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03 May 2016 @ 10:46 pm
Game Review: Mass Effect III  
After my review of Mass Effect II, you might wonder why I'm even playing Mass Effect III. And let me tell you, there were some times that I wondered the same thing. Usually whenever the main plot was occurring, or during a lot of the dialogue that had been stripped down to a But Thou Must of "[PARAGON] Yes" or "[RENEGADE] Yes." This...was not a good game. But it is a flaw in my character that I have a very difficult time putting a piece of media down and walking away. Yes, I realize that there are enough good video games that I could stop playing the instant I stop liking something and I would still never be able to play all the games worth playing, but I have a hard time remembering that. Once I picked up Mass Effect III, I was going to finish it.

And I did. Sort of. You'll see what I mean later in this review.


Ah yes, the famed salarian foresight and strategic acumen.

I will begin with the good part--the combat. Just like how ME1 to ME2 greatly improved the combat even if I didn't like a lot of the changes (heat clips...  photo emot-orks.gif), ME3 has the best combat in the series. Sure, in the abstract I miss my poison shotguns, but when I'm being a space wizard and firing off singularities and shockwaves and using salarian grenade pistols and geth machine guns while wearing a suit of medieval armor that makes me a better space wizard, who cares about poison shotguns? I can see why the multiplayer community survived the furor over the ending, the lack of new content, and apparently was still going strong a year after the game came out.

I kind of wish I had gotten there in the heyday. It reminds me a bit of when I was in university and Deus Ex's 1.12 patch unexpectedly added multiplayer. It was a ton of fun and I spent hours running around with my GEP gun and my vision being augmented, blowing up the other few dozen people who played it. ME3 obviously had way more participants than that, but it sounds like it had the same experience of a single-player game having multiplayer that wasn't tacked on and actually turned out to be a great addition to the game.

I don't care about ME3 multiplayer for war score for three reasons. The first is that the Extended Cut reduced the war score necessary, the second is that I modded ME3 to increase the benefit I got from war assets, and the third is that war assets are pointless and stupid and have almost no effect on the game, especially for how long you spend acquiring them.


Well, it is a catchier name than Javik...

"Pointless and stupid" describes a lot of Mass Effect III, honestly. I was biased against it from the beginning, when Erik Shepard started off in a swanky prison on Earth for poorly-explained reasons. Now, apparently if I had played the Arrival DLC I'd know that Shepard was there because I had blown up a star system to stop the Reapers, but I didn't and no one ever explained it (even thought sometimes NPCs assumed I had done it anyway). There were a couple offhand lines about working for Cerberus, but my Shepard was a Spectre and thus not in the Alliance chain of command, as they make explicit in ME1 and as Anderson himself mentions during the escape sequence. The Alliance had no authority over Shepard whatsoever, so he would have had to turn himself in. But turn himself in for what exactly? And if that's the case, how come Joker and Dr. Chakwas weren't also arrested if "working for Cerberus" is a crime? I mean, it clearly should be a crime based on Cerberus's actions, but the game just brushes past everything to get to the explosions. You wanted to learn something about Earth's government or why you're here? Don't be boring, Shepard. We fight or we die!

Incidentally, that one line kind of encapsulates the lack of thought that went into ME3 in favor of making it an action movie instead of a sci fi book. I mean, you're facing the Reapers, Shepard. Traditionally it's not a choice--the order of actions is that you fight and you die. Ask the Protheans how well that went.

Literally. Do it. You have a Prothean on your ship.

And then you have to spend the whole game working on behalf of Earth, a planet you've never been to in either ME1 or ME2 and have no actual attachment to. You probably have more attachment to Palaven, actually, considering how much ME fans love Garrus and his calibrations.  photo skeezy.gif But no. You will be defending Earth, regardless of Spectre status, Renegade or Paragon, Earthborn or Spacer, or anything else about your Shepard.


Yes, Shepard-Commander. All aboard the railroad.

Completely ignoring your choices to collapse the possibilities in favor of the one story they wanted to tell was a running theme in ME3 and it annoyed me every time. You're a Spectre? Doesn't matter, the game needs you on Earth so you submit yourself to the Alliance and spend the whole game following orders from someone who isn't actually your commander. Saved the Rachni? +200 war score. Didn't save them? Who cares, the team made those art assets and the game is going to use them, so Cerberus something something cloning Reaper rachni now. Overwrote the heretics? Destroyed the heretics? Doesn't matter, the geth work for the Reapers. Picked Anderson as councilor over Udina? Doesn't matter, he stays on Earth to fight a guerilla war against an enemy with no supply lines who cannot be demoralized and Udina gets his job.

