Archive for March, 2012


As I posted a couple of days ago, I decided to take a break from Mass Effect 3 and go back to something that I hadn’t played in quite a while: Fallout 3. FO3 was released by Bethesda Softworks back in October-ish 2008 (memory could be playing tricks on me, but somewhere around that time). The main quest line involved a rather heroic effort to take care of the problem of irradiated water in the DC Wasteland. Since it’s a 3-year-old game, I don’t have a problem spoiling the ending. If playing as a good guy on the released version game, you die at the end.

This set me to thinking about Shepard and the Mass Effect 3 ending and I had to seriously ask myself whether it was Shepard dying that was giving me such heartburn at the end. After some fairly serious soul-searching, I concluded that it was not. In every game of FO3 that I played (and my playing time was easily pushing 1000 hours by the time the “Broken Steel” DLC was released), I never sent another character into the control room to finish the job that I started. Yep, I died – tragically, heroically and frequently and didn’t have a major problem with it.

Just to check that my recollection was accurate, I popped over to Metacritic to glance through the a chunk of the 1300 or so player reviews of the game (it averages 7.8 – professional reviewers averaged 9.1). The comments are very telling. There are only a few gripes about the ending of the game. Granted, I ignored favorable reviews and could easily have overlooked comments like mine on ME3 (“great game, ending sucks”), but even among the unfavorable reviews, there were very few comments about the ending. A big chunk of them were along the lines of “I can’t believe that this game gets so many 10/10 ratings, so I’m giving it a 0”. Another batch took issue with the treatment of the Fallout universe in comparison to FO1 and FO2. And there were the usual complaints about the UI, scripting, inability to complete quests, graphic monotony, and the like. But surprisingly, even though the PC probably dies at the end, not too many gripes about it.

On the Bethesda forums, the complaints were of a similar nature. Although I recall (and this is admittedly faulty memory talking) some very vocal disappointment with the PC dying, the main thrust of the complaints were that [A] if the PC avoided dying, you got painted as the bad guy in the final analysis and [B] if you avoided dying, you could not play beyond the end of the main quest. This was rectified by the “Broken Steel” DLC (3rd DLC and released 6 or 8 months after the initial game release), which basically said “just kidding; you didn’t really die” and let you continue playing after completing the main quest.

So where did Mass Effect 3 drop the ball where Fallout 3 did not? I think it all comes back to the story and the ending of that story. In Fallout 3, your choices in the game have consequences. You generally do not find out about those consequences until the final credits roll, but the final slide-show with Ron Perlman’s voice-over pretty much tells you what happens with each and every major character and companion you dealt with (Fallout: New Vegas did pretty much the same thing – I can’t speak to FO1 and FO2 since I haven’t played them) and how your choices affected them. Mass Effect 3 does not do this. You get to talk to each of your companions one last time before the final push to the Citadel and you’ve got a good idea of what they hope will happen, but nothing after you “push the button”.

Second, in Fallout 3’s ending, there were no major surprises. While it was possible to play an ultra-good guy and send someone else into the control room, or to play an ultra-bad guy and take the hit yourself, your final decision affected only your character. Compare that to ME3 (or even the Deus Ex games) where you decide for everyone. Great, if you’re one of those “king of the universe” kind of characters. Not so hot if you’re one of the “consensus and cooperation” types.

Third, in Fallout 3, all of your choices were known before you ever got to the end. Aside from Eden’s genocidal option, no one showed up at the end to add new information to the mix. No one popped in at the last minute to tell you that everything you thought you knew was wrong. So even if you chose to sacrifice yourself, all of the cards were on the table before you ever got to that decision. This is not the case with Mass Effect 3.

The short version of a summation would have to be that Fallout 3 did everything a story should have done. In playing through it again, there are plenty of spots where stuff doesn’t come off nearly as good today as it did 3 years ago. It’s even to the point where I installed a couple of mods for different radio stations simply because Three Dog was getting on my nerves. But taken as a whole, the story worked pretty well from start to finish; a bit cheesy in places, but it worked. I wish I could say the same for ME3. Perhaps I will be able to say that at some point in the future, perhaps not. But I can definitely say that in the here-and-now it doesn’t work.

While the fiasco with Mass Effect 3’s ending gets sorted out and fixed (or not – jury’s still out on that question), I figured this might be a nice time to go back and fiddle around with Fallout 3. My initial temptation was to simply go purchase it again through Steam (it’s only about $20 for the GOTY edition), but “cheap” overrode “simple” and I went for the DVD that I purchased several years back. Considering that I also have a digital version through Direct2Drive, plus the five DLCs, forking over an extra $20 for the convenience of having it in my Steam library just didn’t seem worth it.

Onward to the DC Wasteland! A much more inviting place than dealing with BioWare at the moment.

In an open letter to the Mass Effect 3 community, posted on BioWare’s blog earlier today, Dr. Muzyka offered an apparent olive branch to members of the Mass Effect community who are upset about the ending of the game. Whether this is an actual or a perceived branch is debatable. Just so that my personal biases are clear from the outset, I admit to cynicism regarding the contents of any corporate communication intended for public consumption and hearty skepticism for the rest. For the present, though, it says what it says and its true meaning will become clear in time.

(*Ahem* – tap, tap – is this thing on? OK, we’re good)

As co-founder and GM of BioWare, I’m very proud of the ME3 team; I personally believe Mass Effect 3 is the best work we’ve yet created. So, it’s incredibly painful to receive feedback from our core fans that the game’s endings were not up to their expectations. Our first instinct is to defend our work and point to the high ratings offered by critics – but out of respect to our fans, we need to accept the criticism and feedback with humility.

I’m among those critics who lauded the game itself (you can read my review a bit farther down the page). It really is an awesome game and I was very impressed with some of the improvements from previous games. I was less thrilled with other “improvements”, but accept them in the same way that I accepted Skyrim’s reworking of some of the older Elder Scrolls mechanics. I might not like it, but when looked at in light of overall developer intent, there is at least a modicum of sense to it.

I believe passionately that games are an art form, and that the power of our medium flows from our audience, who are deeply involved in how the story unfolds, and who have the uncontested right to provide constructive criticism. At the same time, I also believe in and support the artistic choices made by the development team.  The team and I have been thinking hard about how to best address the comments on ME3’s endings from players, while still maintaining the artistic integrity of the game.

