Video Game Review: Mass Effect: Leviathan and Extended Cut DLCs

Mass Effect: Leviathan and Extended Cut DLCs

Release Date: 26th June (EC) 28th August (Leviathan)
Platform: PC, PS3, xbox360
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: EA
Genre: Space opera role playing action

CLR [rating:4.0] [Leviathan]
CLR [rating:2.0] [EC]

Mass Defect

Spoilers for the Mass Effect Extended Cut are below. Leviathan is spoiler free.

There is something of an unwritten rule that the longer a series goes on, the worse it gets. Perhaps fan expectations reach thrilling heights between instalments, and the writers turn out to only be human. Perhaps the series is naturally running out of steam but the producers are at loggerheads with the executives in the infamous art vs. money debate. Perhaps the first instalment proved so unexpectedly popular, so inadvertently brilliant, that the studio decided to pump out sequels as fast as humanly possible in order to cash in on their unprecedented new success.

The ending of the original Mass Effect reminds me of the ending of the Matrix – a minor victory against an overwhelming foe, a tough guy ending score complete with a final look at our gallant hero. We know there is still a bigger threat out there, leaving the door open for a sequel, but even if we never get that sequel it doesn’t matter because as the credits roll, our guy is on top. Shepard and the Alliance overcoming Sovereign is the equivalent to Neo becoming The One. Humanity has prevailed over the machine in both scenarios. If the story ends there, it’s not such a big deal.

Of course, in both cases, the story didn’t end there. Mass Effect was planned as a trilogy, despite the clear bookending of the first game, and a trilogy was what the fans got. This was a double edged sword from the off. Originally designed as an RPG, a lot of the role playing elements were stripped away from the second game in what was described as “streamlining” the inventory and weapons system. The famous interactive dialogue remained, allowing the player to craft their Shepard as a galactic hero, galactic badass or galactic not-so-sure. By the time the third game rolled around, the “streamlining” went to new heights, removing most of the interactive dialogue with crewmates and civilians alike. Instead the player could essentially prod a character to give them a few looped one liners, and say nothing in return. Unless you were about to destroy an entire species or blow a planet to Hell, the red and blue choices shied away.

Mass Effect 3 is the worst instalment in the Mass Effect franchise if you ignore all the ridiculous iOS cash ins. It was buggy to the point where the quest log of all things didn’t work properly, it was badly paced, clearly rushed with entire sections of content cut away (the Dekuuna mission, anyone?) and, unless you had your internet connection severed around the month of March, you will already know that the ending was absolutely, inexplicably, disastrously, indubitably terrible. It’s not often I use four adverbs in a row, either. It was that bad. Let’s throw “inexcusable” in there for good measure.

Fans revolted. Games were returned (although no real figures were ever released so it seems a bit impertinent to add “in droves”). People declared it a retroactive destroyer of a previously brilliant series. The Bioware Social Network forums were flooded with calls for clarity, for answers, for a new, better ending that rang true with the themes of the series and didn’t come completely out of the left field with no explanation and even worse, no closure for a story which many had clocked over 200 hours in. My fellow games reviewer Adam detailed at length just why the conclusion to Mass Effect 3 was story telling suicide. There were a few demands for heads on sticks, because every fandom has a crazy corner, but on the whole the request for an improved ending seemed downright reasonable.

As a brief aside, it’s worth mentioning that the ending saga was the nail in the coffin for my opinion of popular games journalism. Bodies with a vested interest in the success of Mass Effect 3, such as IGN – who previously went as far as to have one of their own journalists star as a character in the game – lambasted the fan base and declared everyone involved “entitled”. The fact they had Bioware kill off a previously established and well liked character, Emily Wong, on Twitter just so they could shoehorn in Jessica Chobot as a CGI journalist struck me as far more entitled than anything a fan ever asked, but that might just be me.

This monstrosity wasn’t Jessica’s fault, but her sub-par voice acting really hammered that nail home.

Something had to give. Be it the negative press, declining sales, or the future reputation of Bioware, which had already suffered with the turgid mess that was Dragon Age 2, staff scrambled to produce an olive branch to a community ready to pack up and go home for good. On the 26th of June (unless you’re a European PS3 player, in which case you have my condolences) the Extended Cut was released.

