Mass Effect 3

Posted on March 21st, 2012 in games

With a few reservations, I thought this was a bloody brilliant game, capping off a trilogy through which you can take a single character, earlier decisions having (some) later impacts.  As far as RPGs go, in a sense it represents the opposite approach to the other current class-leader, Skyrim.  Where that game provides a vast world to explore at your leisure and in your own way (lets call it the Bethesda approach), Mass Effect is much more ‘on rails’.  With some optional stuff and exploration, it basically takes the form of a set of missions following one after the other, and each of those missions takes place along a pretty tightly confined track.  That’s particularly true of this third instalment, set against a backdrop of an all-out war for survival, and in which the exploration elements have been thinned down to virtually nothing, so much so they feel a little vestigial, actually.  But where Mass Effect definitely loses out in sense of scale, it scores big on character, drama, and action (we could call that the Bioware approach, maybe).

Having lost my character to a catastrophic Playstation failure a few months ago, I actually took the opportunity to quickly replay the second Mass Effect just beforehand, so I’ve got a pretty good idea how the two differ.  Looks and feel wise, 3 improves on the already excellent.  There’s a cinematic feel to everything, character models look great (even if the bottom of my character’s brows would occasionally wander through her eyelids at times of high emotion), and the detail and background on the levels is better than ever – sometimes there’s amazing stuff happening in the distance, particularly as the gigantic reapers sow destruction.  Mass Effect has always been a really nicely styled and presented game, but there’s more going on here than before – a lot of thought has gone into the framing, the editing, the lighting, the cut scenes integrate into the action sometimes with sweeping shots as Shepard jumps from the shuttle.  A little glitchy at times, actually, on my PS3, but you can’t fault the ambition.

Gameplay-wise 3 is pretty similar to its forebear, cover and shooting, activating powers of various kinds.  The roleplaying elements were very stripped back in the second game so I’m pleased to see they’ve added some complexity back in to the levelling-up system and equipment, even if it doesn’t always seem to have a marked effect.  There are fewer team mates but they have more varied powers.  It actually makes for a pretty decent shooter.  Without all the roleplaying elements it would be nothing special but as far as action in an RPG you won’t get better.  Certainly greatly superior to Skyrim from a gameplay standpoint.  The enemies are perhaps a little limited – it tends to be various configurations of Geth, Cerberus paramilitaries or Reaper wierdos, but the backdrops keep on changing, no repetition of the same warehouses or space-stations which figured in the first game, and utterly killed Dragon Age 2, everything here is unique and shows a lot of care.  Lots more stuff happening around you, as well – Shepard being flung from a balcony to the ground far below, a Sandworm smashing through a bridge ahead of you, shuttles crashing overhead, all accompanied by suitably panicked dialogue from your squadmates.  It ain’t Uncharted but it’s moved a little in that cinematic direction without sacrificing anything.

Voice-acting continues to be very strong, on the whole.  If I was being picky I think I’d say the dialogue isn’t quite as sharp as it was in 2, less of a light touch, and the paragon and renegade options don’t seem quite as nifty, in the main.  The basic system, though (which rather than giving you good or evil options gives you soft versus ruthless ones within the context of the wider mission) works very well, and really gives you a sense of making choices.  Shepard has her own personality but it’s one you can steer to suit (I always play a ruthless hardass, in case you were wondering).  Although you spend a lot of time watching and listening rather than playing you get enough choice (or at least illusion of choice) for there to be an undoubted connection with  the main character.  There’s a real kick to seeing this person you’ve created delivering the lines, taking the actions.  There’s less character stuff going on this time around but then a lot of that was set up in the previous two games and pays off big here.  In general there are a lot of loose ends, at both the personal and political level, that get nicely tied off.

