Sunday, March 11, 2012

REVIEW - Mass Effect 3.

Die-hard (and viciously vocal) BioWare fans have a habit of complaining about the Mass Effect franchise - generally that it's working hard to dumb down the whole RPG thing. Throughout the franchise's five-year evolution, its systems have become ever-more streamlined, its gameplay repeatedly re-iterated and refined, its sharp edges of RPG tropes smoothed out as its clunky combat was massaged into a supple, comfortable means of expression.

Mass Effect 3, more than any previous entry, strongly suggests that Mass Effect isn't, explicitly, an RPG.  Calling it an RPG seems archaic.  It's something more - and perhaps the future of triple-A game development.

As the game opens, there is a wonderful hour-long introduction to the game's universe and its current, catastrophic context.  We meet characters, we experience loss.  We're bowled over by the voice work, the setting, the scope of events - and when the camera pans up for the title card, one is struck by the game's deeply effective cinematic presentation.  Better writing and performances than Heavy Rain, but facial animation isn't up to the Naughty Dog/Sucker Punch gold standard.

Still... its narrative presentation holds its own against the best story-driven games in the industry.

Then, it puts a gun in your hand.

Mass Effect 3's third-person shooter combat is, easily, the best the series has seen.  Playing as the sharpshooting Soldier class, the game becomes very comfortable in the hand.  I didn't realize how familiar I had become with the feel of the game until I was behind cover, squinting through a sniper rifle a few hours in.  I rattled off two headshots on a pair of Cerberus troopers, and swung my scope to the left to pick off the third.  He was running, and as my view swooped past him, I closed my eyes as I pulled the trigger.

I didn't confirm the kill.  I didn't even see the kill - but the shooting becomes so practiced and comfortable, I knew I had put a round through that trooper's head.  Well, that and the way Garrus called out that we were clear to move on.

There are some kinks yet to be ironed out - getting stuck on geometry occurs, rarely, and it'd be nice if Shepard could navigate her environment as easily as Nathan Drake, but... it works.  It works really well, and significant changes to balance, enemy design and enemy tactics make it a much more challenging and satisfying beast than its predecessor.

It's worth noting that there are a half-dozen classes to choose from.  I'm afraid I don't have the fifty hours required to discover the intricacies of the Infiltrator or Engineer, but I am floored by the Vanguard class, and how it completely redefines how you approach combat.  It takes a cover-based shooter and turns it into a fast-paced, tactical brawler, with enemies flying in all directions as you rocket across the battlefield, a living bomb of viciously high-risk, high-reward berserk violence.

The combat, then, is still not as elegant and refined as a dedicated action game - but it often manages to feel just as satisfying.

So, we have excellent story presentation and capable, comfortable, satisfying combat.  Great!

Then, it asks you to be more than an audience member, and more than a blunt instrument of violence.

Central to Mass Effect 3's narrative are the choices your Shepard has made and the relationships they've formed over the past three games.  Old alliances bear fruit, dead friends stay dead and forgotten betrayals come back to haunt you as you attempt to hammer the ancient hostilities and distrust of the galactic community into a single, pointed spear to thrust at the heart of a common enemy.

It is nothing less than profound when the echoes of your past actions come to the forefront, here, opening or closing entire avenues of opportunity for peace.  Multiple times throughout Mass Effect 3, I discovered my heart had situated itself halfway up my throat, my eyes misting at the incredible conclusion of the Krogan arc, or the fate of the Qunari fleet and their ancient servants.  The game is so incredibly moving, so emotionally striking at such regularity, I've little doubt there will soon be a blossoming of Deviantart works immortalizing the Betrayal at Tuchanka.

Much of what occurs in the game is preordained, of course.  No matter what choices you've made in ME1 and 2, your Shepard will visit the same planets and confront the same problems as mine - and in many cases, achieve the same solutions.   What changes on a significant level is the context, due to your past time with the franchise, which pays huge emotional rewards.  

