A lot of things have been said about Mass Effect 3 and most of them haven't been particularly positive. You could say that the critics loved it, the fans hated it and the name Mass Effect 3 is now synonymous with wasted potential for a lot people.
After staying away from the game for nine solid months due to non-gaming related circumstances, I've finally cracked open Mass Effect 3 to see what all the fuss was about. If gaming culture in 2012 is going to be remembered for anything, it's that the world tried to change the ending of Mass Effect 3 by spitting discontent at its creators for not delivering on the promises made throughout the series.
I'll tell you right now, the ending of Mass Effect 3 is the least of its problems.
The discussion about why Mass Effect 3's ending was considered to be a failure by fans has been dragged out over the course of a year and by now I think we all get why the ending turned out like it did; the narrative structure of Mass Effect was a diamond in shape, it spread out to its widest extent in the second game and then contracted to single point because it was beyond even the talents of BioWare to make a bespoke ending for every player's version of the Mass Effect universe in 18 months.
The problem for me while playing Mass Effect 3 was that by the time the infamous ending rolled around I'd stopped caring one way or the other whether my choices were going to impact the final outcome, because in its quest to make the final game in a trilogy palatable to everyone BioWare had broken down my enthusiasm for the Mass Effect universe to an alarming degree.
Essentially, BioWare forgot what Mass Effect does best. Back in 2007 the original game was praised for the high quality of its writing, characters and that dialogue wheel that has since become synonymous with BioWares talent for making character interactions believable. Little to no praise was given however to its shooting mechanics and the action that tied the story together because BioWare was better at building its own fiction than it was at crafting a shooter. This fact hasn't changed over the course of five years, yet with Mass Effect 3 BioWare routinely threw combat at me as if that was the reason I showed up for Mass Effect in the first place.
One of the greatest pleasures of Mass Effect 2 was traipsing about the Normandy talking to people. Missions were merely connective tissue between what Mass Effect was always about: talking to your crew members about themselves and the state of the universe. Mass Effect 2 could make a spectacle out of a casual chat. Jack would be outlined against a dark red background as she described her talent for murder and shadows would play off Garrus craggy features as he waxed lyrical about his time as a vigilante. There was a style and flair to every conversation because BioWare seemed to understand that talking was the heart of what made Mass Effect special.
In Mass Effect 3, I felt starved of conversation. This was partly due to the fact that BioWare populated my ship with characters that could be best described as filler. Though Liara and Kaiden would be standout personalities in any other game, in a Mass Effect game they're lifeless cardboard cut-outs when compared with Mordin or Wrex or Legion. I saved everyone during the Suicide mission in Mass Effect 2 for a reason, yet my diligence was rewarded with cameo roles for some of my favourite characters from the second game such as Thane and Grunt.
However, it was mainly because BioWare thought they could make an more action-oriented game that could appeal to the established fanbase and the complete neophyte. The cover system works like Gears of War, headshots now create a deluge of bloody brain goo and boy oh boy there are some turret sequences. It's not that the action is particularly bad; its that there is an overwhelming amount of it and it never ever evolves beyond the tricks you learn in the first few hours of the game. Unlike Mass Effect 2 which only played the action card in limited bursts, relieved every now and then with some dialogue, Mass Effect 3 is paced like a shooter. Run to this waypoint, kill these guys for a minute then head to the next combat arena to do the same thing. BioWare appear so convinced that what I want to do in an RPG is hide behind chest-high walls shooting people that every single mission devolves into the same crawl through wave after wave of enemies, and then they frequently remind the player that if they want to do more of the same they've made up some reasons for you to shoot bad guys on the multiplayer maps.
Not that any of the rest of the side content is any better. If standing around listening for fetch quests in the Citadel is your thing, youll be delighted by the liberal amount of eavesdropping required for you to go out into the galaxy and pick up random assets that someone wants. You don't come across missions that branch off into their own mini-storylines, you don't complete loyalty missions. Instead you go where the main characters tell you to go, and in the meantime you can scour the galaxy for scrap.
The more I played Mass Effect 3, the more I felt that it was rushed. The care and attention just wasnt there like it was in the game that preceded it, what was once a grand sprawling universe that you could role-play your way through at your leisure had become a narrow single-player campaign with breathing room between missions and a plethora of minor distractions.
But damn it if there aren't still flashes of the BioWare that made Dragon Age Origins and Mass Effect 2 sprinkled throughout Mass Effect 3. There are moments with core characters that are pure fan service, moments where the writers nail exactly what we love about these characters and make them the centre of attention. As a fan, I do love being serviced. These moments were frequent and engaging enough to pull me through the rest of Mass Effect 3, coincidence after contrived coincidence paraded every character out for long enough to deliver a gratifying moment and I wasn't going to complain.
When Mass Effect 3 is on its A-game, the main story missions, especially those relating to the Krogan genophage are some of the best in the series. These universe-defining problems have been alluded to since the beginning of the series and Mass Effect 3 puts you smack bang in the centre of these age-old conflicts and tells you resolve them. When Mass Effect 3 is on its A-game, it's incredible.
But, and I can't stress this enough, there isn't a single high-note in Mass Effect 3 that comes close to surpassing the best moments of the previous two games. Those aforementioned superb character moments are great because of the events of Mass Effect 1 and 2. Mordin sings Gilbert and Sullivan in Mass Effect 3, that's affecting because it happened in Mass Effect 2, and unfortunately it was also done better in Mass Effect 2 as well.
On every objective level, Mass Effect 3 is a very good game. Its production values are sky-high, the gameplay is solid and the writing is still some of the best you can find. But Mass Effect 2 is one the greatest games of this generation and BioWare's back-catalogue is unmatched in its quality. BioWare set the bar high and consistently failed to deliver anything that felt as meaningful as its previous efforts.
By the end of Mass Effect 3 it was hard for me to get angry about the fact that my decisions weren't been taken into consideration as the game began to wrap up, because I'd stopped caring. BioWare had evidently forgotten what had made its previous games so great and shoved it off to the sidelines. My investment in Shepard and her story had been worn down by gunfight after tedious gunfight, by the ¾ mark I honestly considered putting the game down for good.
This wasn't because I was insulted by BioWare's decision to appeal to the so-called "mainstream"; it was because I was bored of it. The ending didnt really register at the time because it was perfectly consistent with the quality of the experience that had preceded it.
Maybe I expected perfection and was instead disappointed by getting competence. Maybe it was unreasonable to think BioWare could again reach the heights of the first two games in the series. Nevertheless, I came away from Mass Effect 3 thinking that Mass Effect has been done better and its final chapter deserved better.