I've been thinking about writing something like this ever since I finished my first play through of Mass Effect 3. There's been a number of opinions floating around about the ending, with some people going so far as to start a fundraiser for Child's Play to draw awareness to the "issue". I use quotes because the majority of the critics out there including Dan Stapleton - EIC of Gamespy, and a number of the PCGamer editorial staff (PC Gamer Podcast US#309) strongly believe in the developer's right to end their stories in a way they see fit.
However a few others such as Ross Lincoln from Gamefront agree with what is largely a "grass-roots" gaming movement. What do I think? Well it's somewhere between the two.
The thing is you can't really discuss the ending in a vacuum. That completely invalidates the entire experience you took to get to that point. So let's start with combat.
Combat is easily the best yet in the series. All classes are viable and even have more than one "build" that can be used, with one typically favouring melee combat and one favouring ranged and/or powers. Speaking of melee combat it has been significantly improved with a new "Heavy Melee" attack. This attack uses Shepard's Omni Tool to generate a special attack that depends on class. A Soldier for instance uses a simple but effective blade, while an Engineer uses a blade infused with blazing heat.
Enemy AI has also drastically improved. Melee fodder units such as Husks will charge your lines while basic infantry units like Cannibals lob grenades to force you out of cover. Each faction also functions differently. Cerberus prefers a slow methodical advance behind smoke grenades and Guardians. Reapers will continually throw melee units at your front line to attempt to break it. Geth are a mix between the two, but largely preferring to engage from range with Rocket Troopers and Primes.
As always the 5 main types of weapons remain, but this time there are far more choices for each one. Not only that, but there are 5 different types of mods for each weapon. Of those mods you can pick two to put in your weapon at any given time. Armor customization is probably the best it has ever been with different pieces you can mix and match your own set from, or you can use a complete set of armor that is meant to work together. On top of that you can pick colours and patterns to individualize your Shepard even further, at least beyond the normal face customization.
Bioware listened to the criticisms of past games when it came to the combat, and it shows in just how much it has improved in the final installment.
Unsurprisingly Mass Effect 3 also "turns it up to 11" with regards to interactions with different characters. The quality of the voice over work is probably the best I've seen yet in any game. In particular Jennifer Hale (FemShep), Ali Hillis (Liara), Brandon Keener (Garrus), Tricia Helfer (EDI), Martin Sheen (Illusive Man), Seth Green (Joker), Mark Meer (ManShep and especially Mordin Solus), Courtenay Taylor (Jack), and Ash Sroka (Tali) all hit it out of the park (to say the least). Obviously it doesn't stop there, the direction and rest of the voice cast also performed extremely well. Even Jessica Chobot (Diana Allers) who admittedly raised some eyebrows initially, also performed her role as an Alliance News reporter very well.
Something that was relatively new to Mass Effect, and even Bioware, are ambient conversations that take place around the Normandy. These add the kind of banter we've come to expect from Bioware games, without necessarily forcing them to happen "in party" so-to-speak.
Almost every character that you have run into by the time you are playing ME3 will show up in one fashion or another. Some you will actually interact with in the game, while others show up in news messages you read on the Normandy. This sense of being a part of the universe itself is why Mass Effect is so amazing.
Bioware has even taken it a step further this time with its new "ME3Datapad" iOS application. This free app extends the experience to your Apple device, allowing characters in the game to send you what amounts to "tweets". Not only that, but these messages are directly related to the events that happen within the game you are currently playing. For people (like myself) that value this sort of interaction with the universe it's a truly amazing idea, and extremely well executed.
When it comes to the romances (which are really just character interactions that attempt a deeper emotional bond with the player), some are good, and others are not as great. Of the three games I have done so far both Garrus and Liara are extremely well written. Both take into account the events of Mass Effect 2, and both continue to act according to how those events played out. Ashley however ... not quite as good. She seems to have a giant goddamn chip on her shoulder for some reason, even though judging by the letter she sends in ME2 she got over it. Apparently not though as she continues to be aloof and well...quite bitchy for the majority of ME3.