My main criticism would be of some parts of the plotting.  It starts off by plunging you into an apocalyptic war so there’s a breathless atmosphere to it which works well at driving things forward but means there’s a lot less side stuff going on.  It’s also a bit more, I don’t know, foursquare in its morality somehow?  A bit more gung ho.  A bit more cheesy.  In the second game you end up forced to work with Cerberus, a highly suspect organisation but perhaps the only hope.  It felt like there was a certain level of moral ambiguity to Shepard’s actions as a result.  You really were free to be ruthless, and your boss, the Illusive Man, was an excellent shady superior.  Were you on the right side or the wrong, and did you like being there?  This time around you’re working for the alliance again and it’s lantern jaws and good guys to the rescue all around.  Your boss, Admiral Hackett, is a lot less interesting, the motives ain’t all that complex, Cerberus have gone back to being caricature bad guys and the Illusive Man a caricature nutcase villain.  Little bit of a missed opportunity, I felt.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the ending, and I can kind of see where they’re coming from, but at the same time it didn’t really bother me.  It was confusing, maguffin heavy, not really set up in this game let alone the earlier ones.  As is so often the case, the villain’s plot, so mysterious and thrilling when unknown, seemed rather silly and baffling when explained.  Plus heavy exposition from a glowing child is really, really never a good idea.  On the other hand, I was so impressed with the sheer scale, bombast, and technical achievement of the action leading up to it I didn’t care.  Mad firefights through the streets of ruined london, tanks exploding all around, gigantic reapers dwarfing big ben in the background.  Then, having been zapped with a death ray Shepard limps along, bleeding from every orifice, armour partially melted off, just about clinging on to her pistol while a gigantic space battle takes place overhead.  So the outcome was far from the strongest part but the emotion still very much held together for me and it far from spoiled the whole experience.  Which is, I would say, about as good as you can get from a video game.  If I could pick two games from this generation of consoles to take to a desert island they’d probably be Skyrim (no end) and Red Dead Redemption (now there’s an end).

But if I could add a third, this would be a strong contender.

 

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  1. Cool to see your Shepard is a woman too. Jennifer Hale gives a great voice performance. Think she’d make a good Monza Murcatto or do you hear someone else’s voice when you write her?

  2. I;m slowly making my way through it. I’ve been too busy to really put big chunks of time into it, so all this talk about the ending is frustrating me somewhat.

    My biggest problem with the game is that the quest management is terrible. You used to get a progress tree that ticked off the steps you complete in a mission, and guide you to the rest of it. Just like (05 of RPG. But for some reason they’ve decided to eliminate that, so now you get a vague description of the quest and you have to basically just remember everyone you see and talk to in the game.

    Apart from that it’s a very slick, involving game. It certainly redeems Bioware after the rushed, underwhelming DRAGON AGE II.

  3. FemShep all the way. Being an avid gamer and a huge fan of your work, I’m doubly glad you share your gaming experiences here.

    @EricJamesSoltys – Jennifer Hale as the voice of Monza Murcatto, hmm, now there’s a thought :)

  4. Colin,
    Dragon Age 2 was pretty darned poor. I really hope they do a third because I liked the first a lot. Quest management never really bothered me on ME3 because nothing seemed complicated enough to need it. Visiting and scanning every available star system didn’t take that long. Bit of a chore, but I’d just do it, back to the citadel and talk to everyone who came up on the map. I think that would be more my criticism, that quests outside the main plotline were pretty perfunctory, mechanical affairs. Get a thing from somewhere and bring it back. The endless scanning of planets in ME2 was dull but sometimes you’d come upon a little bonus mission – at least it lent to the illusion of it being a big universe to explore.

  5. Eric,
    It was a great performance, as were a lot of the characters, actually. I LIked Garrus and Zaeed in particular. But I don’t tend to hear american voices for my characters, as you can imagine…

    Male Shepard? That would be weird.

  6. The ending of Red Dead was amazing. I mean it was slightly depressing but it had that emotional impact but you understood it and why he did it. Which one of my favorite movies of all time is still The Good The Bad and The Ugly which is one of the greatest endings I’ve seen.

    Personally the ME3 ending didn’t ruin the series for me but just left me disappointed that they couldn’t put something good together rather then a bad character introduced in the last 5 minutes. I mean the ending to your first law trilogy was brilliant and not really that uplifting but I couldn’t get over how cynically awesome it was. I don’t need a happy ending but I want a well crafted ending where the curtain is drawn back and everything suddenly fits together. I mean I don’t need a Usual Suspects ah ha! moment in ME3 but damnit bioware you crafted too good of series to let that be how it goes out. Like a balloon deflating and falling to the ground.

