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.
Fulcia Romero, my level-49 Jedi zombie hunter, has officially cashed in her lightsaber.
Moments ago, I had been egging her on as she hacked away at yet another faceless Sith Boss. Predictably, she died after a hard-fought battle, leaving me to either wait ten minutes to respawn, or warp to the nearest medical facility and fight my way back. This is a familiar despair, because I’ve been in this same spot dozens of times over the last few months. What’s worse: after the despair wears off, I usually feel the familiar pull to go back. But not this time!
After pouring untold hours into BioWare’s huge, sprawling MMORPG, I’ve finally come to a stunning conclusion. It’s incredible. And terrible.
BioWare doesn’t need a cheerleader, but it’s not hyperbole to say that they’re one of the most beloved and talent-stuffed developers on the planet. Even its current-gen offerings, like Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect, may as well be timeless even now. BioWare distills many (but not all!) of these successes into SW:TOR, perfecting parts of the formula and modifying others. Detailed skill trees, tri-fold dialogue systems, myriad planets, and long, branching storylines are all BioWare standards, and TOR binds them together in one singular, mammoth package. It’s a culmination and refinement of all of BioWare’s RPG mechanics. And it tells a story that’s hundreds of hours long.
The game’s high points include a thrilling series of repeatable space missions that count amongst my favorite RPG diversions ever, and the PVP, while hit-and-miss, can be a blast if you’re on the right team. Co-op “Flashpoint” missions are good fun, too… if you can find a group. After level 35, my server was a ghost town. This may change in the future, obviously.
SW:TOR is also their biggest failure. And not just because the familiar MMORPG trappings of grinding and loot gathering transform BioWare’s joyful experiences into repetitive chores. Had the story (the Jedi Knight story, in particular – I wanted to keep some continuity with the KOTOR games, which I really liked) had any of the spark of a Mass Effect, or even a Dragon Age II, god forbid, it would have been an amazing experience. But there’s no spark. The Jedi Knight storyline is an exercise in “And then this happened.” After you complete the prologue, which is – I’m not even shitting you – fifteen+ hours long, you’re sent on a series of quests to a shopping list of planets. You bounce from one generic Sith adversary to the next, with the occasional Imperial moustache-twirler thrown in for variety. This may work fine in a Saturday Morning cartoon, but it doesn’t have any of the narrative propulsion of something like Mass Effect 2. Worse still, you’re following orders most of the time, so you don’t get the sense that your hero has free will.
The game itself will seem familiar to anyone with MMORPG experience, which is both a blessing and a curse. For someone (like me) who doesn’t particularly like MMORPGs, it’s a shame that BioWare didn’t make any meaningful changes to the WoW formula. With the exceptions of Tatooine and Hoth, the planets are mostly bland and interchangeable. The familiar pattern of “get quest, go to cave/field/warehouse, and collect/kill/disable entity” quickly becomes a means to an end, with the “end” being the leveling of your character. It’s good fun to watch your character grow, but BioWare seems to want you to drag it out as long as possible by making planets impossibly large (you’ll need to buy a $28,000 speeder at some point, or else) and by making your character walk through endless corridors, docking bays, and entry pavilions before you can get to any of the game content. It’s a transparent ploy to inflate playtime, and makes traveling between planets and the fleet a hutt-sized pain in the ass.
It also doesn’t help that the design reminds me of the Clone Wars cartoon. Any link to the prequels, either direct or indirect, instantly puts a bad taste in my mouth.
There are two major exceptions to the “lame planet” rule: Tatooine and Hoth. Each planet has a self-contained (and usually forgettable) side plot , but those two planets featured the best of the lot, and have a tangible connection to the two good Star Wars films, which doesn’t hurt. They’re also the only planets that are any fun to explore.
In the end, it’s quantity over quality that killed SW:TOR for me; it throws so much of this stuff at you that it all becomes meaningless in the end. It’s the least enriching BioWare game I’ve ever played, if you can call a game “enriching;” after finishing ME2, I felt invigorated, but after playing this game, I just feel exhausted. It’s how I imagine casino addicts feel after spending twenty hours in front of a one armed bandit.
It’s a rare thing to leave a BioWare game unfinished; maybe I just needed a break before Mass Effect 3. I doubt it.
First things first: Why should anyone read this blog? After all, if it’s going to be weekly dissertations on some schmoe’s favorite movies, shows, games, or books, there are hundreds of better known and well-vetted sources to choose from. Why read this one?
I’ve been writing for the web in one format or another for five years. (Here’s some proof.) This hardly makes me a veteran, but I’ve done enough reading and writing to know when a horse has been beaten to death. The traditional web writer formula – put out a trickle of news commentary alongside big weekly reviews, and wrap things up with an obligatory top ten list at the end of the year – is finished. Opinions are cheap, especially when they’re couched in boring reviewerspeak tropes and hyperbole. Find me a rave review on the internet that doesn’t use the words “compelling” or “works,” and I’ll owe you a doughnut. It gets even worse when you realize that most writers have no idea why a plot point is “compelling” or why something “works.”
And then there’s the scary trend of writers bucketing art into “it’s awesome” or “it sucks” bins. This binarization of commentary lies at the root of fanboyism, and is a discussion killer. To quote my Polish mother in law, “there’s nothing so bad that no good can come of it;” in fact, bad, poorly-thought-out movies can generate just as much healthy discussion as a classic. FilmCritHulk (who is, seriously, 2011’s great new voice) explains this perfectly in his NEVER HATE A MOVIE essay. I’m more interested in why a story connects with us or sends us running rather than treating directors, games, movies, or franchises as our favorite surrogate sports teams. If you’re like me, then please consider giving this experiment of mine a shot.
If you’re still on the fence, here’s a sample of some of my favorite things I’ve written recently: