March 26, 2012

Mass Effect 3 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Alien Apocalypse

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The Mass Effect series is, so far, the only body of video game fiction worthy to join the heavies in film, television and literature like Star Wars, Lost and Harry Potter. The rich universe of characters, locations, conflicts, phenomena and funny names created by Canadian developer BioWare not only stirs a rabid fanbase but also mines a vein of franchise dollars on a scale unseen before in role-playing games. All tales must end, and Mass Effect 3 concludes the trilogy just like those aforementioned series: with nostalgic nods to its revered canon, inspiring additions and a handful of questionable decisions.

Despite what EA Games’ marketing team may be preaching, Mass Effect 3 is made for the fans. Who starts with Return of the Jedi, after all? As hero Commander Shepard, you run into basically every key and bit character of the trilogy (well over 50) as you prepare to battle the gargantuan threat of the Reapers, an ancient alien race that wipes the universe of all sentient life every 50,000 years. Since you can import your save file from the second game — which, in turn, could have been imported from the first — the choices you made way back in 2007 decide who is alive to fight by your side.

The word “choice” rules most discussions of Mass Effect. Once again, choices you make shape your character into a good — “paragon” — or bad — “renegade” — character, though saving the galaxy is the common goal at both ends. The variable is more how you get there: Unite the quarreling races or save only those already on your side? (Hint: the latter approach is most unwise.)

Guiding your Shepard’s morality takes place in the abundant cinematic dialogue for which the series is famous. Not much has changed in aesthetic since the first game, but I am once again astonished how over 40,000 lines of dialogue are recorded and attached to convincing, animated characters in proper lip-sync. The voice cast includes such actors as Martin Sheen, Seth Green, Keith David and Yvonne Strahovski. It speaks to the respect BioWare has accrued that these respected talents bring their all to this medium.

BioWare fills the Milky Way with species ranging from beautiful humanoids to sentient Portuguese Man o’ Wars. There are the brilliant, if neurotic, amphibious Salarians and the brutish, reptilian Krogans. Ignore that all these disparate organisms evolved with roughly equal intelligence and have spoken modern English for millennia (shh, ignore it). Shepard has to find a way to band together the warring factions and recruit the isolated ones to unite against the greater threat. In my playthrough, Shepard solved not one but two Israel/Palestine analogous conflicts; one race involved, the Quarians, carry an unmistakable Middle Eastern accent. Earthly ties can be drawn between all events, if on a macro scale. It is a post-human society where contemporary quibbles over evolution — “the cosmic imperative,” a wise, African-inspired race calls it — and homosexuality — pilot Steve Cortez recalls his dead husband with no camp or novel subtext — are relics of the past.

But your time with Mass Effect 3 will not rest solely on futurist political theory and interspecies sociology. At its core, the game is a cover-based shooter à la Gears of War. Action still does not flow as smoothly as said game, and both schools and monasteries possess invincible architecture primed for war. However, there is a broader cornucopia of choice on how each battle is played. Dozens of pistols, shotguns, snipers and machine guns flesh out the arsenal, and new modifications can be purchased to strengthen your stopping power. Biotic and tech powers, including a repackaged Force push, are now easier to complement conventional weapons, leading to varied battlefield encounters encouraging experimentation.

There are only 15 or so hours of required missions, but to see all the content — and achieve the “best” ending — 30 to 40 hours will rake. One central mission culminates with directing airstrikes on and dodging the death rays of a giant Reaper, the design of which resembles Halo’s Covenant ships and H.G. Wells’ alien forces. Another smaller assignment has you defusing a bomb that could decimate a planet, ending with a scene of thrilling cinematography and moving sacrifice. There was only one mission I actively disliked, involving a digital Shepard recovering important files; basically, a virtual reality CCleaner. Regardless, most missions reintroduce familiar faces from past titles and carry enough thrills to induce involuntary gamer vegetation, or bliss, as we prefer it to be called.

Between missions you roam the Normandy SR-2, your sleek vessel capable of faster-than-light speeds, and talk to your squadmates about the mission ahead. The different perspectives of your varied crew lead to enlightening discussions on the toils of war. However, if playing the good guy as I did, it usually boils down to Shepard reassuring those worried that cooperation is the key to victory and, when Shepard laments all those dead, a pal like series steady Garrus reminding that sacrifice is the other key. War is bad, that is for sure. The game even opens with you watching a little boy crash as his ship fails to escape a smoldering Earth. For a triple-A blockbuster title of the sort, there is legitimate contemplation on the price of war, even if the theme’s execution leans more Independence Day than The Battle of Algiers.

Love is still on the plate, of course, and virtual romance is still as incendiary as it has never been. I favor overhearing crewmembers hit on each other and the awkward results that follow, or the exchange of dirty jokes between a meathead soldier and a 50,000-year-old warrior (“Now the joke’s on you, human, hehe”).

To guarantee the “best” ending, assisting different races to find traitors or artifacts boosts their morale and, alas, readiness. Your in-game journal does not register progress on these tasks, so these preparations for war just become what they really are: cumbersome chores. Thankfully the Citadel, an ancient space metropolis, is a triumph of artistic direction, so running across a beautiful plaza to deliver the third missing war bible right after taking down a mile-high Reaper is not that much of a buzzkill.

Playing multiplayer is also necessary to gain access to the “best” (again, the quotes) ending by some inexplicable logic of ratios and “effective military strength” EA threw in. Thankfully, the online co-op is surprisingly fun, structured like the Horde mode from Gears, with waves of enemies to defeat and simple objectives to complete. I cannot picture myself playing it weeks down the line, but it is a worthwhile diversion from the main campaign.

And then it ends. The ending already lives in infamy, with thousands signing protests against it. I find this widespread devotion to story inspiring, signaling how great writing is now expected of great games. The final moments do not take into account the whole arc of your journey and enter some serious Lost territory that will frustrate some, or many. I do not personally loathe it so, for it still successfully wrings emotion, a tough feat in video games, and there is a convincing justification making the Internet rounds (look up: Indoctrination Theory). The real issue is that, after bonding together the entire galaxy to fight the Reapers, there is little proof of collaboration in the final battle. I would have appreciated some help from the bloodthirsty Krogans I befriended after dying for the ninth time battling endless screeching Reapers.

The first Mass Effect received a fair share of ridicule for its loading screens disguised as the slowest elevators in the universe, inching up as you and your squad just awkwardly stood there. There is a not so subtle nod to that ignominy in Mass Effect 3 as you blast off on top of a high-speed elevator to apprehend an assassin. BioWare has brought this series to remarkable heights over five years, aware of its weaknesses and ever eager to improve. While the third may hold its own flaws, it closes the greatest modern video game franchise with style and heart. I finished the game and was struck by that unique depression that also accompanied the finales of Lost and Harry Potter. Now what? I guess I’ll play them all again.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos