Mass Effect 3 gets so many things right. As a third person shooter, its mechanics make it a top-tier game. The multiplayer is fun and addictive. The dialogue is as witty as ever, and there are touching moments shared between these familiar characters that rival anything BioWare has done in the past. But as I played through the missions for the first time, a persistent voice in my head kept nagging me: “Why is this not clicking? Why is each mission somehow… flat? It seems like the stakes should be higher, so why does this feel like my character is just hopping from battle to battle?”
Forget the day-one DLC scandal. Cram the weak ending. Stifle your complaints about the make-work Citadel fetch quests. Using Mass Effect 2 as a benchmark, here are the real reasons ME3 was a disappointment.
In Mass Effect 2, every mission is a story, with a beginning, middle and end; they begin with a mystery, which leads to a reveal, which culminates in a fight and a final denouement. They immerse your character in the unknown. In nearly every quest, including the Collector setpieces, there’s no telling what (or when) you’ll be fighting. Take, for example, the Prison ship mission, where Shepard boards Purgatory with seemingly mundane orders to pick up a prisoner. Five minutes in, the mission context is completely inverted; Shepard is now the prisoner, and must fight her way out of the facility. More importantly, she has two great, implied motivations for fighting her way out of the prison: freedom, and claiming revenge on the warden. Here’s the key: You’re never explicitly told to care about either of these things. You care about these motivations because the story unfolded in a way that made you care about them. We get both surprise and mission-specific motivation, to say nothing of the building tension as Shepard finally reaches her adversary… who is NOT a faceless Power Armor goon, but an actual character. This may not be drama on par with Fitzcarraldo, but it offers genuinely engaging story conflict.
Or, take Jacob’s loyalty mission. It begins with a compelling mystery and motivation: “What happened to Jacob’s Dad? Let’s find out.” The story makes a near-brilliant transformation from a rescue mission into a revenge mission, culminating in one of the game’s shocking choices. When Jacob realizes why his father is still planetside, his character actually changes. The missions have acts. The missions even have mini-character-arcs!
I can make an example of nearly every mission. Samara’s dossier quest features not only a character antagonist, but one of the funniest interactions with a Volus in the entire series. Archangel’s dossier quest lets you play the role of infiltrator; by the time the pitched battle to save Garrus is over, you’ll have faced down several familiar characters from the Merc squad, with the clear motivation to protect your friend from certain death. Even Miranda’s loyalty quest, which is arguably the worst and blandest mission in the game, features distinguishable antagonist characters who create conflict. These are all mini-stories. Even the N7 Assignments offer mystery and surprise, if not all of them deliver on the same scale as the missions.
Better yet, most of these stories all dovetail into the main plot in satisfying ways. The point of ME2 wasn’t the Collectors, the Illusive man’s plans, or even Shepard – the point was the building of the team itself, which is actually a clever inversion RPG storytelling.
Now let’s take a look at what’s going on in ME3. How many of the off-ship missions offer real story conflict with actual characters? Does Shepard encounter any combat adversaries with proper names besides Kai Leng? (The answer, as it turns out, is “No,” unless you ended the game with three certain squadmates disloyal.) The missions nearly all thrust Shepard into an epic firefight where she’s commanded to protect an asset or find a console. While there’s always the meta-story of “Defeat the Reapers!” to fall back on, the off-ship missions in this game, with rare exception, are all extended firefights against floods of indistinguishable enemies without a story to call their own. They do not offer mystery, surprise, or compelling mission-specific motivation. You’re typically sent off-ship to collect a plot coupon, like “diffuse the bomb” or “collect the artifact,” and these bland plot coupons represent the collective cores of the missions. This is shockingly lazy writing, especially for BioWare.
Take, for example, the Palaven mission, which is an example of “And then this happened” storytelling. After being told by her commander that she needs to recruit the Turian Primarch to fight the Reapers, Shepard lands on the moon, fights some husks, and then talks to Lieutenant Corinthus. Next, Shepard repairs some comm towers, and defeats several waves of Reapers. Then, Shepard is assigned the task of guarding the base using turrets. Then, Shepard meets Garrus, who takes him to a crash site to fight more Reapers. Finally, Shepard collects Corinthus and Garrus.
Try composing a story around this mission. What’s it about? Does anything important happen to any of the characters? If this were a chapter in a book, would you enjoy it? Probably not. It’s a series of loosely-connected events linked by a series of shooting galleries. I have no mission-specific motivation here, other than the most basic one of all: because the game told me to. And it’s one of the better missions in the game, because at least it offers encounters with new enemies.
Or take the Geth Dreadnought quest, which tasks Shep to march down the length of a ship to find and terminate the Reaper signal within. How does it end? You march down the length of a ship to find and terminate the Reaper signal within. I did exactly what it told me to do, and even predicted the ME2 squadmate I’d meet along the way! No surprises, no story, and no mission-specific motivation. Again, this is a key setpiece in the game, and represents the best it has to offer.
“But Mass Effect 3 is a game-long climax! It doesn’t need to have missions with stories or side characters. It’s a war to save the galaxy, so it makes sense that the missions are frenetic and unfocused.”
Assuming that there’s no way to create story-based missions in the context of a war, then the writers shouldn’t have written themselves into that corner. But that’s a clearly false assumption, given that most action games take place in some sort of war. Hell, the lack of a war in the first two games set Mass Effect apart from the pack!
ME3’s missions also sustain a very high pitch. By the end of each one, you’ll have fought waves upon waves of either Cerberus fighters or Reapers, literally without exception. The Reaper horde eventually becomes background noise. I’ll borrow a phrase that’s widely used to condemn bad action movies: When every mission is a climactic firefight to save the galaxy, then no mission is a climactic firefight to save the galaxy. The ones that do stand out in my mind, like the Rachni Gears of War tunnels or the Giant Enemy Robot on Rannoch, are too loaded with lazy game tropes for me to fully enjoy. One mission that manages to bring together surprise, conflict, and character in a satisfying way is the Grissom Academy fight, but that’s the exception to prove the rule – and even that one has you fighting a faceless team of non-characters. The Mordin mission provides excellent resolution to his character, and is a bright spot, too, but that resolution is only a coda to the mission itself. This leads me to yet another problem: ME3’s off-ship mission content is as po-faced and humorless as it gets. Gone are the prequel’s spectacularly funny Renegade options, like the Biotic God Volus interaction or the Batarian mechanic sabotage on Omega. The missions are as solemn as a church service.
“But you don’t get it! This is Mass Effect’s Deathly Hallows! It’s intentionally epic, dark, and po-faced.”
Well, for one thing, Deathly Hallows wasn’t 25 hours long. For another, it ignores the BioWare writers’ playful sense of humor as a key writing strength. Moments like the Biotic God and the Rooftop Merc have stayed with me over the years, but I can’t recall a single Renegade story interrupt from ME3, and I’ve only finished it a day ago.
Finally, not only did Mass Effect 2 have universally better missions than its sequel, but there were twice as many of them. Not counting the DLC, Shepard took her crew on 60 total off-ship excursions, while ME3 stands at a stunted 26.
The sad truth is this: compared to its contemporaries, Mass Effect 3 isn’t a bad game in the least. But that’s because its contemporaries don’t bother weaving their stories into gameplay the way BioWare did so masterfully with ME2. The combat mechanics and weapons systems may have improved, but that’s not what made Mass Effect so special. The core components of Mass Effect are the missions themselves, and they were a big disappointment.