“This is it, isn’t it?”Posted: 03/15/2012
Mass Effect 3 by Bioware (EA, 2012)
Nearly five years ago I was feeling lonely and decided to make a pretty big commitment. The girlfriend was gone, off visiting her family, and I was working an awful job that, while giving me the illusion of being “flush with cash,” was wearing me down. I decided, then, that I needed to buy an X-Box 360 so that I could play Mass Effect (which was coming out in a few short weeks). I’d played virtually every Bioware game to date (c. 2007) and loved them all. This made ME a deeply appealing game; it was the first Bioware game with new generation graphics; they’d guaranteed it would be a trilogy; the game was the beginning of a brand new and interesting looking franchise. The “problem” was that I didn’t have a computer that could run the eventual PC release. This made buying a 360 my only option to play the game.
And boy did I play it. Despite a few big flaws (awful inventory system, uneven plotting, the MAKO) and the fact that I am terrible at shooters, I loved the original Mass Effect. I was at the Charles Town, WV Gamespot at 10am the day the game was released and playing it devoured my life for over a week. The story was captivating (especially those final few hours racing to the Conduit and into the Citadel) and the characters captivating (Garrus! Wrex! Ashley! Liara!). For a derivative sci-fi universe, the world of Mass Effect was compelling – humanity was important but not dominant, political struggle between different alien races was treated in fresh ways, the alien groups were diverse. The dialogue wheel was a revolution; that ME had a fully-voiced protagonist while still maintaining player control over dialogue was simply amazing. That an edge that few games at the time had. So much of what Bioware did in ME has become the “common sense” of more recent Bioware games and Western RPGs that it makes it difficult to recapture the exhilaration of playing something so new and refreshing.
More important than any of that, though, was the promise that there would be two more games just like it.
To say, then, that I was excited for Mass Effect 2 would be an understatement. I bought a wireless adaptor for my 360 in order to take advantage of that’s games DLC, I was there for the midnight release at the Fairfax, VA Gamespot, and I took the release day off work and graduate school in order to devote an entire day to the game. That I was in a long distance relationship allowed my life, once again, to be devoured by playing the game. ME2 was an amazing experience and despite more than few flaws (throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it came to clunky RPG elements from ME1, for example) it was what everyone one expects from a sequel: a more refined and reified experience. Ditching the terrible MAKO game play was a revolution in and of itself. At the heart of this franchise, really, are the characters and Mass Effect 2 provided a bonanza in that department with twelve well-defined squad-mates, with their own interests and drives, plus Martin Sheen.
Above and beyond all that, what made ME2 so appealing, was the promise that there would be yet another game just like it.
It should come as no surprise, then, Mass Effect 3 has devoured nearly every available hour since its release last Tuesday (March, 6th 2012). I, no joke, put my personal and professional life on hold to play the finale of this franchise. I bought a headphone adapter for our television (as to not annoy the girlfriend with the noise of killing Reapers), wrote all of that week’s lectures well in advance, got all of grading done before hand – all to maximize my time with ME3. On Sunday (March, 7th 2012) I completed the game.
To say that I enjoyed this game is an understatement. The experience of ME3, as the girlfriend can readily attest, was exhilarating – was swept away in the finale to a franchise in which I’ve invested five years of my life. This game has very much earned a place in the rotation of games that Roy-plays-when-he-is-stressed-or-depressed, along with the rest of the ME franchise. My final feelings towards ME3, however, are mixed and muddled. When the after-credits sequence ended and they dumped me unceremoniously back on the Normandy (same as in ME1 & ME2, so I do not consider that a spoiler), I was left feeling bittersweet and more than a bit sad. These feelings were a product of the fact that the franchise is complete – Shepard’s story is done. My time with these characters, in which was I invested in as much as I am towards any of that figments which populate my pop-culture imagination, was over. My sadness, though, went further than that. While I’d gotten virtually everything I’d wanted out of the experience of this game, one element (at the very end, discussed in detail below) left me feeling more dejected than satisfied.
