MASS EFFECT 3
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. The penultimate chapter of the penultimate space cowboy series is finally upon us, and I have taken time out from sifting through the plaintive wails of the gaming community regarding Day One DLC, Origin, and Jennifer Hepler's controversial screeds to actually play the thing and tell you what I think.
I played only the single player on normal difficulty, so I won't be discussing the multiplayer here. and if things are different on Ultra-Masochist difficulty it's news to me. And I also used a Femshep, so when I refer to Shepard, I will be referring to her as a "she". If this bugs you, and creates a state of confusion and cognitive dissonance because you can't imagine Shepard without a mighty penis swinging away between masculine thighs, I'm sorry. But you're going to have to suck it up.
THE "RPG ELEMENTS". HOW STREAMED ARE THE LINES?
In a word, very. To add a few more words...it's generally a good thing. There was much hue and cry between the first and second editions of the Mass Effect saga regarding the drift away from what many believed were rugged RPG origins and into some kind of glossy, pared down corridor shoot. I always had some difficulties regarding this school of thought. Firstly, Mass Effect wasn't much of a traditional RPG to begin with. It was always extremely lean and cinematic, and bears only the most superficial resemblance to "old school" CRPGs such as Baldur's Gate. If it wasn't for the developer, I'm not sure it ever would've been saddled with those expectations to begin with. Secondly, to the extent that the first Mass Effect *was* an old school CRPG, it wasn't a very good one. Inventory management was a ludicrous chore, planetary exploration was excruciating and repetitive, and combat was clunky, poorly paced, and plagued by bad AI. When they moved the series forward, Bioware ditched the weaknesses, and kept the strengths. Whether it evolved in a direction that suited the desires of ardent RPG enthusiasts is irrelevant. It evolved in a direction that made sense for the franchise.
Mass Effect 3 actually adds back a little of the stat management that the second game stole away. Your ability trees are a tiny bit more interesting to jam points into, and you can now entertain yourself by sticking widgets onto your guns, if sticking widgets on guns is the sort of thing that turns you on.
This is still a game about shooting aliens and chatting up those aliens you aren't meant to shoot, however, and no one is going to confuse it with Planescape Torment. Where ME3 streamlines over its predecessor is in the talk and shoot. There's less wading through dialogue trees, there's less fussing around in side missions trying to riddle out your crew's Oedipus complex so they can concentrate properly, and there's significantly less scanning of planets (although that mind and arm numbing task still clings to life, like a malevolent tumor). The result is a game that feels leaner, more propulsive, and less flabby than even the trimmed down second chapter. That's good. But if you're looking for a meaty, stat driven CRPG experience, then you're best served to just keep on looking.
This was mostly brought over kit and kaboodle from Mass Effect 2, with only slight moderations, so if you liked what they served you last time, you'll be happy to know it's more of the same. There's a lot of running, and clicking on boxes for credits, and crouching behind waist high walls whilst shooting Husks in the face. Mass Effect was never a terribly compelling shooting game...it's on rails, the level design is uninspired, and Shepard lumbers around like a water buffalo when she's not sprinting...but it's fun enough, and it gets you from point A to point B so you can talk to the aliens who are gathered at point B, waiting to impress you with all the money Bioware shells out for voice acting.
The enemies flit about and look for cover as in the previous game, and routinely stick their heads out at predictable intervals in order that you might shoot them. There are some new troop types that add small tactical wrinkles, but nothing major. Possibly the most significant change is that ammo is now comically plentiful, which pretty much removes ammo conservation as a strategic consideration. This is both good, as it allows you to use your favorite gun almost exclusively, and also bad, as it makes you wonder why they even bothered leaving ammo in the game in the first place if it was going to litter the ground like turds at a dog park.
Talking is talking. You click a button, and Shepard says something pithy, and the alien of choice responds with a witty bon mot. You know what the talking is about!
It's about romancing aliens!
This was a serious, serious problem in Mass Effect 2, and in fact is a serious, serious problem in almost every single RPG ever that presents the player with some kind of apocalyptic scenario that must be thwarted. There are Serious Happenings Afoot, and the player character is banging around in pubs and alleyways, searching through pots for gold coins, taking side quests to look for lost children, and dithering away hours dressing their compatriots up in an assortment of gaily colored pauldrons. It's part of the classic RPG experience, this leisurely pace, in which you soak up the content like a fat man soaks up gravy with a heel of bread. And I fucking hate it, because it almost always puts you at odds with the story. It is the DEATH of pacing. The world is being devoured, and you're pissing about with nonsense, because the nonsense IS THE GAME, and you want/need the experience and loot anyway or else you won't be strong enough to bang on Foozle when the shit finally goes down. It's a problem, and it's a problem here as well, but I must commend Bioware because they actually appear to be aware of the problem and have done a better job than most at working around it.
