I debated this and thanks to a couple of replies the debate is over. I have never done a game review before even in conversation really so this is sort of new territory for me. I think this will be closer to a “this is my experience on it” and I doubt I will talk about game play (controls/combat) much as what got me the most here was the story. For this review I know I am quite a bit late to the game as everything that could come out for it long since has and I will be talking about a game first published back in November of 2007 with Mass Effect 3 in March of 2012. That being said there will be spoilers through this as the statute limitations is long since dead and buried. That means I am going to talk about *my experience* with the controversial ending to the game. It may not be what you expect.
Now I started playing the first one around Thanksgiving weekend this year and just finished Mass Effect 3 last night around 2am after starting it the night of Christmas. It’s important to know what I ran as well.
Female: Lydia Shepard
Earth Born / Lone Survivor
Why did I post that? Well because every decision you make from the beginning of the game has some influence on the dialogue you experience through the entirety of the game. It’s fascinating since I’ve been playing games off and on since the very inception of home consoles and computer gaming I have never really encountered this. There are regular references to your experiences even in passing as you move through the amazingly complex story. You may hear something in a news broadcast, a single line from someone, or even a mini arc involving a part of your past. By the time you have reached Mass Effect 3 and its finale all your dialogue choices, all your roads taken or not have influenced how the world sees you and how you see the world.
I have only one play through right now, I am planning another with a male shep to see what’s the same and different with another background and some different decisions. It’s also important that I try it with a male as the romance options are now different for the male vs. female. This is probably one of my biggest gripes with the game play and story is that certain characters were not available in your crew for romance depending on gender. I hope that as BioWare is gearing up for DragonAge 3 that they consider the option to allow you to romance anyone in your party regardless. I love the fact that Romance is an option at all so don’t get me wrong, but when I looked at the dialogue in Mass Effect 1 between my Shep and Ashley Williams and always felt there was something there yet it could not be acted on. I suppose that’s somewhat like life, but to be hard coded against the option itself is…bothersome? Perhaps it’s my own psychology (likely) but I never felt through the dialogue anything with Kaidan Alenko. Instead I chose Liara, the Asari archaeologist; perhaps again due to my own psychology and attraction to that profession in my own game play choices, which I carried through to the finale.
The story of the first game I found largely to be straight forward and a solid opener to the trilogy in retrospect. You begin as a space marine drafted to investigate an attack on a colony world where a ship never before seen appeared. During the course of the mission you uncover that one of the Galaxy’s special ops members has gone rogue but as a human no one believes you. This was a nice touch where humans aren’t seen as equal and in fact generally speaking not liked. You also are touched by an ancient alien artifact which hints are something far more vast and threatening on the horizon. You are tasked with putting a crew together and finding the betrayer and stopping this new threat to the galaxy.
What I found impressive is the dialogue options with your crew and their unique personalities. Each one truly had a unique world view and I found it worth it to talk to each one between missions in the game. You could feel like these were real people that you were interacting with, not just static constructs. They had backstories, they have lives and they had opinions. They didn’t always approve of what you were doing and in some cases you even had the ability to convince them and give them faith in you and your decisions. This culminated into a few major decisions as the game nears its climax. You spend hours upon hours getting to know these people and fighting alongside them in a relatively immersive experience. Then, you are given a choice. A no win situation in which you must sacrifice one of your crew members. Sure other games have you make choice A or choice B and maybe people die, but here its someone you know and it resonates. Perhaps not as well as it could or should by comparison to the ones in ME3, but it still feels important. One of the final decisions you get to make actually has Galactic spanning results. Do you save the Council of leaders who have generally been dicks to you or let them die and humanity takes more control over leadership? I selected to keep them alive, it felt logical. They were jerks, but to be fair they had rights to be if you stop for even a moment to think about it. Which I did, so they lived. The end of course had the heroic score and reveal that some movies of this caliber and nature fail to achieve.
I really thought it all played out well and that victory was earned and sacrifices in the end worth it. Even the side missions you deal with carry through the rest of the game series. People you save, people you don’t. People you talk to may or may not live to see the end and have their own destinies altered by your impact on their life. The game play and graphics are solid and of course a bit dated six years later. They were intuitive enough for me, who hasn’t played a non MMO computer game in a decade, to adapt and use them effectively. I actually enjoyed the planetary exploration missions, but wished they were a bit “faster”. In types of gamers I tend to be a Lore/Exploration hound. In City of Heroes, for example, I was in the top 20 badge collectors. They had no real impact, but I loved getting the lore. Same holds true here. I did enjoy the sniper rifle mechanics and it lent itself to my style of combat in gaming.
The game, as I said, was a solid story and introduction to the world. Which leads us to Mass Effect 2
It opens with your death.
Then your resurrection.
It has a very Ripley like vibe, since I was playing a female Shep. The story here, I have some issues with. You spent a portion of game 1 uncovering the activities of a group of relatively bad mercs named Cerberus. You find out that they were responsible for the death of your own platoon once. Yet, here in the second game, they are the group that resurrects you and you work with them. You are allowed to have reservations and state them, but the railroading continues to the very end of the game. What kills me here in the story is the fact and lack of communication. It’s frustrating to watch people not want to talk to you that you once saved the Galaxy with. To have options removed because of a lack of conversation is odd in a game where conversation drives it.
The story here is that an alien race has begun Borg like attacks on colonies through the galaxy. Your job is to find out who they are, how to stop them and of course well stopping them. Once again you need to build a crew for your ship an equally resurrected SSV Normandy putting their skills and experience to the limits and trying to save the Galaxy once again.
The BioWare team wisely continued the option of letting your choices change the fates of so many individual stories. Decisions made in the prior game carry over and new decisions can be made that save the lives of entire colonies and you just “know’ will have an impact on the future. The romance options expand a bit in this one and are also sadly somewhat restricted once again. You don’t have the option to romance all members of your crew and those you were in a romance with may not be there this time – which is again unfortunate if you want to stay “loyal” to them knowing that you are playing through a trilogy. It’s my nature.
Also the scale of the decisions you must make are greatly increased. One that sticks in my mind is a side mission you have the option to take on. It seems relatively simple stop the alien race from firing two missiles at a planet. Sure thing. Except you can only stop one missile. You get to choose which target it hits and then have to see the ramifications. Another one in in a DLC isn’t much of a decision really, but again has some true impact if you let it. Save the Galaxy now or let 300,000 people die. When one of your crew is on trial, options for saving them become available based on conversations you’ve had and the decisions you’ve made thus far. Honestly, decisions like that seem to have more weight to them than some of the end game choices you get to make.
The art is greatly improved with cinematics that are better than some films I’ve watched. This is not unusual in games as their “between scene” graphics tend to be just shy of amazing. I did find myself having to remap about half the controls though as they were changed dramatically between games and muscle memory didn’t allow or like the changes made. The changes to the planet exploration were Ok. It was considerably faster than the driving around trying to find things, but took away from some of the immersion. I know many complained about the driving around so this worked but wasn’t as fun.
The addition of loyalty missions were interesting. A personal mission for each member of your crew. By doing them you increase the odds of your crew surviving the finale of the game most accurately called the suicide mission. Doing the missions having a result on the finale is not a math equation that makes sense but there it is. What confuses me is why players wouldn’t do them? From a strictly mechanical sense they provide experience points for your character and theirs and are interesting story. It doesn’t make sense to me to NOT do them, but I guess some folks don’t. They are fun and deeply personal and really add to the depth of the game. I love that doing them *can* cause conflict in your crew – that can also be resolved. If the crew conflicts were unresolvable I’d be less than thrilled.
Going back to one of my original points, while the story is awesome and compelling and driving the rail roading and lack of communication bothers me. Yes, this group is helping to save the ‘verse when everyone else is busy with politics and not believing you (again). I just really didn’t like sticking with them the entire time. It felt wrong through the length and there was nothing I could do about it.
Of course that’s resolved by Mass Effect 3.
The conclusion for the trilogy is an object lesson for storytellers, writers and directors out there. Everything that has happened before has built to this and it feels like it. The stakes were never higher and the dialogue, choices, and sacrifices you must make reflect on it. The fascinating thing here as it culminates is that you are allowed to see the strain on your character. While they are by no means weak, they wonder if they are strong enough. The bonds you have made over three games are there to support you and lift you up and dust you off when it’s all said and done. It feels epic. It feels like the weight of the galaxy is on your shoulders.
Importantly, as much as you continue to win and find things to beat back the coming galaxy wide genocide, there are losses. You don’t always win. You must sit and watch helplessly at one point as an entire civilization is laid to waste. There are people you’ve grown to care about that die. I cried quite a bit as Mordin died, just because of how artfully the dialogue was done and the callbacks that were made in his final lines. Thane’s death was equally poignant as his last action was to have a prayer of forgiveness read. Not for himself, but for you. This is something in all the films I’ve watched, the stories I’ve written and read not seen done.