I can no longer talk about my experience with Mass Effect 3 without wadding into some pretty MAJOR SPOILERS. I am going try and keep the spoilers in much of what you find below relatively mild. I’m going to relegate the extreme SPOILERS to the footnotes and the very end of this post.
A few things need to be out of the way before this wall of text can begin in earnest. First, I have only beaten Mass Effect 3 once so far (obviously) and I’ve done so with “my” Commander Shepard. This is the character I first completed ME1 with, along with ME2. He’s been with me for five years. As per usual, I played a diplomatically minded character and, thus, almost always selected the paragon options. I romanced Ashley in ME1 and stayed faithful in ME2. Taking this character through ME3 will always been the definitive Mass Effect experience for me – despite the fact that I will likely be completing the game (at least) couple more times. Second, my thoughts on this game are over the place, so the rest of this post is going to be organized thematically around few key points I took away from the game.
With no further ado…
I was annoyed that you couldn’t bring in the face of the character you created in ME1: This was not the end of the world, but it was frustrating that the face of the character I created five years ago was unable to be imported into the final game. I was able to largely to recreate it but he ended up looking more like David Boreanaz than my original Shepard did. Not a game breaker, but certainly not how I wanted to kick the finale off.
The tone and pacing of ME3 largely worked: Bioware largely succeed (within the limits of needing to create an RPG with at least some non-linear elements) in creating a tone where it felt like the end of the world was nigh. Almost every conversation loops back to the Reapers and the fate of the galaxy. The periodic “dreams” that Shepard had throughout game also work well at establishing a sense of stress and desperation wearing down upon your character. The absolutely fantastic soundtrack helps too. Oh sure, you could still take your time and explore every nook and random star system and fight Cerberus, but even the side missions and exploration felt like your were aiding the war effort against the Reapers. Mass Effect 3 is also pretty well paced, especially considering how problematic pacing was in the previous games in this series. If one played straight through the “priority” missions, I would suggest, that ME3 would cohere pretty well, which is likely due to the omnipresent Reaper threat.
Choices in ME1 & ME2 had consequences: One of the most impressive things about ME3 is how much Bioware actually delivered on its promise that many of the choices throughout the series would have consequences in the final game. When an obscure French doctor that I saved in ME1 showed up, I knew Bioware had actually followed through. What’s most outstanding so how many characters come back (in largely small roles, of course) from a variety of difference sources in the Mass Effect franchise – DLC, books, comics. Most of the results of your choices in past games play out not in cameos but through ME3’s “war effort” rating. By choosing to save the Council at the expense of the Alliance Fleet in ME1, for example, your “war effort” rating is affected. By reading all of the entries of the various war assets in the game you can tell that Bioware really did track everything you did. Many people will be unhappy that every choice you made it has no direct effect in the game’s dialogue or scenarios. To do so, though, would have really blogged things down. The system Bioware came up with I think strikes a good balance between following up on loose ends from ME1 and ME2 without getting in the way of what Bioware wanted to do in ME3. Now it is true that Bioware does fudge thing on several important choices from previous games but, to me at least, this s very much a “glass half full situation.” It is more important that Bioware actually followed through on so much.
Bioware may have found the “sweet spot” when it comes to the dialogue wheel: As I noted above the dialogue wheel and a fully voice protagonist in ME1 was a true revolution in RPG design. Yet, here we are five years later and the dialogue wheel has become very flabby as a concept in game design. It has become a place to make many different “choices” that have minimal impact on a dialogue chain – there are only one or (maybe) two choices per chain that actually impact plot or gameplay. One may pick the “ANGRY” choice but what plays out next is not different than if you’d picked the “NICE” option. As DA2 and The Old Republic show, this form of the dialogue wheel makes a great RPG tool (fully voiced protagonist paired with player control) tedious. ME3 strips down the dialogue wheel to where the player is only making the big choice(s) for each of each dialogue chain – to be a jerk, to romance someone etc. etc. – while leaving rest of the exchange “auto”-dialogue (selected based on your paragon/ renegade rating). While this may prove controversial, I believe it was the right choice. It makes everything flow so much better – instead of constant stop-choice-stop-choice-stop-choice – while keeping the player fundamentally in control of their character. Despite having more “auto”-dialogue than ME1 or ME2 the player is still choosing if their Shepard is a paragon/renegade. There will always be limits to player imagination in heavily scripted game like Mass Effect 3 – the Commander Shepard in your head will never be exactly like the one you play in the game. The system Bioware employs in this game is a very solid compromise between having many but largely superfluous choices and none at all.
