The Mass Effect effect.
Due warning. There may be spoilers below the jump. I can’t promise not to spoil anything in the game because, quite simply, there’s a massive spectrum of things one could call a spoiler.
One thing I will also strive not to do (but can’t make any promises on) is bang on about what I would have liked to have seen in the game. I have carried my expectations around with me since Mass Effect was first released and while I could write a small essay regarding the story I wish I could have played through, it’s probably best for all if I just let it go. Nobody except me cares, and it would just make me sound horribly, horribly bitter.
Anyway. On with the show.
I should discuss the gameplay first. You might argue that story and gameplay are inherently tied together, but I think I’m on safe ground here since the game itself offers a “narrative” mode that lets you skip the vast majority of combat.
In spite of reassurances of an overhaul of the combat system and gameplay overall,* it remains largely indistinguishable from Mass Effect 2. Fights play out as stop-start interstitial sequences between the interactive cutscenes, and are dominated by single-tier gunfights versus waves of enemies. Run to cover; shoot enemies; repeat. It’s a formula that works well in game such as Gears of War, but is marred in Mass Effect by a slightly soggy set of movement controls that feel as though the game is guessing what you want to do. Run out of cover? Switch sides? Stand away from cover and do the hokey-cokey? In the busier fights, the crisp feeling of sliding from cover to cover and taking precision shots is lost, and your suspension of disbelief is replaced by the question, where am I actually facing now?
For the moment, all driving and flying sections have been removed, which is a Godsend as they seemed to be parts of the game that Bioware could never get right. In their place, we have unwinnable set pieces, an unnovation first introduced in the pre-release DLC for Mass Effect 2. Essentially, these are fights that have a predetermined outcome that is at odds with your standard success criteria. Success in a shooter is, of course, measurable on two discontinuous scales, being: a) have I shot all the guys? (Y/N) and b) have I avoided being shot by all the guys? (Y/N)
What is the point in having a “chase down the target” minigame where you can’t catch the target? To add insult to injury, there was a “Metres from target” ticker, showing me how far I still had to go. By the time the chase ended, I was on -2 metres. Had I not been rabidly trying to melee the NPC, I would have been even further ahead.
Likewise, the introduction of official tie-in novel and space ninja badass Kai Leng as a foil to Shepard fails for the same reason. While fighting him for the second time**, his shields simply stop dropping, simply to prevent you from killing him off. There follows two awkward minutes of wasting ammunition in the vain hope that he’s going to start dying soon before the fight concludes in a really long cutscene during which he kicks your ass.
The multiplayer is…adequate. It’s a not-entirely-necessary addition, but there is a neat mechanic that allows you to boost your single player campaign’s “Galactic Readiness” in the fight against the Reapers. It’s enough of a perk to put up with the clunky combat for a few hours longer, even if it does mean running into random players who have discovered where to stand on the map so they can go AFK, leech the XP, and never get killed.
All of this is, however, preamble to the main thrust of the game. The story.
Looking back at my Mass Effect saves, I have almost 80 hours of time logged as Captain Danayra Shepard. I’m of the school of opinion that sees Mass Effect as a single play game. There is no replay value, because I’ve already lived out my Shepard’s choices in the original play. By taking that specific blend of decisions, she has become me as much as she is mine.
For achieving that, I think Bioware should be enormously pleased with their efforts. They’ve created something that feels truly interactive, where the weight of those decisions seems to carry across the fourth wall and resonates with the player.
While I would contend that it’s possible to play Mass Effect 2 without exposing yourself unduly to the elevator-riddled slog of the first game, I would say that it is essential to play Mass Effect 2 if you want to play the third instalment. While the main arc of 2 felt like a sub-plot (the Reaper-turned Protheans are building a giant Terminator-Reaper out of liquidised humans at the heart of the galaxy) the actual execution with you building up a team on the Normandy, winning them over, and then taking them all on a suicide mission was an incredibly challenging and satisfying piece of storytelling. The relationships you built up in that game are the base on which the third game is built, and ultimately are what deliver the most substance.
The little, personal scenes are what makes it special: talking to Mordin Solus, just before he cures the genophage; Garrus and you deciding once and for all who’s the best shot; the romance plot with Liara.* Just before the very end, you get a chance to talk to each of the members of your team, to steady their hand for the final fight and also to say goodbye. It felt…incredible, and at the same time incredibly sad.
I can see why people don’t like the ending. On the one hand, they don’t make a whole mess of sense – especially when considered in the light of the Geth solution and EDI’s relationship. I can see why they’ve been written in the way they have, but it doesn’t mean I have to agree with the philosophy behind it. Leaving that to one side, though, there is a distinct lack of a classic Hollywood happily-ever-after ending, and that’s a bitter pill for players to swallow, especially those of us weaned on movies where the hero strides manfully out of the smoke at the very end. Shepard doesn’t “win” in the conventional sense of things, but she is the catalyst for a change that ripples out across the galaxy.
I chose the “green” ending, the choice of Synthesis. It asked an enormous sacrifice of Shepard, but then I took the decision on the basis that that was what my Shepard would have wanted to do. I would have liked**** to have had the chance to argue the case for co-existence with synthetics, but the bald statement from the AI regarding cosmic self-annihilation seemed to suggest it was off the cards. The high road or nothing, was the message, so I took the high road.
I just hope she found Garrus at the bar in heaven.
*never trust a press release that cites “round grenades” as being a significant improvement, really.
**In the first instance they avoid letting him come face to face with you.
***I watched the scenes with her and thought, how could anyone choose to romance any of the others?