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Full disclosure up front – Now that I've finished the Mass Effect saga, I've had time to assess it comprehensively. I feel that Mass Effect 3 failed to deliver and/or improve on 8 specific issues. I feel these unaddressed issues worked to significantly lower the value of the series. I played Mass Effect 3 with an imported character from Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. I played all three games on Insanity difficulty and then cleaned up all achievements I missed on the easier difficulties. I completed every mission and side-quest the games had to offer.
I had serious concerns going into ME3 given my frustrations with the first two games. I posted these concerns on Xbox's forums shortly after finishing ME2. A member of the Bioware team responded saying that he shared my concerns and that he was optimistically hopeful they would be addressed. Unfortunately, these issues were not addressed. These problems have led me to believe that ME3 – and consequently the whole Mass Effect saga – fell short of what it could (or should) have been.
1. General Gameplay and Combat
I think we can all agree that the Mass Effect series does not deliver an overly compelling gamplay experience. The developers seemed torn between delivering engaging action and the more tactical traits of solid turn-based RPGs. What they ended up with was a clumsy mashup. The playable parts of Mass Effect are little better than a mediocre-at-best 3rd Person Shooter mixed with encumbrances that save it from falling into the dreaded "button-masher" category (I honestly would have preferred a button masher over what they gave us). Given the clunky controls (see below) and the retarded squad-mates (see below) – the "game" portion of Mass Effect 3 (and the rest of the series) was barely satisfactory.
Leveling? Pointless. Mass Effect 3 attempted to add a bit more 'umph' to leveling, but it was still controlled by Experience Points that are only acquired by completing a finite number of quests and killing a limited number of enemies. With a severely limited amount of side-quests in the game, you are basically destined to level up as the game dictates and in tandem with its story progression. In other words, you might as well just start me at level 60 and make all the enemies as strong as the end-game foes. The feeling of progression is squelched by the fact that I'm really only leveled to match the difficulty of the current mission. Doing or not doing the side-quests can adjust this proportion by a level or two, but the delta is truly insignificant. Moral of the story: Simply adding leveling to a mediocre shooter-tactical mashup does not make for a compelling RPG experience. Leave it out if you are going to script it. As a developer who loves choice so much, Bioware sure goes to great lengths to control what the player can do with their choices.
Every battle plays the same. Combat in Mass Effect boils down to:
1. Find cover
2. Debuff enemy shields/barriers/armor
3. Wait for powers to recharge
4 Continue debuffing if enemies with shields, barriers or armor still remain
5. Attack with conventional weapons or powers as appropriate
6. Move if you didn't destroy your enemies before they raided your position
7. Repeat until all enemy combatants are destroyed
Ok, so the 'repetition' argument is a weak one given the fact that most games devolve into repetitive actions over time. But the overly scripted nature of Mass Effect battles lives to highlight the tedium of the repetition.
Ammo? What purpose does ammunition really serve in this game? I don't think I ran out of it more than once. And that occurrence was scripted as part of the story. I believe this was another attempt to provide an encumbrance to make the game feel more tactical. I did not accomplish its intended goal.
2. Interactive Movie Syndrome
I will give Bioware credit for making engaging cutscenes and dialog breaks. It was these interactions that made me stick with the series in the first place. But now that I've finished the saga, I find myself wishing I had just watched the Mass Effect movie. As I stated above, nothing about the parts that made Mass Effect a game were great. I respect the focus on story, but if you are going to sacrifice fun to tell a great story, then just make a movie or an anime series.
3. The Story
I'll keep this as spoiler free as possible.
I didn't hate the ending. I was actually cool with the Total-Recall-Meets-the-Matrix delivery they employed. My problem with the story began when I took a comprehensive look at it. The plot chasms the writers had to hurdle to get to the ending showed signs of rushed work or people who simply did not know how they wanted to wrap things up.
In many ways, I would draw a connection between the Mass Effect saga and the Star Wars prequels. The Phantom Menace was very focused on specific characters and events. By The Clone Wars you find multiple story arcs evolving with not much backstory due to the narrow focus of The Phantom Menace (Anakin, Pod Racing, Darth Maul, etc.) and the need to push toward the emergence of the Sith and Darth Vader. By the time we got around to Revenge of the Sith, we had so many arcs coexisting that it was nigh impossible to bring them all together clearly and concisely with great closure (I would have loved to know more about Syfo Dyas or seen Vader in action, for example). The issue was so severe that they had to end with a 17-year gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.
Mass Effect 3 suffered from the same issue. Over the first two titles, we spent so much time focused on Saren and Cerberus that the inevitable attack of the Reapers seemed to be centuries away. But alas, the Reaper invasion commences at the start of ME3 and somehow we are led to believe that our great storytellers will be able to wrap this galactic war and all the relationships of the main cast up by gamesend. It just didn't work. The plot was forced to move too quickly to the end. In the process details that made the first two stories great, were left out of the third. Some will argue that we are left to draw our own conclusions about what happened. I can agree with that, but I think we can also agree that ME3 did not spend enough time with the characters themselves (ie. The part of the story that made the first 2 games so dope).
