Mass Effect 3 is okay. I know I’m committing a sin of journalistic review by using an ambiguous term to describe the most recent game in a series that’s cemented itself as a standard for videogame storytelling. There’s not much I can do about that. That’s my honest opinion. It’s not phenomenal; it’s not atrocious. It’s just okay.
For anyone who hasn’t played the Mass Effect series, 3 is the denouement in a trilogy nested in testy galactic geopolitics. Humanity, having found themselves only one sapient civilization among a variety of others, wrestles with the challenges of inclusion and thinly veiled manifest destiny while careful of superior alien political and military firepower.
However, the exact story of the Mass Effect series is much simpler: there’s an elite operative squad called the Spectres, who are an amalgamation of cowboys, Jedi, and Navy Seals. Your character – the famous Commander Shepard – is sent on an otherwise innocuous mission as a test of his or her candidacy. After a series of events and visions, the first Mass Effect culminated in the realization that the galaxy is built on a cycle of extinction, perpetrated by a mechanical race called the Reapers.
In Mass Effect 2, Shepard was brought back to life after a rather unfortunate case of death in the prologue, whereupon he/she was required to investigate the disappearance of human colonies on the fringes of centralized human space. That game ended with Shepard thwarting the Reaper Harbinger, who had been growing a larval Reaper constructed from liquefied human colonists.
Mass Effect 3 begins some time after Mass Effect 2, thought it’s never explicitly stated just how much time has elapsed. Based on 2’s final bit of DLC – Arrival of the Reapers – Mass Effect 3 probably occurs at least several months after the ending ofthe previous game. Commander Shepard is placed before a military tribunal when suddenly the Reapers invade Earth. Through an exciting escape (which handily doubles as a tutorial level), Shepard is ordered to travel to Mars in order to find archives of an ancient secret weapon which he or she hopes will be the key to defeating the technologically and militarily superior Reapers.
There’s a lot Mass Effect 3 does right. Its gameplay is vastly improved over the first Mass Effect, which had yet to decouple itself entirely from the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic formula that Bioware has been tweaking for over a decade. Though there’s a trade-off in the loss of the wanton freedom that comes with micromanaging your team, it reduces the hassle of inventory – something that was never the Mass Effect’s strong suit.
However, when you compare Mass Effect 2’s minimal and superior shooter-focused setup tothe first game, you find that Mass Effect 3 invariably favors the former. These changes manifest themselves in more ways than one: the bullets feel louder, punchier, and heavier; you can quickly glide from cover to cover; and a weapon modification system provides more flexibility for Shepard and the crew of his ship, the Normandy. Everything is faster, frenetic, and high-octane. Enemies are much more intelligent: they cluster in groups to cover their weaknesses, fire under cover more readily, and aren’t afraid of lobbing grenade after grenade in your direction.
One of the most important changes in Mass Effect 3’s combat system is that the player can now equip any weapon in his or her arsenal. In Mass Effect 2, the player’s weapons were limited to their specific builds: Vanguards couldn’t use sniper rifles, Adepts couldn’t use assault rifles, and Infiltrators couldn’t use shotguns. In Mass Effect 3, Shepard can equip whatever weapon he or she desires at the cost of weight, which affects the recharge time on biotic and tech abilities. The fewer (or lighter) the weapons Shepard equips, the faster the recharge.
This change creates a fine balancing act in character builds that make combat much more rewarding and involved than in previous games due to another addition: more choice in advanced powers. In Mass Effect, you invested points in various options that incrementally improved Shepard’s abilities. In Mass Effect 2, every skill, tech, or biotic level required multiple points, with the maximum level culminating in you choosing between two variations of an elite skill. In Mass Effect 3, this skill choice mechanic begins on the fourth level for each skill, continuing on for another two. Many of the fifth and sixth level skill choices accentuate Mass Effect 3’s additions, such as weight capacity and stronger biotic combos. These builds are paramount to player variation: The player isn’t shackled by built-in limitations imposed by character classes. Ultimately, if you want to play (and likely fail) as a character with biotic charge and a sniper rifle, you have the freedom to do so. Limitations seem otherwise arbitrary.
In fact, there’s really nothing negative I can say about Mass Effect 3’s additions to combat and gameplay. The game prudently chooses the path of accentuating shooter mechanics from Mass Effect 2 over the RPG mechanics from Mass Effect 1, making every class more flexible and capable. Overall, it’s a pile of great gameplay additions on top of a simple, but strong foundation that was first exhibited in Mass Effect 2, so it’s hard to criticize.
Realistically, its narrative is its weakest link. Despite my fear of oversimplification, when we compare Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 to Mass Effect 3, then the latter is not as well written. Within the Bioware pantheon of strong world-building (Dragon Age: Origins, Jade Empire) to strong character development (Mass Effect 2), Mass Effect 3 inhabits a strangely nebulous position in that it functions much more compellingly as an organic network of short, serialized sufferings beneath a poorly-wrought cavalcade of climactic convenience.
