Out of lineage

In a post that I put up about a year-and-a-half ago, I discussed the innovations of Mass Effect 2, which is one of the most enjoyable games I ever played. It is not surprising that its sequel (unsurprisingly titled Mass Effect 3), which was released a week ago, cannot live up to its lineage.

I have about 20 hours invested into Mass Effect 3 now, and I am disappointed. The game has dropped all pretense of being an RPG and has decided to become a straightforward first-person shooter. Where in the previous installments the story drove the action, in the newest game every level comes down to: Commander Shepard and two selected team mates drop down on a planet surface, move through an area to a specific point while shooting at wave after wave of enemies, then press a button, followed by some waiting time in which they must again defeat wave after wave of enemies, after which either the level ends or this is repeated once more. This gets old pretty fast.

Many of the levels seem to have been designed for multi-player mode (which is a new addition for this series), not being very big, but with numerous paths to traverse. I am not amused by that. Wherever you are in a level, the game takes the freedom to spawn new enemies where it wants them, so they can come from all around you. For me that means that I have to put the game in pause mode every ten seconds to make a 360 degree turn to check if new enemies have crept up behind me. One of the great things about Mass Effect 2 was its immersiveness, which this necessary pausing seriously harms. The variety of enemies is also sorely lacking. You have Cerberus, you have reapers and… that’s it, really. I assume some Geth will come into play later, but for now I am bored by the repetitiveness.

But the biggest problem of Mass Effect 3 is the lack of interesting characters. Let me explain.

The first Mass Effect was an RPG/shooter. It had about five big stories going on, each needing its own levels. So you went to a planet, and played through its associated story for 4 or 5 hours. The stories were all pretty different, leading to new discoveries, new enemy types, and a new view on the universe. It seemed this game was actually several small games packed as one, and each of the small games had been lovingly crafted. While Mass Effect does not make it into my top-10 games (it probably won’t even make the top-50), it worked pretty well, even though it was a bit cliched.

Mass Effect 2 made big changes. RPG elements, in particular where interaction with other characters is concerned, took over. There was now one overarching storyline, which was interspersed with about 30 smaller stories. In the game you built up a team, and each of the 12 team members had one story about acquiring them, and one story about gaining their loyalty. All these stories were different. Some were long, some were short, some were mediocre, and some were very good. But the great thing about them was that they provided insight into your team mates, and crafted a bond between you, as player, and your crew. I did not like all of these characters, but that was just the point: they were all so different that of course I would have my favorites.

Now Mass Effect 3 has come out and mechanically it plays like Mass Effect 2. The same tactics that I used before are still working. But story-wise, the game is different. There is now one overarching story again, and each quest that you play fits into that story. In itself, that is not a bad idea. And what perhaps works the best in this game is the feeling of constant dread that it radiates. You do these quests because you need to prepare the galaxy, and because you are under considerable time pressure. You don’t have time to investigate the disappearance of your favorite crew member’s sister: you have to investigate the disappearance of the populace of a whole solar system! And that is only the beginning!

However, the consequence of this focus on the big story is that all, and I mean all, the secondary characters have been reduced to cardboard cutouts. Their purpose is to support you in a fight, not to be an interesting companion. Sure, there are a few moments where they do something interesting. I liked Liara’s personal project, and Mordin’s dedication to his work. But these interesting moments are simply scripted events. They are not something that happens between the player and the NPC. They are the game writers telling a paragraph of a story, as if it concerns a JRPG cutscene. They are meant as a memento to a character that you had an actual relationship with in Mass Effect 2, popping up to tell you that they are still around somewhere.

So the main problem here is that besides shooting, Mass Effect 3 only has its storyline. And to be frank, that story is not very captivating. It is one big cliche: An ancient and all-powerful enemy threatens to destroy the galaxy! A superweapon must be constructed to defeat it! An evil conglomerate is out to destroy our hero! Robots have rebelled against their creators! Big yawn.

Usually I have no problems with game storylines being cliched. The point of a game is interactivity: while I do not care about reading about a space commander who defeats aliens against all odds, I can enjoy playing a space commander who defeats aliens against all odds. But once the story becomes the main focus of the game, it better be a really good story or the game has lost much of its appeal. And as gameplay-wise Mass Effect 3 is a simple shooter, the fact that the story is uninteresting really damages the game’s quality.

I understand that the ending of Mass Effect 3 is a big disappointment, but that does not worry me. I am already disappointed. But naturally, after having enjoyed Mass Effect 2 so much, that was likely to happen anyway.

But who knows, the game might make a U-turn somewhere in the next few playing hours. An unexpected twist is likely to turn up, and perhaps that might change my feelings. One can only hope.

Addendum (March 26, 2012): I finished the game and have to conclude that it was beneficial to know about the disappointing ending beforehand. Being warned at least made the downer bearable. The problem is that the game was working towards a sad but hopeful and ultimately satisfying ending, and just when it was ready to deliver it, the ending got suddenly replaced by a very stupid one. That was needless, senseless, and moronic. Still, video games, novels, movies, and tv series get saddled up with stupid endings all the time. At least the Mass Effect creators tried something relatively fresh, even if they could not pull it off. I am a bit puzzled how this ending got past Quality Control, though. I cannot imagine that anyone with a critical perspective would think this was a great way to finalize the series.

But I do not see the need to get the ending changed by a DLC, which many fans are calling for. Experiencing the present ending was pitiful, but I got over it in 5 minutes. And now I am content knowing that the final moments of Mass Effect 3 can be considered a harsh example of the need for bringing talented writers into game design if the developers want to produce something profound. That lesson could be a gateway to the production of deeper game experiences in the near future. The medium can profit as much from the blatantly bad examples as it can from the rare good ones.

Addendum 2 (July 13, 2012): Bioware released a free DLC for Mass Effect 3 which is called The Extended Cut. It mainly consists of an extra cut-scene when approaching the game’s final confrontation, and several minutes of extra footage in the end movie. The Extended Cut does not radically change the ending, but succeeds in making it more satisfying. That said, it does not really make the game any better, and it has set a dangerous precedent. Especially the subtle changes to the final scenes, such as leaving the jump gates intact and now ending the game in a hopeful victory instead of leaving the fate of the galaxy in doubt, are clearly a response to the loud voices of the most outspoken minority of players. I am not particularly happy if the content of games gets decided upon by fans. I much rather see developers diverge from the beaten path, even if it is less appreciated by the vocal fanboys. Bioware was one of the few companies which one could expect some originality from, but considering that they now decided to bow to the fans makes it unlikely that they will let originality rule in the future.


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