Mass Effect 3: A Flawed Gem

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First off, yes, I am still alive even though I haven't blogged here in ages. Since the last entry I've moved to California and taken a new job, and this just fell by the wayside. However, it's a new year and let's just see if I can't get back into the swing of things, shall we? I'm going to kick it off with a review of Mass Effect 3, which I got for Christmas, since I think the game deserves a good discussion of its merits and flaws. It's been a year since it game out and I know it's been discussed half to death already, but not by me.

It's going to be hard to discuss the game without spoilers, but for this first part of the post I am going to keep them to an absolute minimum. If you haven't played the game yet and have managed to avoid all the publicity around the game's ending, I don't want to be the one to spoil it for you. Once I'm behind the cut, I'll go more in depth on what really seemed to work and what fell short in terms of the story, which is really where the meat of this game is.

In all likelihood, if you're reading this you've already played Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2; if you haven't, you should (although I admit the original Mass Effect is a bit of a slog to go back to these days). You also probably know the gist of the plot too (the Reaper invasion has begun and you need to stop it). If you've been paying attention at all since the game was announced, you know Bioware was hyping how all your choices from the first two games would pay off in this one, and if you've been paying attention since it was released, you know that the fan furor over the ending has been unprecedented. With all of that, plus the additional baggage of EA's Origin platform, it becomes difficult for the game to really stand on its own when you're playing it nine months after release. To be honest, I had put it on the back burner in "well, maybe someday I'll play it" territory because of that, despite the fact that I think Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games I've ever played.

However, once I sat down with the game last week and actually dove in, after steeling myself while I installed Origin and tried to put the furor over the ending out of my mind, the same excitement I had at every turn in Mass Effect 2 started to creep back in. It doesn't hurt that the game opens with some really magnificent visuals, with the Reapers attacking Earth and a trip to Mars in the middle of an oncoming sandstorm. In general, the story manages to keep the same quality that it had in the second game (with a few major exceptions), the gameplay mechanics are improved, with a happy medium between the power and inventory headaches of the first game and the bare minimum of RPG trappings in the second game. Honestly, I feel a little silly for ignoring the game for the better part of a year, because it really is a good game for the most part, and especially now that you can get it for half the original price, it's well worth playing. Here's my breakdown, with a discussion of story spoilers after the cut:

The Good

  • For the most part, the writing in ME3 is up to the level displayed by Bioware in the first two games, and the voice acting, especially the returning members of the cast, is still superb. I'm still not quite sure what the point of Jessica Chobot's character was really (unless it was to get some free media coverage for Bioware). Freddie Prinze Jr. gets kind of a hard role, coming in as a new character not mentioned in any of the previous games, and doesn't do a bad job, but it seems like it would have been better to replace his character with someone from the earlier games. Most of the major subplots in the previous games (the krogan genophage, the quarian/geth conflict, etc) get some resolution in ME3, with some very strong emotional moments. The very end of the game does fall short of the mark (even with the Extended Cut DLC), but up until the last ten minutes of the game, I found myself deeply within its grasp.
  • The game swings the pendulum back the other way on the RPG mechanics side of things, towards a middle ground between the first two games. There's a wider variety of weapons available but not too many -- generally between 5-10 options, and they've brought back weapon attachments. Instead of having to pick them both up individually, though, you only need one to equip everyone in your squad with one (like in ME2) and finding or buying additional ones of that same type add to the level of the item. Your character can carry whatever kind of guns he or she wants, but the more weight you carry affects your power cooldowns. I liked the system and I actually felt like the different kinds of guns mattered, as opposed to the choices in ME2 where it was basically the good one or the not-so-good one. I used the Black Widow sniper a lot myself, but tended to give Garrus a different one because I wanted him to be laying down covering fire more.
  • The pace of combat was very similar to ME2, and it's still easy to see where you're going to have a fight because the terrain will start to have ubiquitous cover, but there was a fairly wide variety of enemies and I only had a handful of fights where I got a little annoyed with the dying. They were all climactic fights though, so they were intended to be difficult, and the autosave is good enough that I didn't need to redo any huge amount of stuff or watch 3 minutes of cutscenes each time like in ME1. The added weapon variety makes the combat a bit more interesting though, and most of them feel very different in a fight (some with very different effects) giving it an extra dimension, enough that I actually enjoyed playing the multiplayer, which is just wave survival combat for the most part.
  • Visually, the game seems like a step up from the previous game; as I said, the opening visuals on Earth and Mars are breathtaking at times, but even the textures and lighting on board the Normandy seem better than they did in ME2 (which I replayed with all the single player DLC right before my ME3 playthrough). Some of the facial animation seemed a little off, and there were a few other niggling graphical glitches, but for the most part it is a very pretty game.
  • One of the things I was mildly worried about with ME3 was the departure of Jack Wall as the composer; his synthy 70s-80s scifi soundtrack was a big part of the first two games. I really shouldn't have worried that much, in retrospect, since Clint Mansell is certainly no slouch when it comes to music. The soundtrack in ME3 is different than the first two, more orchestral and less synthy, but it is very good in its own way. There's a good number of musical callbacks to the first two games that made me very happy every time they popped up.
  • Speaking of callbacks, there were certainly plenty of those in ME3, depending on how you played the first two games. Every major character from the first two, assuming they're still alive, shows back up in the third game. Fewer of the minor characters pop up, but that's an understandable admission when you look at just how much they're trying to cram into the game's narrative. However, there's some problems with this as well, which I'll touch on in the next section.
  • I felt like my romance with Liara (which I've kept through all three games) had the best payoff in ME3. She was still remarkably standoffish for the most part until right before the penultimate mission (as always), and the sex scene was still somewhat awkward (why is she naked and I'm wearing a bra and panties?), but I really felt like the dialogue around that scene had a lot more heft than in ME1 or the ME2 relationships. The fact that Liara's character has evolved significantly from the first game until now no doubt helped, but I hope the romances with other long-time companions of Shepard are as rewarding.
  • Thankfully, I never really ran into the money trouble or resource problems that were annoying in my first playthrough of ME2. Bioware seems to have fixed that particular annoyance that made ME2 a bit frustrating at times. I don't think I had enough money to just buy everything I saw (especially not at the beginning) but with a reasonable amount of scanning I didn't need to scrimp and save every penny like I tended to have to do in ME2.
The Bad

