Mass Effect 3 may be the most disappointing game I’ve ever played. It’s certainly not the worst game I’ve ever played, but it’s certainly not a very good one either. Mass Effect 3 is, of course, the final act of a trilogy. The original Mass Effect, despite its flaws, is one of my all time favourite games. Its sequel, Mass Effect 2, was superior in some areas to the original (notably combat), yet weaker in many others (plot, exploration).
The first two ME games were a combination of TPS and RPG, but the role-playing aspect of the ME games was never about levels or stats. It was about Shepard. Shepard, male or female, was the role assumed by the player. Shepard had an independent persona, but one that was shaped by the choices of the player within his or her role. The ME games featured a branching narrative that reacted to the input of the player. Certainly the framework had its limitations, but it was flexible enough to warrant multiple runs of each title in order to experience the differing consequences based on your unique choices.
This was the primary draw of the ME games for myself and I’m sure many other players. The RP stat mechanics of the original were not particularly complex or engaging and were largely excised from the franchise in ME2. The TPS element, whilst certainly improved in ME2, still wasn’t anything particularly special. The gameplay of the ME series was solid and it did the job, but the reason I played both games so many times was because I wanted to see the impact of my actions and choices on the developing narrative. ME was essentially a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, set within an engaging vision of the future of Earth and humanity’s role in a multi-species community, populated with some of the most interesting, memorable and well developed characters you’ll encounter.
Out of the first two games, I’d personally rate ME1 above ME2 (it had a great 80s sci-fi style aesthetic and sound), but there’s really not a lot between them. The overall plot of ME2 was rather weak compared to the first game, but ME2 was less about the mission on which your character embarks, and more about the people you take with you. After completing ME2 I was certainly looking forward to the final game in the trilogy, and the developers continued to support and expand ME2 with some excellent DLC. But then, The Arrival DLC was released, and that’s where things started to go horribly wrong.
The Arrival was intended to ‘bridge the gap’ between ME2 & ME3. It was essentially a dull, one corridor shooting gallery, punctuated by a few cut-scenes with practically zero player input. There is only one ‘choice’ presented within the DLC, but this actually has zero impact on how the DLC plays out, or indeed, as we later discover, in ME3 itself. It was a worrying sign of things to come, but I understood the intention – it allowed the developers to establish a baseline for all players from which they could launch the story of Mass Effect 3.
Except it sort of didn’t.
Mass Effect 3 has an utterly terrible opening, and it’s something the game never really recovers from. With so much written about the game’s ending, little has been said about just how bad the opening section is. In fact, I’d say it’s almost as equally awful as the ending. Everything is wrong with it, and it sadly sets the tone for the rest of the game. Now, I could write pages and pages taking apart the opening section and explaining just how bad it is in excruciating detail (in fact I did, but it ran to about seven pages of expletive filled ranting), but instead I’m going to focus on my biggest issue with it. An issue that is, I feel, the most serious problem with ME3, one that’s not been as addressed as it should given all the focus on the terrible ending. And that issue is Shepard.
As I’ve said, the ME games are really about Shepard, about the player tailoring their own Shepard persona over the course of the series and therefore directing the flow of the narrative. This was the strongest component of Mass Effect, one that enabled me to forgive the rather mediocre gameplay, weak plots and shallow RPG mechanics. Shepard was our character.
But in ME3, right from the very start, it’s clear that Shepard is no longer the player’s character, and the story is no longer ours to influence. Shepard is now a character independent of the player, taking actions and making key decisions without player input. Conversation options are few and far between in ME3, and Shepard babbles on for long stretches, forcing the player to simply sit and watch. In the previous games, the player would take an active role in shaping how these conversations play out. Now they are little more than barely interactive cut-scenes.
I understand that in the previous games, many conversations only provided the illusion of player direction and ultimately the outcome was often the same. But removing pretty much all player input and reducing what was once multiple options to investigate and question down to what is often only two basic responses was a terrible idea. Sometimes, the illusion of control is better than nothing at all.
On top of that, the developers added a ham-fisted psychological element, as Shepard is haunted with visions of a young boy he saw die. Once again, this sets Shepard as a character no longer shaped by the player. I find it hard to believe, for example, that a full renegade Shepard would give much of a damn.
