Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

My Take On Mass Effect 3 (Long Essay, SPOILERS)

Okay, let’s talk about this.

There’s been a lot of uproar — no, let’s call it for what it is: geek RAEG over the ending to the final chapter in Commander Shepard’s War against the Reapers. I’m not trying to add to that. Even though I had some issues, I enjoyed playing it. However I feel I need to go into some depth with this review. Like the header said, this is lengthy and has spoilers. No complaining about either.

Yes, I am going to be making comparisons to Mass Effect 2. That game was very successful and has a very strong following. It set a lot of expectations for ME3, so I have to take that into consideration.

Let’s talk gameplay first. Not much I can really say about combat — it’s more or less the same as ME2. It does add being able to dash between cover, but more importantly you can revive a squad member “manually” without having to use your limited supply of Medi-Gel. Powers from the first game have been expanded, so the over all experience in that regard is continuous. The game also added a weight limit, an abstract value that influences how fast your powers recharge based on what weapons you choose to carry. Being an Infiltrator, I stuck with the sniper rifle/submachine gun combination and it ended up working well in my favor. The greater changes, however, are in the galactic exploration, the addition of multiplayer gaming, and the overall war.

First the exploration. It’s definitely not what it used to be. Gone is the scouring of worlds for raw materials for upgrades. Now you’re just scanning for blips in star systems hoping to pick up assets for the war against the invading Reapers. In Reaper occupied areas, you risk alerting them to your presence, something that doesn’t clear up until you engage a planet side mission. I’m not sure what to make of this — it does reduce the whole of exploration to a mere “fetch stuff” mechanic, but the focus is on the War. Mining planets just doesn’t seem to cut it given the more epic scope. In addition, we’ve done this twice already, so repeating the same process risks becoming tedious. I should note that I spent about the same amount of hours on both ME2 and ME3, so what was lost in exploration seems to be made up mostly in missions.

Bioware, in developing the multiplayer portion of the game, has done something I don’t recall seeing before. They’ve made a co-op online game that can influence the single-player campaign. Basically it works like this: There’s a Galactic Readiness rating that affects your military strength in the story (more on that later), which defaults to 50%. By playing a co-op mission, you can raise that rating for the whole galaxy or one of its five regions. Gameplay in co-op is streamlined: you have two powers, a load of grenades and a specific weapons load depending on what you’re playing. It’s tight, easy to jump into, and because it’s co-op you’re less likely to run into problem players. It’s a change to the underlying structure to the game that truly gives it that epic feel without resorting to just adding baddies with bigger numbers attached to them.

No really, it does. The first time I encountered a Banshee (a Reaper-assimilated asari), was in a co-op mission against the Reapers. When I heard the shriek accompanying it’s arrival I was caught off guard and thought “Oh, shit! This is what’s razing the cosmos?”

The War itself is the main plot arc for the game. As I mentioned you travel the galaxy seeking assets to use against the Reapers while friendlies assemble the Crucible, an ancient superweapon that was designed to destroy the Reapers but never built. Some assets are picked up in missions, some are from leads found at the Citadel, others are found by overhearing conversations among NPCs (a nice touch, by the way). No matter what they are, they all boil down to a single number that assess the galaxy’s military might, modified by that Galactic Readiness percentage. This final number, along with the final decision that Shepard makes determines the three facets of the game’s ending: Earth’s fate, the Normandy’s fate and Shepard’s fate. The Writer in me has a bit of trouble in that the ending is determined by a single number, but then the Gamer smacks the Writer in the back of the head — it’s a video game, they all boil down to numbers in some respect. The fact that this game is even capable of taking key decisions from the first two games is nothing short of amazing. I’m left to wonder if anyone stuck with any casualties they may have incurred in ME2 (I know I didn’t) to see how that influenced ME3. Mordin Solus in particular is a key player in ME3, so I’m curious to know how that plot arc goes.

With that, I don the cap of the Writer to talk about the plot. The Reapers, a lurking threat in the first two games, begin their invasion of the galaxy. With the Citadel denied them, thus depriving them of a quick divide and conquer tactic that’s served them so well, they’ve resorted to entry from the galactic rim. It’s still a losing fight for galactic civilization, and all the races have their own fronts to deal with while Earth is quickly occupied. It’s up to Shepard to unite the galaxy and end the Reaper menace once and for all.

A lot of people will tell you that plot comes up short in terms of relationships between the main characters, i.e. your squad mates. This is true, but you need to consider that these relations were a core element of ME2. In order to succeed at the suicide mission against the Collectors, Shepard had to earn the trust of his squadmates. That mandated talking to the them between missions, getting to “know” them, and helping them out with their own personal agendas. In ME3 it’s not vital — you’ve only one new squad mate, an Alliance Marine (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.) who already regards you as a Big Damn Hero. Instead, the focus is on uniting the major races to stand together in a desperate struggle against a juggernaut of an enemy.

