Mass Effect 3’s Campaign Falls Short of Expectations

By jason - March 22, 2012

Mass Effect 3 hit shelves earlier this month to record hype– the fervor emanating from Bioware’s rabid fanbase was almost insurmountable. I personally was dizzy with excitement on March 5th just waiting for the hours to run down to 12am so I could speed home and begin a marathon playthrough of the game that would no doubt be regarded as one of the greatest works of science fiction ever produced. This is, after all, the culmination of hundreds of hours of intense gaming over the course of five years– an epic finale for the cast of characters gamers have come to love so much.

So, back home and adorned in all my Mass Effect gear (I swear, I will buy anything with an N7 logo slapped on it) I turned down the lights, turned up the volume, and was ready to be floored. And that’s when I encountered a problem– an unbelievable oversight from the development team that foreshadowed a certain degree of recurring laziness: I couldn’t import my character model into the new game. See, if you created a custom Commander Shepard in the first installment, you could import the raw data of his/her facial structure over to Mass Effect 2 to continue your career with the character that you’ve grown accustomed to. Surely you can then bring that data into ME3 right? Wrong. It turns out I and thousands of other long-standing fans who’ve been immersed in the series from the beginning found that, while all their decisions from the previous games carried over, they would need to physically recreate their character’s look from scratch. The issue was quickly written off by developers as a bug that would be looked into but it was clearly an intentional call. If Bioware’s team of QA workers and devs actually failed to notice that the most fundamental feature of the game was broken before it shipped, then I’ve seriously overestimated their abilities. For nearly three hours, I toiled; tweaking and adjusting each slider to regain my Commander’s facial structure. It had to be perfect. Thankfully what I ended up with was damned near spot-on and the things that I still didn’t quite nail the first time were fixed on my subsequent playthrough. I’m sure this issue was due to the upgraded engine and graphics, but for Bioware to not only fail to develop a workaround but also fail to warn their long-standing fans of the issue before launch is very disappointing. To clarify, this issue does not affect PS3 owners as Mass Effect 1 was never released for that system. Only fans who created a Shepard in ME1 got hit with this error and, no, it still hasn’t been corrected by Bioware.

*Before we go any further, please take note that, while there are several spoilers ahead, no major plot points will be discussed*

After overcoming that setback, I chose my class (there are several classes you can choose to align your character with that each carry their own exclusive powers) and dove headfirst into the game. Grounded and detained by the Alliance following the events of ME2’s “Arrival” DLC, Commander Shepard is on the hot seat for making the tough call to wipe out several Batarian colonies about six months prior in order to buy the galaxy more time before the onset of a Reaper invasion. The Reapers (in case you are unfamiliar with the series) are a sentient race of synthetic leviathans who destroy and harvest all known life in the universe once every 50,000 years or so, once the dominant species have reached their technological peak. Sure enough, only minutes into the game, the Reapers begin to touch down throughout every system and all hell breaks loose. On Earth, Shepard and Captain Anderson narrowly escape the ensuing carnage and make it to Shepard’s iconic ship, the Normandy. While Anderson advises that he will remain on Earth and try to fight the Reaper forces back, Shepard is tasked with appealing to the Council for aid. After all, if there is any hope for victory, every major species in the known galaxy will need to work together. While this intro sequence isn’t handled with the elegance or finesse of the brilliant ME2 prologue, it fits the chaotic nature of the situation at hand and eases you into a few new control scheme mechanics. The same button is used to sprint, take cover, roll between cover, and vault over obstacles– it feels simple and intuitive enough but inevitably leads to instances of sticking to cover when you didn’t intend to. You can no longer holster your weapon as holding down the reload button now simply switches between guns. This is something that did irritate me at first but that I quickly grew accustomed to. Lastly, the melee button can now be held down to charge up a heavy attack that varies slightly based on your character class and does significant damage.

Aboard the Normandy, the last thing you see before making a hasty retreat is a scared child boarding a rescue shuttle amidst the chaos. Shepard tried unsuccessfully to bring this child to safety only minutes earlier and now looks on helplessly as the shuttle he boarded is incinerated by a Reaper moments after takeoff. Shep’s facial reaction to this is one of the best moments of the game to me– he briefly turns away, eyes clenched shut in disgust and grief, only to turn back and glare at the Reaper with the intensely genuine hatred. It was incredibly well-rendered & powerful and, for the remainder of the game, the image of this child plays a recurring theme in Shepard’s nightmares, representing the face of all the people on Earth that Shepard couldn’t save.

