Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mass Effect Series (mostly 3) Commentary (FULL OF SPOILERS)


Well, time to rant and chat a bit. I wouldn't dare call this a real review. You might notice that I mentioned posting some ME2 review/commentary, and that it hasn't happened. I'm just going to do it all here. I completed Mass Effect 3 the other day, but I don't want to really do my review yet until the craze wears off, otherwise I'm going to overlook any flaws. I really do try to be somewhat impartial. Heck, I might not even do a whole review, I might just leave it at this. There are Review Scores down near the bottom if you'd like to read them.
Here's something I want to get on the table right off the bat.
The Ending: Okay, so we're hearing a lot of complaint about this. Generally, the complaints sound like "All the endings are too similar." Now, I've only completed the one ending myself, but I know of all of them. Overall, I do happen to agree that the endings are quite similar, but that's not my major problem. But I'll get to that, I want to address the general complaint.
So, the endings are similar. People are taing some major issue with this. Now, you might be saying, why is it such a big deal? Most video games don't even give you a second option for an ending, let along over a dozen, even if they're similar. But the issue with the similarity is related to Mass Effect's story structure itself. ME is built to allow you, the player, to craft the story. There are dozens of outcomes with an absurd number of possible outcomes. All those decisions you make in the games, the ones that we were told would be significant, should have brought us to different places. As is, the three paths of ending for ME3 all do about the same thing, which makes the decision kinda pointless.
Then you have the issue of "happiness." The ending they gave us was a bleak as hell thing with death all over. Now, this is certainly a good ending. If Iwas watching a movie, I could leave the theater satisfied. However, there's this weird thing with video games where we want a happy ending. Aside from that though, the huge malleability of the story should be able to produce a happy ending with relative ease- if we, the players, are deciding how the story goes the rest of the time, shouldn't we have a say in whether we want a bleak, dark triumph or a solid happy ending?
BUT none of these are my primary complaints, because of the Perfect Ending. This ending results in destroyed Reapers, saved Earth, and, most significantly, Shepard survives. Despite the weirdness of what happens to your squadmates (why did Joker abandon you, how the hell did my team get from the ground to the Normandy, and where the hell are they now? Will they be rescued and returned?), it's a strong ending. I wish my teammates would be around (I'm really pushing for the Shepard/Tali thing) but I can tolerate it. Unfortunately, I have no first-hand experience of this ending, because unless you play through the whole series with the explicit intention of obtaining it and using a walkthrough every step of the way (in ALL THREE GAMES), there's no way you'll see it unless you play Multiplayer. Yes, multiplayer is required for the good endings. If you want Shepard to live, you sure as hell better get on that multiplayer. Unfortunately, I'm not even sure I CAN play multiplayer on Origin without an online pass, and I know that if I'd played on 360 I'd never get it because I don't have Xbox Live Gold. And I saw an interesting point raised: what about when the server's eventually shut down? Any people who like to go back and play old games will be literally prevented from getting the best ending. Fuck you, Bioware. If it was *possible* within the span of ME3 I'd be okay with it. Hell, if the basic/non-imported decisions allowed you to have it, I'd be more okay with it. But no, if you don't import, screw you, better get on that multiplayer, and even if you do import, you probably need to get on that multiplayer anyway. I HATE online multiplayer. If I can play, I'll be boosting my scores through private games with no one but myself, and boosting to get that Galactic Readiness. FIX THIS with the Extended Cut.
Okay, I'm done for the moment I think.
Oh wait no. Wanted to mention Indoctrination Theory. While I haven't read about it/watched any explanations or anything, I know the basic idea, and honestly I'm calling bullshit. You're making excuses to get out of an ending you don't like. Bioware doesn't have this big conspiracy to avoid telling us what really happened. I won't rule it out, but it's so unlikely that I don't even care about it.
Okay now I'm done.

So, what's my Mass Effect experience? I've played all three games now. I played ME1 a while ago, and beat it, but my saves got wiped out in a hard drive failure and I haven't taken the time to replay it. As such, no importing from here, and thus the game assumes I killed Wrex, let the Council die, and killed the Rachni queen. I recently played ME2 through, twice, back to back. It was glorious. I lost Miranda and Jacob at the end, and destroyed the Collector base. Solid paragon. That's my history with it. Oh yeah, and I didn't import so no first-game romance, but totally romanced Tali in the second game. Actually, I'll make that the next topic of business.

