Game Producer Quest, Part 02

Spoilers abound, regarding Mass Effect 3, so read on at your own peril.

So I finished Mass Effect 3 last night.  Technically, early this morning at 3:00 AM.  It was…interesting.  I had been meaning to get to the end as to better understand the stories that have permeated the internet regarding fan backlash against Bioware and how the game ends.  I’ve been avoiding those posts and stories so that I could judge for myself what they had done.  Now that I have finished it, I’ve been catching up on what has got fans all hot and bothered.  Some are more diplomatic than others, but one of the best I’ve read is right here.

Before I talk about the ending, I think I’ll mention things I like / disliked about the game.  Combat is very enjoyable overall, with well-designed levels, impressive enemy AI, and fun player abilities & weapons.  Voice acting is as strong as ever, the music is pretty good, though it recycles quite a number of tracks from the first two games.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that; in fact, it’s expected.  Still of the three games, I think the 2nd game had the best musical score.  In fact, I was admittedly not all that crazy about the music for the closing credit sequence.  It was good, but I would have preferred some grand, orchestral score playing with the main Mass Effect musical themes that dominated the three games.  Almost like a musical overview of sorts.  Instead, something unique was presented, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Personal preference I suppose.

There are other constructive criticisms I have, such as squadmate AI, which at best is competent, and at worst continues to make me cringe.  I have literally seen my squadmates stand in one spot in combat doing absolutely nothing.  Not using ability, firing a gun, or moving for cover.  Nothing, and they get killed for their stupidity.  Or alternatively, I have seen a squadmate sit behind cover for long stretches at a time, not even peeking out to take fire.  They just sit there.  It’s true that I can direct them to move to another location, but it simply does not feel like I’m fighting with strong-minded, free-willed individuals.  It’s occasionally infuriating, as I’m no longer part of a team, and essentially feel like I’m fighting alone, by myself.  On one hand, this does not happen too often, but it does happens with enough regularity that it’s noticeable. Smarter squadmates would be appreciated.  In fact, a part of me wonders if the squadmates from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic were smarter.  I don’t even recall this being an issue in that game.  Same with Jade Empire.  In this generation of consoles, shouldn’t the squadmates be getting smarter?

Another constructive criticism is that choice of squadmates.  I’m not talking numbers, as someone at Bioware had mentioned in an interview that they wanted to limit the number of squadmates to make character interactions more meaningful.  I understand that, but as it stands, we have four people returning from the first game (Ashley/Kaidan, Garrus, Tali, Liara), and two/three new characters (James, Javik, and EDI), depending on if you have the “From Ashes” DLC.  EDI was not a squadmate in the 2nd game though she was introduced there, so I’m counting her as brand new.  This screams character imbalance to me, as there are ZERO selectable squadmates from Mass Effect 2 (discounting Tali & Garrus, who made their first appearance in Mass Effect).  True, many of them make cameos, but I would have loved to have had some selectable people who debuted from that second game.  Grunt would have filled the noticeable Krogan void on the team, for example.  I would have found this more preferable, and I don’t believe adding two additional squadmates from Mass Effect 2 would have made character interactions any less meaningful.  In fact, I would argue the opposite to be true, though more than two would probably be pushing it.

Finally, while the gameplay is quite strong, there were a  few moments where I wish the context sensitive button and roll/evade button were not one and the same.  For example, there were some overwhelming battles where to end it, Shephard had to make a run to a console and active it.  So I would do so, and when I reach the console I press A to activate it…and tuck and roll towards the console.  If you aren’t standing at the right distance, looking straight at the console, it won’t register.  Then I was killed for my desperate action, outside of cover.  These circumstances only came up two or there times throughout the entire game, but again it is noticeable as everything else is so smooth and refined, and a part of me wonders if there is a better solution.

Getting back to the ending, there’s now an indoctrination theory floating around that some fans are lending credence too.  It’s rather neat, and brings up some of the confusing moments I found about the ending.

For the record despite my feelings on the ending, I think Bioware should stick to their guns with regards to the ending.  They had enough courage to try something very different, though their execution of the differences I find questionable.  And that’s okay, as no one bats a hundred.  Even the Bioware’s of the world stumble on execution once in a while.