I mostly agree. Games are an art and good games border on genius. The amount of time and effort required to visually present an engaging digital story (and Mass Effect has been a VERY engaging story) rivals and potentially exceeds the amount of time and effort required to produce a fully cinematic story, minus the union headaches, diva stars, and catering bills. Pixels and bits pretty much do as they’re told without much complaint or comment. And, indeed, the necessary level of audience engagement with that story far exceeds that required or expected of movies, where the audience need only be passive observers. Gamers must actively engage with the story in order to drive it forward, and this is especially true of RPGs. No active engagement, no game because “who cares?”.

At the same time, the question of artistic integrity is vitally relevant. No one in their right mind would dream of asking, much less demanding, that Shakespeare change the ending to “Hamlet”, even though it is among the most tragic in literature. Its ending works within the context of the play. But what happens when the ending not only does not work, but does not work in a piece that requires active engagement with the characters rather than passive observation? What happens when a developer, at the very end of a trilogy of excellent games, violates Chekov’s rule (that would be Anton, not Pavel): if you’re going to pull a gun out of a desk in Act III, you make sure that it goes into the desk in Act I. I think Aristotle made a similar observation (minus the gun, of course) in the Poetics, but am too lazy to go verify at this late hour. Perhaps my memory on that point is accurate, perhaps not.

Hamlet’s end, though tragic, came as no great surprise to its audience. Laertes and Claudius discuss their plans and methodology in great detail on multiple occasions so the audience knows what is coming. While the audience might pull for Hamlet to foil or avoid their plans, his failure to do so is not unexpected, but merely sad. Heroically sad, perhaps, but sad nonetheless. The same cannot be said for Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect 3 concludes a trilogy with so much player control and ownership of the story that it was hard for us to predict the range of emotions players would feel when they finished playing through it.  The journey you undertake in Mass Effect provokes an intense range of highly personal emotions in the player; even so, the passionate reaction of some of our most loyal players to the current endings in Mass Effect 3 is something that has genuinely surprised us. This is an issue we care about deeply, and we will respond to it in a fair and timely way. We’re already working hard to do that.

As I said in an earlier post, I have no problem with throwing myself on my sword if it fits with the rest of the story. I might rant and rail about the unfairness of it all, but if I played the game the way the developers intended, then I should get the conclusion I have been led to believe was coming and a conclusion in keeping with the way I played.

There is an old saying that you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. If I knowingly did that, then I should get what I deserve. But when the developers repeatedly tell me that the Crucible is the only hope against the Reapers, that they cannot be defeated by conventional means, that I need the galaxy working together so that it can do its job, and I do exactly that, then I also have a reasonable expectation that this will turn out to be true and in the way that I have been led to believe.

I should not be told at the last minute, after all of my forces have been recruited, assembled, brought to bear and committed, that everything I thought I knew was wrong. That might be almost acceptable in some comic space opera kind of villain rant just before he gets run through by someone I had previously believed to be dead. But that is not the kind of game that Mass Effect has been, so is it any surprise to find that I am upset by the last minute change up? I’ve run into that sort of writing before. The difference is that it showed up in a cheap paperback and could be tossed at a cost of a handful of dollars and an hour or less of my time. I do not expect this from a $70 game after 30-odd hours of my time.

To that end, since the game launched, the team has been poring over everything they can find about reactions to the game – industry press, forums, Facebook, and Twitter, just to name a few. The Mass Effect team, like other teams across the BioWare Label within EA, consists of passionate people who work hard for the love of creating experiences that excite and delight our fans.  I’m honored to work with them because they have the courage and strength to respond to constructive feedback.

Building on their research, Exec Producer Casey Hudson and the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey. You’ll hear more on this in April.  We’re working hard to maintain the right balance between the artistic integrity of the original story while addressing the fan feedback we’ve received.  This is in addition to our existing plan to continue providing new Mass Effect content and new full games, so rest assured that your journey in the Mass Effect universe can, and will, continue.

If we’re back to the artistic integrity issue, and if the team absolutely must have its due on that point, then I’m in favor of something like the “Indoctrination Theory” being declared canon. It lets the team retain credit and integrity for what has already been produced with a “ha, ha, fooled you” as a springboard to a more acceptable ending. I think I’d be outraged to be charged good money for such a resolution, but it would be infinitely better than what we’ve got now.

I recognize and accept that Shepard’s story needs to end with ME3. I knew that going in. Do I demand that my Shepard get “bunnies and rainbows”? No, although a well-earned retirement wouldn’t be a bad thing. Under some rather bizarre circumstances, I could even see Shepard taking the human seat on the council. Considering Shepard’s views on the usefulness of politicians as a source of high-quality fertilizer, there might also be a lot of dead alien councilors in that future, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility or believability. But this whole, “in order to keep you from being destroyed by synthetics, we’re going to use synthetics to destroy you” line of reasoning is absurd to the point of farcical. And let’s not even get into the whole synthesis thing. If that was such a viable option, why does it only show up in the last five minutes of the game? We’re back to the problem of Chekov’s gun.

The reaction to the release of Mass Effect 3 has been unprecedented. On one hand, some of our loyal fans are passionately expressing their displeasure about how their game concluded; we care about this feedback, and we’re planning to directly address it. However, most folks appear to agree that the game as a whole is exceptional, with more than 75 critics giving it a perfect review score and a review average in the mid-90s. Net, I’m proud of the team, but we can and must always strive to do better.

Is it so hard to believe that a great game can have a lousy ending? Give the team all of the credit that they are due. Have pride in them. They made an awesome game. It’s engaging, it’s fun to play, it’s funny, it has many poignant moments, it’s bittersweet, it’s great – except for those last few minutes. It’s not unbelievable that a team can play a great game and fumble it away in the last few seconds. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Unlike football, though, a fumbled video game ending can be fixed. The only questions are whether it will be fixed and how any such fix will be distributed.

Some of the criticism that has been delivered in the heat of passion by our most ardent fans, even if founded on valid principles, such as seeking more clarity to questions or looking for more closure, for example – has unfortunately become destructive rather than constructive. We listen and will respond to constructive criticism, but much as we will not tolerate individual attacks on our team members, we will not support or respond to destructive commentary.

