Saturday, March 24, 2012

Finally: Mass Effect 3 Review!

Finally, enough time has passed for me to cool down and evaluate Mass Effect 3 with a clear head. It is no secret that the game has come under considerable fire lately, specifically over its ending. You can see that I have already written a few posts here that demonstrate both the best and worst of ME3. Mass Effect originally started out as a sci-fi action/RPG based on classic sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s. It was to take your hero, Commander Shepard across a trilogy of adventures, allowing you to make hard choices, the results of which would culminate in its third act. A lot of hype was built up around Mass Effect 3, as it carried the weight of not just one, but three games on its shoulders.

Mass Effect 3 really is a great game, a great game that suffers from monumental problems. Problems that I never would have expected coming from Bioware, of all studios. In fact, I think Mass Effect 3 may very well have become a vessel of Bioware ineptitudes in many ways. It is also an example of their greatest triumphs. This is one of the reasons that Mass Effect 3 is hard to review. It is both a symbol of excellence, and sheer disappointment.

Mass Effect 3 tells the final adventure of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect trilogy. For years Shepard has fought against the Reapers, desperately trying to keep them out of this galaxy. Unfortunately, the Reapers have arrived, laying waste to entire planets and civilizations. Shepard sets out on a mission to unite the entire galaxy behind him and lead the largest military force ever assembled against the seemingly endless might of the Reapers. It has all come down to this. Everything you ever wanted to know about the galaxy will be explained… or not…

Mass Effect 3 tells an absolutely amazing story, filled with tension, sorrow, loss, emotion and hope. Unfortunately, this excellent story goes absolutely nowhere. Bioware promised that ME3 would answer all of your questions and give closure to the story and the characters. Instead, Mass Effect 3 provides little in the way of answers, but leaves us with more questions than we have ever had. The Reapers, the supposed primary villains of the story, are little more than window dressing. For all of their otherworldly mystique and terrifying awe, they really come off as just mindless chaos machines. The chaos they bring about is rarely seen. I always thought the Reapers were supposed to intelligent, cold, brutal exterminators, but they seem to be nothing but nonsensical drones. The way they are portrayed in ME3 is expanded on even less than either of the previous installments, in which the Reapers weren’t even within our galaxy. Their motivations are never clearly touched on, with the exception of an explanation that is so ludicrous it has to be a bold faced lie.

One of the elements of a Bioware game is their cast of deep and compelling characters. Not so much here in ME3. Though the cast is primarily made up of the cast of ME1, one of the most compelling casts of any Bioware game in my opinion, it is clear that your squad this time around is riding on the depth of the previous games. Ashley, Tali and the DLC character Javik are handled quite well. Each has excellent story arcs that really bring their characters full circle. Meanwhile, Liara and Garrus are pretty much just along for the ride. Garrus, once my second favorite ME squad members, has proven himself in ME3 to one of the most mishandled characters in any form of entertainment ever. Garrus was introduced in ME1 and had a really cool character arc. In ME2, his character reset himself and had to learn the same lesson all over again. In ME3, he has no character development whatsoever. He’s just there. His development over the three games was extremely poor, and beyond frustrating for me, considering he was one of my favorites.

Newcomer James Vega proves to be the weakest link. He starts out with so much promise. He’s reckless and impulsive and has a real up and at ‘em attitude. Sadly, after the first act ends, he completely stops being relevant at all. His character development pretty much stops at the middle of his arc. I can’t speak on how Kaidan is handled. I have heard that he has pretty much the same role as Ashley. If that is the case, then it is pretty obvious that Bioware wrote that particular role on the notion that most players left him on Virmire. The role seems more tailored to specifically fit Ashley, given her opinions on the Council races in ME1. If that is true, that is extremely unfortunate, as Kaidan deserved better. Overall, this is certainly Bioware’s most uneven cast of characters to date. It’s sad that such great characters like Liara and Garrus seemed so shoehorned into the plot. Bioware is capable of far better than this.

Another classic Bioware element that was extremely mishandled was the dialog system. Not just the dialog wheel, mind you, the entire system. The amount of auto-dialog in this game is staggering. It seems like players no longer have any control over what Shepard says. In fact, the auto-dialog got so bad at one point, when the prompt came up, I sat there wondering why Shepard stopped speaking. I didn’t even notice the dialog wheel. Not only that, but you had only two options, nice guy response or mean guy response. There was no longer any neutral option. There were hardly any persuade/intimidates, or investigate options and you never made any big choices. I suppose you could make an argument that in ME1 and ME2 you were setting up the dominos and now comes the time to watch them fall down. I’m still not happy with the lack of player determined dialog.

The new reputation system completely nullifies the paragon/renegade system despite the fact that it is still there. I’m not even sure how the new rep system works, all I can figure is that they may as well have just left everything open to everyone and threw the entire concept of reputation and paragon/renegade in the trash. It would have saved a lot of time, money and resources while yielding the exact same results. The interrupts, a brilliant innovation in ME2, are now utterly pathetic. Before the interrupt system had Shepard take a direct action in the middle of a conversation. Sometimes, you would throw a guy out a window, or maybe you shoved someone out of the way of an oncoming bullet. This time, Shepard simply interrupts the conversation, forcing the dialog to its end. That is it. Out of all of the interrupts, there were only two where Shepard actually took a direct action, one for renegade, and one for paragon. What the hell Bioware?! Whatever happened to Mass Effect being our story? Whatever happened to no canon? Whatever happened to wildly different conclusions? The lack of consideration of player freedom is deeply concerning.

Over the course of the trilogy, Commander Shepard has made some brutally hard choices. Do you kill or spare the rachni? What about the Citadel Council? How many members of your suicide squad made it out of ME2 alive? Nearly all of the choices get a payoff, but more often than not, they fall a little flat. The choice involving the rachni has an extremely weak payoff, while the Citadel Council choice changes the landscape of the story in an interesting, albeit minor way. Other choices, like preserving the Collector base, result in simple changes in dialog, while choices like keeping or throwing out Maleon’s genophage cure has enormous ramifications. The biggest divergence seems to be centered around who is alive and who is your Shepard’s love interest. These choices do not necessarily have large impacts, but they do effect the story long term. One thing I can say is that for most of the game, it felt like the story was custom tailored to me, even if the choices I made did not amount to all that much. That is something I can appreciate. On the topic of that romantic subplot, I must confess, Bioware did an excellent job seeing this plot through. The romantic dialog is sweet, occasionally sexy, but most of all, very heartfelt. There are lots of nice touches when interacting with the love interest characters. Sometimes it’s as subtle as holding hands while talking, or a brief kiss on the shoulder. And not to sound creepy, but the kissing animation was really well done. It wasn’t over the top or awkward. It’s a little weird to me how much attention to detail they put on making a kiss look real, but in the end, it sold the scene. I applaud Bioware for actually telling a beautiful love story over the course of the Mass Effect saga.

On the gameplay side, ME3 features a new and improved combat system. It’s much more akin to Gears of War, but that’s not all that bad. In fact, ME3 has some features that Gears does not, like the slick cover movement around corners. The combat is faster, more intense, and truly makes you feel like a soldier on the battlefield. Shepard is more mobile on the battlefield, able to perform more combat maneuvers, evasive actions and slick cover to cover movements. One of the problems I had in ME2 was that the combat was very stale and repetitive. Not so in ME3. Shepard is constantly being redirected into new areas, forced to overcome obstacles and puzzles. It really keeps you on your toes. One of my favorite bits involved a chase on the Citadel elevators. Even though the combat is really fun and exciting, there is just something wrong with the fact that combat outshines the narrative gameplay features like the dialog wheel.

The weapon modification system was one of the many talked about features, and I can’t say it delivers on all of its promises, but it’s still pretty cool. Throughout the game, you collect upgrades that you can plug into your gun on any weapon bench you find. Scopes, extra clips, damage enhancing barrels, you can collect quite a supply of upgrades that will change the functionality of your weapon. Just don’t expect them to do too much. In fact, some upgrades, like the shotgun bayonet, are purely cosmetic changes, offering very little in enhancing your weapons functionality. Overall, I like the system well enough. I wish they went a little further with it, but it is pretty cool as is. On a slightly related topic, the SPECTRE shooting range is such a nice touch. Again, I wish they took that one a bit further, but the fact that it is here at all is much appreciated.

