Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Defending Mass Effect 3 (and 2)

I need to begin this blog post with a few disclaimers.  First, this is a post about the video game series of Mass Effect.  Basically what I’m saying is that for those of you who aren’t gamers or don’t specifically play Mass Effect, you’re more than welcome to disregard this post.  Second, for those of you who do play Mass Effect and haven’t finished the trilogy, this is going to contain unadulterated spoilers, on all three games.  If you don’t want to learn anything new that you don’t want to, I’d stop reading now.  Lastly, I promise not to do more posts about video games, but I am compelled to do this one because of a public outcry against one of the greatest games of all time, Mass Effect 3, which is part of the greatest video game trilogy of all time.  I have to defend the defenseless.  Ok, that’s all, on to the nerd-fest.

Mass Effect 3 (ME3) was released earlier this month carrying gargantuan expectations in the video game landscape.  It was an easy early entry for game of the year and arguably in the running for greatest game of all time even before its release.  As fans plowed through ME3 feverishly, the trilogy’s finale forced people to make gut-wrenching choices, tied up loose ends, and put into motion events that would definitively end the series.  As per usual though, there were the detractors.  Those that decried how the Reaper crisis was resolved.  Usually, it wouldn’t bother me that people bash something I thoroughly enjoy.  However, the masses that have gathered are taking this to new heights.  They’ve asked the game’s developers, Bioware, to rewrite the ending, creating a group (Retake Mass Effect) while spreading a petition in the hopes that Bioware will cave. 

I’ve been reading the growing amount of complaints (which has also spread to Mass Effect 2) on internet message boards and articles while feeling a desire to write a defense, but never sensing a true burn to do so, until I read this article, depicting the extreme measures some protestors are going to.  Now I feel like I have to take a stand, in which I’ll be going through the most prominent points of malcontent, and making a defense, hopefully enlightening those with pessimistic views and quelling their words of dissent.

·         First, I’ve been seeing a lot of the rating game, meaning, people doing this on message boards, “ME1>ME3>ME2 (or some variant of that).  Or else saying something like “I like the gameplay of ME2 but the story of ME1 was way better.”  I actually have no issue with rating each game against each other.  I myself have been torn between whether ME2 or ME3 is better (sorry ME1 fans).  The problem is that not a ton of care is taken by the people spewing these ratings, which leads to fruitless name calling.  For example, someone who rates ME3 highly will not articulate his/her point clearly enough, which inevitably leads to someone responding with “you’re a moron if you think this about that game or such-and-such.”  People, you’re misconstruing statements.  I personally happen to think that ME2 and ME3 are at a near tie for the best in the series (still working it out) and that ME1 trails both of them by a fairly decent margin.  However, THIS DOESN’T’ MEAN I THINK ME1 IS A CRAPPY GAME!  On the contrary, ME1 is a fantastic game that’s probably better than 98% of anything I’ve played.  I don’t hate ME1 at all, it was just improved upon greatly by its successors.  I become weary reading Mass Effect forums because they often turn into pissing contests over who can deliver the best slam on someone who posted something he/she didn’t like.  I want to read a good, thought-provoking message tree, not an elementary name calling contest.

·         The ending of ME3.  This is easily the most frequent and largest complaint about ME3, and when I beat the game the first time, I was initially right there with them.  After some reflection though (as well as reading about exactly what the endings mean on the internet), I decided that the ending was fair.  No, it wasn’t the greatest ending ever, and yes, there are things I would have done differently, but I certainly don’t feel cheated by Bioware.  For those that complain about lack of closure, I disagree with you.  It’s more of a lack of detail.  I’m still not sure where the final landing spot of the Normandy is, and I don’t know which one of your squad members survive. (you would think the two with you on the Citadel Beam charge die, but I’ve seen them alive in the end sequence, so I presume everyone lives).  On the other hand, a lot of what happens in the end is quite final, and there really isn’t that much in question about what happens.  To me, it just seems like a lot of people wanted a very specific type of ending and they weren’t rewarded with it, so now they’re bitching about it.  I actually sort of credit Bioware here.  I believe that they created a product that was able to so deeply ensnare fans, that when the ending didn’t go exactly the way they wanted, they went nuclear.  If the games were just average, I doubt most people would care about how it ended, but since Bioware created three phenomenal games, anything short of anyone’s expectations was a shock to the system. 

·         Bioware went too far away from an RPG and created a cover-based shooter instead.  This may be the complaint I take the biggest issue with.  Fans speak of ME1 like it was some holy grail of RPG-ness.  It wasn’t.  The Mass Effect series is an action RPG series, and always has been.  Diehards talk about ME1 like it was some sort of free roam sandbox RPG and it just wasn’t.  The missions centered around combat gameplay (gameplay which is by all means very good, but is downright sloppy when compared with ME2 or ME3).  ME1 wasn’t anything like a true RPG (think Final Fantasy VII).  Yes, there are portions where you can drive around in the Mako on a fairly undeveloped planet and maybe find a base that has one of 4 generic layouts, but that’s it.  As far as weapon customization, yes, you can upgrade your weapons, but the process was way to repetitive and tedious.  What made ME2 so beautiful was that they A.) made side quests take place in much more diverse and unique areas instead of the 4 generic bases and B.) streamlined the tedious crap that filled ME1.  I can’t tell you how frustrated I was in ME1 trying to navigate that damn Mako up some ridiculous mountain range to find an artifact or base which I hoped might be useful.  Or how about having to dump 25 items out of my inventory after each mission halfway through the game because I picked up so many meaningless (by that point) upgrades.  I would totally agree with protestors on this point if it made sense, but honestly, When Bioware streamlined ME2, they did it by taking out parts of ME1 that simply just weren’t fun.