You soon receive a hail from the familiar voice of Admiral Hackett instructing you to get to Mars immediately. Serving as the game’s first mission, you hit the planet’s surface with two squadmates in tow– Kaidan Alenko or Ashley Williams (depending which one survived your ME1 playthrough) and newcomer James Vega– and discover that Cerberus, the ethnocentric terrorist organization, is up to no good. There are a number of conversations that take place with either Kaidan or Ashley regarding their uneasy feelings about Shepard’s prior association with this group which, if you did not play the prior title, will unfortunately be completely lost on you. Once the action heats up however (and with the exception of the aforementioned cover mechanics) you’ll immediately notice the game plays incredibly well, with tight gunplay and responsive squad commands. The new tech and biotic powers are fantastic additions and some classics were slightly tweaked, yielding more of the same endlessly enjoyable combinations of destructive power that we’ve come to expect. It’s a good thing too as many of the enemies you’ll be facing have new tricks up their sleeve. Throughout this first mission, Cerberus troops will hurl frag grenades, advance on you with bulletproof shields, deploy sentry turrets, and fill corridors with a thick blanket of smoke to slow your progress. The refined combat certainly makes the game feel very action-oriented early on, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing provided the story doesn’t suffer– and for the most part, it doesn’t.

Returning Asari Scientist and Shadow Broker, Liara T’Soni, who had also infiltrated Cerberus’s Mars Base, reveals upon joining your squad that she was researching information on an ancient tool capable of immense power which may be to key to defeating the Reapers. The Illusive Man (voiced perfectly by Martin Sheen) soon shows up as well and the dialogue exchange, which leads to the climax of this mission, is snappy and entertaining. Really, every scripted line of dialogue in the game right up to, but not including, the finale (much more on this later) will pull you in and have you hanging on every word. Bioware’s knack for creating a believable universe populated with truly relatable and interesting characters is second to none.

Once that first mission comes to an end, you find yourself back aboard the Normandy, en route to the Citadel– a massive space station with mysterious origins that serves as a commerce hub for all species in the galaxy. The layout of your ship changes a bit with every game, but it is navigated similar to ME2. Clicking the right stick will instantly display what crew members are aboard and on which deck they are residing. A quick elevator ride can easily bring you to the deck of your choice to converse with crew members or, in the shuttle bay, you can outfit Shepard in the armor pieces of your choice or use the weapon bench to swap out & upgrade gun components. The armor system works largely the way it did in ME2 but bringing back some customization to your arsenal was a welcome albeit diluted return to ME1’s more in-depth inventory upgrade system. Your personal quarters are still identical, housing your fish tank, model collection and, of course, space hamster. You are also still able to scan systems via the galaxy map and launch resource-finding probes into planets, but it’s been streamlined and not nearly the time-consuming chore it was in the last game.

Docking at the Citadel, you’ll find much has changed. There are entirely new locations to explore and returning locations look entirely different. After visiting Huerta Memorial Hospital where a member of the squad lies critically injured as a result of the prior mission, I made my way to the Embassies and was greeted by a very familiar Council… Alright, so I had stated at the beginning of this review that there was a recurring theme of laziness– some of these are due to technical issues and some are literary missteps. In my playthrough of ME1, I left the original three-person Council to die and, in doing so, spared hundreds of human lives. In their place I set up a human-led Council with Captain Anderson as the chairperson. I felt that this was the right call for my Shepard and its repercussions in ME2 were subtle but incredibly well implemented– my actions inadvertently caused much anti-human sentiment and I caught flak from a number of aliens for putting my own species’ interests first. In ME3, the Council in place looks identical to the ones that were killed in my game and, if not for a brief phoned in line from one of them about the last Council dying, it would appear that your actions had no effect whatsoever. Would it have been that hard to just come up with three new character designs to substitute in different Turian, Asari, and Salarian councilors? To make matters worse, Anderson, they guy who’s now fighting it out on Earth and who should be the human representative on the Council, has been replaced by Udina, the guy I absolutely would have never picked for the job in the first game. Seeing as Udina is tied to a scripted plot point later in the game, it became clear that many of the hard decisions Shepard has been faced with will now be rendered moot. There was clearly a narrative in place that, while well-written, does not take many of these choices into account– instead, it seemed as though they took their finished script and then figured out how all the possible branching storylines that players have created can be tied into it. Necessary for consistency, most characters that may have died in your prior games will be replaced by a generic character whose dialogue will mirror that of the person who is “supposed” to be there.

