I invited a couple of Mass Effect fans to reflect on our initial playthroughs of Mass Effect 3 together in real time, to be posted in a couple three installments. We invite you to come and revel in our luminous insights and trenchant bon mots! Marvel at our many euphemisms for space genitalia! Watch me make feeble stabs at appearing objective in critiquing the game series that has held us by the nerd short hairs* lo these last 5 years!

LAUREN ORTEGA: So far I’ve completed the Mars mission(great look and design) Jack’s little quest(Note: Yes I still really kinda wish I could romance Jack) and right now happen to be on the salarian homeworld where the quest for getting Wrex laid(I’m guessing it involves getting Wrex laid) has begun.
Along the way I’ve enjoyed every single one of the character interactions, from returning characters like Aria(ARIA’S MY PSYCHOPATHIC BLUE HOMEGIRL!) who I’m loyally and delightfully working for, even down to the point where I’ve put out a hit on a nosey Turian C-Sec officer. To my new crew, who might actually be aside from Chakwas the first crew that I actually like. Fuck, I even admittedly enjoy Fridge McLargeHuge’s role on board the ship, though that could be just because he’s actively not Kaiden or Ashley.
I was also far too happy when Ashley got beaten up by robot girl. FUCK YOU DOUBTING ASHLEY!!!
But in general I’m not feeling the overarching story any more than the one from the second game. Maybe it’s just my inability to get into these full-bore Gotterdammerung trilogy cappers, but I don’t think I’ve been interested in the Reapers since the first game, and find some of the attempts of pathos and ‘WE’RE SERIOUS SCIENCE-FICTION!” to be more than a little annoying.
Then again I’d probably have Shepard do nothing more than fight mercenary groups and walk around being a hot(Michelle Rodriguez-lookalike) asshole.
Really though, I won’t fully complain. Probably because the game’s nice enough to give Liara an awesome introduction where she smokes a few motherfuckers and works her way into my heart again.
I love Liara.
AL SCHWARTZ:  I will say that something I appreciate is the obvious effort that went into not retconning discarded gameplay elements out of the in-game universe.  We may not use omni-gel or the Mako or Hammerhead anymore, but bits of throwaway dialogue or codex entries indicate that they are still things that exist.  Or that the Normandy still has a planet scanner and probe launcher even though we aren’t forced to actually scan/probe planets anymore.  It’s not like I would’ve cared if these elements were just ignored completely for more of the gameplay that works, but it just shows how much thought went into every nook and cranny of this universe.


But one thing I’m not loving is the sidequest system.  I like that you have personal email and shadow broker surveillance and SPECTRE communiques that can all leave to different quests, but I don’t like how every 3 steps I take on the Citadel I stumble across someone having a public phone conversation about some resource the war effort desperately needs, all of which I’m able to find without stepping out of my way.  I think that contributes to the galaxy feeling small more than the parade of recurring characters.  For the most part, my former squadmates have either sought me out (Miranda, Thane) or been in important places that make sense for their positions (Jack, Mordin, Wrex).

Also, is it just me or does every human in the game look like they suffered 3rd degree burns to their hands?


TREVOR LA PAY: I didn’t notice the hands, but my Shepard’s skin looks gross in general. It looks like Hutt flesh.

The PC version of the game includes several facial presets not included in the console version.


I’ve been bitching about this on the boards for a week now, but in case anyone missed it: 

In Mass Effect 2, every mission is a story, with a beginning, middle and end; they begin with a mystery, which leads to a reveal, which culminates in a fight and a final denouement. They immerse your character in the unknown. In nearly every quest, including the Collector setpieces, there’s no telling what (or when) you’ll be fighting. Take, for example, the Prison ship mission, where Shepard boards Purgatory with seemingly mundane orders to pick up a prisoner. Five minutes in, the mission context is completely inverted; Shepard is now the prisoner, and must fight her way out of the facility. More importantly, she has two great, implied motivations for fighting her way out of the prison: freedom, and claiming revenge on the warden. Here’s the key: You’re never explicitly told to care about either of these things. You care about these motivations because the story unfolded in a way that made you care about them. We get both surprise and mission-specific motivation, to say nothing of the building tension as Shepard finally reaches her adversary… who is NOT a faceless Power Armor goon, but an actual character. This may not be drama on par with Fitzcarraldo, but it offers genuinely engaging story conflict.

