Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review - Mass Effect 3 (PS3)

Mass Effect 3's PS3 demo was, perhaps strangely, my first step into the Mass Effect series. I missed out on the first game and didn't play the second until the third game was released, and I ended up playing ME2 and 3 essentially back to back. ME3 offers refined gameplay, streamlined resource management, fantastic setpieces, and a fun but shallow multiplayer mode. At the same time, it brings with it a notable downgrade in quality of writing, a poorly implemented sidequest system, and an ending that made the internet explode with rage. I will address the ending in a separate post (I don't think it deserves the outcry it's received); for this review, I want to focus on the 99% of content that makes up the rest of the game.

For my thoughts on the basics of Mass Effect's gameplay and world, please read my review of Mass Effect 2. The combat in ME3 is essentially the same as 2's, but with the added ability to dodge by rolling, better options for close quarters melee, and additional powers. The games play very similarly in battle, but I feel ME3 to be a definite improvement in this area.

A major change from Mass Effect 2 to 3 is that you no longer need to mine planets for resources, and instead planetary exploration becomes a mediocre minigame in which you fly around a solar system map, press a button to scan for junk, and avoid giant Reaper squid ships. This is less tedious than ME2's dull mining for resources, but it's somehow even less rewarding. The minerals you mined in ME2 were used to upgrade weapons, equipment, and your ship. More than 50% of what you scan for in ME3 ends up just being fuel, to give you enough supply to fly to the next system and scan for yet more fuel. This is frustrating since being low on fuel is never an issue. There's no reward to finding it.

Other than fuel, your scans will sometimes find items that are needed to complete uninspired fetch quests. You'll spend a lot of time in this game visiting the Citadel, the seat of galactic power. While there, you can eavesdrop on NPCs that are looking for stuff. You go out, scan for that stuff, and return it to them. There's no challenge to this and the dialogue with these NPCs is rarely interesting.

These quests add value to the Alliance fleet's overall military power. In order to unlock a certain ending, you'll need to have your power over a certain threshold. Playing missions in the online multiplayer mode also adds to your overall effectiveness. However, since there are no tangible, immediate rewards, it feels very tedious. The extraordinarily long load times you have to get through to explore the Citadel and talk to NPCs just makes matters worse.

The dullness of the sidequests and the load times are my biggest complaints with this game. Load times are frequent, long, and frustrating, and the game (at least the PS3 version) stutters while walking through certain areas, mostly in the Citadel, that you already sat through a long loading screen to see. I'm not sure how a small area with almost exclusively non-interactive NPCs could take so long to load when battlescapes full of enemies and NPCs you CAN interact with take less time. Every floor of the Citadel requires a separate lengthy load screen, as does moving from deck to deck on your ship. Instead of ME2's cheesy hacking minigame to cover up load time in certain areas, you now just stand for way too long staring at doors as a green circle rotates. In spite of the game looking visually gorgeous, it feels very poorly optimized.

I did enjoy the few hours I played of this game's multiplayer, but it's nothing amazing. You and a squad of three other players are dropped into a base where you must defeat waves of enemies, secure key locations, and activate items. Each round is about 20 minutes long and doesn't have a whole lot of variety, but it is fun in short bursts. It might have worked better if the rounds were shorter. I think it's obnoxious that online multiplayer is requires to see the game's "best" (I use that only because it's the hardest to get, but it's far from the most satisfying) ending, since EA will inevitably one day take down the game's servers, but in and of itself the multiplayer is entertaining. I played about six hours of it total, and don't feel compelled to keep playing, but I did have fun.

Now that the negatives are out of the way, I'll focus on what I really enjoy about these games; the characters and settings. The writing is definitely not as sharp as Mass Effect 2's, but it's still decently above average and while the overall plot isn't anything special (Reapers have invaded, get the universe to unite and strike back), a lot of the side plots are quite good. I really enjoyed the conclusion of the Genophage plotline and the conflict between the Quarians and the Geth.

Commander Shepard and her comrades are still a lot of fun to play with, but unfortunately there are significantly fewer playable characters this time around. Mass Effect 2 features 12 playable characters, while ME3 only features 7 (and one of those 7 is sold as downloadable content). In ME2, 10 of your 12 characters were new to the series, with only Garrus and Tali returning from ME1. In ME3, only 3 of the 7 are new, the rest being returning characters from the first game. None of the new characters from ME2 are playable here, though all of them show up in the story in some capacity.