But what about the RPG features? ME3 showed me that Bioware really has no clue how to craft an RPG anymore. The branching levels in their new stat progression are pretty cool, I won’t lie. It does give you opportunities to define your character in the way you like to play. On the other hand, many of the powers seem very nerfed. Adrenaline Rush was the end all be all soldier power in ME2. In ME3 it’s an obnoxious headache that really doesn’t even slow down time at all. The new powers are hit and miss. Frag grenades for soldiers? Yes please! Nova for Vanguards? Hell yes! Sentry turrets for Engineers? Gimme! Cluster grenades for Adepts? WTF?! Seriously, some of these powers are just damn lazy. Why give biotics grenades? That’s just stupid. The powers are supposed to enhance the character we design. If I play an Adept, I want a cool Adept power, not stupid grenade. Grenades are for non-biotics! You want a cool power for an Adept, I’ll give one. It’s called Syphon. It drains the defense powers from enemies and enhances your abilities, giving a +5% to all powers used. Bam!

Side quests suck too, by the way. The mining mini game is back, only not as boring, but twice as obnoxious. This is how a side quest works in ME3. You walk by a guy, he mentions that he lost something, it goes in your sloppily designed journal and then you go out and mine planets to find it. Don’t mine too much though because the Reapers will enter the star system and chase you out. After that, you are locked of the system out for a whole mission. It sounds kind of cool at first, but it wears out its welcome fast. N7 quests are enhanced, featuring actual stories this time. Basically, you are thrown in a multiplayer map and asked fend off waves of the enemies (just like multiplayer!) until the mission is done. Oh and you get war assets, which theoretically help you achieve the “best possible ending.” Except for the fact that all endings are nearly identical, leading the galaxy into some apocalyptic nightmare, meaning the war assets you spend 50% of the game collecting amount to jack shit. Yay.

All in all, ME3, does tell a very emotionally gripping story, one that I am not afraid to admit that I cried during. However, the emotion is meaningless as the game’s ending invalidates the entire Mass Effect universe. The RPG features range from shoddy to well done, the combat is solid, but not perfect, and the dialog and reputation system is completely fucked, to put it mildly. Mass Effect 3 doesn’t really feel like Mass Effect, not by a long shot. And when the game ends, you can’t help but feel depressed. And you’re not depressed because the story you loved has come to an end, you’re depressed in the same way that you are when you finish watching the movie The Road, that post-apocalyptic movie with Viggo Mortensen. At its best, the ending necessitates a DLC continuation. At its worst the ending embodies nihilism, genocide, hopelessness and leaves you wondering if Shepard was the good guy, or the most evil son of a bitch ever born. Mass Effect 3 is a good game, but it is far and away the weakest of the franchise. The intensity of the combat and the generally well presented story can’t save the game from all of its failures. Had this game come from a studio other than Bioware, or even if this were Mass Effect 1, I would give it a 9. But seeing as how ME3 breaks the most traditional Bioware conventions and ends the trilogy on its lowest note possible, I can’t honestly give this game that kind of score. Is it worth playing? Hell yes it is. Just make sure you have plenty of antidepressants around the house first. Seriously, this game is so depressing that I haven’t eaten in a week. I’ve lost ten pounds! Best diet plan ever.

As it is called Mass Effect 3, as in the third act of one story, one would expect that the same themes, atmosphere and gameplay mechanics should be maintained from previous installments. Mass Effect 3 throws out nearly everything the fans from ME1 and/or ME2 have come to love about the series, and clearly focuses on building a new audience completely separate from Bioware’s core fanbase. The game starts incredibly strong, weakens in its second act, picks up again in its third and then commits franchise suicide at the end. As excellent as much of this game is, Mass Effect 3 abandons far too much of what the series stands for. Things like choice, freedom, hope and unity are all abandoned in the third game for reasons no one is quite sure of. I give Mass Effect 3 a score of 7 out of 10. It pains me more than you could ever know to give such a score to Mass Effect 3, but I have to remain true to myself and my opinions. I should note that I gave both Mass Effect 1 and 2 a rating of 9.5 out of 10. That was on a different blog though, one that is long gone. And before I go, I would like to leave you all with a quote from my Mass Effect 3 is Going to Suck series of articles written back in July 2011:

“Let’s say for the sake of argument, that ME3 story disappoints the wider audience. It’s filled with plot holes, inconsistencies, ass-pulls, and baffling character derailments and has an ending like The Matrix Revolutions. The gamers who play Mass Effect for the story all walk away with negative opinions. The game is further streamlined to be a Gears of War clone, so the RPG fans walk away with a negative opinion, but the game features enough RPG elements and conversations to cause the shooter boys to walk away with a negative opinion as well. Most of the characters and plots unfold in a way that screams it was written in an attempt to please the hater crowd, leaving the fans with a negative opinion and the haters (shockingly) still hate it. Fans who would be pleased with just seeing their favorite characters back are disappointed with their lack of screen time and relevance and also have a negative opinion. EA demands multiplayer, so many of the core fan base do not even pick the game up. Those who do buy the game feel EA is responsible for all of its problems and its fall from grace. The negative opinions catch up to Bioware and ME3 has some of the worst reviews a Bioware game has ever had. New players who were interested no longer are, and sales are in general, are very disappointing.

God I hate it when I’m right…

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Defending Mass Effect 3

Only days after writing an open letter to Bioware about how disappointed I was with the ending of Mass Effect 3, here I am writing up a defense letter. Am I consistent or what? The truth is, I feel really bad for Bioware right now. Sure ME3's ending was confusing, anticlimactic, and flat out disappointing. When the two most popular interpretations for the endings are either a) a dream that does not exist in reality and therefore never happened, or b) completely illogical nonsense that makes no sense to anyone, there is a serious problem. However, the ending is not the only part of the game. Mass Effect 3 is a great adventure nearly all the way through. I really enjoyed playing it.

The reason I decided to write this defense letter was because I saw a Twitter post from Jessica Merizan, community manager at Bioware. On her tweet, she asked what the fans' favorite mission in ME3 was. I wanted to respond her because I have a pretty great story behind why my favorite mission in ME3 is my favorite. Sadly, those stupid tweets have such a limited amount of characters, so I could not write what I felt needed to be said. Luckily, I am not limited on my blog, so I will write it here. Before I begin my tale about my favorite mission in ME3 and my defense of Bioware, I must warn any and all who read this. There be spoilers in this post. Pretty big ones too, so if you have not played ME3 to at least the start quarian/geth plot in the story, I suggest you move along now and preserve what is certainly the most compelling part of the game (at least to me).

I woke up one morning looking to get through the krogan story arc once and for all. I was frustrated at this point because my favorite character, Ashley, had been stuck in a hospital since the end of Mars. I wanted to get her back on the Normandy where she belonged. A friend told me that if I finished the krogan plot and then returned to the Citadel afterward, she would be back on my team. That was today's gaming goal. In order to finish up the krogan plot, first I had to do a favor for Wrex. Now, we have all played Wrex's mission so I won't go into details, as that is not the part of the game I wish to discuss. However, we can all remember that it was quite an emotional experience. I was never a huge fan of Grunt. I liked him, but I didn't love him. However, I was still very protective of him. Daddy issues I guess. I am not sure. Either way, when he got his full on Boromir moment, I was weeping. I went from liking Grunt, to loving his sorry ass. And when Grunt reemerged victorious, I cried even more, with happy tears this time.

After that emotional end to a very cool mission, it was time to cure the genophage. This mission was so epic, so awesome, and so emotionally moving in more ways than one, I almost thought I was at the climax of the whole game. It was that supercharged. When the mission ended, I was crying again. But I was also jazzed. Several of this game's best moments happen in this mission. "You've been a champion to the krogan people, a friend of clan Urdnot and a brother to me," Wrex says. And to top it all off, we get the sad, yet inspiring farewell to one of the best characters in the ME universe, Mordin Solus. Again, I cried.

At this point, I was emotionally drained. I just wanted to quit. I needed a break from ME3 for at least the rest of the day. I decided to follow my friend's instruction and pick up Ashley so that I would have her for the next mission. Big mistake. I headed back to the Citadel only to find that Cerberus was throwing a coup. I couldn't quit now, I had a galaxy to save.

