Allow me to address the ethereal pachyderm in the room, the unspoken agreement each of us invested in Mass Effect made with Bioware five years ago.
There was no way for Mass Effect 3 to live up to its promise. Bioware could have delivered a gaming literary tour de force unseen since Planescape: Torment. Wouldn't have mattered. Mass Effect 3 could have been a storytelling and characterization synthesis parallel only to Final Fantasy 6. Still would not have lived up to the hype, especially considering Mass Efect 2 was unquestionably Bioware’s best game of the generation. It’s like the final season of Battlestar Galactica, or Return of the Jedi. It doesn’t really matter how good Mass Effect 3 could have been, on some level it was destined to be a failure.
By saying this, I want you to understand that I came into Mass Effect 3 with eyes wide open. Electronic Arts had taken over in between Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 3, writers had left; deadlines shifted. Multi-player modes were shoved into a game that absolutely was not suited to multi-player and the developers were handed a development cycle only six months longer than yearly Spider-Man revamps. I wasn’t asking for a revolution, nor was I asking for a revamp of Mass Effect 2. I would have been happy with a competent WRPG that honored the themes of the games that came before and offered a satisfying conclusion to the story I was enthralled with.
But I didn’t get that. I got something else, something I’m not sure anyone ever asked for. The decisions I had made previously, the universe I invested in, the characters I in love with, the atmosphere and tone that enthralled and intrigued me some five years and a hundred hours of gameplay ago-- none of that was respected; most of it was barely even remembered. And in its place is a compromise.
I’m not going to touch on the ending. Complaints on Mass Effect 3’s ending are voluminous and understandable to the point where I feel complaints about the ending has overwhelmed discussion on Mass Effect 3’s other failings, and that the baffling climax is simply a capstone to a great pyramid of disappointment.
And in the end, that’s the infuriating thing about Mass Effect 3: It is merely disappointing. If Bioware had the decency to go down fighting and produce something terrible, I could at least summon the bile to go on about its failings as a video game in great detail, and perhaps respect Bioware a little for trying something daring and new and flawed and ruined. But no, Bioware simply went through the motions. Indeed, when experienced in a vacuum not surrounding the larger Mass Effect universe, the worst you can say about the game is that it is rather boring.
I hate to use the word “deserved”, as it has ugly connotations of entitled gamers whining petulantly about the difficulty of stripping DRM from pirated games, but dammit I’m going to use the word here. We, the fans of Mass Effect, the people who waited five years and sat through hundreds of hours of gameplay, the people invested in the universe and it’s characters, we deserved better than Mass Effect 3.
I knew there was something very wrong with Mass Effect 3 when I realized it was impossible to holster your weapon.
I tried to holster that gun. Gods help me, I tried. I hit every button, I held down every button in an attempt to get these commands to do something different. I even went so far as to do something I’ve not been forced to do in five years-- I read the instruction manual. I realized there was now a quick-save feature and a charged-up melee attack, but no way to put away your gun when not plowing your way through waves of hostile enemies. It didn’t take long to understand the implications of this change.
Mass Effect 1 and 2 weren’t built primarily around being a cover-based third person shooter. Don’t get me wrong, that element was always there (more so in ME2, as its action sequences were ruled by player’s skill with a cursor as opposed to ME1’s dice rolls), but it was never the main focus of the series. Mass Effect 1 and 2 were first and foremost Role Playing Games. That meant there would be people to talk to. Enemies to parlay with. Terrible, terrible puzzles to interact with. Dialog options! Dice rolls for those dialog options! Stats that directly influenced those dice rolls! And in doing so, it was common courtesy to holster your gun, as non-combatants and potential hostiles were understandably hesitant to discuss terms with someone waving a meter and a half of Krogan-designed shotgun in their face.
Not being able to holster your weapon is a subtle but significant change, one that sets the tone for the entire game. You don’t holster your weapon in Mass Effect 3 because there is no more NPC interaction than in Gears of War. Maybe there’s some soldiers you can talk to ferry you onto the next chunk of map to clear out, but that’s about it. Within the confines of the action segments there are no decisions that need to be made other than “press switch” and if you decline to do so then you stand around until your 360 catches fire or the eventual heat death of the universe, whichever comes first.
One of the constants of the Mass Effect series is how each title deconstructs and streamlines the clunky, sometimes disconnected western RPG experience. Mass Effect 1 took the staid turn-based western RPG and placed it inside the trappings of a cover-based 3rd person shooter, setting the stage for Fallout 3’s hybrid of turn-based dice rolls and first person shooter action. Mass Effect 2 went so far as to remove your inventory and all but did away with loot, and included interactive sequences to cut-scenes.