If you are a Mass Effect fan and have input for the team – we respect your opinion and want to hear it. We’re committed to address your constructive feedback as best we can. In return, I’d ask that you help us do that by supporting what I truly believe is the best game BioWare has yet crafted. I urge you to do your own research: play the game, finish it and tell us what you think. Tell your friends if you feel it’s a good game as a whole. Trust that we are doing our damndest, as always, to address your feedback.  As artists, we care about our fans deeply and we appreciate your support.

Thank you for your feedback – we are listening.

Ray

I appreciate that you are listening and considering what I (and other fans) have to say. I feel that I have always been clear that the game is awesome and that my displeasure lies with the ending. If I have failed in that regard, then mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I have no specific ending in mind. The series has always been about choices, actions and consequences. The only expectation that I have ever had in that regard is that the ending match the choices I’ve made and the actions I’ve taken over the course of the three games. The current ending does not.

I’d love to be able to purchase and play additional content. But with the ending as it is, what’s the point? Life as we know it in the Mass Effect universe is over. It doesn’t matter what kind of new weapons I can uncover, it doesn’t matter how many more forces I can recruit, it doesn’t matter if there is some previously unknown cache of ancient technology waiting to be discovered, it doesn’t matter if there is a set of Horse Armor big enough for the Normandy. Assuming that the ending means precisely what it shows, the only solution to the Reapers is the collapse and destruction of civilization as we have come to know it in the Mass Effect universe. I have been fighting against exactly that ending for three games now and to have it forced on me in spite of every choice I’ve made over three games is just galling to the point of insult.

The only thing I’m asking is that the development team provide an ending that makes sense in light of everything that I’ve done up to this point. As things currently stand, it does not. I’m not sure that clarification of the current ending would be satisfactory, either. There is altogether too much that just appears out of the blue for any amount of exposition to be able to explain it all away in any manner that wouldn’t come off as contrived and an insult to my intelligence.

In an oversimplified offshoot of Werner Heisenberg’s work, I believe I have found some relief from the ending of Mass Effect 3, at least on the PC – console gamers are on their own for this one.

For the non-nerds out there, the Uncertainty Principle essentially says that out of two attributes ascribed to a particle (position and velocity, for example), the more precisely you measure one, the more uncertain the other becomes. In simpler terms (necessary for my simplistic brain), you can either know where a particle is or you can know how fast it is moving, but you cannot precisely know both at the same time. Until the moment of measurement, the particle exists merely as a probability wave function. In short, it theoretically exists everywhere at the same time. Measurement causes the wavefunction to collapse to a single value.

Somewhat tied to that idea was a thought experiment proposed by Edwin Shroedinger in the mid-1930s. Given a sealed container containing a cat, a Geiger counter-activated mechanism, a vial of poison gas and a quantity of radioactive material with a 50-50 probability of an atom decaying in one hour’s time, if the Geiger counter detects the decay of an atom, the mechanism breaks the vial and the cat dies. If it does not decay, then the mechanism does not activate and the cat lives. But until an outside observer checks at the end of the hour, the cat is both alive and not-alive. In Heisenberg’s terms, the lack of an observer prevents the collapse of the probability wavefunction.

So how might all of this apply to Mass Effect 3’s ending? The answer lies in the autosave feature. Just at the point where Shepard must choose one of three paths, the game autosaves (I don’t know why, but I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth). Until Shepard commits to one of those paths, all choices are equally probable, so all outcomes potentially exist simultaneously. That’s ALL outcomes – the three provided by BioWare, plus any others you might imagine. Upon committing to one choice, though, the probability of the others existing effectively drop to zero and they cease to exist while the chosen path achieves certainty and becomes the “reality”, if there is such a thing in a video game.

Where the autosave fits in with the whole picture is a simple copy-paste operation. At the moment when the three paths open, quit the game. Copy that autosave somewhere. It will not count as completing the game (no NewGamePlus save, sorry), but at that point, any outcome you can imagine is as probable as any other outcome. Unless you’re bound and determined to pick up more achievements or gain levels or something with that particular Shepard, nothing requires you to collapse the wavefunction. So whatever outcome you want is the outcome you can have since they are all equally probable at that point in time.

Yeah, it’s philosophical pablum dressed up in scientific garb, but it’s better than what actually shows up on the screen since you haven’t bought in to BioWare’s version of reality. For my part, I’ve dutifully copied off my autosave, Mass Effect 3 sits idle on my hard drive, and I am not participating in any of the multiplayer stuff. In my head, at least, Shepard and Garrus sit on a beach somewhere with glasses of something topped by colorful paper parasols. Occasionally, the thought of testing a seashell in honor or Mordin Solus crops up, but the future of the galaxy is now someone else’s problem.

Sometime Thursday, the BioWare folks made a stickied post on their forums, as follows (the poster is Chris Priestly):

“On the Mass Effect 3 endings. Yes, we are listening.”

We appreciate everyone’s feedback about Mass Effect 3 and want you to know that we are listening. Active discussions about the ending are more than welcome here, and the team will be reviewing it for feedback and responding when we can. Please note, we want to give people time to experience the game so while we can’t get into specifics right now, we will be able to address some of your questions once more people have had time to complete the game. In the meantime, we’d like to ask that you keep the non-spoiler areas of our forums and our social media channels spoiler free.

We understand there is a lot of debate on the Mass Effect 3 ending and we will be more than happy to engage in healthy discussions once more people get to experience the game. We are listening to all of your feedback.

In the meantime, let’s give appreciation to Commander Shepard. Whether you loved the ME3 ending or didn’t or you just have a lot of questions, he/she has given many of us some of the best adventures we have had while playing games. What was your favorite moment?

The post (http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/9992961) and all of its 186 pages of replies (at the time I wrote this – the page count seems to increase by the minute) would seem to indicate that both sides are listening to each other, at least.

Whether this is also indicative of an internal shit storm or something else is up for debate and I’m not even going to venture a guess. I hope that it means that someone, somewhere stopped to ask why the fans were so upset and (hopefully) wants to do something about it.

