Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review: Mass Effect 3: What Bioware Should Have Done

The following Contains ****SPOILERS**** for all three Mass Effect games. Read at your own discrepancy.

I’ve been emotionally invested in the Mass Effect universe since my first play through in November 2007. It had been my most anticipated game for quite some time (with the exception of Half-Life 2: Episode 3 / Half-Life 3). But developer Bioware managed to take a promising RPG franchise and strip away key elements to what made the franchise thought provoking and dumb the series down to a linear action game by the third installment. This write-up suggests ideas on what Mass Effect 3 could have been and my disappointments on the franchise. 

Mass Effect was one of the best action RPGs I had ever played; it introduced an entire new universe, with a dozen new races, technology, planetary worlds, back stories, a feat that is not easy, cheap or quick.

It combined dialogue and morality with in a conversation system that resembled Knights of the Old Republic, giving players the option to be a dick or a nice guy. The same “good” and “evil” approach resembling the dark side or light side of the force in Star Wars. In Mass Effect it is called Paragon and Renegade. Your choices in dialog and decision making with critical events altered the storyline that would affect future events in the game’s inevitable sequels. This involvement with player decisions brings a sense of control that typically isn’t felt in most linear video games. Mass Effect also combined a 3rd person shooter styled view, that brought together action gamers with RPG lovers; allowing players to level up their character, upgrade their abilities and weapons, buy new equipment and make your character look however you want. One of the more interesting sides of Mass Effect was using your space ship, the SSV Normandy, to travel to undiscovered planets in the galaxy, discover distress signals, mine planets for upgrades or just explore new worlds.

                The first Mass Effect brought players up to speed with the universe, introduced the new races, new threats, gave players the choice to fight against the universal evil, the Reapers, and become a hero… a legend. Sure there were flaws, long loading times which depicted the main character Commander  Shepard, standing in elevators EVETYWHERE he went. The in game economy was a bit broken which made it very easy to collect funds and buy tons of upgrades. But these were tiny problems with highly promising franchise. It could only get better from here right? 

The second game needed a way for the player to stage through the leveling techniques a second time, something that puzzles most RPG developers. So Bioware killed off Shepard in the opening scene, rebuilt him and sent him off yet again to explore the galaxy, to scout out a team for one last suicide mission to attack the Reapers head on. You spend the entire game essentially recruiting a team, which causes each team member will ask a favor of Shepard in return for joining the fight. If you succeed in helping your teammate, you will be rewarded with their loyalty. If you fail at winning them over, they will most likely die in the final mission and therefore will not make an appearance in the third game. Failure and success is decided on the choices you make throughout the game. A big factor in surviving the final mission is collecting upgrades for your ship. Every piece adds to the probability of success as well as real time decision making during the final fight. It was a great way for Bioware to showcase effort and time put into the game, with plenty of satisfaction in the ending. It measured how closely players played attention to character skill sets and would involve not only Shepard saving the day (again), but everyone on your team surviving. The main complaint of Mass Effect 2; you spent very little time actually fighting the Reapers during the primary story arch, and the vast majority of the game doing side missions involving your team. Still even with these falws- I’m still deeply invested in the fight against the ReapersShepard and all of the characters you encounter.

But Mass Effect 3 was different from the start. Not only are there much less dialog trees and decision making , for some reason Bioware could not extrapolated the building blocks of the first two games and incorporate it into the third game. Like the 2nd game, you spend roughly the whole game building up war assets to ally with the human alliance to fight off an ongoing Reaper invasion of Earth (much like you spent the whole time during ME2 building your team). This time around you encounter many more Reapers for they have finally invaded the galaxy and are gradually taking over worlds, swallowing the Milky Way. But for some reason, regardless of how many war assets you acquire, Bioware decided to make this building block completely redundant in the finale. Whether you get 30 warships to help you or 3000, the finale battle carries out the exact same way. What makes matters worse, in the finale confrontation with Shepard and the Illusive man, you are required to use a Renegade context-sensitive interrupt. Even if you have decided to go full Paragon for the whole game, failure to use this Renegade interrupt will end the game. GAME OVER. When has Bioware ever allowed this to happen?

What Bioware should have done?  ****SPOILERS****

                After collecting war assets throughout the game which takes between 30-40 hours, after recruiting the Krogan, Turians, Quarian and Geth, after arriving at Earth and the Commander gives the signal to attack the Reapers, the choices you make throughout the game and series start to go into effect.

