There’s a distress call from Grissom Academy, an Alliance military school for gifted young Biotics. Shepard goes to help and finds out Cerberus is attacking the school.
On my first playthrough of this game, I’d lost my Mass Effect 2 saves in a computer migration and so I had to use the default world state, in which Jack is dead. If we make the assumption that anyone using the default character is new to the seriesWhich is not remotely a guarantee, but it’s probably a better policy than just assuming all players are returning ones., then this actually makes sense. Jack is a tricky character and it would be awkward to try to explain who she was in the second game just so the player could appreciate her transformation here in Mass Effect 3.
But this series is based on a full play-through of all three games, and so I got to see the different ways BioWare handled the fact that most of your Mass Effect 2 crew might be dead. They put a lot of work into it, and it really does make for a better world if you take the time to import the saves.
Here at Grissom Academy, Jack has somehow joined the teaching staff. She’s trying to clean up her potty mouth and has ditched the nihilism and random violence in favor of being a mentor to young adults.
I feel like I should complain about this transformation, since I gave the Mass Effect 2 writer a hard time for doing the same thing to Liara. But here the transformation feels a little less extreme, and a little better supported by the events of the previous game. She actually did soften a bit in her character arcAssuming you did her loyalty mission. I suppose it helps that New Jack is just as interesting as Old Jack, while the same can’t be said of LiaraLiara’s transformation took a really unique character and turned her into another swaggering hardass, and the story is already brimming with hardasses.. Moreover, you can still see Jack’s old personality poking through. Her evolution is a continuation of changes begun in the previous game, and not an out-of-nowhere off-screen re-write. Also – and maybe this is the most important difference – the transformation is properly acknowledged in dialog.
Jack also gives us yet another, “Wow, you were really stupid to trust Cerberus!” conversation. That wasn’t a lot of fun when we had it with Kashley a couple of hours ago, and it has not been improved through repetition.
Once again we come back to the problem of trusting the writer. In the last game, the plot revolved around working for Cerberus, which a lot of players thought was thematically wrong, an obviously bad idea, and poorly justified. They spent the whole game shaking their head saying, “This is dumb and I shouldn’t be forced to do it.”.
And then when we come to these arguments. What do we assume the author trying to say?
1) Yes, the Cerberus plot of Mass Effect 2 was poorly justified. As an apology, here is an acknowledgement of those problems in dialog.
2) Ha ha! Fooled you! You thought working for Cerberus was a good idea and you got pwned by TIM!
I want to believe #1 is the case, but the writer doesn’t make it easy. Shepard never acknowledges how trapped he was, or how he thought it was a bad idea, or anything else to show that he saw this coming. He can either express regret that he messed things up, or he can arrogantly shut the other person down. But he never uses the one defense that would match how the player feels, which is that he did it because it was the only course of action available to him. And in this argument Jack, not Shepard, gets the last word in. The writer has already passed on a lot of opportunities to patch over problems with the Cerberus plotLike claiming that The Alliance / Council was working on the Reaper threat, but couldn’t tell you. Or patching in some good Cerberus deeds to explain the pro-Cerberus people you meet. Or making sure the plot of ME2 had some kind of meaningful payoff here in ME3.. Maybe the author was trying to fix the mess of Mass Effect 2, but it feels like they’re just taunting the player for “falling” for their all-too-obvious Cerberus betrayal. If that’s the case, then this is a giant middle finger to those fans. (Which for the most part are fans of Mass Effect 1.)
I’m not sure how justified it is for the Alliance to hire an infamous, dangerous criminal (remember you bust Jack out of prison in Mass Effect 2) who has “worked for Cerberus” as the most recent item on her resume. But then, the Alliance is all over the place in this game and don’t seem to have an identity. Admiral Hackett’s practical military Alliance is very different from the bureaucratic “we can’t be bothered to look after our abducted colonies because we have to polish our ships” Alliance, which is distinct from “We can’t talk to you because you have Cerberus cooties” Alliance which doesn’t mesh well with the, “Hey! You’re a barely sane biotic! Wanna teach our kids? No swearing, though!” Alliance.
One part of the Alliance put Shepard under some sort of arrest for maybe working for Cerberus, and another part of the Alliance put fellow Cerberus alumni Jack and Joker into prestigious positions. If nothing else, the Alliance has a massive, untreatable case of multiple personality disorder that needed lampshading.