I think I have a reasonable grasp of the developers’ end of things. With no particular emphasis on priority, they would almost have to be:

  • Tie up as many of the character story lines as possible. For all of your surviving teammates from ME1 and ME2, you have the opportunity to speak with them one last time before launching into the final assault. Those who did not survive occupy a space on the Wall of Honor on the Crew Deck of the Normandy. You may also speak with any or all of your current team members. Each of them tries to wrap up and give some sort of closure to their story lines, win, lose or draw.
  • Wrap up Shepard’s story, itself. BioWare made no bones about the fact that Mass Effect 3 would be the last game of a trilogy. There are apparently plans for a movie in the works, not to mention the graphic and regular novels filling in a lot of the backstory, so the possibility of a Mass Effect 4 should not be completely discounted. It just won’t involve Shepard if it ever does materialize. Mass Effect is one of the flagship items in BioWare’s IP portfolio, so I don’t see them abandoning it. But leaving Shepard behind would be reasonable.
  • Present a canon conclusion of some sort. The overarching issue throughout all three games has been the return of the Reapers. Saren and the Collectors were just smaller aspects of the larger problem. Saren was an immediate problem; the Collectors were an immediate problem; the Reapers were not immediate, although they were imminent.

The endings presented did satisfy all technical requirements (including those that I didn’t think of). All secondary characters’ stories were resolved, Shepard’s story was resolved and the Reaper problem was resolved. In the resolution of Shepard’s story, the writers and developers also pretty much precluded any fan outcry to include Shepard in any future game as canonically, Shepard is no more. All goals met, so I can see why BioWare would be satisfied with the way they brought it all together.

On the whole, I don’t think I would have had much of a problem with the destruction of the Reapers as a worthwhile conclusion if it did not also entail the extinction of all other synthetic life. Much of the story line related to the Geth revolved around the question of whether they were living beings or simply tools. In pursuing the issue as it was presented to me, I took the position that they were living beings and proceeded under that premise. Up until the conclusion, that position worked well. But it galled me no end to be told that everything that I thought I knew on the issue was wrong and that “we know best”.

I had (and have) major issues with the control option for much the same reason. To be told at the last minute that the problem is not the Reapers, but the very nature of synthetic life itself (and by extrapolation that the Illusive Man had the right idea) just runs contrary to everything that I had been working toward over the course of three games.

While the synthesis option had theoretical merit, the requisite destruction of the mass relay system made it a poor option in my mind. I’m sure it was the preferred option in the developers’ minds or else they wouldn’t have presented it, but the creation of a universal DNA just seemed so over-the-top as to be implausible. Yeah, OK, Joker and Edie are finally compatible. There’s the bunnies and rainbows.

So how should it have ended? Tough question. Did the Reapers need to be destroyed? Probably not. Their programming was the problem, not their existence. That leads back to the control option, I suppose. But that which can be reprogrammed can be re-reprogrammed, so is control actually a solution or merely a delay in an inevitable Reaper return? The StarChild did axiomatically state that synthetic life will eventually destroy organic life if left to its own devices.

I suppose that the best option which BioWare could give would have to be game-related. If I have played a good game, if I have made good choices, if I have prepared properly, then why can’t I have the end to which I have been working over the course of three games? I’m not thrilled about throwing myself onto my sword as a final solution. But if I failed to do any of the critical groundwork prior to that point, and sacrificing myself is the only logical way to make it work, then that’s just the price I have to pay for my actions or lack thereof. But to simply be told in the final few minutes of the game that there was no winning option (by the standards presented over the course of three games), is just wrong.

I’d like to make it clear from the outset that the ending of Mass Effect 3 sucks. It sucks big, green, slimy, donkey dicks. Hoover, Eureka, Oreck and Dyson are in a bidding war to license the IP rights for how much it sucks. They’ll make a killing. The entire adult film industry could stand in line and take lessons on sucking and still not come close to reaching the level of “sucks” achieved in the final 10 minutes of Mass Effect 3. My disappointment with the endings is so profound that “sucks” is paying it a major compliment. There are no words in the English language that can adequately express how much the ending sucks. It sucks so bad that the word, “sucks” will be completely replaced by “Mass Effect 3 ending”. You will no longer suck on a straw; you will “Mass Effect 3 ending on a straw”. That’s the kind of sucking where your head threatens to implode before the milkshake is halfway up the straw. IT IS EVEN WORSE THAN THAT!!! And if I wasn’t clear before, the ending really sucks. Big time.

OK. With that little caveat out of the way, Mass Effect 3 is an awesome game, but the only way that I can possibly say that is by mentally editing out the last 10 minutes or so. Leaving those last few minutes out of the equation, then Mass Effect 3 is a solid 8.5 out of 10. I might even go for a 9.0 were it not for a few minor gameplay problems. But if I include those last few minutes, then it’s maybe a 6.5, at best, since the ending completely overshadows the rest of the game. Good for one or two plays and then onto the shelf it goes.

