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?