There will be spoilers. There will be screenshots. There will be no mercy.
By now I've learned that the hardest part of any Mass Effect game is getting it to work properly in the first place. Imagine my surprise when I found that ME3 booted up with no issues (giving me back the option to skip through the opening credits!), recognized my EA/Origin account without prompting, and located my final save file from ME2 right off the bat. I poked through the game settings and found everything to be organized and sensible. I perused the user-friendly DLC list—now integrated into the game itself instead of on some random web page that opens up—and immediately knew what I did and did not have installed. I hadn't made it past the main menu yet, and already this was the greatest game in the series.
The game allowed me to live out this delightful delusion for a whole five minutes before reminding me that BioWare, or EA, or somebody responsible for this series really doesn't care about making a game that works. So ME3 successfully located my ME2 save file, right? When I loaded the game, I was prompted to confirm that my character's imported appearance and selected class were still satisfactory. Let's compare how she looked in ME2 with ME3, and you tell me if this is satisfactory:
We'll gloss over the part where I downloaded a savestate editor to continue tweaking her appearance well into Hour 10 of the game, reloading ME2 to get visual confirmation that I was on the right track. Realizing I'd given her the wrong haircut was a huge breakthrough.
Almost as if ME3 had glimpsed into the future to read my complaints about the beginning of ME2, it took no time at all for the game to start winning my heart back. The opening cutscene promptly reunites Shepard with two old friends and offers decisions that still feel like they make a difference despite having no real impact on the end result of the cinematic segment. The cutscene dropped me off in the middle of a war zone, but I had ample time to check my configuration settings and reacclimate to the controls. They kept the HUD from ME2—still not my favorite way to select weapons, but the fact that I could see Shepard's health and shield meters at all times was a clear improvement. The in-game menu had been redesigned once again, but this time made sense: shrink the Exit Game button and move it down into the corner where you won't hit it by accident; merge the Journal and Codex entries into a single page with multiple tabs to reduce clutter. Keep everything else where it was in the last game. Good golly, someone who knows something about sequel design was on this project.
I noticed we were still using the thermal clip system, and that I had precious little ammo for my pistol. A few enemies later, I had no ammo for my pistol, and my squadmate encouraged me to swat at enemies with my bare hands. To my surprise, hand-to-hand combat wasn't a last resort; it was...fun. I didn't even need to put my weapon away to start thwacking bad guys; once I restocked on ammo, I found I could seamlessly alternate between shooting and clobbering. I think I might've punched something once in the last game. Suddenly this was a meaningful game mechanic, and it got even better when I found I could coup-de-grâce an enemy from behind or wrestle my way out of a grapple with it. Throw in some obligatory practice with climbing ladders and leaping over pits—more new actions the game taught me to do in the intro mission—and the gameplay felt fresh enough to sustain me through another 40+ hours of probably mostly just hiding behind boxes.
They took out the hacking minigames—safecracking, decoding, and unlocking no longer require any effort other than standing around for a moment as Shepard's omni-tool does all the work. One more unique element of the series to be eliminated. I was a little sad to see the puzzle sequences disappear—if you use them sparingly and provide enough concessions to struggling players, minigames can be a welcome injection of variety to the gameplay—but there's already enough complexity with the core gameplay that one more mechanic might be unwelcome. Unfortunately, that's a sentiment that is exemplified by the game's expansions to your movement abilities.
Initially, I was excited to be able to execute commando rolls BECAUSE I COULD. In no time, I was also activating doors and control panels, pressing myself up against a surface to take cover, easily darting back and forth between cover, leaping over low cover, shimmying around corners, disengaging myself from hiding behind cover, engaging in conversation with people, picking up objects, resuscitating fallen squadmates, and breaking into a sprint...all with the same button. There comes a point when a multifunction button is too multifunctional, and having about a dozen actions contextually mapped to the same button is officially overkill. All too often, Shepard interpreted my commands to run away from the enemy as permission to commando-roll into a hail of bullets. What an inspiration to the N7 program.
The HUD didn't help matters. On far too many occasions, clicking the icons on my heads-up display seemed to do something, but in fact, did nothing when I returned to battle. It's possible my pulse was pounding so hard from the action that I accidentally started to drag the icons around (as though to drop them into a hotkey slot) instead of actually clicking them. But when a split-second can mean the difference between taking out a charging Banshee and getting reaped, you cannot afford to lose a few moments wondering when Shepard is going to get around to swapping that empty sniper rifle for a loaded shotgun, or tossing a grenade instead of standing around like a practice dummy. If you're going to deny me the ability to switch weapons or use powers because, say, my current character animation needs to finish first, it wouldn't be unreasonable to put my commands in a queue, ghost the buttons I can't use right now, or change the existing "I can't let you do that, Dave" beep so it's not indistinguishable from the confirmation blip and inaudible over the din of combat.