Similarly, the agonizing decision on whether to let the Rachni Queen live or die in the first game amounts to nothing. I think most players who decided to save the gruesome alien did so, at least partially, in the hopes that this massive beast would join your cause at some point and aid you in your time of need. The message you receive in ME2 from her (provided you kept her alive) seems to solidify that idea. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was to find out that, regardless of your choice, the game plays out exactly the same. If you wiped out the Rachni, it doesn’t stop the Reapers from somehow harnessing control of them and you’ll find there is virtually no difference in what you will see in your game. Well, that’s not necessarily true– you’ll see a 100-point change in your war readiness rating when the Queen’s stand-character proves unhelpful. The underlying theme of unity across all species is a beautiful one but, unfortunately you won’t really see the fruits of your labor as every army you recruit to fight the Reapers is merely represented by a number on a chart. This rating essentially stands for the number of bodies actively working on the Crucible (the immense ancient weapon that Liara had discovered earlier) and trying to unlock the mystery of how it works and what it does.

That’s not to say the game should be written off entirely– far from it. And let me be clear that the only reason I’m being as critical as I am is because, up until now, the series has been flawless and something I’ve held in very high esteem. Mass Effect 3 will still absolutely deliver one of the best gaming experiences this year without question. It looks great, it plays well, and it’s so exciting that you won’t want to put it down– we’re talking edge-of-your-seat stuff here. In fact, some of the dialogue and cutscenes presented throughout are easily the most powerful of the series and, thankfully, many of your choices actually do carry weight. For instance, many of your crew members from ME2 will show up in various capacities in this title. At least two simply will not survive and others can only be saved if specific requirements are met. But if you are coming from an ME2 playthrough where you had squad members who were not loyal to you (meaning you did not complete the missions they specifically asked for your help with) things largely do not end well for them. Conversely, ensuring you’ve brought over loyal characters that you’ve helped in the past means you will see their story through in a much more fulfilling, powerful manner. It’s a nice way to reward the efforts of long-time fans who have played the prior installments to their fullest extent. Furthermore, fans who have invested themselves in the lore will be able to bring about very meaningful change through their actions. Will you finally cure the Genophage allowing Krogan to breed unchecked or betray them? Will you broker peace between the warring Quarians and Geth or choose sides? In the Mass Effect Universe, these are big issues and you will actually see them through here.

On the technical side, I did encounter an unfortunate amount of glitches and bugs during my playthroughs. In a couple places the heads of either Shep or people I was talking to were turned around in an unnatural fashion– like something out of The Exorcist or the new Swamp Thing series. Even worse, sometimes characters just failed to show up at all and you would just hear dialogue coming out of a static backdrop. Weird clipping issues reared their ugly head as well when my character fell through the environment during a couple different side missions and, three times now, my game just simply froze up on a loading screen. These problems are annoying and shouldn’t have made it to the final product in the abundance they did, but it truthfully doesn’t really detract much from the experience. What does tarnish the experience, however, is the inability to complete random side missions and the seemingly broken journal function. I experienced incidents where I could not complete a side mission because the person I was supposed to report back to on the Citadel had vanished. The map certainly claimed they were there, but they weren’t. Then there were the missions I finished, but wouldn’t disappear from my journal– endlessly listed as incomplete. On top of that, the journal entries for side missions (of which there are many gained simply by reading emails and overhearing random conversations) never update or even tell you what to do or where to go. You end up finding most of the resources you need by scanning random planets, but it’s an extremely sloppy way to go about reaching your goals. Not only that but, without warning, certain side missions will simply lock once you’ve proceeded far enough in the game and you will be unable to complete them. Good thing I had a strategy guide on hand to make me aware of this fact because otherwise I surely would have missed out on something. Oh, and then there was the time that the game decided to erase all of my progress. In the middle of a playthrough on the hardest difficulty level, I booted up the game to be greeted with an error that I wasn’t “signed into their servers” although the screen said I was otherwise connected just fine. Come to find out, it reset my progress on all my achievements including the ones specific to finishing all missions on “insanity” difficulty, causing me to start all over again.