Mass Effect 3 takes this theme to its logical conclusion and largely removes quests, storyline choices, branching paths and most NPC interactions, and in doing so breaks the carefully crafted illusion that Mass Effect 3 was ever meant to be a Role-Playing Game to begin with. There are now two areas in the entire game where one may interact with NPCs outside of combat, one of which being your ship, the other the series’ iconic Citadel space station. That in itself isn’t offensive; scattering NPCs and their associated quest lines across multiple planets was only an abstraction layer away from simply putting them all the Citadel in the first place, while replacing travel time with elevator rides. Also simply moving all of the scattered stores to the ship’s own personal vendor was a nice touch that further served to streamline the unnecessary entropic bullshit that surrounds most RPG trappings.
But the way Mass Effect 3 handles optional side quests veers from “streamlining” and thuds squarely inside the no man’s land of dumbing down the game to an insulting degree. Now all you need do to uncover side quests is to wander aimlessly through the citadel until you happen upon an overheard conversation, with the details for the quest then automatically appearing in your quest log.
Now, when I say “optional side quest”, I don’t want to give the impression that these are the same optional quests you’d come to expect from previous Mass Effect games that were often more interesting than the mainline story quests. Sadly, it appears that particular brand of side quests is strictly reserved for downloadable content. Mass Effect 3 side quests are little more than fetch quests where one stumbles upon the requested item while scanning random planets and then dutifully delivers the McGuffin to its owner.
Mass Effect 3 forces us to ask the question: If you remove NPC interactions, quests, and most anything else that would have an impact upon the universe, do you have an RPG at all? And if not, what do you have? Mass Effect games were always a hybrid, but Mass Effect 3 asks us to accept a stilted, 20 hour Gears of War campaign padded with 20 additional hours of load screens as an action role playing game, and I for one am not willing to buy that.
Bioware did sort of the same thing in Mass Effect 2, but it was easy to see where they were getting at. Inventories and loot are not the point to WRPGs, if they were then the genre would have peaked at Diablo 2. While eliminating inventories and most of the loot wasn’t the best idea in the world, you could see why they went that direction-- which is all the more baffling when you realize that Mass Effect 3 has brought back inventory management with via weapon mods and weight management.
The changes made to Mass Effect 3 do not feel like Bioware was streamlining the genre; instead they feel like compromises, whether they be to mainstream acceptance or the dark-hearted implacable god of corporate mandated deadlines.
Gone are lock-picking minigames, now you simply open wall safes and secure lockers whenever you happen upon them; there’s not even a dice roll involved. Gone is the planet-scanning minigame from Mass Effect 2 that allowed you to unlock upgrades by finding raw resources of rare metals from a planet’s surface. Now it’s been replaced by a half-hearted game of escape-the-Reaper with no real consequence whatsoever should you fail. Gone are the crew loyalty missions-- now to fully explore a party member’s story one must simply harass them enough times on the Normandy until they invite you to interact in a heart-touching cutscene upon the Citadel. Most of the areas you visit that are not directly related to the plot consist of re-purposed multi-player maps where you simply face waves of enemies and wait for someone offscreen to tell you that a mission objective is complete and shuffle onto the next section.
Now that the game has been boiled down to your ship and the Citadel, the game has lost much of its flavor versus Mass Effect 1 and 2. Not to say that Mass Effect 3 is based entirely on these two locations, but if you visit, say, the Asari homeworld of Thessia, you’re just there for the very specific mission you’ve been sent there to complete for storyline purposes and there’s no reason to return. You won’t find quests there, nor will there be unique shops to explore. Anything not directly related to the Normandy or the Citadel is just a level, another map full of Geth or Reapers or Cerebus to be cleared away.
In the most ballsy and transparent change over previous Mass Effect games and perhaps any RPG in existence, Mass Effect 3 has “Galactic Readiness” bar one must fill up in order to achieve the best ending possible. If you activate the endgame before you’ve filled up the bar either through finishing side quests or playing the game’s multiplayer mode, you receive the “bad ending”.
In Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 Bioware stripped away the dross from a bloated and tired genre that badly needed a shot of adrenaline. The changes in Mass Effect 3 feel half-hearted and half-assed, as if they were necessary concessions Bioware made to fulfill a contract and get the game out on time. Perhaps this is why the story’s combat sequences are filled with so many pointless turret sequences. Perhaps this explains the obvious compromises made to the Quality Assurance budget and there are so many bizarre glitches and poorly thought-out camera angles in cut scenes. Perhaps this is why Jessica Chobot is given a starring role.
