Mass Effect 3: Wow

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.

The squad members of Mass Effect 3Warning: Here be spoilers, albeit vague ones.

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.

The Collector ship attacking a colony in Mass Effect 2The potential was there, but it was drowned by a scattered plot and cookie cutter missions. The best thing Bioware could have done was to get out of the way of their own plot.

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.

A husk and a cannibal in Mass Effect 3At 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.

Liara and Shepard battle Cerberus troops in Mass Effect 3Seeing 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.

The galaxy map in Mass Effect 3I 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.

The Reapers demolish Vancouver in Mass Effect 3I 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.

A Reaper destroyer in Mass Effect 3The good outweighs the bad:

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

* * *

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.

6 thoughts on “Mass Effect 3: Wow

  1. To answer your questions in reverse order:

    The first game is more like 3 than 2. It has a tighter overall story, as opposed to ME2’s feeling of being Sidequest: The Game. There’s a lot of actual sidequests, but even there, a few of them tie together well (particularly with a series of sidequests dealing with Cerberus). I’d say there’s more overall interaction with the squad on the ship in 1 than in 2, and they also have more to say on missions. If nothing else, you can get some really fun conversations on the Citadel’s elevators, which gives the sense that these are people who talk to each other, as compared to 2, where it felt like a dozen people who want nothing to do with each other, and almost never have any banter on missions. In terms of gameplay . . . it’s totally broken. Just a badly-designed system. It can be fun, but it’s just completely broken. Still, ME does a great job of introducing the setting, and it has a really good story.

    The reason a lot of people hate ME3 is the ending. The ending – especially the original version, before the Extended Cut was released – was flat-out one of the worst endings of any piece of fiction ever. It failed on every single conceivable level. It was unbelievably bad writing, and it actively denied the players any sense of satisfaction or closure. The Extended Cut and Leviathan DLCs fixed some of the problems, but the ending is still inherently bad writing. There’s also a lot of missed opportunities in the overall game. A lot of decisions from previous games amount to little more than numbers on a board, with arguably the most frustrating example being the Rachni Queen. BioWare also added a lot of auto-dialogue, giving players less feeling of control over Shepard’s dialogue and emotions. There were problems with the overall story – the Crucible feels like an ass-pull, the dream sequences were stupid and cheesy and annoying. Kai Leng was stupid. Javik being released as Day 1 DLC angered a lot of people, who felt it should’ve been on the disc – especially since he actually WAS on the disc, just not his mission or dialogue. There were actually a lot of major problems with the game.

    The biggest problem, however, does come down to that awful, awful ending.

    Even so, most fans of the series liked the game overall.

    • I’m not really seeing what was wrong with the ending. Granted, I never saw it without the extended cut. It was perhaps a bit too simple and a bit lacking in details, but it seemed to work pretty well to me.

      Perhaps you could elaborate on why you felt it was poorly written?

      • OK. This’ll take a while.

        The problem starts with the final moment between Shepard and Anderson. It’s a sweet, touching moment, emotionally satisfying as the climax of the story. But then that satisfaction is ripped away from us, as we go on an elevator. We wake up and see the kid from Shepard’s dream, blatant emotional baiting from the writers. We learn that he controls the Reapers. So, here we are at the very end of the game, and we’ve got an entirely new element thrown in, without any foreshadowing (I don’t consider speculation that something started the cycles to be sufficient foreshadowing – this got fixed by Leviathan, however). That’s atrocious writing. You simply do not introduce, in the final minutes of a story, a brand new element without any build-up.

        So then the Space Brat gives his reasoning for the Reapers: Resolving the conflict between organics and synthetics. Except that, from a thematic standpoint, we resolved that conflict. That was what the Rannoch arc was all about. Either we made an alliance with the geth, or we wiped them out. Conflict resolved, thematically. Whipping it out again at the very end actually steals away our satisfaction from that arc. Worse, we’re not allowed to use the resolution of that arc to argue with the Space Brat. he tells us organics and synthetics will always fight, and we are simply not allowed to say we don’t believe that’s true, and that EDI and the geth prove organics and synthetics don’t have to be enemies. We’re essentially forced to accept his premise. The only argument we’re allowed to make is a rather weak emotional appeal about choice or freedom or whatever. An emotional appeal that even I didn’t find the least bit convincing, never mind how it was supposed to matter to a being of pure logic.

        And then – the choices. Ah, the choices. First of all, by having the Space Brat give us the choice, we’re essentially playing by his rules. It’s no longer Shepard in control, it’s the Space Brat. He calls the shots, and he’s simply allowed us to decide which of his presented options to go with. But let’s move on to those options. Destroy’s fine, even if it’s frustratingly vague in exactly what will be affected. Control’s fine. But Synthesis – Synthesis deserves a whole new paragraph to explain its stupidity.

