Monday, March 12, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review (Spoiler-free)

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

It took a bit longer than I'd anticipated (as least partly due to a round of RSV for the wife, my sidekick, and I), but after less than a week with Mass Effect 3, I have beaten it. Not just completed it, but excelled to beat it on the hardest difficulty: Insanity. It's become a tradition of mine with BioWare's games to make sure that my first playthrough with them is on the highest difficulty. And no lowering the difficulty in tough spots--like I've said before: I don't believe in lowering the bar. So, here is my Nerdview on Mass Effect 3.

Expectations 'Odor': As you might have gleaned from some of my previous posts, I've been anticipating this game for quite some time. Mass Effect's debut was a breath of fresh air--a space epic that revolved around relationships and choices, as I played it, and culminated in a sweeping battle across multiple fronts against an eldritch foe. It was Battlestar Galactica and Serenity and Star Wars with a double-vente shot of adrenaline that could only come from an action game experience. Mass Effect 2 hit all the right buttons for me and, while different in tone and execution, was an essentially perfect sequel and followed the themes of Mass Effect perfectly. So what was I looking forward to with Mass Effect 3? Well, in addition to the points I've talked about at-length in the past, I'd been eagerly looking forward to a battle with the Reapers that was exhausting and exhaustive, stretching across the galaxy and giving the player a feeling of being trapped by his enemies. In the first two installments, this was not the case, as I generally felt a pretty significant aesthetic distance from the Reapers and their minions, and only a few brief moments of loss and chaotic response were there to anchor oneself in that feeling of heroic helplessness. With Mass Effect 3 beginning with the effective end of the world, I expected there to be a lot more urgency in the story-telling.

I also wanted to get closure with the relationships developed throughout the series. Not just the romantic interests--though if there wasn't an option to grow old and read poetry with Ashley Williams, I'd be somewhere between disappointed and pissed. I also wanted my bromance with Garrus to end with us sharing war stories in a bar: "Remember when we went up against that huge plant?" "We shot it and shot it, and it just wouldn't die..." I wanted to have closure with the races and the huge decisions I'd made over the course of the trilogy--there's too many massive decisions not to have a Return of the King-sized epilogue, right? In the first two games, you really get the chance to absolutely roll over several civilizations, profoundly affecting their direction. I deserve to see the fruits of my megalomania--so tell me what really happens.

"With Mass Effect 3 beginning with the effective end of the world, I expected there to be a lot more urgency in the story-telling."

So going in, I had to be honest and say that I was expecting--requiring, really--Mass Effect 3 to be the third home-run hit in a row. Not exactly fair, but that's how things go in the Nerdery. And, with how much goodwill and resources BioWare has gathered in the past five years, I don't think it's that unreasonable of an expectation.

Appreciation 'Beef': Boy, after spending about 50 hours of gameplay (plus 6 or so playing multiplayer) I have finally beaten Mass Effect 3 on Insanity difficulty, which was a reassuringly difficult feat. I'm exhausted. Truly. I think I'll be taking a week or two off of (video) gaming out of sheer gaming and emotional fatigue--including maybe a little frothing rage, too, but filmatleven for that. Overall, I have to say that BioWare made a slick game. They took a lot of the complaints about Mass Effect 2 and dialed in the gameplay to something more elegant than the first one but less action-streamlined than the second. The graphics were awesome, and the characters graphically rendered better than ever. The score was much more profoundly affecting than its excellent precedent in the first two games, and the plot hit the highest, noblest, best notes of the series amidst a bit of a cacophony of story-telling.

One of the dominating--and totally justified--complaints about the gameplay with Mass Effect was that the inventory system was an unrewarding mess. You'd scroll through dozens of upgrades, which had ten iterations based on your level, and in the end the actual change to weapon and gameplay performance was negligible. The cover system was really under-utilized, too, as firing on-the-move in the open was often a better or more natural tactical choice in most firefights. Mass Effect 2 over-compensated for this. The upgrades and inventory system got completely binned, and they added heavy weapons and slight ammo limitations to the game ('thermal clips'--please, call a magazine a magazine). Your weapon selection was restricted to a handful of very different weapons in each gun class, and the heavy weapons were incredibly different and could really reflect your style through load-out selection. And cover became critical and a bit more nuanced, as it served to help stabilize weapon aim while also adding to your survivability. In Mass Effect 3, they did a good job of compromising between the two games. Cover is ever more critical than before, but every battle's opposition has a couple of grenade throwers, so you have to be ready to change position quickly.

