MASS EFFECT 3
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Mass Effect 3 is pretty good.
By that I mean Mass Effect 3 is astonishingly excellent, except for one bit that's controversial and unsatisfying for many. I will deal with that below in as spoiler-free a capacity as I am able, which is liable to still be slightly despoiling, since said bit is the ending, but before I get to that I should probably give coverage to everything the game did so, so perfectly. Review of the ending will be clearly marked for those who want to avoid any and all plot spoilers.
So. For those reading this article without context—and is there anyone, really?—the Mass Effect series is one of the most ambitious projects in video game narrative. Three science-fiction third-person-shooter RPGs that interrelate through the transmission of save-file data from one game to the next. Play the first game, make choices about what your protagonist does, and when you beat it you get a save file to import into the second game. The second game is influenced by the choices you made. Finish the second game, get a save file reflecting all your choices from the first two to import into the third.
I've written a review of Mass Effect (scroll down, also oh God four years ago my writing sucked so much back then), an exceptionally long review of Mass Effect 2, and a second review of Mass Effect 2, this time for the PS3 release and largely covering the DLC. My great love of the series and its history is covered adequately in those three pieces, even if the review of the first makes me want to sink into the earth in embarrassment these days, so I won't be reiterating their contents.
The third game brings all the conflicts of the first two games to a head. But before I cover those, game mechanics!
Good Goddamn the shooty in this game is great. The run-and-gun works very similarly to the way it did in the second game, but enemy AI is more complex—foes behave in cleverly synergistic fashions, sometimes even more so than in "real" shooters. You'll spend the game primarily fighting two distinct enemy groups, with occasional appearances by a third, all of whom behave differently and require different tactics to overcome.
More importantly, power use has been worked out more intelligently here than in Mass Effect 2. The universal cooldown only applies to active offensive powers, so applying an ammo power doesn't trip it. Grenades are back and are placed on the power wheel but they don't have a cooldown at all and only run on your current grenade count. Defensive powers have indefinite duration, but apply a penalty to your offensive cooldown while they're up, and switching them off trips a cooldown and applies a bennie power like a temporary melee damage boost or an explosion that tosses nearby enemies away.
Moving on to inventory changes, any class can now carry any weapon, but the total weight of your inventory applies a penalty to your power cooldown speed, so classes with lots of active powers can't effectively carry as many guns as, say, soldiers. But weapons can be upgraded to weigh less, and some can be modded to weigh even less than that …
…OK. Enough minutiae. Now covering narrative.
In some ways the story is very basic. The Reapers have invaded and are beginning to harvest all organic life in the galaxy, but Someone has found plans for a Thing that might be able to defeat them. Unite the squabbling, disparate races of the galaxy into a single unified military force capable of protecting the Thing while it's being built, and then escort it while it's being deployed, while also running delaying actions on important worlds under attack. Do this by solving each race's unique problem to free them up to join your alliance. Admittedly this is just the plot of Dragon Age, but it's done better here.
The really golden moments are just moments. Conversations between Shepard and allies, or walking in on a conversation between two allies somewhere on the Normandy. Unlike Mass Effect 2, with its large cast and alinear acquisition order, here BioWare has made the crew of the Normandy SR-2 small enough, and acquired in a specific enough order, to justify devoting significant budget and resources into portraying their interactions. Instead of being locked into one room each, squadmates move around the ship and talk to each other in person and over the intercom, commenting on the events of recent missions, their thoughts on the galaxy as a whole, or just getting into bragging contests or asking for personal advice or moral support. Mass Effect has always had an appealing group of squadmates, and the last game of the franchise is the best in that regard. And it's not just on the Normandy—now the Citadel is a noncombat zone so instead of going with a combat team, Shepard goes alone, and finds crewmembers on leave in bars, nightclubs, shops, refugee camps, diplomatic embassies, memorial walls, hospitals, etc.. Many of the conversations between Shepard and squadmates in the Citadel are as complex as the ones on the ship in previous games.
Also the game now finally has full support for gay romance. Those of you who want to engage in same-sex fraternization with your clear military subordinates Kaidan Alenko or Ashley Williams are free to do so; alternately there's a couple smaller romance subplots with other Normandy crewmembers, like Kelly Chambers from Mass Effect 2 only slightly less creepy.
Obviously all these moments are enhanced if you apply a save import from previous games. If you're starting on ME3… I guess you can? It's probably safe enough to skip ME1, but ME2 is still great so if you haven't played it you really should.