This was my favorite mission. The Citadel Coup. The action was intense, the story was solid, the tension was at its peak, and I was already emotionally drained form the missions that came before. At one point in playing this mission, the batteries to my controller died. After a brief freak out, I quickly leaped up and grabbed some spare batteries, however, I couldn't swap them out. You see, due to my obsession with marathoning this game, I played the most tense, exciting and emotionally gripping missions in rapid succession. This was like swallowing 5 pounds of sugar, drinking a quart of coffee and then taking a hit of speed. My hands were shaking from all of the adrenaline, and as much as I tried, I could not replace the batteries to my controller. My hands were literally shaking that bad. Thankfully, my little brother was watching me play, and he kindly assisted me in my time of need.

The Citadel Coup garnered a physical reaction from me unlike any game I have ever played, movie I have ever watched, or book I have ever read. Battling all of those Cerberus agents in a familiar area, facing off with Kai Leng for the first time, Thane's epic biotic bitch slap, the confrontation with Ashley, a sad yet fitting goodbye to one of my personal favorite characters; all of it combined to make these the most memorable moments in ME3. And when it was all over, I had my two great loves back on the Normandy, Ashley and Elanor, where they belonged. Oh, you don't know who Elanor is? Oh yeah. That's my Revenant light machine gun. I loved the gun so much that I named her Elanor back in ME2. Yup. That may seem strange to you, but when your two favorite sci-fi stories are Firefly and Farscape, you grow an affinity for naming fine weaponry.

Amidst this ending debacle, I just wanted to voice my appreciation for ME3. I already voiced my concern, but I have always said, if you are going to cut someone, you may as well have the common decency to put a band-aid on the wound. So here is your band-aid Bioware. ME3 was a thrilling experience. No matter what happens, you gave me one of the most thrilling gaming experiences of my life, one that will not easily be outdone. Heck, maybe that is why I did not care for the ending, because that Citadel Coup was just so unbelievably impressive. Even you couldn't out do that moment. That's not a bad thing, really. I'm sure some fans hated this mission, but for me, it was the best. So thanks Bioware for the Citadel Coup.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Letter to Bioware

Dear Bioware,

I just wanted to step in and voice my concerns for Mass Effect 3. I feel it is necessary that I give my opinions because I think that with all that has happened over the last few days, it would be good for you guys to hear from a clear head. There seem to be a lot of angry fans out there, and while I am not angry, I am disappointed. First of all, I would like to begin by saying that Mass Effect 3 was immensely enjoyable. It was brutally intense and the story was better written than I could have ever hoped. I also really appreciated the more emotional side to the story. I felt that ME2 was a bit emotionally shallow in comparison to ME1, but for ME3 I am not afraid to admit that I cried more than a few times.

That being said, the ending really was a kick in the head. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what was going on. It seemed like Shepard was being indoctrinated. If that is the case, I applaud the ending, at least to some degree. It was cool how you designed the dialog wheel to seem like the Paragon action was really a Renegade action. Or perhaps it was a Renegade action. Either way, the real problem I had with the ending is that it really wasn’t an ending. The story just stopped.

There was no resolution. In fact, I am not entirely sure if Shepard even beat the Reapers. Was it all just a hallucination brought about by indoctrination? Did we take back Earth? What about all of those people on the Citadel? Are they dead? What about all of the races Shepard united? Where do they go? What happened to them? With the Mass Relays being destroyed, if they even were actually destroyed, then are all of the alien races stranded on Earth? I found this to be particularly alienating because I literally just got the quarians their world back. Now, they’ve lost it again. That was very unsatisfying. The ending took the choices I made throughout the trilogy away, and frankly seemed like a betrayal of concept, at least to me. I know I am not a game designer or anything like that, but to me Mass Effect has always been about our Shepard and the impact his choices have on the galaxy and the people around him. In ME3’s ending, I felt like nothing Shepard did mattered. I felt like the galaxy was in a worse state than if the Reapers would have harvested everyone. Of course that is assuming they didn’t harvest everyone. The ending was quite confusing on this topic.

