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…


LucidFox said...

I'd say you were wrong about one thing in your assessment, though. It has an ending more like The Matrix Reloaded rather than Revolutions, in that it ends with the protagonist discovering that none of their choices mattered, that they're really powerless, followed by a forced choice dictated by nothing other than author fiat in a misguided attempt to make the story "deep and philosophical".

Which isn't doing ME3 any favors, considering it's the third installment in a trilogy rather than the second.

Ryan said...

It's still pretty scary how close I got though. I feel vindicated... and I hate myself.

Thanks for the comment!

S7evens said...

I just effectively finished a second play through (to illusive man's base, no desire to see the game's failure of an ending again) and I have to say that despite liking it the first time through my opinions have changed after I got the fanboy out and really looked at the game.

Just looking at gameplay (and I loathe to say this but it is the best part of the game) the weapon system is fucked. heavy pistols out dps the best assault rifles and shotguns while boosting powers, which are OP compared to weapons. If you do many of the sidequest you end up with enough money to buy nearly every item in the game, including all 3 absurdly powerful Specter weapons. The only challenge for advanced players comes from enemies that have more hp then an alliance frigate and many of the levels are so linear that I feel I would be better of playing Call of Duty.

On characters I am very disappointed you only run into maybe 3 NPC's from previous games and you really only dialog with Conrad Verneer. Vega is a terrible character and Ashley's personality has turned from hardened military with a streak of xenophobia to military barbie reality show. I also agree that Garus and Liara have no personality to speak of forcing me to rely on experience from previous games. Which is especially surprising because Liara was my love interest in the game. EDI was a stereotype of robot learning to be human which would be OK if it wasn't the strongest of the original squad mates. Tali I guess was OK but you only end up having 3 short conversations with her and she isn't available for 1/2 the game. and Ki Lang wants to steal your cereal, serously where did he come from and who the hell decided that Mass Effect was just begging for a SPACE NINJA.

The plot was godawful, I thought the main theme was suppose to be stop the reapers not spend the last few weeks of organized resistance building a machine that no one understands but will mysteriously win us the war. I also fought Cerberus like 60% of the game, they should be a side villan. When it comes time to assault the illusive man's base can I just get the Destiny Assention to punch a hole through life support and go get my data in a spacesuit?

nitpicking plot holes aside, I just feel that this whole game failed to live up to the expectations that I had for it, especially upon a second play through. If they do come out with a ending fix I may purchase it just so I can enjoy 1 and 2 again. I liken 3 to sitting down and watching all 3 Star Wars Prequels in an evening after being fans of the original for years. You start out greatly excited but knowing that it will probably not live up to expectations, then you start in and you have the WOW more Star Wars Sweet feeling. Then as the movies drag on you come down from that and see them as just OK. Then while brushing your teeth you start to try and put together the logic and you can't and end up going to bed upset and with a headache.

Alright sorry for the long comment. Needed a place to vent and don't feel like creating an account on the forums to do that. Just like I don't feel like ever purchasing another title from BioWare ever again.

Ryan said...

Thank you for the comment S7evens! I find what you said very interesting. While I think you are being perhaps a tad harsh on the game, it is probably because you're seeing the story from a new perspective. The ending of ME3 has jaded you, just like it's jaded me.

I personally can't even bring myself to play ME3 again, but I imagine if I did, I would be having a similar reaction. In fact I bet if you went back and played ME1 and ME2, you wouldn't enjoy either game nearly as much as before. All of this thanks to ME3's cataclysmic ending.

In my opinion, ME3's ending will go down in history as a text book example of how NOT to end your trilogy. Good news for Casey Hudson. He did say he wanted ME3's ending to be memorable.