In any case, Grissom Academy feels a little Mass Effect 1-ish. The dialog wheel is still pretty lean. If it were up to me, I’d love to have some more details filled in on this place. But the students certainly qualify as peasants – which I mean as praise in this context – and it’s really nice that we get to meet them instead of just step over their corpses on our way to the next gunfight, like on Mars. These students have names and relationships with each other and histories and opinions, which are all revealed organically over the course of the mission.
I also really appreciate that the vehicle section isn’t mandatory.
So we’re off to the secret Salarian research outpost on Sur’kesh. The Salarians have a single fertileThis game really can’t figure out if the Genophage is a sterility plague or not. Krogan female, thanks to the genophage cure cooked up in Mass Effect 2.
The dependency chain works like this: Shepard needs the Turians to retake EarthOr perhaps just slow down the Reaper conquest of Earth? I have no idea what he’s thinking.. The Turians want the Krogan to help retake Palaven. The Krogans want a cure for the Geophage from the Salarians. Thankfully, I don’t think the Salarians want anythingThere is actually a cool Mass Effect 1 decision that crops up here, which impacts how the Salarians feel about you..
The best part of this mission is the tense standoff and the quiet downtime before the shooting starts. When Wrex arrives, the Salarians get really touchy. This installation is their CIA headquarters / Area 51. This is where they collect their intelligence and conduct their research, so having a Krogan drop in is bound to alarm some people. It gets smoothed out, you get some fun dialog, and you even get to see KirraheI didn’t talk about him in this series, but he’s a fan-favorite character that appeared on Virmire..
You get to talk to MordinOR a replacement character, if Mordin died in Mass Effect 2. and that’s always a treat. The left side of the dialog wheel opens up, the dialog crackles, and it’s generally a great time.
And then Cerberus attacks.
Doesn’t Cerberus have some other goals? What are they trying to do here? Back on Mars, TIM tried to steal the plans for the Crucible. I get it, TIM likes technology. Fine. But he was also trying to erase the data so nobody else could get it. How would that have benefited his cause? What would have happened if that erasure had worked? Who would have built the Crucible then? Nobody? Was that his plan? Or would he have built it himself with the massive GDP he pulls out of his ass? Why didn’t he build one anyway, since it’s so central to his plans? Why is he invading this planet completely unrelated to his core goals?
TIM didn’t exist in the first game. In the second game, he’s abruptly introduced as a super-famous spymaster running a clandestine terrorist / research faction. Now here in Mass Effect 3 he’s a bonkers supervillain leading a galactic superpower.
Why is this character so central to the story when his goals and motivations are all either undefined or contradictory?
The structure and themes of this game are a mess, if they can be said to exist at all. The game opens with the Reaper invasion, priming the audience for a fight against the Biggest Threat Ever. Some Kid Dies, Anderson stays behind, and Shepard is given his mission to Save Us All from the Reapers. And then the Reapers are hurried off-stage and stop being relevant for several hours so we can shoot space marines.
The plot of Mass Effect 3 is a disjointed mess of stories (some of them quite good, mind you) working at cross purposes. We’ve got a Reaper invasion, a full-scale war with Cerberus on multiple fronts, the resolution to the Genophage plot, the resolution to the Geth vs. Quarian plot, the “Kashley becomes a Spectre” plot, the Crucible plot, the Take Back Earth plot, and the resolution to a half dozen character and squadmate stories. Some of these elements were things demanded or expected by the audience. Some of these things were simply needed to bring the overall story to a close. Some of these things were… not.
Specifically, we really didn’t need Cerberus here. You could replace every fight against Cerberus with a fight against the Reapers and it would enhance focus on the main villain, clean up a cavalcade of plot holes, and remove the need for tons of exposition. If Cerberus needed to be in this game, they could have been relegated to a single side-mission to tie up whatever plot threads the writer felt they left hanging in Mass Effect 2.
Cerberus is attacking Mars. Cerberus is attacking Sur’Kesh. Cerberus is attacking Grissom Academy. Cerberus is abducting civilians on Benning. Cerberus has an evil base where they’re studying Reaper tech. Cerberus has three different fronts on Tuchanka, trying to set off bombs and murder Turian soldiers. Cerberus invades the Citadel. Cerberus attacks on Thessia.