"I deserve to see the fruits of my megalomania--so tell me what really happens."

The weapon selection is similar to Mass Effect 2, but with the addition of being able to add two upgrades to a weapon--like Mass Effect, but with a lot more combat-impact based on the mods chosen. You can even mess around with what weapon types and how many you'll bring to the fight regardless of character class, distinguishing itself from both games. Want to have an Engineer with a shotgun and sniper rifle? Do it. Or an Adept who goes to battle with an assault rifle? Kit it out. Or a Vanguard with the full armory on his back? It's yours. The only limitation is that the weight of your arsenal now affects your abilities' cool-down rates, so it may very well be worth it to carry only an SMG and count on using your class powers twice as often. Lamentably, though, these changes do come with the omission of heavy weapons from the armory--you can only equip the occasional heavy weapon, normally with severely limited ammo, in the middle of pitched missions. Lame, I say.

The combatants themselves are mostly straightforward iterations and familiar from the previous games, although the BioWare guys decided that the Reapers' groundside forces needed more variety than just the infected-human Husk chumps. Unfortunately, they went with making each harvested race tend to churn out a vastly different Reaper-ized baddie in old-school gaming fashion. Batarian space-turds become Cannibals--grenade-spammy and corpse-armored. Turian too-cool-for-school's become shield-buffing Marauders. Asari interstellar-floozies become super-cheap and annoying Banshees. And krogan better-than-Klingons-and-Wookies become dumb tank/apes called Brutes. The numbers and proportions of these foes, however, are dictated by gameplay and balance, and so they really frak with your sense of disbelief. Asari, for instance, are long-lived and make up a huge wedge of the galactic population, but you only see Banshees one or two at a time in big battles--thankfully, as they are the most annoying unnamed enemies of the series. Also, the fact that human prisoners get Reaper-ized into the dumb rage-zombie Husks makes me feel like the Reapers shouldn't focus so much on Earth anyways. You want a super army of toadies? Blender the asari--they'd make an unstoppable force of cheap attacks and disturbing imagery no one would want to oppose. Also, there's a lot less synthetic-stomping fun, as Geth aren't major players and the mechs of Mass Effect 2 stay home altogether.

The Mass Effect series is based on the Unreal game engine, which is well-suited to cover-based gunplay, but it is also a very elegant engine for rendering beautiful textures. That was maybe a little less well-known until recently, when Batman: Arkham City was released using the same engine to great effect for its great character design. Mass Effect 3 also makes great use of the engine, doing a lot more with lighting and shadow than we've seen in the previous games. Many a time, I found myself watching the game during a conversation and commenting "wow, my Shepard looks awesome." Of course, part of this is visual direction, too. The BioWare folks really tightened up the screws on trying to cinematically make you feel the tragic loss and impending doom of the game, and so you get a lot of great angles with hard shadows drawn across faces that make the game really sing. The space battles and other epic scenes follow the form for Mass Effect 2, with a lot of really well pre-rendered cutscenes that are just gorgeous. Of course, I usually prefer to have in-engine cutscenes--it shows off the tech and saves space on the disc for more action and longer sequences. But, in any case, Mass Effect 3 performs wonderfully in the visual field, with a bit more setting and environment diversity, too. Heck, even being on war-torn earth in the opening mission and war-torn Palaven's moon later on feel worlds apart in terms of terrain, pace, and execution.

You saw what I did there with "worlds apart", right? Good.

"Blender the asari--they'd make an unstoppable force of cheap attacks and disturbing imagery no one would want to oppose."

The music in the latest Mass Effect game has lived up to and surpassed its predecessors, propelling the story-telling to a whole new level. Eerie and suspenseful in all the right parts, Clint Mansell has built on established series cues to create something that is especially affecting for fans. Several highly emotional moments are really sold on the weight of the musical score perfectly stepping in time with the plot, and there was even a couple of times where I recognized a particular theme and started to feel more worried about a beloved NPC, who ended up surviving despite the sonorous bait-and-switch. Without Mansell's fabulous soundtrack, Mass Effect 3 would have a much harder time getting its emotional themes across. In fact, it might even be impossible.

