Should I Buy? – Mass Effect 3

Yeah. Review’s over, roll credits.

OK OK, here’s the real review.

So it’s about a year after Mass Effect 2 and Shepard’s effectively been put under house arrest by the Alliance and the old gang have once again parted ways. So when we rejoin Shep, it’s about five minutes before the Reapers attack Earth. Ah. That could be problematic.

Anyway, you escape Earth with Joker, new squadmate James Vega and whichever person survived on Virmire. For me, that was Kaidan Alenko (former runner up to Jacob Taylor for the prestigious most Bland Mass Effect Character Award). You leave Earth in order to try and unite the fleets of the galaxy to rescue Earth destroy the Reapers once and for all.

A strength of the Mass Effect games has always been in their atmosphere. Not so much in scene-to-scene but in the overall feeling of each game. 1 was a Space Opera with a very positive, Star Trek-esque outlook on things, 2 was the dirty underbelly of the galaxy and 3 does a good job of infusing the game with a sense of foreboding and a general sense that everything is going to hell.

It’s all in the little touches like how Batarians, Vorcha, Volus and even Aria are willingly to straight up help with no strings attached, or the little conversations between various NPCs that evolve over several visits and tell their own stories.

Things are, like they promised, faster, tougher and more shooter-y this time round. The addition of combat rolls, a better cover layout, easier ways of moving between them and decent melee attacks make it a lot easier to be more active in combat. And you’ll need to be because not only are the enemies smarter, but they specialise and work together. Vipers will rush you down in melee combat while a Nemesis tries to pick you off with his sniper rifle when you pop out of cover etc. etc. etc.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to move out of cover when you don’t mean to, and even though sprinting is now unlimited you can’t move the camera while you’re doing it which can be a real nightmare at times.  And your team mates aren’t as smart as the AI a lot of the time.

In terms of squadmates, fan favourites Tali and Garrus return, as well as Liara and the Virmire survivor, with Mr Vega and a surprise character. They seem to be trying to do the Mass Effect 1 thing where each of the six squad members represents a different player class, but having both Vega and Ashley Williams will mean you have two Soldiers and no Sentinel, and you have two Engineers but there’s no Vanguard type unless you get the From Ashes DLC and even then he’s a ranged fighter, rather than a destructive close range bruiser.

This is only really a problem if you have a particular tactic that doesn’t gel with the available squadmates, and they’re as well written as ever. Well, most of them. I’ve never seen the big deal about Liara and I can’t get a proper bead on her in this game. She  keeps that weird new voice from 2, but seems to oscillate between her differing personalities from the two games without ever settling down.

Garrus is probably the best written character after the DLC squadmate because he’s the Goddamn Space Batman. Although basically all he does this time around is bromance with people.

Vega is a character I thought I was going to hate, he looks like a meathead and was designed to be a soldier with little knowledge of galactic politics. And yeah, though he can be pretty ignorant of basic stuff at times, he’s not an uber-macho jock. In fact, he’s pretty serious and well adjusted. He’s clearly a highly competent soldier and if you don’t mind a bit of bluster, he’s a pretty cool character.

I’d also like to give special mention to Kelly Chamber’s replacement, Specialist Samantha Traynor. She’s a civilian who was on the Normandy when it fled Earth and she has her own little arc about adjusting to military life on ship and she ends up being one of the two lesbian options a FemShep can explore.

Oh yeah, only Kaidan can be romanced into a homosexual relationship out of the squadmates, lesbian Shepards have to make do with Samantha or the aggressively bland new reported Diana Allers. Kind of a cop out in my opinion, Dragon Age never had a problem with characters engaging in homosexual relationships. But at least it’s there.

And if you don’t romance either Garrus or Tali, they end up in a relationship together. BEST. PAIRING. EVER.

The bulk of the game is trying to secure the support of the major players in the galaxy through a series of missions. This gives the effect of the game having several self-contained arcs that you move between.

And while I can’t speak for all the romances you could carry over from the first two games, I can tell you that great as it was to see Jack again and see how she’s grown, her ‘romance’ wask rather underdeveloped. Although the fact that the culmination is something as simple as dancing in a club with her, rather than a sex scene is a nice thematic continuation of her character.

Ultimately, I’d say that with Mass Effect 3 having much more bromance than romance that the universe has effectively turned gay for MaleShep. At the very least, Kaidan has.  That’s canon.