So what did I think about the ending?  I found the three choices (two for me due to not enough war assets) of taking control of the reapers or destroying all synthetic life to be interesting, but also strange.  When the choices were presented, there was a brief image of Anderson destroying the Reapers, and the Illusive Man taking control.  This would suggest that destroying the Reapers was the paragon choice, and taking control was the renegade choice.  However, when I went to make my choice, the area to take control of the readers had a blue hue (paragon), while the area to destroy the reapers had a red hue (renegade).  This made me question which to go for, and I wondered why Bioware was making this choice so ambiguous.  After all, I had spent the all of this game, and the two previous ones, making paragon / renegade choices.  Perhaps Bioware was tired of having these choices defined by this system, but the problem is that this is the system that they themselves developed and championed for three straight games.  It may very well have been Bioware’s intention to play the ambiguity card with regards to choice, but I question whether this was really the time to do so.  It’s okay to try something new and different from what came before and change the status quo, as this is what it means to innovate.  I question the timing however, as the ending to Shepherd’s story would have probably had a greater payoff for player’s who played through these games as a virtuous paragon or ruthless renegade would have liked to have seen THOSE specific decisions to the end.  I would argue that now is not the time for these decisions.

Another strange decision Bioware presented is that regardless of the choice Shepherd makes, the Mass Effect relays would be destroyed, essentially cutting off all interstellar space travel.  For a futuristic science fiction franchise, this seems to be an odd choice to me.  Unless Bioware has a “we can rebuild all the mass relays” card they can play, cutting off contact to all the species makes me wonder exactly where they will, where they can take this franchise.  Shepherd’s story, excluding DLC, is for all intents and purposes over.  Bioware has been very upfront from early on in the series, saying the Mass Effect trilogy was Shepherd’s story.  With that said, I would be shocked if there wasn’t another Mass Effect game, perhaps another trilogy with a new protagonist.  So I wonder, where they could take the series with the Mass Effect relays destroyed.  Are we going to see all the galactic species that came to fight the reapers all living on earth, and fighting each over land and property rights?  Are Asari brothels going to spring up all over the remains of Nevada?  Will the internet (formerly the extranet) explode with cross-species adult entertainment Cerberus will have a monopoly in and that the Alliance is trying to shut down?  While humorous on some level, none of these things screams excitement to me, though perhaps they’re thinking of creating a sci-fi Game of Thrones?

Finally, I simply found the ending to be overly confusing and convoluted.  I wonder if the team at Bioware like Japanese RPG’s?  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But I digress; as a Mass Effect relay explodes, we see Joker crash-land on what appears to be another planet.  At least I think it’s another planet…unless I missed something and it was earth.  It was 3:00 in the morning when I watched this.  Anyways, this is followed by Joker exiting the Normandy, followed by Javik and Liara.  This scene makes me scratch my head in utter confusion.  The battle was on Earth…why would the Normandy be anywhere near a Mass Effect relay, let alone another planet?  Did Admiral Hackett tell them to leave the system to go get him some much-needed coffee?  And Liara was one of my squadmates…how did she get on the Normandy?  I was worried she got zapped by the Reaper when we were making a desperate run for the transporter beam, but apparently she decided “Hey Shepherd, I love you and all, but I forgot to feed your fish on the Normandy.  Also, someone is paying me one million credits for Shadow Broker information.  Be right back…”

Casey Hudson stated the following regarding the backlash for the ending: “I didn’t want the game to be forgettable, and even right down to the sort of polarizing reaction that the ends have had with people–debating what the endings mean and what’s going to happen next, and what situation are the characters left in. That to me is part of what’s exciting about this story. There has always been a little bit of mystery there and a little bit of interpretation, and it’s a story that people can talk about after the fact.”  I question the mystery part.  True, there were revelations throughout the games.  In the first game, after fighting Saren for much of the game, we discover he’s been indoctrinated by the Reaper Sovereign.  In the second game, we discover later on that the Collector’s are indoctrinated Protheans.  But having revelations that add to the mythos of the Mass Effect universe are different from showcasing cut scenes that make very little sense.  The examples I gave are within the context of the story.  The cut scenes at the end came out of no where, making me think: “What just happened?”

As for not having something forgettable, this is a personal belief of mine, but I honestly believe that it is not super levels of complexity or mystery that make a story unforgettable.  You can take the simplest story in the world, and make it compelling and engaging through strong execution.  Execution trumps all, and in this case the execution was…courageous, if uninspired.  Again, no one bats a hundred.

Then again, I’ve been wrong before.

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