  • Gameplay: except for the side-quest retrieval missions (fairly standard fare in almost any RPG), the developers took almost everything that I didn’t like about ME1 and ME2 and ditched them. There is still quite a bit of running back and forth, but the long elevator rides are gone. The searching for resources is gone. The inventory system is gone. Frankly, almost everything that I didn’t like about the previous two games is gone. The cover system got revamped and is everything that it should have been in the first two games. Popping in and out of cover is simple and effective. Keeping yourself out of harm’s way isn’t terribly difficult, although the better AI and pretty effective use of “cover buster” enemies means that any piece of cover is only a temporary respite at best. Commanding your team mates works pretty much as it did in ME2 and they’re pretty effective, too. Enemies still do some dumb things, but there is a good mix of enemies and a better AI that makes you take a more strategic approach to combat. I like it. A lot.
  • The combat system got a major overhaul. There are still a few points that could use some polishing, but it works smoothly and I actually looked forward to combat missions for almost the entire game. There were a couple of points where my desire for a few extra experience points caused me to grab medi-gel that I should have left alone until after the fighting was over, but overall, I really like the way combat played out. I am also very satisfied with my ability to use any weapon I want. On my first run-through I pretty much stuck with an Assault Rifle with either an SMG or handgun as backup, but knowing that I could swap out with a shotgun or Sniper Rifle for any mission made it my choice rather than the developers and I really appreciated that.
  • I am not thrilled with the changes to the NavPoint system, though. It’s far too easy to overlook quest-related items. I’m thinking specifically about a pair of dogtags in an early mission where, on a second play-through and knowing what I was looking for and where to look, it still took me three our four minutes of running back and forth across the same area before they finally showed up. Overlooked items cannot be retrieved later because you can only land on a planet once. This is something that generally works well, but it has issues. Being the natural cynic that I am, my initial suspicion is that this was done as a way to boost sales of the official game guide, but it’s something that still needs work.
  • Back on the topic of retrieval missions, you’ll need to do a lot of hunting and searching to retrieve War Assets before launching your final assault on the Reapers. The War Room contains a console that will show you the current state of Galactic Readiness (it starts at 50%). I have little to no interest in pursuing the multiplayer aspects of the game, but completing missions in that arena is supposed to raise the readiness level, better increasing your ease in successfully reaching the final objective. Much the same effect can be achieved by simply completing all of the single-player side missions with the idea that a lot of assets at 50% readiness is pretty close to equal to a few assets at 100% readiness. I can’t blame BioWare for wanting to get players into the multiplayer aspect of the game. It’s a business decision, it’s something they’re expecting to make money off of and a lot of players enjoy that sort of thing. I’m just not one of them.
  • I tested my theory on how to deal with all of those fetch-and-carry side quests and it has worked pretty well thus far. Every time that I complete a ground mission, I visit every system I can access to pick up items and War Assets. Once the Reapers show up or once I’d acquired 100% of the items in a system, I go off and do another ground mission and repeat. From a story standpoint it’s an inelegant solution, but it’s the only one I’ve been able to come up with that works well. I’ve managed to collect almost everything in the way of War Assets, but am a little concerned about items related to side-quests. All of the systems are showing 100% of items acquired, but I have this nagging worry that something got placed in a system I have already visited that will get overlooked because the map is showing 100%. Perhaps I’m just being paranoid, but it could also be a problem in the making. And, yes, I’m squandering huge sums of money on fuel. Fortunately my Shepard had a ton of credits from the outset. This might be a problem for anyone who is starting from zero, though, so I’m docking a bit from my rating for those folks.
  • Just as a handy hint on dealing with the issue of these assets, spend a lot of time flying around a system. Fly through asteroid belts and investigate the empty space between planets. When you’re near something, you’ll hear the same sound you hear when you’re within orbital range of a planet. The item is undoubtedly a fuel cache, but those are the hardest to find. Once you’ve located it, ping it, then ping all of the planets. The Reapers will show up and chase you out of the system, but the markers will remain. So go do a ground mission somewhere, then come back and collect the assets. Kludgy, but it works.
  • Graphics: a few minor clipping issues aside, the graphics are pretty standard Mass Effect stuff. The character animations, facial expressions, and the like have been cleaned up to the point where the finer texture details can really shine, but this is clearly a Mass Effect game. Everything is still blocky and still looks like a bunch of warehouses and crates. They’re pretty warehouses and crates, but still… It’s much cleaner than ME1, but little to no improvement over ME2 except in the area of character textures. If you’re expecting dazzling graphic quality, you’re going to be somewhat disappointed. On the flip side of that, though, you won’t need the latest and greatest graphics powerhouse to run it. My GeForce 9800s proved more than capable of the demands with nary a drop in framerate. On the downside of all of that, the game feels a quite a bit more closed than ME1 did, although it’s not terribly different from the feel of ME2. It’s pretty much a 3rd person corridor shooter. I’m not sure whether this is a good or bad thing, but it doesn’t interfere significantly with the game, and is generally attractive and eye-catching. A few oddities do crop up now and then, though. I remember one cutscene where a C-Sec cruiser just appeared in the background, hovered around for a few seconds and then disappeared. There is nothing major and the issue of getting stuck on top of boxes has been resolved, so I don’t have any huge complaints in the graphics department.
  • Sound: I cannot pay high enough compliments to the sound of the game. The voicing is absolutely superb. The music fits well and did not distract from gameplay in the slightest. I did turn the music volume down to about 50% so that it wouldn’t interfere with dialogue, but it worked extremely well at that level. The only sound-related complaint that I have revolves around dialogue. For some strange reason (this might be a hardware issue on my end, so I’m not laying this at the developers’ doorstep), some dialogue fired late, so it got cut off in some places. Since I had subtitles turned on, I don’t think I missed much, but it’s something that BioWare might want to take a look at. And I’ve already mentioned the problem of multiple dialogues running at the same time. I think BioWare could have moved those trigger points a bit farther apart to deal with that issue. Fortunately, those side conversations will generally loop for as long as you’re in the area. But it’s annoying to see a journal entry notice pop up when you didn’t clearly hear what caused it in the first place.
  • Story: This is a tough one. Everything works pretty well, up until the ending. There are a few odd plot holes here and there, but the story lines of all of the major characters (and some of the minor ones) from the previous games all get tied up with neat little bows. You’ll like some of them, you’ll hate others, some are happy endings, some are not. Your previous decisions play out pretty well as they relate to these story lines, so it’s very much in keeping with the Mass Effect approach. It’s just the ending that really grates. And there is only one ending – everything else is just variations on that theme. This is also an area where it’s very difficult to separate stuff before the ending from the ending itself.
  • Replayability: This is also a tough one. In light of the ending, I don’t see a whole lot of replay value in the single-player campaign unless you just want to experiment with different classes or combinations of team members. Knowing that no matter what you do, no matter who you help, no matter how much care and effort you put into it, it’s pretty much “game over, everybody dies” at the end and it really removes any real incentive to go play through the entire campaign again. If BioWare were to do something about the ending, then I’d certainly change my tune on that issue. But as it stands now, it’s good for one or perhaps two run-throughs and that’s it. The final payoff just isn’t there when you consider the series as a whole and it’s barely there as a stand-alone game.

As I said from the outset, the game is awesome if you can mentally set aside the last few minutes. If Casey Hudson’s goal was to get people talking, then he succeeded. He said he wanted a memorable ending, and he got one, but I’m not so certain that people took away the kind of memory and experience that he’d hoped. I’m not holding my breath on BioWare doing anything to fix that ending, grassroots outrage notwithstanding. If you can stand the disappointment of the ending, though, this is a game that is well worth the time spent playing it.

As promised, here are thoughts on the endings of Mass Effect 3. Be warned that there are some major spoilers ahead.

To begin, a recap of ME1 and ME2 seems in order. In ME1, Shepard becomes the first human Spectre who must catch and defeat a rogue Spectre named Saren. Saren, as discovered a bit later in the game, has allied himself with a Reaper, called Sovereign. The Reapers are a race of sentient machines who depopulate the galaxy every 50,000 years or so. The last time through, they destroyed a race known as the Protheans. It was through the discovery and exploitation of Prothean technology that humans were able to leave the solar system and expand out into the rest of the galaxy.

