Thursday, July 5, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review: The Ending, Before and After!

The ending of the Mass Effect series has been discussed a lot. A LOT. It's kind of an unprecedented situation. 

BioWare, a company known for awesome video game storytelling, creates a trilogy of games in one of the most well-realized imaginary worlds ever created in the medium. People love this world. Passionately. Then BioWare fails to stick the landing. Deafening rage and butthurt echo across the Internets, who have nothing more important to worry about. So BioWare, at what I'm sure was considerable expense, makes a free patch to expand the ending. It makes things kind of better. Life, somehow, continues.

(By the way, this whole sorry incident is excellent proof that their IS such a thing as bad publicity. BioWare's reputation for good storytelling is invaluable. They saw it threatened. They reacted appropriately. But I don't think anyone working there is happy this happened.)

What the ending screams to me is that the developers didn't have the time and budget to do the ending they wanted to do. ME3 is SO ambitious and covers SO much ground that they didn't have time to give the Reaper issue the attention it needed. But this isn't the end of the world. The Reapers were never very multi-dimensional. The Krogan and Geth and even Cerberus were far more interesting.

So, if this is the case, piling onto the ending seems a little mean. Making a video game requires doing much with limited resources. You can't afford to do everything.

But, then again, after three games of this size, we have an expectation that the writers will end it well. I want to talk about my two problems with the ending- one which the patch fixes, one it doesn't. I aim to discuss game storytelling in general and what does and doesn't work.

(Please be assured that the following has no spoilers for Mass Effect 3 whatsoever!!!! If, for some reason, you don't believe me, leave immediately!)

What Is NOT a Problem

Some criticized the ending for creating some plot inconsistencies with things learned in the DLC for Mass Effect 2. (Namely, that blowing up a mass relay destroyed the solar system before and now it doesn't.) The horrors.



I didn't think so.

Also, some put a lot of time into proving Shepherd was actually under Reaper control and the last game was a dream or something. (The famed Indoctrination Theory.) Of course this wasn't true. This was a AAA mega-million dollar game series that had always approached everything in a reasonably sane manner. They weren't going to end it with goofy Sixth Sense trickery.

And many thought that you didn't find out enough about what happened to your friends and to all the races you helped. I can buy this as a complaint, but it's a judgment call. I honestly felt I'd learned enough about what was going on and where things were heading to have closure. Bloody, unrelentingly gruesome closure.

So what are the problems?

Problem 1 - The Incredible Grimness

The unpatched ending of Mass Effect 3, unless you do a ton of side-quest farming and multiplayer, is awe-inspiringly grim. Everyone dies. Shepherd dies. The mass relays are destroyed. The Normandy is a wreck. The Earth is a cinder, surrounded by fleets of aliens stranded far from home. (Including the notoriously peaceful and easy-going krogan.) Space travel is over for, well, a very long time, if not forever.

Dude. And I thought the ending to The Sopranos was a poke in the eye.

But here's the thing. This aspect of the ending is legit. People don't generally like unhappy endings, but this is a subjective judgment. Unhappy endings are legal. They are allowed. It's not where I would go as the default ending for a series of this magnitude, and it is a HUGE change in tone from what came before it. But it is not technically wrong.

And, just between you, me, and these four walls? I admire their balls for going so dark. I wish more developers did it. Unless you believe things can go really wrong, there is no real sense of achievement or relief when they go right. One of the reasons Law & Order was such a compelling show is that the bad guys frequently won.

But the patch changed this. It's less bleak. Gives more hopeful details of the future. I can live with it either way.

But what really bugs me is the main element of the ending.

Problem 2 - The Star Child. Or Whatever.

My biggest disappointment in the ending of Mass Effect is this: It was a cheap deus ex machina. I didn't get to make the WIN for the team.

Look. The galaxy was invaded by the horde of horrible bug creatures. I wanted to FIGHT them. I wanted to figure out their weaknesses. I wanted to use the cunning and resources of the peoples of the galaxy to figure out how to kill them, and DO THAT. I wanted the ending of the story to be a celebration of courage and general badassery.

