On Saving the Universe: Mass Effect 3 Review

Mass Effect 3, Bioware’s (alleged) finale to the Mass Effect Trilogy hit the shelves this March as one of the year’s most anticipated games. It has been lauded for it’s improved action sequences, branching narrative and there’s also currently a petition out there demanding that the ending be changed–after it already was changed due to a furious reaction when the original ending was leaked onto the internet.

Design and Aesthetic

 

Mass Effect 3 Screenshot

Mass Effect 3 is stunning visually, with both environments and characters rendered in gorgeous detail which far surpasses those from Mass Effect 2 or 1. Frankly, I’m a bit amazed the aging Xbox can cope with the rendering, even across two discs. There is still some texture pop, but overall the graphics make the game feel like an interactive movie, and the addition of an additional combat-minimalist, narrative style of gameplay gives that option additional weight. The locations are also a far cry from the repetitive interiors of Mass Effects past (do not talk to me about Dragon Age 2), with every location that you visit unique in design and flavour–even the N7 side missions take you to uniquely designed levels that may have a cohesive design style, but are a far cry from the ‘same base, different filling’ that was hidden behind the old ‘pre-fab building’ excuse in earlier games.

Musically, the Mass Effect Soundtrack is a joy, although at some times it pushes to the forefront in a rather intrusive ‘here’s the soundtrack’ moment, most notably in the early cutscenes with Kaiden/Ashley. Still, the sound design in Mass Effect 3 is generally supurb, swelling beneath the action or drawing away to heighten the impact of the story.

Gameplay

Perhaps the area that has received the most tweaks since ME2, Mass Effect 3′s combat is generally a faster paced experience, with a better variety of enemies, and improved AI that makes the battles just that little bit more difficult. It’s also worth noting that squad powers have been tweaked in unexpected ways beyond the multiple evolution options provided, so it’s worth double checking before sinking points into the very familiar warp ammo, which now combines with biotics rather than being the go to for bypassing enemy defenses. Despite the AI improvements, I still find one of the best tactics for dealing with combat is biotic crowd control, as sinking points into fast power recharge means you can donate singularities left right and centre do deal with most threats, and the new ability of all classes to carry all weapons has made the sniper rifle a weapon of choice for just about any situation.

There are also notable absences in gameplay–no hacking code, no memory games with circuit boards and a much streamlines scanning system. Bioware has also added a mechanic that makes scanning both more rewarding, and something that you have to stagger out over the course of the game, rather than a tedious chore, which is a nice change.

Narratively, the early game is a lot of fun, with the game delivering both the complex choices, emotional gut wrenching moments of joy and horror, and the resulting consequences of your ME1 and ME2 actions in all their glory. Tiny, insignificant moments from the first game will jump out at you, and of course, the characters who survived both games will show up to make your game easier or harder. Actually, they mostly make it easier.

In terms of your squad, Bioware promised a tighter squad experience with much more banter, and they have certainly delivered. No longer confined to one room, your companions (with the notable exception of Shadow Broker Liara, who leaves her room only rarely) will wander around the ship from mission to mission, and talk to themselves as much as to yourself. They will also take shore leave and chat to you on the Citadel, amongst other places, which gives them a much greater dynamism than previously experienced.

Of course, depending on how you play, it’s possible to go through the game with a total of three potential squaddies–a restrictive playstyle that might just impact on the game’s outcome.

***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***

Bioware has a tendency to create darker narratives where you have choices between being nice and nasty, and the path of being nice typically reaps the greatest rewards, and this is true of the Mass Effect series. Playing generally nice certainly provided me with one of the better outcomes, although there were a number of noble and idealistic choices that come back to bite you in the ass.