Through various missions and assignments, Shepard assembles a team and fights his/her way through a chunk of the known galaxy before defeating Saren and Sovereign and stopping the next Reaper invasion. Unfortunately for Shepard, no one in the ruling council seems to believe that the Reapers exist. Along the way, Shepard runs into a human-centric extremist group called Cerberus. Their role in ME1, though more along the lines of generic bad guys, partially sets the stage for ME2.

In ME2, Shepard and the crew of the Normandy are attacked and defeated by an unknown race. Shepard is killed, but brought back to life and rebuilt by Cerberus. Two years later and equipped with a new Normandy, Shepard again assembles a team and sets out to stop this new race, the Collectors. Again fighting their way across much of known galaxy, Shepard and team eventually discover the Collector base and remove the Collector menace. In the final battle, Shepard is given a choice to either destroy the base completely or to simply kill its inhabitants, leaving the base mostly intact for the recovery of Collector technology. This appears to have some bearing on ME3, but I’ve always destroyed the base, so I can’t say for sure. During the final battle, some, none or all of your teammates will survive (if Shepard dies, you cannot import the save into ME3, so I’m not counting that option as viable). Those that survive will return in one form or another in ME3; those that don’t, won’t.

In ME3, Shepard begins on Earth, relieved of duty for prior actions (most notably the destruction of a Batarian colony if you played ME2’s “Arrival” DLC). The Reapers choose this time to attack Earth, so Shepard must escape and once again assemble a team to save the galaxy. The side missions, assignments and whatnot are fairly standard Mass Effect fare, but all of the pieces will eventually come together at Earth for the final confrontation and resolution.

The final battle is awesome with waves of Reaper minions hitting you from different directions. Combat aficionados will enjoy it tremendously. Depending on how many War Assets you recover and the overall state of Galactic Readiness (online multiplayer gaming), it goes well or poorly. But in the final analysis, Shepard reaches the Citadel to complete the game. After a final confrontation with the Illusive Man, Shepard is faced with three choices: die in order to gain control of the Reapers and send them packing, die in order to produce a synthesis of organic and synthetic life or (probably) die in order to destroy the Reapers. I say “probably” on that last because there is a very short animation of a piece of N7 armor that moves after all is said and done. Anyone’s guess as to what it means, but “hope springs eternal,” as Pope observed. All three options result in the destruction of the mass relay system, effectively isolating everyone from everyone else. There is supposedly a fourth option for players who import a completed ME3 game, but I haven’t progressed far enough on a second play-through to see what that is.

[EDIT 03/16: there is no fourth option – apparently that’s either trolling or wishful thinking on the part of someone wanting to sound knowledgeable. While a second play-through did let me pick up some missed conversations and a handful of achievements that I didn’t catch the first go around, it produced only the original three options: destruction, control or synthesis. I’m not sure which irks me more: no other possible endings or the fact that I’ve got one stinkin’ weapon that I couldn’t get up to Level 10. Must have overlooked something on that second run-through, but it’s not worth a third]

In practical terms, the destruction of the mass relay system makes some sense, but it’s lose-lose no mater which way you go. If you want to propagate something across the galaxy in a short amount of time, it’s there and apparently contains the requisite amount of energy. I’m not sure how the devs are accounting for the light years between systems at each relay, though. Some odd bits of quantum theory and the entire mass relay system aside, information cannot travel faster than light, so any Reapers not in the system containing a mass relay wouldn’t get the news for quite some time. But the writers say that it works that way, so it must work that way. As evidenced by the massive SciFi sections of most major bookstores, sticking with the accepted laws of physics isn’t required to tell a good story.

Let us also not forget that the galactic economy depends upon the mass relay system for the movement of goods and materials between systems. Since the destruction of that relay system is required no matter which way you go, you are essentially condemning galactic civilization to fragmentation, isolation and economic collapse. In short, life as we know it is over.

Another problem, also according to the story (the “Arrival” DLC, specifically),is that the energy released by the destruction of a mass relay will kill everything in the system. No matter which way Shepard chooses to go, several major systems should be completely depopulated, including the Sol system. Hmmmm. I will save you by killing you. Not quite what I had in mind as a solution to the problem.

In the final analysis there are three options presented (there might be a fourth option available on a second playthrough). The “destroy the Reapers” option is seriously lacking as a moral choice because it requires the death of EDI and the genocide of the Geth. The “control the Reapers” option requires the death of Shepard, as does the “synthesis” choice and none of the three presents a particularly inviting future. So your choices essentially boil down to:

  1. destroy the Reapers – this should kill everything in any system containing a mass relay, completely exterminate the Geth, and doom the galaxy to centuries of isolation until someone can develop the technology to rebuild something resembling a mass relay system. This does not account for the possibility (“certainty,” according to one character in a position to have an informed opinion) of someone creating something like the Reapers at some point in the future, thus their defeat is only a setback in the pattern of cycles.
  2. control the Reapers – this should kill everything in any system containing a mass relay and doom the galaxy to centuries of isolation until someone can develop the technology to rebuild something resembling a mass relay system. It leaves the Geth alive, but does not answer the question of what happens with the Reapers. Did you send them off to plague some other galaxy? Is this simply a NIMBY (not in my back yard) solution or is it working because the writers said it would work?
  3. combine synthetic and organic life into something new – this should kill everything in any system containing a mass relay and doom the galaxy to centuries of isolation until someone can develop the technology to rebuild something resembling a mass relay system. It leaves everyone alive (including the Geth and the “new and improved” Reapers), but with what kind of life or future?

My biggest objection to the endings, however, has little to do with story canon or physics, but with avatar investment. Those who have played through all three games have a significant emotional attachment to Shepard and the rest of the crew. If this were not the case, why bother importing characters from previous games? Why do the devs have you reconnect with previous team members? They could have just as easily created canon choices for each game and let a new character pick up where the previous one left off. The net result would have been the same with each game standing alone as a smaller piece of a larger story. Instead, they chose to tie them together by making it Shepard’s story.

