Endings are weird.
As game players, we’re encouraged to end things – end lists of things, end enemies, and end plot events in aid of progressing from ending to ending to the last ending, the big ending, the ending we’re going to totally think is worth it. Sometimes, an ending will just set up another ending, such as with Mass Effect 1‘s conclusion setting up the story for Mass Effect 2. Sometimes, you have to end a big thing, like a trilogy of space operas, and when that happens, you had best have quite an impressive ending indeed, no?
This review was written by two men. One was a man playing a pretty good, enjoyable game, Mass Effect 3. One of them had just finished playing this awful science fiction game, Mass Effect 3.
Mass Effect 3 is the grand finale in Bioware’s magnum opus of space-borne role-playing game fun, where you don either the soft velvet glove or the iron-heeled jackboot of Commander ‘So Nice Kittens Look Up To Me’ Shepard, or ‘Gets The Job Done As A Person On The Edge And That’s How Things Go In The Space Streets, MAN,’ Shepard, or likely ‘I Couldn’t Resist Punching That Guy Several Times But I’m Paragon Mostly, Honest’ Shepard. If you played Mass Effect 2, then mechanically, there’s almost nothing changed: There are still interrupts for cut-scenes, there’s still two squadmates you’ll forget about all the time, and there is still a never-ending field of reasonable excuses for chest high walls of varying degrees of effectiveness. Enemies still have three basic flavours of responses to damage, and powers still behave in that lovely jenga-style way that can be set up for combos, or, if you’re like me, brute-forced with a sniper rifle or a shotgun. Differentiating them from the previous game is the addition of a heavy melee attack, which means charging into a Krogan and smashing his snout off is actually something that looks as impressive as it is. The interface isn’t changed much, the storytelling devices aren’t changed much. That’s fine, Mass Effect 2 was fantastic, so it’s not like the devices impeded it any.
What we then have to look towards is theme and story. Mass Effect 1 was flawed but put itself in an interesting world built around mysteries. The strength of Mass Effect 2 was characterisation. Mass Effect 3, as the third part in this arc, wanted to build itself around conclusion.
I approached this review with the other two games already done, their reviews written. I wanted to make sure that I gave as honest a summary of this game as I could, knowing that the end of any storytelling expedition can sour the whole experience previously. I also know that I, personally, am a story-driven person: Sometimes, the narrative a game doesn’t state can be enough to buoy me through it, or problems in a storytelling device can ruin my enjoyment of otherwise acceptable games. Mass Effect 3 is a game renowned for having a bad ending, and I wanted to ensure I didn’t let that sour me.
This is a good decision. If I were to sit down and talk about the flaws of Mass Effect 3’s ending, I probably would generate two thousand words of complaining, none of which would illuminate the issue at all. I think it would continue a flawed perspective on a game that’s 90% good – but set up to make sure its worst part is right in your face.
From time to time I’ve heard ‘brilliantly’ written or ‘excellently’ written thrown around when it comes to series like Mass Effect and I think that such phrases ask of a writer to stand up and consider them. Is it brilliant, in that it stands out, bright and shining and exceptional, from the context in which it sits? Honestly, no. Is it excellent, where writing, individual phrases and tones and styles of speech are woven together to set new standards for how such things should be done? Again, no. For any given phrase that’s used, there are many other games that use something similar, better and often with fewer words.
I remember most keenly this feeling in one mission where a character gave a stirring speech, and I waited for everyone involved to laugh at his delivery, or to mock what he had to say for being cliché. Nobody did, they saluted, and were inspired, and that was okay.
When that ‘meh’ speech was delivered, it was the context of the response that showed that it was a good speech. The game didn’t make a great speech then let you listen to it, and determine your reaction; it had control over the audience, it had control over the speaker, and it controlled those elements to tell you about it. It’s not just call-and-response, though! This is how the Bioware style of game works. It doesn’t have the option of telling its type of story in all the ways you want it: It can only make do by telling you one or two different ways, and let you choose which story you like best. It gives you a list of options, then asks you which option you want. This is Chinese menu narrative.
I recognise that such a term can seem critical, but it isn’t. I like these games, I like these stories. I like their Chinese menu approach. Once upon a time I criticised Bioshock Infinite for being shallower than it thinks it is, and I think the opposite is true here. Mass Effect is pretty much exactly as shallow as it thinks it is. This self-awareness means it can play with stirring speeches and endangered friends, but it accepts that you’re meeting it half way. It’s just so tropey.
The true strength of Mass Effect‘s writing stems not from its writing being in any individual instance high quality, but rather, because they are all put into a much larger context. The dialogue comes from Mass Effect. When Grunt picks up a Rachni over his head and throws it helplessly down into a canyon, bellowing at the top of his lungs, “I! Am! KROGAN!” that’s not actually a particularly powerful line unless you have the context of who Grunt is, what Krogan are, and how he struggled for acceptance, and how the Rachni are the cause of the Krogan uplifting, and how Grunt and the Rachni in question are both the results of massive genetic tampering and explaining all of that is more complicated and less fun than just telling you to go play two hundred hours of space opera. Well, it’s less effort on my part.
