Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mass Market Effect II

It’s been a while since I’ve felt like I had anything worthwhile to say about video games, but here we are again. Thanks for reading.

When talking about Mass Effect 3 I think it’s important to first address the elephant in the room – the ending. In case you haven’t heard, it is apparently very unpopular, and a movement has sprung up to convince BioWare to change it.

Without spoiling it for anyone I can safely say this: the real problem with the ending of Mass Effect 3 is not that it is narratively poor – it logically follows the story. It is that it is inherently unsatisfying. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books, but I dislike the ending. I can appreciate the novel on its artistic merit, even agree with the way the story went, without enjoying it.

I think the real, compelling question that Mass Effect 3 and the subsequent fan frenzy over the ending ask is, “is it enough for the ending of a video game to stand on artistic merit?” Novels and movies represent a few hours of investment and require no real effort to reach the ending.

By the time you close up shop in Mass Effect 3, you’ve probably logged 150 or so hours of active playtime into the game’s universe, and that only accounts for a single complete playthrough. That is more than six full days, or almost four 40-hour work weeks. Is it worth investing that kind of time in a story that ends on a gut punch?

I can’t answer that question for anyone else, but for my part, I will think hard before getting invested in another of BioWare’s game franchises, or, at the very least, I will enter into the next devil’s contract with a better understanding of what to expect from the designers.

These are not men with an interest in amusing you – these are men with an unexpectedly grim philosophy regarding the sanctity of narrative. As a writer I can respect that, but when I spend the kind of time and energy I’ve spent on Mass Effect I expect a pat on the back. I like happy endings – so sue me. Or, you know, donate to Child’s Play with a note attached saying I should change my attitude. It could work.

As for the complaint that the ending does not reflect the choices you have made throughout the story, I think that is a more difficult judgment call. BioWare could have limited the ending options for anyone who hadn’t played the original Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2, but doing so would have offended my sensibilities – I believe that when you pay for a thing you should get the whole thing.

It’s part and parcel to why I am opposed to EULAs, “online activation codes,” and to a lesser extent DLC on the whole. Not supporting BioWare in this would be hypocritical.

In the end, Mass Effect 3 does involve the choices you made in the first and second games to a great degree, and it engages them in a quantitative way that does ultimately influence how the end of the game plays out. I did successfully complete the game, but my understanding is that it is absolutely possible to fail, and for that reason I have to dismiss this particular grievance as spurious.

Your choices from all three games do affect the ending of Mass Effect 3 – just not the actual events of the successful ending, which one could argue have been narratively set in stone since long before the main character was even born.

With the matter of the ending dealt with, I have to say that overall, Mass Effect 3 kind of disappointed me. The game has none of the elegance of its immediate predecessor, replaced by rampant sentiment and unrepentant gut punches so frequent that they almost (almost, mind you) become ineffective.

On top of this, the game engine itself is a disaster, with a quest log that's almost as unusable as the inventory system from the original Mass Effect, and frequent freezes (and one legitimate crash to the main menu!) on the Xbox. I’ve never seen that happen before, and installing doesn’t seem to help. I’m told these things are less of an issue in the PC version of the game.

Ultimately, Mass Effect is another great trilogy that will go down in history with a second chapter that is the best out of three. But Mass Effect 3 is still playable and fun and engaging, and worth some bucks, particularly for the multiplayer, which almost feels like the main purpose of the software, it's so well implemented. It's just not a five-star game like Mass Effect 2.

My biggest complaints are that while missions in Mass Effect 2 ended at the perfect length, just as they were getting obnoxious, Mass Effect 3 throws this design concept right out the window in favor of Deep Meaningful Combat – long, confusing battles against powerful foes and challenging environments, meant to evoke hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds but that are ultimately just frustrating.

The game also uses slow-motion to turn pivotal and dramatic combat moments into thinly veiled reflex minigames. Coupled with get-up-and-make-a-sandwich load times when you fail, the game’s overall approach to combat makes for an annoying disappointment.

Note: I am not “into” Mass Effect’s combat engine – it is possible that these sort of things might entertain more tactically minded players. As a casual gamer who generally plays this trilogy on Normal difficulty, I found it very difficult to stomach.

The narrative of Mass Effect 3 is ultimately its greatest strength, as it has been throughout the trilogy – while it suffers from some of the same opening cognitive dissonance present in the beginning of Mass Effect 2, this is forgivable considering the interactive nature of the story. The writers undertook a tremendous challenge in bringing the variable events in the games to life, and overall I think they did a quality job. The game’s story, while excessively sentimental, is a worthwhile capstone to a living universe.

Bottom line: I give Mass Effect 3.5 stars – the game is worth playing, but it requires a lot of patience with both the technology and the game balance. It just doesn’t quite deserve that fourth star.