- Mass Effect 3
- CLR [rating:2.5]
Release Date: March 6th, 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Microsoft Windows
Developer: BioWare Corp.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Binary Choice driven 3rd Person Shooter RPG
ESRB: M for Mature
Auteur Attached: Casey Hudson (Director)
Reaping the Harvest of Poor Choices
Five years ago, BioWare began a science fiction odyssey into the unknown. A series where the player was faced with choices, often hard choices, about how the characters would proceed, and the results of their decisions would carry over from one game to the next — to truly create long form interactive storytelling on a scale never before attempted. It was called Mass Effect.
Three years ago, the sequel released. It had its issues, but the promise of player driven continuity was maintained; the unique universe your Commander Shepard traipsed around in was expanded. There was much rejoicing, and the stage was set for a conclusion that was going to redefine how games, and possibly stories, were to be made in the future.
One year ago, I finally finished the original Mass Effect. The Faunts “M4, Pt. 2” played during the credits and I sat in rapt silence, truly awestruck. The satisfaction was an almost religious, revelatory experience. Ashamed to have missed out on the most important science fiction series of the last decade up till then (a situation quickly remedied), I perhaps overcompensated by delving deeply enough into the series’ expanded errata to be labeled a fanboy. With the upcoming final installment, I knew the challenge would be to write a fair, objective review uncolored by my obvious bias.
A few nights ago, I finished Mass Effect 3. As the credits scrolled I again sat silent in the dark, dumbstruck by what I had beheld. Not out of the bittersweet satisfaction that comes with the conclusion to any story, but in the confusion and anger that occurs when you’ve witnessed a crime you could do nothing to stop.
As it turns out, I was right, but in the wrong way. It IS difficult to give an objective review of Mass Effect 3; not because it’s too easy to proclaim it excellent out of bias, but that it’s very difficult to weigh such lopsided quality. Is it fair for an 11th hour shift to change the perception of all that came before it? Is an otherwise excellent experience still excellent when its end is so tragically terrible?
The answer to that question is only a matter of personal taste if you’re someone without any. Yes, for those keeping score at home: the ending matters! Especially in the case of Mass Effect 3 since it redefines the entire experience . . . in about the same way being left at the altar by a spouse ditching you for your mom redefines a relationship.
For the uninformed, who may wish to stay that way, Mass Effect is the story of one Commander Shepard, a human soldier of the Earth Systems Alliance. During each installment, Shepard travels around the galaxy in the starship Normandy with a variable crew of intergalactic misfits and mercenaries trying to prevent the utter destruction of galactic civilization by The Reapers, an ancient race of Cybernetic Space Cthuluhus that cleanse the universe of biological life every fifty thousand years or so. It’s a monumental task considering most Reapers are about a mile long, composed of nearly indestructible material, can get all Donald DeFreeze with mind controlling “indoctrination,” and have perfected a zombification technique that Vlad the Impaler’s envious of.
Keeping things interesting, each game follows different motifs within the confines of the same shared universe: the first was a hybrid of Star Trek and 24; equal parts exploration and super cop action as you tracked rogue space cop Saren across the Milky Way. The second had a distinct A-Team/Inglorious Bastards feel as Shepard led a criminal crew into a suicide mission situated in a black hole minefield. This final installment follows a “First half of Seven Samurai” motif, as Shepard must rally and unite all of the races and factions on the galactic stage into a united armada in order fight back against the invading Reaper horde and prevent the extinction of not only humanity, but ALL organic life EVERYWHERE.
First and foremost: it’s quite tricky to evaluate the potential impact Mass Effect’s story has on players since its appeal differs heavily depending on how many entries you’ve played. One of the core themes of the series from its inception was that it not only allows players to tailor their experience with customization of sex, look, and character class, but that the story adapts to a progressive series of choices the player makes via save file transference between games. A veteran of the first two games picking up ME3 has a unique history with their Shepard as their previous choices always inform the current situation and even their character’s attitude; this shared continuity creates a sense of identification with the story stronger and more involved than perhaps any yet seen in a game!