The suicide mission? It was legitimately a cool ending to ME2, but it put the designers into a huge quandry. How can they account for who's alive, who's dead, who's loyal, and the enormous possibilities that result from that? The answer is that they shove all the new characters into side plots where they can easily be replaced if they died, with the exception of the ones like Tali and Garrus who have been with you since ME1. At least, I think they're the exception. I didn't get them killed and I don't know what happens if they die.

Okay, that's really annoying and it's a bad way to tell a story in the game, but that doesn't mean it makes for a bad story. ME3 does still have a bad story, but it's for entirely different reasons.


Space magic.

Let's start with the Reapers.

From the moment we learned about what they were in ME1, the major threat of the Reapers has been their arrival at all. Every bit of evidence showed that allowing the Reapers to show up would mean the end of galactic civilization and the slow progression of their death march as they took the Citadel in a decapitation strike, shut down the mass relays and prevented any widespread travel or communication, and then wiped everyone out at their leisure. This has happened countless times in the past, and as far as we know it has always worked without fail. Which is of course why this time, the Reapers ignore the Citadel for most of the game in favor of stomping around on planets and lasering people.

I know the real reason for this. The designers wrote themselves into a corner--if the Reapers followed their plan, Shepard would never get to board the Normandy and you'd spend the whole game around Sol with a bunch of human squadmates and the only warning anything was wrong would be the mass relay suddenly turning off. People would have hated that even more than they hated the ending we got. But the end result of that was massive villain decay of the Reapers, from unfathomable star gods to killer robots who can be eaten by giant worms and then, by the end of the game, to a confused police force operating on bad premises. The games lured me in with Revelation Space and then bait-and-switched for I, Robot. The movie, not the short story collection.

They actually made it worse by having the Reapers take the Citadel later because it brings your attention back. This is the end, right? All that work I did and now they're going to...wait, they're moving the Citadel? To Earth? What?

Ah yes,  photo emot-turianass.gif space magic.  photo emot-turianass.gif


Fire this man for gross incompetence immediately.

Cerberus, of course, is also incredibly badly handled. They go from a renegade Alliance black ops group in ME1 to a paramilitary organization with significant scientific capability in ME2 to an interstellar empire with better intelligence than the Salarians, more money than the Volus, more soldiers than the Turians, better biotics than the Asari, and doing it all with an entirely human organization when humans are one of the species most concentrated on their homeworld. They have no limits other than plot. They can attack an STG base on Sur'Kesh, conquer part of the Citadel and assassinate the Council (though I stopped that in my game), take over several Alliance outposts, build AI robots that are indistinguishable from humans to the point where they can infiltrate top-secret installations, and fight a multi-front war during a time of galaxy-wide warfare when everyone should be at a heightened state of alert. And the only explanation that's ever offered is  photo emot-turianass.gif Reaper tech,  photo emot-turianass.gif which is about as much of an explanation as  photo emot-turianass.gif space magic  photo emot-turianass.gif is.

Don't even get me started on Kai Leng or how Erik Shepard always forgot that he was a space wizard and one Throw at the crucial time would have been the end of Kai Leng. That's admittedly not just a problem here--it also happened during the chase scene with "Eva Coré," where I used multiple Singularities, Pulls, etc., all of which did nothing because they wanted dramaticalness. It should have been a cutscene if nothing mattered. Cutscene-induced stupidity is incredibly annoying, but at least we're familiar with the conceit.

Cerberus's motivations make no sense for most of the game, and everyone's reactions to them are bizarre. No one ever questions where they're getting all this stuff, other than mentioning Reaper tech. No one asks what the Illusive Man's end goal is other than take over the Reapers and rule the galaxy despite no previous indication that this is even possible, and yes, it becomes obvious that the Illusive Man is indoctrinated and acting stupidly because of that, but if you add in how powerful Cerberus is, it looks like indoctrination and Reaper tech are good concepts that are being splashed on with a fire hose to paint over any plot holes.

Not to mention that Bioware apparently decided Saren was such a good villain that they needed Saren 2.0. And Saren was a great villain, but I don't need round two, now with Martin Sheen, to make a good game. Give me more chances for political opposition from the Council. Hell, maybe have me interact with Earth more so I actually care about what happened there, instead of trying to shove in dreams about some kid who was obviously a relic of Shepard being indoctrinated that they failed to clear up when that plot was dropped.

