More noise than signal

An Even Longer List Of Annoyances From Mass Effect 3, Indicating That I’ve Thought About This Entirely Too Much

I suppose I should have left this game series for a little while, given my extended bout of niggle-picking, to allow a process of healing, or at the very least amnesia, to occur. However, thanks to the fine people at Lovefilm dropping the concluding part to the Mass Effect saga through the door far earlier than expected, I thought I’d plough on and stick a stake through the franchise.

Wiser people may not have bothered, but like Magnus Magnussen, I’ve started, so I’ll finish. For the most part, the game is a further refinement of Mass Effect 2, meaning a great deal more crouching behind space walls and firing space guns at space monsters in the same professional, clinical space way that every other quarter-way decent cover-based shooter does. But in space. I’ve little further to say about the mechanics of this over that of Mass Effect 2, other than to say it’s all very competent and disappointingly bland.

I should interject at this point, before the Diatribe Engine cranks into full roar, that for all of my whining I was still happy enough to sink 40-odd hours into doing everything the game offered, and to see out how the character (and indeed entire civilisation) arcs play out. While you can (and I will) take issue with some of the storytelling, and perhaps it’s not how I think it could have most satisfyingly wrapped everything up, we must stop and recognise that across the three games, this series has the most fleshed out and complete characters, history and universe that we’ve seen in videogaming.

You could perhaps make the case for the Elder Scrolls games being on a par, but to my mind a lot of their world history is flavour text rather than anything integral to the adventures. In Mass Effect, the wounds from conflicts settled long before humanity even bothered their first Turian are still evident, and the fallout from these believably shapes the universe you explore.

Now, it’s rather less convincing that all of these ramifications have to be sorted out over the course of this game by one dude in a spiffy spaceship making a couple of mildly inspirational speeches after shooting lots of things from behind low alien walls, but a sense of closure is nonetheless welcomed.

The broad strokes of the story arc ties up pretty well. The details, however, are often bafflingly clumsily handled, from the very outset. At least you don’t die at the start of this game, however you do start under house arrest for reasons that are never really made clear. Unless, of course, you’ve bought the DLC pack where you perform the actions that put you there. I’m not a knee-jerk anti DLC kinda guy, really, but when it starts deleteriously affecting the storytelling of the core game its firmly over the limits of acceptability.

DLC as a way to extend the life of the game or tell additional stories, such as The Shivering Isles pack for Oblivion, are perfectly fine, indeed that pack would almost pass muster as a standalone game. Zero day DLC packs, however, can get fucked. It’s not something extra that designers have slaved over after a game’s release, it’s content created for the game launch that’s been deliberately ring-fenced in order to nickel and dime more cash from eager punters. It’s predatory, annoying and I’ll have no part of it.

At any rate, your incarceration is brought to a swift end as the Reapers make their long-threatened, often warned, always ignored arrival on Earth and begin to ruin everyone’s shit, taking a curiously long time to do so given how we’ve been banging on about how powerful and unstoppable they are. This allows us to make an escape to rally up some forces to take back Earth, while the Reapers leisurely eat cities at a rate determined only by our process through the Priority-level missions. This is a game, after all.

Your first real hint that the writers may be over-extending themselves comes with the escape sequence, at one point stumbling onto a small, scared boy hiding in a ventilation shaft who scrambles away rather than accepting your help. It clumsily screams ‘recurring motif’, and indeed as we depart the planet we see him scamper onto a rescue shuttle only for it to be burned by the Reapers. Oh noes, the horror, etc. I suppose this was done in an attempt to drive home the gravity of the situation, especially as most subsequent updates on the situation on Earth offer few more details than “it’s bad”.

If it stopped there, that wouldn’t be too dreadful. Ham-fisted, but forgettable. Obviously, it isn’t. After a few missions we return to the Citadel to speak to the ever-helpful Council, who have yet to do anything of any use or indeed display one scintilla of sense over three games. On returning to your ship, and I mean immediately on pressing the ‘open’ button at the dock airlock, we are transported to a black and white forest, surrounded with shadowy wisps chasing that their small boy.

I ask you this – name me one game with playable dream sequences that wouldn’t be improved by removing them. This is no exception and, joy of joys, there are multiple occurrences. Besides, would it have killed you to at least show us going to sleep?

Anyway, the bulk of the game at least allows a measure of vengeance against those Cerberus pricks I so railed against in the last write-up, as they seem hellbent on interfering with our attempts at alien-wrangling for reasons that are only vaguely defined, but whatever. If it allows me to mindlessly slaughter hundreds of footsoldiers, I’m happy.