A late-game plot device should be compelling, but fails in its goal. Its parallels to the atomic bomb are prevalent and blatant, with Admiral Hackett outright referencing the similarity. But it’s far too sudden, too quick. It’s an eleventh hour device that’s implemented as the focal point of the story, but never sufficiently creates tension or contention within the plot. There’s no mention of it in the previous games, and Bioware only weakly manage to tie it in with comments regarding dark energy from Mass Effect 2. The same goes for another related maguffin: its nature is so heavily mired in secrecy and minuteness that its reveal is jarring and so unconventional that it borders on immersion-shattering.
The plot also removes a considerable amount of narrative causality from Mass Effect 2. In Mass Effect 2, the ultimate decision was to destroy or retrieve the Collector Base. In Mass Effect 3, the Collector Base is brushed aside, the fate of the Illusive man is taken out of your hands, and the only real consequence to your choices are minute war assets which have no major bearing on the ending. Because Mass Effect 2 had an ending choice, choosing to mitigate the effect of that choice robs the player of meaningful input from the previous games. It feels like a betrayal.
In Mass Effect 2, the Illusive Man was deceptive but well-meaning. Though he was quick to use Shepard as bait on several occasions without telling you, he was Machiavellian in that the ends justified the means. The chaotic good that he embodied gave him a sense of humanity, reflecting humans in general. In Mass Effect 3, because Shepard is back with the Alliance, the Illusive Man is inherently and immediately antagonistic. Instead of being deceptive for the sake of a greater good, he is actively intrusive, destructive, and detrimental. All he needs is an evil laugh and a hollowed-out volcano and he could be a Bond villain.
This lack of subtlety and nuance also shows in another of the game’s antagonists: Kai Leng, whose underdeveloped in-game backstory and mookish motivations provide no complexity to his character. Kai Leng is an emphasis of function over meaning. He exists simply as a boss waiting to be defeated, a dragon that must be slain without consideration for his purpose or end goal. We’re warned of him, about him, and by him, but those warnings are only one of the dimensions required for a fleshed-out human being. If Bioware was attempting to have a lifeless and droll mechanical doll of a human being providing introspective meta-commentary on indoctrination, then they’ve certainly succeeded. But as a villain, his blandness is so in-your-face that it’s uncomfortable; he’s all too willing to deliver unnecessary one-liners and shriek empty, ominous threats during combat.
But aside from the shaky premise that unfortunately makes up the foundation of Mass Effect 3, it’s sentimentally sound. In the first game, the wonder of an infinite traverse enamored and wowed us, with the backdrop of curmudgeonly sapience underlining the realism that was in the fiber of every species’ government. We were given the chance to have conversations revolving around social identity (“It’s not racism, not really,” says Ashley Williams) and the deflation of romanticism for mundaneness (“We got out here, and the final frontier was already settled,” laments Kaidan Alenko). In many ways, the first game felt very much like an older science fiction tale as if it were written by Stephen King. It was a story simple in scope, peppered by wonder and tiny musings that give life to a surprisingly intricate cobweb of galactic politics.
In Mass Effect 2, the story shifted to the people that inhabit these galactic spaces. By moving to the wild Terminus Systems, Mass Effect 2 liberalized character development by emphasizing the Wild West nature of the cosmos. As we ventured into dirtier and more dangerous places, we found grittier, more scarred individuals and their backstories. Some of them, like Jack’s upbringing or Tali’s father, were downright tragic. Others, like Garrus’s quest for vengeance, could be sobering.
But what matters is that in the course of finding skilled individuals for Shepard’s suicide mission, the player was able to come to better terms with what it meant to have fear, trouble, and doubt. The nature of the suicide mission – that very terminal nature – amplified the worries of even the steeliest of beings, regardless of their humanity. In a way, Mass Effect 2 created a wonderful structure: you collected a squad of badasses whom, for all their badassery, had regrets because of their almost certain and inevitable death. They were scared that they’d never have another chance to right their wrongs, tell their loved ones they loved them, and close the book on old friendships. In Mass Effect 2, the journey was internal, propelled by the pressures of mortality as much as the grand space opera unfolding through the course of the narrative.
Mass Effect 3 incorporates variations of both sentiments, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Though we don’t find the exact same majesty of open space that we did in Mass Effect, we do find a sort of perverted majesty in the Reapers as they saunter slowly from place to place. As colossi, the Reapers in Mass Effect 3 remind us of Shepard’s physical insignificance. They’re ultimately uncaring, refusing to see the forest for the trees, focusing on civilizations and planets rather than the individuals that call them home. One section exemplifies this, as the size of a Reaper around a giant tower grows exponentially as Shepard and his or her squad rushes towards their goal, completely engulfed in the shadows of the Reaper’s legs. Its ponderousness is a threat in its own right, exemplifying the immensity of the enemy. Though we don’t look for final frontiers anymore, the Reapers remind us that these frontiers exist, and strange things will exist in such vast blackness.