Now I will talk about the multiplayer. I know, me, talking about multiplayer! Isn't that bizarre?
It's a class-based Horde Mode—you and up to three friends fight waves of computer opponents. The major virtue here is that BioWare now has three games playing with their power paradigm, so the player classes are strongly differentiated, and further differentiated by unlockable subclasses. You start out with the six human character classes unlocked already, and from there can earn things like asari adepts or turian sentinels; the alien races have slightly different power assortments that completely change the way they play. I hear krogan anything is a hoot, but I never unlocked one of those.
Unfortunately the alien class variants, as well as weapon upgrades, are unlocked by purchasing random item assortments from credits you win by beating matches… or by spending BioWare points or Microsoft points, much to some people's dismay. Yes, you can make a stronger character by paying real money, although you're not guaranteed to get things you want. No matter how much I play my human vanguard the game insists on giving me sniper rifles.
As usual I don't have a lot to say about the multiplayer, but I did play it this time and it's the sort of thing I wish I had time to pursue more fully. Alas, the life of a part-time game reviewer prevents me from spending too much time on any one game, even a game I love. The multiplayer ties into the single-player via a system called Galaxy at War. The universe is divided into five areas, and each area has a "galactic readiness rating" that goes from 50% to 100%, which are averaged to produce an overall readiness score. Throughout a single-player game you collect war assets, which determine the strength of your military, but your war asset total is multiplied by your readiness score to produce your effective war asset score, and it's your effective war asset score that the game uses to determine which endings you unlock.
The only ways to raise your readiness score in the five areas of the galaxy are to play multiplayer, play Mass Effect: Infiltrator for iOS, or fiddle with the Mass Effect 3: Datapad app, also for iOS, so you need to do those things for your war assets to count for more than half. Sound pointlessly complex? Yeah, it's pointlessly complex.
After you've finished the game you can import a save file to play in New Game+ mode, which lets you start using all the equipment and level-ups you finished with. This also seems to unlock the "best" ending choices regardless of your war assets score for your second playthrough, and presumably is what BioWare meant when they said you didn't need to fiddle with the multi to get the best ending. Speaking of which.
OK. Here we go.
Here be general spoilers, by the way.
It should be clear from the above that I had a positive experience through most of this thing. It felt like the proper conclusion to the trilogy the majority of the time. Up until about the last ten minutes of the game, everything was going great for the narrative, even when things were going awful for the protagonists.
Have you ever been in a crowd, like at a party, and someone calls out to you or waves at you, and you turn to acknowledge them only to realize they weren't addressing at you at all? They were addressing someone else, behind you and a bit to the side. And you get your hopes up a bit because it's nice to have a connection to another human being, and then those hopes are dashed because the connection wasn't there.
This phenomenon doesn't reflect badly on you—it's not your fault they meant someone else and you misunderstood for a split second. It doesn't reflect badly on them—they're probably not spurning you consciously by wanting to address someone else you just happened to be standing near. But that brief moment of hopes for a connection to another human being, raised and then dashed, still creates the genuine emotional experience of disappointment. Groundless as it may be, it's as real as any other feeling, and it can lead to anything from a moment of minor awkwardness to a lifetime of crushing depression, depending on your mood, I guess. It's worse when the person you thought was waving at you is someone you know, and were looking forward to talking to.
Art, when it works, works because it seems to forge a connection between artist and audience across space and time. People say "That book really spoke to me." Queen's performance at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid in 1985 gets voted Best Live Rock Performance Ever again and again because everyone in the audience felt Freddy Mercury was singing directly to them. Good, engaging art can make us feel that the artist—someone, somewhere—believes in something we believe in. Great art can tell us that the artist believes in something we don't believe in, but should. Art can tell you you're right, or it can persuade you you're wrong.
I know video games can be art, or, at least, can contain art, because I have experienced that feeling of connection with writers, artists, and game designers while playing video games. I have experienced it during cutscenes, when lines of dialogue (most of Soul Reaver) or cinematic framing (Aria's smile in Mass Effect 2) just work perfectly. And I have experienced it during gameplay, when I exult in mastery of a clever mechanic I know someone designed and polished just so I and other people like me could exult in it, or when a game does something unexpected and I find myself thinking "I never could have seen that coming, but it's perfect; what just happened is exactly what should have happened then and there." Playing Devil May Cry 4 I feel like the game creators reached into my head and forged the combat system just for me.