Romance: Honestly? I genuinelly think Tali is consistently the best option. I'm not even saying this because I think Tali makes an excellent choice - it's more that I think all the others make for POOR choices. From what I've seen, everyone but Tali is either a crazy or a total bitch. Some of the evolutions of the characters in ME3 make them more appealing as choices, but those same characters aren't even options unless you're tranferring that relationship over, which requires you to have picked them when they were either crazy or a total bitch. This is just my opinion though.
Alright, I'll just confess. I've never been one to ship characters from fiction. I just don't do it, I've always thought it was stupid. And then, within a month, I've managed to get TWO of them stuck in my head as unchangeable. I simply cannot imagine Shepard with anyone other than Tali. It's the way it should be, in my mind. I'm glad it's NOT canon - the "No Canon" thing that Mass Effect has going on is part of what makes it so beautiful, and I wouldn't want to change that. It's just that for MY canon, it's Shepard/Tali or nothing. For that matter, Female Shepard/Garrus is my other match. Here's an interesting bit: Tali and Garrus are the only two characters who're on your crew all three games, and if you choose to romance someone else (or not to at all) they'll be with each other instead. It just seems obvious to me that those are the intended choices. However, No Canon, so this is all just what I think - any and all situations are canon to someone, I suppose.
Moving on.

Alright, this is supposed to be about ME3, right?
The Graphics: So, Mass Effect 3's graphics are nice. They're well made, usually, and they're varied, colorful, and simple. The game definitely made graphical improvements over ME2. However, in my opinion, the graphics have actually done worse overall. Mass Effect 2 took what it could do with the system at the time and pretty much pushed it to the limit, making the best of a slightly problematic system. Mass Effect 3 has a higher overall graphic quality, but to be honest, they're sloppy. Things clip through each other all the time, there's strange motions and weird movement glitches in the models, and multiple times I saw the graphic de-sync from the audio. Come one guys. The cutscenes are very strong and well-made, though I think they often could have done more with some things. It's good, but this isn't pushing the envelope. I wish the very unified-feeling, context-sensitive loading screens made a return. The facial expressions on the models are quite improved this time (despite being good before as well), and they fixed the damn smile.

I have an issue with a lot of the cutscenes, but it's a paired concern with sound. The visual issue is mostly tied to them just seeming static. Too often were the cutscenes a bit stiff or slow-moving. Not in a narrative sense always, sometimes the people and camera just moved too damn slow. Mostly I'm drawn to the invasion cutscene when retaking Earth. I know it's space and the Reapers are supposed to be a bit slow-ish, but still. The Suicide Mission is probably my favorite video game cutscene EVER. It was fast and hectic and it responded to what you'd done, and it gave you a sheer epic impression. Whoever storyboarded the Invasion scene needed to take another stab at it. Space battles, especially with fighters, can look way cooler than that. Heck, I know these guys watched Battlestar Galactica (the quarian/geth thing just can't be a coincidence), and the space fights in that were awesome!

Actually, let me go off the rails again since this isn't a real review, more just commentary. I was thinking about what I was talking about here with the cutscenes, and I actually came to a revelation about an entirely different game: Skyrim. What does Skyrim have to do with cutscenes? Nothing. That's my point. Skyrim entirely lacked cutscenes of any kind, and I think that went a long way to take away from the potentially very cinematic feel of it. I get the intention, trying to stay within the character and not pulling things out of your hands, but there were moments where it just needed cutscenes. Even just short establishing ones would work. Entering Blackreach could have used one, as could things like discovering the Eye of Magnus (that's what the magic orb thing was called, right?) or the scene where you meet Nocturnal. Basically, each of the core storylines could have been made much more special with the inclusion of some awesome cutscenes to set them apart as really unique. The central storyline had a lot of moments that were ripe for cutscenes that COULD have made the game way cooler and more enjoyable, and hell, maybe it'd even make the plot seem significant. Up on High Hrothgar, being taught to shout, absorbing your first dragon soul, at the peak, finding the Elder Scroll, entering Sovngarde, either Alduin battle, the arrival of the first dragon, all of it is just perfect cutscene material, and I don't know why they didn't take advantage of it.
Well, that was the Skyrim minute with Ego. Back to Mass Effect now.