Aside from plot direction and closure issues, the character interaction that did exist was corny and often felt contrived. The clichéd "We can do it if we stick together" and Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque one-liners were horrible. The quotes, "Drink your juice, Martinez!" followed by "Take your balls outta your purse and kick some ass!" was an actual discussion (just an example).
I've been in an M1 Abrams Tank before. I vaguely remember it being easier to steer and control than Commander Sheperd in battle. Winning battles in Mass Effect requires the smart use of cover and quick movement when enemies exploit your position. Quick movement is handled by holding down the 'A' button to sprint. The A button is also used to enter into cover and to jump over obstacles. I found myself dead many times because the algorithm controlling movement interpreted my desire sprint as an instruction to take cover. So I entered cover with my back to the enemy I was trying to elude… and died.
Commands to get Sheperd in and out of cover were also far too unresponsive. I remember dying at least twice during the final battle because he would not leap over a wall despite my repeated commands for him to do so.
I seriously applaud ME3 for employing Kinect Voice Commands. I really hope that sets a strong precedent for Kinect use in future games. However, as battles became tougher to fight due to more enemies on the battlefield, a misinterpreted voice command often meant death. By the time I was 75% of the way thru the game, I was back to using the command wheel because precision was necessary. Strangely enough, even issuing out commands via the command wheel often led to missed attacks.
5. Retarded Teammates
This was the focal point of my discussion with the developer from Bioware. I gave him my philosophy as it related to games that force you to have Artificial Intelligence (AI) controlled squad members. My philosophy: If the AI teammates you give me are retarded and rarely provide any assistance in combat, then leave them out of the game entirely.
I asked him if the handicapped AI in Mass Effect 2 was caused by technology limitations organic to this generation's consoles. He didn't answer that part, but he did agree that the friendly AI needed some work. Too many times I watched one of my teammates figuratively yell "FOCK IT!" and decide it was time to John Rambo their way thru the fight. That always seemed to end in my squad-mate’s death. My teammates would also never watch my back. I would focus on taking down a particular enemy only to find that one of the other enemies had snuck around my flank to reach my position completely untouched by a teammate they had to walk past to get there.
All bad AI teammates do is give you two additional chess pieces to micromanage. Again, I'd rather have their abilities and permission to use them more times before needing to recharge. It would make the experience much less frustrating.
Bioware attempted to remove some of the tedium with Kinect voice commands. As I said earlier, I whole-heartedly applaud them for the move. It was genius. However, the commands never worked consistently enough to be truly effective.
Bioware did not do enough to deal with their friendly AI problems. They had 3 games to get it right.
6. Bioware's Love Affair with Choice
Awkward, perochial and often annoying. I believe choices that can shape the life of an entire galaxy are ones that are not made lightly or quickly. Yet Bioware seems to love oversimplifying these issues. Many of the situations requiring choice in the game would not pan out in a real situation. They were impractical and actually served to take me out of the experience more than immerse me. One human being would never be thrust into these contrived situations. And even if we were, we'd have way more information to help us make our decisions.
The bigger challenge is that the choices are so finite. If I choose the wrong dialog option in a particular situation, I can really ruin something I'm trying to accomplish with no recourse… No chance to make it right. Life's choices don't work like that in most cases.
Further, when I looked at how severely scripted the battles were and how the game limited my character development, I couldn't help but think that Bioware doesn't really value choice as much as they claim.
7. Load Times
I understand that high-fidelity graphics are the cat's pajamas and everything, but being forced to watch a load screen because I want to go from the Command Center to the shuttle bay is monotonous.
I recall conveying my disdain for the multiplayer addition as far back as when it was first rumored. I felt Bioware was working to pander to the multiplayer audience more than trying to truly deliver a solid fun-filled experience.
I didn't hate the idea because I dislike multiplayer (check my Battlefield 3 stats). I hated the idea because somehow I knew their motivation for adding it was going to lead to a completely substandard and unsatisfactory product.
Unfortunately, Bioware proved me right. The multiplayer was not fun and obviously done to pad play time stats and appease the people that can't live without MP. There were some technical missteps that veteran multiplayer developers should never miss. There was: no automatic start if the leader is ready and one of the players in the lobby is lolly-gagging; no variety in battle outside of the type of monsters you kill; battles take way too long for very limited pay-off; some customization is only temporary requiring you to purchase random upgrades; and it employed the same mediocre-at-best 3rd-Person shooter mechanics we talked about earlier.
Bottom Line – Mass Effect 3’s Multiplayer added no value to the overall experience.
To Sum Things Up
I really wanted to love the Mass Effect saga as a total experience. Sadly, all the fears I carried with me after finishing Mass Effect 2 were only amplified while playing Mass Effect 3. Overall, I think the series was decent, but nowhere near deserving of all the praise it has received over the last 5 years.