I expect this all resulted from the need to have more human-scale enemies, because it turns out that a squad-based cover shooter doesn't work very well when the enemy is an immortal race of kilometers-long starships.


Ashokan Farewell should play during these scenes.

The good parts of the game continue to be actually morally ambiguous ones. I especially liked the portrayal of the admirals in the Rannoch arc--in ME2, Admiral Zaal'Koris was the asshole and Admiral Han'Gerrel was the reasonable one, and here they've switched. It's not because their positions or their personalities have changed, though, it's because Shepard's aims have changed--originally it was about saving Tali and Zaal'Koris assumed she'd support war against the geth because of her father, and in ME3 he's still anti-war, but now you agree with him. That's good writing.

Though it's bad writing to change the geth so that they want to be Real Boys through Randian individuality. The geth in ME2 were interesting as a species defined by group sapience who were happy with ~1000 runtimes in a single mobile platform and who didn't care about living up to anyone else's idea of what life really is. The bit where Legion was like, "We find this growth... beautiful. Indicative of life" and started referring to itself as "I" was a terrible disppointment for anyone like me who liked the ME2 geth revelations. Rewriting Legion into Robot Space Jesus who brings salvation to the geth threw all of that away for the sake of an incredibly overdone metaphor. There's a longer essay on this here that I mostly agree with, if you want more not written by me.

Also, we'll ignore that the virtual reality is clearly geth propaganda that Shepard accepts at face value. I mean, the quarians are down to 17 million when every other species has populations in the billions, so obviously the geth "let them go" when it became obvious that continuing the Morning Genocide was more trouble than it was worth and the filthy meatbags would almost certainly die in the cold void of space anyway.


Upper-right all the way.

The genophage was the best part of the game by far. This is one part where your choices are all taken into effect. Is Wrex alive? Is Mordin alive? Is Maelon alive? What did you do with Maelon's research? Do you take the Dalatrass's offer? Do you tell your companions about the offer? It all comes together in an incredibly satisfying way, with possibilities opening or being locked off based on your actions.

Though even there--yeah, you knew there was something I wouldn't like, didn't you?--they should have done more to explain why Mordin wanted to cure the genophage. He spent all of ME2 defending his actions, and then in ME3 he just says "circumstances have changed" but doesn't say anything else. I mean, objectively it's a terrible idea. Wrex will die, the krogan population will explode and they'll need more planets, and it'll be the Krogan Rebellions all over again with no one powerful enough to stop them, turning the galaxy into Prothean Empire 2.0 with the krogan on top. I'd like to have been able to ask Mordin about any of this, but there was no option. Of course there wasn't. ME3 dialogue is always upper right and lower right, without a middle, and you're lucky if you get an "Investigate" option at all. Action movie heroes don't ask questions, they shoot bad guys in the face.

I definitely got misty-eyed when Mordin started singing on top of the Shroud, though. Well played, Bioware. Well played.


I'm sure that's not the megalomania talking.

By this point, you're probably wondering what I thought about the ending. I mean, obviously I'm going to hate it, but which color of  photo emot-turianass.gif space magic  photo emot-turianass.gif did I pick? Well, I can tell you what I did.

I shot the Catalyst in the face and then Alt-F4ed out of the game so I wouldn't have to listen to Bioware's condescending bullshit. That's the ending I picked.

There's a principle in writing: "Show, don't tell." In video games, there's another, even more important aspect: "Don't show or tell, play." My playthrough of ME3 has taught me that it's possible for organics and synthetics to live together. EDI is on the Normandy. The quarians and geth are rebuilding Rannoch. Don't tell me about the inevitability of robot uprisings, space ghost, because I have firsthand evidence that you're wrong. You can throw in dozens and dozens of examples, but they're just names and all of them together aren't more important than my own actions. Especially when you're speaking from the position of, "We couldn't figure out how to prevent synthetics from wiping out organics so, as synthetics, we decided to cyclically wipe out organics until we could figure out a way for synthetics to not wipe out organics. We preserve you. As a synthetic. We convert organics into synthetics by destroying them, thus maintaining peace." It's just nonsense because Casey Hudson wanted unearned tragicalness in his ending. The Leviathan DLC introduces hubris as a motivation, and if ME3 had been a better game I might have been willing to accept it. But in the face of everything else, it's too little, too late.

