joiedecombat: (Shepard lives!)
[personal profile] joiedecombat

Now that I've calmed down some, let me discuss Mass Effect 3.

Stuff I did not like:

* The completely unhelpful mission journal. The previous two games updated the mission journal when you made progress in a quest - even a sidequest. They also told you where to go to clear objectives. Mass Effect 3's journal does not do this, or even tell you in what manner the mission was resolved when it drops off the active journal into completed/unavailable status, making it impossible to tell if you actually completed a sidequest or simply ran out of time. This is a comparatively minor nit, but frustrating at points.

* Diana Allers, please put a shirt on. (Shepard's little black dress is similarly unfortunate. The one from Kasumi's loyalty mission in ME2 was so much better.)

* I was mildly disappointed that after I let her go in ME1, the rachni queen only got captured and enslaved by Reapers again. The promise delivered by that nameless asari on Illium in ME2 gave me a little chill, and I was really hoping to see it play out - the rachni fleet sailing to the rescue to help burn the Reapers from the face of the galaxy, to a resounding chorus of "WTF?" from the Council races. That would have been awesome.

* Not a single person on the Normandy acknowledged in any way that Thane had died. After hearing their reactions to every other plot development up to that point, it made me incredibly sad that nobody had anything to say about it and everyone wanted to talk about Kaidan being back instead. Kaidan was my Shepard's love interest - she didn't have one in ME2 - and this left me suddenly feeling not all that happy to see him. (Seeing Thane's name on the memorial wall helped slightly, and eventually being able to gut Kai Leng like a fish helped too... some.)

* I would also have liked some ingame mention of Emily Wong's offscreen death, because it was something that, even in spite of being done purely via Twitter, managed to have a lot of emotional impact. And besides that, dammit, I liked her.

* It didn't affect me personally, but it sucks for anyone whose FemShep romanced Jacob that, after seeming serious about her by the end of his romance in ME2, in ME3 he's given up on Shepard completely during her house arrest and has started a relationship with another woman, with no justification beyond "the Normandy is your true love." (Funny, none of the other possible love interests seem to think so.) Kaidan had an excuse for trying to move on in ME2: it had been two years and Shepard was dead. Jacob has no such ground to stand on. I can only assume this was influenced by the lukewarm fan reaction to him in ME2, which is no excuse; there were people who liked and romanced him - I wasn't one of them, but I know they were out there - and no other romance got shafted so badly.

* The ending.

I'm going to try to break down my response to the ending in the most objective way I can. Let me say first that I never expected a perfectly happy "everybody lives!" ending. Nor do I feel that, had the Crucible turned out to be a galaxy-wide Reaper killswitch that ended the war with no further damage, it would have constituted a perfectly happy ending. Billions of people are dead. As many or more are traumatized and/or homeless. Whole colonies have been wiped off the map, and probably every inhabited world of any significance whatsoever has taken major damage to resources and infrastructure that will take decades or longer to repair. People Shepard personally knows and cares about are gone: Mordin is dead. Thane is dead. Legion is effectively dead. Anderson is dead, along with potentially many others. The ones who haven't been killed have lost people they care about (connect the dots and you realize that Joker's father and little sister died horribly on Tiptree, for example). There may not be a single person alive in the galaxy who has not lost someone or something important. After the war as the game up to the ending showed it, everyone has scars.

When you spend three games getting to know the setting and the characters, there's a high level of emotional investment. After seeing them all put through the wringer like that, you want to know that the effort and sacrifices and pain paid off, that they and the things that they're fighting for - their homes, their worlds, their friends and family, the freedom and continued survival of their respective species - are going to be okay. The ending of Mass Effect 3 does not give that assurance. It's too vague, too open-ended, makes too radical a sweeping change to the nature of the setting. There's next to no indication of what happened to any of the characters you've spend three games getting invested in: we see Joker and one or two squadmates crash-landed on an unknown garden world, but that's all we get.

