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Role Playing (Games)

Journal RogueyWon's Journal: Mass Effect 3 is badly written (with as few spoilers as possible) 2

As indicated in the title of this post, I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum. That said, avoiding spoilers completely is not going to be possible, particularly for events in the game's first 60-90 minutes - so if you are intending to start playing it soon, you may wish to stop reading in a little while. Don't worry, I'll warn you when you get to the point where spoilers become inevitable.

Before I go any further, a few broader reflections on the game. As a game, ME3 is mostly competent. Its mix of exploration, combat and conversation remains as compelling as ever. The streamlining of planet scanning (which was tedious beyond belief in ME2) is welcome. The return to a greater degree of complexity around weapon upgrades is a step in the right direction. The multiplayer is fun, although the lack of variety in maps and game modes ultimately limits how long its appeal will last.

Combat is more of a mixed bag; it's nicely paced, but it lacks the polish of more dedicated 3rd person shooters; you can tell that Bioware lack experience in action games. Before starting ME3, I'd played through Sega's excellent Binary Domain. ME3's combat is highly reminiscent of Binary Domain's - there are even similar robotic enemies. But at every level, Binary Domain feels slicker; the cover system works better, controls are more intuitive and locational damage is massively more sophisticated.

But anyway - the writing. As stated in the title, having played through ME3, I cannot avoid the conclusion that ME3's writing is poor. But that's a statement that needs a lot more context. There are lots of instances of good writing in ME3 and a few instances of excellent writing. Bioware can "do" dialogue like nobody else in the industry. Bethesda can build beautiful looking worlds, but the moment characters open their mouths, the illusion falls apart. Some Japanese RPGs, particularly the Persona series, manage to have brilliantly constructed storylines, but stilted dialogue remains a constant problem (probably not helped by the fact it all has to be run through translation for the West). Bioware, on the other hand, can write conversations that don't just convince, but positively sparkle.

There are individual scenes in ME3 that make the player feel genuine anger, grief or shock - or make him laugh out loud. There are set-piece scenes - particularly some of the battle scenes around the game's mid-point - that are masterfully executed. There are incidental background conversations that contain more emotional depth than some entire games manage (the old woman at the counter in the Citadel embassies being perhaps the best example). And yet... I still maintain this is a badly written game.

Why? Because the plot does not hang together, does not fit with the rest of the series and comes to perhaps the most underwhelming ending I've seen from any major game. There are plenty of people out there dissecting the many plot-holes in ME3. Rather than doing that, I'm going to focus on three big flaws in the plot that really stood out to me and dissect them.

Stop reading now if you object to spoilers (though I'll keep them to a minimum).

1) We need to reconfigure the sensor dish

The Reapers were introduced properly as the original Mass Effect game moved towards its final arc. The first game's finale established the extent of the threat they posed, as a single Reaper inflicted massive damage on the Citadel fleets (and, if the player chose the Paragon ending, on humanity's fleets).

The question of how the Reapers could be defeated has hung over the series ever since their introduction. Tantalising hints have been dangled. Could fragments of Reaper technology be incorporated into human, Turian, Asari and Salarian weapons, putting the galaxy's civilised races onto an even footing with the Reapers? Were there secrets locked away in the Collector base from ME2 that would provide the tools needed? Did the secret to defeating them lie with the dangerous "fringe" species that Shepard had dealt with - the Geth, the Krogan or the Rachni?

As it happens... no. Instead, within its first hour, ME3 reveals that the secret is - a giant Prothean weapon that hasn't had the slightest mention in either of the first two games. All the player needs to do is find the resources needed to build it and the fleets to protect it - which is the focus of the rest of the game.

Well that's just great.

Remember Star Trek? I'm thinking here particularly of The Next Generation. Some weeks, there would be a clever resolution to the plots. Other weeks, you could tell the writers were just dialing it in, because after whatever perfunctory character scenes were required, they'd just spout some techno-babble and reconfigure the Enterprise's sensor dish to do something that would magically make whatever the problem-of-the-week was go away.

ME3 is one of those sensor dish episodes.

2) Did we go a bit too far with the whole moral ambiguity thing?

ME2 does moral ambiguity in spades, whether the player likes it or not. There's no option to be squeaky clean in ME2. You're working for Cerberus - an extremist right-wing organisation which preaches human-supremacy and is happy to engage in all kinds of dodgy activities around eugenics and slavery. In ME1, Cerberus had been outright bad guys (albeit ones who didn't get much development).

In ME2, the player has some scope to determine his relationship to Cerberus. He can choose whether to keep his distance so far as possible, or to be a more active participant in their agenda. At the end of the game, he makes a decision which has potentially massively ramifications, in which the most relevant factor is "do you trust Cerberus?"

In fairness, the organisation gets a lot of development along the way. Some of the more unpleasant actions seen in ME1 are ascribed to rogue factions (which the player comes into conflict with in the course of ME2). Broadly speaking, the impression the player takes of Cerberus in ME2 is that it holds some extremist views and believes that the end justifies the means - but also that it is passionate about ensuring the survival of humanity and that it is the only credible force in the galaxy willing to prepare for the arrival of the Reapers. On this basis, at the end of ME2, I decided that I did indeed trust Cerberus enough to hand over the Collector base to them.

And then, within the first hour of ME3, all of the development that was done in ME2 is thrown away. Cerberus are pure evil again and whatever decisions the player made in ME2, he is in conflict with them again. Flipping Cerberus from "pure evil" to "grey area" between ME1 and ME2 was a bold move. I was initially unconvinced. But by the time I was a third of the way through ME2, Bioware had me on side. But then flipping back to "pure evil"? With no credible explanation along the way? No option to side with Cerberus anyway? My suspension of disbelief was shattered.

Why did this happen? If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that Bioware lost their nerve. Plenty of games allow the player to join morally ambiguous - or even outright evil - factions. Command & Conquer was a potent early example, with its Brotherhood of Nod - part religious cult, part terrorist network. Deus Ex offered the player a choice of factional alliances which all included some dubious ethical choices. Syndicate put the player in the role of a ruthless corporate killing machine. Grand Theft Auto's protagonists may (on occasion) have their heart in the right place, but they have an odd way of expressing it. And the Manhunt games? The less said the better.

However, with the exception of a few dry historical sims, the far-right has remained a taboo. And there's little doubt that Cerberus was modelled on modern far-right nationalist movements - albeit a far better resourced, equipped and educated version of them (there are precious few shaved heads and tattoos on show in Cerberus). ME2 dabbled in the area - but I think Bioware just didn't quite have the courage to go through with leaving Cerberus-alignment open as an option in ME3, as the series moved to its conclusion.

It's partly understandable. We know how the media like to whip up a frenzy whenever video games try something even vaguely daring. Remember the furore over the (extremely tame) same-sex romance scenes in ME1? I felt at the time that Bioware were lucky to get away without wider attention for the semi-sympathetic portrayal of a a far-right group in ME2.

But that just poses the question - if Bioware didn't dare to see this plot strand through to its conclusion, why did they even go there? Why open that door in the earlier games, only to slam it shut in ME3? There were plenty of other ways that Cerberus could have been portrayed. They could have been an anarchist group rebelling against the "authoritarian" Citadel government. They could have been a religious movement. They could have been a network promoting shadowy corporate interests. None of those would have had the same potential for controversy. They might have given ME2 slightly less of a frisson of genuinely uncomfortable moral uncertainty, but they wouldn't have necessitated the horrible damage to suspension of disbelief that results from the plot-whiplash at the start of ME3.

3) Worst. Ending. Ever.

Bioware have taken, over the last few days, to describing ME3's ending as "controversial". A more appropriate word would be "crap". A more detailed explanation would be "really, really crap".

I won't go into detail about what the ending is. I will just say that despite the potential for some minor varation (and a "bad end"), there is, in essence, just one ending. Singular. If you are expecting said ending to grant even the slightest degree of closure, then you will be disappointed.

The ending is very "undergraduate". It's something you'd expect to see in an essay in a freshman creative writing class at a middle-of-the-road university. In those circumstances, it would get a C plus - maybe a B minus. It thinks it is a lot cleverer than it is; like the writer has just discovered Clarke and Asimov and is convinced that he can lift a few of their ideas with nobody noticing, oblivious to the fact that god knows how many others have already done this over the years. Gabe at Penny Arcade has posted a spirited defence of it. I like Penny Arcade a lot - but I note that Gabe is the guy who doesn't do the writing and whose posts occasionally tend (and god, I'm being so harsh here that it is almost painful to write this - I really am a big Penny Arcade fan) to reveal a fairly deep rooted sense of intellectual inferiority.