Now let’s take a look at what’s going on in ME3. How many of the off-ship missions offer real story conflict with actual characters? Does Shepard encounter any combat adversaries with proper names besides Kai Leng? (The answer, as it turns out, is “No,” unless you ended the game with three certain squadmates disloyal.) The missions nearly all thrust Shepard into an epic firefight where she’s commanded to protect an asset or find a console. While there’s always the meta-story of “Defeat the Reapers!” to fall back on, the off-ship missions in this game, with rare exception, are all extended firefights against floods of indistinguishable enemies without a story to call their own. They do not offer mystery, surprise, or compelling mission-specific motivation. You’re typically sent off-ship to collect a plot coupon, like “diffuse the bomb” or “collect the artifact,” and these bland plot coupons represent the collective cores of the missions. This is shockingly lazy writing, especially for BioWare.


A:   There are a preponderence of fetch quests, which I find annoying more because of the arbitrary way that they pop up than anything.  But the actual combat-based missions have been fairly extensive and great, imo.  Much more varied level design than ME2, which was a giant step up from ME1‘s cookie-cutter environs itself.  And you know, it’s the little things that help/hurt immersion, which is why I like the touch that you have a unique animation of Shephard jumping out of the shuttle, often directly into enemy fire, at the start of most missions.

As for the lack of twists, that hadn’t really occurred to me, but I can’t argue with it.  ME2 did throw a kink into every recruitment/loyalty mission, while ME3 has been quite linear in comparison.

L: So the weirdest thing is going on with me.
I’ve reached some sort of zen state where I don’t really care about what happens in the galaxy, but still find myself enjoying everything.

So far, no one's had the heart to dig Lauren out of there and explain that her Xbox isn't plugged in. Also it might be a Speak n' Spell

Admittedly the only Mass Effect story that really worked front to back for me was the first game, in which I not only had a villian I could interact with, but a storyline that actually seemed start off strong and end strong.
That’s not to say Mass Effect 2 wasn’t a better game(it was) in everything from character interactions to gameplay. But even then I couldn’t give a shit about the whole “obviously reaper-influenced aliens trying to build giant metal death-baby” plotline whatsoever. And that somehow continues even more to the third game.
Maybe I’m the only person who thinks that self-contained adventures that treats gamers who have a save-file to previous games in the series some cool side-missions or easter eggs was the proper way to go. But Shepard as “THE ONLY HOPE IN THE GALAXY” is a lot more boring than ‘Shepard as space James(Jane) Bond.”
I dunno though. Maybe I’m farting around, but I think this franchise would have been much more deeply served by NOT attempting to provide people with urghhhh a “saga.”
A: The question becomes, how does this entry stack up in character interaction (I think we’re all in agreement that the gameplay is a step up as far as combat is concerned)?  I mean, fair enough if you prefer the smaller scale stories, but it’s been clear from the start where this was heading.  I’m really loving the expanded but still intimate feel of the Normandy. Your choice of squadmates is restricted compared to ME2’s Dirty Dozen, but the integration of the extended crew is organic in a way that effectively counteracts it.
L: I actually like the party member crew members way more than I did in previous Mass Effect games. I love Dr. Cougarfantasies as much as I always have, but I was pretty much immune to the charms of seemingly everybody else.
Kinda love a good deal of the crew this time, and I’ll loudly state my adoration for adorable british Kelly replacement any day of the week.
A:  Despite liking the cast, I can’t say that I’ve come around on the Dirk ManMuscle character as Trevor has; he’s still a beefy non-entity to me, only registering when he’s forcing eye-rolling Spanish slang into a Star Trek setting.  But I love Javik and giving EDI a body was a great move.I think it’s great that people like Mordin and Wrex, while not party members, can join the crew for extended periods.  As much fun as ME2’s sprawling cast was, the ability system was streamlined to the point that it wasn’t even close to necessary to use all of them for their skills.  This system keeps things at a manageable level for the game designers, but still allows for fairly in-depth interaction with characters that may or may not be returning, which is (imo) the real appeal of the series.
L: I think I like Rock Johnson probably for the sole reason that he’s actively not Ashley, Kaiden, or Jacob. He’s not blessed with nearly the personality of say Garrus, but aside from his idiotic look and adorable attempts at Latino machismo(MORE ARROGANCE!) he hasn’t been an unpleasant squad member.
On a further note, I just beat the game today…and it’s…..something…I’ll give it that.
Look I’m hardly a mouthbreather who needs to have Liara, Shepard, and Aria to fly off together with their straight alien buddy Garrus…..but then I realized that this is exactly the ending I want.