This lack of passion, this listless malaise, permeates more than Mass Effect 3’s RPG mechanics. Indeed, it corrupts the very thing that should be Mass Effect 3’s shining moment, the reason any Mass Effect fan has to buy this game: The story. And sadly, it’s conclusion.
The biggest problem with storytelling in western RPGs is a complete inability to build tension. To adhere to the tenants of a western RPG, you have to allow the player no small amount of freedom. The tension between freedom and narrative is what separates Western RPGs from their Japanese counterparts. No one minds being shuttled around from plot point to plot point in a Japanese RPG, as JRPG stories tell a concise narrative.
Western RPG developers-- and Bioware in particular-- have a bad habit of ignoring this problem exists and insist on offering epic storylines where time is of the essence and where the world (or the galaxy, universe, and in some cases reality itself) is in mortal danger, while in the same breath encouraging the player to fuck around as much as possible.
Mass Effect 3 starts off with the ancient, unknowable, unstoppable alien menace known as the Reapers invading Earth eliminating all sentient life on the planet. This is the dreaded moment the series has spent two games building toward, and Commander Shepard is instructed to bring the sentient races of the galaxy together to fight back this threat and save Humanity from annihilation.
...Oh and to also find some pots, because there’s this one guy on the Citadel who really needs to find somepots, because finding pots will something something help the Turians something something Galactic Readiness something something morale something. And so you need to wander about space scanning random planets until you find this pot, and bring it back to him. Because you need to fill the Galactic Readiness meter to get the good ending, and if you don’t collect this pot then the entire galaxy is fucked.
Meanwhile the threat is expanding, Reaper ships are popping up on more sentient homeworlds,. Back on Earth, Vancouver probably no longer exists! And during this you overhear some guy looking for a fossil, because if he had this fossil then something something cloning something Krogans something Galactic Readiness and what you’re going to do for the next couple of hours is scan random planets in the Hades Cluster while you escape the Reaper Fleet trying to find this damned fossil. Because of that meter.
But now the Reapers are marching across the galaxy! Now every sentient homeworld is being invaded and torn apart (oh also that previous Reaper invasion, some fifty thousand years ago that eliminated the Prothean civilization-- turned out that invasion actually lasted nearly a century, sorry we didn’t mention that before) and it’s up to you to end the Quarian/Geth struggle and bring their fleets to your cause or all hope is lost! Also we need this vase. Fuck you, get this vase. Wander around and look for this vase or you won’t get the quest points necessary see the good ending!
And it’s not like there’s anything interesting to stumble upon while on these fetch quests. You’ll just wander about, scan for artifacts until you summon the wrath of the Reaper forces in the area, then run away. Or not, and just reload from the same point and start looking for that vase again. You’ll uncover no new quests during this, nor any hidden storyline gem. Just random items that somehow connect to the overall Galactic Readiness bar that allows you to unlock the good ending. Get 5,000 Good Ending points then finally futz off to keep the Reapers from eating London.
Paradoxically, Mass Effect 3 is by far the most linear game Bioware has ever created. Up until this point, Bioware games followed the same basic structure: an introduction to the principal players, an introduction to the game’s principal threat, a handful of storyline missions that one can visit in any order, a shocking storyline twist, a couple more storyline missions to complete a your leisure, then you finally uncover the trigger event that starts the endgame in earnest.
That middle part makes up the meat of most Bioware games, and it is where you uncover most of your side quests and optional party members. However Mass Effect 3 presents you with the principal characters, the principal threat, then the first storyline mission and a side quest. Then the next storyline mission, then a side quest. then the next, etc, until you complete the final mandatory storyline quest, wander about filling up your Galactic Readiness meter and then and trigger the endgame.
The feeling of freedom in Mass Effect 3 isn’t just an illusion; its busywork. Side missions aren’t there to add intrigue, they’re something you do to fill a meter so you can finish the game. I don’t think it’s possible for me to stress this point enough, so I’m going to state it again, in its own paragraph.
The quests in Mass Effect 3 exists to fill a meter. You fill the meter to finish the game.
All the choices we made in the past five years, all the hours we put into these games, the characters we fell in love with, the universe that we became invested in, the climax that we eagerly awaited. All boiled down to a progress bar.