All of the Mass Effect 2 squadmates that you’ve still got alive return in some fashion and play into the plot. Although this does bring up another problem I have. While I’m glad that you don’t lose access to content through not having characters alive, it does feel like a bit of a copout to have every single dead character be replaced in some way by an NPC. True, not having the original character alive often means things turn out worse but the Rachni show up regardless of what you did, there’ll be another NPC to fill the dead character’s role, the Council now includes a turian, salarian and asari regardless of your choice etc.

Although this, in turn, leads to a strength. You often can’t get the “best” outcome to a situation by not having the original character in that slot and a lot of the “failure” scenes turn out more dramatic and tragic than the good variations. This game can get surprisingly dark, and sometimes seemingly innocuous choices that you didn’t expect to have any effect can be the difference between  success and failure.

And in the true spirit of the game’s “death is everywhere” theme, sometimes a loss in inevitable. Even in a “perfect” playthrough, you WILL lose certain beloved characters and you WILL mourn them. This just makes the darker, more death-laden “imperfect” playthroughs that much tougher to play. I was playing a game with a brand new character and had the conversations set to full auto and found myself forced to use Renegade interrupts to kill two of my most personal favourites. Yeah. I had to pull the trigger on my own favourite characters.

Not just any two characters, my actual, honest to Shepard, one and two slots on my favourite character list. But let’s move on from all that now.

So, that horrible planet scanning from Mass Effect 2 is all but gone. Instead, you now press a shoulder button to activate a radial scan while moving through a system and any trinkets to collect are highlighted on your map. But too many scans, and the Reapers will find you and swarm the system, forcing you to flee. They leave once you finish a mission, so it can be pretty hilarious to deliberately provoke them into chasing you, only to hop planetside and leave half a dozen Reapers to scratch their heads and wander off.

This does help add a sense of danger and urgency to a typically boring part of the Mass Effect games, meaning that now it’s only the Normandy and the Citadel that get tedious. Though the odd lull between combat and fighting Reapers is nice, a lot of the cutscenes fill that role, so it’s a lot of walking around to see if your squadmates want to develop their character in front of you or talk to another person to update a sidequest.

Basically the Citadel is now the only place where you can wander around and buy stuff, and it like the Normandy has had a redesign. Half the sidequests are “overhear somebody needing something and scan a planet for it to give to them” and the other half are “talk to/use panels in the correct sequence, with the odd choice hear or there”.

Although it is nice when you come across two people arguing about something and you can side with one or another. Not only because one sentence from Shepard can seemingly defuse any situation, but because even these do have an effect, namely in usually making a change in your War Assets.

War Assets and their collection are basically the point of the sidequests, and serve as a tangible abstraction for the effect of your choices in the game. Getting a civilian militia set up on the Citadel may only contribute 5 points, but recruiting the krogan fleet will net you ridiculous amounts like 700 points. And getting to read all the little updates like “because you gave that schematic to a guy on the Citadel, these soldiers have better Medi-gel” is a nice touch.

Getting full War Assets is necessary to being able to get all the endings, and while it’s certainly possible to get enough without playing the multiplayer, it’s certainly a lot harder. See, each area of space has a “Galactic Readiness” rating that starts at 50% raises by completing missions in that area in multiplayer. This means all the points you collect only count for half if you don’t use the multiplayer, making doing all the sidequests that much more important.

I haven’t played the multiplayer because I never do, but apparently it’s pretty damn good. It uses the premise that you’re a Spec Ops member taking on high-risk missions for the war effort and you get to choose a race and class to play as in 4 player missions against NPC opponents. It’s actually pretty tempting for me to try, and that’s saying a huge deal for me.

Now, if you’ve been on the internet once since the game came out, you’ll know that people really didn’t like the ending. I won’t touch on the specifics hear, you can read my thoughts in this article (warning, MAJOR spoilers), but I will say that they don’t ruin the game.

Mass Effect 3 is the epic final trilogy of a serious that’s always had it’s troubles. But for me, this game was its zenith. Although it’s way out of the price range I usually write for, this is a game that deserves that full price investment. It’s fun, it’s emotional, it’s replayable and apparently the multiplayer is good so there’s plenty to be gotten out of it. But if you’re picking up this series for the first time you may not see what all the fuss is about. My, and  I have a feeling most people’s real connection to this story was because of the time and emotion we’d invested in the first two. And although I too have been moddy and criticised the ending, I really do want to say thank you Bioware. Thank you for Mass Effect.


Mechanical Morality

I like video games, it’s why I have a blog dedicated to reviewing them. I also like the idea of having an impact on the plot of the game, rather than just hitting the preset criteria for the next cutscene to unfold.