Indeed, we seem to spend more time fighting the bafflingly well funded renegade human faction than the Reaper footsoldiers, which seems a tad strange. Speaking of Reapers, there’s a few new models of them to contend with, and if they weren’t either dumber than a bag of hammers or slower than a wheel-clamped Sinclair C5 I imagine they’d be quite tough to deal with. As it stands, the only difficulty the present comes from the massive stack of hitpoints they hide behind, putting your ammo (grrr, ammo) stocks in more danger than your person. I can only imagine the “fun” this would present on the Insanity difficulty mode.

Speaking of lazy video game fallbacks, there’s a disappointing reliance on cut-scene superpowers and idiocy, with your enemies getting the former and you the latter. If I never see one more purposefully unwinnable boss fight again, I will be a happy man. It’s particularly galling after spending a few minutes taking on this supposed bad-ass, drilling him full of assault rifle holes while remaining untouched yourself only for him this to trigger a cutscene where he gets the better of you, and then have him gloat about beating you (he didn’t!) and the aftermath of characters disappointed in your failure (I didn’t!) and the repercussions (there shouldn’t have been any!). I wish they could find a better, less obnoxious way to drive the plot forward.

The particular irritant in question here is a Cerberus assassin, Kai Leng, who is a useful character to talk about inasmuch as he typifies the sloppiness in storytelling. Apparently, Leng’s a legendarily powerful bad guy. We know this because we are told this numerous times before we meet him. However, he’s no exception to the general axiom of show, don’t tell, and we aren’t shown him doing a damn thing worthy of his attitude.

Perhaps if you’ve read the Mass Effect books that, as best as I can gather, the character is drawn from, there might be some reason to give this stupid, emo-looking harlequin some credibility, but there’s none given in Mass Effect 3. I suppose I could read the novels, but the quality-to-drivel ratio of game novelisations is perhaps worse than game to film adaptations, so I think I’ll let that opportunity pass me by.

It seems that, rather sensibly, no-one on the face of the planet was fond of the mining sub-game / exploration replacement in Mass Effect 2. Surprisingly, this has been seized on as an opportunity to make it even more frustrating. We’re not looking for curiously unsellable mineral wealth this time round, just “War Assets” – various units or McGuffins that will help the preparations for the strike against the reapers. And we don’t need to spend hours probing planets, as the scans can be performed from the solar system maps, and cover a wide enough area that it’s not uncommon to envelope two planets in the range for discovering things.

This sounds like a major improvement, but there’s a slight wrinkle. Most of the areas we’ll be scanning are in Reaper-infested space, and scanning alerts them there baddies. Should the alert levels raise too high, they’ll show up and Game Over you, unless you run away, and they remain on patrol until you go off and complete a mission. Given that in many of the systems, if you were to search the entire system you’d be using ten to twenty scans, and that the maximum number of scans I’ve ever gotten away with in a system without raising an alarm is three, you can see that this isn’t adding up.

So, it seems that the designed method for finding these assets would be to draw up a grid search pattern for each system, scan two or three blocks, mark them off, repeat for every single system in the game, then do a mission and repeat until your grip on sanity finally slips and you wind up in one of those news articles ending with “before turning the gun on himself”. Lunacy. Alternatively, we’ll consult Gamefaqs and end around this stupidity.

The reward for all this ridiculous tedium, incidentally, is that a number on a console very marginally increases.

That’s a little reductive, but increasing your available War Assets to the maximum, and I’m skipping over the multi-player bonus multipliers that can fuck right off, thank you, makes very little difference in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it contributes to “the best” ending, but not in much more than a few different line of dialogue, as best as I can gather. It’s completely overwhelmed by the more direct actions Sheppy takes, which does rather render the whole thing a bit of a pointless time-sink.

Ahhh, the ending. It’s already caused enough Internet Outrage that I think there’s little point in delving into it, and I’m trying not to make this too spoilerific. To be honest, the bruhaha is overdone, but I have some sympathy for the complaints. Again, it ties into the general storytelling problems of the broad strokes being there, but the details are more clumsy than I’ve come to expect from the writing team.

There’s certainly an issue with what the game clearly thinks to be the “good” outcome, which is far more morally complex than it makes it out to be. It’s also reflecting a theme that’s frankly only hinted at in this game, and not at all in the previous instalments, and if this was planned to be the canon ending from the start it really needed to be more interwoven with the actions and outcomes of the universe.

Actually, I rescind my earlier comment. The problems aren’t that the details are clumsy, the problem is that the details simply aren’t there. The three galaxy redefining options essentially give you a different colour of lightshow, and the sequence then rather unceremoniously ends. No details given at all about the aftermath or implications of these actions. Perhaps it’s leaving the way open for more stories in this universe, but it’s a massively unsatifying way to round off over a hundred hours of investment in the games.

Is it bad enough to require apologising and promising free DLC packs to explain themselves? Well, I’d say not really, but Bioware themselves apparently disagree, so who am I to argue?