Soap Box: Mass Effect 3 Part 1 - The 95%
Mass Effect 3: It’s the End of the World
There have been copious volumes written about Mass Effect 3 over the past month or so with reviews sprinkling the internet like glitter on the wind. Fans and paid professionals seem to be weighing in with their thoughts about what was billed to be the epic conclusion to the Mass Effect trilogy.
BioWare is known as the RPG studio with well-received and beloved games including Jade Empire, Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age to name a few. Fans of the studio have by and large been a devoted and loyal bunch. If asked in the months prior to ME3’s release, most would have proudly said that they were pre-ordering Mass Effect 3, no need to wait for reviews.
But the intervening month since ME3’s release has not been kind to EA and BioWare. A storm of protest erupted within days of the game’s release as players worked their way to the final and hoped for satisfyingly epic ending of the series only to find it lacking. BioWare and EA have had to go into full damage control mode and hunkered down behind the “artistic integrity” shield as the primary defense of the controversial ending. If that isn’t enough, EA has been voted the “Worst Company in America”, numbers at least partially spiked by infuriated fans of ME 3 (and maybe even a few disgruntled SWTOR fans too). EA’s stocks continue a rocky path generally trending downward.
The BioWare/Mass Effect community is polarized into opposing camps due to issues with the game’s ending: Those who unquestionably support BioWare and those who have been termed by some in the media as “entitled whiners”.
But what can be said about the game itself? How does Mass Effect 3 hold up to its two predecessors? In order to answer that question fully, I am going to divide the review into three parts: The First 95%, The Last 5% and My Personal Conclusion. It has to be done this way as the game is a hugely different experience in each part and needs the context of the larger ‘outside the review’ box type commentary.
The First 95%
Aesthetics: Graphics & Score
Mass Effect 3 is a gorgeous world. The planets that Shepard and crew get to explore are nothing short of breathtaking. Problem is there aren’t enough planets to visit. Still, watching the Reapers descend on the Earth or seeing the destruction they are wreaking across the landscape of the Turian homeworld of Palaven is photo-realistic. I often found myself stopping at various spots simply to take in the view. It’s quite simply that good.BioWare has taken the engine from the previous games and stretched it to the limit to provide what I believe is the best graphic look in the series.
Explosions rock the world. Smoke bombs and grenades fly through the air. Bullets zing around your head. The “spell” effects for Biotics and Engineers are terrific. Watching one of your companions fire up a biotic attack is stunning.
When out and about in ME3, the game place is a beauty to behold but it’s much less so on the ship. For the most part, non-interactive NPCs stay in the same spot all the time. Companions and NPCs with whom you can interact (such as Dr. Chakwas) move around from time to time and standing close enough to eavesdrop on their conversations is fun and enlightening at the same time. It is worth a player’s time to head back to the ship between missions and chat with everyone possible for cut scene cinematics or at least informative conversation. There’s also the personal terminal that’s worth logging into in order to receive communications from characters you’ve assisted and even taunting emails from adversaries who’ve hacked into the Normandy’s email system (damn you, Kai Leng!). In short, there is a lot to do on the ship that makes the tediousness of repetitive running about worthwhile.
The most stellar aspect of Mass Effect 3, however, is the soundtrack by Christopher Lennertz, Clint Mansell, Cris Velasco and Sam Hulick. The music is by turns heartbreaking, inspiring and terrifying. Finish the game and try listening to “I Was Lost Without You”. I defy your eyes to stay dry. Honestly, I rarely make use of soundtracks included in collector’s editions of my games but this one is a keeper. I don’t think I’ve listened to anything else lately. The music embodies everything that the game was advertised to deliver: It’s epic. It’s moving. The work of these talented composers evokes all the best of what the Mass Effect series is all about. If you haven’t listened to it lately, DO.
Combat in Mass Effect 3 is fun and exciting at times. There are never-ending waves of enemies always being tossed at players as they journey through the game. However, it has been claimed, and rightly so in my opinion, that monsters/enemies in ME3 have been reduced in number of different types and made less difficult to defeat in that less strategy is required to overcome them.
Really, therein lies one of ME3’s biggest problems: Not enough different types of monsters and the ones that are there (though there are a few notable exceptions) are neatly divided into two piles: Human Cerberus agents or Reaper husks of varying types. I played a straightforward Soldier in Mass Effect 3 – well, in all three games, in fact – and it wasn’t much of a problem cutting neatly through anything that crossed my path. Add in my Biotic and Engineering companions and we sliced and diced our way through even the most difficult battles.
Players get a lot of chances to try out a metric ton of different types of weapons. It is a simple matter to pause game play briefly to execute orders to your companions and to switch out weapons or ammo type depending on what sort of monster/villain you’re currently up against. The sound effects are spot on whether it’s ricocheting bullets or the sound of a biotic attack being unleashed. It is in things like this that a terrific feeling of realism is brought into the game.