While it might superficially have much in common with Ripley’s story in the “Aliens” series or any other “self-sacrifice in the interest of the greater good” story, the difference lies in personal involvement. In movies, books, etc., you are merely a witness to decisions and their effects. In the Mass Effect series, you are the decider and must weigh the costs and benefits of each decision at the time you make it. The writers have done a reasonably good job over the years of making sure that you are informed of the consequences of your decisions, but within story-telling constraints, you are invested in each decision. You choose the path along which your character develops. You are Shepard and Shepard is you. And no matter which way you decide, you do not gain what you have been working toward. All of your available solutions are “second best” at best.

In short, all endings suck to greater or lesser degrees. While I won’t deny the hours of entertainment provided, the final payoff just isn’t there. And for the amount of time and money invested in the series, it should be.

On a side note, one dangling question: I took EDI and Javik as my team in the final assault. How did they end up in the final cutscenes if they supposedly died back on Earth? Joker and Traynor are understandable, but there seems to be a teleporter around somewhere that no one told me about.

In keeping with the theme of my previous two posts, these are just impressions of the game and some of the changes from previous games. No major spoilers and no full-blown review; just impressions.

 

As a follow-up to a question in a previous post, there are probably enough regular missions to allow you to reset Reaper alertness and collect all of the stuff you’re supposed to collect, but it’s going to require some serious planning on your part. I’ll have to give it a try on another play-through, but I’m thinking that you’ll need to simply visit every system (costly in terms of credits for fuel), ping and collect whatever you can before the Reapers show up, move on to another system and repeat until you’ve exhausted all systems. Then go do a mission and repeat. This would, of course, change the side quests from “get the quest, find the object, deliver” to “find the object, find the quest-giver, deliver”. It strikes me as just about as tedious as ME2’s scanning, probably a bit more costly and definitely as frustrating.

 

There have been some serious changes to the morality system of ME1 and ME2. In the first two games, you were either a good guy (Paragon) or bad guy (Renegade). It was possible to be both, especially if you started a new career with an existing character. In other words, playing through it once while making all of the Paragon choices and playing through a second time with the same character and making all of the Renegade choices, or vice versa.

 

This does not appear to be so clear cut in ME3. Instead, you have a Reputation meter. Both Renegade and Paragon choices increase your overall reputation, so it appears to be kind of a combination of the two. This system opens up some dialogue choices based on your total reputation, but seems to have little regard for whether these are “nice” choices or “naughty” ones. Some dialogue choices will have consequences later in the game and it does appear that you have the option of remaining pure Paragon or Renegade (or close to it) but your options aren’t clearly good/bad. They appear to be more of a choice between appealing to hard-nosed practicality or to “the better angels of our nature”.

 

The NavPoint system leaves a bit to be desired, I think. When you receive a new NavPoint, it appears on your HUD so that you get pointed in the right direction, but it disappears pretty quickly. I’ve gotten lost and turned around on more than one occasion because of it. Nothing fatal, but certainly annoying. The same can be said for navigating between systems. In ME2, you got a little tag on each system where you had something to do. It’s still there in ME3, but seriously toned down and systems only show tags for major missions and nothing for side-quests.

 

For example, I need to pick up something on a planet I’ve already visited, but I must have overlooked it and currently have no way of figuring out which system I need to go back to. And even if I could figure it out, landing on a planet I’ve already visited is not an option. Grrrr!

 

Deliveries at the Citadel are a bit simpler, but still frustrating. The most efficient way that I’ve found is to simply start at the docking bay, working your way down one floor at a time, and checking the map each time the door opens. If I see anyone on the map other than my own team members, then I either have a mission or delivery pending with that person. To add a bit more frustration to the mix, many of the side missions (and they’re almost all “fetch and carry” missions) are not picked up directly, but rather through overheard conversations, making them rather dependent upon being able to hear what people are saying.

 

After several hours of play, I’m noticing annoying little issues with the sound. Characters frequently skip lines of dialogue or pieces of lines, or perhaps the subtitles just don’t match up well with the spoken dialogue in some places. I don’t think this is a problem with the sound files themselves. More likely the playing gets delayed by a second or two, so the allotted time runs out in the middle. If you don’t have subtitles turned on, you’re going to miss out on quite a bit. If you do have subtitles turned on, I hope you’re a fast reader. I’ve also run into a few instances of several dialogues playing simultaneously. Very much like real life when everyone tries to talk at once, but very problematic for dialogue-dependent gameplay.

 

Like many RPGs, there is a lot of “fetch and carry” and running hither and yon. Most of it is to be expected, given the nature of the game, but some of it is just downright dumb. For example, the layout of the Normandy changed a bit from previous games. One change is that the communications room is no longer directly behind the Galactic Map. Instead, it’s more or less where ME2’s Armory used to be, but you access it by passing through the old ME2 Tech Lab (which is more like a meeting room in ME3) and the new War Room (which is where the video conference terminal was in ME1 and ME2). I have no problem with this. The Alliance took possession of the Normandy following ME2 and did a bit of redesign and retrofitting, so moving things around is not unexpected.

 

The problem is that most of your missions end with you back in the communications room. You run back to the Galactic Map only be told by your assistant that you have a call waiting for you in the communications room. Annoying. One would think that the Alliance might have thought of giving the captain an inter-ship communications terminal in the communications room so that you wouldn’t have to do all of that running back and forth. The problem is made somewhat worse by having to pass through a security checkpoint where you must stop and be scanned before proceeding in either direction, making the whole process a bit of a pain.

 

Just as an overall impression, I like the new game. It’s got some gameplay issues that make sense from a story standpoint, but frustrate or break immersion from a gameplay standpoint. I won’t say much here about the game’s finale except to warn that there are many different ways for the game to end and you will not be able to save once you start the final mission (the game will autosave occasionally in case you die, but the last autosave gets overwritten as soon as you finish). I suspect this was probably intended by the developers as a quick solution to reverting back to a saved game in order to experience as many of the different endings as possible.

 

On the topic of endings, since I can’t say anything nice, I won’t say anything at all. Bioware’s forums (link goes to the spoilers forum – be warned) will give you a good idea of the sentiment and reasoning on both sides of the issue. I’m mostly on the unhappy side for reasons which I will discuss later.

Having had a few more hours to play around with the game, here are a few more impressions. Again, no major spoilers and this is not a full-blown review.