Women. It sure was easier before they got to have opinions. Amiright, guys? ...Guys?

A: If the option were available, I would take Cortez on missions with me and leave Rex Gristlethorp to his pull-ups.  I think I have two problems with the character.  One is that the Spanish slang stuff kills immersion for me.  I mean,I know on some level that it’s absurd that 200 years in the future everyone including races with eons of their own history would be speaking American English. But the game is a shooter first and linguistics treatise nowhereth, so I accept that as the way the world is presented.  But every time he mentions cerveza or calls me loco I’m reminded of the inherent ridiculousness of that conceit because, and I am just realizing this as I type it, apparently I believe on some level that it’s more likely that mankind will encounter a race of fanatical space jellyfish than that two centuries from now anyone will still be talking in Spanglish lifted straight from the 1990s.
Although I would totally forgive all of this if they could work in a reference to the idea that no one else else talks like this, and Brock Hardsquat is essentially like Thor in Marvel Comics, and everyone is weirded out by his spouting off in this ridiculously outdated fashion like it’s the most normal thing in the world.


So that’s my strange, maybe just a tad autistic objection to the character, but my primary one is that his cockiness just seems like obliviousness when directed at MOTHERFUCKING COMMANDER GODDAMN SHEPHARD.  I mean, it’s been useful in the past to have crew members like Wrex or Zaeed not be bowled over by Shephard, at least to start.  But Theolonius P. Shephard is legend in this galaxy by now; especially with the arrival of the Reapers proving him to be right about that whole deal.  It’s only slightly less absurd when I caught him bantering with Garrus about who was the bigger badass the other day.  Garrus is on the shortlist for most accomplished soldier in the galaxy; he’s all “I hunted down Saren and saved the Citadel and the Council”, and then Vin Rockbone’s like “this one time I fought like six guys.’  “I was part of the first successful mission through the legendary Omega 4 Relay and wiped out the Collectors.”  “My defining professional moment was getting owned by those guys.  Mas tequila!”

Cocky characters can be fun, but you show Shephard and Garrus some damn respect.

R: Besides Lumps Oakenthighs bringing a flicker of some much needed inter-ship conflict (kinda?), I’m not sure why the game even needed to introduce him this late in the game. Did Mass Effect not have enough characters? Why do you exist, James Vega? Besides to sell comic books, I mean.
A: I honestly don’t know why Butch BeefPec is in this game either.  It’s tradition for Bioware to saddle you with a bland soldier type right off the bat, which normally serves a twofold purpose.  Gameplaywise, it ensures that you don’t hobble yourself in the early going.  For a game like Dragon Age, it’s important to give you a tank right away in case you picked a fragile class.  Mass Effect plays more like a shooter, though, so it’s more about providing you with access to the different kinds of powers right away to discourage you from developing a playing style that ignores say biotics entirely.But storywise, it’s important that the first party members you pick up be relatively easygoing (which is not to say “boring”, but it’s a short trip from the one to the next).  The central appeal of this type of game is the role-playing, the ability to feel like you are imbuing your Shephard with the personality of your choosing.  Early in the game while a new player is still settling in and getting a feel for the morality system, you don’t want to throw the strongest personalities at them.  To use ME2 as an example, if you were to get Jack as the first teammate while you were still establishing what your Shephard is like, your relationship with your stand-in is going to be shaped disproportionately by how you react to aggressively violent Suicide Girls.The need to allow players to ease in to the world and allow them to project themselves onto Shephard requires that the early interactions to be on the low stakes side.  Extreme personalities breed extreme reactions, and if you get saddled with a really opinionated companion right off the bat, it can feel like the game itself is pushing you towards a certain path or punishing you for taking the other, which is the opposite of what Bioware is trying to accomplish.  Letting you interact with characters that aren’t going to push back too hard whatever you do helps to establish a feeling of neutrality in the game’s stance on your actions, which serves to make the player more confident in their more impactful decisions down the line.