Moreover, at the start of every mission, and randomly following certain cutscenes, my weapon selections reset themselves. Have a chilling SMG and incendiary pistol prepared in advance of an enemy attack? Not anymore! Now let's spend the next 30 seconds reactivating ammo powers for each individual weapon. It didn't help that my ammo powers spontaneously rearranged themselves on the HUD multiple times throughout the game, which led to instinctive clicking in spots that no longer did what I thought they did. Or that the cutscenes had a penchant for making Shepard appear with a weapon she didn't even bring with her on the mission, causing further confusion about the state of my arsenal. Or that, anytime I reloaded a previous save after dying, the game brought me back with the combat powers I had active or recharging...at the time of death.
What this all adds up to is a robust combat system that's irritatingly uncooperative. Not being able to trust that you can heal your teammates or bust out a special attack at the exactly the moment you decide is highly disruptive to any game experience, let alone one centered around fast-paced tactical combat. By the end of the game, my clicks on the HUD and my interactions with people and objects on the battlefield were slow and deliberate; I was tired of the Alliance coroners having to list "unreliable interface" on their reports as Shepard's cause of death. That's not how I wanted to play this game.
Come to think of it, "that's not how I wanted to play this game" sums up a lot of my experience here.
By the time you get to ME3, millions are dying by the hour across the galaxy, and there's never any shortage of ships and soldiers begging for immediate assistance. Haste is critical, it would seem. Yet the level design favors huge open spaces, asymmetrical rooms with multiple entrances, and barren-looking dead-ends, all of which are filled with credits, quest items, weapon upgrades, and story points that you can never come back for once the mission is over. Thorough exploration seems to be equally critical...but exploration takes time. The story and gameplay are out of sync: an oppressive sense of urgency and treasure-filled nonlinear level design send mixed messages about how to play.
That's fine if there are clear in-game advantages to both approaches: a choice, if you will, between coming to the rescue on time or letting the galaxy burn because papa needs a new pair of Hanhe-Kedar greaves. But as far as I can tell, you are the only one who doesn't survive if there's ever a situation where time actually matters. No need to rush through a mission on account of the dying scientists; the one you need to talk to will still be there in an hour, and her colleagues are scripted to die no matter what at specific points in the level. Once I figured that out, I started drowning out the emotional cries for help from people in peril. Though my allies urged me to get moving a few times, I rarely felt any sense that poking around the rubble for a few extra minutes was jeopardizing the fate of anybody. Except me and my sense of immersion in the game, that is.
I wanted to be immersed. I fondly recall the first time I stepped up to the galaxy map in ME1. That whoosh of the camera panning in over Shepard's head, the beautifully atmospheric music, the awe-inspiring complexity and vastness of outer space—I was there. Even after ME2 instituted the obtrusive fuel consumption mechanic, gliding around the galaxy was still a treat thanks to all gorgeous planets and their interesting text descriptions. Exploration was a joy.
In ME3, I was lucky to have two minutes of exploration before being flushed out of any given star system by mood-breaking game mechanics. This time, you send out scanning pulses to detect things of interest, but in Soviet Star System, things of interest detect you! A swarm of reapers descends on your location after as few as 2-3 scanning pulses...and most systems have 2-3 secrets to be found. If you don't retreat, you'll die. If you don't take notes about where you've scanned, you're liable to come back after a completing a full-length mission (the only way to drive off the reapers) and waste your opportunity scanning in places you forgot you already had. I don't mind a proper stealth mission, but this one turns relaxing exploration into an unforgiving guessing game that only serves to delay or deter 100% completion.
The interruptions didn't end there. Most of the fuel depots around the galaxy have been destroyed, leaving you to salvage fuel from their debris...assuming you can find any debris with your scanning pulse. There's no way to tell how much fuel you'll recover until you click the button to investigate the wreckage—which can't actually be identified as wreckage and not some other mystery object until you click the button--at which point you automatically gain however much fuel is there. Even if you can't use it all. "HAHA, I'M SO GREEDY, TAKING ALL THIS FUEL WHEN I'M MAXED OUT!" said no one ever. It is incredibly easy to overlook or blindly waste such a crucial commodity, leaving you no recourse but to constantly yo-yo back and forth between the Citadel to refuel and the next star system you want to get promptly kicked out of.
Side note to developers: When you show the same cutscene every time the player transitions from one major area of the map to the next, please don't use the most outrageously loud sound effect you can find. Scrambling to reach the volume knob every time I go through a mass relay kinda takes me out of the moment.