And this is the real issue with how the opening plays out, and from that point on, the rest of the game. Right from the very start, I didn’t understand why my Shepard was where he was or why he was there. It simply didn’t make sense for the character I’d shaped across the previous two games. Shepard was no longer a character shaped by the players, but an independent character shaped by the choices of the developers and the needs of the plot, which the player now had even less ability to influence than before.
Now, you can argue that Shepard was never our character as such and it’s not our place to say what that character should or shouldn’t do in a given situation. But when the previous two games in the series allow you to build and shape that character in your own way (obviously along certain constrained paths) it’s extremely strange that the final game in the trilogy completely disregards this approach.
And before the title even appears on the screen, it’s clear Mass Effect has now transformed fully into a cut-scene heavy, linear third person shooter with a few tacked on upgrade elements. Shepard, our Shepard, who we’d shaped across two previous games, no longer existed. This was no longer a story we were a part of, but one we just had to sit back and watch.
So what about the actual gameplay of ME3? Well, the shooting mechanics of the ME series always did the job, but they were never fantastic. However, they didn’t need to be the strong point of the series. ME3, ultimately, is just a pretty mediocre run and gun TPS. It’s a very basic cover shooter, with the bizarre choice of assigning nearly every combat movement action to a single key – cover, sprint, vault – which is just plain awkward. Shooting isn’t particularly satisfying, with enemies just soaking up fire until they fall. Enemy AI is just cover and shoot or charge. There’s very little in the way of challenge. Weapons are okay, but the biotic powers of the previous games feel weak and even worse than in ME2.
So the gameplay is all rather uninspiring and dull. What else does the game do? Well, the plot revolves around Shepard assembling a multi-species fleet to take back Earth. I’m not even going to get into how stupid the plot is. Anyway...you have ‘critical’ missions which advance the plot, but aside from a couple of notable exceptions (Rannoch and Tuchanka), these are largely linear, dull and forgettable affairs. There are a couple of more interesting side missions involving previous characters, and then a few more bonus missions which are entirely ripped out of the game’s multiplayer horde mode. Wow, seriously? Then you have a few dozen ‘side missions’ which amount to talking to someone, flying to a planet, hitting a button to retrieve the item, and then returning it. That’s it. Why did they even bother? In between this you get to spend time on your ship or the Citadel. You can talk with your crew but this time conversations just play out without any player involvement, you just sit and listen.
Oh yeah, your crew. For some reason someone also thought it would be a great idea to introduce quite a few new characters in ME3. Which I wouldn’t really have a problem with, except some of them get as much or even more dialogue and screen time than characters we’ve known since the first ME. And those are the people I really care about. I want more interaction with those characters, and those from ME2. Not with Kai ‘I PWN U SHEPARD’ Leng, or Steeeeeve ‘boo hoo, my husband died, WANT TO F**K?’ Cortez.
Oh, and in case we’ve forgotten, the ending is possibly the worst thing ever conceived by man. I mean seriously, who gave the green light on this abomination? Ignoring all the major logical inconsistency, let’s just get to the heart of why the ending was so terrible – choices didn’t matter. Regardless of which ending you chose, there was no variation, no sense that anything you had done meant a thing. None of the choices you made across the first two games, or even in ME3 felt worth a damn. The entire ending feels self contained, completely separate to everything in the entire trilogy which had zero influence on how it played out. The Extended Cut DLC did give the characters some sense of closure at least, but it still failed to address the primary issues relating to the ridiculous and nonsensical crucible/hologram kid.
I felt bad about buying ME3 on release because of the DLC fiasco. I didn’t even have high expectations for the game, but I was hoping to be somewhat pleasantly surprised. But instead, ME3 was massively disappointing across all areas, not only the ending. It’s a game that, aside from a couple of notable moments, barely scratches average. It’s a game that feels shallow in content, rushed, with a lack of thought or care. It’s not often I wish I had never played a game because it sullied my experience of an entire franchise. But that’s exactly what ME3 did. It really is that bad.
And now I never want to speak of it again.