Mass Effect 3 reaches several boundaries of narrative perfection in video games. Even with the fan fallout in the past year with the dissatisfaction with the endings (which I will address later) I still believe that the entire trilogy is a staple of the video game industries finest work and one of the best games I have had the honour of playing. I will attempt to blog about my experience and review of this series and why I really liked it. There will be fairly large spoilers to address the main points of the game, but the game has been out for long enough for hardcore fans to have played it.
What is Mass effect? I wrote a post at the start of July to address this, click here. SKIP this if you have played all three games.
Mass Effect 1 – Introduce players to the world, lore and setting of franchise. Show off their unique gameplay twist of shooter and RPG elements with a great narrative backbone that helps drive the plot and keep characters interested and involved with the progression of the story. Very player driven and focused on player progression. You start of as a soldier (Commander Shepard) in the Earth Alliance Military program and end of as a Council Spectre fighting for the Safety of the Galaxy. At the end you learn about the true enemy of the series and a threat so large that it puts the lives of every sentient being in the Galaxy in Jeopardy. The Reapers. Saren, the primary antagonist of ME1 is eventually found to be a indoctrinated puppet of a Reaper named Sovereign.
Mass Effect 2 – Two years after the events of ME1, a ‘new’ threat approaches. The Collectors, a group of insect-like humanoids that are abducting human colonies an harvesting them. The Galactic Council is still refusing to believe the oncoming threat of the Reapers, an extremely advanced race of synthetic-organic life that wipe out all advanced sentient life every 50,000 years. Commander Shepard’s job throughout this game is to defeat the Collector threat and discover its origin. He does this by assembling a powerful team of Aliens and Humans though various galactic missions funded by Cerberus, a survivalist-paramilitary group focused on Humanities ascension through any means. At the end of Mass Effect 2, Shepard finds out the true identity of the Collectors, they are indoctrinated versions of the Protheans being used as slaves by another Reaper, Harbinger, to harvest humanity. The Protheans were the dominant intelligent race prior to their extinction by the Reapers. They had left Prothean beacons and other forms of intelligent archives that were used by the current races (Asari, Turians, Salarians and Humans) to advance their own civilizations. The defeat of the Collectors spurs the attention of the Reapers who were hiding in the darkness of space, now heading for the Milky Way.
Mass Effect 3 – Reaper War. The threat of a Reaper attack is as true as possible when they invade the Galaxy and attack Earth among other planets. Shepard must retreat to build an army big enough and strong enough for a final counter attack to take back Humanities home. Depending on the player’s actions on several missions, other races with either ally themselves with Humanity’s rebellion or fall to the Reapers inevitably. Humanity recovers Prothean schematics of s super weapon known as the Crucible that has a possibility of ending the war. The rest of the game involves a coordination of Shepard creating an army while Hackett develops the Crucible. In Shepard’s journey, he is faced with the attack of both the Reapers and the Illusive Man, leader of Cerberus. The Reapers are focused on the harvesting and destroying sentient life whereas Cerberus’ goal is to control them. Eventually Shepard and Hackett lead a final attack to take back Earth with the finished Crucible. Shepard is faced with an end-game decision to control the Reapers, destroy Reapers and all synthetic life, or harmonize with the synthetics and synthesize into a new race of synthetic and organic life.
The story is progressed through the use of dialogue wheel. Where the right ride of the wheel involve moral and immoral (positive and negative) choices and the left side allows for deeper Paragon and Renegade choices and can open up more dialogue options. Shepard must build his reputation to unlock more advanced choices in dialogue by either being moral or immoral throughout the story. Sometimes there are clear lines between Paragon and Renegade, but there are times where there is a third choice that can be seen as the ‘grey area’ of understanding. There are also quick-time events that give the player a chance to be impulsive and make a clear Paragon or Renegade choice. This can be between a positive social interaction that develops your relationship with another character, or shooting an annoying NPC for rambling. You can also punch a reporter in the face for slander.
A unique blend of shooter mechanics with the twist of RPG attacks, party creation and different character classes allow Mass Effect to be a truly unique game for every player. The entire game is built around the player actions and player decisions. I personally played as a Soldier for ME1 and ME2 and a Vanguard in ME3. Soldiers are very basic and powerful characters with the ability to take down every enemy with pure force and destructive power. Soldiers focus on gunfire and combat powers. Engineers are tech specialists that revolve around manipulating their environment and disabling their enemies. Engineers can use drones, hacking and other tech powers. Infiltrators are Engineer-Soldiers that are suited to a stealth play style. With several tech powers and the use of tactical cloaks to become invisible, Infiltrators are the ninja’s of the ME series. Adepts are ultimate biotics that affect the physical world with the power of their mind using raw biotic power and mass effect fields. They can warp, throw, pull and manipulate the mass of their enemies using dark energy. Vanguards are the complete offensive Adept-Soldiers that use quick brutal force to dispose of their enemies. Using their biotic charge and nova abilities, they can instantly close in on any enemy and deal damage in a high risk high reward play style. The great part of the Mass Effect franchise is their attempt to make the game unique to every player. Each battle can be attempted in hundreds of ways depending on which squad mates you bring into battle and what character class you play as.