Additional side note to developers:
Increasing the font size of the already fairly verbose planet description text so that no more than six words, most of which are preposterously lengthy to begin with, have even the slightest, most remote possibility of fitting on a single line is a bad idea, especially when you have so much text that you'll wear out your mouse's scroll wheel reading everything for one planet, let alone a whole galaxy's worth. I mean, who's going to bother reading any of this when it takes so much effort to digest just one sentence?
Needless to say, it wasn't long before I kept a walkthrough handy at all times to minimize the amount of fruitless scanning attempts, wasted fuel pickups, and tedious backtracking. I gave up on visiting nonessential planets just to read about them. It sucked the soul out of the exploration, but that was a favorable alternative to letting the exploration suck the soul out of me. Two can play at that game, Soviet Star System.
Choosing between immersion and completionism was not the kind of decision-making I had signed up for, but if I was already looking at a walkthrough, I might as well go all the way. I recognized that this might be the only time I'd ever play through the series—and if I gave it another chance later on, it'd be as a male Renegade instead—so I wanted to ensure I didn't skip anything significant. Now, ME3 is generally very good at keeping the player pointed in the right direction: thoughtfully labeled maps, clear mission descriptions, popup identification of key objects and people, and on-demand guidance to the next objective make it largely unnecessary to use a walkthrough. That is, if you trust the game to make it physically possible to complete everything without outside assistance.
Whereas the first two games let you complete side missions at any time, ME3 puts bizarre time frames on when you're able to do things. Sometimes you get a sidequest and it's too early to start it—you're supposed to go to the Hades Nexus, but the Hades Nexus isn't even on your galaxy map yet, and it won't show up until sometime in the future when there's no good reason for it to suddenly appear. Sometimes you finish a Priority mission that advances the main storyline, and suddenly an unrelated sidequest is inexplicably impossible to complete. It's often impossible to tell whether you're too early, too late, not looking hard enough...or whether the mission has been silently rendered unwinnable by a glitch that still hasn't been addressed despite being well-documented, more than two years old, and on a platform that can be patched at any time. No self-respecting completionist would abstain from spoiling the game with a walkthrough under those conditions.
Another thing the game withholds from you is what, exactly, the Galactic Readiness Rating is that's displayed on the main menu screen, and how to increase it. It turns out that it dictates the point value of your War Assets—the people and resources you accumulate to get a better ending—and you can increase it by continuing the fight for the galaxy across three other games. These are Mass Effect: Infiltrator (a game for smartphones, therefore I can't play it), the game's multiplayer mode (which is unwinnable without human companions, therefore I can't play it), and an online minigame where you deploy imaginary fleets on invisible missions every one, three, or five hours (which I can "play," if that's the right term for this obligatory waste of time that's only interesting the first couple times you try it). Conceptually, I like the notion that ME3 is so expansive that my actions in completely different games can actively contribute to my success or failure in this one. What bothers me is that it's presented more like a requirement than a bonus. "Look at all these War Assets you've acquired! Too bad we're docking you 50% of their full point value because you're too cheap to buy our Android game."
I can see where these things could make the single-player experience more immersive for the smartphone-carrying social media generation of gamers, but I am not one of them. Logging into the N7 website before and after every session of ME3 to boost my Galactic Readiness Rating was annoying. And ME3 annoyed me plenty.
Nonstop voiceover advertisements harassing me as I was trying to shop. Shepard's inconsolably depressive state after the mission on Thessia—which, in the wake of so many equally bad things that failed to elicit that response, seems extremely out-of-character. That massacred colony where we're supposed to feel bad that these innocent, defenseless people were apparently murdered in their home while relaxing and watching television...with their corpses dressed in full combat gear. And that's to say nothing of the game eventually crashing at startup 20% of the time, or booting me out to the desktop another 20% of the time because it claimed the Origin client, which was totally up and running, was no longer up and running.
I want to give ME3 credit for what it does well: Handling the gritty and "adult" elements of ME2 with the maturity and elegance of ME1. Loading screens and cutscene transitions that seamlessly blend into the gameplay. Truly breathtaking cinematic moments, like the awesomely action-packed climax on Tuchanka and the incredibly tense final push across enemy lines on Earth. Player-friendly equipment screens. A streamlined shopping system that even allows you to do all your shopping from a single terminal (at a modest markup, of course) if you don't feel like backtracking to stores located who-knows-where. Squadmates showing up in different places around the Normandy and the Citadel, like they're real people who aren't tethered to a post. ME3 attempts to improve upon ME2 while bringing back some of the best aspects of ME1, and it is tremendously successful. But not entirely successful.