  • All right, let's get this out of the way. Yes, the very end of the game has issues. The final segment of the ending is largely unconnected from the rest of the game or the previous two games and the choices seem arbitrary and not particularly satisfying. All of the possible endings seems to go against the tone of the last three games, and the Extended Cut DLC doesn't really help that; in fact, a lot of its extra exposition seems unnecessary and cumbersome. I'll talk more about this in the spoiler section, but be prepared to be somewhat disappointed by the game. However, as I said, up until that point the game is really good.
  • Probably my biggest annoyance of the game is that it's really hard to keep track of the little side quests you get. You pick most of these up by overhearing random conversations in the Citadel, and they are kept in the same place as your main quests in your journal, which is a little hard to handle. The bigger issue, though, is that none of these are tracked on the galaxy map, so you have to poke through your journal to find out where you need to go to get some of this stuff. That got pretty tiresome as the game wore on.
  • The war assets system, where you have to collect war assets to supposedly improve your chances with the ending, really seems to have disappointingly little to do with the rest of the game. Yes, having more war assets opens up more of the arbitrary ending choices, but other than needing a higher number, none of the endings really have anything to do with any of your war assets. The war assets are good for getting extra money or resources, and you probably want to max out the war asset bar for the most options in your ending, but it really feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. It would have been nice if getting war assets slowed the progression of the Reapers, or if different war assets changed the specifics of the ending (like how the ending of ME2 could change based on how loyal various characters are or how you used them).
  • Remember those callbacks I was saying were good? Well, the caveat is that they are really only window dressing on things that are going to be there anyway. Killed the Rachni queen in Mass Effect 1? Too bad, the Rachni still show up in this game. Myself, I always went for most of the game options that tended to preserve as many characters as possible, so I didn't notice too many things that seemed amiss here, but I suspect if you had a particularly bloody playthrough of ME2, you're going to see a lot of Dr. Neds ("the totally not-made-up brothers of Dr. Zed") showing up in your game. This feels like a disappointing cop out for a game that Bioware promised would be hugely impacted by your previous choices. It's understandable; planning for every one of a hundred different combinations of major choices and character notes would probably have been cost prohibitive, but Bioware shouldn't have hyped that so much if this was really all you were going to get.
  • Like ME2, ME3 suffers from not having a strong antagonist. There are really two antagonists in the game, the Reapers and Cerberus, but aside from an endless string of mooks you don't get much in the way of rewarding confrontations with the enemy. You have a handful of conversations with the Illusive Man or his head ninja assassin (who seems a bit out of place here), and one confrontation with a Reaper, but there's nothing that even approaches the confrontation with Sovereign or your run-ins with Saren at Eden Prime or Virmire. Why the ending has you deal with a literal deus ex machina instead of Harbinger itself is a baffling choice to me, especially when it's one of the places where ME2 really dropped the ball (and ME1 did so well).
  • Compared to the number of companions Shepard had in ME2, ME3 pares your crew down to a relative handful. Some of this is understandable, since you could have had a lot of characters die in ME2 potentially, but if you did, woe is you. Because your core crew is made up of only 3-4 people for most of the game, plus one with the From Ashes DLC. It's possible you could pick up 1-2 more later on, but compare that to the 10-12 you could have in ME2 and it seems a bit paltry. There was also a lot of overlap for me; I rarely wanted to take James, the new marine who joins your crew, on missions when his skill set overlapped with mine or another crewman, and he didn't have the resonance of having been with me for the rest of the series like Liara. It also means there's less difference when you replay, since you lose out of the multitude of companion reactions to each mission.
  • Ashley, the collagen in your lips and that hair is not regulation, woman. Please don't be an embarrassment to our gender. That dress that Diana Allers runs around in doesn't really seem appropriate for wearing aboard ship either.
Despite its failings, though, Mass Effect 3 is far better than you might expect based on the furor that erupted after it came out. In a lot of ways, Bioware is a victim of their own success here, because the bar was raised so high with the first two ME games (and almost all of their catalog up until Dragon Age 2 and The Old Republic) that it was going to be very hard for them to live up to all the hype going into this one. Now that the furor has died down a little and the price has dropped, it's hard not to recommend Mass Effect 3 to anyone who liked the first two games. It might not be everything you hoped for, but I can guarantee you won't end up feeling like you wasted your money.

On that topic, I also picked up the From Ashes and Leviathan DLCs after recommendations from people on Quarter to Three. Annoyingly, despite the fact that it's for sale from EA's own store, you're still forced to buy it with the ridiculous Bioware points crap (just let me use actual money, for crying out loud); each of those DLCs is 800 Bioware points, or ten bucks, and that's kind of marginal for what you get. Both of them really feel like they should have been included in the main game, for as integral to the main plot as they seem to be. From Ashes adds a new squad member with a fairly large amount of new and interesting dialogue, plus an extra mission, while Leviathan gives you three extra missions and some fairly important insights into the Reapers. Since you can get the base game for less than $20 on sale these days, I'd recommend snagging them if you don't have too much moral indignation about the DLC. If I'd paid full price for the game, I would have been pretty annoyed with the nickel and diming. I skipped the Omega DLC for now because it just didn't seem worth $15 at this point.

Okay, now it's time to take a deep dive into spoiler territory for the rest of my review. If you read past here, keep in mind what you're in for!


So I'm going to split this into two parts. First, I want to talk about the bulk about the game -- everything up to your final push against the Reapers on Earth. Once I've talked about that, we'll get to the ending of the game, which is the only place really where the game shows the cracks in its veneer.

I don't want to recount the entire plot of the game in its entirety, since if you're reading this you probably already know what it is. I will say that one of the few overall issues I had with the story of the game is that it is supposed to take place six months after the events of the Arrival DLC for ME2 (which takes place after the events of the main game). For all the changes between the world of ME2 and ME3, that did seem like it was a bit too short of a time for things to change so drastically -- for Cerberus to suddenly become large enough to be able to storm the Citadel, or most obviously, for the Reapers to arrive from dark space (The Arrival's success only bought you six months?), for instance. I think that could have been lengthened to 3-4 years and the game would have made a little more sense. Still, this isn't a huge problem since it's fairly easy to ignore.