Bioware also found the “sweet spot” when it comes to mission length: The side-missions are about 20 to 45 minutes long and the “priority” missions eat up about 60 to 90 minutes. This is nearly perfect length for an individual scenario- especially compared to the awful slogs that were ME1 missions. As soon as one is sick of a setting you are whisked off to the next. Future Bioware games need to take heed of this.
Buying the “N7 Collector’s Edition” was worth it: Ok, the “robot dog” was pretty worthless but the “From Ashes” DLC was worth every penny. The bonus recruitment mission (and character) it provides is great. Javik is extremely well integrated into the ME3 experience and fits thematically – much more so than any other DLC character in the franchise. Oh, and the bonus armor and squad-mate appearances were cool too.
Bioware, thankfully, brought the RPG elements back: Probably the most largely agreed upon flaw in ME2 was the fact that Bioware – reacting to the much deserved haterd of many of the clunky elements of ME1 – stripped out most of the traditional number-crunching RPG elements. They are somewhat back in ME3 – thankfully not the awful inventory system. You can upgrade (and switch around) the stats on your weapons (which have much clearer stat weights than in ME2). The upgrades provided by different pieces of armor are clearer and more varied. All in all, ME3 feels more like a traditional RPG than ME2 did, without the clunkiness that marred ME1.
Bioware should be applauded for including openly gay and lesbian characters: ME3 contains one openly gay (who was teh gay married!) and one lesbian character on the Normandy. Both are same-sex love interests for Shepard. This is certainly not the first time a Bioware game has offered same-sex romance as a role-playing option but it is, to my memory, the first time they’ve done so with explicitly gay and lesbian characters. This is progress, folks – especially for such a testosterone infused franchise as Mass Effect. Doubly so because the previous instance of same-sex romance in the Mass Effect franchise was a blue alien version of a Katy Perry song.
The next two points are likely to provoke the largest disagreement with folks who wadded this far into this wall of text…
Bioware decided to go “quality” over “quantity” when it came to character interaction: And I liked it. It is inarguable that there are fewer “full” (dialogue wheel) conservations with your squad-mates. The post-mission “check-in” with individual characters (“what did you think of what we just did?”) on the Normandy is now handled through a simpler, and less interactive, system. This means, though, when you do have a full conversation with a squad-mate, it is really going mean something either for the plot or character development. Such exchanges fundamentally affect the character in question and Shepard’s relationship with them. All of the squad-mate characters have five or six such dialogues – each is a “meaty” experience and some of the best moments of the entire game are found therein. In the scheme of things there is probably as much dialogue from this franchise’s great supporting characters as there was in ME1 or ME2. However, what’s there is very much less interactive than in the previous entries to this franchise. That said, each fully dialogued moment with your supporting characters in Mass Effect 3 is more compelling and emotional affecting than most in Mass Effect 1 and 2. All in all, I was extremely happy with how this was handled.