  7. Brandon,
    I do see what you mean. I guess I was watching it while trying to calm a crying baby which probably didn’t help me take everything in. It had somewhat of the same handwaving nonsense feel that the second two matrix films do, and last couple of seasons of Battlestar Galactica. Too much attempt to explain and make literal what’s much better not explained. I was expecting there to be a bit more sense to the plot, for the illusive man to be more fundamentally involved in the whole thing. I don’t see why he couldn’t have been in the role of the kid, offering Shepard the choice, if you like. What I was really hoping for was Hackett to turn out to be the indoctrinated villain and the Illusive Man to be mankind’s last hope. But there was no real surprise of that kind. Then there certainly was an element of – these are my choices? I barely understand them, and aren’t they all the same choice, really? But then the whole thing tends to present more the illusion of choice than any particularly major alterations in the plot, as far as I can tell, so that was no surprise, and I was too busy thinking how cool it was that Shepard got melted by the death ray and there was a massive space fight going on. Maybe I’m shallow that way…

    Come to think of it, they did a much better job with the payoffs of the sub-plots that had been going throughout the whole series, like the genophage, the quarian/geth war and so on, and the smaller stories of the individuals, than they did with the over arcing plot, which was a bit of a fudge to say the least.

    The ending of Red Dead may be the best I can think of to a video game – bold, dark, supremely fitting, and the way it morphed into the epilogue was absolute genius. I can’t think of a game as tight as that one thematically. It was constructed like a proper film. But what it lacked was that element of interactivity in the dialogue and some choice-making in the plot that Mass Effect really does deliver on.

  8. Right i am now definatly getting ME3- also glad to know im not the only one to be ripped raw by the ending of Red Dead(which is staring at me from the xbox as i type this)

  9. SOME SPOILERS AHEAD for people that have not finished the game.

    I agree with almost everything about your review, Joe. And I did indeed feel that the payoff/closure for the sub-plots was excellent. Regarding the ending, it felt like lookihng forward to a nice, cold pint of beer and then get a stale, luke-warm thimble instead. The game up until that point was excellent. Frantic pacing, great drama (loved Thessia, with Liara and Javik in my squad) and all that.

    Based on your recommendation, I will be playing Red Dead Redemption in a few days. We seem to share taste in video games and you are the author I currently enjoy reading, above others (who are also excellent of course).

    /Jimmy

  10. ME3 is defentively on the list. I tend to like it much more in comparison to Skyrim. As I still manage to throw some dices from time to time with my friends, i dont need this full freedom feeling in a game. Nevertheless the optic of Skyrim is great (and is a pool of ideas for my RPG settings).

    ME1 was here and there a bit to repetetive (as you said) but the plot an the not just good and bad feeling was great. The second part even topped this with the cerberus plot but sadly reduced the RPG character development to a minimum.
    Honestly it was mor a mixture of a shooter and an interactive movie. Seems that they readjusted it for ME3.

    My list of games… DragonAge (1 not 2), Mass Effect and… well Skyrim
    The last one just a bit ahead of Fallout3

  11. Working through ME3 at the moment, with all the furor over the ending across most gaming websites I’m a little worried but we’ll see when I get there.

    As for RDR I enjoyed the ending, found it incredibly powerful and gut wrenching with a superb epilogue but *SPOILERS!* it somewhat made the whole choosing whether to be good or evil thing redundant, especially the sidequest with the mysterious man where you could choose to make particularly blatant moral choices. Maybe the point they were trying to get across was that it was already too late for John to be redeemed and that society couldn’t allow him to continue living due to what he stood for, but I remember feeling a little miffed that I’d tried the best to make all the goody two-shoes decisions and he still got offed. I may as well have just butchered everyone…

  12. this was a good game, but in the end i couldn’t help but feel extremely disappointed.

    the whole game’s set up annoyed me, it was too similar to dragon age, ‘gather your allies before the dark forces destroy everything’. which leaves the main story really, really lacking. i think mass effect 1 was much better with its stronger plot and antagonist (i loved saren). i also missed being able to have a more passive experience, exploring places like omega. i know there was the citadel, but that was always there and i never liked it. with the whole galaxy under siege i couldn’t do that. and yeah…the ending was a mess. an enjoyable mess, but a mess all the same.

