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Mass Effect 3

I recently completed my first playthrough of Mass Effect 3, and I feel the urge to share some thoughts with the world.  Not that anyone’s listening, of course. :)

I’ve previously played the earlier games, of course (all three on PC), although unlike many others so far I’ve only really done one complete playthrough of each.  (I keep meaning to go back and try some different choices, but my pile of games I haven’t even played yet just keeps getting bigger…)

Note that (for reasons which will become apparent later) unlike my normal review style (where I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible), this one is going to be a bit spoileriffic.  I will make a point of mentioning this again just before I get too blatant, though.

The Introduction

The start of the game was a bit weird for me, as I hadn’t played the Arrival DLC for ME2, and a fair amount of the starting situation is dependent on that.  From what I gather, after the events in the finale of ME2, Shepard decided to return to the Alliance and has been cooling his/her heels in something sort of like house arrest (no actual detention, but there did seem to be some sort of enquiry going on).

I suppose this’d make more sense if you did actually play the DLC (again, from what I heard, there was something about a Batarian planet and an exploding mass relay), but without that context it seemed a bit nonsensical.  Shepard is a Spectre, completely outside of Alliance authority by definition, in charge of a non-Alliance ship with a mixture of ex-Alliance and ex-Cerberus crew, who spent most of the previous game being ignored and marginalised by both Alliance and Council.  And yet apparently prior to the start of the game you’ve run back tail between your legs and turned yourself and your ship over to the Alliance and are awaiting trial (for whatever).  Fate of your ex-Cerberus crew unknown.  What the heck?

Main Gameplay

But, once you get past all that weirdness and get into the game proper, things get better.  Galactic exploration has been both simplified and made more exciting — the scanning minigame from ME2 is back but this time there’s only one thing of interest on each of a specific subset of planets, and you can find out which ones fairly quickly — although doing so attracts the attention of the Reapers, who you have to dodge (which is pretty easy, if you’re paying attention).  It does sort of break realism a little — you’ll find yourself narrowly escaping a Reaper ship, only to turn around and immediately re-enter the system for a bit more scanning, or to try to reach something you found earlier, dodging the ships again until you eventually make it — but it’s forgivable as a reasonable game mechanic.

There are a lot of cameos from past crew and acquaintances, both from ME1 and ME2 (at least, the ones that survived your previous adventures).  And you discover what’s been happening with your ex-Cerberus crew (and can even re-recruit some of them), which helps to reduce some of the issues from the introduction.  In classic BioWare style, the characterisations are detailed and there are lots of opportunity for interaction, and they’re all pretty interesting.  There are also a few new crewmembers; a few of these have gotten a bit of flack from some reviews but I never really had a problem with any of them.

The overarching goal of ME3 is to gather “war assets”, both to fund and help the construction of the superweapon you discovered blueprints for early on in the game, and to enhance the strength of the fleet you’re trying to build to Retake Earth (as the slogan would have it).  To that end, you explore around various systems and complete missions to gather intelligence, resources, or to convince a particular alien race to lend their support.  Ultimately you can end up building a huge fleet consisting of most of the warships from most of the races, although in some cases it’s a little unclear why everyone is so focused on Earth — although it is implied that the Reapers are hitting there harder or something, perhaps due to their apparent fascination with humans (as shown in ME2).

The missions are broken up fairly naturally; there’s a major mission for each of the major races (with a little crossover in some cases), and in between there are several side missions you can do.  I didn’t really measure but it feels like there are fewer total missions than in ME2, but each mission is a little longer, so it works out about the same.  In the end I think I sunk in about 30-40 hours for a 100% playthrough.

The main core of the game is awesomely fun.  Combat is basically the same as in ME2 (although it feels a bit harder for some reason), but they’ve improved the weapon management significantly and sprinkled ammo around more liberally — as a consequence the sniper rifle (which I felt was nerfed to the point of unusability in ME2) is back as a viable combat option this time around.  Additionally, the enemy AI seems to be improved a bit and the environment arranged suitably that there are several times you’ll find yourself getting flanked if you’re not careful.  Each mission is set in a unique location with fairly unique goals and challenges (yes, even the side missions), so there’s no shortage of fun, and no onset of repetitive boredom (which happened a little in ME2 and a bit more in DA2).