 

The “grinding for resources” activities that permeated ME1 and ME2 did not return in ME3 (and there was much rejoicing). Anything that you need is going to be just kind of laying around waiting for you to pick it up, but you have to find it. Instead of using your scanner to do it, you must “ping” for resources. Think of it as being kind of like an interplanetary sonar array and you’ll have the idea. You’ll still use your planetary scanner, but mostly just to locate your landing zone for planet-side missions and assignments. The scanner itself is still the pain in the ass that it was in ME2 – hold the right mouse button to run the scanner and then use the mouse to turn the planet (with excruciating slowness). You’d think the Normandy would have kept the scanner upgrades from ME2, but nooooo.

 

To keep things interesting, though, your pings may draw the attention of any Reapers in the neighborhood. Make too much noise and they will come to investigate. It’s possible to evade them and get away, but it’s also possible that you won’t, resulting in instant death for you and your crew (practical translation: “Game over. Load saved game or quit?”).

 

Assuming that you evade them (it’s not THAT hard to do), you’ll need to let them cool off before you can return to that system. This is done by completing a mission or assignment elsewhere. Not a big deal and it does kind of fit in with the overall story line. The question that keeps running through my head is whether there are enough missions and assignments to let you collect what you need if you should be unlucky enough to draw their attention on every outing. I don’t know the answer, but the question bothers me – a lot.

 

As far as finding mission-related items goes, I’m not sure whether to be happy or upset. In ME2, especially, all you needed to do was look around the room. Anything that could be activated would identify itself from a fairly long distance. This is not the case in ME3. You need to get fairly close to items before they’ll identify themselves. From a gameplay standpoint, this means that you’re going to be spending a lot of time running around and checking for items. It is certainly more immersive than the ME2 experience, but it also eats up a lot of playing time to no real purpose.

 

Speaking of running, the female Shepard now has a more feminine running animation. Oh, yeah, and the outfits make your butt look fat. Just sayin’.

Amid some pre-release whoopla, the final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy unlocked late last night. I was on the verge of going to bed, but decided to fire it up and see where it led. This is not a review, but just some first impressions of the game. Take them for what they’re worth. I’m not planning any spoilers, so feel free to read without my giving much away.

 

I pre-ordered the game, so was able to also pre-download it over the weekend. One DLC, “From the Ashes”, was available at release, so using some leftover Bioware points, I pre-loaded it, too. The downloads from Origin’s servers worked, but experienced a couple of hiccups along the way that had me restarting the download for both the game and the the DLC. As best as I can tell, if you start a download and do not interrupt the download, it works fine. But pausing the download for an appreciable length of time seems to require starting over from scratch. Probably not that big of a deal for folks with a huge amount of bandwidth; kind of sucky for those of us using standard DSL or something slower.

 

The game installed quite nicely on 32-bit Vista, so kudos to the development team for removing that little headache. It went so smoothly, in fact, that I had to double-check. I didn’t have to run through a normal game installation, so I wasn’t sure that anything other than the download had actually happened. Once on the local machine, the Origin client took care of it from start to finish. Steam could probably pick up a few pointers from these guys.

 

Once fired up, the game offered me the opportunity to start a new character or to import from Mass Effect 2. I took the latter option. Other than some appearance changes, the import went very smoothly. I’m pretty sure this decision will come back to bite me at some point as I know that there are some backstory conflicts in the imported save. This particular character completed ME1 twice (getting that Level 50 achievement is well nigh impossible on a single playthrough), so I know there were a couple of trivial missions where I took the Renegade option on the first run and the Paragon option on the second. At points in ME2, it became painfully obvious that the in such situations the game wants to go with the Renegade one. I doubt that it will hamper gameplay, but might make for some “interesting” story elements.

 

Since I had already played through the Demo a couple of times, I had a good idea of what to expect on the first mission. That didn’t prevent me from shooting through all of my ammo and having to melee, though. I think that “normal” combat difficulty in the real game is a bit tougher than it was in the demo.

 

What I did not expect was the breakneck story pace. My initial intention was to fire it up, run through the first mission, find a convenient save spot and go to bed. “Forty-five minutes,” I thought. “Maybe a little more than an hour.” Hah! Try three hours before the story slowed down enough to let me get to bed. Juan Valdez and the other coffee growers in Columbia are celebrating in style today, I think.

 

This particular character is Sentinel class. Fairly good tech and biotics, but a bit weak in the gunfighting department. In ME2, I got to tote a pistol, submachine gun, and could expend some advanced training to pick up a third weapon. ME3 allows me to use any weapon that I want (woo-hoo), with a catch – weight requirements. Unless I spend some points to beef up my 98-pound weakling frame, I can’t carry much more than two weapons without decreasing the effectiveness of my tech and biotic powers. It’s an interesting way to deal with one of the hybrid classes – let ‘em shoot whatever they want, but make them choose what to carry. Fortunately there are multiple points in each mission where you can change your weapon loadout, so I think it adds a decent balance to what might have otherwise been an overpowered class.

 

One issue, which I wish the EA/Bioware folks would address, though. For some unknown reason, about an hour or two into the game, it lost contact with the EA servers. The game froze up for two or three minutes while it decided what to do about this. About the time that I was ready to give it the three-fingered salute and dump out, it decided to tell me that it had lost contact and that I would not be able to save anything to the cloud. Since I’m not set to save anything to the cloud, that information was about as useless as teats on a boar hog and dumping out would have required completely restarting the mission (remember my looking for a convenient save point?). I care (sort of) that EA/Bioware be able to verify that I have a legitimate copy of the game. It nice (useless, but nice) that I can save games to the cloud so that I can play on other computers without having to start a new game. But to interrupt my game to tell me that I can’t do something that I don’t want to do anyway? That’s just wrong.

 

The graphics don’t seem much different than ME2. Perhaps a bit more curvy and different color palettes, of course, but it still comes across as blocky as ME1 and ME2 (without the elevators, so far). The cover system received a few tweaks (for the better, I think), but it remains to be seen whether some of the clipping issues from ME2 will return. Those who found themselves stuck on top of boxes and crates with no way down except to load a save will know what I mean.

 

The sound is good and the voice-acting is superb. Aside from a few gameplay changes, ME1 and ME2 players will feel right at home. As I said at the outset, this is not a review. So no stars or ratings for any of this. The game feels good, sounds good, looks good and (mostly) plays good, but I haven’t been at it long enough to come to any firm conclusions. If being the galactic savior is your thing, you’ll probably want to check it out at some point.