You can start a fresh new save file at the start, picking from a bunch of options in lieu of playing the previous games, but the choices you make on a sterile menu screen simply don’t carry the value of context with them. As with comic books and soap operas, this reliance on continuity is a double-edged feature; a point of excellence for those that have been around, but new entrants simply won’t have an experience nearly as deep or satisfying. But then, new entrants without any emotional investment can’t be so utterly disappointed when things fall apart.
With that caveat out of the way, it must be stated: for 98% of its runtime Mass Effect 3 is arguably the best game in the series. Building upon the mold of Mass Effect 2, it’s focused on delivering excellent cover-based gunfights for the bulk of its gameplay, but several tweaks and additions make it a fundamentally better experience. Simple health regeneration is given enough complexity to be a decent mechanic, weapons and powers are better balanced, cover abilities and melee combat are expanded, the number and variety of enemies is improved, and the AI is smart enough to be a legitimate threat on the higher difficulties.
As if to prove this new found combat competence, there’s a new cooperative multiplayer mode to the game: “Galaxy at War.” Aside from the frankly manipulative incentive to play this mode included in the single player game – it affects the effectiveness of one of your major in-game resources – Galaxy at War actually proves to be a fun, challenging diversion (especially if you encounter some nasty de-sync bugs).
Then there’s the other key aspect of traditional Mass Effect gameplay: dialogue choices that affect the plot. The iconic selection wheel and interrupts return unaltered, but a revamp to the reputation metric that determines conversation flow finally allows for players to walk a line between the standard Paragon (Murtough) and Renegade (Riggs) options without losing the ability to sway opinion in more tension filled conversations. Though not major, this alteration alleviates an incentive to game the system in order to get the best outcomes, rather than making choices that reflect your actual values; thus reinforcing the series focus on letting the player direct the flow of the narrative naturally . . . which is ironic considering the endings- but I’ll get to that in a bit.
As with any game – but especially in RPGs – strong combat and dialogue systems work best amidst strongly developed worlds and characters, and again, the vast majority of Mass Effect 3 is fantastically constructed. BioWare’s confidence with the Unreal 3 engine allows them to craft locations with the love of a pyromaniac, seeing as most burn beautifully. Animations are noticeably better and more varied as well, especially the facial animations, which convey much more nuance than in either previous adventure.
Nuance aids, but isn’t entirely necessary in making the swarm of supporting characters come to life as the dialogue is still top-notch. If there’s one thing ME3 (and the series as a whole) can claim, it’s that it boasts some of the most memorable and well developed characters – along with one of the best voice casts – in gaming history, and since the majority are returning players, we get to see serious growth and development amongst them. Liara gets cynical, Tali and Jack get responsible, AIs EDI and Legion get more human, and even Joker’s sarcastic façade continues to reveal inner strength. Since Garrus couldn’t get any more awesome than he was, he remains thankfully unchanged.
While the dialogue is the cream at the top of the script, the overall plot works quite well. As a conclusion to a long running trilogy, the adventure – though more linear in order to corral the rampant variables coming in from past choices – is often one mind blowing climax to an unresolved plot thread after another. From releasing a city-sized space worm to fight off one of the monolithic Reaper doombots to vast space battles that make the entirety of Star Wars look like amateur hour, the game is about six Michael Bays of spectacle and three James Camerons of vast scale.
Not to be outdone by the parade of jaw-dropping moments, the drama delivers as well; even the manliest men will be driven to tears at times, most likely more than once. Of course, these moments are aided by the moving and majestic soundtrack by Clint Mansell. Combining the film orchestra style of ME2 with the Vangelis-inspired electronica of ME1 into a mixture that’s perfectly suited to the high tension and morose themes explored in the game.