As before, in between each mission (also including most side missions, this time) you can wander the ship and check in on your companions, who will usually have something interesting to say.  An interesting difference is that you’ll also periodically find little scripted scenes, where you’ll walk into a room and overhear a conversation between two or more people, or see them engaged in some normal activity.  (And yes, Mordin sings again.  Which is a good thing.)  One slightly annoying aspect of this is that sometimes when you talk to someone it’ll immediately give you control back (which is good if you’ve heard it before and want to walk away), but this lets you accidentally activate them again and they’ll skip to the next dialogue.  This is particularly problematic when there’s a bit of a pause after they say a line and you think they’re done, so you hit activate again only to end up interrupting their following line, skipping ahead to the next conversation path.

Whoever decided to include the forcefield thing between the war room and CIC, however, needs to get slapped very hard.  It’s very annoying (especially since it’s the only scanner field thing in the game that forces you to stop while it plays its scanning animation).  You can’t avoid it when doing the rounds of the ship, and it doesn’t even seem to serve any useful function, since there aren’t even any airlocks over in that part of the ship anyway, so there shouldn’t be anything that needs to be scanned.  (I have my suspicions that it’s some kind of background-loading-gate for the consoles, but the level isn’t really all that large.)

But your choices from both previous games are woven in expertly; some only in flavour text, some in which characters you’ll be able to meet or recruit.  It’s good at making you feel that your past choices matter, so you’ll be careful in your choices this time around too.  (Although…)

Approaching Spoilers

(Some medium-level spoilers in this section.)

Another thing that happens with disturbing regularity during the course of the main missions: your friends get killed.  A lot.  Including some major characters that you’d much rather didn’t.  (A few of these you can avert if you make the right choices, but many are unavoidable.)  Now, this is not a bad thing — you are in a war against an overwhelming force, after all, and (at least from what I recall) each ending is suitably epic; so it just serves to drive things home a bit better.  Another nice touch is the various memorial walls (there’s one on the Normandy and a couple at the Citadel); not only are there some appropriate scripted events at each, when you do lose someone major their name will get added to the Normandy memorial.  Despite a personal desire to have the characters survive, ultimately it does make sense in the context of the game and I regard it as a positive.

The Ending

(Caution: unbelievably massive, complete, and total spoilers!)

You may have already heard from other sources that the ending of ME3 is a bit controversial.  And that’s correct.  The ending is a complete and total piece of piss, utterly unworthy of the rest of the game.  (Given my tendency to go for silly titles for my blog posts, I nearly called this entry “Mass Defect 3”; I decided not to in the end because that joke has been done to death, and because it’s not really fair on the rest of the game.)

The problems start when you finish the first “finale” mission — the assault on the Cerberus base.  (Some would argue that the problems start slightly earlier, with the boss fight at the end of that mission against someone who decides to squat in the open to recharge their shields.)  At the end of that mission, you’re told (fairly abruptly and without any commentary) that the Reapers have taken control of the Citadel and moved it to Earth.  There are several problems with this.  First, you’ve most likely just spent a good part of the game beefing up the security forces of the Citadel (with the express purpose of defending against the Reapers).  Second, the Citadel has been defined as fairly immune to attack with its arms closed, even against Reapers (in fact this was a large part of what ME1 was about), especially since the Keepers are no longer under their control.  Both of these together mean that it shouldn’t have been easy for the Reapers to take over the Citadel in the first place.  (And as a side note: again in ME1 you learn that the standard invasion plan is to take over the Citadel first thing and use it to shut down all the mass relays to make it easier to divide and conquer — but nothing like that happened in ME3.)  There are also some logistical problems — the Citadel is huge; how did the Reapers manage to move it so quickly?  Even if it were itself a mass relay (which I seem to vaguely recall reading somewhere), a relay can’t be used to move itself over that sort of distance, and the regular mass relays have a much smaller mass limit (as defined in the codex).

But the biggest problem with that is that so little emotional attention is paid to it (and all the lives lost during the capture), when again, you’ve just spent most of the game beefing up the defences, and you’ve spent much more time in all three games on the Citadel than anywhere else, so in many respects its inhabitants would be more important to Shepard than anything on Earth — especially for a non-Earthborn Shepard.

The problems don’t end there, though.  After that there’s a fairly epic cutscene showing the fleet arriving at Earth; this is undeniably cool, although it’s a little dubious given the lore restrictions on relay arrival patterns (but this can be hand-waved a little based on the Normandy still having a Reaper IFF — maybe that can unlock improved performance for the whole fleet).  The following mission to Earth starts out decently enough, and at the midway point you get to have a nice farewell speech with all your companions (both present and elsewhere), albeit with a fairly pointless turret battle thrown in the middle.