                 Shepard could be tasked with sending in the first wave of attack.  He could choose the Quarians, who could either by backed by the Geth alliance or weakened from the war with the Geth. Whatever decision you made in Mass Effect 3 would affect how the Quarians battle.  Shepard could send in the Turians with their advanced fleet, or Earth’s Alliance fleet, which based on your Mass Effect 1 choices on whether or not you chose to save the council or attack Sovereign would decide whether the Alliance fleet was weak or strong.

                Moving on with the ground assault on Earth,  Shepard could decide to send in whomever is left. Again based on your first decision above, you could send in the Quarians, allied or not with the Geth, and if you completed the side mission could be backed by the Geth Primes. Or the Turians who are newly alliance with the Krogan after curing the Genophage, a decision from earlier in the game. Or The Salarians could team up with the Humans and fight together on the ground.

                As  Shepard  makes these two important decisions, he finally reaches the Citadel, where you again use the remaining forces that were not chosen to help  Shepard battle forces to get to the Illusive Man. Depending on the Citadel side quests you completed throughout the game the Citadel would either be full of dead bodies (if very little quests were carried out) or a decent defense force.

                Finally at the command room with the Illusive Man indoctrinated and fighting like Saren did in the first game, (adding a little bit of nostalgia here) if  Shepard has enough Paragon or Renegade points, he can either convince the Illusive Man to help him turn on the Harbringer or have  Shepard take control of the Reapers. Either decision has The Harbringer appear and begins to fight  Shepard . Depending on who you chose to fight in the space battle and the foot battle, will determine how easily or hard it is to fight the Illusive Man and Harbringer. Once defeated, the Catalyst appears; if you convinced Illusive Man to turn on the Harbringer, the Catalyst decides the cycle is broken and no longer needs the influence “the decision”. Otherwise,  Shepard will have the choice between the A, B and C endings.

                But the most important piece to the ending; Seeing how each race comes out of the battle, where each member of  Shepard's team is and their health, and finally, seeing a final shot of  Shepard ; alive or dead.

Other Disappointments ****SPOILERS****

                Part what connects players to the game are the characters. Mass Effect 3 contains characters from all three games, but many of my teammates were killed off during ME3 in completely unrelated events. Kelly, Legion, Mordin, Thane… and many you see for only a brief moment. In Mass Effect you have the option of selecting from six squad members. In Mass Effect 2 you have the option to use 13 squad members! The natural evolution of video games tells us you should be able to select from 18 squad members in Mass Effect 3, but the number actually is reduced back to 6 with Ashley (in the hospital for a good chunk of the game which brings it down to 5).

                Although the controls of Mass Effect 3 appear to be much less stiff than the previous two installments, the addition of the new melee mechanic might be the worst afterthought in the series thus far. This is an action shooter now. It’s not an RPG anymore. It stopped being an RPG in ME2. Everyone in space has a weapon that shoots some kind of ammo. Every room has an obvious barrier Shepard can hide behind. Why do I need a virtual sword on my arm? The AI should not be getting close enough to me where I would need to use a melee attack in the first place. Every enemy in the game, and sometimes even your AI allies, has horrible instincts. Enemies appear behind Shepard and your allies are useless in helping you defend areas. But what game actually does have intelligent AI?

                Loading times have not been improved at all. We have gone from annoyingly long elevator sequences to annoying long schematics sequences to annoyingly long animated art. You even need to pass through a “scanner” to get from one side of the Normandy to the other. The scanner, which Shepard needs to go through even though he’s Commander of the freakin Normandy, is put in place as a loading screen.

                Finally the biggest disappointment of Mass Effect 3 the lack of familiarity throughout the series. I was bummed when they reduced the exploration area at the Citadel from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2, in Mass Effect 3 they give you a whole new area to explore. Nothing is familiar yet again. You also cannot travel to other spots that you could have in any of the previous Mass Effect games. Sure the planetary systems are the same, but you cannot travel to the Urdnot clan on Tuchanka, there’s no Omega, No Illium, No Shadowbroker Ship, No Freedom Progress, No Eden Prime… It could have been interesting to see how some of these familiar establishments were affected by the pending Reaper invasion.

                Any any rate, my disappointment in this franchise started with ME2, and was completely dissolved by ME3. The ending given to us felt too rushed, too uninspired, and completely unsatisfying. I’ve been let down before with games, but the amount of hours put into this trilogy made the disappointment  feel different than before. It felt magnified. I felt no sense of satisfaction; I once thought Bioware had great vision, but today they feel like another infected developer under the EA umbrella

I am attending PAX East this weekend. I hope I get to speak to someone from Bioware.