Interviews prior to the release of the game claimed that the ending to Mass Effect 3, as the end of Shepard's story, would be definitive, that it would not leave a lot of unanswered questions. But it does. What happened to all those people on the Citadel when the Reapers took control of it? What are the consequences of Shepard's ultimate choice, and how does that and the destruction of the mass relays affect galactic civilization? What happened to Shepard's team members - how did people who were on Earth with her end up on the Normandy, and how did the Normandy end up crash-landing on an unknown planet in another system? How are the turians and quarians stranded in Sol system going to survive with only a limited supply of dextro-amino-based food (whatever's on Earth for a relatively small population of immigrants and tourists, plus whatever supplies they have on their remaining ships) available to them and most likely no way to get more? For that matter, if Garrus and/or Tali was on the Normandy when it crashed, are they doomed to starve to death, or is it Joker and the rest of the survivors who are doomed?

We can guess at the answers to these questions, we can extrapolate (mostly unhappily - Tali's probably never getting back to Rannoch, for example) but that's all we can do. The game doesn't tell us. The only assurance we have is that, according to the epilogue, sentient life as we know it doesn't die out completely in the aftermath of Shepard's choice.

The ultimate choice also honestly doesn't make sense in the context of the rest of the series up to that point. Yes, all three games establish the conflict between organic and synthetic life. The first game takes the unilateral stance that synthetic intelligence has no reason to coexist with organic life and will always turn homicidal; the second game challenges that assumption by introducing EDI, an AI who is consistently altruistic and helpful towards the organic crew of the Normandy even after all programming constraints are lifted from her and even comes to consider them her shipmates and friends, and Legion, who provides a very different and sympathetic perspective on the geth and is also consistently helpful and altruistic. The third game brings this to its logical conclusion by giving Shepard the opportunity to forge peace between the geth (by this point depicted as cruelly wronged by their creators) and the quarians, and to encourage a romance between Joker and EDI--

--only for the Catalyst to claim that all synthetic intelligences will inevitably turn on and destroy their creators, and the only way to prevent this is to either a) allow the Reapers to keep on harvesting advanced civilizations before their creations wipe them out (I am unclear on how this is preferable, since I consider "melted into grey goo and used to build a Reaper" preservation only in the most technical sense, and I refer you to Mordin's rant about the Collectors for more on this subject), b) either take control of or destroy all synthetic life currently in existence and possibly a good bit of other technology besides, including the geth and EDI, who in no way deserve it, or c) or enact an Instrumentality plot. Nothing about the series up to that point gave me any reason to expect to see an Instrumentality plot turn up in Mass Effect, let alone as the "best" (at least in the sense that it requires the highest wartime asset score to unlock) possible ending. And there's no opportunity to make an argument using EDI and the reconciliation of the geth and the quarians as counter-examples to the Catalyst's assumptions.

I don't object to Shepard having to sacrifice herself to activate the Crucible and stop the Reapers, although I feel like a "golden ending" in which she survives should be possible. I do object to Shepard having to sacrifice herself (unless you reach a suitably high wartime asset score and also take the "destroy" ending, presumably sacrificing the geth and EDI in the process) to accomplish one of three equally unpleasant "solutions," any one of which seems to irrevocably change the face of the setting into something unrecognizable as the setting I've been invested in for three games.

And maybe it doesn't actually change it as drastically as I'm supposing - but again, I have no way to know, because the game doesn't tell me.

And then we come to the things that were promised about the ending prior to the game's release which simply were not delivered.

We were promised that the ending would be definitive and provide a sense of closure for the trilogy. It doesn't.

We were promised that while playing multiplayer helps improve your wartime readiness, it would still be possible to reach the "golden ending" via single-player alone. The final verdict is out on this while people crunch the possible asset numbers, but so far it seems like it's simply not possible to reach the necessary 4000 effective wartime asset score necessary for the "good" ending, let alone the effective 5000 score needed for the "best" ending, without the readiness percentage boost from multiplayer. Not that this matters, because...

We were promised that how we progressed to the ending would affect the ending we get - to quote Casey Hudson, "If you just rip straight down the critical path and try and finish the game as soon as you can, and do very little optional or side stuff, then you can finish the game. You can have some kind of ending and victory, but it’ll be a lot more brutal and minimal relative to if you do a lot of stuff. If you really build a lot of stuff and bring people to your side and rally the entire galaxy around you, and you come into the end game with that, then you’ll get an amazing, very definitive ending." Mass Effect 2 actually did this. If you didn't take time to ensure the loyalty of your squad and upgrade the Normandy, you saw your ship trashed and your teammates dying over the course of the suicide mission, up to a possible very bleak ending in which Shepard herself dies. I imagine most of us were envisioning something similar for ME3's ending, but on a larger scale to reflect the larger scale of the fight.