Mass Effect 3 also solves the constrictive execution of the Paragon/Renegade system by virtue of a third stat called Reputation.  Dialogue trees can still be navigated with a simple up (Paragon) or down (Renegade) response to speed up the works - but ME3 doesn't punish you as harshly for choosing a middle ground, thanks to Reputation.  Instead of a dialogue challenge checking how many Paragon or Renegade points you have, it checks your Reputation - which is a combination of your Paragon and Renegade points.

Basically, no matter what you do, ME3 tells us - as long as you're doing everything you can and taking one stance or another with everyone you meet - you're the universe's ultimate badass, and you get your way in conversations.

Nice.  Finally.

Mass Effect 3 also - suitably, as the end of the trilogy - delivers on its ultimate exploration of theme.  Like 1 and 2, there are echoes of the best of classic pop sci-fi at every turn, but here, the core discussion of the game is a straight-up classic.

3 has several endings that can be achieved, with various differences based on how prepared you were able to make the galaxy prior to the final confrontation - but each of those possible endings is in answer to the question that has been central to science fiction since it met the horror genre in Frankenstein.  What, precisely, does it mean to be human in the face of a synthetic, self-aware intelligence?

Can mankind successfully co-exist with artificial intelligence?  It seems worthy of discussion now, as we walk about with communications tech sticking out of our ears, reading news releases from Hong Kong on a device no bigger than a deck of cards.  We're basically becoming cyborgs already.

It's a question that science fiction has been chewing on for decades, and Mass Effect 3 allows the player to make the final word on the subject their own.  Personally, I was very pleased to have my ending reflect a love of Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell.

Mass Effect 3 is excellent, across the board.  It boasts capable and often gorgeous presentation, pitch-perfect musical choices, stunning art direction, exemplary voice work, a moving, thoughtfully designed narrative and comfortable, rewarding combat.

If it is an RPG, it's the best linear western RPG I've ever played, with profound emotional impact.  If it's a third-person shooter, it's a third person shooter with the grandest scope and best story I've ever played - but attempting to define it as one or the other does the game a disservice.

Suitably, for science fiction, Mass Effect 3 posits a future where such genre lines are erased.  In the same way that the best horror movies are not strictly horror movies, and the best action movies are not merely about action, Mass Effect 3 allows the player to imagine a future where all the best in gaming come together to form a product of exemplary overall execution.

It's not perfect, and it may not be precisely what one fan or another wants it to be, but one must admit there has never been anything like it - and I sure as hell want more.

  • presentation that warbles from very good to absolutely excellent
  • tons of Mass Effect fanservice.  If there's a planet you wanted to see or a character you wanted to evolve, it happens in this game
  • beautiful art direction, great character designs
  • dramatic, exciting, resonant music
  • excellent writing - every character in the game feels well-realized.  I even like Miranda and Jack, now.
  • a ton of details and side-stories to discover
  • the universe is very well-realized
  • this game is an emotional powerhouse, throwing you from totally triumphant to a broken, beaten shell of a Shepard and back again
  • fun, satisfying, comfortable combat
  • they fixed the constrictive Paragon/Renegade issue from ME1/2
  • they streamlined the planet scanning, so now it's just brief busywork instead of a tedious exercise in patience
  • voice work that stands with the best in the business
  • a clever exploration of the central questions of science fiction, while maintaining its poppy sensibilities
  • great ending
  • heavy melee is a great addition
  • travel to distant planets, meet freaky aliens and seduce them
  • Garrus is still my little schnookie-poo
  • the way the characters and writing change depending on your decisions in past games is hugely effecting, and pays off in big ways
  • I love that Shepard and company are basically the galaxy's best black-ops crew, called in to efficiently clean up anything and everything

  • those load times are still annoying as hell
  • am I supposed to like Vega?  'Cause he seems like a bit of a douche.

Mass Effect 3 is either very good or excellent at every turn, and profoundly satisfying if you've spent time with its predecessors.   This is 2012's first GotY contender.

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