  13. Great review. And I totally agree with your assessment of RDR providing what can be considered one of, if not the most brilliant ending to a game anyone has come up with so far.

    Concerning Mass Effect 3′s quite polarizing last minutes, have you heard of the “The Indoctrination Theory” some attentive fans have put together that suggests Shepard himself/herself was indoctrinated by the finale stages of the story?

    Here’s a link (hope you don’t mind) to website that analyses this theory that, interestingly enough, makes a helluva lot sense (well, at least to me):
    http://www.gamefront.com/mass-effect-3-ending-analyzing-the-indoctrination-theory/

    Anyway, it’s always nice to read your thoughts on current video games.

    Greeting from Germany

  14. Was I the only one that found the in game use of technology disruptive to the overall experience? I mean, you have a richly crafted universe with faster then light travel, quantum computing, and instantaneous communication making use of quantum entanglement, and yet warfare is waged with (wait for it)…. chemical propulsion weapons and rockets using combustible fuels? Really? I know, you should suspend belief in such instances, especially as the sci-fi genre has blended interchangeably with fantasy in recent years, but this felt jarring. Especially since the emotive weight of some superb dialogue and character development kept pulling me back into the story. An omnipotent, biological/synthetic hybrid that periodically cleanses the universe of life can be defeated with shotguns and gumption? Ok….

  15. Never really got into the ME games. Too much talking in my opinion. Every time I turned around someone wanted to talk to me. Or I had 50,000 people I had to talk until something happened. I love Bioware, but in my honest opinion the best game I enjoyed by them was probably the first Knights of the Old Republic.

  16. Hi Joe,

    Curious on your thoughts regarding Morrowind vs. Oblivion vs. Skyrim? I absolutely LOVED Morrowind, but thought that Oblivion didn’t have nearly the same charm or sense of scale (even though the game-world itself was technically bigger).

    What are your thoughts? Does Skyrim finally take the throne from Morrowind for best of the Elderscrolls games?

  17. YEP. I would say that. Morrowwind always felt a bit empty. Never played Oblivion but my friends said that it didnt give you a strong feeling for the world you just felt a bid awkward and alone. They solved this in Skyrim. OK, OK sometimes every few hundred metres there are bandits and wolves but the whole setting, the companions and so on feel “realistic”. And Skyrim focusses on one simple topic (Norse).

  18. YEP. I would say that. Morrowwind always felt a bit empty. Never played Oblivion but my friends said that it didnt give you a strong feeling for the world you just felt a bid awkward and alone. They solved this in Skyrim. OK, OK sometimes every few hundred metres there are bandits and wolves but the whole setting, the companions and so on feel “realistic”. And Skyrim focusses on one simple topic (Norse).

  19. JamesM,
    The ending was kinda poor from a plotting standpoint, I get that, but I’m surprised at the outcry, I must say. It was still a big, blazing finale, even if a nonsensical one. Certainly I don’t feel like I wasted my money. I’d have preferred a great ending but where would it come from, what would it be? Mass Effect didn’t really have a theme, per se. Red Dead Redemption had a fitting ending because it was about something. The death of the west, of which the hero was the exemplar, the human metaphor. I don’t really think there’s any such narrative purity to Mass Effect. A great ending tends to address a central concern, and if there is no such concern, well… In fact part of the problem was at the end they tried to imply it was about the war between organic and synthetic life and, well, it touched on that but it was hardly the central theme of everything. If anything, it was about Shepard’s relationships with the other characters, and it was those minor payoffs that worked, rather than the big one. As such, I’m not sure how they’re going to go about fixing it with DLC…

    Chris,
    Ah, well, they’re not chemical propulsion weapons, are they? They shave splinters from a block as ammunition and accelerate them through a mass effect field. So they’re kind of magic railguns, really. I think we can agree Mass Effect is not exactly hard science fiction…

    Liam,
    Morrowind, good. Oblivion, good with serious reservations. Skyrim, spectacular. It’s interesting, given that Oblivion is so clearly a logical step in the development of the concept that leads on to Skyrim, and very close to it in some ways, that I found it so vastly much worse. Lumpy play balancing and a total lack of atmosphere or coherent theme, plus too much repetition of places and equipment making everything bland. The viking theme just seemed to bring the whole thing together in Skyrim. Plus a whole lot of minor improvements added together.