That said, it’s a major paradigm shift, one that took me about two thirds of the game to adjust to. A few days ago I said on Twitter that ME3 may be a victim of it’s own hype. This is partly what I meant by that. When you’re expecting steak and you’re served veal, even if it’s good you’re likely to react negatively to it at first. The story of ME3 is a good galactic war story, but when you’re expecting something more intimate, that can be problematic. I will admit that the romance aspect seems to have suffered in ME3. It feels lacking in depth, and the penultimate love scene (with Liara, at least) suffered a bit of interruptus when the loading screen suddenly cut in.

The plot only suffers on two points: Kai Leng, and the nature of the ending. More on the latter in a bit.

Kai Leng is another reason why I said ME3 falls to its own hype. Leng is a character from two Mass Effect novels, one of which (written by William C. Dietz) was so fraught with basic errors (that could have been prevented by reading one of the three prior books) that Bioware and Del Rey issued a public apology for it. ME3 tries to make Kai Leng a major nemesis, but it fails. Not only is he’s under utilized (three scenes and an in-game email) but he’s also a pussy. The former part of that statement comes from the Writer, the latter from the Gamer.

From the Writer’s standpoint, Leng’s got a tough act to follow to be Shepard’s nemesis. In ME2 the Reaper Harbinger was a near constant presence whenever the Collectors were around, working through a mode of teleoperation that resembled possession, using sinister taunts (“I know this hurts.”). Even when you did bring him down in the encounter, there was always this chance he’d possess another minion if you didn’t move fast enough. Compare that to a stereotypical anime ninja who gets three whole scenes in the game, and you can see where things come up short. Is it a fair comparison? Doubtful, but it goes back to what I said earlier about expectations. Harbinger was a character you could stop but not defeat. Kai Leng could not be beat until his final showdown due to plot fiat. Harbinger still fit within the rules and mechanics of the game, while Leng did not. Still, in some ways the game succeeded in that I could get a proper hate on for Leng in-game. I mean, come on, this dick keeps saying Shepard’s old and slow, and yet who stops him from making an assassination attempt on a member of the Council? Not me, but a dude who’s terminally ill from his species’ equivalent of tuberculosis — and we’re talking Doc Holiday versus Johnny Ringo in Tombstone level of sick. Then on Thessia Leng has to call for close-air support when his pwecious widdle force field drops to half strength. And despite that, he still talks shit. No, Bioware, Kai Leng is no threat, he is a wannabe and a douche-nozzle.

I think in this case, the problem lies in tying other aspects of the Mass Effect universe together. My opinion is that the core element (in this case the game)s should never be dependent on derivative material. Influenced by? Perhaps, but I should not be required to go to that material in order to understand what’s going on at the core level.

Now, let’s talk about the actual ending. Earlier I had tweeted that “Shepard deserved better.” That was purely an emotional response. After three games and about eighty hours of play time (not counting the replays as an alternate incarnation of Shepard), I’ve become quite attached to the character. Besides who doesn’t want to see the guy who saved the whole damn galaxy retire with his/her beloved to a nice beach and have a mission log consist of:

  • Watch the sunrise.
  • Have great sex.
  • Eat, Drink, Be Merry.
  • Relax.
  • Watch the sunset.
  • Have really great sex.

Instead, Shepard gets something akin to an extended version of Captain Miller’s fate from Saving Private Ryan. I was a little disappointed because I was hoping for another good fight in the Citadel like I went through in ME1. Despite that the ending was still working for me… until the essence of the Citadel/Crucible appeared. That it took the form of the kid that plagued Shepard’s dreams was annoying enough, but then it tried to answer the ultimate question — why do the Reapers harvest sentient life every fifty millenia?

I was perfectly fine in that, like the Borg, the Reapers sought to advance themselves by assimilating other cultures. Given the Singularity themes that ran throughout the series, the Reapers represented that Terminator model of extermination that was easy to comprehend. It made sense. Instead, the Citadel whatever is behind the Reapers because organic and synthetic life can never co-exist, and it cleanses the galaxy to… quell the chaos and make room for the younger races? That this was so completely out of the blue was bad enough, but it defied the underlying logic presented in the whole series given the nature of the Geth/Quarian conflict. Not only were the Geth fighting the Reapers alongside everyone else, but they were happily helping the Quarians move back to their homeworld! That breach, along with the explanation of what Shepard’s options would achieve, just dropped me out of the story. I might not have been happy facing Shepard’s death after all this, but dammit reality is currently proving the Citadel wrong!

While the ending may have been a bust, I’m still pleased with the game over all. Yes, the closing does leave a bad aftertaste. Yes, the ability to import your character’s face is bugged. The rest of the game is strong enough to stand on its own merit. I will be playing this game again with at least one other incarnation of Shepard to see how things work out in the story at large from a different perspective.