I’ve talked some smack about Bioware in the past. I have repeatedly expressed my opinion that their games, while not bad per se, are extremely overrated. And I stand by my belief in the mediocrity of their other games that I’ve played.
But having finished Mass Effect 3 last night, I almost feel ready to convert and join the legions of Bioware fans. …Almost.
This is what it should have been all along:
To understand why I loved this game, you need to understand why I was so underwhelmed by Mass Effect 2, so forgive me as I repeat myself briefly.
ME2 was a game with great potential. It had a cast of mostly excellent characters — barring a few weak links like Jack and Jacob — and an epic storyline. The idea of evil robots trying to kill everyone isn’t exactly new, but the Reapers were a sufficiently fresh take on the idea to feel scary.
The problem is that said epic storyline seemed to almost be a side feature to the game. Most of the time was spent building your crew, with each character requiring both a recruitment and a loyalty mission.
This grind was made more tedious by how incredibly repetitive and formulaic these missions were. Virtually every recruitment mission had the player battling mercenaries, and virtually every loyalty mission saw its character betrayed by someone close to them.
And in ME3, that’s exactly what they did.
They couldn’t have addressed my problems with ME2 better if they’d been catering to me specifically. ME3 is exactly what I had hoped the last game would be, and it actually is worthy of the massive hype I’ve seen around the Mass Effect series.
Instead of being scattered, the plot is tightly focused. Nearly every mission ties directly to the main story arc of defeating the Reapers. When new characters are added, they appear organically as part of the storyline instead of as a wrenching detour.
And it’s a Hell of a story. It hits the ground running and never lets you come up for air — in a good way. There’s never a moment’s rest as planet and after planet falls to the Reapers and more and more people are claimed by their unholy crusade to bring order to the cosmos.
There are moments that are downright heart-wrenching. ME3 does a very good job of hammering home the terror of entire civilizations being put to the flame, and the psychological toll it takes on Shepard and his/her companions.
At times, it’s almost hard to keep playing in the face of the horror, but that’s a good thing. This is a game about the end of civilization throughout the galaxy — extinction on an unimaginable scale. It’s not supposed to be happy.
All in all, it’s just an excellent story. The ending could have perhaps offered a bit more detail, but I’m largely satisfied.
I also think I’m starting to understand why the Mass Effect series engenders such fervor and obsession in its fans, and I don’t think it’s down to the quality — at least not entirely. It’s more about how the games are designed.
After a while, the Normandy really does start to feel like home, and the characters like family. Play through a couple games with them, and they start to come to life in a way fictional characters rarely do. I feel like I know Garrus and Tali better than some people I’ve known in real life.
ME3 helps with this by streamlining and improving crew interactions. It’s a simple thing, but not needing to wade through a full cinematic and dialogue tree every time you talk to a character, even if they have nothing new to say, makes a big difference.
Seeing the characters move around the ship and interact with each other as well as the player also helps a lot. Tali drunk dialing Javik was almost on the same level of awesome as Mordin’s performance of Gilbert and Sullivan in ME2.
With all that being said, I still had some issues with ME3.
Still not perfect:
Probably my biggest complaint is the way the decision system works in the Mass Effect games. It’s good in theory, and it is one of the great strengths of the game, but it can also fall flat on its face at times.
For one thing, it’s far too easy to make a decision you didn’t want to merely by misunderstanding the nature of the choice being offered or its consequences.
In one hilarious incident, I accidentally blew up an entire planet merely by clicking what turned out to be the wrong button.
I also decided to swallow my discomfort with the concept of in-game romances and get the full Mass Effect experience by hooking up with one of my crew, only to discover that I had already permanently locked myself out of pursuing the character I was interested in by not making advances in the only scene in the entire game where it’s an option.
Ultimately, my Shepard wound up in the “forever alone” category. Art imitates life, I guess.
Since the entire point of the game is to create your own story with your choices, having the system be this obtuse and unforgiving is just unacceptable.
I also felt that Bioware had already decided what the correct choice was in certain scenarios and was only offering other choices for the sake of consistency. The story was so skewed to favour some decisions that the choices became less “go with what you think is right” and more “do the right thing, or be a stupid bitch and ruin it for everyone.”
As a result, I sometimes made decisions I didn’t really agree with because the game guilt-tripped me into it.
I don’t care for Bioware’s morality systems, either. Dividing everything into rigid categories of “good” or “bad” and assigning numerical values to them just doesn’t work with any real world concept of morality.
It sucks to make a decision you think is right and then have a big red number pop up on your screen, and it also sucks to not be able to make choices you want to because you haven’t rigidly adhered to one kind of choices. You’re penalized for playing a character who isn’t a one-dimensional archetype.
Furthermore, there were some small parts of the story I didn’t care for. For instance, the Illusive Man got too crazy too quickly to be believable, and Thane’s last fight was so ridiculously choreographed that I wound up getting pissed off at the developers rather than Kai Leng.
Finally, while this isn’t necessarily a complaint per se, I’m hard-pressed to even call the Mass Effect series video games. They’re more like advanced choose your own adventure novels with a shooter mini-game tacked on. The gameplay is quite mediocre.
Also, while the story itself is stellar, its integration with the gameplay is virtually nonexistent. I’m left feeling like Bioware wrote a movie script and tried to shoehorn it into a game.
Still, I always say the mark of greatness is when you can forgive something’s flaws, and that’s the case here. ME3 was a much better game than I ever could have expected based on the last one, and one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory.
Overall rating: 9.1/10
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By the way, I have a couple of questions for any Mass Effect fans reading this.
First, I’ve heard nothing but bad things about ME3. Why didn’t anyone like it? I guess my bad taste strikes again…
Second, what was the original Mass Effect like? Did it more closely resemble ME2, or ME3? After playing ME2, I assumed I didn’t miss much by not playing it, but now I don’t know what to think.