There are few games as difficult to objectively discuss as Mass Effect 3. If being part of a trilogy weren’t enough, it’s the closing chapter. There’s a lot riding on a game like that story-wise, and as a game it needs to be able to stand on its own. That creates a lot of expectations.
So while I’d prefer to assess the game without tackling the story, it is really unavoidable. In fact, the story is part of the reason you’re supposed to be playing the game, and the emphasis on dialog and choice emphasizes this fact. Bioware definitely works the “Interactive Fiction” angle of the medium, using the “game” nature as a method to involve the player in the story in a way that film, television and literature cannot achieve.
Yet there lies the problem. Mass Effect has tried to deliver the illusion that it is much more than a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel, and that each player’s experience will be drastically different based on decisions made since the first game. It’s all just smoke and mirrors, though. Minor differences on the side of the road that have no bearing on the path that lies ahead. It doesn’t matter if you sacrificed the Council or not in the first game, or if you gave in to the requests of the Illusive Man at the end of Mass Effect 2. Characters will make minor remarks on it, and certain side quests may open or close, but the primary story has been written in this Game Master’s notebook since the beginning.
It had to be. This is perhaps the greatest struggle with what Bioware wants to achieve and what they are capable of delivering. The time frame in which they were trying to release these games was simply too short to allow those ripples to turn into waves.
This is all nitpicking, however. It’s easy to criticize someone for what they didn’t do. So instead let us focus on what they could manage.
Originally I felt that Mass Effect 2’s story accomplished nothing. That the story ended at exactly the same spot as the first game with no real progress. It merely introduced the Illusive Man and developed Cerberus further. At the time it all felt pointless, but after playing Mass Effect 3 I can see other reasons it was important. Specific characters introduced and the death and rebirth of Shepard all hold purpose in the series as a whole.
Unfortunately, none of it seemed important until the end of the game. Do not worry, for I shall not be discussing the “spoilarz” in this post. Bioware’s execution of select thematic elements was simply poorly done. There was purpose in Cerberus being such a prevalent player. Unfortunately we got too close to the organization, close enough that it became absurd. The organization seems hypocritical, illogical, self-defeating and yet somehow impossibly large and well funded. I continuously wondered how in the world Cerberus could not only afford all of these technological advancements, but how they could enlist so many people despite the galaxy pretty much knowing just how crooked, under-handed and dangerous they were. I don’t even mean as enemies, I mean to the members of their own organization. This isn’t a matter of simply being human supremacists, it’s the fact that it has become public knowledge that they’ll even do harm to any human they can get their hand on.
Yet nothing defeats Bioware’s own purpose more than the Illusive Man himself. At the end of the game he’s supposed to be sympathetic, someone you can relate to and possibly even agree with. Too bad every other conversation you’ve had with the man he has been manipulative, short-sighted and just plain evil. Instead of creating a villain you can understand, they’ve created a villain you can’t help but hate, and every second you’re dealing with him you can’t help but wish to be tackling Reapers instead.
Those are the missions that happen to be the most entertaining. Landing on a war torn planet where a Reaper can be seen in the distant sky, a cybernetic war cry howling through the air as gunfire echoes in the distance. That’s what the series has been building up to, and Bioware manages to pull off the right atmosphere better than most shooters. The final mission especially gives the player a more cinematic brothers-in-arms style of tension, where heavy weapons fire constantly cause the ground to quake, making aiming temporarily difficult as seemingly endless foes pour out from beneath every rock and crevice in the land.
For the most part, the Reaper missions felt like a proper build up to the end, a marathon concluding with one high octane sprint to the finish line. Even if you’re a cynical and critical bastard like me, finding cracks, smudges and scars all over the game from start to finish, the final mission will easily bring a smile to anyone’s face. It was very well designed and ends just as it ought to.
If the game had managed to keep this sort of pace from start to finish, it might have been the best of the series. Instead, most of the missions felt isolated rather than part of a whole, and many didn’t involve the Reapers at all. Instead the player merely chased Cerberus to their next annoying attempt at sabotaging their own race. This interferes with the game’s sense of urgency. Even though there aren’t a lot of optional quests (not ones worth mentioning, anyway), there are plenty of missions that feel like they are merely time-padding, or a way to pull in previous characters from the series or to draw in new and worthless ones. In some ways these missions are necessary to provide some form of closure, but often enough it feels more like you’re being tasked to run an errand because oh, it’s okay, the Reapers will wait.
This was a similar issue in the first game, where it was harder to get drawn into the plot until there simply were no more side-missions left. Once the game became a single linear trek through the final chapters of the story, it suddenly gained a real sense of urgency, a desire to push forward. Even though the side quests could be avoided, such a choice actually becomes detrimental in the long run.
The second game was a deviation, but primarily because the central story was crap anyway. The real highlight of Mass Effect 2 were the characters, and therefore it was in their loyalty missions, the side quests, that all of the interesting development occurred.
If your choices pay off in any significant manner, this is where. Previous choices will influence certain events with characters, and that can lead to a handful of different outcomes. This includes a character’s death (assuming they survived the end of Mass Effect 2). This is the real pay-off to playing all three Mass Effect games. A lot of folks have said that it’s not the destination but the journey, and I have to agree.
The real moments of Mass Effect aren’t the conclusions. The events leading up to the final conflict in the first game were important and memorable. The missions and quests leading to the suicide run in the second game defined that experience. Similarly, it was everything leading up to that final choice that defined Mass Effect 3.
Moridin singing silently to himself, seeing Wrex again, further discovering the history of the Quarians and Geth.
Perhaps the best illustration is a moment in the docks on the Citadel. Walking through I overheard a young girl, I would guess an intended age of around thirteen, informing a C-Sec officer that she’s waiting for her parents who told her they’d meet her. The C-Sec officer does not state the obvious, that it is very likely her parents are dead, but he says he’ll keep her company and that if anyone bothers her to inform him at once. As time progresses it becomes more and more clear to the youth that her parents aren’t coming, but she never states it. She merely stays there, and continues speaking with this C-Sec officer.
There are plenty of moments like this throughout the game, and on the Citadel especially. People trying to reach loved ones, speaking about the war or desperately trying to get news. Yet nothing stood out like that moment. Two nameless characters on the sidelines that have their own personality, their own story.
Bioware failed at the story they had intended to tell. The backlash about the ending makes it clear. They had a theme that wasn’t properly telegraphed and ideas that were never explored, and in some cases weren’t even brought up until the final minutes of the game. Yet that was never the strength of the Mass Effect series to begin with. The story was, truth told, always rather weak.
What made the games fun to get lost in, a great place to just explore, was the setting and the characters within it. That’s what made you care. Shepard and his or her quest to stop the Reapers was just another generic epic.
Which is, perhaps, the real shame of it all. The ending indicates a greater ambition here, to weave a tale inspired by Asimov or Clarke. At that, Bioware has failed.