After the Council meeting, Udina and Shepard find themselves ranting about those stupid racist Aliens who won’t abandon their dumb homeworlds to come help Humans who are obviously the most important people in the galaxy. Yes, it’s absurd, but we just came from a meeting with the Galactic Council so it’s not even in the top five most absurd things said in the last six minutes.
A Turian comes in and offers a deal: One of the Turian worldsA moon, actually. has been overrun by Reapers. One of the Turian Primarchs is stuck there. He’s an important military guy. If Shepard rescues him, they’ll agree to send some forces to Earth. It sounds kind of implausible. How can one general be worth more than the fleets he commands? Particularly when you’re in a war with a foe that you can’t meaningfully oppose and the only thing you can do is buy your populace time with the lives of your military.
But whatever. I actually have a hard time getting worked up about the little details at this point. Our overall quest is to round up fleets for Earth, which doesn’t make sense with what the game has told us about the Reapers. But the writer presents this as if Shepard’s plan makes sense. And Shepard’s plan does sort of work in the end. It’s just that he doesn’t have a good in-universe reason for believing in it. Which means we can’t really examine him or his motivations anymore. He’s just doing whatever is needed to move the plot forward. This plot hole is so big we crossed its event horizon in the first half hour of the game, and these half-assed motivations and quests can’t really do any more damage. It’s like punching fresh holes in the hull of a wreck at the bottom of the ocean.
Actually, it’s not fair to say that Shepard is just rounding up fleets for Earth. He’s sort of also looking for help building the Crucible. Or he will be, once that plot point is developed over the next chapter. But the story is really vague about it. Sometimes he’s talking about the Crucible project and sometimes he’s talking about Earth and it’s not until the end of the game when those two plans suddenly merge into a single plan. And even then, it’s only in response to the Reapers moving the Citadel to Earth. This means that Shepard’s current plans are nonsense until the Reapers do something unexpected much later.
As we leave the Citadel, we have the first of Shepard’s dream sequence / cutscene things, which features Shepard chasing Some Kid That Died through a spooky(?) forest. We get one of these at the end of each chapter. We’l talk more about them once we get closer to the end. For now let’s just get to…
Shepard goes to the Turian moon of Menae to save the Primarch. Let’s switch back to looking for nice things to say:
The battle and destruction looks spectacular. The artists really sold the scope of the devastation. You can see it on the Turian world in the sky. You can see it on the horizon of Menae. You can see it right in front of you.
Garrus joins the party. Yes, we randomly run into Garrus on the planet in the middle of a warzone. But unlike randomly running into Tali on Freedom’s Progress in Mass Effect 2, this event is much less improbable and much better justified. Garrus is here because this is the most important front in the Turian fight and he’s the closest thing they have to a Reaper expert. The importance of this battlefield has drawn both of these characters here. Garrus has been working for high-ranking military guys, and Shepard is here looking for high-ranking military guys.
This meeting works because the writer realized that a chance meeting of two friends in a galaxy of trillions is something that needs to be lampshaded or explained. It only took a couple lines of dialog to smooth this out.
This mission isn’t as straightforward as presented at first. The primarch he’s looking for is dead, so Shepard has to run around and figure out which one of these mid-level officers has just rocketed up the chain of command due to attrition.
And even after saving the guy and letting him know his new rank, the guy doesn’t immediately promise to send fleets to Earth. Instead he (quite reasonably) says he’d rather keep his forces here to defend his homeworld. But! He’ll offer help if you can get the Krogan to join the war.
While our overall goal (save Earth!) is still lazy unimaginative horseshit, I like this chain of events and how they resist simplicity while also keeping the plot moving and setting up your next goal.
The Reaper War
Before we go too much farther, I suppose I should mention how the Reaper ground war is portrayed. It’s not very hard sci-fi, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it doesn’t really work all that well, but in the end I don’t think this is a problem. But for the sake of completeness, let’s look at how the Reapers are executing this invasion:
Instead of using orbital bombardment, the Reapers are landing on planets and engaging ground forces directly. From their perspective, it would actually make the most sense to gather far beyond the reach of ground defenses and obliterate infrastructure with impunity. The only threat to the Reapers would be the fleets, which wouldn’t stand much of a chance if the Reapers engaged in groups.