What did I get? You take some weird spaceship and stick it into some other spaceship. And then baby SpaceJesus (tm) appears from somewhere and uses StarMagic (tm) in the way you tell him, and this makes everything different forever.

Now, let's set aside the ookyness of having the fate of the whole galaxy be decided on a whim by one bloodthirsty gun guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time. I think the ending was perfunctory, non-sensical, and a true wasted opportunity.

At the end, you push a button to choose the fate of the galaxy. It did not provide a fraction of the joy I would have felt at actually finding a way for humanity to take down those stupid Reaper ships ourselves. The ending, as written, was the space opera equivalent of giving the last place soccer team a trophy for Trying Very Hard.

Whew. I Should Take a Pill.

I generally love BioWare games and write nice things about them, so much so that I have been accused of sucking up to them to try to get a job. (I have a job, thanks. And, believe me, if BioWare wanted me, they'd have said something to me by now. They know I exist.)

It's a great series, full of fond memories. My wife and I spent an enormous amount of time in their world, and I don't regret it. I still recommend it, especially ME1 and ME2. And then ME3 with the patched ending.

So. Any news about Dragon Age 3 yet?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review: The Good Stuff

Since I write so much in this space about fantasy role-playing games in general and Bioware stuff in particular, I feel kind of lame for saying nothing of note so far about Mass Effect 3 (ME3). The Mass Effect series is one of the best series in the genre, written by one of the best development houses, and BioWare has long been a huge influence on my work.

(Note I picked female Shepherd for the image above. Because FemShep is just better.)

People really care about this series. Perhaps a bit overmuch. If we as a people could give to real problems the same focus and energy we expended on arguing about the ME3 ending, the world would be a better place.

I played Mass Effect 1 and 2 obsessively. All side quests, all everything. I played Mass Effect 3 front to back (skipping a lot of the side quests, which sort of telegraphs how I felt about the experience), experienced the ending, and then watched the recently patched new endings on YouTube. There's a lot of good stuff here for game geeks to argue about, though, before I get too cranky about it, I wanted to say what I liked.

The Setting

I think the Mass Effect setting is one of the best in computer games. BioWare has this stuff down to a science. It was only when I was playing ME3 and revisited all the great conflicts in the series: Salarian vs. Krogan. Geth vs. Quarian. Humans vs. Everybody, that I really started to realize how much stuff there is. How complex and nuanced the issues facing the characters are. How interesting the setting is and how that, in turn, leads to interesting stories.

Between Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I personally think that BioWare is the best maker of computer game settings. I hope they keep doing it.

The Gameplay

Tight as a drum. Except for occasional problems finding walls my character could hide behind, the game plays well. It's fast paced, fun, and full of exploding things.

I do wish that there was more variety in what you could do. I desperately miss the vehicle sections in Mass Effect, which were great for breaking up gameplay. They had their problems, but, honestly, I think the game would be much better if those sections had been improved instead of dropped entirely.

The Ambition

The world of Mass Effect is a huge epic full of intractable conflicts. There were a lot of them left at the end of Mass Effect 2. The developers decided that, in ME3, they would all be settled. This makes the story of ME3 one of the most ambitious and far-reaching of any game I've ever played. It's a very generous gesture to players, a bit of fan-service to make sure that no lingering issues, even ones that could easily support a whole full game on their own, remained.

This choice was a little problematic in the execution. The ways these plots were settled felt a bit perfunctory. By the end of the game, there was no problem so enduring and thorny that it couldn't be solved by one guy fighting his way down two long corridors littered with chest-high walls. Still, the game wanted people to leave the series content, and it did its best to give the fans what they desired.

It's a great series. I hope these dialogue and story-rich single-player experiences still have a place in the gaming industry. I truly enjoyed it (especially the first two). I'm grateful to Bioware for making it and hope they keep making games like these.

Now that this is done, I have another article to write about the ending. I hope I can come up with something fresh to add to the countless gallons of virtual ink that have been spilled on the issue.