People are wondering why I’ve decided to hate Mass Effect 3 before it even comes out. Well, I don’t. I’m concerned that it might disappoint, because I like the series and want to see it live up to the amazing potential set up in the first game. To figure out where this concern comes from, let’s look at the plot of the previous game. You will be required to withhold your nerd rage until the end.
Note that the rest of this article is going to be complete spoilers for the game. Stop right now if you haven’t played Mass Effect 2, but plan to someday.
Mass Effect 2 opens with the death of Commander Shepard. This is an inept way to begin a story. Shepard dies, there’s a cutscene, and he’s alive again. Begin tutorial. Note how Spock, Gandalf, and Dumbledore didn’t die at the start of any movie. If you do kill a character in the opening scene, then you’d expect the game to be that character working through the experience and growing as a human being. But Shepard is up and capping robots in seconds, and the whole “I was dead” thing has no impact on him as a character.
In the previous Mass Effect, Cerberus was a clueless, fumbling terrorist organization. At one point they fed colonists to the thresher maw in order to test the effects of feeding colonists to a thresher maw. Supposedly pro-human, they murdered, stole, and destroyed without benefiting humanity in any way. Their victims were all human. This is like a white supremacist group who only kills white people. Their plans made no sense and they were basically clueless mooks to be killed for XP.
In the second game, Cerberus is an all-powerful organization of super-brains. They bring you back from the dead. They build a ship better than the previous Normandy, which was the most advanced ship in the galaxy. They know more about the Collectors (the bad guys) than all other races combined. They claim that all of the Cerberus agents you encountered in the previous game were “rogue elements,” but that doesn’t make any sense because this new Cerberus is both too competent and too focused to have countless rogue cells wasting resources and working counter to Cerberus goals.
The Alliance refuses to help you, because you’re working for Cerberus. And you have to work for Cerberus because the Alliance won’t help you. Even your own dialog tree works against you. If you select the, “I’m not working for Cerberus” dialog option, Shepard says, “I’m working for Cerberus because [excuse].” It’s a ham-fisted mess of circular logic and railroading.
Then we get to the “trap.” The Collectors set aside their important collecting work to set an obvious trap for one guy. Their trap depends on Shepard being an idiot and personally boarding their vessel, instead of blasting the ship at a distance or sending in a team of subordinates. Then Shepard does fall for it, and their plan fails anyway. They have the drop on him, the home field advantage, superior numbers, a more advanced ship, the guidance of a Reaper, and they still can’t kill him, thus establishing themselves as bumbling fools. Worse, they didn’t even need to beat him in a gunfight. They could just have flown off with him and left the Normandy behind.
The Illusive Man knows ahead of time that the Collector ship is a trap, but he can’t trust Shepard to not give away that he knows he’s walking into a trap. His plan requires that Shepard blindly walk into a trap and escape anyway, which means his plan hinges on the gross incompetence of the enemy. Remember that in the mind of The Illusive Man, Shepard is the only hope for the galaxy. He’d rather risk the entire galaxy than suffer the chance that Shepard might … do what? What was he afraid of that he was willing to risk everything? And if Shepard is too stupid to not give away that he knows this is a trap, then is he smart enough to get the job done at all? Well …
Commander Shepard is an idiot for falling for this trap. The game never really gave you a goal except “Go on the ship. Okay, now fight your way back out.” Why didn’t he blow up the supposedly helpless ship? Why didn’t he look for the bridge / engineering and try to take control of it? Why didn’t he have explosives for wrecking the ship once he was inside? What was his goal? What was he planning on doing if there hadn’t been a trap?
Later, The Illusive Man finds a derelict Reaper. (And in classic Cerberus style, he sent a bunch of scientists on board without ever checking up on them, leaving them to die hilariously in the name of Idiot Science.) He sends you on board to get the IFF. Remember that one of the great challenges that Shepard is facing is that nobody believes in the Reapers. So here we have one, all of a sudden. Then Shepard boards it and … blows it up? How about taking a video and putting it up on YouTube, Shepard? How about offering tours?
Remember the whole point of getting the IFF is to go through the Omega-4 relay (Which no-on has ever survived!) and kill the Collectors. But, if our only goal is to kill them, then why go to all this trouble to pass through the dangerous relay and fight them on their home turf? Why not just sit on this side of the relay and spawn-camp them? Maybe put down some mines for good measure.
In fact, why not just blow up the relay? When the game came out, people suggested that Mass Relays were perhaps invincible. But then the Mass Effect 2 DLC came out and gave us a mission where you have to blow up a relay, retroactively making the entire plot of Mass Effect 2 a needless risk and a pointless waste of time.
At the end you’re given a false binary choice: Blow up the collector base, or give it to Cerberus. If you blow up the base, then you really did come here for nothing. You’re standing on a pile of technology, intel, and proof that the Reapers exist, but apparently it’s “too dangerous”, because … I guess everyone else in the galaxy is too stupid to be trusted with it? But being forced to give it to Cerberus makes even less sense. The idea is that Cerberus is so strong they can take the base from you. But if they’re powerful enough to overcome Shepard, who captains the most advanced ship in the galaxy, then they didn’t need him in the first place. Why did they waste time bringing him back from the dead? This forms a nonsense Rock, Paper Scissors: Shepard Beats Collectors. Collectors beat Cerberus. Cerberus beats Shepard.
Nearly all stories have a few holes in them. Even Tolkien, one of the greatest storytellers of the last century, had a few gaps in his story that have nagged people over the years. But this … this is a legion of yawning plot holes, and this is only a partial list. Sure, you can go back and manually patch up some of the story with some heavy use of “Fanon,” but that’s not the same as having a well-made story in the first place.
Mass Effect 2 is NOT a horrible game, it’s just far short of the usual BioWare standards. It says a lot about the quality of BioWare that their worst story in a decade is better than most other games out there.
Is this a trend? Some people are worried that EA is pressuring BioWare to dumb the game down for the shooter crowd, but I don’t think a change in storytelling is a deliberate move on the part of BioWare. I think this is the natural result of trying to do too much, too fast. They used to do just one game at a time, now they have two franchises going, while they are also working on The Old Republic. That game will (according to rumors) have a full “single player”-style story for every class in the game, which is like trying to write a dozen games at once. I think the usual BioWare writers are working on TOR, which is why Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2 have seem like such a departure from what we’ve come to expect from this company. They were probably written by junior writers who needed a bit more practice before they could author something as ambitious as a multi-title story arc. (The way game credits work, it’s very hard to judge who actually did the writing. Pretty much anyone who attends a meeting can end up with his or her name in the credits.)
Sure, I’ll be there for Mass Effect 3. Where else would I go for huge, high-concept stories with a diverse cast and a rich setting? I’m critical of BioWare’s recent changes because I want to let them know that this stuff matters. They weren’t knocking themselves out for nothing all those years. They made some amazing stories, and I want to encourage them to continue to do so.
We’ll see how it turns out when Mass Effect 3 hits next year.
Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Drawn To Knowledge, and Spoiler Warning. Don’t even get him started on the Mass Effect 2 DLC.