But all too often, this isn’t done with moral choices. Regardless of whether you’re so evil Lucifer himself blushes at the amount of orphans you’ve made for no reason other than amusement, or so saintly you make Mother Theresa look like a baby eater, you’ll still kill the villain and your party will still follow you, because you’re the protagonist.

Fable is a prime example, being good or evil is almost purely aesthetic. There are a few differences to gameplay, but regardless of what you do, you still kill Jack of Blades at the end. Sure, you get a last minute choice to carry out his plan anyway or to avert it, but even if you’re playing the Lost Chapters where the game does continue after this choice, the only difference is in which sword you get.

This isn’t the right way to ask me to make a choice, because it’s only really a triviality, and while individual choices may not be irreversible, my overall evilness is. I’d often go between good and evil on a whim, not caring about the consequences my actions had.

The other system is typically to make morality a mechanic. It has more obvious benefits, and in order to gain the full benefits, you’ll need to fully commit to one over the other. That’s not right either, then I’m just strung into pre-determined responses of another choice, selecting options for the most points rather than roleplaying this character as I would respond, or my perception of this character I’ve created would respond. Maybe even locking myself out of choices I want to make, because then I can’t get something else later down the road.

So where have I seen the aspect of choice done right? Well first of all the above approaches aren’t always wrong. The whole ‘commit to one or the other’ works well if you’ve got two diametrically opposed ideologies of factions like The Force from Star Wars. It makes sense, a Jedi can have moments of weakness, or a Sith a moment of compassion. So breaking the trend every once in a while still allows you to roleplay, and the default good/evil all the time feels like it’s actually a role within itself, rather than a restriction.

Likewise, making good and evil a cosmetic choice isn’t wrong either, but it more suits a game that isn’t trying to make you the hero, like Overlord or Black and White.

But yes, better choice. Mass Effect didn’t have good and evil, it was Paragon (diplomatic, tolerant and calm) versus Renegade (ruthless, pragmatic and aggressive). In the first game, you increased your ability to use Paragon or Renegade conversation options was increased like any other stat. Sure, you’d miss out on some chances because you wanted to beef up your combat skills, but playing that character through a second time means you can pretty much fully upgrade those stats from the get-go, and choose to approach any situation you want any way you want. I loved being able to do this. In fact, it was my favourite part of the game.

But in number two, your ability to unlock these options was dependent on the number of Paragon or Renegade ‘points’ you had, which didn’t carry over when you replayed the character. And seeing as you needed full points in one or the other to prevent the death of your team members and there were finite points in the game, you pretty much had to have one bar full at the complete expense of the other if you cared about your characters (and this is a Bioware game, so you do).

That was the wrong direction. Nice Shepard can sound just as stupid and nasty Shepard, and sometimes I’d want to indulge in a bit of cold-hearted pragmatism or shout down some bastard, but if I did, maybe Mordin would die. And I love Mordin. And Tali. And Jack. And Garrus. And Thane. And Grunt. You get the idea. Sometimes, I’d have to disagree with things I do agree with, or upset characters I liked, so I could be stupid, thoughtless Shepard who wanted everything to be made of puppy dogs and roses. While the gameplay was mostly improved for the better since the first game, this was a huge step back.

I preferred how it was handled in Dragon Age: Origins, where there literally wasn’t a morality system. Instead, different characters would approve or disapprove of your actions, and as such it was your conscience and value of their opinions that would affect your judgement. Though I had my problems with the rest of the game, this was by far and away the best iteration of this I’d seen.

Sure, I was still the good guy more often than not, but that’s because I wanted to be good. And I was free to be horrible to people who disparaged me for being an elf, or to treat my enemies with scorn and malice if I felt like it. If Lelianna didn’t agree with my choice, I’d pick her a flower and we’d be back to a state of sickeningly loved up. And I’d occasionally pick things just to annoy Morrigan.

It’s been used well in other places, like The Stanley Parable (again, I want to talk about that game all day but doing so would utterly ruin it). Or Bastion, where the choices do have an impact on the plot, but it’s so rare and only occurs at the end. In effect, you build everything to the tipping point and then decide its conclusion.

So what do I want in future? I want to be a Paragon or Renegade, not Saint or Devil. And I want my choices to be dictated by my conscience, by what I feel is right and what I want to happen. Bioware, you’ve got the two perfect halves of the whole from what I can see. Now put them in the same game.

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