The next phase of the mission is a bit painful — towards the end it involves holding a position while waiting for an arbitrary countdown, against an endless influx of some of the most annoying (and hard to kill) enemies in the game.  Once the timer is up, you basically just have to clear out sufficient enemies to make a run for the panel you need to activate (they’re still infinitely respawning) and rely on the plot to magically destroy any remaining enemies.  After that, the climax of the mission is a foot charge towards the conduit, dodging blasts from the main cannon of our old friend Harbinger.  (It’s a little unclear to me why they don’t try to air-strike the vulnerable spot, as has been shown several times in the past; or why the Reapers don’t just turn off the conduit, for that matter.)

But this is where everything goes dodgy.  You’re hit by the beam, yet survive (albeit with scorched armour and massive injuries) — but as you’re getting up again, you see Harbinger depart, and over the radio you hear a retreat order, along with a statement that everyone was killed.  (Apparently neither of them noticed you.)  You make your way to the beam, facing only token resistance (which is convenient since you can only put up a token defence), and black out when you reach the Citadel.  On waking up again, you’re told that Anderson followed you up (apparently he ignored the retreat order, and the conduit had been left unguarded?) and is now a little ahead of you.

You make your way up to the control console and are confronted by the Illusive Man, who has figured out some aspects of indoctrination control; at least enough to control both yourself and Anderson.  This part I don’t really have a problem with; some people find it strange that the Illusive Man is there, but bear in mind that he’s already indoctrinated and was responsible for the Reapers wanting to take over and move the Citadel in the first place, so it makes sense.  Others have a problem with him being able to control you, but that’s explained by an earlier mission where he was studying indoctrination (and had successfully discovered a key technique).  It’s a little harder to explain why Anderson is there and didn’t see or help you on the way, but it’s not unreasonable.

Anyway, stuff happens, and eventually you collapse in front of the console while trying to get the Crucible to fire, apparently having lost either the will or the strength to go on.  At this point, the utter insanity begins.  A mysterious platform rises and brings you to the apparent outside of the Citadel (with no obvious way to keep in breathable air), and you meet a VI hologram (or something that looks like that) who claims to have created the Reapers in order to stop synthetics from destroying all organic life.  (Based on the assertion that synthetics will always turn against their creators.)

Yo dawg, I heard you don't wanna be killed by Synthetics, so I made some Synthetics to kill you every 50k years, so you won't be killed by Synthetics

I would hope that the problems with this logic are obvious.  Even assuming that the original assertion is correct, why not just kill off the dangerous synthetics and leave the rest alone?  The only remotely plausible explanation I could come up with was that the Reapers (or their creators) thought that if they’re left alone too long then the organic races might make a synthetic race powerful enough that the Reapers wouldn’t be able to stop them.  But that seems like a bit of a stretch.

The utterly unforgivable failure here, though, is that despite Shepard’s own personal experience (especially with the Geth and EDI, depending on your choices), which very strongly suggest that the VI’s core assertion is incorrect, you don’t even get the option to challenge this.

In the end, you’re presented with (up to) three choices:

  1. To Destroy the Reapers (and also apparently all synthetic life, including the Geth, and yourself, since you have a lot of implants).
  2. To Control the Reapers (and get dissolved yourself; I wasn’t entirely clear on this when I saw it but others have said that as a result of this you’re transferred into a Reaper body).
  3. To Synergise all organic and synthetic life into one, so there’s no longer a distinction (and get dissolved in the process).

Note that in all options, you die (although there’s one possible exception; more on that later).  Also note that option #2 is what the Illusive Man has been encouraging the whole time (and he is very obviously indoctrinated, which suggests that the Reapers want you to pick that option).  And also note that option #3 sounds much like what Saren claimed to want in ME1 (and again, he was indoctrinated).  (And also, DNA doesn’t work like that.)

Afterwards, you get one cinematic ending.  And it’s the same cinematic for all choices — the only difference is the colour of the explosions, and some minor variations (things being destroyed or Reapers departing, or people and plants getting shiny partially-synthetic skins).  In total there are exactly six almost identical ending sequences.  (And if you like, you can compare them side-by-side.)