All this to say that while I don’t want to excuse boring characters, I understand that there are reasons to make the first characters you pick up be essentially reactive.

ME3, though, has less need for these functions than earlier Bioware titles.  It’s more heavily geared towards players who are importing their established characters from the previous entries than any of their other games, and they’ve balanced the power system enough that you don’t really need a soldier to survive the opening.  It’s like they remembered to give you a bland soldier upfront because that’s what they do, but forgot why they actually do it so they tried to jazz him with a bunch of nerds from Vancouver’s idea of Latin machismo.  The result is a character with just enough personality to annoy me but not enough to actually challenge me on anything significant (so far).

T: I see your point. I like how Planescape: Torment gives you an “alignment-neutral” companion from the start who turns out to be the game’s most interesting figure. It’s as if BioWare is confusing alignment-neutral with bland.
A: I never played Planescape, to my shame as I understand it to be essentially the template for what has become my favorite type of game.I won’t harp on it anymore, because overall its nothing but a mild annoyance.  Overall I’m having a great time with the game, although as it wears on I’m starting to feel the lack of named adversaries you talked about.  It’s something I kind of took for granted in Dragon Age and ME2; for all the Blue Suns I slaughtered in warehouses, they were always led by a named and ranked sub-boss.  ME3’s enemies are mostly anonymous, and while it doesn’t cripple any particular mission it does start to become noticeable in such a long game.  Dragon Age 2 had a similar problem, but at least ME3 has has varied and distinctive level designs, whereas that one…did not.
T: For the record, I enjoy this game more than Dragon Age 2, although the latter has the more satisfying ending.Did we cross a threshold at some point where good games can’t have terrible endings? I submit that most games have awful, unsatisfying endings. My favorite game of 2011 – Dark Souls – has one of the most puzzlingly unsatisfying endings of any game I’ve played. Of course, that game wasn’t a trilogy capper with a long, complicated story behind it. In fact, my list for “Games with good endings” is minuscule. Planescape: Torment, KOTOR, the GTA series? Disappointment with an ending is a natural state for me. I guess that’s why I’m having difficulty getting riled up over this.
Also – my point wasn’t specifically about a lack of named adversaries, although that’s a symptom of the larger problem of ME3 not weaving story successfully into the missions. I think they could have worked story and character into the mission plot even with the constraint of having very little enemy variety, although it’s a lot tougher, for sure.One other key problem that I didn’t touch on in my blog post was that the missions revolve around external things, rather than Shepard or her squadmates. Go flip a switch! Go collect an artifact! Go do… that thing the game wants you to do to further the plot! ME2’s missions always had that immediacy of a mission goal being directly related to a squadmate’s interests. BioWare even had the genius to weave this motivation into the gameplay itself by unlocking character skills after completing loyalty missions.For me, the legacy of ME3 is an even deeper appreciation of ME2.
A: I think you hit on it.  Most games have bad endings because they have weak stories to begin with.  Mass Effect more than anything except perhaps its immediate Bioware siblings has lived on the strength of its story, so it has more riding on the resolution to that story than any game I can think of.

Other than the OBVIOUS exception

Unless the ire among fans is just that the final boss sucks?  No one really cared that ME2’s did, so I assume they are reacting on a story rather than gameplay level.  And I think that, as much as the game might still disappoint me, it speaks incredibly well to what Bioware has accomplished that I’m going to be judging the ending based on how it stacks up against Star Wars more than Metroid.


Up next:  We talk the ending that united all the land in peace and guaranteed prosperity to all our children’s children.

Cue "Age Of Aquarius"

 Part 1