The Reapers could just blow up all the power plantsAnd if the meatbags are still using fossil fuels, blow up the refineries. and wait. No power means no factories. No factories means no weapons, ammunition, armor, supply lines, and vehicles. No advanced medicine. No refrigeration and no industrialized farming means no foodSee? The issue of food comes up EVERYWHERE. Water is sometimes just as big a deal, but sometimes not because it falls from the sky. Unlike food.. Within a few months the existing food stores will be gone, or will be rotting in warehouses without the means to distribute them. Water delivery systems will fail and cattleAssuming they’re omnivores. will die. Within two years, 90% of the population will be dead of disease and starvation. Then the Reapers can land and handle the mop-up work with little or no risk to themselves.
But instead the Reapers are attacking in this wildly impractical way. They’re flying face-first into the meatbag fortifications. They’re somehow capturing the livingOr harvesting the dead? and turning them into husk ground troops. They’re even building Frankenstein amalgamations of multiple species. That’s good as a “shock tactic”, but when you’re quasi-invincible, tireless, patient, and facing forces who are doomed to starve, why go to all that trouble? Do you really need the meatbags to piss themselves and cry before you murder them? As long as they’re dead, who cares?
Having said all this, I really don’t count this as a serious flaw in the game. This is stuff that most people wouldn’t ever notice. And even professional nitpickers like me would be eager to forgive the game for these lapses of military doctrine if the overall plot and themes had worked.
BioWare Has Left The Building
Despite all of this taking place in the Mass Effect universe with BioWare characters, this just doesn’t feel like a BioWare game in terms of plot, tone, structure, pacing, or a dozen other hallmarks that reveal the priorities and artistic sensibilities of the developers. Note that different doesn’t always mean worse. There are lots of areas where this game is strong. The combat has gone mainstream, the production values are top-notch, the cutscenes are less visually awkward and more “cinematic”. This feels like the product of a different developer with a different set of strengths and weaknesses. It’s like when the Amnesia sequel was given to The Chinese Room. You can like the old, or the new, or both, but they’re clearly cut from different cloth.
In Mass Effect 1, the opening scene was filled with long, exploratory dialogs. You could talk to Jenkins and Chakwas and see what they thought about several topics. Nilus was there to fill you in on the galactic politics, and then Anderson showed up to talk about the Protheans and ancient history. The game was filled with optional conversations, lore, and even philosophical debates between characters. You could talk to someone for a couple of minutes, or you could blow them off quickly. You initiated most conversations, you chose when they ended, and Shepard said very little without your direct input.
Here in Mass Effect 3, we’re a couple of hours in and:
- We still haven’t had much in the way of “exploratory” conversationsActually, I can’t remember ANY. where the left side of the dialog wheel had more than one option. The vast majority of dialog prompts are simply paragon / renegade tone-of-voice responses that continue the completely linear conversation. Most of Shepard’s lines are spontaneous, meaning a lot of his talking happens without player input.
- Most conversations are triggered by the game, not the player. Characters, not the player, control when the dialog begins and ends. Dialog is very passive. It feels a lot more like your traditional linear AAA story game.
- We have yet to choose our squad. The game keeps making these decisions for us: One person leaves and another joins, and the player never has any say.
- There hasn’t been a single dialog-based decision.
- You can’t holster your weapon in this game. The writer decides when you get your gun out and when you put it away. I can’t begin to describe how completely obnoxious and condescending this feels.
- We have yet to pick a goal. The areas and mission progression are completely linear.
Worldbuilding is Flavor
“But Shamus! This is the third game! The last two games already set up the universe so we don’t need all that exposition and backstory!”
This sort of misses the point of those worldbuilding conversations. That’s like saying, “This meal has all the nutrients you need to sustain life. Adding spices won’t make it any more filling. Besides, you tasted those spices before. Why do you want them again?”
See, that exposition wasn’t a burdensome obligation that we had to endure, like a loading screen. It was content. It was a very unique kind of content that I can’t get in other games. The game didn’t “need” to let me talk to all those shocked lab workers on Noveria, because the designers could have just filled the place with corpses and we would have gotten the idea. They didn’t need to let me talk to the ExoGeni execs on Feros, because the plot-relevant info could have been on a computer terminal somewhere. The writer didn’t need the world-weary Turian security guard in Port Hanshan, because he was entirely flavor with no plot relevance.