And that’s pretty much it.  Not much in the way of closure.  Another thing that’s conspicuous in its absence is any overt acknowledgement of those war assets you’ve been gathering.  Several of the races are optional, and even those that I don’t think you can avoid getting would probably be in different strengths, and yet other than the original arrival at the relay you don’t really see any action from your various troops during any of the battle sequences; you get the distinct impression that the only purpose they served was to fill up a progress bar, which is disappointing.  (The level of that progress bar does have a bit of influence on which ending you get; but another thing that I regard as a failure is that to get the highest progress levels [and presumably the best endings] you are required to either play multiplayer or a non-free iOS game.  Which is bound to piss off those people like me who don’t have an iOS device or don’t like or can’t play multiplayer.)

The Problems

This video sums up the problems with the ending fairly handily:


YouTube - Link to 10 Reasons We Hate Mass Effect 3’s Ending

3. I’m ok with these relay explosions being “different” — presumably the broadcast effect is draining most of the energy of the relay first, so there’s nothing much left to cause damage.

4. But the secondary problem remains — with most of the relays gone there are going to be a great deal of problems, with most of the galaxy’s starships in orbit (or destroyed) around Earth.  Granted they still do have basic FTL, and there are other “locked” relays in the galaxy which don’t appear to have been affected, but it’s still going to take everyone a very long time to make it home.

9.  Most definitely.  When the godkid finished talking, I immediately tried to just walk away and not pick any of those choices.  Sadly it didn’t let me.

(Otherwise I agree with all of those points, to a greater or lesser extent.)

A potentially interesting sidenote that came up during discussions of the problems with the ending: someone claiming to be one of the BioWare writers came forward and said that the ending was essentially written and produced entirely by the producer and lead writer in a closed session, instead of following their normal peer review procedure.  Furthermore, the lead writer of ME3 (who was not the lead writer on ME1 and ME2) was also the author of the new ME book that was widely criticised for its lore-breaking plot holes.  How much of that is actually true, I can’t say of my own experience, not having seen the original post nor read the book.  But it’s interesting.

The Solution?


YouTube - Link to ME3 Indoctrination Theory & DLC “Ending” Proof

Some of the issues brought up in this video I don’t really have a problem with; I’ve already said that I’m ok with Anderson and the Illusive Man reaching the Citadel control room before Shepard.  As for the radio, it could easily be an implant or even just an earbud (which would probably survive if Shepard’s ear did), and Hackett could take a reasonable guess that Shepard was still alive since he just saw the Citadel’s arms opening up and the Crucible docking — or possibly he just heard Shepard and Anderson talking to each other earlier (although if that were the case, it’s a little odd there wasn’t an earlier “Shepard!  We thought you were dead!” when they first started talking; I suppose Anderson could have called it in before following Shepard through the conduit).  And I’ve already said that there is a potential explanation for the Illusive Man suddenly developing the powers of partial indoctrination.  As for the rest of it though, I agree with the reasons why the Indoctrination Theory seems plausible.

Another objection to this theory that’s sometimes raised is that if you don’t have a high enough EMS, your only option is to Destroy, which is the only anti-indoctrination option, right?  Why would the Reapers stage this elaborate hallucination only to give you no option than to escape their control?  My answer to that is that the lower your EMS, the less time you’ve spent on the Normandy gallivanting about.  What if there was a Reaper artifact on board — it’s not like it’d be hard, given the number of them you’ve come across, or during the Normandy’s refit on Earth.  This would mean that the more time you spent on board, the more indoctrinated you were and the easier it would be for the Reapers to convince you of the more outlandish options; consequently the less time you spent on board, the easier it would be to break their control and not be convinced of any solution but destruction.  Although it’s important to note that if you’re in this situation you’ll get the worst ending anyway — Earth is destroyed, Shepard and crew dies… but then, that may just be what the Reapers want you to think.  (An alternative explanation is that Shepard has been implanted with something that lets him/her be gradually indoctrinated over the course of the game — perhaps in the original recovery at the start of ME2, perhaps during some of the missing time in Arrival — same result, but this time only affecting Shepard; although one point in favour of the general indoc idea is the hum mentioned by James on the flight deck…)