·         Hipster talk about ME1.  This one really bothers me because it labels people who either A.) like ME2 and ME3 better than ME1 or B.) have only played ME2 and ME3 (ME1 was never released on PS3) as morons who don’t “get” the series, have artistic expression, or understand what a story is supposed to be.   For some reason, there is a sect of Mass Effect fans that believe it’s “cool” to think ME1 is the king of the series.  They don’t really have a solid reason, other than that it’s the original.  Two quotes I read on a forum help explain this.  “If you like ME2 or ME3 better than ME1, then you own a PS3 and have never played ME1.”  And, “I’m a writer and the story in ME2 and ME3 just showed how lazy the writing became after the first game.”  These arguments are right up there with someone thinking it’s cool to post “first” in the comments section of an online article.  They’re standout statements that have no support facts or opinions backing them.  I’ve played all 3 games and I happen to think ME1 is the least of the 3, but I do not own a PS3, I just simply see the improvements that were made along the way.

·         The story of ME1 was the best by far.  A lot, and I mean a lot, of people say this, but no one really ever explains why.  I actually think by default ME1 has the worst story of the 3.  And again, when I say worst, it doesn’t mean I don’t like it, ME1’s story is one that is better than a lot of top movies, but to be honest, it’s a lesser version of ME3.  ME2 veers ever so slightly in a different direction, but I thought its story was excellent and incredibly personal.  I’ll put it this way, in ME1, I wanted to beat the game and beat the Reaper, but ME2 was the first Mass Effect game where I really developed an intense hatred for the villain (come on, the Collectors were specifically targeting humans to make into a human Reaper.  Did anyone seriously not feel intense revulsion at the sight of that human Reaper?  Honestly?).  ME3’s story was so incredibly vast and detailed that it’s hard to throw that one under the bus either (and yes, a perfect ending would have hands down made it the best in the series).  My point is, and this ties in to Hipster ME1 talk, that the hardcore advocates of ME1 who think the series was destroyed by ME2 know that the gameplay of ME1 is inferior, so they have to go out and say “well, the story was the best,” and for some reason no one questions them on it.  I wish more people would call them out on this.  The story of ME1 is not the hands down the best, and it really should be debated which game does tell the greatest tale.

·         No Showdown with Harbinger -  This has been a lesser complaint, but bears special significance to me because for awhile, I also felt cheated that there wasn’t any type of personal showdown between Shepard and the Reaper leader Harbinger.  However, upon further reflection, I decided that a one on one showdown between Shepard and Harbinger would not make sense.  Throughout ME3, a point is made that the Reapers are not using their complete force to destroy all organic life.  They are holding back, trying to harvest instead of destroy.  If the Reapers would have wanted to, they could have obliterated the galaxy within days.  This is illustrated when Harbinger makes a brief appearance during the charge of the Citadel Beam.  He absolutely decimates all Allied forces by himself.  If Shepard faced Harbinger, realistically Harbinger would destroy him instantly.  A faceoff between the two of them logistically just wouldn’t have worked.  By the way, again, this is why ME2 is so good.  It offers a type of showdown between Harbinger and Shepard.  Yes, Harbinger is controlling the Collectors, but it still allows some bad blood to boil between them.

·         First Day Downloadable content – One of the weaker complaints.  In no way does first day DLC hinder ME3.  Some argue that the DLC is essential to the main story of ME3.  Having played through ME 3 with and without the DLC, I can honestly say that the Prothean DLC is not in any way critical to the main story.  I viewed the DLC as more of a gift from Bioware to those who did not choose to purchase the collector’s edition of ME3.

In retrospect, there isn’t enough wrong with ME3 or its ending to warrant the type of mass complaint that is currently circulating the internet.  Those that say the ending is lazy, incomprehensible, or a disservice to gamers are simply trying to be too hip and cool, or they had their feelings hurt that the big finish didn’t quite play out the way they had hoped.  Their only purpose seems to be to upstage other gamers with their faux creativeness.  ME3 rightly deserves to be in the discussion of the greatest games of all time.  Its ending does not tarnish it in any way, especially if you take it into account with the entire series.  Yes, all does not end peachy and well, but would anything else be fitting?   Should there be a perfect ending with everyone alive and in bliss?  No, it should not.  Like everything else in the Mass Effect series, the game and the ending is complex and thought provoking.  No one should expect anything less.

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