California Literary Review

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

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September 17th, 2012 at 9:32 am

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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: ★★★★☆ [Leviathan]
CLR Rating: ★★☆☆☆ [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.

  • john

    oh dear everyone just got mad over nothing if the three games were played properly it would have made sence post extended cut yes pre extended the ending sucked badly however having promtly played through many times with each ending it all made sence i was happy why wasnt anyone else did they miss something ?

  • childsmanger

    It surprises me you were even able to read the article, you illiterate chucklefuck.

  • Doug

    Pretty Terrible Article. Completely Biased

  • Michael

    A lot of legitimate points are raised in this review, and it echos a lot of the sentiments that most fans have come to agree one. I have to disagree about Mass Effect 2, though. It was more than just filler, it was a fun game and it gave us one of the best videogame endings I’ve ever played. …Which probably compounds the terrible ending of ME3.

  • http://www.presstriangle.co.uk/ Laura Buttrick

    Hi Michael. I was perhaps a little harsh on ME2 – I did enjoy it in itself, but as part of the series I felt it failed to progress the story. It was a fun game and well written in general, but when viewing the series as a whole I find it hard to justify its existence beyond character establishment. Still, I am very aware that this opinion is in the minority! Thank you for your comment :)

  • http://www.presstriangle.co.uk/ Laura Buttrick

    Hi Doug, I’m sorry you think the article was terrible! It does have some biases as I was writing from an emotional perspective rather than an objective, analytical one as some readers may have preferred.

  • http://www.presstriangle.co.uk/ Laura Buttrick

    I think it is incorrect to suggest that people were not playing the games correctly. The endings are not entirely coherent when look at in light of the themes of the series, which is where many take issue.

  • Rom

    Nothing wrong with character filler in my opinion. People put too much emphasis on plot sometimes. Taking the time to just sit back and enjoy the characters really makes the plot all that much stronger when it happens. The good parts of ME3 (and there were good parts) were good mostly because time had been given to just appreciate the characters involved for what they were.

  • Saladinho

    Excellent article. Just finished the game over the weekend and had avoided the furor over the ending up till now. The gaming press’ reaction to the furor was illuminating: I had expected them to help me make sense of the awful mess of the ending, but instead, they were dismissing the fans’ reactions, and showing their genuine disdain for gamers. It’s like they feel that their job is to protect the gaming industry from gamers.

  • drayfish

    Thank you for this review, Laura. Besides being a fine summation of many of the fundamental issues with the game, it is a nice contrast to the curiously blind praise and hypocrisy heaped upon this work by the majority of the videogames media (and yes, IGN’s patronising position in particular has been quite extraordinary).
    I couldn’t agree more with your reading. For me it’s particularly sad, because I had thought that Mass Effect had the potential to be a beacon for the emerging artistic medium of videogames, a shining example of how such interactive texts could offer a legitimate experience wholly unlike any other narrative texts. In the end, however, it seems it ran a-ground on a cocktail of hubris and poor conception.
    For a game that tried so hard to repeatedly evoke mythic and narrative archetypes (that Stargazer scene after the credits? …yeeesh), and one that bleated on about ‘hope’ and ‘belief’ in the face of great peril, it ended on an extraordinarily ham-fisted, hurried, and nihilistic note. Rather than the cohesive conclusion that could of easily been achieved had they not tried to be cute, instead the audience was were offered a complete thematic contradiction, a total invalidation of player investment, and quite a shocking endorsement of some grotesquely intolerant beliefs. ‘Save’ humanity by performing one of three of its greatest sins. …yay?
    And the fact that the creators of the game still remain walled away from any discussion with their fans about whatever their intent was – instead demanding that the audience continue buying DLC that might, perhaps, shed light on their clumsy storytelling – speaks volumes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1004434385 Matt Allen

    Like everyone below me, I feel you’re far, FAR too harsh here. For a start, yes, the core story of Mass Effect 1 is probably the best, but, let’s be honest here, Mass Effect 1 was basically just a series of cut-scenes interspersed with runny-shooty bits. As a story it excelled, but as a game, it needed more.

    As for Mass Efffect 2, there may be less in the way of core story, but the character missions more than make up for it. It’s not filler, it’s character progression. Honestly, I believe ME2 to be the best of the three by a long way.

    Finally, I agree with you on the DLC end, but I was quite happy with the amended ending, to be honest.

  • http://www.facebook.com/meredith.vonlasher Meredith von Lasher

    John, the thing is, even with the EC, your choices don’t matter. Did you
    cure the genofage? It doesn’t matter. Did you let the quarian and the
    geth live? Doesn’t matter. You get the same ending if you killed the
    geth, killed the quarian or saved both, the only change is a little
    static image during the end. Whatever you did up to the point when you
    meet with the Catalyst, it makes no difference. What your Shepard did to
    unite the galaxy, is irrelevant. That’s what people complain about.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.taylor.1253 Steven Taylor

    I both agree and disagree with you. I disagree ME3 had a bad ending, unless you’re talking about how slow those controls were, yeah, that sucked. I love ME2. I find it very special to me. It felt like more of an journey with much better flow than ME3. The fast action is the best in ME3 but ME2 had the most charm and personality. I love ME2. I still play it to this day.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.taylor.1253 Steven Taylor

    I downloaded the EC but don’t know if it worked when I beat it. I know the ending was out of this world epic, with some amazing Biblical-type references. Amazing literature. Very deep. I can see how many would not understand the type of thinking and old literature it represents.

  • Stephen

    “Like everyone below me, I feel you’re far, FAR too harsh…. I was quite happy with the amended ending.” Wow. I almost suspect EA marketing reps make such comments in a sly attempt at damage-control, just as I wondered if high-profile reviewers gave “thumbs up” rather than risk ties with producers. My cynisism here, which I seem to share with the author, Laura, and many others– derives from our impression that an aspiring epic was exchanged for 30 pieces of silver. I apologize if this sounds harsh or melodramatic. Perhaps Shepard wasn’t betrayed by any Judas, or by the gods of gaming, but an ending that leaves me “quite happy” wasn’t why my heart broke. Beauty and power were revealed in ME1. A little awkard, but ME2 was endearing. The ME3 climax never came. No afterglow, no pillow talk, no closure. For some reason, the developers just couldn’t perform. Perhaps we should have paid more. Or perhaps, we should find another partner, a company that understands us, a team of artists, engineers, and publishers who can overcome the real constraints of this economy to compose a masterpiece. I wanted a storyteller who cared, and was honest. Am I acting “entitled” by wanting this, as some reviewers have suggested? It was, after all, just a love story set in the nebulas of space. Just a dream, just a love story– if we don’t live for these, then what? Thank you, Laura, for your insightful reflections on this game. In 10 days, the final addition to ME3, “Reckoning,” is to be released. Appropriate title, since I may yet fall for this game if somehow, at long last, my heart is unbroken. Whether in this game or another, though, I can only hope that more magical experiences are to come.

  • Stephen

    On a more practical note, I would have bought this trilogy several times for family & recommended it to friends, if it wasn’t for the ending. Anyway, here’s to hoping– for better times to come.

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