WHAT IT GETS RIGHT
So if Mass Effect 3 fails both as a WRPG and in its sole purpose as an effective end to the Mass Effect storyline, what exactly does it get right? After all, it’s not a bad video game when viewed in a vacuum, just, you know. Incredibly boring.
Mechanically, Mass Effect 3 is by far the best Mass Effect yet. If you were ever looking for a 20 hour long Gears of War campaign with magic effects and slightly better teammate AI, this is your game, although if you were simply looking for more Gears of War and do not already own Vanquish, then I hate you forever. Also apparently the multi-player mode is a competent and enjoyable riff on Gear’s horde mode mechanic, and it needs to be, as the compromises made to make ME3 more palatable toward the mainstream audience were made at the expense of the steps necessary to make ME3 a fully fleshed out WRPG.
Surprisingly, there are elements of Mass Effect 3 that actually succeed as a traditional Mass Effect game. Most of the main quest missions are well written and interesting, the problem is very few of them feel worthy of capping the Mass Effect series There is not a single Mass Effect 3 mission that is better than the best missions from Mass Effect 2, although the Renegade/Bad Cop ending to the Quarian/Geth storyline is damned effective, and by all accounts the Paragon/Good Cop version of the Krogan storyline is quite good, and is a worthy end of the Genophage storyline. The end of the Cerberus arc is interesting and finally reveals some long awaited story elements, although this happens via video feeds that take you out of the story.
Some of the interaction with your crew is quite nice, and serve as the only real indication the story is coming to a head. You make peace with some you may have felt you’ve wronged; There are some touching moments with friends that you know you will part with quite soon. Some characters are actually treated better than they were in Mass Effect 2 and instantly become interesting characters in their own right.
It is not by mere chance that the games most effective moments are also its most intimate, removed from the grandiose and remote epic events that are supposedly driving you forward. If Mass Effect 3 would have even had a few more of these moments I think I would have been fine with it, even with the godawful ending. If resources were not diverted to the multi-player portion it is likely these elements could have been improved upon.
AND HOW TO MAKE THAT BETTER
I don’t think it is fair to sit here and tear down something that real humans placed real blood sweat and tears into, even if those humans were operating under the auspices of the vast and destructive corporate force responsible for EA MMA. So rather than piss and moan, here’s where I would start if given a studio and a few months to fix Mass Effect 3:
Restore some sense of tension by moving the Reaper invasion to the final act of the story
For the first two games the Reapers were this existential dread hanging out on the periphery of the galaxy itself. Silent. Waiting. Unknowable. Unstoppable. But barely 10 minutes into Mass Effect 3 the Reapers have arrived and they’re chewing the Earth apart, and taking their sweet time to do so. You can’t expect me to believe that everyone I’ve ever loved is in mortal danger of being shoved inside a fifty story tall robotic exoskeleton if you also ask me to spend the next month putzing around space looking for cosmic pepper shakers. Here’s how I would restructure the plot to return the Reapers to their rightful place as the biggest badasses in scifi since Locutus of Borg.
1: Establish credible evidence that the Reapers are about to make their move. This can be simple, have the Reaper flagship Harbinger appear silently before the Citadel and then wait. As Alliance scientists try to figure out a defense against it or even why it’s there to begin with, have the Alliance slowly lose contact with colonies and stations at the fringesof the galaxy nearest the Reaper fleet. Not only have you instantly re-established a sense of dread, you can have the reapers slowly march across the Normandy’s galaxy map, swallowing up entire star systems.
2: At that point, the game’s progression becomes simple and obvious: Instead of stumbling around the galaxy looking for ancient Korgan battle-vases, Commander Shepard must shatter ancient feuds and bring the races of the galaxy together to fight this ancient threat that spells doom for every sentient race in the galaxy.
3: Move the Cerberus mission to the game’s halfway point and have the point of no return feature the Harbinger coming to life as Reaper fleets warp into orbit above every single inhabited planet in the galaxy. At that point you can cram whatever bullshit Matrix Reloaded ending you want into the end as people wouldn’t feel cheated by the 40 hours of tepid WRPG that preceded it.
Get rid of the depressing linearity
The Bioware plot model is obvious, but it works. This means that Bioware would need to sell fewer full-fledged side missions as DLC and include credible, enjoyable side mission in the game that people paid, you know. Sixty dollars for. But so be it. Side missions that equal or better the main story are a staple of Bioware games, and pulling them out to sell later isn’t just a cynical cash grab, it actually harms the series’ legacy.