If the games had done more to hit you with unavoidable consequences, if there had been situations that Shepard couldn't just Paragrade his way through to solve all problems and hit racism and unfortunate life circumstances in its weak point for massive damage, then it would have made more sense. But that's not Mass Effect. Mass Effect is how by making a few speeches/punching reporters in the face, you can cut all Gordian Knots simultaneously. There are countless examples of this, but the most relevant one is, again, the quarians and the geth. If the game made you pick one to save, then the Crucible would have made more sense. This is an unsolvable problem. One person cannot deal with it, no matter how persuasive they are. There's too much past to be so simply overcome.

But nope, one Paragrade conversation choice and Shepard ended a centuries-long war. Don't tell me about inevitability, Mass Effect III. Don't try to constrain my choices. I'm Commander Shepard and shooting you in the face is my favorite ending on the Citadel.


Reaper tech--it's a floor wax and a dessert topping!

Also, there's no reason to assume the Catalyst isn't lying. Even assuming that Shepard isn't indoctrinated--and he totally is, I mean, think of how much time he's spent around Reaper tech--once the Catalyst reveals that it controls the Reapers, there's no reason to listen to anything it says. That means that every ending is a trap and that all of this is, once again, organics going down the path that the Reapers designed for them. The only way to break the cycle is to do something it doesn't expect, i.e., shoot it in the face and win the war conventionally with my gigantic war score.

Now it's true that the ending takes the Catalyst's statements at face value, but the ending is stupid so I don't really care. It turns out that everything can be reasonable with enough deus ex machina (literally) and  photo emot-turianass.gif space magic.  photo emot-turianass.gif And the Leviathan DLC explains more, but the explanation it offers isn't actually any more satisfying because it still relies on the lie of inevitable robot uprisings. ME3 repeatedly pushes that line but there's nothing to support it whatsoever, so it's exactly as relevant as all the codex entries talking about how fleet engagements take place at extremely long ranges, shots are never fired toward garden worlds to prevent ecological damage, and how commanders can always just retreat into FTL, and then in-game the combat is all Napoleanic Wars in space. Shown beats told there, and for robots, played beats shown and told.


Oh. Hi.

I've thought a bit about what would have to change to make me like ME3 as it is, and I think the changes would actually have to go back to ME2. I'm putting this behind a cut since it's not directly relevant, but here it is if you're curious:

[Spoiler (click to open)]Instead of hunting geth, which is something anyone can do, you start out investigating Prothean ruins, since Shepard is the galaxy's greatest expert on Prothean language and symbolism due to the Eden Prime beacon and also they're a Spectre and can do whatever the hell they want. You have Liara with you since she's an archeologist, and maybe Garrus and whoever survived Virmire too. The prologue has you finding some ruins where an Alliance archeological dig went silent and you go down there and find that everyone has vanished and the defense robots have gone berserk (thus providing the opportunity for hiding behind convenient waist-high objects and shooting people in the face). You fight your way through to the control room, where you find that the lead researcher has killed themselves, purged their research files, and written a message in blood on the wall.
The Darkness must not be breached.
The main quest is thus to find codename LEVIATHAN, especially after finding a derelict Reaper early on that was apparently killed by LEVIATHAN and fighting the indoctrinated Cerberus team that was hoping to use it as part of a hilarious scheme to murder kittens more efficientlygain control of the Reapers to rule the galaxy. You race Cerberus to archeological sites, investigate a mining colony where everyone is really creepy and turns out to not remember the last ten years and you have to decide whether to run from them when they turn hostile and try to find the artifact or whether to just slaughter all of them in self-defense, figure out why a geth platform seems to be following you around to various worlds, and pick up various other group members and deal with their psychological issues. I figure that Grunt, Jack, Legion, Mordin, Samara, Thane, Tali, and the DLC characters would work. Miranda and Jacob can show up working for Cerberus to show a kinder Cerberus face, with a few standoffs but no shooting barring a climactic Renegade interrupt halfway through the game when it seems like Cerberus will get its hands on a surviving LEVIATHAN artifact. If you do shoot one of them, they're replaced by Kai Leng.  photo troll001.png

Eventually, you learn that LEVIATHAN lies beyond the Omega 4 Relay, and have to steal the Reaper IFF from Cerberus, who have modified it with LEVIATHAN artifact data, thus allowing you to pass through the relay. Having done that, you go beyond the relay and it triggers the Suicide Mission to get through LEVIATHAN's defenses and down to talk to it. And when you do, it tells you that the Reapers cannot be stopped, they cannot be reasoned with, they cannot be defeated, and they have been unchallenged for countless cycles. It refers obliquely to its own failure and is ambiguous about whether LEVIATHAN created the Reapers or not, saying only that they transcended their limits with unforeseen consequences. Then it vanishes into the deep, mentioning that it has to abandon its stronghold because the Reapers will follow Shepard and there is no hope in fighting, only hiding. It's last words are, "The Darkness has been breached. There is only the Harvest."