The end of Mass Effect 3 was the artistic equivalent of realizing the person I thought was waving at me was actually waving at someone behind me and a bit to the side.
I don't think feeling that way reflects badly on me. I don't—necessarily—think it reflects badly on BioWare. But the feeling of disappointment, of hopes raised across three games with a total playtime of several hundred hours and then dashed in five minutes, was real. I got very, very angry. I paced around my apartment, complained to friends over instant messaging, raged on Twitter. In time it passed, as do all transient emotional moments, but I will swear it was as real as any other subjective experience.
I think BioWare were trying to produce a moment of great art, something that would challenge audience expectations. But they didn't do it for me, because I've experienced art that challenged my expectations and beliefs (though never yet by playing a video game), and this wasn't it. There's convincing me I'm wrong, and there's revealing to me that I'm not even the one being addressed, and the latter is not the former.
I've talked to a few people it did work for, though, so there's that. Some people got it.
I've talked to many more people it didn't work for. The ending of Mass Effect 3 seems to have driven the entire Internet insane. Fans are demanding BioWare change the ending; they're complaining about false advertising to the FTC based on promises BioWare made in interviews that it feels like they didn't deliver on, they are donating huge quantities of money to Penny Arcade's Child's Play charity in the name of showing how entitled they aren't acting, promising to pay money for a new ending if BioWare would just sell it to them. They are angry, raging, disappointed—not just a loud, whiny minority, but lots of them. Tons.
It's easy to dismiss them, but I think every one of those fans felt a moment of crushing letdown as fully as I did, so I won't. BioWare has the creative right to end their game however they want; fans have the right to react to it however they feel. That moment of disappointment was genuine for me. It was genuine for everyone who felt it. And A LOT of people felt it. Very few people who actually finished the game are defending the ending. Mostly it's people who haven't played it and are only seeing the outrage from the outside.
Even if the ending should be "fixed," I don't think it can. The illusion of truthful communication is shattered the moment an artist goes back to change his work, and for me the result always feels like creative bankruptcy. Steven King may prefer his revisions to The Gunslinger, but I felt like he was talking directly to me the first time, and every change he made reveals that actually he was talking to himself.
Performance art aside, most artists are talking to themselves. They're not talking to the audience. I'm a former actor and may be an actor again some day; people used to come up to me in the street and say "Weren't you…?" and I'd say "Yup." That feeling of connection during those moments was genuine if only because fans looked me in the eye while asking if they knew me, but the connection the audience felt while watching me on the screen was one-way. They didn't know me. I never thought about the audience when I was acting.
Non-performance art is the illusion of communication, but it only works when the illusion is maintained. BioWare can change the ending all they want, it won't placate the fans.
I wish it could. I wish they could take back what I felt when I finished Mass Effect 3, not the parts when awful things were happening to people I cared about (which hurt, but in an artistically valid way) but…
…when they started emphasizing setting elements I'd dismissed as absurd or never noticed, and bringing in entirely new setting elements I felt no connection with to explain things I never felt needed explaining…
…when I resolved the last conflict I cared about, but not in a way I expected (which was actually great), and then I met the Thing, and the Thing said Stuff, and the Stuff made no sense, but I wasn't given the option to have my Shepard say "That Stuff makes no sense" but only accept it, and all the feeling of connection I felt to this character BioWare had let me shape evaporated…
…when the Other Thing was shown happening afterward, and it made no sense given what I knew characters had been doing and where they had been standing or laying not ten minutes ago, and I thought "You're not even trying anymore…"
…when finally, the game cut to a closing narrative with a Buzz Aldrin-voiced old man telling a story to his grandson, and I realized BioWare was trying to reconcile every playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy as differing accounts of one set of historical events told many different ways, when I had thought every playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy was meant to be that player's personal universe, with every choice causing divergence that cannot be reconciled…
…they lost me.
I am a predictable consumer-creature. They didn't really lose me. I'll buy whatever fixed ending they end up selling, or take it if they give it for free. But, man, I don't care about Mass Effect anymore the way I used to.
This review of Mass Effect 3 is based on the Collector's Edition of the game I bought at retail, and not the review copy Electronic Arts sent me for promotional purposes which arrived two days later. As I said, I am a predictable consumer-creature.
Previously - Twisted Metal