I've heard that both Kaidan and Tali are exceptional, but I have not had the chance to play that road yet myself. I plan to at some point though.
All in all however, ME3 does stand head and shoulders above the rest in this regard.
Evolution of Storytelling
I'm not going to sugar-coat this. ME3 is dark. Really dark. Characters will die. Very early on it's possible to have Mordin Solus (the Salarian scientist from ME2) sacrifice himself for the greater good. From what I've been able to find out, this only happens if certain conditions exist - otherwise it's possible to dissuade him. The very first time I watched helplessly as Mordin completes his work (much like Spock dying in Star Trek 2) it hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt bad. I felt like I had lost a friend.
This theme continues throughout the game. Depending on your choices it's possible for other people to lose their lives as well, and you're helpless except to watch the consequences of your actions and wonder what you did wrong. I haven't been drawn into this sort of emotional response since ... well I don't really remember to be honest. I had never felt this sense of loss before - likely because I've never taken part in a series of interactive media that can span over 100 hours of actual playing.
It's not just the scenes either. The music is instrumental in drawing out these sorts of emotional reactions from the players. The musical score for Mass Effect 3 is easily the best in the series.
All of these elements combine to create a storytelling experience that frankly, has not yet been attempted. And Kudos to Bioware for doing an amazing job.
And It All Comes Crashing Down
Which leads us to the ending. All stories must eventually come to an end. Luke Skywalker defeated the Emperor and the Rebels destroyed the Death Star. Frodo destroyed the One Ring, defeating Sauron. Later he and his friends would return to the Shire to save it from its own corruption, before finally heading west over the Ocean. You'll notice that the two examples I used are from arguably the two most popular and beloved trilogies in popular culture, with Mass Effect set to become the third. The problem is, Mass Effect doesn't really end.
Many people are divided into two possible camps regarding the ending. It either did, or did not, actually happen. Personally I'm of the opinion that it was in fact an intentional attempt to mess with player's heads. The amount of evidence pointing to this as the desire is absolutely astounding. Mike B does a great job of laying it all out there for you to absorb. I encourage you to go watch that video, and I believe it will convince you. If that doesn't, then remember that the "actual" ending to Mass Effect 2 was the Arrival DLC, not the ending of the original game. This wouldn't be the first time.
The thing is, the only alternative to the "indoctrination theory" is that Bioware somehow intentionally created an ending that is so full of holes that you would be forgiven if you thought someone tossed a frag grenade at it. Past experience has shown me that great developers (like Bioware) adhere strongly to their canon, and don't intentionally suddenly decide it's all meaningless. I refuse to believe that actually happened.
Do I believe it was wrong to give us and ending that wasn't actually an ending? Yes. As Ross Lincoln states in the article above "That kind of terseness, in addition to just feeling cheap, also manages the particularly nasty trick of completely robbing players of closure." This is exactly how I felt after completing my first game. I was so confused by the ending that I literally just sat at my computer for almost an entire half-hour, at 3:30am. I wanted to know what happened to my Liara. How did she make it out alive? Why was Joker in a relay jump? How could I have been responsible for stranding her on some random alien planet?
I felt terrible. I wanted to cry. I actually felt so bad that I had to go back and re-do the ending just make a choice that Liara would've approved of.
And the same damn thing happened. At least this time a piece of me would always be with her though.
I don't particularly agree with the rest of his article, but the closure part definitely hit home with me. Apparently it also did with Casey Hudson as well. A post went up on the Bioware community site from Casey last night. In it he mentions "we also recognize that some of our most passionate fans needed more closure, more answers, and more time to say goodbye to their stories—and these comments are equally valid. Player feedback such as this has always been an essential ingredient in the development of the series." Some are quick to point out that this doesn't necessarily mean anything. I disagree.
Later on in the article Casey also mentions "An outpouring of love for Garrus and Tali led to their inclusion as love interests in Mass Effect 2. A request for deeper RPG systems led to key design changes in Mass Effect 3. Your feedback has always mattered. Mass Effect is a collaboration between developers and players, and we continue to listen." I choose to be optimistic.
I choose to believe that I will finally get closure.