Everyone talks about the Reapers, but we spend so much time fighting Cerberus. The setting has already established an omnipresent foe with limitless resources and an excuse to attack anywhere the plot required, but the writer felt the need to create another, less relevant one. Except, Cerberus doesn’t have any reason to be attacking these sites except to be evil in the most cartoonish way possible.
Sure, you can balance a story between two villains. But that requires time and attention that this game doesn’t care to spend. There’s too much else going on here, and this story would have been much better served by more focus. They’ve mistaken complexity for depth, and the result is that neither of our villains gets the proper focus. It’s an overcomplicated mess of unfinished ideas that crash into each other rather than conclude sensibly.
But if there was one thing that would have raised the quality of the game as a whole, it would be to cut the Cerberus plot down to a single side-mission and let the Reapers have the spotlight. Sadly, I suspect that Cerberus was the only thing the writer really cared about, which is why it gets so much time and attention. The writer had a story they were obliged to write, and the story they wanted to write, and they sacrificed the former to feed the latter.
What Does Cerberus Want?
Cerberus has no real stake here. The Krogan warchief is here to get the last fertile female so that a cure can be engineered. This female is a closely guarded secret of the most secretive race in the galaxy. This base is one of their most secure facilities, and it’s on the Salarian homeworld. This plan to turn her over to Shepard is only a few hours old and came directly from the supreme leader of their people. And the Salarians are no doubt already on high alert due to the Reaper invasion. But here’s Cerberus, storming the planet like they’re a galactic superpower and TIM has been reading the script again.
Is TIM trying to kill this treaty? Or is he trying to prevent the genophage cure on practical grounds? Or is he just being a dick? You could argue that he’s worried about another Krogan uprising, but this all-out military assault doesn’t mesh with the clandestine Cerberus the writer was trying to sell us in the last game. While I’m not advocating having more Kai LengShh. Be patient. We’ll get to him. in this videogame, a small covert team would make a lot more sense than this.
Moreover, TIM’s ultimate goal is to take control of the Reapers. That one goal trumps all others. Once you control the Reapers, presumably that will solve all your other problems. And if you don’t, then none of this will matter. “Take control of the Reapers” is the closest thing TIM has to a goal, but everything TIM does undermines that goal. Why not let all the various factions (Alliance, Reapers, Krogan, Salarians) fight each other while you enact whatever ridiculous plan you think will secure that goal? Why not save your supplies and manpower for when they count?
Nobody discusses it and the writer never explores it because the writer isn’t designing conflicts that arise from character or philosophical differences. They’re designing gunfights, and the question of “why?” apparently never entered their mind. Nothing with regards to Cerberus is supported, explained, justified, or reasonable. The nature and motivations of Cerberus change from one scene to the next and the characters can’t even be bothered to lampshade any of it.
And the sad thing is, we’re not even to the bad parts yet.
 Which is not remotely a guarantee, but it’s probably a better policy than just assuming all players are returning ones.
 Assuming you did her loyalty mission
 Liara’s transformation took a really unique character and turned her into another swaggering hardass, and the story is already brimming with hardasses.
 Like claiming that The Alliance / Council was working on the Reaper threat, but couldn’t tell you. Or patching in some good Cerberus deeds to explain the pro-Cerberus people you meet. Or making sure the plot of ME2 had some kind of meaningful payoff here in ME3.
 This game really can’t figure out if the Genophage is a sterility plague or not.
 Or perhaps just slow down the Reaper conquest of Earth? I have no idea what he’s thinking.
 There is actually a cool Mass Effect 1 decision that crops up here, which impacts how the Salarians feel about you.
 I didn’t talk about him in this series, but he’s a fan-favorite character that appeared on Virmire.
 OR a replacement character, if Mordin died in Mass Effect 2.
 Shh. Be patient. We’ll get to him.
Silent Hill 2 Plot Analysis
A long-form analysis on one of the greatest horror games ever made.
The Disappointment Engine
No Man's Sky is a game seemingly engineered to create a cycle of anticipation and disappointment.
The Truth About Piracy
What are publishers doing to fight piracy and why is it all wrong?
The Best of 2011
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.
Good Robot Dev Blog
An ongoing series where I work on making a 2D action game from scratch.