My biggest complaint about combat is the horrible cover system. BioWare did NOT make an improvement over ME 2 in this area, that’s for sure. And it isn’t as if you can avoid it. Taking cover is a necessity in every battle. I hated taking cover and then having to madly button mash to get out or to hop over whatever it is I was behind. At times this was downright frustrating and at others damned dangerous as pressing the wrong key combo could land you crouching in front of something taking fire from enemies. *sighs*
Taking down the Reaper on Rannock is the one place that I can effectively say that I had to utilize strategy though it was mostly in the form of running side to side to avoid the big red death ray. Still, “painting” the target on the vulnerable “eye” of the Reaper took a lot of work and multiple times to actually accomplish.
Outside of the above, there is no real final boss to fight in Mass Effect 3 which is tremendously disappointing given the epic battle with Saren Arterius in ME1, the Shadow Broker himself from the ME2 downloadable content pack and, indeed, the suicide mission takedown from ME2. There is a final scene with The Illusive Man but, well, let’s just say, it’s less than inspiring, unsurprising and not terribly interesting either.
Well...there is THIS guy:
Harbinger, you say? Remember Harbinger? He is the overarching enemy of all of the games and is reduced to a mere cameo in ME3. There is no face off with him in a battle royale for destiny of all. Talk about a letdown.
All of this brings us to probably the most important aspect of Mass Effect 3.
Questing & Story
The story in Mass Effect 3 is excellent through the first 95% of the game. Questing is also stellar for the most part though there is some disconnect between main story lines and the side quests. Still, there is a lot to do in the game, relationships to foment, species to save, rifts to heal and more.
I’ll start with the non-essential side quests that are quite frankly uninspiring and often just plain dull. Amazingly, you don’t even have to talk to NPCs to get them. Shepard moseys along through The Citadel eavesdropping on everyone and then heads out to FedEx the thing they were whining about needing. Side quests turned the Hero of the Known Galaxy into little more than an errand girl. However, completing these inane quests serves a purpose as Shepard gains War Assets to assist her in the epic final battle (Maybe? More on that later).
The strength and beauty of ME3 lies in the quests that work along the two main story arcs regarding the Reapers and The Illusive Man. Three quests in fact are, in my opinion, the best work that BioWare has ever done and that’s no light praise since they have produced some of the finest RPGs ever made. Paloven, Tuchanka and to a lesser-degree Rannoch are awe-inspiring and truly give players the feeling that they are heroes and have done something meaningful. The scene of the united fleets arriving into Earth space is so damned awesome and when the ships begin to fire on the invading Reapers, your (Shepard’s) chest swells with pride at what you’ve (Shepard has) accomplished by bringing them all together.
If there is a weakness in the main storyline, it is in the sometimes confusing way that BioWare gave our hero two separate and distinct arcs to follow. That of The Illusive Man’s quest to thwart Shepard’s efforts to find the Catalyst and, of course, the Reapers themselves. But the quests along both arcs are decent though way too much time is spent battling Cerberus rather than taking it to the Reapers, the true menace in the universe.
But BioWare’s strength is giving players purpose, a feeling that they are the hero. You see by my silly parenthetical nonsense a couple of paragraphs above that a player feels that he or she has become Shepard and, at times, it’s difficult to separate the fact from the fantasy. Shepard has created lasting friendships with denizens from the entire galaxy and has even formed love partnerships with one or more of them. We as players find ourselves enamored of our companions, caring for them and identifying with their affection for Shepard. Shepard’s heroics have forced us to make difficult, if not impossible, decisions in ME3 throughout the series. Both player and character agonize over some of them: Who lives? Who dies? What are the long-term repercussions?
In short, we are by extension the embodiment of the Hero of the Galaxy, the first human Spectre, the one who through “tremendous sacrifice” has, against all odds, united the disparate Galactic races to take the battle to the Reapers in a final last-ditch effort to stop the carnage by working TOGETHER.
BioWare made players love Commander Shepard, to feel that he or she is a part of them. Those who have faithfully played as Shepard throughout all three games, well, they are Shepard. This is what excellence in storytelling is all about. This is how much BioWare has made us care about the first two games and 95% of the third.
The Conclusion of the First 95% of Mass Effect 3
I liked the first 95% of Mass Effect 3. While ME3 is slightly less interesting quest-wise than the first two of the series, there is a lot to like about the game. The music is top notch, the mainline quests are first rate, and the combat is fun.
But the conclusion of an epic story – a great series, a great hero – deserves an epic conclusion, particularly when we know that this is the final chapter in Shepard’s journey. Up to this juncture, BioWare has delivered on that greatness. But what about the end, the final farewell to Shepard?
Check back tomorrow for my thoughts on just that.