Friday, March 16, 2012

No Fighting in the War Room: Mass Effect 3

End game spoilers galore for Mass Effect 3 here. If you haven't completed it yet, move right along.
Seriously, go. Get out of here.
Okay.
I completed ME3 a couple of days ago, fully aware of the furore over the ending as I made my way closer to it, thinking "can't be as bad as everyone is making out, surely".
Only to complete the game, sit back and think yep....a game that did almost everything right apart from the ending (and to be clear, I mean from the moment you go to retake the Earth). While most of the point I'd probably make have already been made, I want to make a few comments about the actual design of the finale (which is terrible). First the recap, which itself highlights some pretty bizarre scripting.
Destination: Citadel
The Citadel turns out to be a crucial part of your large space weapon that can kill the reapers. Shepard and company need to get on board. Rather than hide it in the middle of nowhere, the ancient and terrifyingly intelligent Reapers decide to place it directly over the homeworld that the deadliest Reaper killing son of a bitch in the galaxy is heading right for, with an army consisting of every tooled up species in the galaxy. Worse, the transport beam - used to place humans onto the Citadel for harvesting - is not only left switched on in the middle of Shepard's full scale assault to reach the Citadel, it is guarded by one solitary Reaper who doesn't stick around for the ten seconds afterwards to make sure that the biggest single threat to their existence - that would be you, Shepard - is actually done and dusted.
Apparently this same Reaper is Harbinger, who actually has some experience with Shepard refusing to die unless turned into a smoking pile of ash. Yet not only does Harbie not raze the ground with a few more blasts just to be sure, he sails off leaving their last line of defence to some husks and the brave Marauder Shields, who gave his life so that you may end up not seeing the horrible ending.
So of course Marauder is shot to pieces and Shepard reaches the beam.
What follows is an ending that replaced the original conclusion to the trilogy, and unfortunately doesn't improve upon it. You know when you played ME2 and kept hearing about dark energy, and even played through a mission that involved stars aging prematurely?
The original ending had the Reapers being the last ditch attempt to prevent advanced races from tearing the universe apart or harvest them and keep things ticking over until the next cycle.
This is a good explanation, it harks back to earlier games, it gives you one hell of a tough choice to make.
Then the writer left and they ditched it, and replaced it with....I don't even.
"We are a race of AI machines who must protect organic life from inevitable slaughter at the hands of their synthetic creations, and we shall do this by slaughtering them."
Now place this alongside their actions in the first two games - you know, when they're controlling the Geth. Now it reads like this:
"We are a race of AI machines who must protect organic life from inevitable slaughter at the hands of their synthetic creations, and we shall do this by slaughtering them with the aid of their own creations because our irony capacitors need calibrations."
If you're going to make man Vs machine the lynchpin for your Reaper invasion of everything, it would probably help if it made a lick of sense. The dark energy route has an elegance and a "yeah, okay, that works" about it. The "We heard you like..." motivation is the first of many fumbles at the conclusion of a trilogy years in the making.
Worse, the Reapers are controlled by Space Casper, the horribly annoying child littered throughout the game that you're supposed to give two hoots about. I'd pay $15 for a DLC that allowed me to stick a nailgun dart between his eyes. Game devs: there's a reason the "make children killable in Fallout" mods are extremely popular. Kids in games are always annoying. Magical space children that randomly end up being controllers of the Reapers - controlled from on board the Citadel at that - is a recipe for disaster.
Speaking of which: there are non essential characters in ME2 who I can have up to ten lines of conversation with for no other reason than "just because". Yet you place this batshit insane AI in front of me, at the culmination of the story, and Shepard just accepts everything he is told without hesitation and isn't given an option to question any of it. I can't ask where it came from, who made it, why I might want to do my own thing instead of jump through Casper hoops...nothing.
Not only does this not fit with the character, it doesn't mesh with the supposed design philosophy of the series. Shepard is about to make a decision that will reshape the galaxy or end everything, and he isn't going to take five minutes out of his busy workaday schedule to drag some answers out of Casper?
Really?
Three Way Failure
Choice
So yeah, claims of "It won't be anything like ending A, B or C" aside, that's exactly what you get.
Except...the design of your defining moment is awful. The developers try to influence your choice, not so gently nudging you down the path of what they feel would be the best ending - they have "control the reapers and let them live" as Blue (Paragon), and "kill the reapers" as Red (Renegade) and "magical galaxy wide biology alteration" in the middle as glowing white ("pick me! pick me!") At this stage in the game, the player should not feel the additional burden of a developer breathing down their neck and saying "You want this one...don't you?"
The end result of whatever decision you make - all the mass relays destroyed, presumably billions killed in the explosions, the Turians, Salarians and Quarians trapped in the Solar System (and at least two of those species can't eat human food, so enjoy your slow horrible death) and a Universe plunged into the dark ages isn't mentioned, isn't explored, isn't given a second thought.
If that had been presented as one of the options, you'd have probably just picked a "Let the Reapers squish us all, thanks" ending and walked into one of the darkest finales ever. Which would have been amazing.
So of course, the game doesn't actually have a "Reapers win" ending, nor does it have a more traditional "Shepard wins, but at some cost" ending.
All you have is SPACE MAGIC, now in three colourful flavours. Turning everybody into synthetic / organic hybrids by....I don't know how....is as bad as "A Wizard did it", and has no place being dropped into the last ten minutes of a series based in fairly standard sci-fi lore trappings.
Of course, there's no explanation how this is done. And in an amazing slice of asset reuse, the developers give everybody an identikit ending based on three space magic choices that has absolutely nothing to do with any choice you've made so far (this is all so lazy, the movie files are actually listed by colour in the game files). Even Fallout 3 managed a couple of different slides depending on the choices you made throughout the game. And New Vegas is a great example of how to do it (go check the End Game Wiki page).