Instead, the possible variation of the ending sequence is minimal. At too low a rating, you're forced into the "Control" ending; higher scores unlock first the "Destroy" option and then the "Synthesis" option, and finally a hint that Shepard might have survived if you reached a high enough score and also took the "Destroy" option... none of which means anything, because (aside from Shepard's possible survival in that one ending, which still isn't very encouraging because your friends and love interest are stranded god knows where away from Shepard) the only difference between the three options is the color of the light that erupts from the Crucible, whether the Reapers fly off or (in the "Destroy" ending) fall over, and vaguely creepy glowing eyes and circuitboard patterns on everything if you picked "Synthesis."

All of these issues combine to make the ending incredibly unsatisfying. And it's truly a shame, because up until the Catalyst made its appearance the game was amazing. The other complaints I've listed are, for the most part, such small things. I don't understand how Bioware's team could have put together such an epic game experience and then dropped the ball so dramatically just shy of the buzzer.

My personal opinion is that the ending did not need that one final big game-changing choice. the whole game was about hard choices and sacrifices just to get to that point. By the time Shepard is up there having her last conversation with Anderson, there is no way a Reaper killswitch would be an "easy" ending - she and the rest of the cast, the rest of the entire setting, have gone through so much hell that they have earned it. Or, hell, if people really feel that would be too easy, the Crucible could simply deactivate the Reapers' barrier, like what happened with Sovereign when Shepard defeated his Saren-puppet on the Citadel in ME1 and gave the fleets an opening to destroy him.

And, you know, the rest of the game is so damn good that if Bioware were by some chance to release DLC that retcons the ending, I would probably buy it. I'd wait for reviews first, because now I've been burned, but if they were even guardedly positive I'd probably buy it. I don't want to encourage game companies to release incomplete games and then charge extra for DLC to complete them - my main argument against getting into MMORPGs has always been that I feel like I should only have to pay for a game once - but aside from those last five minutes, it's so, so good. I really want an ending that lives up to the rest of the game.

Bioware's response to the complaints has been... well. I'm trying not to get my hopes up. I've heard Bethesda released a DLC ending fix for Fallout 3, so there's some precedent, but since I didn't get more than a few minutes into Fallout 3 I have no idea of the details or what the scale of the thing was.

Guess we'll see.

Now, with the negativity out of the way, Things I liked:

* The sense of urgency throughout the game is remarkable. It's easy for video games, especially RPGs, to fail on this sort of thing because the player knows perfectly well that unless there's a timer on the screen, the world will remain just on the verge of disaster indefinitely while they swan around the map for days completing sidequests, collecting gear and resources, and level-grinding to their heart's content. This is just as true in ME3 as it is in any other game - moreso, because those sidequests will expire completely if you progress too far through the main plotline, with potentially grisly consequences - but the game never lets you forget that the galaxy is going to hell and people are suffering and dying out there. Like I talked about in my previous post, everything comes back to that.

There's a senile woman at an embassy office repeatedly asking the asari clerk about her son, who "hasn't called in a long time," to the poor asari's increasing frustration and sadness. There's an Alliance private asking to be deployed against the Reapers and not Cerberus because she recently learned that her little brother joined Cerberus. There's a salarian on medical leave for an almost-healed injury, gushing about the top-of-the-line heavy armor he received through some sort of mix-up that happened to coincide with his human friend selling her beloved car. There's a human criminal tearing her turian partner a new one for suggesting that they could steal a couple of crates of Alliance supplies from Customs. There's the truly horrifying story told, over a long series of overheard conversations, by a PTSD-stricken asari huntress in the hospital - and an opportunity that comes up via Spectre channels to authorize her request for a gun.

Minor collection sidequests run along the same lines: the batarian preacher trying to find a way to lend emotional strength to his decimated race. Medics at the hospital who desperately need specialized supplies. The elcor ambassador pleading for someone to try to evacuate civilians from his fallen homeworld. The list goes on.