Cue the cutscene of dark space and all the Reapers activating, roll credits.


That's what I would do if I wanted to keep ME3 mostly as it was. If I had full creative control, Sovereign would be the only Reaper you see in all three games--the whole point would be to prevent the Reapers from arriving. If they arrive you've already lost, because they'll take over the Citadel and decapitate galactic civilization. I'd start making Cerberus a multi-species organization in ME2 and in ME3 they'd be the main antagonist because they want to open the relay and bring in the Reapers so the Illusive Man can take them over and rule the galaxy, which would totally work and obviously isn't the result of indoctrination at all. So ME2 would be the above plot plus uniting the galaxy and then ME3 would be more like a civil war, with indoctrinated Cerberus vs. non-indoctrinated Council fighting all the while under the threat of the Reapers showing up and genociding everyone indicriminately. Add in a greater place for the dropped dark energy plotline from Haestrom and I'd be pretty happy.

Or just rip off Star Control II wholesale and make it a space shooter with a time limit. Spend too long doing side missions? Oops, the turians are extinct now!


I now pronounce you Wrex and Shepard.

What saved the game for me other than the genophage and part of Rannoch were the tiny human moments. The moment where I deliberately missed the final shot to give Garrus a morale boost in the face of his homeworld burning. The news alert about how Kal'Reeger, who I saved on Haestrom, gave his life to help the turians hold a vital com relay. Engineers Donnelly and Daniels getting together. The teen refugee, waiting for the shuttle that she knew her parents would be on because they promised they would be coming, and the Citadel bureaucrat who was trying to reassure her even though he clearly knew that her parents were dead. The way your crew moves around the Normandy and interacts with each other, like Garrus and James trying to one-up each other, or Garrus and Tali each trying to get the other to comfort Liara while Thessia was burning. Javik trolling Liara over the foundational myths of the asari.

You might think then that I'd love the Citadel DLC...but I didn't. It started off fun and cute, but as the jokes and fanservice piled higher and higher and higher, it just felt like pandering. It got some laughs--Shepard getting a complex over the way the clone said, "I should go," Garrus talking about calibrations, dressing Wrex up in a tuxedo to infiltrate a black tie party--but the characterization was a bit...off. It was more like fanfiction versions of the characters, where the memeing is turned up to 11. Maybe if the squad members had ever cracked wise during battle before, but that's not the Normandy crew. They're consummate professionals.

It especially ruined Liara. I'm not sure Liara has ever cracked wise at all, much less during a battle.

It's more like an omake for me. One of the ones where the characters are flanderized and it relies entirely on self-referential humor. I think it's just a victim of my attitude toward ME3 as a whole--if I had liked the game, I'd think Citadel was great.


Here you can see a dramatic interpretation of my reaction to this game.

softlykarou went to a haircut from that same friend whose enthusaism is what originally convinced me to give ME2 a try, and when she heard I was playing ME3, her response was incredulity. Why is he playing it, she asked. He's going to hate it.

I don't hate it. It's a lot like XCom: Long War, where there was just enough that I liked about it to keep me playing in between bouts of shaking my head at the idiocy of the plot, rolling my eyes at Kai Leng, being annoyed at the complete waste of time that war assets became, and boggling at how anyone could have thought even the extended cut of the ending was a good idea. The little moments with your squad. The war stories on the Citadel. Combat against Reaper troops. The way Joker salutes Shepard right before the final mission. That's what kept me playing, even when I was getting annoyed.

That annoyance ended up coloring everything else. Maybe you read some of those paragraphs above and thought that I was nitpicking, or that I was pointlessly complaining, and you may be right. But because of my annoyance, some parts of the game that I would normally have brushed past stuck out. When you like something, it's easy to overlook a few flaws. If there's too many flaws and they tip your opinion, pretty soon that's all you see.

I played Mass Effect and I thought it was nice but didn't feel much of a need to continue, especially when EA went to Origin and no GotY edition came out. I played Mass Effect II and I was annoyed at it. I played Mass Effect III and perfectly understand the reaction to it years ago, but I don't care enough to get angry. I'm just tired. They had so much promise and they squandered it and shattered the interesting sci fi universe they had built up to do so. Though there's another game coming, so we'll see how they get out of that one.

I've learned my lesson, though. I won't be along for the ride.

As a parting gift, I leave you with this artistic retelling of Kai Leng's backstory.
 
 
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