A handful of side missions and technical bugs notwithstanding, our main adventure sees Shepard and his squad traveling to systems across the galaxy, fighting Reaper forces on the Turian, Krogan, and Asari home planets, taking down Cerberus bases, and finally taking the fight to Earth. One of Bioware’s greatest triumphs in this title, and one of the things that kept me most engaged, was that they nailed the enemy designs. Although you actually do face down a couple skyscraper-sized Reapers in the game, the Reapers forces won’t typically engage you directly. Instead, you’ll be facing hordes of their terrifying slaves. In the prior titles, we got a glimpse of what the Reapers did to the races they’ve harvested as humans were drained of liquid and nutrients, outfitted with cybernetics, and reanimated as snarling husks. The Protheans suffered a similar fate as their very DNA was mutated by Reaper technology, turning them into the feared “Collectors.” In this title, we see the horrifically dissected and reconstructed shells of Turians, Krogan, Rachni, Batarians, and even Ardat-Yakshi Asari. The fact that the main protaganists of the series are monstrous entities of Lovecraftian proportions is cool enough, but the fact that they use the harvested and repurposed bodies of their victims to do their ground-fighting just adds another level. You can’t help but feel bad for these mindless armies knowing their origins and killing them becomes an exercise in putting them out of their misery. I won’t go into fine detail regarding how the meat of the game plays out but, clocking in at about 35 hours per playthrough, there is plenty of content to keep you busy. Downloading the optional 7th squad member of the game, a Prothean named Javik, also gives you an additional weapon, one short mission, new uniforms for your squad, and one of the coolest characters in the game. For $10 it’s a worthy addition to the game and I’d certainly recommend it if just for Javik’s insightful dialogue alone.

Leading up to the endgame, everything seems to be going well for Shepard– depending on your choices, you have potentially ended age-old disputes and brought the entire galaxy together for one common goal. Admiral Hackett even chimes in now and again via the Normandy’s holographic communicator to advise you of your success. With that many crews hard at work on the Crucible, they are eventually convinced that they understand the device and how to make it work. So it’s off to Earth (London specifically) to finish the fight.

…and this is where the game starts to completely fall apart.

Part of the reason I was so disappointed with the final act of this game was that is just wasn’t what I was expecting. Now I obviously can’t fault the writers for not delivering the ending that I was expecting but, at the same time, I feel that their creative decisions were made for the wrong reasons. I was expecting this series to go out with a bang, with armies and air support from all species uniting to physically take the fight to the Reapers– an epic battle of impossible odds pitting the combined forces of all galactic life against synthetic monsters. In my mind, it would look like the equivalent of trillions of ants taking on hundreds of elephants. I wasn’t expecting a pleasant outcome for anyone involved, but I did expect to see the universe in a desperate fight for survival. I wanted to see the Rachni Queen I saved show up and fight on the frontlines. I wanted to see a Krogan battalions and Turian soldiers fighting and dying side by side. I wanted to see the Quarian fleet swoop in a shell the crap out of a hapless Reaper. I wanted the chance to tell Harbinger, the Reaper that taunted you and undermined your efforts throughout ME2, face to face that humanity would go down fighting. This isn’t what was delivered by a long shot.

Instead, Earth is fairly devastated when you arrive and the situation is dire. The crews working on the Crucible (you know, all the people you’ve united across the galaxy but never actually see save for a number) have determined that the Citadel itself is the one missing component it requires to function and the two must be joined. After an admittedly rousing speech from Shepard and some short dialogue with all of your surviving crew, you set out with two of your squadmates to hold the line until the plan can come to fruition.

The bleak setting would work here if it wasn’t so poorly executed. You only see the aftermath of the destruction and read about casualties and failed operations on datapads. The Krogan army on site has less than a dozen members present and Alliance soldiers are few and far between. It feels like you’re running into battle with a small militia, not an army. Past that, the final setting of the game sees you and your squad fighting off wave after wave of the Reapers’ ground troops until the Crucible can be brought into Earth’s orbit. Once it arrives, the story just completely collapses. Until this point, I could deal with the addition of the Deus Ex Machina plot device that was the Crucible, having faith that Bioware’s writers could truly present something interesting. I also figured that Dark Energy would factor into it in some way since it was a recurring point across the previous two games. But no, what we got was so stupid, so nonsensical, that it was literally a slap in the face to anyone who has followed the series.