The Sound: What the hell Bioware? The first game's music was excellent, the second game's was beyond amazing. Who dropped the ball and didn't hire Jack Wall again? Anyway, the music of Mass Effect 3 is easily the weakest of all of them. That's not to say it's bad - Sam Hulick and Cris Velasco and the rest of the crew did a pretty good job, and the soundtrack is much more agreeable in-game, but it doesn't make nearly as good listening on its own, which is what I usually do. I feel that they tried to take Leaving Earth and make it into the primary theme of the game, and it has its own beauty, but it doesn't function as the heroic super-song it needed to be. Basically, it's just straight up inferior to the Suicide Mission theme that recurred through ME2 and isn't as strong as the ME1 theme either. More than anything else, I'm upset that there was almost no use of the already established themes from the previous games. The music just didn't feel like Mass Effect. One of Halo 4's songs appeared recently (the Waypoint mix, I recommend it), and I thought it was more fitting to Mass Effect than most of ME3's music (which I also take as an enormously good sign for Halo 4). Seriously though, check out that song, it's pretty great in its own right
But don't let me sell the soundtrack short. It's weak in comparison to ME2's stellar soundtrack, but it's still strong, especially in certain places. Leaving Earth has a haunting beauty, and in its original early-game context it works exceptionally well. A Future For The Krogan is probably my favorite song on the soundtrack, and Rannoch is good too. I was sad to see that there were less clubs to go into in ME3, mostly because I really enjoyed the music they put in the clubs last game. Purgatory's song is good, but it's not as good as any of Dark Star, Eternity, or Upper or Lower Afterlife. I liked seeing Aria return though, thought it was hilarious that she brought her couch along with her (or at least it sure looked like she did).
So yeah, don't discount the soundtrack on my account. It's flaws are those of not fitting into the series tone-wise and not living up to its predecessor, not those of quality. Give it a shot, maybe I'm alone on this. I know quite a few folks who were big fans of Leaving Earth, so I might be a minority.
Oh, that reminds me, side-tracking for a moment, I've entirely neglected the overall community of Mass Effect. This is entirely intentional. I have no interest in getting into canon wars, disagreements, analysis of meanings of certain bits, and I especially am trying to avoid running into the game's heavy detractors, if for no other reason than to avoid lowering the game for myself. I'll put it on a god-damned pedestal if I want, whether others agree or not. So I have no idea what the general thought of people on the game is, other than the whole ending thing.