  20. Joe,

    I still haven’t had a chance to complete my ME3 play through but the more I hear, the less I feel like the ending will bother me. As soon as I saw Reapers tearing apart Earth cities and the implications of how much of Palaven was getting ruined, it seemed pretty unlikely that we were going to have a happy ending. The spoilers I have seen/heard about the Catalyst remind of the some of the ideas from the Dune series, about creating Super Predators and using eugenics to force evolution on the human species. Those are big, fun concepts to play with and I kind of dig that they tried to work them in, even if it is a bit ham-handed.

    Your comment about there being no central concern or core narrative force that could facilitate a proper ending, is spot on. The force that drove me was wanting to see how my companions developed and how they reacted to my decisions; that element of the game has seen constant improvement as the series has progressed. I care far more about enabling my companions to meet their goals. Or as in the case with Ashley Williams, to meet as few goals as possible have her die. Shepard is kind of an empty uniform. He.She has more utility to me as as means interact with the world and inflict my will upon it, than as a point of view character.

    The main story throughout ME felt like canned SciFi but the visual choices and supporting characters made me love it.

    Good post man, thanks.

  21. Joe I actually think it could have been great had it not tried to tack on these ridiculous motivations behind the Reapers, or create some conceited form of depth that the series never had. At least some illusion of your previous choices mattering certainly would have been welcome too. ME1 and 2 are actually my favorite endings of the last few years in videogaming simply because they were so rewarding and thrilling. They had a simple well executed cinematic quality to them that made them immensely fun and satisfying. They were pure escapism and never anything more than that. Sometimes that’s fine though. The suicide mission was insanely good.

  22. JamesM,
    Strangely enough it’s exactly the same mistake they made with Battlestar Galactica for me – the attempt to make literal what is better left unknown. It worked as long as the cylons were the unknown other. They weren’t interesting in themselves, it was the effect they had on the humans. When they tried to investigate the cylons and understand their motivations, it became rubbish. It was enough they were the unknowable external threat. Likewise with Mass Effect, the reapers didn’t need explaining. It was the pressure of their threat on the races of the galaxy and their petty squabbles that was interesting.

  23. The character interaction moments and the score were what made the game for me. Sitting down on the Quarian homeworld with Tali and chatting about her future, clay pigeon shooting with Garrus, that quiet little bit at the end where Liara rested her head on my Shepard’s shoulder for a moment. I know these are stock characters to a certain extent and therefore not exactly Shakespearian in their complexity, but goddammnit I LIKED them. And how rare is that in a videogame these days? I know the whole thing is not a perfect game, and the sub-plots were much more interesting than the main one, but videogames rarely make you feel so invested in your virtual squadmates and friends. (I don’t know how you handled Tuchanka, but Mordin’s death scene was fucking traumatising for me). I think a large part of what pulls those emotional cords is the score, especially the use of the Vigil theme from ME1 that I linked below. When that synthy main theme kicks in it ties all those moments you’ve played through from the three games together so beautifully. It’s such a resonant sound- it makes me think of wide open space, exploration, sadness, sacrifice. The sound team knocked it out of the park all the way through the series for me.

  24. @Joe:

    The unknown is the element that makes these stories so great. I’m always so disappointed when the writers choose to destroy that by fully exploring every last little element of their world. It’s like when you’re playing a video game and you come up against an invisible wall, or see the edge of the game world off in the distance where the land just falls away to nothingness in a long, smooth, straight line. Immersion is broken completely as soon as the illusion of reality and depth is destroyed.

    I suppose it’s just a natural temptation for writers to want to show off all the work they’ve put into developing their world. I just wish they could learn to hold it in, so that they don’t ruin the mystery for the rest of us.

  25. I was okay with ME3, which is good after what I felt was a very poor showing in ME2. My only serious quibble is that the ending is a railroading with little by way of meaningful choice. All the endings, three that there are, are effectively the same thing. Its terrible.

