Mass Effect 3 launched last week and I've been stealing an hour here, an hour there, to play through what is easily one of my most favorite game franchises ever. But last night, when I finished my first playthrough, I was left feeling a bit upset. But more on that in a bit. Since this is a BioWare game, we have to talk story first.
The story of this game is a culmination of the previous two installments. The Reapers, gigantic living machines, have invaded Earth. They're slaughtering everyone. As Commander Shepard, the player must rally the forces of the galaxy to his or her side to fight off the Reapers and save Earth. But things are not going to be easy. For example, there is the on-going tension between the krogan, the turians, and the salarians due to the "sterility plague" that the latter two inflicted on the former. The quarians have chosen this time to go to war with the geth. Shepard has a political and diplomatic minefield to negotiate if s/he wants to bring the full force of the galaxy against the Reaper threat.
But more problematic is the involvement of Cerberus, the rabidly pro-human organization that Shepard worked for/with in Mass Effect 2. They keep interfering in the situation because their leader, the Illusive Man, has his own plans for the Reapers.
Can Commander Shepard drive off the Reapers? And if s/he can, what's the price that will have to be paid and by whom?
In terms of gameplay, this was a lot of fun. BioWare found a happy medium between the sheer depth and breadth of weapon and armor choices that they loaded into the first game and the minimalist design they used in the second. It seemed as though I was constantly finding new guns, most of which I wished I could try but never got the opportunity. I also liked the way they allowed players to design their own weapons loadout. It allowed me to tailor Shepard to my playstyle and gave me a lot of options. I'm already looking forward to going back just so I can try out those weapons.
As usual, the vocal talent was simply amazing. I have no idea how BioWare lands such big names for their casts, but once again, they did a great job. The graphics, too, were stellar.
An odd inclusion (at least, I thought it was odd at first) was the multiplayer co-op mode. I didn't think I'd like that, but I'm a believer now. I've been playing many matches with my engineer (who I've nicknamed "Scotty"). I kind of like the way that this feeds into the single player experience, but I'm not the biggest fan of being forced to do something like that if I don't want to.
So that leaves us the story. In many ways, I really liked the story up until the ending. A lot of threads that had been woven into the previous two games were resolved and I really appreciated the way that they handled those stories. In particular, I loved the return to Tuchanka to deal with the genophage and I really liked the way that they included a resolution to the quarian/geth conflict. Both of those had a lot of emotional heft in the previous installments. Again, while I chose the "paragon" route for those plots this time around, I am curious to go back in and take the "renegade" route and see how things can go off the rails.
But then there's the ending. There are a lot of fans who are extremely upset with BioWare because of the ending and, quite frankly, I can understand why. I'm upset by it too. I don't want to get into spoilers here, so I'll try to speak in overall generalities.
For starters, I didn't like the lack of resolution for some of the larger storylines. Shepard resolves the Reaper conflict, but we're not told what the aftermath is for the larger galaxy. Do the alliances that you forged last? What happened in the aftermath to your teammates? I would have been satisfied with a "Where Are They Now?" montage at the end of the game. BioWare has done something like that in previous games, most notably Dragon Age: Origins. Given that we've invested so much time in these characters and races, it'd be nice to know, for example, what happened to the krogan or the rachni or the quarians. What happened to Liara T'Soni or Garrus?
Second, and this is what really rankles, is the fact that instead of providing us with multiple endings, BioWare essentially gave players one. I did a little digging last night and found out that your choices, which were so central to the gameplay, ultimately don't matter. You basically get the same ending; they just change minor details within the ending (such as the color of the final explosion; really!?!). I seem to recall reading in prerelease interviews that the design team were promising players radically different endings. They didn't deliver. If I choose option A, the ending should be very different from the ending that arises from option B, and so on. BioWare touted this game series as one where your choices matter. With this ending, their message is basically, "LOL! Not really."
So does this mean that I won't be coming back to this game? Not at all. While the ending is farcical and a mess, the overall game is good. And I have a lot of saved characters to import into the final installment. I want to see how their stories wind up too. I just wish their endings could be different.