No one minded that Overlord and Shadow Broker were the best side missions in Mass Effect 2 because the game already had plenty of amazing optional side content in the crew loyalty missions. The lack of any compelling optional content in Mass Effect 3 is a vast gaping whole that Bioware is asking us to fill fifteen dollars at a time.
Fix Kai Leng
Kai Leng is introduced to the Mass Effect universe by way of the novels Deception and Retribution, and in Mass Effect 3 acts as the Illusive Man’s new top level operative now that Commander Shepard has parted ways and joined back with the Alliance navy. As I have not read the novels I cannot tell if Kai was handled any differently, but in Mass Effect 3 he is little more than a wasted opportunity.
Kai’s extensive robotic upgrades make him resemble Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and as such it is a dark mirror of Commander Shepard’s wholly human abilities and limitations. The Illusive Man finally has the perfect malleable operative that is driven by a bloodthirsty hatred for all alien races, and his shiny biotic armor serves as a personification of the transformation the Illusive Man has envisioned for all of humanity. Or at least, that’s what he should be, unfortunately in this game he is little more than a one-dimensional cartoonish goon who is obsessed with killing Commander Shepard despite being handily defeated at every turn. He suffers from a severe case of cutscene superpowers and is only an effective threat when the player has no say whatsoever in what’s going on. But the moment the shooting actually starts he’s easily and repeatedly dispatched only to fly off yet again, shaking his fist and swearing bloody revenge the next time they should meet.
Kai Leng should have been the Revolver Ocelot to Commander Shepard’s Solid Snake, the one great foil she cannot overcome without luck and/or heavy artillery, the real physical threat to match the Reaper’s looming doom, the end point of the dark path Commander Shepard refused to take upon leaving Cerberus for the Alliance. Kai Leng should be that one great boss fight that you know must be overcome. He should be spoken of in hushed tones, there should be great virtual reams of messageboard discussion on his final encounter and the lengths Commander Shepard had to go to finally put him away. Instead he’s a slightly more difficult to defeat goon amid a sea of Cerberus cyber-ninjas. If he were from a Capcom game he wouldn't’ even be worth including in the Boss Rush.
Embrace the one thing this game does well: Combat.
And that’s pretty much it for immediate improvements. Note that this means I’m actually willing to go along with Bioware’s idea of removing NPC interaction and boiling down ME’s base structure to Gears. In fact, just go all the way. Fix the rolling mechanic already; it’s fucking annoying that roll and click-to-cover are on the same button, surely the amount of times Commander Shepard would roll into the middle of firefights instead of collapsing behind cover didn’t go unnoticed in testing. Add in active reloads. Bring back vehicle sections. Mass Effect 2 was billed by its fans as a thinking man’s Gears of War; this game is dumbed down considerably yet does not make any reciprocal improvements to combat. As a result Mass Effect 3 feels like a slow, stumbling man’s Gears of War. Turn everything Gears-related up to 11; just let me holster that damned gun.
But these are secluded, mist-shrouded high points in what is otherwise a bitterly disappointing ending to one of the best gaming universes ever crafted. The series deserved better. We deserved better, and I still hold by that.
I started this article off by saying that I knew that there was no way for Mass Effect 3 to live up to its promise, that nothing would have been good enough to cap the five year wait that began the moment I loaded up Mass Effect 1 and was met by its Vangelis-inspired Blade Runner synths. But hell, it doesn’t even feel like Bioware met me halfway.
I would have been fine with the grand and glorious failure, the dreaded trainwreck that would have at least shown us there was some sign of a soul left at post-EA Bioware. But no. Mass Effect 3 is safe. It is solid. It is focused group tested, marketed to hell and polished to a fine sheen. It will sell millions, and it will make its corporate backers so happy that a Mass Effect 4 will be necessary. Mass Effect 3 will have to serve as its own validation; and it will no doubt so so. It is too important to be allowed to fail.
Mass Effect 3’s enduring legacy will not be its sales numbers or even the conclusion to Commander Shepard’s story. Instead, in the months to come when Game of the Year awards are considered, it will force us to ask-- What separates a good game from a classic?
What is the line between an enthralling way to spend the weekend from a transcendent moment that changes the way you look at games? Is it another million spent on big fixes at the expense of a new multi player map? Is it another six months of bug fixes and gameplay revision? Is it the courage to unleash an auteur vision in the face of mainstream acceptance?
Whatever combination of factors that that constitutes that line between the classic and the mundane may be, I know where it can be found-- somewhere on the cutting room floor between Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3.
(and thanks to Mike LeMieux for the totally rad banner!)