Reincorporation: Well, I was gonna use that Aria mention a minute ago to segue into this but that plan is all blown to hell now, but whatever, this isn't high writing. I'm writing this right now to AVOID doing high writing. God I need to stop procrastinating that homework and I'm rambling back to Mass Effect now.
What do I mean by Reincorporation? I mean taking things from the previous games and bringing them forward either directly or through reference. A lot of trilogy final entries rely on a lot of reincorporation. Mass Effect as a whole has done a good job with reincorporation - it seems to have been a major design goal, since in order to make your choices feel like they mattered they need to reference how those choices became fallout. Through numbers 2 and 3, for example, they'll reference the actions of Virmire pretty much whenever you've got stuff going on with krogans. Obviously, these are major plot points and need to be referenced. The sacrifice/rescue of the Council is probably the biggest of them. However, it's the attention to detail, the reincorporation of SMALL elements that makes or breaks their success of reincorporation.
Here, this is my favorite example of it: In Mass Effect 2, early in the game you can visit with Mordin and talk to him about personal stuff. One of the things he mentions is that he served under Captain Kirrahe when he was in the Salarian Special Tasks Group. Of course, Kirrahe was the salarian in charge during the first game's Virmire incident. It keeps going though - Mordin mentions that he liked Kirrahe's speeches, and mentions Kirrahe's favorite line in speeches: "Hold. The. Line." This was true in the first game too. I like that referencing of a small detail that's entirely unimportant, but does a lot to make the world seem a lot more alive and fluid.
ME3 tries to do some reincorporation as well, and when they do it, I think it works. The very humorous bringing back of Garrus' love of calibration, and Miranda's father, and of course any talking about character deaths. The wall on Deck Three in front of the elevator with all of the crew members lost over the years is exceptionally good. Saw Jenkins up there, smiled at his memory. A few time you'll talk about the crew member you let die in ME1 on Virmire (Kaiden for me). I romanced Tali through the games, so I got to have the drunk Tali scene (don't know if it's standard for others, but it's hilarious. Visit the Prothean during that scene if you get it, she drunk dials him over the comms). During it, she talks about Miranda, who I'd let die at the end of ME2. I thought that was a pretty good thing to bring back. And of course, the return of Jack and Oriana and Thane (and Kolyat) and potentially Wrex (though not for me D: ) was good.
Of course, it wasn't perfect. I don't think, aside form the memorial wall, that there was any reference to the fact that I'd let Jacob die in ME2, he was just a non-entity in this game. And sometimes, the reincorporation wasn't done very well. I LOVED engineer Donnelly in ME2, but he was sadly quite boring in ME3, though I was ecstatic to see him back.
Overall, I just like how they did it. I wish Saren/Sovereign tied more into things, along with the Collectors (we killed the homeworld, but that shouldn't have gotten ALL of them). They did a good job of bringing back pretty much all of the ME2 Normandy crew (donelly, EDI, Chakwas) though I missed Gardner. I mean, he wasn't really important in ME2, but I still would have liked him referenced. Chambers was missing for me too, but I know she can be there if you transfer her as a romance, so that's not an issue. One piece was majorly missing though:
Where the hell was Harbinger?! The oldest, most powerful Reaper didn't visually make an appearance. It's like we just entirely forgot that he was supposed to be important.
I know that some series end up all wound up in too much self-reference in their final bits and don't bring in enough cool new stuff, but ME3 had room to do more reincorporation. There was a lot of new cool to go around (The Thresher Maw Queen, the krogan female, Thessia, etc.) for more to be safe. In fact, I think a little too much was new in some ways. Specifically, I'm talking about Kai Leng. If you've read the Mass Effect novels, Kai Leng is the star of them and he'll seem like a more natural fit. I haven't read them. He seemed out of place and too new to work out. Needed someone we knew from Cerberus to be doing the job, though I'm not sure who. Maybe this is just a hint to say "Go read the novels" though; I suppose it's kind of like saying "I didn't play ME2, so I feel left out when they brought things in from it," though it's a bit different with spin-offs like the novels.

Length and Linearity: THIS is going to be a primary complaint. Basically, I felt like the game needed MORE. In my 24 hour playtime, I 100%ed every system, got every war asset I could, and beat the game. I'm out of things to do. A heavy RPG like this just needs more side-quests. This game, pretty much every "side-quest" amounted to playing the galaxy map scanning mini-game and then scanning a planet. It wasn't exactly enthralling, or satisfying. I needed more ground quests. But my main issue is something that worked really well and that they left out: loyalty quests. I loved 'em. They took the characters I felt marginally connected to or even DISliked and made them into people. I hated Miranda before her loyalty quest in ME2, but the whole Oriana thing really made me sad when she ended up dying. Loyalty quests were a great thing. Why are they gone? It would have been more side stuff to do and it could easily make sense in context. They even built in skills that you would have unlocked in almost the same way as the loyalty quests (as in for the Advanced Training thing) and then they just get unlocked by a quick option-less conversation.
Speaking of that, what the hell was with all the option-less conversations, or the fact where you didn't even go into conversation mode for half of them? I missed whole things because I accidently hit space and I can't ever get those back without playing through again. I had no steering of the conversation like in the first two, and it just made it a lot more boring. They basically just railroad you through most of it, especially the section up until after the first Citadel visit. Even after that it's not exactly like you have a lot of choices. And of course, the "linearity" of the ending, but I already talked about that.

