s like loot, but on a strategic level.

By the way, if you care about aesthetics, steer clear of the “dragon blood armor”. I was so blinded looking at the stats that it didn’t even occur to me that it was a dopey Dragon Age tie-in. So I dropped 50,000 spacebucks and now my Shepherd looks like he got lost on the way to an SCA meet-up. To add insult to injury, he’s sporting a garish Dragon Age logo on his chestplate. Hey, what’s the refund policy at the shops on Citadel Station?

3) Tech upgrades
The tech upgrades have a system of prerequisites that might mean you don’t get your nifty new weapon until you’ve bought some sort of ammo upgrade that you may never find and have no way of knowing how to get. Many of the upgrades are things like a damage boost for assault rifles, but only when they’re shooting at armor. This sort of minutiae is fine for people playing a harshly competitive shooter like Modern Warfare 2. In an AI shooting gallery, I’m not sure I care enough to climb this particular tech tree.

The weapon system in Mass Effect 3 is easy to understand and even easier to care about. Weapon upgrades and mods, which are each separate things, are worthwhile money sinks for one simple reason: unlike Mass Effect 2, this game invites you to play with the guns as you like. You no longer have to be a soldier if you want to actually play your shooter like a shooter. If you’re getting tired of Cerberus commandos hiding behind smoke, bring along a sniper rifle with a scope that sees through smoke. If you want to emphasize your powers, carry light weapons for faster power recharging. If you want to try that nifty geth shotgun, have at it! It’s almost as if the guns are a part of the character development that can be freely respecced.

2) Space travel
Next time I’m at the helm of a massive space ship, I hope the interface for flying isn’t a matter of scooching a teensy ship model around a picture of a nebula so the view scrolls over and I can see where I’m going. I don’t know what Bioware was going for here, but every time Shepherd stepped up to that map display to zip around his toy ship, I pictured him making spaceship noises with his mouth. Pretty much what you’d expect from a guy who collects toys, Shenmue style, for his captain’s quarters. Worst. Starship interface. Ever.

Okay, this part is still awful. For a game based on gadding about the galaxy, you’d think the gadding about would be better.

1) The story
Mass Effect 2 assumes a lot of familiarity with the original Mass Effect. There are regular callbacks to the events and characters of that game. This is certainly a plus for fans of the first game. But as someone who wasn’t a fan of the first game, I was constantly lost about the specifics, and I had no desire to go digging around in the codex. And I certainly didn’t get a lot of narrative out of shootering my way to the end of a space dungeon. What was left over was a straightforward yarn about saving the galaxy from bug-like aliens doing insidious things. At least it had a cool finale.

It goes without saying that the story will obviously please fans of the previous games. If there’s one thing Bioware knows, it’s fan service. But what surprised me about Mass Effect 3 is that the story also works for people who might not care about the previous games. The stakes are immediately obvious when — spoiler? — Earth gets invaded during the tutorial. And as the story unfolds, the stakes stay high. You’re almost never resolving anyone’s daddy issues. Mass Effect 3 is bona fide space opera to Mass Effect 2′s space soap opera.

Tomorrow: I have a thing or two to say about the multiplayer