YouTube - Link to Shepard’s Indoctrination

The “Indoctrination Theory” is a bit of fan fiction cobbled together by several different people, based on a bit of wishful thinking and some supporting scenes from the game itself.  It’s unclear at this point whether that supporting evidence indicates that BioWare really was planning this all along, or if these are just leftovers from other bits that were cut out of the game, or if people are just interpreting them in the wrong context.  Given the publicity of the bad endings, and that BioWare are actually losing money as a result (due to people not wanting to buy the game, or returning it), and some equivocating announcements from BioWare (the public announcements imply not, the Twitter statements imply yes, but neither is conclusive), the general consensus is that they did not plan for this.  (Which is a little sad, as it means that they’re idiots instead of mad geniuses.)  Still, even if it wasn’t planned (which would still be amazing in itself, as the pieces of the puzzle fit too well), the theory offers a brilliant way out of the pit that BioWare have dug for themselves.

The key component of the Indoctrination Theory is that Shepard has been getting gradually indoctrinated throughout the whole series (especially this last game), and that everything after getting hit by Harbinger’s beam is actually a hallucination projected by Harbinger himself; as a result, you’re not really deciding whether to destroy or control the Reapers, you’re deciding whether to fight off or give into the indoctrination.  It’s also important to note that by itself, the Theory is actually worse than the endings we have now, as it means that the last five minutes of the game were all a dream and everything is even less resolved than the bare-minimum we actually got.  But the assumption is that it can be extended with some “real ending” DLC which starts when Shepard wakes up in the rubble back on Earth and can then proceed to kick the Reaper’s collective butts again (this time for real).

Changing the Ending

BioWare have already indicated that they’re planning some ending DLC (although the way they’ve worded it suggests that they’re just going to add some minor cutscenes to the existing endings, without taking the Indoctrination Theory on board); we’ll hopefully know more in April (presumably after PAX).

What worries me a lot is that if they do end up taking the criticism on board and developing a more complete ending DLC (probably incorporating the Theory), they’ll try to charge extra for it.  (This isn’t unprecedented; see the Prince of Persia Epilogue, or Fallout 3: Broken Steel.)  Some people argue that this is the way it should be, as they need to pay their developers to work on the new endings if they’re going to be any decent quality.  I disagree with this, for a very simple reason — it was their mistake, and they should pay for it, otherwise they learned nothing.  In fact, what they learned might be worse than nothing — if we show that we’re willing to pay to fix their mistaken ending and get the “real” ending to a story, then what’s to stop the next game from intentionally not releasing the ending except as paid DLC?  What’s to stop the game after that from releasing the entire second half of the game as snippets of paid DLC?

Some people say that it’s “entitled” to expect BioWare to replace the endings for free.  Maybe that’s true, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  We’ve already paid for the game, for all three games, and beforehand we were promised that the ending to the trilogy would not be the very thing that it ended up being, and that our choices would matter (which they didn’t).  If that’s “entitled” thinking to expect the game we paid for to live up to the promises made for it, then ok, I’m entitled.  I don’t see a problem with that.  (And ok, counterexample: Fable.  But everyone knows not to take Peter Molyneux seriously, he just gets over-excited.  The same reasoning doesn’t excuse BioWare, especially with two games in this series already under their belt, and a long and glorious history before that.)

Some people are arguing that asking BioWare to change their ending violates “artistic integrity”.  I don’t believe that for a second.  For a start, the game is already designed to be extended with DLC, which inherently changes part of the story anyway.  But the main reason is that the endings as they are now simply don’t have any artistic integrity to begin with — they’re full of plot holes, contradictions to the lore, and go completely against the entire spirit and message of the rest of the games.  If anything, artistic integrity would demand that the endings get changed.  And again, it’s hardly unprecedented for a game’s ending to be changed after release; it’s not uncommon in other artistic media either.

At the end of the day, though, it is BioWare’s game, and it’s up to them whether or how much to change things.  They just need to bear in mind that a lot is riding on those choices; apart from anything else, how they handle this will decide if I ever preorder another BioWare game again.  (I won’t go to extremes and state that I’ll never buy another BioWare game again, although some people have said that too.)

Conclusion

In its current state, I just can’t bring myself to recommend this game as a purchase to anyone who’s on the fence; in fact I strongly recommend against it if you haven’t played the previous games.  While it’s true that the majority of the game is awesome (if you’re invested in the characters already), the ending so completely undermines everything you were doing that it utterly destroys any desire to replay the game.  This may change once we know what’s happening with the DLC.

Other Points of Interest

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