So, I’ve just finished the last game in the Mass Effect trilogy, Mass Effect 3. Let me start by saying that I think I liked it better than Mass Effect 2, but that Mass Effect is still my favourite game in the series.
There will be spoilers here, so let me continue below the fold:
I see Mass Effect 3 as being an attempt to combine the more story-driven approach of ME1 with the character focus of ME2. Unfortunately, the story in ME3 is serviceable at best. It had some moments, but for the most part the best parts of it are exactly when it’s tying into the arc of one or more of the characters. For example, the Genophage and its relation to both Mordin Solus and Wrex (if you kept them alive), and the Quarian/Geth war and how that relates to Tali and Legion. Those moments are great, but beyond that the story is very slim and not particularly memorable. It could be nostalgia talking, but I even found that the political situations were more contrived and less deep than they were in ME1. Also, I never really got a good sense of what Cerberus was up to and why it was doing what it was doing. I didn’t really understand why they attacked the Citadel, and while the Illusive Man’s ultimate goal wasn’t utterly insane, how he managed to think of that to enact it wasn’t clear. Cerberus was the sideshow with a plot that required more depth than the sideshow in a game like ME3 could provide. His ending could have been tragic, especially given what you find out later: that he was pursuing a valid option, but that what he had to do for him to achieve it left him unable to actually achieve it. Then if you took that option he could be seen as having paved the way for you to actually do it. Also, he doesn’t really give much of a reason for wanting to take that option other than “Think of the power we can gain!”. If he really thought, for example, that destroying the Reapers wouldn’t work, or knew that it would have to damage technology to do so, he’d at least have a motivation that made sense.
I played on narrative difficulty, and so can’t say too much about how well the shooter aspects were done. I will say that for the most part they weren’t intrusive, but that for the most part the fun of the game for me wasn’t in them, and that sometimes they went on a bit long and so got in the way of the story aspects. Getting to run an Atlas at one point, though, was kinda fun.
I’ve already talked a bit about how ME3 does exploration badly. After actually resorting to a FAQ to ensure that I got enough EMS to get the “perfect” ending (using the Extended Cut free DLC), I can only say that I’m even more convinced of that now. I didn’t care for the Mako in ME1, but ME2 and ME3’s exploration is, well, not at all interesting, and mandated in various ways by the story if you want things to work out. The biggest issue I had with ME3’s exploration is that, at least for me, how much reaction you were going to get from the Reapers from a scan was never really defined, and so sometimes you’d get three or more attempts and sometimes you’d trigger them after two and have to quickly flee the system. There might be interesting mechanics underneath this — eg it might matter what their attention level is for other systems in the same sector — but the game discourages experimentation because if you trigger a high level of Reaper interest you can’t look for Assets there until you run a mission … and, of course, missions are limited resources. This, of course, also means that you have to be efficient in your searching, which means that if you scan a sector, miss things, leave, run a mission, and come back you might have forgotten where you’ve searched and thus scan a planet that you already knew had nothing, making it harder to get all the Assets … and so on.
Let me now address the two most commonly cited issues with ME3: Kai Leng and the ending.
I didn’t hate Kai Leng. He was a minor irritant to me who played a very minor role in my game. It’s clear that the game wanted me to think of him as being more critical than I did, but I was never really tempted to do that. I’d be mad about how he was able to take out Thane, except that a) Thane was sick at the time and b) Thane did stop him from completing his mission, so he failed. So I could live with that. And when he beat me on Thessia, it wasn’t really him beating me; I would have won eventually if he hadn’t had the gunship shoot the floor out from under me. So despite the fact that the game really wanted me to feel depressed over my failure, both my and my character’s reaction there was to think “Okay, let’s go kick the Illusive Man’s butt and get that back”, as IC that’s what my Shepard had been doing over three games now, and OOC it was obvious that that was going to be the next mission. At the final confrontation, it was just a matter of “Oh, it’s time to finally kill him so that we can find and kill the Illusive Man”, not any kind of really personal vendetta. For me, it really was a “It was Tuesday” type of thing; Kai Leng obviously felt he had something he needed to prove in killing me, but for me it was just another boss mook that I had to kill before I could move on. I did manage to pull off the Renegade action that was for Thane, and that worked out well. But, ultimately, Kai Leng was a bug on the windshield of my Shepard, and so I didn’t have the hate for him that others did.
Now, onto the ending. I’m running the Extended Cut, so the ending wasn’t just the “Pick a colour and get a short text message” type thing that I think irritated many a gamer. Instead, I had to walk up and choose my ending through action … and got the wrong option the first time because it wasn’t clear that “Use control panel” meant “Use the panel to control the Reapers” instead of “Use the control panel to decide what to do” … and it autosaves right before you do that, and doesn’t let you save there. Nuts.
Anyway, again I didn’t mind the ending as much as most people. The Catalyst’s explanation of the cycle and what brought it about and why it did that was, well, utterly moronic … but it didn’t bother me because my and my character’s thought on that was “You’re an idiot!” not “This is supposed to make sense”. That the Catalyst was essentially a confused and even failing AI that came up with the most idiotic plan possible to stop organics and synthetics from fighting and then tried to convince you of two equally idiotic options instead of destroying the Reapers made a lot of sense. And it was a very stupid plan, because a) organics had conflict with each other anyway; fighting with synthetics wasn’t any worse, b) that synthetics would try to better themselves doesn’t have to lead to conflict, c) “harvesting” all the organics can’t be better for them than having a few fights with synthetics, d) using a mostly mechanical force to kill all organics is conflict between organics and synthetics, no matter what he called it and finally e) at that point in the game I had turned EDI into something more than a simple synthetic and had brought peace between the organics and synthetics of the Quarian and Geth, which you can’t even mention. Ultimately … yeah, the Catalyst was an idiot, but there’s no real indication that we’re supposed to think it intelligent, or think that its solution ever made sense. So I can live with it. I would have rathered it being clearer and making more of a difference if you live through the destroy ending, but I can live with what I got (no pun intended).
Also, in the EC at least the impression is that the destroy option damages but doesn’t destroy the relays. It might wipe out the Geth, which made me sad, but if that was the price I had to pay, so be it. The reason I chose destroy instead of the other two was: 1) under control, I would be separated from my old life, which made me wonder if I wouldn’t end up being as stupid as the existing Catalyst and 2) synthesis just sounded like a really, really bad idea all around. Technology needing to be repaired and the loss of the Geth seemed like the option that cost the least and had the least risk.
Ultimately, the big strength of ME3 is in its characters and ending their arcs, which is why I can understand the anger in the first ending that didn’t really say what happened to them. The moments I enjoyed the most were the ones with the characters, and those were the most interesting plotlines. I really liked the part at the end where you can talk to all of those who are still alive and get that one final discussion. Outside of that, there’s nothing really special about ME3, and so I have to rate it as “Meh”. A good enough game, and one that I enjoyed playing well enough, and one that I’m happy to have finished, but not one of the games I’d consider classic.
Later, I’ll talk about my impressions of the trilogy overall.