* The memorial wall on the Normandy, which I actually passed by a good many times before I realized what it was, and then I went all gooey. I confess I wanted to see Emily Wong's name on it.

* James. Muscles on his muscles and a face like he's been chasing parked cars, and a much better example of the "relatively stable human male squadmate" than they ever managed to pull off with Jacob back in ME2. He's laid-back, straightforward, and frequently funny, and not without his own baggage, and he plays very well off all the established team members from the two previous games. He won me over by the time I got to Eden Prime and heard his conversation with Liara about dinosaurs. I loved his reactions to things that are new to him but old hat to the rest of the cast, his banter with Cortez, his bull session with Garrus, and his efforts at getting to know Javik.

* The party banter and conversations in general, a prime example of the thing that I mentioned in my last post about how Bioware was clearly putting everything they learned from the previous two games into practice and listening to what fans had to say. Not only is it much smoother and more believable now that most characters only start a conversation tree if they have something new to say, I love that they interact with one another so much more, even moving around the ship periodically or turning up on the Citadel, instead of being constantly glued to their assigned spot or trailing behind Shepard. That was a big issue with ME2, both the frustrating broken-record loops when a squadmate had run out of things to say, and how disconnected the team members seemed from one another most of the time. That may be why no one had anything to say about Thane's death, in fact... after all, they barely interacted with him when he was on the Normandy before. By comparison, the intra-party interactions in ME3 are priceless, like Garrus and Joker trading jokes about each other's militaries, or Kaidan and Tali nerding out intensely over their respective omnitool preferences.

* I liked Samantha Traynor and Steve Cortez, both as gay characters whose characters are not about being gay and would not be any less interesting if they were hetero, and just generally for their characterization as a whole. I found Traynor infinitely preferable to Kelly and liked seeing her gradually grow more comfortable as part of the Normandy's crew (especially her lines about wanting one of those little "units killed" stamps on the galaxy map for every time she analyzed the crap out of some data), and as already mentioned, I loved Cortez's banter with James and his presence as an actual personality at the steering wheel of the Kodiak, and his struggle to cope with the loss of his husband to the Collector raids.

* Getting Ken and Gabby back! I loved them to pieces in ME2. Too bad they didn't have as much to say this time around, but getting them back made me happy regardless.

* Garrus's entire role in the storyline. He was a favorite of mine in the first game; I still liked him in ME2 but I thought his arc in that game just wasn't as strong. His writing in ME3, however, is a thing of beauty all the way through. His conversations with Shepard about "ruthless calculus," his support of her in the low point after Thessia, that buddy-time scene up at the top of the Presidium, and oh man that last goodbye... It's all such great stuff. I never romanced him - could never bring myself to; he always felt so much like Shepard's alien little brother by the end of ME1 - and I feel no need to do so now. His storyline and his interaction with Shepard are perfect just as they are.

* ME3 also finally made me actually like Jack. I didn't dislike her before, but her characterization held no interest for me in ME2. It was really nice to see that she'd matured and grown as a person by 3 - still recognizable as the same person, but no longer cherishing a homicidal mad-on against the rest of the world, and involved in something and with people she honestly cares about and wants to protect. Score a win for warrior therapist Paragon Shepard there.

* Grunt practically slamming through his squad to greet Shepard, and his dramatic last stand, which had me talking to the TV screen telling the game it had damn well better not kill my baby krogan. First actual tears of the game. And then, "Anybody got something to eat?" Oh, Grunt. Never change. ♥

* Basically everything about the Tuchanka leg of the storyline, where the game really starts giving a sense of just how difficult it's going to be to pull the various species together into a force sufficient to stand up to the Reapers. In its most basic form, it's not really anything different from things Bioware games have done before - the PC needs help from a group that needs her to resolve a problem for them before they will, or can, commit to helping her. Dragon Age: Origins did it well. But Orzammar is a cakewalk in comparison to the desperate balancing act Shepard has to perform in order to try to reconcile the thousand-year-old grudges between the turians, the krogan, and the salarians. Just when it seems like things are going to work out, there's some new complication - that turian bomb, the salarian Dalatrass's ultimatum - that threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down. Intellectually I knew that the game would go on, but emotionally I was on the edge of my seat biting my nails in suspense, wondering if I was really doing the right thing or not.

