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.


  1. Actually, there was one aspect of the Mass Effect 3 storyline which I'd like to hear Jeff's thoughts on.

    Without giving spoilers away, there's a point in the story where you are defeated. You line up against the enemy and he insta-kills you. The idea is to add a twist to the plot, or increase the weight of the situation, or teach you humility, or something.

    I hate it when games do this, and it was (to me) a worse storytelling sin than their ambiguous three-colour ending. My incarnation of Commander Shepard has the most powerful DPS gun, with the most powerful damage mods, and the ability to slow time down... there is no problem he can not solve by headshotting it.

    But no. It's like the game saying, we don't reward your skill as a player. You can't win. Have our upraised middle finger as compensation.

    Ugh. Frustrating.

  2. There was some great story telling here. The Tuchanka plotline was stronger than anything in the series.

    The ending has issues, but I am at peace given the extended ending. The bigger problem for me is Kai Leng. He was just a horrible character. I know that they wanted to make a more personal enemy (a la Saren) after the complaints in ME2. But his character just did not work at all.

  3. @Calroth: Sometimes crap goes down that way. A game pretending I am this invulnerable god-being bothers me more.

    @Walker: I'm critical enough in my next post that I don't want to dump on the devs too much, so I simply "forgot" Kai Leng existed. That is the best way to deal with (ugh) Kai Leng.

    - Jeff Vogel

  4. I agree that FemShep's the best. This was my little summary of why I <3 FemShep so much:

    As far as the ending goes, I actually made my own epilogue generator which was pretty popular for a while ( Some of the fans even translated it into Russian, which was kind of a trip. But now that the extended cut's out, there's no longer really a need for those kind of fan fixes.

  5. "They had their problems, but, honestly, I think the game would be much better if those sections had been improved instead of dropped entirely."

    I found hill-jumping and mystery-seeking on random planets a great way to unwind after the lengthy linear plot missions, and still take every possible opportunity to express my disappointment at their disappearance between ME1 and ME2.

    "A game pretending I am this invulnerable god-being bothers me more."

    Is it pretending if you actually are that powerful when you play (one of many problems endemic to the established RPG formula), though?

  6. (spoilers)

    The insta-kill part was my favorite part of the whole game, just because it subverted your expectations so well. Having played ME2's ending (where the safest way to ensure companions lived was bringing them with you on the final mission) I thought the same thing would apply for ME3, so I picked my two favorite companions from the series and bravely stormed the teleporter...only to have everyone snuffed out in an instant. It was a brilliant, unexpected, emotional punch to the gut that video games rarely do well. Bioware very much has a formula they follow with their games (which in many ways is good, as it's been a solid formula in the past, but in other ways can get a bit stale and limiting at times), but that was the moment when I actually sat up and started paying attention as I realized that a game which had up until that point been a very typical Bioware game was suddenly taking a hard left turn into something else entirely.

    I think I liked ME3's ending more than most (although I acknowledge it had its flaws), but even if you hate it I do think you have to give Bioware credit for trying something new. Fans very much have certain expectations when it comes to how a Bioware game will play out (all of their games in the past decade have followed a pretty reliable KOTOR-esque formula), so I think it's commendable that they took so many risks in the last hour or so of ME3 (even if it's debatable whether or not all these risks paid off).

  7. I will definitely be curious to read your thoughts on the ending. I really enjoyed this series a ton and agree that Mass Effect and Dragon Age have done some great things for RPG's this gaming generation overall. Not everything was 'perfect' for me in ME3, but I have yet to find a game that hits every single note perfectly for me on a personal level. I definitely felt like they got more right than wrong in ME 3 though.

  8. Interesting post. While I disagree with your thoughts on BioWare as a whole, I agree that they have a lot of strengths. Personally, however, I have less to praise. The game is ambitious, yes, and looks good, but I couldn't say as much of the gameplay, which I found very repetitive and stock-standard. Even with the speed boost vs. Mass Effect 2 and improved enemy AI, there simply wasn't enough to do, and much too much pointless wandering around the game's single quest hub to see if something new popped up or to turn in one extra side-quest.

    Questing is a big issue as well. The first Mass Effect had plenty of sub-plots that spanned multiple quests, and Mass Effect 2's planet scanning was made worthwhile by the fact that you'd find a new mini-mission every few planets. But Mass Effect 3? Almost every side-quest consists of scanning a planet to find an artifact in a copy-paste sequence, then running back to the quest giver. No dialogue to take in, no interesting characters or locations, nothing. There are a few companion quests here and there, but the exploration aspect of the series is now completely gone in favour of more linear shooting. Considering that exploration of a big huge galaxy was one of the things the first two games really nailed above all else, I consider this a huge loss.

    Ah, well, enough complaints. I'll have to read your thoughts on the ending I suppose, even though I think it's kind of a dead horse by now!

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