Design: I wanted to talk about how much I love the character, species, location, and technology designs from the game. I love them. I think they're all freaking brilliant. There's obvious reference to those who came before (Cortana in the VIs, Twileks in the Asari, etc) but they're definitely their own. Basically, this is a plug for the Art of the Mass Effect Universe book, which is simply stunning. I happen to love concept art, and I like seeing how characters evolve over the design process. The book's diagram of the development of the Quarians (did you know that they came up with the Quarian idea, made the Geth idea from them, did visual design for the geth and then came up with the quarians by working in reverse from the geth?) is excellent, all the production paintings are brilliant, and the original Saren is wicked cool. Heck, I'll post that one up myself.
An older super-biotic version of him? This would have been a pretty sweet way to go with him too.
Unfortunately, not EVERYthing gets spotlight time in the book. There's pretty much nothing about the Hanar, for example (to our great misfortune, I love the Hanar). Keepers are absent, and a lot of secondary characters get no comment (Kolyat, Oriana, and a mess more, but even some more important ones like Udina are missing). Perhaps strangest is the entire neglect of the Batarians - while not present in ME1, they played a large role in ME2 so I figured they'd have some mention or art. Oh well, it was already a pretty large book.
Regardless, the book is worth every penny if you're into Mass Effect, art books, or general concept art. And clocking in at nearly 180 pages, it's totally worth the forty bucks to me.

The Kid: Well, this is something I think ME3 mishandled. They wielded The Child as pretty much a blunt instrument to say "Care about Earth!," but they used it too much. By the time I was doing the third of those damn dream sequence bits (which did NOT fulfill their purpose in any of the) I was just sick of seeing him. His implementation as the Catalyst was just ridiculous. A little more finesse next time Bioware. And then him being with Stargazer -
Stopping right there. Gotta say things about Stargazer: What the shit? That was stupid. Don't do that. It was basically a way to say two things: "This might not have been how it went, I've forgotten some of the details" and calling him "The Shepard" which is just lame. I'm just gonna pretend I didn't hear that little segment. Besides, it looks like that weird world the crew landed on, whch doesn't exactly help, seeing as that bit with the crew made no sense.

I can't think of too much else to say at this point! I think I've babbled on long enough now, so I think I'll just cut to giving you my scores on the games.
Mass Effect 1: 8/10, strong concepts, graphics, music, plot, a unique approach to the third person shooter that had a bunch of flaws. Those gameplay flaws are the main weights here.
Mass Effect 2: 11/10, I'm blown away. Everything bad I can think of about this game has to do with things that would have made the game even better had they been included - I didn't think there were any actual flaws. Waiting for my craze over the series to die out before I pass true judgement, but it's sitting as a huge contender to knock off Metroid Prime Trilogy as my overall favorite game of all time. Time will tell. If it can't hold onto #1, it'll sure as hell be #2.
Mass Effect 3: 9/10, a strong game with strong gameplay, decent graphics and sound, and a plot that's both excellent and lacking in key ways.

Eagerly anticipating next gen's inevitable "Mass Effect HD Collection." Well, at least I hope it's inevitable. Hope this was entertaining, enlightening, or otherwise worth reading. I enjoyed writing it, and it let me air some of my thoughts on the series. I just have one comment to Bioware:
Watch out. Do NOT upset your fanbase the way Bungie did when they kept spinning off Halo. Don't poison your work just to expand it and keep milking it. If you keep going, BE CAREFUL. I trust you, but it could be dangerous. Also, "Mass Effect 4" is probably a bad idea unless you declare Indoctrination Theory true and the end is actually totally different, in which case you have a whole other shitstorm coming your way.

Thanks for reading. Maybe I'll do a more formal Mass Effect 3 review soon, but I dunno. Later folks.

So, still no Dungeon World game happening. It sucks. Kris has finals coming and is rarely available thanks to studying, and Daniel's had a hard time being available, though I could get Kenny if I need to and I'm usually available. Still trying. Might take until the semester's over though.
Mass Effect has more or less hijacked Art of the Pantheon. It'll be back on soon. Actually generated an entirely different Hense that I like, might scan that in and toss it up in its own post.
Haven't been watching any movies lately, but I'll be seeing Avengers in a couple weeks. May will probably be a big movie month.
So yeah, off to do that homework, then to my New Game+ of ME3. Gonna work my ass off for that Perfect Ending. Anyone know what exactly constitutes "100%" for the Mass Effect games? Is it just all the sidequests and stuff, or do I have to go through like a million times?

End Recording,

EDIT: Sorry Mr. Velasco for spelling your name wrong before!

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