Virtually every character’s story was given a satisfactory conclusion: This assertion is likely to be the most controversy as any thing in this review, but I stand by it – with one caveat. I was satisfied with the conclusions to supporting characters’ stories in the context of the story of my Shepard. While I like many of the characters that Bioware decided to bump into the background in ME3, none of them where particularly important to the story I wanted to experience with the Shepard I began playing five years ago. What I like about this was that it didn’t feel arbitrary, the reasons each character had to not run off to the Normandy with Shepard felt legitimate to their previous characterization. All that said, my main loves were all characters from Mass Effect 1 – Garrus, Ashley, Tali, and Liara. Each of those characters’ stories were given extremely rewarding conclusions after playing three games with these characters. This was especially true for Garrus and Ashley. I’m very pleased with how the Ashley romance resolved itself in ME3; it really felt like a love story had been told across three games. Good job, Bioware. Garrus’s story, though, was even better. There was so much pure gold in every moment with Garrus that it is impossible to just pick one. The friendship that my male-Shepard developed with Garrus over the course of the previous two games played out really well throughout ME3. Indeed, there was one moment with Garrus that made me laugh out of sheer joy another made me misty eyed. Beyond Garrus and Ashley, Liara was given a lot to do in this game, to great affect. The very final moment of with Liara at the end of the game was very touching, even if she wasn’t a romanced character. The only ME1 character not really given as much resolution as the others is Tali, which was disappointing but understandable considering how much of her arc is tied up with the broader one of her people and their war with the Geth. The four deaths of major character in ME3, during my play-through, were handled with great aplomb and emotion. All in all, Mass Effect 3 used the greatest asset that the franchise has, its characters, to great emotional and storytelling purposes.
The above has largely been a pretty positive, if not glowing, assessment of Mass Effect 3. As I noted at the outset (does anyone remember that?), I loved this game. A lot. The was, though, a very big flaw in the game, which I am going to turn to now.
For this final (yay!) section of this wall of text, I am not even going to try to hold back on the SPOILERS. So consider this your final SPOILER ALERT.
The ending(s) was not very satisfying: Before we get into this I want to note one thing – I got over 75 percent of what I wanted from ME3’s ending. I knew, going in, that I wouldn’t get the ending I dreamed up for my Shepard after finishing ME1 five years ago. Now, that said – the ending was not particularly satisfying, largely because the final three choices were so unpalatable. Option 1? Destroy the Reapers – but this option destroys the Mass Relays and all synthetic life (including yourself). Considering my Shepard aided EDI in her journey towards personhood and promoted peace with the Geth and the Quarians, this wouldn’t work. Option 2? Control the Reapers; for my peacemaking-nice-guy Shepard that wouldn’t work at all. That just left Option 3 – Synthesis. This choice, though, is nearly as unpalatable as the others. Not only does it kill your Shepard off it destroys the Mass Effect universe that players had come to know and invest in over three games and assorted tie-in media. While saving the Geth, EDI, and the galaxy, it destroys the Mass Relays and space ferrying civilization – it pushes the “reset button.” All of that work promoting peace among the various civilizations (Geth, Guarians, Turians, Krogan) is undone. Honesty this was simply unsatisfying and no amount of terrible Buzz Aldrin voice acting can make up for it.
What’s doublely frustrating about the ending is that Mass Effect 3 had very clear conclusion in the very moments before they literally went for the deus ex machina. That final touching scene between Shepard and Anderson should have been end of the game – with the “Crucible” either destroying the Reapers (paragon ending) or with humanity controlling them (renegade ending). Shepard saves the galaxy, there’s no need for him to destroy it at the same time. Hell, they could have let him die there and then and I still would have found this theoretical ending fully satisfying. Instead, Bioware went for a more sweeping but fundamentally displeasing ending.
More than a few days out of finishing the game, I can see now (maybe) what’s really wrong with Mass Effect 3’s last moments is that they are the truly final ones of such a great franchise. There are no more adventures with Shepard and Garrus to look forward to. No more of the Ashley/Shepard star-crossed love story to play out. No more new moments with Tali, Liara or Joker. The question that I’ve been able to ask over the last five years – “What will happen in the next Mass Effect game?” – has its final answer. The franchise, that I’d (over?) invested so many hours in, is done. Over. Complete. Oh sure, I will replay the hell out of this game and this franchise but, the moments of surprise, the fresh stories, are through.