Unfortunately however, the story seemed to unravel just a bit at the end of the day. Mass Effect 3 came with the promise of epic confrontations, with Shepard recruiting armies across the galaxy for a final battle at earth–only the player sees no direct results of their recruitment. It has since been revealed that there is indirect results dependent on a military strength score, but there are no story based interactions or consequences once you have your various allies on side–at best you see a cut scene of space ships flying into battle, but past that–nothing. In Mass Effect 2, the upgrades to your ship and the loyalty of your crew had a direct impact on whether or not you lived or died in the Collector base–you knew that if you hadn’t put on new shielding someone would have died, or if you sent the wrong squadmate into the ventilation shafts someone would die–someone did die. If you arrived to late people died. There were experiential consequences. In Mass Effect 3 we don’t see those consequences. You don’t get any game changing experiences in the final battles from getting the geth on side along with the quarians, you don’t see Krogan assaulting reaper forces on earth if you cure the genophage, and at the end of the day, no matter how big a damn hero you are, Shepard either dies or gets separated from his crew and loved one(s)–there’s no chance of a heroic victory or happy ending for Shepard and his partner (if he or she has one). There’s also no climactic final battle (i.e. no boss fight) on the scale of Saren or the Human Reaper. You talk to the illusive man and toddle off to whatever form of death or unhappiness awaits you. And that…was a bit of a let down.

The Human Reaper

The Human Reaper AKA final ME2 Boss

Bioware has always been about great narratives, and the gameplay in ME3 has certainly lent itself to fantastic narrative stories, but it almost seems as if gameplay was sacrificed for this. In the final mission, I powered through a series of urban streetfights around earth, got cut up by reaper weaponry and…nothing. I didn’t get to fight a reaper. I didn’t get to take down a reaper. I didn’t get to cut through Harbinger like a hot knife through butter. I didn’t get to see my combined fleets make Harbinger cry in defeat. I didn’t get to *feel* like I’d earned an ending, or done anything heroic. And while the ending was certainly noble sacrifice and noble sacrifice and noble sacrifice (with a dose of near noble sacrifice), I didn’t get a chance to savour victory. For all the promises of universe changing endings and a grand finale to the end of Shepard’s journey, Bioware really failed to deliver. We’ve since been told that of the team of 15 writers, two locked themselves away and worked on the ‘ending’ without revealing it to anyone, resulting in the choice of red green and blue light that currently exists (with nothing else). The problem is the ending works as a story ending–if Mass Effect was a novel, the ending would be fantastic. As a Hollywood movie the ending is a little disappointing, but as a game, it’s terrible. I’m a firm believer that the story must fit the medium, and in this case, I believe Bioware has missed the mark. There’s just no agency for the player, and despite the background game mechanics, it feels as though you have failed, regardless of what you do. In short, Bioware has crafted a game series where players invest a minimum of 100 hours to save the universe–only to feel like they haven`t saved the universae at all. And regardless of the intended plotline, or the explanation of that plotline, evoking that feeling in a player is a failure in game terms. Even in Dragon Age 2, where you couldn’t bring peace, you could at least battle to save what you could and achieve a victory of sorts.

More recently, Bioware has admitted that the ending ‘may have needed more closure‘, and in an unprecedented move, gamers are now complaining to Fair Trading organisations, claiming that the hype and advertising around the Mass Effect 3 game was deceptive and misleading. In order to show this isn’t about gamer entitlement, a large number of fans have raised a staggering large amount of money requesting that Bioware ‘fix’ the game, with over 70K being raised for Childsplay so far.

Personally I feel most gypped by the collectors edition, which included a number of substandard weapons, a Doctor Who reference in the form of a useless Kei-9 mechanical dog–who literally does nothing except wander around your armoury–and the day one DLC already included. Seriously, aside from the metal tin and artbook (which I didn’t really buy the collector’s edition for), I could probably have got the same gaming experience if I’d purchased a standard edition and bought the DLC separately, and it would have cost a hell of a lot less.