From the very beginning, the game is drenched in a palpable atmosphere of apocalypse. The end of days has come for the galaxy, and for a good portion of ME3's running length, it takes every opportunity to drive this point home. Every mission feels do or die, and the pressure ratchets up appreciably as you get closer to the end. Even the fluff missions feel urgent, strained. There's no footling about looking for Jacob's father now, or helping Jack blow up abandoned facilities. The game does an admirable job of staying on message.
London is so miserable even the Reapers are depressed.
It's in the conversations, too. They're less rambling, less expository, more emotional. Some may hate this, and see it as a sign of further streamlining and loss of depth. I found it tonally appropriate, and a step forward for the series.
The scale is off the charts. This is a galaxy ending conflict, and the stakes are impossibly high, and Bioware brings a fantastic sense of heft and drama to the proceedings. Cerberus is nicely employed as an additional foil, the Reapers seem as inevitable and terrifying as ever (moreso, really), and the age old fractures that have kept the various races from ever truly uniting are played up for good effect. This is a wonderful climactic chapter, and the actual climax...
...is so grandiose a spectacle it deserves a standing ovation. Bioware has amped up the fan service as well...the game is liberally sprinkled with cameos and/or references to almost every significant character in game history. Did you like a guy/gal/robot/bug in Mass Effect? Chances are, they're here to take their final bow. This gives the proceedings a certain heady emotional quality, which is only somewhat leavened with generous doses of humor. Mass Effect as a series has always been first and foremost about its characters. This is something Bioware knows, something they do well. And these characters are given an appropriately grand sendoff.
Putting aside for a moment the fact Mass Effect has always been a little bit silly...a battle between Space Jesus and universe devouring robots...there are some missteps here. The opening few hours are belabored with some curiously flat writing, a loathsome superfluous character is added for no discernible reason (Diana Allers), and...perhaps most obnoxiously...a significant portion of the plot is given over to the appearance of a particularly OTT MacGuffin. Bioware has always been given to indulging in lazy genre conventions, but this one is particularly bad. And it also segues into the highly questionable endings, which will be discussed in a separate segment.
Is it worth $10? Yep. Is it necessary? Nope. Do I think it was developed after the main game? Nope. I'm not going to wade into the ethics of the DLC, because that has been covered AD NAUSEUM on these forums already. It's clearly not essential to the plot, but it's about as essential as you can get without being essential to the plot. Javik is no Kasumi. He's an interesting character with a great voice actor, and his story...and the story of the Protheans in general...is clearly extremely thematically relevant to the happenings in ME3. Some of his interactions with your crew mates are amongst the best moments in ME3. They really should've just added $10 to the retail price and kept Javik as part of the game, as I think ME3 without him is a poorer experience.
There weren't many good images of Javik available. This is close enough.
There's some sloppiness in ME3. Some flickering in cut scenes that feels like missing frames of animation. Some bizarre and terrible looking animations and facial expressions. The occasional invisible person in conversations. Some crap textures. Some bad audio syncing. The game definitely needed some more polish. I had a couple of crashes as well, later in the game.
On a few occasions, upon hitting resume, I found myself in a completely different point of the story, with a default Femshep for some reason. A quick reload always fixed it, but...strange issue. The two most unforgivable issues, however, were the astonishing inability to import a face created in ME1 (REALLY, Bioware? Holy shit) and the game's obnoxious insistence on checking for the DLC every single time you play, even if you're already logged into Origin, leading to the bizarre "The Mass Effect 3 server is down" error.
This is a hard game to wrap my head around. It's the culmination of a five year journey. It is uplifted by years of emotion and attachment, and weighed down by massive expectations. It has somehow managed to exceed my wildest hopes and surpass my worst fears at the same time, which was quite an accomplishment, really. I'm CONFLICTED. I don't know what else to say. I loved it. I struggled with it. But most of all, I really, really don't want it to be over. In that respect, I suppose, Bioware can take a bow, because they left me hungry for more Shepard. Starving, really. It was a silly story, but it was a glorious story, gloriously told. I'm just not sure if my yearning for more is because it was so excellent, and I miss it so much, or because the recipe called for closure and they served us confusion instead.
Once more unto the breach, then, Bioware? Please?
Just once more.