It was by no means what fans asked for. What was asked for was essentially a re-write: the removal of a newly introduced character, the much maligned Star Child, who takes five minutes to flip the entire universe on its head and undo everything the player had achieved up to that point. What they had asked for was the removal of three completely static, indistinguishable endings that simply lit the screen up in a different colour and had absolutely nothing to do with everything the player had worked towards for, as mentioned previously, hundreds of hours.

This guy. This guy.

What the fans did get was the ultimate middle finger from a video game developer: if they chose to attack the Star Child, the player suddenly found themselves in the worst of the possible endings, their efforts for the last three games a complete failure. The three other endings, Control, Destroy and Synthesis, remained. They were simply elaborated on with extra cut scenes and still shots of what everyone got up to after the war was over. Two of the endings had potential alternatives with paragon and renegade choices affecting the craziness levels of Control and the EMS score affecting Destroy, dictating whether Shepard lived or died – not that you ever see Shepard in either scenario anyway.

In some terms, Bioware made good. Fans finally knew if they lived or died, they knew what had happened to their crew and how the galaxy recovered (or didn’t) from the war with the Reapers. It was no longer the hollow “What just happened?” response. It was now “Oh, that’s what happened. But why?” The thematic inconsistences and gaping plot holes still dogged the Extended Cut, which failed to address the fact that such a sweeping and epic trilogy ultimately boiled down to one of three choices, choices which felt forced, out of place and weren’t ever adequately explained. Why did the Star Child have a big Destroy button, a big Control button, and a big Synthesis beam all at the ready? If he really thought his plan for chaos in the name of peace was so super he needn’t have bothered with all that red and blue paint. The whole premise still falls flat, even with the post-war monologues delivered by key surviving characters.

The ending was symptomatic of a development team which had run out of time, which had had to cut corners and grasp at straws in order to bring the game to release in one piece. Except, it wasn’t even in one piece – and that’s where the Leviathan DLC comes in.

I abhor DLC. I see it as nothing more than a money-grabbing exercise by overzealous publishers who think it is acceptable to release a game with content on the disc which requires further payments to be unlocked. Mass Effect 3 had day one DLC in the form of an extra character who provided a huge amount of insight into the previous Reaper war, and who by all means should have been included in the game from the off. Leviathan was not day one DLC, and it was not unlockable disc content.

It was much, much worse. It was a pivotal plot point. It was an explanation for the Reapers, the key villains of the Mass Effect saga. It told the player everything they had wanted to know since the revelation on the planet Virmire. And Bioware (or EA, it’s a faceless monolith in either scenario) had the audacity to ask the player to pay extra to be able to download and play it. It’s the equivalent of the BioShock developers taking out the “would you kindly” reveal and asking players to pay up.

How would you have felt if you had to pay for this?

These grievances aside, as DLC goes Leviathan is top notch. With a primary focus on puzzle solving, Mass Effect style (walking around the room waiting for objects to be highlighted as you wander by and then clicking on them) and on in-game lore, the combat sequences are far shorter than players come to expect of DLC, but this is a welcome change up. Instead there is a whole lot of talking, investigating and detective work. The premise itself is sinister; an elusive entity called the Leviathan proves all too tempting a lure for Commander Shepard, who believes that whatever it is, it can help the galaxy triumph in the war over the Reapers. To go into more detail would give away too much about the Leviathan’s nature; suffice to say this DLC ramps up the creep factor and provides a chilling entry to the Mass Effect canon. A haunting mantra dogs the player’s steps: There is no war. There is only the harvest.

Another important element of Leviathan, aside from its contributions to the Mass Effect lore, is that all the supporting cast were brought back for dialogue recording, as opposed to only Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer (female and male Shepard respectively), which left no room for the awkward squad silences found in the Overlord DLC, or their complete absence in Arrival. With extra voice cues available for all squad mates on the Normandy as well as on the missions themselves, Leviathan gives Mass Effect 3 a breath of fresh air, something genuinely new and exciting. In particular, fans with love interests aboard the ship get a nice few extra snippets of dialogue geared specifically towards romance.

But ultimately, Leviathan should never have been a DLC, and the Extended Cut proved to be the equivalent of a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Just as many fans pretend that the Matrix never had a sequel, some days go by where I wish the same for Mass Effect. The second game was character filler while the third game was just a straight up disappointment. Still, we got what we got, and if you still want to understand why, downloading Leviathan is your best bet.

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