This crew is still a lot of fun, but they're definitely less endearing than Mass Effect 2's. I really missed having Mordin, Legion, Thane, and Grunt in my party. Running into Jacob and Miranda also made me wish they were still a part of the main crew. The fact that there's no playable Krogan at all really bothered me, especially since both Grunt and Wrex play a role in the story

The three new characters are: James Vega, a muscle-head with an attitude who I thought was going to be annoying but ended up finding funny. Javik, a Prothean who was frozen 50,000 years ago and can be thawed through the power of Downloadable Content (He's my favorite character in this game and plays a major role in the story if he's in your party; the fact that he was locked as DLC is outright offensive). Finally we have EDI, the ship's AI from the previous game who can now join your away missions in a robot body.

I like this in concept; The Robot Who Wishes to be Human is a staple of sci-fi, and when a series of games already feels this much like Star Trek, it probably should have its own Mr. Data. Unfortunately, Bioware decided that EDI would choose to inhabit the body of a Sexy Fan Service Droid, giving her what may be the most grossly inappropriate character design in the series. I don't even want to know what made them say, "You know, the AI should probably look like a naked human with breasts the size of her head." It's an absolutely bizarre design choice that manages to make my complaints about Samara and Miranda's designs in Mass Effect 2 being too fan servicey seem minor. EDI looks ridiculous, and the two uniforms you can put her in don't help matters at all.

In addition to EDI's horrible design and the camera once again zooming in on Miranda's butt when she appears on screen, this game also features the usual awkward romance scenes that would make late night Cinemax proud. The game fetishizes its female characters in an uncomfortable way, which is a shame because their writing is still quite good, with the exception of Diana Allers, a terrible addition to the story. She is played by and modeled after IGN's Jessica Chobot, a writer who got her job by taking pictures of herself licking a PSP. She's an enabler of everything bad about the way the games industry sees women, and so of course she would be stuck into this game as a Sexy Journalist who your character can make out with. This is even trashier than EDI's new body, since she contributes almost nothing of value to the story.

Aside from Allers, most of the characters in this game ARE very well written and entirely likable. I think it's impressive that there's actually a gay male character (your shuttle pilot) who laments the death of his husband and comes to terms with his loss. He doesn't conform to stereotypes, and comes off completely human. This is good progress, and deserves recognition even if Bioware's art department really blew it with some of the game's women.

Less well written are the game's villains. Harbinger, the Reaper who threatens to GET YOU NEXT TIME! at the end of Mass Effect 2's The Arrival chapter, shows up but has no lines. The Illusive Man returns as an antagonist, but comes off much more cartoonishly evil than his Mass Effect 2 self, who felt like a more subtle character. Kai Leng is introduced, a Cerberus soldier who is meant to be a Badass Super Ninja but just comes off kind of stupid and overdone. He doesn't really fit the game's aesthetic and feels like a sub-par clone of Metal Gear Solid 4's Raiden.

The writing is still good enough to cover up the illusion of freedom that the game's choices give you. The story plays out largely the same no matter what you do; The game begins with Udina serving as Earth's representative on the Alliance Council even if you chose to elect Anderson instead in the original game. Characters that died in Mass Effect 2 are replaced by close analogues of their race when they're needed in ME3's story. The ending boils down to one of three choices made at the very end, with earlier choices not making a difference.

That last part really made a lot of fans furious, but it didn't surprise me. For all the dialogue choices these games give you, you only rarely have to make major choices, and most of those only really matter for the mission that you make the choice in. It adds to the depth of the game's world, but it doesn't affect the plot's direction in any major way. No matter what you do, you still end Mass Effect 2 by attacking the Collector Base. No matter what you do, you still end Mass Effect 3 by picking one of three choices. It's unfortunate, but it's the nature of the game's structure. Bioware handles the illusion of freedom very well for the most part, but it really becomes obvious at the very end. I don't mind too much; I think the ending is thematically appropriate, well foreshadowed, and a reasonably logical place to end up. Ultimately, the vastness of the universe doesn't care if you slept with Garrus or Liara, and I think that's fine. I'll go into more specifics on my thoughts about the ending in another post.

Overall, this game is weaker than Mass Effect 2, in spite of looking and sounding much nicer and having more refined combat. The writing, while still good, isn't up to ME2's standard. The overall plot doesn't have as much mystery to it, and your buddies from 2 tend to only show up in one scene a piece. I would have liked to have done more side missions with them than the terrible fetch quests you're presented with.

I feel like I've been pretty negative in this review, but most of the positive things I have to say about the series have been said in my Mass Effect 2 review. ME3 has lots of little issues that really bugged me, but nothing massively horrible that ruined the game. Whether you like the ending or not, there's still an extremely fun game here, and if you let the last hour of a 30 hour game ruin the entire experience for you, you should probably study the whole "The journey is more important than the destination" thing before leaving a vapid 1/5 star review on Amazon. But, again, that's a topic for the next post.

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