Oh, what to say about the plot? Again, without spoilers of any kind, I can tell you I cried out loud at one point. Then I loaded a save, made a different decision... and I bawled. Mass Effect 3 has some very poignant moments with some of my favorite characters in the genre, and they are solid gold tragic, noble, and sentimental in turn. Of course, that's not all of the story. In the end, the game tended to fall into the same side-quest grind that I found difficult to get through in subsequent playthroughs of the first Mass Effect game. This isn't a necessary pitfall for the player, as like Mass Effect you can bypass huge portions of secondary content, but the War Assets dynamic--a listing of allied forces aligned against the Reapers that updates with every little mission--made me feel like even if I wasn't missing out on great potential moments with my crew, I might be missing out on essential resources for the final battle. The War Assets, as it turns out, is little more than a gimmick with no ultimate point, which makes the side-quest grind feel like an especially bad shot to the nuts in hind-sight. Amidst the awesome character development, shining set-pieces, and the secondary mission grind, the story also tends to lose a sense of itself. Cerberus is an exaggerated and massive threat in this game, which feels contradictory to its covert, small-scale operations presented in previous games. They use it to introduce a lame space-ninja foil, who is as annoying to fight as ninjas always are: be warned, Fai Leng is unwarranted, frustrating, and cheap both as a character and as an opponent. Meanwhile, the Reapers are a faceless boogeyman for the first time in the series. While Mass Effect had Saren and Sovereign as representatives for the Reapers and Mass Effect 2 had the Collector General/Harbinger, Mass Effect 3 has no face or voice for the end of all known life in the galaxy. They mention Harbinger a couple of times, but there's nothing like the creepy cyclopean smack-talk you have with the two kilometer dreadnought Sovereign in the first game. Not even the creepy, deep-throated taunting and ill-omens of Harbinger in the second game. It contributed to the listing feel I got towards the middle of the game, and seemed just a bit sloppy.

"The War Assets, as it turns out, is little more than a gimmick with no ultimate point, which makes the side-quest grind feel like an especially bad shot to the nuts in hind-sight."

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': This game had so much going for it. While I've teared up during other games--I may or may not have teared up and sputtered a bit at the end of Red Dead Redemption--I've never outright cried or felt so emotionally invested as I did in this game. For over 50 hours of gameplay, I slogged through this game's titanic plots and deep decisions with wide-eyed resolve to beat it best and hardest on the first try. I thrilled through the combat, took a few curse-breaks after repeatedly dying at the hands of an occasional Banshee or space-ninja, and I felt like this was going to be the game I always knew it would be. And then the last twenty minutes came along and dumped on me, on the setting, and on every lauded decision I had made in the series.

Seriously, no spoilers in this post. I'm saving all of that for an upcoming rant.

If I believed in giving games objective ratings, I would say that Mass Effect 3 maintained a 95 or 100 percent throughout most of the game and well into the third act. In fact, the emotional stakes and story-telling ante of the game reach a fevered brilliance as you near the ultimate goal of defeating the Reapers. I was misty-eyed and charged, voice raw from cheering through battle cutscenes and in-game combat alike. I was ready to do this. And then, from that dizzying precipice of sympathetic fervor, I crashed into one of the worst plot-twists--and I use the term loosely: it's only a twist because it's inconceivably dumb--in the entire science-fiction genre. My hypothetical rating for the game probably dropped down to 70 or 75 percent in a matter of minutes. I felt sick. Whereas the game had previously played with my emotions in a cooperative way, nudging me towards despair, sorrow, hope, and vengeance in turn, now the story was stooping to a puerile McGuffin that made me feel like I'd been betrayed by everything the game stood for. The quality of the moment and story itself had dropped as well, but mostly I was just pissed. I made Shepard, gorram it. He wasn't a Bioware character--he was mine. I'd lent him to them so I could see him go through some tough choices, fight hordes of bad dudes (and maybe a couple of good ones, too), and come out of it with scars and glorious stories. I don't want to tell this story BioWare made Mass Effect become, regardless of the token decisions at the end. I want to retconn it for my own. BioWare screwed up my character, and I'm going to fix it.

"...the emotional stakes and story-telling ante of the game reach a fevered brilliance as you near the ultimate goal of defeating the Reapers."

Warning: the following list will have some light, abstract references to game occurrences that might be mistaken for spoilers. But I said there are no spoilers in this post, so they aren't.