This places all the eggs in a very lacklustre FMV basket and leaves it at that.
An interesting result of the identikit ending (accounting for pretty colour variations, of course) is that I'm seeing lots of people lose interest in a second playthrough because the endings are so similar (hey look, this one is green instead of blue!) that they couldn't be bothered. I'm guessing Bioware are noticing something is going horribly wrong in their stat tracking, hence threads such as this (I've read that a number of Bioware writers didn't like the ending given to them, but one guy had an override button and dismissed their concerns. If true....whoops.)
Now, there is a counterpoint to the "these endings are terrible", and either misread the complaints as "crybabies demand a happy ending" or something in a bit more detail. To address some of his points:
1) It's Confusing: No, they're not being "preserved" despite what Space Casper says (and you taking that view seems to suggest you believe what this AI - who controls the Reapers - is saying at face value. The AI is hardly going to say "Kelly Chambers in a jar, lol" is it?)
They're being turned into mush in the most horrendous way possible then turned into some sort of mass intelligence fishpaste that then goes off to fishpaste everybody else. For the first two games, they even used synthetics created by the organics to shoot the organics with laser guns and rockets. Are all of the victims of the Reaper controlled Geth slaughter throughout the galaxy "preserved" too? Because you might want to look into that.
If the Reapers are so smart - and they apparently are, given their commander has a space magic button that can change biology across the galaxy - why don't the Reapers avoid all the hassle and simply turn up every 50,000 years to kill all synthetics?
2) Lore Errors and Plot Holes: Sorry, but if you openly admit you don't know what happens when a Relay explodes (despite that being the thing that ends the Arrival DLC, places Shepard on Earth at the start of ME3 and is actually detailed in the Codex) you probably don't have any business snarkily comparing some of the many, many batshit crazy plot holes listed above to Star Wars nerds obsessing over the length of a Star Destroyer. Speaking of which: leave your explanation as to how Joker is flying through a relay when you make your choice and how the squadmates on Earth with you are also on board at the door, thanks.
3) Player choice is completely discarded: Glad you mentioned this, because it's more of an issue with the underlying game mechanics that the third game is supposedly built on, rather than anything to do with the plot. Shall we race towards the home stretch?
Building your fleet has never been so pointless
All throughout Mass Effect 3, you're told to recruit allies, build a force capable of stopping the Reapers. You negotiate with morons to grab some assets for the Earth battle, you talk down species from a two way holocaust to have their fleets aid you as you reclaim the solar system, you fiddle with gene cures to get this guy to help that guy and did you save the Rachni because they'll come to your assistance in your darkest hour...
....except none of this actually happens when you finally have your fleet and go to "take back Earth".
I assumed Bioware had expanded the mechanics of the suicide mission in ME2 - that is, your choices both in the build up to the finale and the choices inside of that finale would shape the course of your last stand.
Everything points to battle readiness and the strength of your fleet. The first thing you see when you load the game is the battle map, locked at 50%. The first thing you see after a mission is the War Room, and your increasing supplies of decision making allies. Everything you do pops up a little "your military might has increased" with a little picture of a Krogan on it or whatever.
You upgrade the Normandy, because you guess that based on previous experience when the space battle begins you'll probably lose people unless you upgraded.
LOL NOPE.
Any visions you had of telling certain fleets to attack certain Reapers, protect various support lines or planets or holding points while the Alliance punched a hole through to Earth, any hope you had of calling in Turian air support while faced with 6 brutes and an instakill Reaper, any notion of seeing certain sections increase / reduce in difficulty while duking it out on Earth are all gone.
Because none of this happens. Instead, Bioware take all of your assets and fishpaste them, Reaper style, into a number and a text blurb on a "build the crucible" diagram and that's it.
This is a massive, massive disappointment after seeing what they did with the suicide mission. More of a let down than letting the council die in the first game only to see it populated with what look like the exact same aliens on the Citadel in ME3. More of a let down than choosing to not save the Rachni, only to run into an "artificial queen" (dear god) dumped into the game anyway. More of a let down than having made all those choices in earlier games to get to the stage where you could save both the Geth and the Quarian, only to watch the Geth potentially die as a result of hamfisted "either / or" choices on the Citadel (why do regular synthetics die alongside the Reapers anyway? For all intents and purposes, the synthetics are the evolutionary equivalent of a tomato next to the Reapers so why would the space magic beam wipe them out too?)
As a final nail in the coffin, the only impact the battle fleet / war readiness has on anything is a few (slight) modifications to the FMV, and should you desire to see Shepard Commander wake up at the end you need to play multiplayer to increase the score. And of course bolting "Shepard survives" onto the "bad" renegade ending ensures that all synthetic life dying for him to live is the trade off, even though he should be dead too because his entire body only works because of Reaper tech.
Plot holes? Holy shit, yes. Finishing the game and seeing the "Continue the legend with downloadable content" popup is the final icing on the cake.
The majority of this game was fantastic. The cast had some great lines, the injokes were actually funny and using music and locations from the first game made the whole thing very nostalgic.
Even the increasingly tiresome "survive fifty waves of enemies" in the London sequences and the "here's six brutes, a Reaper and two banshees because we're starting to flag a bit now" didn't faze me in the long run.
But for a game based on choices supposedly making a difference, only for those differences to end up at the bottom of an exploded set of space relays based on three space magic options given by a last minute introduction that you can't even debate with or question, there's only one thing to say.

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