I am mildly annoyed that they turned Cerberus from "ambiguous shadowy organization" to "pretty much pure evil" again, especially after the largely-successful move in the opposite direction in the previous game. It would have been nice to know more about why Udina threw in his lot with them as well; I was disappointed to see his turn, to be honest. He had always struck me as a slimy bureaucrat but I never really doubted that he thought he was doing what he thought was in the best interests of Earth, and never really seemed like the kind of guy to throw in his lot with Cerberus. Again, these are things that might have made more sense if there had been more time in the interim.

The obvious highlight of the first mission to Palaven is reuniting with Garrus, aka the best buddy cop partner for Shepard ever. The rest of the mission is not particularly memorable, mostly because the Turians are probably the least-developed of the major races in the Mass Effect universe, at least in terms of a theme that's run through the three games. It didn't help that you were really just fighting on a featureless moon (one of the multiplayer maps, even), so it didn't really have a lot of character either.

I think the game really started clicking for me after Palaven, when I went to Sur'Kesh. Mordin and Wrex are two of my favorite characters from the series, so the whole krogan arc was a delicious bonanza of character moments. Of course, the topper was Mordin's death scene, which was a not just a great character moment, but had a great musical queue afterward ("Vigil" from ME1). There was a theme of hope for future generations that ran through this entire arc, and that tune is probably the best callback they could have made to evoke that emotion for me.

I also really liked Grissom Academy, mostly because I thought Jack was one of the better written characters from ME2 and it was nice to see her back in action again. Seeing her as a teacher (with slightly more reasonable clothes than in ME2, thankfully) and trying not to curse was a lot of fun, and I was really happy for her. I was disappointed not to see her much after that, except for a brief talk on the Citadel.

Speaking of the Citadel, it gets a considerable amount of action in ME3 and I think they  did a better job of making it feel bigger than in either ME1 or ME2. This is accomplished mostly by making the new locations more open, focusing on the Presidium and not the Wards for the most part. The docks felt busy and the refugee holding area had some good touches like the memorial wall, even if they still felt a little small. Everywhere else had huge windows or large balcony areas where you could see the full size of the Citadel, which was a good design choice.

After the Cerberus attack on the Citadel, there's really two main plotlines before the endgame starts, the asari and the quarian/geth conflict. There's really two missions for the asari; the first is going to an Ardat-Yakshi monastery, which the Reapers have taken so that they can create Banshees. Now...there's only one slight issue with this mission. When you talk to Samara in ME2, she tells you that there are only three Ardat-Yakshi in existence, her three daughters. One of them dies in ME2 (or at least did in my playthrough), and you find the other two still unharmed during the mission. So one is left wondering where all the Banshees you see are coming from. Clearly this was something that they didn't really think ahead about, but it did make the mission seem a little sloppily written. I admit, maybe I'm more of a stickler for world consistency than most people, but that annoyed me maybe it more than it should have.

The other mission, on the asari homeworld of Thessia, I enjoyed a lot more. For a special treat, bring Javik (from the From Ashes DLC), because his remarks on all the Prothean artifacts at the temple was a lot of fun to listen to (Garrus is not a bad alternative though either). They did a reasonable job of making Thessia feel like a planet  under siege, with enough fighting going on around you to make you feel in the thick of it, up to the temple. On the other hand, I didn't really need to run into Kai Leng, space ninja again. He (and the Cerberus Phantoms) seem a bit out of place in a game world which has been remarkably free of swords and ninjas up until this point. Being defeated in a cutscene was also kind of annoying, especially when I was manhandling him up until that point.

The other major plotline is definitely the stronger of the two I think; the quarian/geth conflict has some of the better missions and twists in the game, though it's disappointing to see writing making the geth a bit more of the conventional robot race as opposed to their "many-entities-one-platform" design in ME2. Still, this batch of missions has some of my favorite parts of the game, especially the mission where you go inside the geth consensus and get to see the history of the conflict from a geth point of view. It's a better way of giving you some exposition than a long, drawn out conversation, and it was a good change of scenery. Plus, through that entire mission I just wanted to give Legion a big ol' hug. My only real complaint with this section was the "Pinocchio" resolution with Legion and the last fight with the Reaper on Rannoch, which was basically running back and forth between shooting it in the face. It would have been nice if it was a bit less ridiculous; the final fight on Earth was a much better version of a similar showdown.