I must outline, briefly (or not so briefly, by now), which of the items from my list they actually included in Mass Effect 3:

I want to kill the frakkin' geth dead: Possible, but they really try hard to make you look and feel like a baboon-butt for doing it.

I want to see more of the aliens: They get partial credit on this. You get to interact with one krogan female, but she's so covered in a shawl and headdress combo that you might as well be conversing with Sharon Stone rolled up in a rug. You can get a very tiny glimpse of Tali's face, though, so that's cool.

I want to fight against some hanar: Technically, I got this one, too. Though it's only a single hanar, and you gun him down in a conversation, but his reasoning for supporting the Reapers was exactly what I said in my post last year, so yay me.

I want every romanceable character to make a full return: They hardly get any credit on this one. All of the romance options make an appearance, but some of them are so brief and insubstantial they might as well be Stan Lee in a Marvel movie.

I want one-and-a-half butt-loads of potential party members: Big fat fail. You have to really struggle to get the roster up to seven, and even then only four of them are past party members. Very disappointing.

I want the romance to be more nuanced, and to explore getting completely spurned or rejected: Another big fail. The romance system is basically the same in this game as in Mass Effect 2, only the craptastic ending in this game makes your romantic overtures especially vain and juvenile.

I want character death to be possible outside specific plot-points: Fail. Just plain fail. Though several NPCs pretty carelessly throw themselves into suicidal hero moments--some more pointless than others--they only die in the specific plot-points designated.

I want party dynamics to include teamwork in combat, not just how they snark back and forth: Another big fail, the party banter feels drastically reduced in this game, too. After 50 hours, I have no sense of how any of the new team members feel about each other, and that's simply un-immersive.

I want a time-management dynamic: Although the early parts of the game made me feel like I was under a time limit, you in fact have all the time in the world to scour the galaxy for lost puppies. Fail.

I want more mutually exclusive choices: Partial credit on this one. There are a lot of new, terrible choices in Mass Effect 3, but I'm docking them their credit because the cloaca-dwelling ending invalidates virtually every choice you might really labor over in the game.

I want to have some direct sway over the inevitable epic space battle's action: Total fail. While there are several awesome space battles in the game, Shepard gets no say in any of them. In fact, the Normandy itself plays only passive part in these battles. Hull breach, BioWare.

I want more spaceship porn: Epic win. Even the load screens are 80 percent spaceship porn. I liked it. I liked a lot.

" the story was stooping to a puerile McGuffin that made me feel like I'd been betrayed by everything the game stood for."

So as I'm sitting here, now, I have to say that Mass Effect 3 has been a truly moving experience. It actually delivered on a couple points from my list of things I thought they wouldn't do. But they failed in the one way I never even feared they might not deliver: a decent sense of closure. Maybe that's shame on me and the other Mass Effect 3 fanboys-and-girls, but I really didn't want a Final Fantasy-type ending of illogical platitudes, sweeping generalities, and blithe acceptance of terrible choices. It's like frakkin' Deus Ex: Human Revolution infected my Mass Effect series--only Deus Ex had the decency to be more mediocre throughout the rest of the game, instead of making you think that something honorable and decent was coming when all that awaited you in return for your blood, sweat, and tears was a hypervelocity round to the scrotum.

So a mixed bag, I'd have to say. Heheh, "bag"... get it? Good.

" might as well be conversing with Sharon Stone rolled up in a rug."

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Since you shouldn't be considering buying this game unless you've played through the first two, I'll assume interested readers are contemplating finishing the trilogy. Here I must warn you. Maybe even warn you off. Most fans of the series, like me, fell in love with the storytelling of the first two games. The combat is good, but the ability to tweak and interact with a compelling world and deep characters is the real draw of the Mass Effect trilogy. Or was. With Mass Effect 3 you get great combat and some few shining moments of character spotlight, but in the end the game will destroy your love of the decision-tree you grew over a hundred or more hours of series-play, and it will make you feel like mourning the disrespect done to Shepard and his magnificent companions.

If you're playing it for the combat and experience of some cool fight scenes, Mass Effect 3 has you covered. But if having a lousy ending to a great story taints your experience, beware: Mass Effect 3 is the worst offender I can currently think of in this infamous field.

" will make you feel like mourning the disrespect done to Shepard and his magnificent companions."

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