In many cases, compromise can be the wisest possible course of action. When faced with a situation where opposing sides simply can’t both have their way, making concessions between the two can be a great way to keep the peace and leave everybody feeling satisfied. But what happens when a compromise loses sight of the intended goal and what results is somewhere in between extremes that might be preferable to what you got? Take a look at Mass Effect 3 and you’ll get a decent idea.
From the first rumblings of ME3 we’ve heard that BioWare and EA were aiming to attract more of the “Call of Duty audience” (read “FPS audience”) and also wanted to make this a good point for newcomers to the series to join in. As admirable of a goal as attracting more customers is, doing it at the expense of game and plot development respectively can’t result in anything but an inferior product, and even for those who haven’t followed the pre-launch hype it shows.
Of course, nothing has changed past recognition on an absolute fundamental level: You’re still Commander Shepard, you’re still fighting the Reapers (ultimately with the aid of a galaxy that finally believes you), you still run and shoot from a third-person perspective, you still build your abilities through a point-buy system, and you still choose from branching paths to decide the outcomes of conversations and major plot points. The framework is still in place, but it’s the bits filling the spaces between where ME3 starts coming up short.
This is where the “compromise” angle makes the entire experience weaker, and nothing is more indicative of the deleterious effect of this than the new game modes. Independent of the standard difficulty sliders are three different modes: Action Mode, which automatically decides your path through the game and just leaves the shooting to you; Story Mode, which dumbs the already eased combat down to almost insulting levels so as to pose the smallest barrier possible between cutscenes; and RPG Mode, which offers all of the combat and conversation content of the previous two in full (i.e. the Mass Effect you’ve come to know). ME3 is basically trying to be three games catering to three potentially very different audiences while overlapping nearly everything between them. It pigeonholes what can be done with the base content for fear of venturing into territory that can’t be translated over, and the last thing that should limit any game is its own desire to do so.
There are some glimmers in meeting halfway, though. The game retains the Gears of War action combat slant it picked up in ME2 while recovering a little of the RPG-style character building it lost there. Neither is optimal, but compared to ME1‘s sometimes sluggish number crunch and ME2‘s comparitively mindless shooting it’s reached a lukewarm medium that should serve as a good starting point for prospective future shooter/RPG hybrids. Weapon and armor customization finally meet in the same Mass Effect title, but squad armor customization ends up on the cutting room floor once again. I can understand my new Armax Arsenal leg armor not fitting digitigrade turian or quarian legs, but what about Liara or my other human squadmates?
It’s in comparisons like this that the setting and immersion issues start to crop up, as well. The goal of a series – especially one in which immersion and reprecussions between installments are touted as being of paramount importance – should be to develop and grow in complexity over time, but instead each game in the Mass Effect series has felt smaller and more rushed than the last. Missions are fewer and less varied here than in previous outings but the proportion between the plot-intensive ones and optional ones remains the same, leaving you less with the impression that time is critical and more feeling like there’s just not as much to do in the apocalypse. We’re also missing an inventory, updatable quest objectives, or anything to track the various items you fetch for the game’s sidequests, basic and all but necessary things that were available in previous games. Add in a Citadel that feels even more cramped than before and resource collection where aesthetic service to ME2‘s planet scanning is all that’s standing between it and a click-planet-receive-resource system and you have to wonder whether oversimplification was the actual goal in mind.
The Mass Effect series is no stranger to graphical woes and, despite the increasing polish in cutscenes, in-game visuals show little progress and even the occasional sign of regression. Five-year-old problems like slow-loading textures and glitchy conversations that go so far as to sometimes render participants invisible persist, and graphical shortcuts like using sprites for moving background elements or flattening 3D models for use as skins for random junk piles that were excusable when the limits of current gen systems were still being explored now come off as lazy.
For all its dubious deletions and inabilities to improve standing problems, ME3 does competently – if not unnecessarily – add a thing or two to the formula. The online multiplayer mode, while using maps straight from the campaign and replicating gameplay from Gears of War‘s Horde Mode, offers some decent variety in objectives ranging from tracking down a specific enemy within the time limit to defending a point while uploading information. Its tie into the campaign’s Galactic Readiness tracker makes sense thematically – as the multiplayer maps represent facilities rescued from enemies during the campaign that require a guard detail – but its disproportionately heavy pull on the overall score makes it feel like a cheap appeal to completionists more than its own, fully realized mode. Kinect interface is also available in the 360 version through vocal commands to squadmates and dialogue choices, but only the former performs accurately enough to justify use.
Writing has always been the bread and butter for BioWare, and though it’s a bit of a mixed bag this time out there’s plenty of good to be had. Interpersonal writing is one of the few places where ME3 still shines. Between your own active conversations with squadmates and NPCs and what you overhear of their passive conversations with each other you can constantly see new facets emerging that make most every one feel like a fully-realized, believable person. Personal arcs of several returning characters are also brought to a close, gracefully handling those finding their place in the galaxy through either death or continued life with equal respect regardless of your choices.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the overarching plot. What was a believably futuristic, mature setting now overflows with fantastic elements and contrivances both mundane and extraordinary; As good as the writing team might be, even they have a hard time explaining how a setting with such attention to accurate internal science as to voice concern for stealth ships’ red/blueshift emissions and the possibility of cybernetic implant rejection has room for the likes of a Mary Sue cyborg ninja who effortlessly wins gunfights with a katana or an infiltration robot with built-in metal breasts and high heels.
This extends into the element of choice and how it plays into the story. One of the big claims the series made its name on was the idea that the decisions players made would shape the course of the story, and while the only choice that ever had much bearing on the ending was the one immediately preceding, choices spanning back to the original Mass Effect have bearings on some of the details of the last stretch of your Shepard’s tale. In all but a few cases this is little more than a matter of whether the character you’re dealing with is a familiar face or a suspiciously similar substitute behaving close enough to the original to keep the plot on roughly the same track.
A game built so heavily on the concept of compromise deserves a compromise score: For the first-time player, add a point to the score below, because what you’ll find is a sometimes sciencey, sometimes fantastic, decent sci-fi shooter with custom character progression and above average writing; For fans of the series, subtract a point. You’re in for a title inferior to its predecessors in most respects that remains playable and recognizable enough for you to dredge through plotholes and wild shifts in theme to an ultimately unsatisfying end. That’s about all I have to say on the matter, and as we all know there’s only one truly good way to end any Mass Effect-related conversation:
I should go.