A cynical end to one of gaming's great events
Mass Effect 3 is a special case, because games are a special case.
You could start at the final book of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, but I would recommend against it; As it is, that book, taken out of the context of the epic story it concludes, is practically pointless literature, particularly as knowing the conclusion to that particular tale will vividly color your experience throughout the preceding books. But it is okay, and accepted, to release a book pointless when excluded from its greater arc. Customers know what they are buying into when the cover reads "book 7".
It is not okay to release a pointless video game. Games stand alone. A video game is a mechanical object, an engine and a process, and it is typically expected that you can jump into a trilogy and catch up, or get a tailored experience. In games, a higher number tends to mean "more and better", unlike films where it tends to mean "more and worse".
So looking at Mass Effect 3, a game that is at once a video game sequel, and the conclusion to a long, intricate and epic journey undertaken by followers of the series, the two perspectives clash. As the final moments of the game passed, I was elated. I was not only satisfied by the conclusion (and boy does it conclude), but I was made to reconsider the three games as a single object. I'd look back on everything I'd done up until that point, and memories of every fond moment I'd had washed over me. It was a true ending to a truly epic story, and (for the most part) it felt like I'd had significant influence on it. It felt like a real moment.
Moments like these are rare in video games. Bioshock's twist was one such moment, our "6th sense" if you will. These moments stick with you in a way moments in film typically can not, because when we play games with a strong narrative element it is typical to project; You don't say "And then Mario jumped over Bowser, hit the switch, and then Bowser fell in the lava". You say YOU did those things. Looking at the end of Mass Effect 3, I have a hard time imagining anyone on this planet having had the same journey as I did. It feels special, and bigger in a way games typically don't dare to go.
So it is a strange feeling to be so enraptured by the ending and idea of a game I'd spent most of my time with actively disliking. In hindsight, furrowing my brow in my best attempt at an objective perspective, I don't think I enjoyed much of Mass Effect 3 at all.
The first game was bewildering; It threw every idea it had at the wall and hoped most would stick. It was a joyously ambitious game, filled with locations to explore and generous helpings of intricate lore to indulge in. It was the least confident game, but by far the most exciting one to experience as a pure science fiction spectacle. It was the pilot episode of a show with so much potential it was bursting at the seams, and it was easy to forgive for its mechanical shortcomings.
The second game was confident, sharp, and focused. It shaved off so much fat that the question rose whether it could even be called an RPG anymore. Rock Paper Shotgun coined the phrase "Guns and conversation" to describe the genre that ME2 begun, and it's still the most apt. ME2's masterstroke was in its emphasis on individuals. The galaxy is in peril for sure, but the moment to moment game was about exploring the lives of individuals living in it. Getting to know the rogue's gallery of aliens and crazy people you gathered on your ship as you worked for a bunch of creepy space racists is the absolute high point of the series, and where the player's influence on the story became truly evident. Though some of the changes it made to the universe and technology were harder to justify in story terms than they were in game design terms, it was still one of the best games of this generation.
Mass Effect 3 is a Mass Effect bored with itself. It is a game that has a full deck of cards, and needs to figure out a way to get rid of them all by the end. It is a game where nearly every character you encounter is someone you already know, nearly every location is somewhere you've been, and every system is one you've experienced before. It is a gorgeous, competent shooting game, a fundamentally flawed role playing game, and an absolute grind otherwise.
It's not hard to think of things that the game does right. The voice acting ranges from good to great, with standout performances from Martin Sheen, Keith David and Freddie Prinze Jr (!). The soundtrack consists of what feels like a giant helping of music from the past games, paired with some new, suitably sweeping synth-infused pieces, though the one club track this time around was bad enough to make me dread going into that place. It's generally an artistic tour de force; These are some of the best environments you're likely to look at for a while.
It's a shame then, that the best music remains cribbed from past games, that the locations are refurnished places you've been before, and that the paths you can take through each environment is more cramped than ever. For all intents and purposes the game is a corridor shooter with pretty backgrounds. Many of the environments are re-encountered as multiplayer maps, and it can be difficult to guess which came first. Weapons, ammunition and health is strewn around the world as though it's a Doom level, and does little to make you believe in locations as real places. These are gameplay spaces first, places to visit a distant second. There is little wonder or journey here.
It is good that the shooting is now meaty, loud and intense, because you are doing a whole lot of it. It is rare to go on a mission that doesn't require you to kill a whole lot of space people. The game does a fairly good job of upping the ante, though no shooter can last for 30+ hours without cracks showing. The cover system is finicky in a bind, requiring you to reorient the camera with the wall you're trying to hug, rather than simply push against it. It can lead to a few too many deaths, or attempts to go into cover turning into rolls out into withering turret fire. After a while, repetition begins to grate, as yet another manshoot is conducted in yet another multiplayer arena, your only reward being a few more points on your "galactic readiness bar".
Yep. Your chances of having a good ending is measured in terms of a progress bar. The entire game consists of talking to and/or shooting dudes and dudettes to increase this bar. From the very first moment you are made to look at how tiny and insignificantly empty your bar is, and the game trusts MMORPG-type tactics to keep you working at it. While the majority of it is filled by completing shooty missions, side quests of the most abysmal sort must be completed to make proper progress. These must be found by, I kid you not, randomly overhearing people talking about things they need, and are typically completed by endless bouts of some of the most painful, player-exploiting non-game design I think I've ever seen Bioware do; Scanning planets.
Scanning was tedious in Mass Effect 2 as well, but this is something else... Let me walk you through the process.
1. Look at the star map; Does a star cluster have a reaper icon on it? Put your cursor on it. Does the cluster name have "100%" next to it?
2. If not, go to cluster. A cluster contains multiple systems. Each system has one or more hidden items. Let's search for treasure!
3. Fly circles around the system, intermittently hitting the left trigger to launch a scanning pulse of sorts. Every time you do this, a reaper awareness bar fills. If it fills completely, reapers jump in and awkwardly home in on your ship. At this point, you have to run, or it's game over. Simple as that.
4. Don't worry! Allow them to kill you! The game auto-saves when you enter a system, so just make notes of the stuff you found last time, scan it again, and scan for more until you're confident you've found it all! Item locations aren't random, so all it takes is more of your time.
5. Should you find an item on a planet, go to the planet. Ignore the vast reams of text about the planet's history, because it has absolutely no value. Wait. Start your scanner. Wait. Move your scanning cursor along the pointing line until you find a glowing spot. Hit the right trigger. Congratulations! Some quest you probably don't even know exists is now ready to be completed!
This system is incredibly grating. There is absolutely no skill or sense of exploration, only guesswork where failure is punished with lost time. All you need is perseverence to scan every system on the star map; And why wouldn't you? Don't you want to fill your bar and get the "good ending"?
And there's the kicker. This game exploits the galactic awareness bar to make you undertake a painful array of boring activities, going as far as to funnel you into the horde-mode multiplayer mode, which can offer a bar multiplier of sorts. It's smart to do this, because it accelerates your bar by a whole lot.
Shame then, that the multiplayer mode is filled with free2play tropes, such as offering in-game rewards for real world cash. Bioware has taken your want to see the best ending for the game, a game which you might have 5 years of play and wait invested in, and made you go into a setting where you, more than likely, will shop for progress. Because early progress online is brutal; Players rely on one another to succeed, and being a low level player tends to mean you get booted out of a game for being a liability. It's an insidious, cynical design.
Another core piece of narrative content is hidden behind a pay-wall; The From Ashes DLC, which introduces one of the best and most fascinating characters in the game, if not the franchise. I'm glad I paid to unlock him early on, because he colored the rest of my experience, and gave me insight into the lore I don't know how the game would cope without. It's a baffling omission, and another cynical decision from EA.
It strengthens the sense that the game was designed by committee, not with a unified vision. Which brings me to the biggest issue I have with it, and what all but killed my enjoyment.
I'm making the assumption that the game was written by a team, or even several. Teams faced with vast, vast amounts of content to write to cater to every minute decision the player has made in the past. As a body of work and engineering of authorship, it's pretty stunning.
But it is simply poor science fiction writing. Lines are repeated, the obvious is stated, there is a heavy reliance on exposition and the game has a predilection to tell and don't show. It reaches the point where when you are actually shown something of significance occur, you are surprised. This is a game where the universe can be reorganized off screen, a character's exposition being our only indication of the event. A character "revealed " a part of his past history to me twice, Politics nor technology appear grounded; Characters and groups contradict past behavior. Cerberus, not a good lot to begin with, have here become the great Satan himself. From a group that ostensibly saved the universe from a horrible threat in the second game, they are now vile space nazis and they must all die, never mind what they are doing that we don't understand; Don' truss'um!
There is an absolutely painful reliance on hero's journey clichèes; Tell me how awesome I am one more time and I will PUNCH YOU, space lady. This is a universe where everyone is falling over themselves to congratulate the player on his or her awesomeness, and team mates who have risked life and limb to ensure the galaxy survives are more than happy to give good old Shepard the honors. Because he's the man! There's a creeping sense that everyone is just fucking with you, after a while. Like Shepard is the gun-carrying savant and everyone is just having a laugh.
Axiomatically, that means they are having a laugh at my expense. Because when I play an RPG, I do project. When I imported "my" Shepard into ME3, I was greeted with a face that was not the one I made back in ME1. An incredibly stupid bug, and one that threw lots of players for a loop. It was the first time I felt Bioware didn't really care that much about the character I made back then, and that feeling was quickly exacerbated. This is not "my" Shepard; This Shepard is defined. He is a character of his own. He has his own emotions, his own motivations. He does things I would never do. That "my" Shepard would never do. This Shepard has stupid hokey dream sequences and wake up crying at night. It's baffling.
This game will throw dialogue at you that could not matter less. Conversations can be boring to the point that I began actively skipping through them at one point. You can only hear "We have to stick together, it's the only way we're going to stand up to the Reapers" so many times before you decide enough is enough. I came to ME3 off the heels of Syndicate and Shadows of the Damned, and I have more memories of the writing in those two plain shooting games than I have of much going on in ME3. That Shadows of the Damned (where the lead character's name is Garcia "Fucking" Hotspur and his gun is called the Boner) challenges a Bioware RPG for writing skill is super depressive.
There simply isn't focus here. Characters are bland, emotions are shallow, and I found it incredibly hard to feel anything as I was going through the game, which is a bad thing when the game makes such strong and consistent attempts at emoting.
Yet I persevered. Begrudgingly. Because I had invested already; I was already neck deep in the universe. I was a part of it, and I needed to see it to its conclusion. I was trapped by my investment, and as such I "had" to buy the DLC, I "had" to buy stuff to get through the multiplayer grind. It's been a long time since I felt this poorly treated by a game.
It was a good ride while it lasted, though the end was bitter sweet. As Jeff Gerstmann put it, Mass Effect deserved better. This is a monolithic undertaking that went places games typically don't dare to go, but Bioware promised more than they could keep, and they exploited their fans financially. It is the slickest game in the franchise, but the one that is the hardest to love. It made me think of going back to the start; Play the original again, try to do things differently. But I don't think I would do things differently, because I project too much. I invested of myself in the series, and in the end, the payoff was good. But I don't think I could invest in it again.