        Synthesis violates just about every core theme of the series.Strength through diversity? You just made everyone more similar. The importance of letting people choose for themselves? You’ve just mde a literally life-changing decision for every single living thing in the entire galaxy (including Joker’s hat, going by the cinematics), forcing your will on that of everyone else. The dangers of unearned progress? You just shot organic development along by who-knows-how-much, including plenty of primitive races that were almost certainly not prepared for that sort of change. To make it even worse, it doesn’t even fit in with any of the science we’ve come to understand in the setting. It’s Space Magic. And as a last, final bit of idiocy: “Final stage of evolution.” A biologically impossible statement. There IS no “final stage of evolution” – by definition, evolution never ends. Because it’s not a goal, it’s a process of adapting to changing circumstances. The final stage of evolution is death.

        Then, of course, no matter which you choose, in the original ending, you get pretty much the exact same cutscene. There were basically two variants on the scene – one where Earth was burned to a husk, one where it wasn’t. Other than that, only the colour of the lightshow changed. There’s actually a video showing all the variations on the Crucible firing. It’s six screens, and they basically play out exactly the same.

        The original ending, to make all this even worse, ended after the scene of the Normandy crashed down. (Which led to other problems: One of the squadmates you brought to the final battle is almost always on that planet, and pre-EC, there was no explanation of how they got there. Not that the pick-up from the EC actually makes much sense, but that’s a different complaint.) That was it. We see Joker and two others looking out, and boom. Game over. No falling action. No resolution. Some argued that the whole final mission provided resolution, with the conversations with squadmates, but that’s not how resolution actually works. The EC does fix that lack of resolution, but for a lot of people who’d played the game when it first came out, the damage was already done.

        Oh, one last insult from the original ending: That little box that pops up at the very end, after the scene with the grandfather and the kid? That box originally just included a message to buy DLC. It was one of the most crass things I’ve ever seen. They changed it with the EC, and rightly so, because I was flat-out offended at the original message. “You win! Now buy more stuff!” Just ridiculous. Speaking of the Stagazer scene, actually: The image was a blatant photoshop of an existing image. Also, if you romance Tali, she gives you a picture of her face. Another photoshop, of a British supermodel. That’s the only time you see her face is in that picture, and it’s a lazy photoshop. Something a lot of fans found insulting.

        And those are just some of the problems with the ending. There have been countless articles and plenty of YouTube videos about how terrible it was. Read up on Indoctrination Theory – the original ending was so bad that people actually seriously thought it was all a dream. That made more sense, to a lot of people, than what we actually saw. I still prefer the Indoctrination Theory over the actual ending, because the Space Brat is such a stupid, obnoxious concept that I’d much rather it not exist.

        And I’m pretty sure I’m still forgetting some problems with the ending.

        Also, the fact that your War Assets have no actual bearing on how the final battle plays out is lame. They could’ve at least put together cutscenes of some of the various Assets showing up and working together. Instead, all they ever amount to is numbers on a board.

      • Interesting points. Some I agree with, some I don’t.

        Re: Space Brat: I don’t think it’s really fair to say he came out of nowhere. We’d been hearing about the Catalyst through the entire game. He was plenty foreshadowed. He may not have been what you were expecting the Catalyst to be, but that’s not the game’s fault.

        The only real problem is how people would have known he existed or that reaching him with the Crucible could end the Reaper threat, but considering the extreme lengths of time involved and how little we know about past cycles, I’m willing to make that leap.

        I do agree with all your reasons for hating synthesis as a choice, and that’s why I didn’t pick it, but this is one area where the choice system really does shine. Don’t like it? Don’t do it.

        And as far as the whole idea of it being the ideal choice and the ultimate evolution, you have to take that in the context of who’s telling you that. It’s the Catalyst’s idea of ultimate evolution, but this is a being that is by any standard completely bat**** insane. You have to take anything he/it says with a grain of salt.

        Did not know about the DLC ad at the end of the original version. Wow, that’s bad.

        All in all, I guess I’m lucky I played after the extended cut came out.

        I did know about the Tali controversy, and I agree with the complaints there. Not so much because it’s lazy — although it is — but because Tali simply shouldn’t look like a supermodel. Considering how alien her physiology is, she shouldn’t look that human, and being such a pristine beauty doesn’t suit her character. Her status as a space gypsy aside, Tali always struck me as the “girl next door” of the ME cast.

        And seriously, she lives her whole life in a hermetically sealed suit. How’d she have such nice hair and makeup?

        Thanks for the answers. Very illuminating.

  2. We’d heard about the Catalyst, but we were told it was the Citadel. Not an AI dwelling on the Citadel, but the Citadel itself. At no point was there any foreshadowing that there was an AI living on the Citadel, and that was the problem.

    I don’t think we were supposed to think of the Catalyst as insane. I think we were actually supposed to sympathize with him. Most people have decided he was insane and defective, but I really don’t believe that was BioWare’s intention. Certainly, everything he says is presented as the truth, and we’re not even allowed to really disagree with him.

    For Tali, my preference would’ve been for her face to be modeled after her voice actress, Liz Sroka. If you look at a picture of Sroka, she’s cute. She’s adorable. You just want to hug her and take her home to your mother. Which is exactly how Tali should look.

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