As for the inwardness, the fear, the doubt, and the unfinished business that bubbles to the surface with the realization of death, it’s still there. However, it’s much more muted. Snippets and stories of people all around you as they deal with grief, scarcity, and uncertainty are enmeshed in the areas that the players go to for comfort. On the Normandy, you can hear the static-filled panic of Garrus’s father as he and his daughter attempt to flee to safety. At Huerta Memorial hospital, one memorable encounter with an asari commando manages to be convincing purely through the quality of the voice acting – you can feel the fear in their voice, the desperation. We listen to people worrying about the future of their career to keep their mind off of the destruction of Earth. These are strong people, powerful people, and they’re stripped of their might in the face of overwhelming and strange cruelty. Though Mass Effect 3 doesn’t have the oppressive terminal consciousness that Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission does, the knowledge that any day could be their last permeates the rationale of many of the characters, from the renewed krogan clans of Tuchanka to flight lieutenant Cortez.
Yet even that can’t temper the most egregious issue, which is the game’s inability to replicate powerlessness. A major theme that emerges from Mass Effect 3 is the zero-sum nature of the conflict: no matter what Shepard does, somebody is going to lose. There was a similar case of this in Mass Effect 1, where you had to sacrifice one team member to save another, but that was a much more powerful (though shorter and contained) case than in Mass Effect 3. This game just doesn’t know how to home in on the horror.
The Reapers are terrifying. Their minions are terrifying. The screech of the slow, lumbering banshees remains frightening. The clicks of the bulbous ravagers remains frightening. The Reapers are messing everyone up. You can’t save everyone. That’s the point.
But even so, the game lacks that sort of gravity on a macro scale, so all moments of powerlessness are contained and somewhat shallow. This isn’t a galaxy beset by a galactic war: this is an extermination by a force that’s evidently much more powerful than any race, even united. It’s a literal bombing back to the Stone Age, and the diplomatic fires you have to put out undermine the small moments where extermination is the operative word in the Reapers’ grand strategy. Even as Reaper scouts arrive on one planet, you’re free to achieve your objective and disable a bomb. There’s no urgency.
Additionally, Shepard is never personally rendered powerless except by circumstance or by the player’s own design. In the best possible scenario, on a large scale, Shepard saves almost everyone; there is no sacrifice. This removes any sense of immediacy and worry for the player, who is thereby compelled to save everyone unless by the player’s knowing decision of choosing not to. After all, the more people you save, the more war assets. The more war assets, the better your forces fight. There’s never a significant losing proposition. You never have to settle for the Krogan or the Rachni in any grand scale; you can get both. You never have to settle for the Quarians or the Geth; you can get both.
This sort of everyone wins aspect makes dream sequences and Shepard’s lamenting particularly useless, nonsensical, superfluous, and in a Renegade Shepard, uncharacteristic. Even with Clint Mansell’s haunting score playing in the background, whispers in my ear, oily shapes dancing in the darkness, none of that makes for a frightening dream sequence. It feels too clean and simple, lacking any messiness from the vortex of emotional clusterfuck that should have been Shepard’s emotional state. For a more powerful display of wartime insanity, Spec Ops: The Line is a far more compelling example of where and how a character can realistically break down. What we see in Mass Effect 3 is too watered down and linear.
Don’t get me wrong: Mass Effect 3 is a fun game. It’s an exciting game. But it’s okay, not great. Bioware has proven in the past that they can write a story far more compelling than what is found in Mass Effect 3. In terms of pacing, it moves quite efficiently – but the story is garbled by convenience and never really learns to hammer the concept of emergency that well.
The gameplay is much better than Mass Effect and improves nicely upon Mass Effect 2. Everything feels much more powerful, faster, and more responsive; and with the introduction of the weight system, there’s much more freedom for players to customize the gameplay style of their Shepard. Going back to the first game in the series is difficult after playing Mass Effect 3, and even the gameplay in Mass Effect 2 feels perfunctory and simplistic in comparison. It’s also for that reason that I enjoyed Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer considerably, and still do.
But it’s the story that ultimately lowers its excellence into being just slightly above mediocrity. It’s not just blandness or convenient nonsensicality that harms the narrative, but shyness when there shouldn’t be. It fervently and zealously tells us that this is a big problem, this is a warzone, and this is a shitty place to be, but fails to punish us for disagreeing with it. It tries so hard to tell us that we can’t win every battle, especially against a foe as mighty as the Reapers, but tries so little to enforce those warnings. Of course, there’s always the infamous ending which we could discuss, but that’s since been addressed by so many writers far better than I that there’s no need to accentuate its original awfulness.
Don’t get me wrong: in its limpness, it has compelling snippets. I enjoyed the time I spent with Liara, talking to her as she realized that she could outlive the cycle, watching everyone around her die. I enjoyed the time in the Geth network, watching the flashbacks of brave Quarians who stood up for the Geth when no one else did, only to be forgotten by their own people. I enjoyed watching an abnormally large thresher maw take down a Reaper. Unfortunately, it gets drowned out by EDI becoming a conveniently sexy robot. It gets drowned out by a big “I win” bomb. It gets drowned out by a child that somehow becomes the fulcrum for Shepard’s sanity.
And that’s a bit unfortunate.