The difficult part. Explaining if the game was good or bad. By now you can probably tell that I loved it. I thought MY ending was satisfying granted there were a few plot holes that can be highlighted in one of the many videos explaining why they hated the endings. I don’t believe that Mass Effect should be reviewed as a whole game or if each ending should be placed side by side and analysed for their differences. Mass Effect is not Skyrim, its not a game where you play for 100% completion for every possible ending and every weapon. It is a user experience, meant to be played and enjoyed and the ending you receive is tailored to your play-through.
Before playing Mass Effect I was watching a lot of sci-fi shows like Battlestar Galactica. For those who are unfamiliar, that show’s premise revolves around a war between Cylons and Humans. Cylons are a race of self aware Synthetic beings like the Geth in Mass Effect. Cylons willingly rebelled against their Human creators because they believe humanity is flawed. This is in essence why I liked Mass Effect so much. I was able to understand the story because I took the time to read the codex’s involved myself within the story because I found it interesting. I was actually role playing.
Mass Effect is a story about a war between synthetics and organics. From the first game the main enemies you fight as you progress through the game are the Geth, the synthetic race of networked self aware A.I.’s. As you progress further into the game you gain a better understanding of the synthetic mind that the developers have created and depending on what kind of person you are, you either hate them or you like them. Thus the choices of destruction and control. The game puts you in charge of the lives of trillions and entire civilizations like the Krogan, Racchni, Geth and eventually the Reapers. So when people begin to argue over things like “oh how did squadmate ‘x’ get to the Normandy at the end of the game when ‘x’ was in my party in the final battle?”. These are overhead, minor plot holes that divert and dilute the entire endgame experience.
Should this game be defined by its ending as being a good or bad game to play? First of, I think the fact that people who are angry about the endings means that they were so invested and involved with the story that they feel cheated that they were not satisfied. I think this is in part of the way the endings were shown graphically. If people look at the literal choices, they do look like this:
This is the best way to describe what people felt going into the game and how they felt leaving it. This is in part a problem from the marketing team and producers. They made it seem like they were going to be 16 completely different endings depending on every single choice the player had made through the game up until the end. People were even more angry when they saw 3 similar things happen throughout every ending, only with a different colour explosion in the end. I feel like the endings do need to have more differences between them. Even though the DLC added a special 4th ending that is essentially a giant failure of the mission, there should have been other endings that were completely different from one another. For example, there should have been a complete happy ending where we see the aftermath of the squad and the galaxy. Throughout the game the NPC’s and your squad talked about their dreams and goals once this war was over, it would have been nice to see that graphically.
The other problem was the war assets. One of the major elements of the game, creating an army and getting a military readiness rating was not used properly at all in the climax. In ME2, during the final mission, the player made serious choices in the battle that impacted the lives of their crew. When people died the player felt responsible. In ME3, as soon as the battle for Earth began, the player lost control of the battle. Players were simply a high ranking soldier for the entire battle up until the end where they make a huge decision. It would have been a lot better for the designers to incorporate some sort of system where the player can see their war assets and this entire army that they spent the game creating in action, where they can place units in areas and see those battles take place.
The reason why people feel cheated, is because the battle plays out almost the same in every single play through. You never see the Krogran army your recruited actually affecting the war, or the giant dreadnoughts fighting the Reapers as you would have hoped. It’s almost as if the last game went in a different narrative direction of the other games. ME1 and ME2 had you find and recruit deep and interesting characters to join your squad. ME3 was all about Shepard, there was very little interaction with your squadmates which sucked. This gives players very little closure in the end, I was personally very attached to my squad. Seeing the final cut-scene of the fate of the Normandy and your squad seemed very out of place and out of character, its almost insulting.
Finally, the final ending. Right when the fighting stops and Shepard is introduced to some new character at the very end of the game that offers you the three final choices. I find that this may have been the design teams only way of agreeing upon a conclusion to the game, but the end product was done very badly. When the player is faced with the answers to all the questions they had, they answers were not satisfying.
The other issue with the ending was the fall of the protagonist and the decisions that were taken away from the player at the end of the game. At the very end, the decisions and dialogue options were very minimal, throughout the game we have questioned and fought for everything. The designers made Shepard stand in the final showdown, half dead and almost about to give up. It should have been at this point where Shepard stood as his strongest in this final hour and became the galactic hero the player has built him up to be. Rather then getting pigeon holed into three final choices and forcing to pick one, accepting this final fate.
Just a side note: The whole reasoning between the war of the Reapers and Organic life was because synthetics and organics will never get along. However in the game, Shepard single handedly creates peace between Geth and the Quarians so that they live happily in co-existence on their planet. This is also shown with the relationship of Jeff and EDI, the unshackled A.I. that Shepard educated. Instead your only choice is to remove all shred of organic in your life to synthesize with the other synthetic race. The whole game you fight for diversity of alien life and in the end you give up and choose a homogenized race? I still wonder if questions like these were brought up during development, and addressed otherwise I would be disappointed in the ending.
Overall, the ending on this series is still a controversial one for me, who has accepted the ending and is fairly satisfied with it. I’d rather not look at it in terms of politics of EA forcing Bioware to make the ending like this to open up doors for DLC or if the development team got lazy and didn’t have enough time.