There’s barely a choice made through it all that doesn’t have some form of resonance in this one. You may encounter them for a scene, it may be an email, a news blast, but almost all of it matters. This is complex story telling my friends. This is how it should be done. Make things matter, make your choices matter in a game. It worked on so many levels with me and made me want to keep playing until the end. I wanted to know how it would all end. To know that the things I fought for 150 hours of total game play worked. More on that in a moment.
Graphically this is a step above and beyond the other two games. It nearly seamlessly can move from a cinematic to live game play without much issue. The body motions and conversations are pretty good as are the expressions. There are more graphical glitches in this one where characters vanish or rubber band during cinematics than I have seen before in the other two. The game play itself was good. I found myself rekeying the controls again, but minor issue. Enemy AI seemed better as well with them actually trying to move out of the way of your blasts. Conversation options taken actually benefit you in a new way this time as you get the option to learn new abilities.
Now….the ending. I can see why there’s controversy. So much time has been spent on the development of choice, being Paragon or Renegade with appropriate color coding to match. So much time has been spent in the development of a rich complex mythology that you’ve explored as fully as possible. So what do they do?
The introduction of the ghost child is left unexplained in a game that really has explained everything else thus far. It can be read as a manifestation of Shepard’s guilt allowing her to translate the input from the machine. I am ok with that explanation, but as with everything else it probably should have been explained rather than left as a gaping question of interpretation. Then there is the color reversal. Your decision to destroy is color coded as the bad or renegade option and the option to control is the blue/paragon option. It strikes me odd that in the various stories I’ve read on this since I completed last night no one made this correlation.
Everything you’ve done for the three games has been about the preservation of life. The option to live. The option to be more than the past. You’ve (potentially) brokered peace between the Cylons and Humans, er Geth and Quarians. You’ve become part machine yourself (a slight failure here as this is rarely referenced in game). So if the “Red” option is to destroy ALL synthetic life in the Galaxy, including the Geth, including your friend EDI why is it surprising that a decision that wipes out things that you’ve helped live is the bad option? There are dozens of sacrifices you’ve made to date but genocide? Granted it’s for the sake of the Galaxy, but still after all the death you’ve faced all you’ve done, why is it surprising that this is not the good option to take?
Of course there’s control. You die in the process, assimilated is more like it, but you save everyone. You can become the protector or ruler of a new galaxy. You’ve preserved life, even the Reapers. Why is this a surprise?
Then there’s the unexpected third option, synthesis. You can choose to merge all life, organic and synthetic into a single biomechanical wonder of nature. EDI existing and her evolution prove it’s viable. Legion as well and his last moments before his own sacrifice. It was never hinted this is an option, so it’s a bit jarring to be sure. It, to me, seemed the logical option. Much like Control everyone lives. The decision is huge, however, but everyone in the Galaxy has come to depend on you. Depend on your decisions and to save them from obliteration. The lack of appreciation of this before making the choice and awareness of that in the dialogue seems a bit of a failure, but again this is my interpretation of why it is a viable decision to make. I shouldn’t HAVE to interpret. The fact you must die for this one however, seems to be the right thing. It’s sad I don’t get to see the little blue babies in the conclusion but after all the sacrifices you’ve made thus far, this one, the ultimate one is right. Sad as expected, but right. Seeing the final art prints be defined by the choices you’ve made so far was good.
The seeming fact that this final choice though can invalidate everything and be contrary to everything you’ve done is a bit off. The final “old man and child” thing as well. I get that it adds to your legend. It also implies that there’s more, which is unfortunate because there isn’t.
This ended up considerably longer than anticipated and I still don’t feel I’ve said all I could say. Ultimately I love all three games and will be going through on a second run, hopefully with more sleep. I love all the nods and jokes to Sci Fi fans. Some of them verge on being a bit rip off ish with the Quarians being so Battlestar Galactica it hurts. Star Wars, Star Trek, Aliens, Alien, Firefly, nothing was left out. Felicia Hannigan as an alias? Beautiful.
The games are fantastic and while the ending does have issues, it isn’t the catastrophe I expected from the kerfuffle I heard. I highly can recommend it anyone and also recommend that folks play through all three.
I want to thank my friends Abby and Amelia for reintroducing me to console/computer gaming and to the beauty that is BioWare games.
To the folks at BioWare, please please consider this an open letter of appreciation for all the hard work that went into these games and that I am looking forward to DragonAge 3. Your teams’ ability to weave a comprehensive story and one that carries emotional impact should NOT be taken lightly and is worth praise. I hope that some of the choices become more open in the romance category and are less restrictive and more able to be referenced through game play.
And if anyone actually read this all the way through, thank you for putting up with my rambling. Now to start on a male Shep….this is going to be odd.