All throughout ME1 and 2, my Commander Shepard was a generally noble and good-hearted person who could see the occasional shade of gray and, in rare circumstances, be vindictive when somebody really ticked her off. In ME3, every decision was either pure good or pure evil; all my neutral options had been taken away. "Hm...do I help this person out of the goodness of my heart, or stab them in the face for asking?" Especially when Paragon and Renegade points contribute equally to filling up a single morality meter (instead of two separate meters like before), denying you dialogue options if you're not exclusively one or the other, that's like having no choice at all. The completionist isn't allowed to settle for "Paragon enough": Despite all the extra points I gained from the DLC and all the multipliers my special abilities gave me, I wasn't quite good enough to pick the final Super Good Guy dialogue option of the game. All because I allowed Shepard to be a real person and get angry or sarcastic two or three times out of hundreds of opportunities to stop doing the right thing all the time.
This points to a larger problem with ME3 and the trilogy as a whole: All of your choices matter...but at the same time, none of your choices matter. The complexities of shipboard romance live up to the notion that your choices have a cumulative effect throughout the series. The influence your decisions have over who lives and dies should not be understated. Strip away the people, and the game plays out the same way: the Citadel still gets attacked, the quarians still try to retake their home planet, and Earth is still where the galaxy makes a last stand against the reapers. The finer details are up for grabs, but you cannot change the momentum of the story. Mass Effect masterfully gets lost in the minutiae.
Killed the rachni queen in ME1, did you? Doesn't matter; the reapers made an artificial queen so you can still have a mission in ME3 where you have to fight her. Destroyed the genophage cure in ME2, eh? Well, I guess you won't be gaining the krogan as allies in ME3! Unless someone conveniently develops a cure when the krogan ask for it. You'll get different dialogue and see slightly different cutscenes depending on how you've conducted yourself and who's left standing around you, but your friends are interchangeable. If the plot hinges around one specific person who got bumped off in the last game, somebody else will take their place to keep the story moving. The fate of the galaxy is never really in your hands; the best you can hope to do is add flavor to an ultimately linear journey.
I let the Council die at the end of ME1. I denied Udina his rise to power at the start of ME2. I didn't just think I was reshaping the political landscape of the Mass Effect universe; I demanded it. Galactic leadership was ineffective, and I had the ability to change it. Perhaps this is a sly commentary on politics, but the new Council was indistinguishable from the old one, Anderson was even less useful than before, and my vote against Udina didn't stop him from taking over in ME3. Even when I cured the genophage to gain the support of the krogan—despite an ultimatum from the salarian leader that I would lose the support of her people—the salarians helped me anyhow. At what point were my decisions going to "have profound consequences on the action and the story" like the game box promised me?
In the end, every choice that does make a difference in the bigger picture is nothing more than a War Asset to be gained or lost. Choose to accept that sidequest and rescue a holy relic that inspires an alien race. Choose between saving a salarian commando or saving the hanar homeworld from destruction. It's all a numbers game with a veneer of intergalactic importance. Everything has a point value, and that's all that counts as far as the gameplay is concerned. It doesn't matter whether you take on the reapers with the combined might of the entire galaxy or a newscasting army of 700 Diana Allers clones; they'll both get you the same results. All it takes to win is making enough choices; they don't have to be good ones.
That's the ultimate disappointment of the Mass Effect trilogy: Contrary to what everyone else on the Internet has ever said, nothing you do actually makes a difference until the very last choice of the very last game. That's why I liked the ending to ME3 (a few minor quibbles notwithstanding): for the first time in the series, I knew I was making an impact that would be felt beyond the halls of the Citadel or ::ahem:: the walls of Shepard's quarters. All the times before when I thought I was massively effecting change in the galaxy, I was just populating the inflexible story arc of the next game with cameos by the people I saved. If I were fully engrossed in the narrative, that might be enough for me. But Mass Effect refused to let me forget it was a game, and as such, I expected more than thank-you notes at my message terminal from the people I saved.
I've gone back and read some of the previews and interviews. Mass Effect was not a runaway hit that spawned two unexpected sequels; it was a trilogy from the very beginning. There was a story arc in place before the first game was even released. There was a technical arc planned, gradually expanding on the weapons and vehicles in the same fashion as the story. Mass Effect had the overwhelming potential to be one complex, incredible game split into three acts. Instead, we got three separate games with a thread of common history running through them.