And then it came to such an epic conclusion. First the mother of all thresher maws versus a Reaper, summed up perfectly by some random YouTube commenter: "Welcome to Tuchanka, motherfucker!" It's awesome, and it's the first breath of hope that this can actually be done. And then Mordin's final scene at the Shroud. He was probably my favorite new character from ME2, and it hurt a lot to lose him, but taking the Paragon option it was such a fitting and satisfying way for him to go out. If you're going to kill a major character, that's how you do it.

* Thane's death is the same. He's another character that I loved from ME2, and I cried like a little girl over his last scene, but he went out like a badass and remained made of class right to the end. I don't doubt that if Thane had been in his prime, Kai Leng would not have stood a chance. As it was, I wanted Kai Leng's head on a plate. Just like with Mordin, it hurt to see him go, but it fit. Even having an alternate Shepard who romanced him in ME2 and who I may someday import for an ME3 run, I'm satisfied.

* I was a wreck by Rannoch, especially going through the geth server and seeing the recorded memories from the Morning War, which made it clear that the quarians were in the wrong. I had no idea if I'd be able to reconcile them, and I couldn't imagine what I'd do if there wasn't a way to convince the quarians to let go of their 300-year-old vendetta - the geth didn't deserve to be wiped out, but if the alternative was to side with them and condemn Tali's people to death instead? :C :C :C On top of that I was terrified that Legion - another favorite from ME2; these games have a remarkable talent for making the oddest things cute, like krogan and geth - was becoming corrupted by Reaper code, or breaking down for some other reason. Yes, Legion. Yes you do have a soul. :c

Also, fighting a Reaper ON FOOT, staring down its eyebeam and calling down an orbital strike from an entire fleet. Glorious. Even if it did take me three tries on Narrative difficulty.

* Liara's effort to create this cycle's version of Vigil, to preserve everything they knew about the Reapers and try to fling a light of hope ahead into the next cycle in case they lost... which was heartwarming, but also brought home again how desperate the situation really was.

* I also really liked how the events of the game clearly took a toll on Shepard, especially after the failure at Thessia. In the first two games, she could get frustrated, or angry, but in ME3 we see her tired. Scared. Battling against despair. Needing support from her team, instead of being the rock-steady warrior therapist who talks them through everything. Jennifer Hale, whose voice-acting for female Shepard I've liked from the beginning, really brought her A-game.

* Drunk Tali. Tali in general, but her drinking binge was both heartbreaking (especially since it came right after I got the email about Kal'Reegar's death ;_;) and hilarious. "Emerrrrrrrgency induction port!" Especially drunk-dialing Javik to tease him about liking Liara. "And you like meeeeee tooooooo!" Liz Sroka's voice acting for Tali is so cute.

* Speaking of Javik, I liked him well enough. I don't know that I'd have felt the need to mention him specifically, though, except for Liara's reaction to him, culminating in her losing it at him after Thessia for not having all the answers, and his surprisingly encouraging pep-talk to her in response. And then all but admitting to Shepard afterwards that he said it not because he believed it, but because it was what Liara needed to hear. The scene with him on the Citadel being confronted by NPCs looking to him, a Prothean, for reassurance that he has trouble giving was also very compelling.

* "This is for Thane, you son of a bitch." I will never, ever not take that Renegade interrupt.

* And just... everything about the last push through London and the final conversations with team members past and present. Especially the ones with Garrus, Kaidan, and Tali. Like Liara's work on those new beacons, they really brought it home that this could very well be the end of everything.

And, related to that, the last conversation with Anderson on the Citadel: "You did good, child." All of my tears.

* Also, this. Probably the most positive channeling of frustration over the ending that I've seen. Even if Bioware takes no notice, at least the charity gets the benefit of it.

As I gain some distance from the ending, I think, overall, it has not ruined the experience for me, and I'll be able to do another play through, perhaps through the trilogy as a whole. I'm just going to... turn the console off after the last talk with Anderson, and imagine my own ending from there.
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August 2012

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