Mass Effect 3: Things That Don’t Work

Yesterday I invited the scorn of Mass Effect haters everywhere by talking about what I like most in Mass Effect 3 (not really). Today I invite the ire of everyone who loves the game by picking on some of those things that most irk me about it. It’s the circle of life. As a refresher, this is not a review. I have not finished the game. I’m very close. I will write an all-encompassing critique of it when I get to that point including everything I can dig up about the end state criteria. This is just about the experience of playing, what works, or in this case, what doesn’t. Let’s get to it…

1. Cerberus. Cerberus absolutely defies credibility in this game. I can buy into the notion of a private corporation with the resources of a small government, something with legitimate and measurable power and influence, but that’s not the same as being a galactic superpower, which is how they act here. Such an entity has to use that power in canny ways to achieve its ends. With the exception of the need for enough people to shoot at, Cerberus has largely been portrayed that way in these games. Their leader is called The Illusive Man for crying out loud. They’re a shadow. You think you see and then they pull a Kaiser Soze. (I may be engaging in some revisionist history here with regards to Mass Effect 1. Sue me.) Cerberus doesn’t behave that way here. They behave like a power on the level of the Alliance, the Turians, the Salarians, etc. Their troops are everywhere, sporting what one can only assume is some expensive state of the art hardware, and you go through them like they’re nothing in most instances. Shepard may be a bad ass, but Cerberus’s ability to be a threat in this game depends on you believing in the sheer volume of resources they appear able to throw at you and that’s a tougher sell. Where before they were a shadow, here they’re full-on Hulk Smash! and it’s not a change for the better.

2. The dialog system. This doesn’t mean the writing, which has its highs and lows. I mean the wheel. Pretty much every conversation boils down to selecting between two choices on the wheel. Yes, sometimes there’s a third option, but that’s just a digression option. It always, always, always comes back to those two choices, and the vast majority of the time, those choices are paragon or renegade in nature. The franchise’s design, from the get go, strongly encourages players to be archetypes – paragon or renegade. Flip-flopping in the first two games could really limit you. So, with two full games of conditioning under your belt, you’re predisposed to always choosing the upper option (paragaon) or the lower options (renegade) rather than trying or feeling you can just choose the best choice for that particularly situation. There is no need to think whatsoever. (There are some exceptions and sometimes the situation compels you to change it up, but this is mostly true.) I also think the “special” Paragon-Renegade dialog options (so helpfully coded in blue or red text) continue to be misused as Get Out of Jail Free cards. Faced with a tough choice? Just look for the blue or red text and worm your way out of it. I didn’t like that about Mass Effect 2 and I don’t like it here. (Note that upon further reflection I have less confidence in this than when I wrote it. I need to learn more about war asset values and if they’re more variable than I originally suspected.)

3. Reaper vulnerability. Yesterday I listed exposing the Reapers as beatable as something that works in the game. And it does. But at the same time it doesn’t feel consistent. The Reapers cut through Earth’s defenses and attack the planet in, literally, a matter of minutes. Then they land and it’s suddenly a pitched battle for the rest of the game as Shepard treks across the galaxy and back and forth again about two dozen more times? I like that the Reapers need time to harvest worlds. I like the idea they can be fought and defeated, but how quickly they cut through to reach some planets is inconsistent with the threat we’re presented with throughout the rest of the game. Likewise, the numbers game with them is never particularly clear. Some places there’s just a lone Reaper out there making trouble, sometimes it appears there’s a legion of them, and sometimes it’s somewhere in between. That would probably be okay if the story itself dictated a logic to it, but ultimately it seems to be more about the design of Shepard’s mission at that point in the game. It forces you to willfully turn your brain on and off to accept it or be reduced to banging your head on the desk.

4. Radar pinging solar systems. It’s better than scanning planets for minerals, I will grant you that. It’s not interesting, diverse, or logical enough, however, to be a well-implemented game mechanic. Mostly, it’s busy work for more war assets. You fly into a solar system and send out pings all over the place, hoping for the scanners to pick something up. If it does it will pick up one of two things: Floating wreckage with fuel for your ship (and I do like that fuel is a much more precious resources this time around) or something on a planet you need to send a probe to in order to gain that resource. Unfortunately, either I’m missing the point of these or some of the resources make zero sense. The other night I pinged a planet and found an Alliance warship. Huh? How does that work? Was it just sitting there, fully crewed, waiting for someone to tell it to go get in the fight? It makes so little sense that I really wonder if I’m just not paying close enough attention to what the game is trying to tell me.  Were the people who worked on that part of the game really that lazy? I do like that the game tells you when you’ve located 100% of a system’s resources, so you don’t waste a ton of time, and I like that Reapers will come in and respond to pings forcing you to flee a system, oftentimes before you’re ready to. There’s a nugget of a cool idea here, but it’s not nearly developed enough that it should have been left in the game in this form… just like the planet scanning (ME2) and roving a planet’s surface (ME1).

5. War Readiness. At first glance the whole idea of having to make a decision about how ready you are for the final Reaper confrontation is gold. I don’t think it works as well as it ought to given the way it’s been implemented. For the record, I’m separating the multiplayer part of this for the moment. I’m going to do a separate post on the math involved with single-player assets and multiplayer readiness boosts after I’ve actually finished the game. The problem I have here is with the overall progress bar, which I think is a bad idea if you want the player to sweat hard over a “Go – No Go” decision. It’s really pretty academic. If that bar’s not full (whatever the reality of the math), you know you should probably find more work to do. And if the bar is full, that doesn’t mean you’ve maxed out anything. So what exactly is the point? I think the only way the bar works the way it’s done is if time is a factor. If there were, say, a moving front where you had to balance acquisition of war assets with the time it takes to acquire them allowing the Reapers to gain more and more ground then you’ve got to make some very hard decisions  about when you stop going for lower “profit” resources and when it’s time to put it all on the line. But for that to work, you need a complicating factor like Time to be modeled in the game. Bioware obviously is not going to mess with that. Players go ape shit when confronted with a ticking clock in a game like this. The way this game is constructed, where the story has you tackle helping out the major races one race at a time, the real determining factor is whether or not you continuously make smart decisions that benefit your cause. You don’t need a meter to measure that because you’re making a largely set progression through the game and it’s the choices you’re making along the way that are the largest determining factor. The die is cast and when you reach the end of the road the only thing left to do is see if it all was enough. The meter is entirely cosmetic in this game, so why have it? (cough, Multiplayer, cough.)

Sometime next week: A thorough look at the ending and the criteria needed to get it.  If you have finished the game and want to help a nerd out, post in the comments what your Total Military Strength was (the top line number; not your bottom line Effective Military Strength). I would love to hear from anyone who managed to reach 10k.

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Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor, with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and is a 20-year publishing veteran as an editor of books on consumer tech and professional development for educators. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd was a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets from 1997-2015. Follow him on Twitter @toddsfoolery.

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