One of the joys of a long Dungeons & Dragons campaign is nurturing your fledgling level 1 character into an unstoppable epic-level super-warrior over the course of the adventure. How meticulously I planned my characters in ME1, leveling them up with the expectation of building on those skills throughout the next two games. How little it mattered when ME2 wiped the slate clean with a brand-new set of abilities to build up from scratch, and when ME3 made me retrain most of those same abilities all over again. My specific choices didn't matter; only the fact that I had leveled up enough to make so many choices, for which I was rewarded with a few bonus points to put toward leveling up at the start of the next sequel.
How many hours I spent scouring planets in ME1 for raw materials to build a stronger human navy. How wasteful that time felt when I reached ME2 and found my tedious efforts translated into a starting boost to my personal resource pool, which needed no such assistance thanks to my misguided prospecting spree later on. How extra wasteful that time felt when ME3 converted my excessive stockpile of resources into a War Asset worth 100 points—respectable, to be sure, but depressing when I started thinking about how much of my life went into that drop in the bucket. I never got to see those raw materials going to good use with the fleet. Well, aside from upgrading a few of the Normandy's systems in ME2 (which, admittedly, had a direct impact on the outcome of that game): Everybody survived the suicide mission in ME2. Even so, nobody joined me as a squadmate in ME3 who wasn't with me in ME1. Not Grunt, not Jack, not anyone. Fat lot of good those loyalty missions did.
At least I got to fight alongside them again in the Armax Arsenal Arena, a place that became available with the truly wonderful Citadel DLC. I will say that the downloadable content made ME3. Several hours in, I decided I was enjoying the game enough (yes, really) to justify splurging a little on the story-related DLC, which gave me a cool mystery to unravel, an intriguing new squadmate (AND HIS WEAPON, WHICH DOESN'T USE THERMAL CLIPS AND MERELY OVERHEATS LIKE SPACE GUNS ARE SUPPOSED TO), and an awesome heap of hilarity and replay value. Hunting for Leviathan fleshed out parts of the story that had been sorely missing. Javik's unique perspective on the galaxy was refreshing. Busting a gut while taking on thugs with nothing but a pistol and a party dress felt like playing No One Lives Forever all over again. Not only is the DLC a much-needed breath of fresh air from the emotionally draining story and the endless mobs of Cerberus troopers, but it's responsible for at least half my favorite memories of the game. Storming the archives with every surviving squadmate I'd ever had was one of the highlights of my FPS career.
No matter how it may seem from my criticisms, I've largely enjoyed my time with Mass Effect. The first installment alone establishes a universe with the kind of depth that takes other franchises years to develop. I've rarely played anything with such a cinematic feel and such beautiful graphics. Many of the characters are interesting; the voice acting is top-notch; the balance of FPS and RPG elements is unique; the way the finer details of the story reflect your choices is often quite neat. Individually, each game is good, if not very good.
As a trilogy, however, Mass Effect is a mass of wasted potential. I fully appreciate people's great admiration for this series because of what it does accomplish, but I'm jaded because I've seen it all before.
I pursued romantic relationships in Star Trek: Elite Force 2. I fought to gain the trust and loyalty of my allies in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. I had my choices come back to help or hurt me in the trial scene of Chrono Trigger. I ran into some aliens in Metroid Fusion who I'd had the option to rescue in Super Metroid. I raced against the clock to gather resources increasing my odds of success in Mega Man X5. I created a custom character who'd stick with me through the whole series in Quest for Glory. Mass Effect just offered more of those things.
What it did not offer, however, was the kind of game-changing decision-making I expected after playing Star Wars: Jedi Knight III. I got a different story, a different final boss, and allies who would either fight with me or against me in the final mission, depending on how I resolved the one and only conflict where I had to make a choice between good and evil. I was spoiled by a game where 100% of the decision-making radically impacted both the ending and the gameplay. Did I even get 1% out of Mass Effect? I'll know for sure when I someday replay the trilogy as a Renegade, but I assume I'll still be disappointed when I can't follow through on the "we don't need help from aliens" human supremacist route that ME1 teases and ME3 seems to rule out entirely.
Still, Mass Effect was worth playing. ME1 is rough around the edges, ME2 sands off those rough edges with a grenade, and ME3 isn't really designed for people like me, but I found enough enjoyment in the characters and core gameplay to press on through all the little things that detracted from the experience. I like ME1, 2, and 3 well enough on their own merits, but they did a lousy job of keeping me immersed, and they make for a disappointing trilogy.
Commit to your unique game mechanics, keep the tone consistent, harmonize the gameplay with the story, don't settle for letting the fan community address your game-breaking glitches, don't go making radical changes unless there is something wrong to be fixed, and never deprive the player of their ability to shape the game experience to their liking. Then we can talk about building a series where everything you do—on every level, from story to gameplay—makes a difference.