Remember how I complained about The Stanley Parable as being nothing more than thorough? Well, Mass Effect is a thorough game, too. There are dozens of forks of minor, stylistic changes, pulling us away from the centerpiece story, but they are all written well. It’s easy to make ‘wrong’ endings loop back to the same core and economise the writing. The writers don’t, though: References are made to events well after they’ve happened, in a variety of different ways. Whole sets of dialogue are redone to have slightly different dialogue.
By controlling all these elements, Mass Effect can make decent writing, carried convincingly and lovingly, into something more than the sum of its parts. This is its triumph. The only problem I can see in this, with so many of these parts carefully resting against one another, is if there is some problem with the finale.
The ending of Mass Effect 3 wasn’t good, and it had set itself up to be quite good. The game had made a world with a lot of emotional weight, and presented the player with multiple story sections to learn to love them. Not everything landed – I know I love Quarians and Geth more than I love Salarians and Asari – but the shotgun approach, the vastness of the world, meant that they could pour more and more things before you and watch you struggle with them. This is true of the story beats, too. You want to go exploring a ragged war-torn ruin? Okay, great! Now we’re off exploring deep sea mysteries. Here’s a party and a house repair mini-game! Want to go dating sim?
Every one of these elements is pulled together in a large, harmonised whole thanks to the framing device, and the seriousness with which the game treats it. Some bits are good, some bits are bad, but the whole is pretty damn good. Despite saying that, though, I have to admit: After I finished the single-player campaign the first time, my immediate reaction was disgust, resentment, and to not want to play the next game. That’s a strange thing – normally, when I finish a game I feel happy that it’s over, or sad. This is one of the few times where a game has made any potential sequels it had sound un-fun.
It isn’t to say that Mass Effect 3‘s thoroughness and attention to detail is complete. The previous two games had buggy moments – mostly around importing/exporting and their somewhat elastic relationship with time – but I had only one or two glitches with those games when I played them. Mass Effect 3 is a massive interconnected snarls of flags and variabes, referencing in places a code base that was, at the time, six years old: it’s understandable that the game will throw up bugs at times. Understandable isn’t the same thing as acceptable, though. Significantly, I found three whole missions that had glitched out in some way or another, and had to restart two parts of Rannoch because they also glitched out. I was on one side of the wall, geth on the other side, but the door would not let us talk to one another, no no no. Without spoiling, there’s a major event where Doing Lots Of Things beforehand opens up a new pathway. I had done all those things, but the game had forgotten entirely – something I found out when I popped the game open to check. When the drama of storytelling relies on action and consequence, having some consequences not happen for no good reason is occasionally distressing, to put it mildly. There are other concerns – certainly in massed combat, which the climax relies on, the game engine churns as it tries to keep up.
There’s other stuff on a narrative level, too. It’d be nice if the cultures of aliens weren’t all fairly similar to human culture in how they treat male/female relations, or the way that many disposable characters are bisexual. It’d be nicer if the alien cultures you interact with seriously were more obviously alien. It’d be nice if there was less of an obvious feeling of Shepard as the lynchpin of the universe, too; incidental things you say and do lead to people living and dying, and eventually, the worry that I was tripping some invisible wire and leading to someone to die six hours later overwhelmed me. In Mass Effect 2, the fear that a beloved character would die motivated me to fight my hardest. In Mass Effect 3 the certainty they would, and that it was my fault, left me exhausted and apathetic.
I think it’s important to note, however, separate to every other thing I have had to say about this game is that before I ever started the single-player campaign, I had logged thirty-eight hours of multiplayer. It wasn’t just indulging in the Mass Effect universe after I’d already soaked myself in it over a Christmas period, though, no. It wasn’t just sharing a game with my friends, even though I did encourage over six people to come along and play the game with me. No, I enjoyed Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer as a game experience itself. I was playing the game with strangers and saving up for the boosters – the boosters which give me customisation and pointless expendable items for more multiplayer! I roamed the house, trying to explain to Fox why it was cool that my Drell Adept had taken out two Atlases back to back in a silver match to save Jason’s Krogan, who was named Karsh because it was an acronym for shark and that I needed to go for a little bit of a lie down. No matter what I have to say about the game’s plot, I was able to find forty solid hours of gameplay before I even started the main game.
Buy it if:
- You’ve any taste for the mechanics of the second game and are interested in multiplayer.
- You’ve some extra money to spend on some good, extensive DLC.
- You enjoyed the exploratory parts of Mass Effect 1, zooming around the galaxy and poking in the corners of the galaxy’s cushions.
- You want to further advance the story for its own sake.
Avoid it if:
- A bad ending will ruin an entire experience for you.
- You want something remarkably different to Mass Effect 2.
- Continuity porn doesn’t excite you.
- An exhaustive list of possible actions makes you feel anxious or tired.
- You have no saves from Mass Effect 2 to import, or are unwilling to download same.
- You haven’t played Mass Effect 2.