That fact, as good as Mass Effect 3 was, the game can’t help but leave me more than a little dejected.
 Few things are more likely to drive me to drop a wad of cash on something (likely something I could do without) then loneliness combined with stress.
 As the content of this blog should make clear, I am pretty obsessed with Bioware RPGs – even if I consider Baldur’s Gate II to be one of the worst games ever.
 This included me sneaking off to my apartment during Thanksgiving at the girlfriend’s parents’ house in order to play the game.
 When I say day here, I really mean it. I played from about 6am to 1am.
 My girlfriend is truly a saint of suffering through my period fits of pop-cultural obsession.
 My extreme hatred of the MAKO gameplay makes it difficult to replay Mass Effect 1 unless I am really committed. Thus I’ve probably spent more hours playing Mass Effect 2. I’ve beaten ME2 three times and have about half a dozen other play-throughs in various states of completion. I’ve only managed to beat ME1 twice – the initial time, years ago and once this summer in prep for ME3.
 This periodic obsession with a video game (and other forms of popular culture) is an old feature of my psyche. I, for example, took a “sick week” from high school in order to play Baldur’s Gate II upon its release.
 This is a record for me, I believe. It took me more or less nine days to beat the first game, about seven to been the sequel, and only five to beat the finale.
 This rotation consists of: Baldur’s Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, World of Warcraft, the Civilization games, The Sims franchise, and (obviously) the previous two Mass Effect games.
 Footnotes in a blog post about video games! I am footnote nerd to the core.
 Apparently, for example, a version of the Rachni Queen appears no matter what the player did in ME1. Yet still, the version that appears is different depending on what choice you made in the first game.
 My review of the Old Republic is forthcoming.
 As much as I love the ME2 DLC characters, especially Katsumi.
 For example, all of the Dragon Age 2 love interests were open to all genders but without a real in character reason given. The same-sex romance options in all the previous Bioware games were bisexual – most in a poorly defined sort of way.
 I love the character of Liara, she’s one of my favorites in the franchise and really gets to shine in ME3. It is inarguable, however, that the asari exploit the average male gamers’ love for two girls making out – especially if they are blue.
 You simply press “A” (on the 360) and they character gives their opinion.
 Garrus and Liara probably get more than that and Tali slightly less.
 I can imagine that someone who romanced a character in ME2 that wasn’t a fully present from ME1 is rightfully upset– especially Jack and (the two in the who universe) Jacob fans. I mean, Jacob up and dumps you for another lady! Uncool, Jake. Uncool. Luckily, I romanced Ashley consistently through all three games.
 Miranda, for example, spending much of ME3 working against her father and trying to save her sister fits with everything we learned about her in ME2.
 The final moments between Ashley and Shepard on Earth nearly made me cry. Very touching moment.
 Ok, I will choose one: “I’m Garrus Vakarian, and this is now my favorite spot on the Citadel!”
 This moment was when Tali and Garrus got together in the end of the game. Pure awesome!
 This was the final exchange on Earth. Garrus: my Shepard will see you in the great bar in the sky, buddy.
 Apparently, Tali’s story has a much more satisfying conclusion for players who romanced her in ME2. They even get a much requested reward for their role-playing efforts.
 For the record, that ending was one were Shepard and Ashley settled down had a brood of little space marines after defeating the Reapers. Always remember: I am a sap. As I noted above, though, I was very happy with how the Shepard/Ashley story played out.
 I did like, though, that the final thought of my Shepard was of Ashley – touching and good storytelling.
 In some ways I see why they did it. Such an ending makes it impossible to create a post-ME3 sequel – with or without Shepard. The player made too many huge, fundamentally world altering choices, in ME3 for Bioware to ever dream up a sequel that would satisfy the fans – DA2 shows the danger in such a move. Better to break the toys completely, then. This does not make the final experience more palpable, just understandable.
 Honesty: I’m over-invested.