The better part of this plotline though was that to get the ending where you manage to save both the geth and quarians, a lot of the choices you had to make were not the ones that you might think were the conventionally "good" ones. Saving Koris instead of the civilians on that mission, for instance, or having wiped out the heretics instead of reprogrammed them in ME2. I actually wish more of the mission clusters were like this, where your performance in that series was determined by how the previous events had gone. None of the other plotlines in the game were set up this way, at least as far as I could tell. What's worse, is that this would have been a great model for the end of the game as a whole, but that too is a lost opportunity (but more on the ending later).

Before I go on to the endgame, I want to talk about the Leviathan DLC; for ten dollars, it seems like a reasonable amount of content, comparable to Lair of the Shadow Broker for ME2. You get three missions and a a truckload of exposition, and all three missions offer something reasonably different from most of the other stuff you've seen, at least in terms of scenery. The explanation you get for the origin of the Reapers was...well, it was probably about as good as we could have reasonably expected. It helps the ending somewhat by making the deus ex machina make a little more sense, and frankly almost for the reason alone it seems almost unconscionable that it wasn't included with the base game (as From Ashes probably should have been too).

And then we get to Sanctuary. I really think they dropped the ball with Sanctuary by not making a bigger deal out of it before the mission pops up. I remember hearing it mentioned a few times prior to going off after it, but I actually thought they were talking about the resort named Sanctuary that you fight through in Lair of the Shadow Broker, which I had just played through before starting ME3. Making it a bigger deal -- or even having you visit it earlier in the game -- would have made the revelation about its true purpose hit a lot harder. As it was, it wasn't particular surprising to find out it was the Cerberus nightmare factory, nor was I especially surprised to find out Miranda's father was running the place, even though I didn't quite understand why he was working with Cerberus now. Maybe he and the Illusive Man commiserated over the fact that Miranda had screwed them both.

The Illusive Man's base was a bit of a letdown, I have to admit. After some really great set pieces in the Mass Effect series -- the derelict Reaper, the Shadow Broker's ship, even the Collector base -- the Cerberus headquarters seemed surprisingly mundane, which is not what I expected with that gas giant always hanging outside his window. Even despite some frenetic combat sequences, most of the mission did not really seem to have any sense of urgency. Even the segment where you had to find a console before Cerberus vented the hangar was not all that pressing, since most of the combat in that portion is done by the time you need to find the console. If you had been forced to find that while still fighting -- or better yet, if they had actually started venting the hangar while fighting was still going on -- I think that segment could have been a lot more exciting. Things like that, or passing through destroyed parts of the hull where you could see the giant star outside like when you went for Joker at the beginning of ME2, could have made this mission a lot more interesting.

Then we get to the final stage of the game, the fighting in London. These missions got very hairy and felt very hectic -- which was probably a good thing, trying to ramp up the tension, but it felt at times a bit ridiculous. I enjoyed how much of an uphill battle every combat sequence was, and killing the Reaper in the second stage was probably one of the narrowest victories I've felt like I had during the course of the three Mass Effect games. However, the highlight of this section from me was walking around the forward base and talking to everyone who has gone through the series with me. Even if the conversations weren't long, it was a nice way to say goodbye to everyone and wrap things up. I think my only complaint with that section was that Shepard's speech to her troops was not as strong as I'd like, which is a bit disappointing going into the ultimate fight of their lives.

The End of All Things

And so we come to the end of the game, where everything goes a bit sideways. The Extended Cut seems to have, at the very least, taken out most of the confusing discontinuity that the original ending had. Unfortunately, while the ending is at least not nonsensical, it is extremely unsatisfying and weak compared to the finales of ME1 and ME2, or even to the end of most of the plot arcs in ME3.

There are two big problems with the ending sequence. First, the "here's three endings (or technically four), just pick one" presentation strikes me as just very cheap and lazy. I was not a huge fan of this in Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which I liked otherwise, for the most part) and it was just as lazy in KotOR when you could switch from light side to dark side in the second-to-last mission. What's worse is that they have already shown how to have multiple endings without this "pick your favorite" presentation (as in the ending of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins). It would have been so much better to have a conversation tree that the player would go through, with responses that could be opened up based on the events of the past three games. The endings could have played out almost the same -- destroying the Reapers, controlling them, or merging with them -- but it would have flowed from your dialogue and your actions, not from an arbitrary choice with no real connection to anything. It's also the only real choice you really get during the endgame at all, which really stinks; even in the conversation with the starchild, you really can only say "give me details" or "tell me more."

The other problem is that this presentation is completely divorced, narratively, from the rest of the game. Contributions from those races and people you've rallied to your cause are boiled down to a bunch of numbers, which drains any emotional resonance from them. It would have been much better to do something like in ME2, where you go through the the mission and see the krogan coming in to save you at the right time, or the Crucible is about to be sliced up by a Reaper and the geth fleet turns it into shrapnel. Instead, there's far too little of this throughout the fighting on Earth, and during the final sequence it is completely absent. Yes, having more war assets opens up more endings, but there's no logical or storyline reason for that. Why is the synthesis ending only open if you have more war assets? Even if you have none of the Crucible components (one part of the war asset score), it changes nothing with the ending as long as you have a bunch of points from something else. Furthermore, you never get a chance to contradict points the starchild deus ex machina tries to make that you can contradict based on the events of the last three games -- the biggest being, of course, that organics and synthetics can never live together. Even the starchild itself is divorced from the rest of the narrative. Why use that instead of a confrontation with Harbinger? It could have been a great way to call back to the confrontation with Sovereign and give some more insight into the Reapers themselves. It just seemed unnecessary.

Then there's the content of the actual endings themselves. There is an argument to be made that Bioware intended for all the endings to feel like a Pyrrhic result, and certainly I am not insisting that everything be happiness and flowers after a giant interstellar war, but the three endings seem to stomp all over the themes that the games had explored previously -- at least if you've played through as a Paragon, as I did. After spending three games exploring the geth as a people, seeing them evolve from an inhuman enemy to a complex culture that stands on its own, and two games watching EDI evolve from a purpose-built AI to a true person on her own, the Destroy ending wipes that out entirely. The simple genocide of the Reapers is of dubious enough morality, but  with that thrown in it becomes extremely sketchy. Then there's the Control ending, which stomps all over the same kind of self-determination you just fought to give the entire galaxy by turning the Reapers into your slaves and Shepard into a machine-god (not to mention there's the threat of what happens if the Reapers ever slip out of control or the Shepard-machine god goes mad). And then there's Synthesis, which both contradicts the entire point of Javik's plotline (that the Protheans lost their fight because they were not diverse enough) and makes no sense. It merges all organic life with synthetic life, for all time? How exactly does it do that, and how does that take care of the problem moving forward? Are any organics races that evolve later are forced to merge with the hivemind? Or is all organic life everywhere in the galaxy now suddenly embedded with cybernetics? How does that work?

Those are my big problems with the ending; I also though the execution of the ending narration (added with the Extended Cut) was a little long-winded and gave too much exposition, which only served to highlight the previous flaws with the ending choices and their results, and I really missed some sort of denouement of the sort you got in both the previous games, where you had the conversation with Udina and Anderson in ME1 and the conversation with the Illusive Man in ME2. That is difficult when Shepard is dead, I suppose, but it would have been nice to see something like that after the climax.

Really, the most tragic thing about the end of Mass Effect 3 is that it serves to leave a bad taste in your mouth despite the fact that the rest of the game is yet another step up from the second game for the most part. If the ending had been up to the level of the previous games, the other issues that I had with the story of the game could easily have been overlooked. Instead, the ending just makes you question your judgement about the rest of the game and pick at all the loose threads left there. I really hope that Bioware will take the feedback that they've had about ME3 and DA2 (and to a lesser extent SW:TOR, though the story parts of that game are not its biggest issue) for their future releases, and get back to the strong, well-connected narratives they had in the first two ME games and DA:O.

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This page contains a single entry by Chas Blackwell published on January 19, 2013 8:57 PM.

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