Finally getting around to a replay of ME3, I had fun experiencing it again, but the second run also gave assurance to my suspicion that the game lacked meaningful agency or reactivity. It’s Hollywood gaming: enjoyable, high in budget and cutscenes, a little stupid in philosophy and story, not thoroughly challenging, and doing little, if anything, to impel with the pressure of example any positive change upon the established course of mainstream interactive storytelling. That might’ve sounded warmer if I’d saved “enjoyable” for last. Make no mistake that it’s a great game.
The system was streamlined after Mass Effect 2. No hacking, no mineral scanning, and companion dialogue wheels are skipped for the small stuff. I like streamlining, but it feels rushed and conversations are a little too one-sided and empty at times. You avoid the repetition of calibrations and spilling drinks on the citadel, but they could’ve done that just by removing ME2’s “Anything new with you?” dialogue options from the wheel when there was, in fact, nothing new with them. If it had been up to me, I would’ve minimized the tedium of running around the ship, replacing Normandy gameplay with an interface for customizing squadmate gear and powers, with a list of alerts that would lead into newly available character interaction cutscenes–almost like camp in Fire Emblem: Awakening. Alternatively, it might be worth looking at something like the dorm navigation in Persona 3 Portable. Tapping spacebar until everybody repeats themselves seems like a bad compromise.
Combat has a great, simple system: a halfway point between “Real Time With Pause” strategy games and your typical cover-based shooting, now with more choice in skill trees, priming and detonating power combos, the ability to revive wounded squadmates under fire to conserve medi-gel and a few other advances. As a vanguard it’s even more interesting, though perhaps fundamentally unbalanced, due to your freedom to eschew cover and kill quickly. Playing on Hardcore difficulty (which in ME3’s case just means enemies hit a little harder), I only tended to die when I did something obviously stupid, or when the biotic charge move got too finicky, or when the game otherwise glitched up (which happened more in the DLC). The game certainly got more hectic later on, but not really any more tactical: once you learn how to take out layers of defense, riot shields, and shield generators, it just becomes about fighting more and more guys at the same time. Actually, scratch that: I discovered in the final mission that you could make a squadmate throw a grenade in order to wrench yourself from a banshee’s grasp. But I’d still like to see even more tactical variation instead of more chaos as a means of increasing difficulty in the later stages: for more on this, see what I said about Etrian Odyssey IV.
I might be able to keep this short, because I’ve discussed the Mass Effect systems and approaches several times in talking about other games, but the biggest failure is still the Paragon/Renegade system. I’ve already talked about how Renegade wavers in its definition, but I’m not sure if I ever mentioned that cold pragmatism was generally senseless when a careful Paragon can achieve an idealistic solution with no downsides simply by playing “find the blue text”. That freedom necessarily defines an objectively successful Renegade as “doing the same thing, but being a jerk about it”. That said, Shepard can seem a little more interesting when you aren’t completely successful or correct all the time.
I’m sure I’ve said it before, but what needs to be done is to drop the morality system entirely. This is the first step toward designing meaningful, interesting, Witcher 2-style moral choices. Only two elements should decide what choices are available to Shepard: previous decisions s/he has made, and the player skill to back up their words. The game does both already: for an example of the former, something like not being too overly partial to the Geth or the Quarians before calling for a ceasefire. For an example of the latter, there was that quest where Shepard could optionally send a squadmate to save an NPC elsewhere, which meant having to fight the remaining enemies with only two people in the squad. There’s no reason to introduce “Paragon/Renegade consistency” as another variable, much less making it the the most important variable in determining what you can or cannot do. The entire reputation system is utterly pointless.
There’s a lot of funny stuff in the script, clever ideas and great dramatic moments. Some of the characters, if only a small few, feel alive, with real chemistry or engaging moments with Shepard (across all the games, I liked Thane, Legion, Samara, Zaeed, Wrex and Grunt, maybe Javik, Vega, and Garrus–and a few from the supporting cast, like Joker, Anderson, and Traynor–but the rest I could take or leave.) But I think the best way to put it is that Mass Effect feels childishly written. Not just the romances, either. I mentioned the white (human) saviorism thing before, back in some tangent about Zelda in the Dark Souls review. Not only would Shepard expect to solve ancient interstellar conflicts with only a primary school-level education on the conflict’s history, but by ME3, Shepard can’t even witness an argument between a store employee and customer without butting in and giving his or her two cents. There was also some forced character arc where s/he has recurring nightmares about some dead kid, but if Bioware wanted to start delving into dreams, they could’ve gone off the rails. After the colorful direction of Deadly Premonition, a game like ME3 feels bland, largely uninspired, designed by committee.
I enjoyed the ending (post-extended cut), which actually saw a lot of controversy. Well, sort of: I couldn’t condone the Destroy option because it undoes all the hard work in helping the geth, and reaching an understanding with them and everything they’ve been through in obtaining sapience, or whatever the appropriate word is. It’s narratively inconsistent. It would also just lead to more people inventing robots and the whole cycle starting over eventually (assuming the whole “organics and synthetics can never co-exist” thing has any merit in the first place). I also gave the Synthesis option a look, and I found it to be kind of a boring outcome, and vague: a sort of galactic transhumanism with few clues about what it actually does beyond ending disease and giving new perspective to AIs, although it’s treated like it’s the best choice by the game itself, internally (you have to do more work to unlock it). The Control option, though: Shepard sacrifices corporeal form to become a Reaper God? I mean, come on. That’s great, because the galaxy remains interesting, but free from (as Zaeed would say) Arma-fucking-geddon. But I like having a choice and getting to argue that mine is the smartest, so I’m pretty okay with the whole thing.
For those who were disappointed because they expected a big fucking Star Wars ceremony ending where everybody the player ever helped lined up to kiss Shepard’s ass, well, that might’ve been fun, but it should hardly make or break opinion. And for those who wanted a long, reactive “Where are they now?”, where we see the future of every race in the galaxy–how the hell did you get all the way to the end of the third game without losing those naive expectations? Did you see how little it meant to destroy the reaper base? Or the rachni? Or anything? Just about the only thing that ever changed were the people who delivered the lines–each replaced by their understudies whenever you got them killed. Wrex to Wreav. Mordin to Padok. Legion to the “Geth VI”.
I’m very interested to see where the next Mass Effect game goes, but I won’t be keeping my saves.