Of course, before we get to the amply foreshadowed Elcor in the room, I must note that not even the general excellence of the pre-ending ME3 is perfect. The quest tracking for small missions is atrocious, level design could still use more variation, and though weapon customization is expanded upon the anemic system of ME2, its counterpart armor mechanic shows absolutely no growth. Also, though overshadowed by the ending, the day one DLC is still a debacle. The “bonus” character Javik is not only obviously a key original cast member that fills in some necessary backstory, but his content was poorly tested; most of the bigger bugs I experienced only occurred with or around Javik.
A DLC gaffe of this magnitude would have been more than enough legitimate controversy for a game (and has been for others), but compared to the ending, well . . .
Without giving anything away, (directly, as all subsequent links will contain some spoilers) the ending, by which I mean the final five to ten minutes, of Mass Effect 3 is easily the worst finale I’ve seen compared to the preceding quality that came before it – in any medium. At literally every level, it’s objectively terrible.
Sloppy execution that reuses art assets reveals that it’s a hurried inclusion. The under thought and over pretentious dialogue does nothing but create bizarre, confusing plot holes. It even commits the same sin The Devil Inside did earlier this year, and has the gall to add an advertisement by the producers at the end of the credits, which is frankly insulting.
Far more importantly though, it betrays key themes and values well established by the series thus far. Past player choice impacting the shape of events is negated in favor of an arbitrary and poorly explained “pick your favorite color” moment. Science fiction justification in an otherwise material world is abandoned for magical deism, since quite literally, a god in a machine appears. Unification through altruism and sacrifice is thrown out for pure nihilism: each of the choices you’re forced to make results in Shepard committing some level of genocide or another, with the benefits removed from any relatable emotional touchstone to the intangible space of far flung statistics. It even manages to make The Reapers, one of the more imposing forces of antagonism in recent memory, come across as foolish pawns.
Topping all of this is off, the entire affair seems to be a vain attempt at symbolism ala the similarly jarring conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey rather than offering even the minutest form of concrete closure. As there is no novel to turn to that explains what they were trying to attain and the steaming mess that exists is as disconnected from sense as it is, the endeavor rings hollow as metaphor. To quote Roger Ebert for a moment:
“If you have to ask what it symbolizes, it didn’t.”
This conclusion is on the short list for “things that ruin dreams”, right up there with “discovering that Santa isn’t real because your dad dressed up like him and died” and actually manages to steal the disappointment crown from Lost. It’s bad enough that fans have formed a protest group against it, complete with a conspiracy theory and memetic hero trumpeting their cause: forcing BioWare to change the ending.
Normally, I’d find it wrong to support consumer demand altering authorial intent just to fit the vociferous opinion. Except in this case, the authors simply aren’t justified by the “statement” made. Aside from being a hackneyed mess of bad ideas running counter to everything this series has stood for, the sheer tonal shift prevents absorption for someone paying attention – the inability to convey intent is the definition of failed art.
For anyone with perspective, I know I’m belaboring a point – a bad ending can ruin all, from prose to play – but the sad fact is: no other professional review of Mass Effect 3 factored this ending into their universally positive ratings for the game, even though many acknowledged it as a problem. Not being one to claim conspiracy is to blame, I’d rather point to the more obvious culprit: ineptitude. A critic that can’t realize that narrative is often as important as gameplay – especially in an RPG – and that poorly constructed endings tarnish narrative quality – especially as it is the last thing the audience sees – is a poor critic indeed.
The gestalt of Mass Effect 3 is an end unjustified by its means, unworthy of defense. During its final moments it commits storytelling suicide, and the taste of decay it leaves in the mouth cripples the otherwise impeccable quality of what came before, poisoning even nostalgia against it. At best and being fair to the game’s other traits, the quality comes out a wash – simply mediocre.
Casey Hudson, the Director of the Mass Effect series, said in a recent interview that he wanted the endings to be “memorable.” I think he succeeded. We will remember it, nay, we need to remember it.
After all, those who forget the history of bad ideas are doomed to repeat them.