I’d love to detail a point-for-point guide of how the ending plays out but honestly, besides the fact that so many of these exist already (and presented with far more bitterness than I can muster), it’s still something that you should experience for yourself. Even after hearing from so many sources what a train wreck the finale of ME3 was, nothing could have prepared me for what I was in for. Essentially, none of the choices you have made over the course of five years and, for me, over 300 hours invested the series amounted to anything whatsoever. A new character is introduced who, only minutes later, is giving you three exceedingly ridiculous options by which to end the game and, since it lacks the dialogue option to tell said character that none of what you’re being told makes a shred of sense, you simply choose one. But wait, it gets better– the only real difference between your three choices is the idea behind the choice itself– because regardless of which one you choose, everyone is presented with virtually the same cutscene at the end. No joke. If your effective rating of war assets is high enough and you chose one of the options specifically you will get one additional scene that lasts all of two seconds that shows someone’s chest in N7 armor (presumably Shepard’s) taking a breath.

So if the fact that you are forced to choose to decide between three absurd choices that Shepard would never agree to, without questioning why, and seeing your choices carried out by what can only be described as space magic wasn’t enough to throw fans into an uproar, you can bet that all the planet-sized plot holes they just blew through the established lore will. It’s almost as if the fans understand the Mass Effect universe better than the writers who, regardless of their lack of research, dropped the ball and phoned in this ending. Without giving away anything of consequence, one of the things you are presented with is that the Reapers were created by an AI to harvest organic species before they could develop synthetics capable of turning on them. So basically, synthetics were made to destroy organics so that organics can’t make synthetics that destroy organics. Yes, it really says this. I guess it was true when Sovereign and Harbinger warned me in ME1 & ME2 that I couldn’t possibly comprehend their existence, because that literally makes no sense. Combine that kind of stellar logic with the plot holes, the sloppy disjointed dialogue, and complete lack of any semblance of closure and you have one of the worst endings in the history of gaming– made even worse by how great the series has been up until the last ten minutes of the game. Then, to add insult to injury, while you are still staring at your screen in shock and disbelief that you had actually just witnessed an ending that relentlessly terrible, you’re greeted with a message that Commander Shepard’s adventures will continue in future downloadable content.

Does this mean we’ll see an addendum to the endgame confirming fan’s suspicions that the entire ending took place in Shepard’s mind? After all, whether or not Bioware intended it that way, the only logical way they can possibly explain an ending that nonsensical is by stating that it was a hallucination or Reaper indoctrination attempt and, in effect, didn’t actually happen. Or does it simply mean that they will add extra missions into the middle of the game that you will catch on repeat playthroughs? Nobody really knows because Bioware has been silent on the issue save for a statement that they are listening to the fan feedback, which is overwhelmingly negative. And it’s negative for all the right reasons– Bioware had promised for years that ME3 would tie up the loose ends and bring closure to Shepard’s story in radically different ways depending on the choices you’ve made through the series. I personally sat in on Bioware’s panel at NYCC 2011 and listened to the lead writer echo these statements. While extreme, it’s no wonder that fans have filed complaints with the FTC and BBB regarding the fact that ME3 is a product delivered under false pretenses and not the product that was advertised to them.

I won’t presume to know what Bioware is planning, but I should hope that they have something in mind to deal with the backlash. If they truly stood behind the ending they delivered prior to release they should be ashamed, but should also offer a sincere explanation to their fans explaining their motives and addressing the abysmal writing and contradictions to established lore. On 3/21, Bioware Co-Founder Ray Muzyka did acknowledge the fan reaction on one hand stating that they need to preserve their original vision but on the other advising that he understands the concerns and that the story will continue. The only action I can see them taking in order to set things right is to release DLC, free of charge, that provides more closure on the story and addresses the issues with the current ending. If no further statements are released prior to Bioware’s appearance at PAX East on April 6th, their panel is going to be quite interesting.

Even with the sizeable amount of negativity I’ve just thrown around, though, I would still recommend the game and series as a whole to anyone with even a small interest in video games or science fiction. The universe Bioware created easily stands alongside big franchises like Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars and all three games provided me with hundreds of hours of enjoyment. And, who knows? Maybe you’ll actually enjoy the endings– after all, one of my friends gave it the glowing review of being “passable.” But regardless, it’s just hard to completely write off an entire series just because the ending was terrible– let’s just hope Bioware has an ace up their sleeve to make things right by their most loyal fans. As soon as some solid news is released, I’ll keep you updated.

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