Nerdberg Ahoy: Mass Effect 3
One of the original reasons why I was drawn to the Mass Effect franchise was the epic Sci-Fantasy aspect of it. The original had a lot of micromanaging that one would expect from an RP heavy universe where you feel in control of your actions and that they have substantial consequence. Moreover, that all of the customization choices you make in building your character: looks, equipment, skills and fixating on your team members own character sets made the game entirely yours.
As with any iterative process, a lot of the intricate customization systems and hard-core fretting over your story choices has disappeared come the third game. Sure you can still opt to be a ‘mean or nice’ savior of the universe but the heft of those distinctions falls by the wayside by the end of the trilogy. Largely this is due to the mainstreaming of any project so that it can reach a broader audience… not everyone finds grinding awesome or fretting over itemization key to changing the result of each insanity difficulty battle. Some of these systems continued (itemization) but were downplayed and not an integral part of the experience.
I totally give Bioware credit for including story elements from previous games into the next episode. But, outside of what characters you have preserved in previous installments you ultimately reach the same conclusion. Specifically, DLC content from ME2 was heavily featured in the events of ME3 which is actually quite nice. It felt good to know that stories that I dedicated extra money too had a bit more life beyond what was initially paid. However, despite the extra 30-45 minutes that resulted from that didn’t fundamentally change the story of ME3, nor were the minor bonuses of gear/cash/experience really all that helpful, but it was sweet to get some fan service in the form of recognition of previous adventuring.
After beating ME3, I understand what all the fuss was regarding the ending. Before I was anywhere near the conclusion, I had already assumed that the protesting was a result of overreaction, which fanboys and the Internet are wont to do. However, once I finished I realize that it wasn’t so much that the ending was short. Rather that it was incomplete whereby there was no resolution. I can get behind an ending that is short where events happen in montage with some sort of voice over, that’s fine, something like that is best served by the overall cinematic qualities upon which the game largely relies. What I cannot support however is that I’m tired of games that give you 123/ ABC endings, giving you one parting shot to decide the fate of a fictitious universe. Let all of the previous decisions stand for themselves and leave the player to see where the past has led them, don’t undermine the primary selling point that you’ve incorporated and driven into almost every aspect of the game. When developers make design choices like that, they only serve to shoot themselves in the foot. I feel disrespected as a player because now I feel as if my hand is being held, being told the results of my choice before I make it and it makes you look bad because you don’t trust me to play the game again to reach a different ending.
Aside from the mechanism that ends the game, the endings are largely cookie cutter: Give the player a list of choices and a list of outcomes and let them watch nearly identical outcomes. With this I can side with the displeasure of the mob where, all of your choices regardless of their impact. Did you leave Character A alive in the first game? Big deal. Did you carry on a space affair with the same alien through 3 games, hundreds of hours and around $200 for getting all three at launch and DLC? Just write us a check next time. Ultimately, time invested in several different characters, places and story elements bear no weight on the endings.
Again, having a foot in both camps I understand where Bioware was coming from: they can’t create a game where everyone is happy, I don’t expect them to. Nor can they make a game where the dozens and dozens of permutations players accrue across a franchise affect a snowflake of an ending. I don’t expect them to. But what I don’t understand is that they were not willing to service the fans that have bankrolled this property to this point. For a company so direct in its vision, the inclusion of 3 separate endings tells me that even they weren’t sure of how to resolve the story arch. They quite easily could have rolled all three endings into a coherent and definitive unit so that a player can watch it unfold while finishing off a Dr. Pepper.
I don’t blame Bioware for being indecisive. Instead I believe this was a result of a developer being pressured by a publisher to make the most widely accessible game where new players could come in and just point at an ending and go to bed after watching the cinematics. Practices like this are common in the move industry. If Electronic Arts was interested in the property while still holding high their standard of “Make the Most Money”, they should have instead incentivized people to go back through the catalogue to get a fuller experience with the game. A tough prospect for a casual market to slog through 50-100 hours of old games just to play a new one, but still, if the option is available people are likely to take it if motivated properly. With Game of the Year editions of games quite common, it would be easy to roll one out just before a high-profile game like this and (as the industry is quick to do) offer one-off, special tokens for the newest installment. But again, EA is highly critical of the used game market and has no motivation to try to resell new versions of old games, they are looking for storefronts outside of the local and physical so that they receive money directly and not through a third-party.
All of that being said and eschewing the ending, the rest of the story is pretty solid. As a stand alone entry, there are memorable moments of action and an overall sense of urgency. Where the first game was about discovery and a small amount of galactic jet-setting and the second was about rallying your unit to kick some major ass, three doesn’t emphasize taking your time and smelling the roses. You aren’t rewarded with a prolonged and graphic romantic engagement, you don’t have to get your squad members on your side (even though you have to successfully pump up the galaxy which affects your chances at the end of the game). Some sacrosanct locations (Earf and the Citadel) get totally trashed leaving you to kick rubble out-of-the-way while blowing enemies away. Overall the tale is almost unerringly linear, exploring is still possible but you are not so subtly ushered into the areas you need to be or risk “Critical Mission Failure” and reloading to your last save. The only place that I lost the sense of urgency (and somewhat ironically) was during exposition. There were times, though, when I couldn’t feel the sense of urgency. Understanding the trappings of most science fiction, I was able to explain away “These kids are able to spend all of this time talking on their space webcams because traveling across the galaxy takes a measure of time” and that “Aliens love to argue with silly humans just because so I need to convince them to help or they risk me forcing myself upon them”. Old tropes die-hard and even Bioware isn’t above using some normal conventions so when you aren’t leaving your footprint in someones ass, you’re taking an exorbitant amount of time playing diplomat.
In 3, you reconnect with a lot of your old gang to see what they’ve been doing while you’ve been driving a desk. And even though you’ve been the galactic prophet, they’ve been getting their shit together and conquering some soap boxes. Each member reprises a measure of their old role and you get to solve their problems for them so that, when the time comes, you can call in your favor. Reciprocity quickly becomes the mantra guiding your movies.
And maybe that’s the solution I’ve been seeking. The threads of the story are mostly wrapped up before you come to the end. The outcomes though seem more like the end of a chapter instead of a story (read more sequels and cannon expansion), so when you allow a race to continue breeding which might have implications with rest of the galaxy, you’re told about it but you don’t get to see it. Promises are made about what might happen and you aren’t definitively shown them. Finding the real reason behind alien artifacts is great, but that has little relevance to where you’re going and where the end of Mass Effect 3 takes you.