The GLBT Experience

Shepard/Kaiden

After 2 games, you can finally get some man on man love. Although not in the picture, also note that ME3 sees the return of Dragon Age’s BiowareUnderwear(TM)

So it’s been a long time coming, from claims that sex with monogendered aliens was not lesbian sex per se, and that the lack of a man on man romance was due to a lack of gay men in the development team (while one of the sound engineers was apparently a monogendered alien), through revelations that both Kaiden and Ashley were orginally intended to be romanced by Shepards of either gender, to claims this would be addressed in ME2 (and never was), to hearing that it would NOT be addressed in ME3, to that it WOULD be addressed in ME3, there’s been a lot of hullaballoo about whether or not Bioware allowed latent (or blatant) homophobia on behalf of their perceived audience to self censor same sex content in the game–viewed by many as a step back after the inclusion of it in Dragon Age: Origins (albiet in a fairly camp, stereotyped fashion). However, after posts such as this started appearing online, Bioware went back to the more inclusive representation of life, indeed going one step further and including two NPC romances that are specifically same sex only, with characters who are well rounded and non-stereotypical of current media portrayals. In this at least, I’m happy to say Bioware got it right, although I’m quite certain that some straight homophobic  schlub is probably going to complain that he’s not comfortable with the fact that gay people exist in his playthrough, but well, I consider that a life lesson. Gay people exist. Sometimes they help you get Galaxy at War assets. Deal with it.

That said, Mass Effect 3 is still a good game, and we have been advised that further DLC to continue playing AFTER the end of the game is being created, which lends credence to the idea that there’s at least more to this game if not another game in the works–after all, you do get told in the epilogue that just one more story of Commander Shepard will be told. Apparently, that initial ending I mentioned? Could still be the ending, coming via DLC in a month or so according to one internet leak. I have to admit I hope this is the case, as I kind of feel that Mass Effect 3 really needs an expansion–like a Tales of the Sword Coast or Throne of Bhaal.

Leaked image of new ME3 DLC (Gamefront)

So with that still up in the air, here’s a few thoughts on the game that didn’t fall into any category above in the main review. Expect more spoilers.

  • Garrus/Tali was awesome. And damn funny.
  • Drunk!Tali was even better.
  • Where was the mission to Palavan? The leadup to ME3 stated we’d get to visit it as a location, but it never showed up in a quest.
  • The take back Omega quest hinted at in the Dark Horse Comic in the collector’s edition was notably missing as well. Can we get that as DLC please? That would be awesome.
  • The Citadel Defence Force. You spend a game building it up and then when you finally get to the Citadel in battle…nothing happens. I’m sorry, but what?
  • Kei-9: Can the dog be more than an extra bad pet that wanders around the room please? Can we get to use it’s bomb sniffing capabilities? Also the security to the war room, which probably disguises a loading screen a la ME1 elevators, with banter from the two soldiers guarding it, seemed to be a lead up to the Normandy being attacked in the fashion of the collector attack. Will that also be coming in DLC?
  • Tuchanka was awesome. Now where can I get more Thresher Maws?
  • It’s interesting that importing a save where your male Shepard was romancing Kaiden via the ME1 hack, does give you some different dialogue (partially voiced) with Kaiden.
  • It is currently uncertain if it possible to achieve the so called ‘best’ ending on a first playthrough without playing multiplayer. I’ll be crunching numbers at some point, but it currently appears to not be possible without hacking the game, which would belie Bioware’s claim that the Single Player Experience is truly stand alone, and that the ‘best’ possible ending is achievable in Single Player alone. Of course, if the above rumours of DLC are proved accurate, then this could all change, but we’ll have to wait and see. If the rumours are not true and the end is the end is the end, then I won’t be particularly happy as a gamer.

All in all, I try to view each piece of work in the light of the medium it is created in. As I said, if Mass Effect was a book series, I’d have been happy with the ending (although I’d have written an epilogue for it), but as a game, I was vastly disappointed, and as a game becoming a movie, I question its viability. Still, Mass Effect is and remains one of the richest stories out there in the gaming world, and as a game supporting visibility of three dimensional queer characters, I’m happy to pay for it.

Just maybe not the collectors edition next time.

This just in: Disappointed ME3 players are now getting refunds for the game, which is going to hurt Bioware’s profits. So the question is: would you go so far as to get a refund? If a new DLC ending comes out will you get it? Would you get it even if you had to pay for it?

 

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