I am also really upset with the Normandy crashing on the jungle world scene. It looked as if you guys were going for some kind of rebuilding the universe, brave new world type ending, however, the implications of what would have to transpire I found very unpleasant. I chose Ashley as Shepard’s love interest (all the way back in ME1), so am I to believe that Ashley is now a baby making machine for the future of the human race while Shepard lies in rubble? I find that notion to be extremely unsettling. Even more so when you take into consideration that Ashley just got Shepard back. She clearly had some deep personal issues that sprouted from Shepard’s death at the beginning of ME2. Now that they have been resolved, Shepard is lost to her yet again. That is such a depressing and cynical thought. So much so that it goes against the more idyllic vision of the Mass Effect universe. In fact, I felt the ending was extremely cynical all around. Do we not deserve a better tomorrow? Perhaps that was intended however the reality of the situation is grim. With no Mass Relays and entire races cut off from their homes, are we to believe that all of the races wouldn’t devolve into barbarians fighting for the dominance of their new world? The krogan would. The krogan did. On the topic of the krogan, we spent the whole first act of the game trying to build a future for their race, only to have that future destroyed. The males of the krogan race were out fighting the battle on Earth while the females were left on Tuchanka in order to protect their future. Does this mean that the krogan are extinct regardless of our choice? In which case, Mordin’s sacrifice is completely meaningless. The krogan die off anyway. Again, that is cynical and depressing.

If Mass Effect 3 had a more traditional ending, Shepard destroying the Reapers, saving the galaxy and living happily ever after with his or her love interest, if desired by the player, the ending would have been much more satisfactory to the players. This doesn’t mean that it would be all butterflies and roses. Obviously sacrifices must be made to ensure that victory. Sacrifice and hard work. I recall that Mac Walters said that Mass Effect 3’s theme was victory through sacrifice. I didn’t feel like Shepard was victorious. I felt like he lost. In my opinion, the theme seems to be nothing matters. Perhaps that is why the ending put such a bitter taste in my mouth. Because nothing seemed to matter.

I think Shepard deserves some happiness and peace. He’s been through enough. Some people may like an ending where Shepard sacrifices himself for the greater good. I do not. I want to choose an ending where my hero lives. If other players like Shepard dying for the cause then that ending should also be viable. That is the ending they should choose. I would like to choose an ending more fitting for my Shepard. I really enjoyed all of the endings in ME2. Shepard can sacrifice himself in the suicide mission as well, but it is one of a few options. Shepard can also live if it is what the player desires. Why could we not get endings like that in ME3? You say that the canon story for Mass Effect is decided by the players, but the ending of Mass Effect 3 is a canon ending that was forced on us. We players have spent 5 years with our Shepard’s now, and it just seems so depressing that this is how it ends for him, and for us.

Personally, I think it would have been cool if you made an ending like Dragon Age Origins. Perhaps a victory ceremony on the Citadel or Earth. The Council (provided they are even alive) could present Shepard with some medal or special honor. Maybe even give players a choice on where Shepard might go. There is an empty seat on the Council for humanity after all. Just saying. All of the squad mates and major non-companions like Wrex and Anderson (provided they are alive) could be in attendance, allowing the player to talk with them and get closure on their character arcs. And for players that like Shepard dying in the end, why not create a funeral scene. Anderson and maybe whoever the player’s love interest is could say some nice words and give Shepard the sendoff he deserves. Sure it is complete and total fan service, but isn’t that what it’s all about?

All in all, Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic game. You guys should all be very proud of the achievement that it is, even with all of the negativity around the endings. I loved every minute of Mass Effect 3, with one obvious exception. And it is not that the ending is bad, it simply feels incomplete and offers little variety for players who may not wish for the story to end in this way. Considering that the major most selling point of the series has been choice, it is somewhat distressing that the ending does not offer many choices beyond Shepard’s (and the galaxy’s) demise. In the event that the rumors of a DLC that will effectively end the tale of Shepard and Mass Effect are true, I wanted to share my thoughts. I loved Mass Effect 3. I just do not think it was the ending that neither Shepard nor the fans deserved. We all know that in reality, the whole galaxy would likely succumb to the Reapers. But that’s why we play video games. So we can escape the truths of reality and bask in the fantastic, experiencing a brighter tomorrow, if only for a few hours.

Thank you for your time,