Let me put it this way - if you are the kind of person who reads or watches something you don't really like, but spend a lot of time worrying that you're missing something and everybody is about to start laughing at you - then you will probably feel compelled to defend the ME3 ending. Just so that you can make it clear that you didn't miss the point - that you got it. That you're smart.

The rest of us recognise crap writing and a cop-out ending when we see one. This isn't intellectual - it's fake, faux, phoney (pick your preferred term).

The problem is that one of the biggest assets of the earlier ME games was the sense of potential they carried. They gave the impression of telling part of a story which was hurtling towards some colossal, epic climax. But it's not. We know now that it ends in a huge great tide of bathos. When ME3 was about to be released, my plan was to play it through, using a Shepard I'd imported from my ME1 and ME2 playthroughs from some time ago - then go back to the start and begin again with an entirely fresh character, running through all three games back-to-back. I won't be doing that now. The earlier games are tainted by the failures of ME3's ending. I know that whatever choices my character might make along the way, we'll still end up with a near-identical ending.

It's not as if Bioware don't know how to end games. ME1 and ME2 took a slightly different approach to ending choices, but both of them were perfectly respectable. All ME3 needed to do was give a few (3 or so) diverging endings and then show some of the consequences of them. Bioware couldn't even deliver that.

In conclusion

Mass Effect 3 is not an outright bad game. If I were to sit down and review it, I'd probably come out with a score of 6 or 7 out of 10. There are a few moments of genuine brilliance in there. But as a conclusion to what had been an epic space opera, it is a failure.

There's a campaign to get Bioware to change the ending. I don't see the point. I've finished Mass Effect 3. It has the ending that Bioware chose to gave it. That's the ending now, for better or worse. At some point in the development process, some person or people at Bioware looked at the options for endings, pointed at the one they went with and said "we want that one". I see no reason to believe why forcing them to revisit that decision would make things any better.

When Neon Genesis Evangelion went out with its infamous episodes 25 and 26, there was a huge campaign for a "proper ending". In the case of NGE, the TV series's ending was driven by budgetary concerns (they'd run out of money) and mental health issues on the part of the director - neither of which considerations applied to Bioware. Regardless, Hideaki Anno's response to this campaign was End of Evangelion - perhaps the most epic example of fanbase-trolling in the history of fiction. While sumptuously animated, it presented an ending which was even more confusing and contradictory than the original. I've no idea how the currently running movie series will end - but if I were a betting man, I would lay money Hideaki Anno spending a lot of time thinking how he can come up with an even more nonsensical ending for the fourth and final movie.

So let's accept that ME3 has the ending it does. We don't have the right to demand that the artist changes his work. But we do have the right to consider how we spend our money in the future.

Bioware games have always been guaranteed day-one purchases for me - ever since Baldur's Gate 2. When Jade Empire was released, I had just moved to London, just started a new job and was living on a shoestring budget. In the two weeks before Jade Empire hit the shelves, I lived on supermarket discount-brand pot noodle clones. I got stomach cramps and strange blotches on my skin - but by launch day, I'd put aside the money I needed to buy it and I loved the game. Bioware never disappointed.

That changed last year, with Dragon Age 2; the first turkey to have come out of the company. But every company stumbles from time to time and one underwhelming game does not make a pattern. Unfortunately, following ME3, my trust in Bioware is more seriously dented. Moreover, the ecstatic critical reception the game has receiced (which is far out of alignment with the fan reception) has made me even more cynical about "proper" reviews. For Bioware's next title, I'll be waiting for both reviews and community reaction before I make a purchase - even though I'm pretty much rolling in disposable income these days.
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Mass Effect 3 is badly written (with as few spoilers as possible)

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  • if Bioware didn't dare to see this plot strand through to its conclusion, why did they even go there? Why open that door in the earlier games, only to slam it shut in ME3?

    Because when the first Mass Effect games came out, there was not so much at stake and game developers were not nearly as paranoid of being seen as anything but vanilla mainstream.

    I don't know the exact numbers, but I'm betting the original ME cost a lot less to make than ME3. And maybe at some point, Bioware realized that ME3 wasn't goin

Love may laugh at locksmiths, but he has a profound respect for money bags. -- Sidney Paternoster, "The Folly of the Wise"