  26. Isn’t “horribly disappointing ending” practically a Sci-Fi genre convention by now?

  27. We can all agree that its not hard science? In that case, I have a question for Mr Abercrombie. In episode 2F09 when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is some sort of a magic xylophone or something? Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder….

    I get it, I’m nitpicking. That said, it still feels like a missed opportunity from a creative standpoint. How cool would it have been to see some cutting edge biometrics worked into the game? What about mission specific objectives that involved actual environmental obstacles (i.e. a crushing gravity that slowed down your character and altered shooting mechanics). Heck, it would have even been different if say the Quarrans or Korgan saw things in different visible wavelengths, and then adjust the color scheme for a moment, during one of Shepard’s pep talks with crew members as a momentary shift to a truly different point of view. I guess I’m saying (outside of literature; thank you Cory Docktrow and Charles Stross) that a lot of Sci Fi as a genre has stopped being visionary and instead simply uses the space backdrop as prop to regurgitate existing archetypes about the human condition. ME3 was a blast, don’t get me wrong, but it certainly lacked the incendiary imagination of say Alien/Aliens. :)

  28. Just finished playing last night. I saw your post on the game, but I wanted to wait until I played before reading and commenting.

    I am sorta disappointed in the ending, but it didn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the game. I think they could have fit in the whole “cycle” and “organic vs. synthetic” concept without having resorted to a magic, glowing child.

    And speaking of magic, that synthesis ending really has no basis in science, even pretend science. Walk into the light, and all life forms will merge into a new kind of life? WTF?

    And why did the magic child demand sacrifice from Shepherd in order to control the Reapers? The glow-baby already controlled the reapers. He could just make them go away. That made no sense.

    Even the destruction ending was random. It couldn’t just kill the reapers; it had to kill all synthetic life including the Geth? What?

    Too plot-hole-y for my taste. I’m surprised you weren’t more irked by it as a writer.

  29. Tyson,
    I’m not sure how future games in this setting (I’m assuming there will be some, even if shepard-less) will incorporate the fusion of all synthetic and organic life. No doubt the ending was weak in all kinds of ways, but in the great scheme of things to be irked by in the universe, I’m surprised it featured so high on the list for so many people. I thought it was a great game overall. I’ve been really enjoying the multiplayer, actually…

  30. The endings, along with the odd implementation of exploration (better than the tedium of ME2 mining, but still kind of an afterthought,) and the entirety of Kai Leng’s on screen time probably suffered from deadline pressure. I’d say that’s equal parts EA’s fault, because they’re money grubbing corporate asshats, Bioware’s fault, for not standing up to EA, and our fault as video gamers for throwing embarrassing hissy fits every time a game’s release is delayed.

    Fortunately Bioware did a ton of things right. There wasn’t a single character beat with current and former squad mates that I didn’t love. SPOILERS My absolute favorite being the point where I caught Garrus and Tali hooking up right before Priority: Earth. The multi player is fun and surprisingly welcoming, I have yet to be sworn at, which is practically unprecedented for an online multiplayer experience. Of course, I also play a Vanguard, and the ability to spam Biotic Charge and Nova forever is as broken as can be.

  31. I wonder why so many players choose to play as a hardass renegade FemShep?

    Is it just down to the voice acting, or the chance to create a hot redhead who runs around shooting the bejeezus out of everything that moves?

  32. I suppose I just have one question. If Mass Effect 3 had been a novel, a TV show, or a movie and had ended the same way would you be as willing to forgive it the same?

  33. Mark,
    Why do any players choose NOT to play a hardass renegade FemShep?

    Erik,
    Well, the experiences those different forms of entertainment offer differ in some quite important ways so it’s difficult to draw an exact parallel, but all 5 seasons of Battlestar Galactica probably take as long to watch as a thorough play-through of mass effect. Galactica had an excellent first couple of seasons, a patchy third and fourth, and an awful end. That hasn’t massively spoiled my appreciation of the great stuff in the first two series though. By the same token, Mass Effect 3 was pretty much great up until the last half hour. Yes, the end was lame, but did it spoil my appreciation of the great stuff that went before? In my case no. And there were a lot of threads that paid off really nicely. What can I say? They shit the bed a little bit at the end there. It happens.

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