It’s not like there’s a lack of stories to tell here. The galaxy is being destroyed. People could be having all sorts of existential thoughts that would hint at their philosophies, religion, and culture. Some people might embrace religion while others would have a crisis of faith. They could reflect on all that juicy galactic history hinted at in the codex and muse about what it means to have their culture end here, like this. We could learn about how the cultures cope with death, how their governments (used to) work, how their families were structured. The destruction of everything is the perfect time to reveal what all these various people value most.
The Mass Effect 3 writer isn’t interested in exploring those kinds of topics or doing that kind of writing. The exposition is much more immediate and utilitarian. Conversations are usually limited to your current goals or the characters directly related to them.
The energetic worldbuilding of Mass Effect 1 was what made the universe colorful, vibrant, deep, interesting, and unique. The stories hinted at additional levels of detail and layers of complexity hidden just off-stage. They were my favorite thing about the first game, and they’re gone. This new writer doesn’t care about worldbuilding and tone. The story has been reduced to simple facts and bits of fanservice. But the facts often contradict the ideas of the first game and the fanservice actually flattens some of the characters and reduces them to their most superficial traits and catchphrases.
It’s not just the style of writing, it’s the author’s priorities as well. The first game gave us a universe where humans were newcomers, and our job was to explore this big crazy universe of aliens and get mixed up in their crazy alien shitEven the human colony of Feros is actually build-up to the final confrontation to save an Asari from the Thorian.. The first act has Shepard removed from the normal chain of human command to work for aliens. Aliens join his crew. His rival is an alien (Saren) with an alien Lieutenant (Benezia) who has a fighting force of aliens (Geth and Krogan) and who works for the Most Alien Things Ever, the Reapers. The final confrontation takes place on the Citadel, a great big melting pot of aliens, in which Humans are actually a minority.
I’ve said before that the Rannoch and Genophage plots feel a bit different from the rest of the gameFor example: They’re good.. We’ll talk about them soon, but for now let’s set them aside and look at the main plot of the game:
In the third game Shepard is working for humans (he’s back with the Alliance) to save humans (Earth!) by fighting human space marines (Cerberus) who are lead by a human (TIM). Your new squad mates are a human, and a robot designed by humans to look like a human. Shepard’s alleged “rival” (Kai Leng) is a human. The assault on the Citadel is the result of a Human (Udina) bringing in other humans (Cerberus / Kai Leng) to stage a coup, only to have the entire plan come down to a showdown between humans Shepard and Kashley. The final battle takes place in order to save the human homeworld by deploying a superweapon that was discovered by humans on a human world, and which was constructed by a team led by humans. The entire final sequence is a conflict between human characters: Shepard, Anderson, and TIM. And at the very end, the writer even decided to put a human face on the Reapers.
Mass Effect 2 felt like it was made by someone who disliked Mass Effect 1. Mass Effect 3 feels like it was made for people who disliked Mass Effect 1.
I don’t know what BioWare could have done. What do you do when your new writer has different sensibilities from the old? What if they don’t mesh well with the genre of story you’ve assigned to them? Yeah, “Hire a different writer” is one answer, but it’s not the kind of answer available to a company trying to simultaneously grow and work on threeDragon Age 2, Mass Effect 3, and SWTOR. different franchises at once while also cranking out the requisite biennial tentpole shooter.
It’s not the writer’s fault BioWare was pouring their resources into SWTOR, or that EA has a demanding schedule, or that some people left, or that others joined the team, or that fans wanted contradictory things from this story. But it’s not my fault either. This story doesn’t work on its own merits, and it works even less as a follow-up to the first game, regardless of how many “the dog ate my plot outline homework” excuses are offered.
 A moon, actually.
 And if the meatbags are still using fossil fuels, blow up the refineries.
 See? The issue of food comes up EVERYWHERE. Water is sometimes just as big a deal, but sometimes not because it falls from the sky. Unlike food.
 Assuming they’re omnivores.
 Or harvesting the dead?
 Actually, I can’t remember ANY.
 Even the human colony of Feros is actually build-up to the final confrontation to save an Asari from the Thorian.
 For example: They’re good.
 Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 3, and SWTOR.
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