Obligatory: Mass Effect 3 Ex Machina, Michael Bay, a demo

I’ll preface this post immediately: I am not Aram, writer of our many lists about things wrong with Mass Effect 2. Of the forty five items on those lists, I probably disagree with about thirty five of them.

That being said, and I’m sure the full game will change my opinion, but ugh. This demo.

Here’s the thing: both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 felt like they were games designed for specific audiences. Sci-fi RPG fans loved Mass Effect because it was complicated, crunchy, and had enough Star Trek epicness to be one of the greatest RPGs ever. Mass Effect 2 flipped the script and alienated a lot of fans, sure, but it was trying, unrepentantly, to be guns and conversation. It wasn’t trying to be an RPG except in conversation.

Mass Effect 3 is trying to be both games. It’s trying to make love to the world, and (to lean on an old standby) it feels like it has syphilis.

Introduction aside, I’m going to talk about Arrival. I was pretty ambivalent about a tacked-on piece of DLC dictating the direction of the third game of the series, but now that we’re here it leaves a terrible taste in my mouth. It feels like a deus ex machina to get Shepard to Earth, one that barely makes any sense. Why would the Earth Alliance have any authority over a council spectre? It would have made exactly as much sense to just have Shepard show up to give a presentation on the Reaper threat. Basically, Arrival makes me feel like I got jobbed off screen. And that’s a terrible feeling to experience.

That said, there’s nothing we can really say about that. What I can say is that this feels like a Michael Bay movie. I mean, okay, this is an especially active portion of the game. There’s no down time here because they have thirty minutes to show us the new, improved combat system (which we’ll get to!). But it takes the game’s obligatory “bro-factor” and punches it up even more. I’ve never been able to play the title as BroShep because it always felt a little too much like a military movie. Well, even FemShep feels like that here. I got a much plainer view of my character’s femaleness; it’s sad because this is something Mass Effect and 2 did so well. Early on Anderson gestures to FemShep’s ridiculously thin torso, “You’re going soft, Commander.” He throws her dog tags, reinstating her as he goes off on his own suicide mission, and walks away, turns around, and says, “Good luck.” All it needs is an explosion in the background and Kaidan and James “Shia the Beef” Vega brof-isting in the background.

It tugs at the heart, too. Or, it tries to. It plays up the presence of a child, first flying a Normandy model outside Shepard’s window before the Reaper attack. This might be sympathetic if not for the fact that this is the first child in Mass Effect history. Later, this kid is hiding in a massive ventilation shaft, and Shepard tries to get him to come out before he disappears into a puff of M. Night Shyamalan mist. He later gets on one of the shuttles that takes off and is destroyed by a Reaper but, somehow, I imagine he’s going to be Shepard’s spirit animal and the plot’s resident “What a twist!” moment.

The second half of the demo, a mission from later in the game, doesn’t deserve the same plot analysis because it’s obviously an out-of-context segment designed to highlight the shooting. Why Cerberus is fighting you is beyond me, though. What I would love to point out is Captain Kirrahe’s incredibly awkward cameo.

And by incredibly awkward, I mean this is pretty much his script:

Kirrahe: Shepard! I’ll hold them off!

Shepard: Captain Kirrahe! Good to see you!

Kirrahe: It’s “Major Kirrahe” now.

They Bro-fist

Kirrahe: Watch this!

Kirrahe shoots some Halo sticky grenades, killing five guys.

Garrus: Cool!

Shepard: Bye forever.

Ugh. Just ugh. Here’s hoping every cameo appearance isn’t as obligatory, ripped from the pages of What Gamers Expect in Sequels.

The demo’s really about the gameplay, though. Unfortunately, I’m mixed about that as well.  Mass Effect was primarily an RPG. The shooting obviously worked, but how you developed your character was much more important than your twitch reflexes. Being good at shooters wasn’t particularly necessary for success. Mass Effect 2, meanwhile, made it so your success was almost entirely based on shooting prowess: your leveling gave you more options, but you could succeed as a completely wretched character builder.

The most important thing both these games had, though, was a proper minimalism. You were never overwhelmed with mechanics. Nothing was ever particularly complicated; some might have seen this as a bad thing, of course, but remember: this isn’t complexity in a leveling sense, but rather in a “there aren’t too many game mechanics” sense.

Mass Effect 3, however, has every mechanic but the kitchen sink. The shooting system has been made more robust, with the player having access to lots of different guns (and, apparently, less ammo than in Mass Effect 2), and they’ve added grenades, more melee attacks, more enemy variety. They’ve also taken Mass Effect 2’s leveling system and added multiple new skills; they made each of them branching level ups, as well.

And it feels complicated. Mass Effect fans will, of course, be all over this, but I’m particularly mixed about it. Maybe it’s just that the demo places the player in a later-game mission, but everything felt a lot more hectic than Mass Effect 2’s stately gunfights. It feels like a proper shooter, and as someone who doesn’t like straight-ahead shooters I found the combat system stifling. It’s a more frantic Mass Effect 2 with obvious “win button” strategic options pointed out to the player with bright flashing arrows.

As an adept (the class for my continuous playthrough), I felt less useful. I felt like I wasn’t putting enough bullets out. By creating an emphasis on these “win button” tactics it minimizes the usefulness of the adept, a class designed literally around attacking enemies at their strongest position, throwing down biotics to pull people out of cover, and blowing them up. Instead, you’re “encouraged” to climb to higher levels of areas to shoot down on enemies; if you don’t do this, you’ll be murdered by the enemies who have to spawn up there to make the instant win button challenging.

In fact, if the first Mass Effect was an RPG with shooter elements, and Mass Effect 2 was guns and conversation, this feels like someone took an RPG and a shooter and shoved them together with no idea of how to balance the two. “Give the adept an assault rifle and a shotgun,” seems to be how they balanced the class. Because yes, giving the space wizard a bigger sword definitely makes them a better space wizard. Ironically, the power I found most useful was Adept FemShep’s Magic Grenade, which speaks for itself.

There’s a big caveat here: there hasn’t been a demo that represented a game fully since Final Fantasy VIII (whose demo was better than the game). I’m willing to accept that, like with Dragon Age 2 the demo might not be the best representation of the game. In fact, I’m assuming it. It’s why I’m still interested in playing the thing. But my excitement has certainly been dulled by the game going into “gameplay mixed with Michael Bay and M. Night Shyamalan” mode. I’m not so excited about paying $60 for a big budget summer blockbuster movie more interested in explosions, twists, and giving my space wizard grenades than the things that made Mass Effect great. Of course those things could be there, still, hidden behind a veneer, but as a gamer I’m less than thrilled with digging deep beneath bro-fists to find what’s fun to me.

Important final note: I did not play the multiplayer because I did not buy EA’s manshoot Battlefield 3, which comes with a magical fairy pass to that portion. I assume this makes me a lesser consumer, a Call of Duty player in their eyes. I’ll pay it a visit once it unlocks for normal folk.

6 Comments

  1. I am even less enthused for the third game now, which I honestly didn’t think was possible.

    “Why Cerberus is fighting you is beyond me…”
    I assume because someone on the writing team figured out that having the player character be Hitler Jr. for another game would be a bad idea.

    Thanks for playing the demo… now I feel that I no longer have to. Thank god. Oh, and thanks for the callout! :)

    • Pod

      An idea I’ve heard thrown around is that Cerberus is fighting you because the canonical ending of 2 had you destroying the collector’s base and technology. I’d rather have no reason than this be true, however, as having a official canon story would render the choice system in that game even more inconsequential.

      That’s just hearsay though. The real problem that I have with that plot device is that an ostensibly pro-human organisation such as Cerberus would waste precious man power, during a reaper invasion, to do…? Incite revenge on Shepard? It’s not explained as of yet, but I doubt it’ll outweigh delaying the fight the Reapers.

      Actually, I think that example is merely a microcosm of my fears about the pacing and framing devices of the game. How do you relieve the discrepancy between the Reaper invasion; capable of destroying Dreadnaughts, and flattening cities in seconds and the 20-40+hours of innocuous, superfluous side missions that could easily be done post Reapers. The demo seemed to contrive itself out of this (Shepard’s comments about how this all linked back to earth), but if they don’t manage to do this realistically or convincingly I fear it’ll remove all sense of urgency and drag me right out of the experience.

      That being said, I actually really enjoyed the online system, and the gameplay was… It was very reminiscent of a refined Mass Effect 2. I don’t mind that, but I can see why some would have problems with it. Animations leave a lot to be desired, as do the quality of the conversation, though I reserve my judgement until more substantial sequences are revealed.

      • Tom Auxier

        As for the gameplay and the online system, my multiplayer impressions (probably up Sunday or Monday) shows how the MP has warmed me to that.

        Having given a thought to the Cerberus thing, it’s pretty obvious that the Illusive Man’s going all Collector and is working with the Reapers. Maybe they can’t properly assimilate humans since Shepard fucked up their prototype. This makes reasonable amounts of sense. That’s the one thing that’s canon regardless of what you do–you always kill the Terminator Baby–so it makes sense that’d be the spark putting the IM on the other side.

        • Pod

          I can see that. Indoctrination was a big story element in the first game, and having that extend across to a bigger corporation is a mildly interesting premise. It could also be the reason for the return of the Cerberus crew; a moral disagreement with Cerberus (although it’s not yet confirmed if they’re crew members yet to my knowledge).

          Other than that, I agree with most of your points. Captain Kirrahe was a wink to the players of the first game, but ultimately pointless. The child’s death felt emotionally exploitative and incongruent with the Shepard I had created. I was left unimpressed with the single player, and like you was captured back with the multiplayer. The component I had been most weary about.

          It’ll be interesting to see how the choices of the previous games play in to the system, seeing as they have to strike an equilibrium between having those choices matter, and still allowing similar endings regardless of previous games. How will they stop gamers feeling robbed of sequences if a large section of the game revolves around character development. If my Wrex died are there comparable missions to sate me? Or will I end up resorting to a save editor to get the full experience?

  2. Andrew McDonald

    The cutscenes just dragged on and on, and there were a lot of them too. I’m going to try action mode and see what that does.

    I loved the combat. Well, maybe not the ammo issues, but the feel of the guns made me very happy. The win button wasn’t as problematic for me, as I barely noticed it.

    I’ve given up on becoming interested in the story. Go to this planet, shoot these bad guys, have long cutscenes.

    I think I have better ways to spend my money.

  3. Chris

    Well written.

    I just started to replay the first one and it still gives me the space jibes with exploration and customisation.

    Strangely enough the MP part felt more fluid and graceful than the SP.

    One button does all, No holstering. Have to be resolved in the finished product.

    C