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SummaryBioWare stands still
The GoodFor better and for worse, Mass Effect 3 is very similar to the two previous games in the series, particularly the second one. Once again, we are talking about a hybrid between third-person shooter and role-playing rather than a true "old school" RPG. And once again, the game's charismatic nature and intensely cinematic presentation provide a brief, but tight, impressive, and exciting ride.
Like its predecessors, Mass Effect 3 is all about a story told in a spectacularly movie-like fashion. Where games like Metal Gear Solid mostly failed, Mass Effect series succeeds in seamlessly weaving together considerable amounts of action and dramatic, fast-paced narrative. While far from being a fully satisfying experience for a starving RPG fan, this game can pride itself on never getting dull.
I recently played Skyrim, and it was interesting to compare these two games, both considered RPG blockbusters, and both so dissimilar to each other. Skyrim is much bigger and deeper, and I think it is on the right side of the rift that divides modern RPGs. But that game rarely made me think, and rarely touched me. Mass Effect 3, on the other hand, was involving and thought-provoking like a good movie. I found myself discussing the plot with my wife and asking her what she would do in some situation. Of course I'd prefer to have the playability of Skyrim and the storytelling of Mass Effect in one game, but others may disagree with me and say that it is precisely the lean, streamlined shape that makes the plot of Mass Effect games good.
Yes, the overall story is somewhat of a giant sci-fi cliche with ideas from here and there thrown in together; but the detailed depiction of the universe the game is set in and the strong writing elevate it above countless comparable attempts. Sure, the quasi-philosophical angle of this story can hardly be called original, but the issues it touches upon remain fresh, convincing, and easy to relate to.
Two major episodes come into mind: the Krogan genophage problem and the Quarian-Geth conflict. Both raised some interesting moral issues, with choices that were anything but black and white and forced me to think hard before I dared to make a decision. In particular, the Krogan scenario was a deep, emotionally charged sub-plot, touching yet sparsely told, without any unnecessary melodrama. The female Krogan "Eve" is one of the most memorable characters I've seen in a video game, even though she plays a relatively minor role.
The story is decidedly more exciting than in the second game. A lot of things actually happen here; while companion interaction and sub-quests are less interesting (you mostly deal with the same characters, and they don't develop much), the plot is much more dramatic and well-paced. You never feel you are forced to go through some filler material until real events begin to occur. That said, there is still a fair amount of sub-quests, and if you take time to check your e-mail, talk to all the companions, re-visit the Citadel, etc., you'll notice that gameplay time is being cranked up considerably. It is such a pity that you don't actually explore locations and find those quests on your own, but it's surely better than just being stuck with the several linear levels that constitute the game's main quest.
Just like the previous games, Mass Effect 3 looks fantastic. The cutscenes are always a joy to watch. Animation is natural and realistic, and character faces express a variety of subtle emotions. Voice acting is for the most part impeccable. If the future of video games is merging with movies, Mass Effect games are a commendable step towards that goal. Whether it is desirable or not is another issue.
When played on higher difficulty levels, the game can provide a good challenge, and it pays off to hunt for upgrades and armor pieces and develop your characters' abilities. A smart combination of weakening biotic powers, techs, and gunplay is required to survive in these fights. The "normal" difficulty, however, is still too casual for my taste. But overall, combat is polished and satisfying. The levels, straightforward as they are, are more detailed than in the two predecessors, and offer some impressive scenery.
The BadIt's become clear to me by now that the BioWare that made Baldur's Gate is gone. All that is left now are what I called "BioWare Lite" products, to which Dragon Age II joined recently, infuriating fans across the globe. Basically, these are very enjoyable movie-like games with good direction and dialogue; but they cannot be called great RPGs.
Mass Effect 3 is a textbook example of this new design philosophy. It is extremely similar to the previous game; absolutely nothing was done to make it closer to what a serious fan of role-playing games would demand. On the contrary: populated areas have been further reduced, and hostile environments are shamelessly linear. I don't want to repeat everything I said in my review of Mass Effect 2; suffice to say that the final installment corrected nothing of what I wanted to see corrected. Mass Effect 3 can be called a great game because it provides excellent entertainment; and that is, in the end, all we want from a game. But as an RPG, it is valuable only inasmuch as moral choices and companion interaction are concerned. Exploration, freedom, physical interaction, detailed customization - everything is gone and seemingly forgotten by the very same people who helped revive the genre fourteen years ago.
I think this is a dead end for those very talented developers. There are only so many stories you can tell and cutscenes to show before people begin craving for real role-playing. Bethesda proved with Skyrim that they are slowly, but steadily learning how to write dialogues and concoct plots; Obsidian proved with New Vegas that they could become the new king of RPG design if they got rid of programming issues and perhaps inject more emotions into their stories. Those two keep moving forward, while BioWare seems to have stopped a while ago. I very much hope that they will follow Obsidian's example: if the other company could create New Vegas after Alpha Protocol, BioWare might also reconsider their options and understand that expansion is always better than reduction, and that free-roaming, physical playing is the future of RPGs.
On a smaller scale of complaints: convincing writing and good plot turns are occasionally interrupted by predictable, B-movie phrases, and some of the key events are marred by the presence of Kai Leng. This unfortunate character is about as deep as the bosses of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, forming an unpleasant contrast to the rest of the cast. Also, I'm anything but "politically correct" or "racially sensitive" or whatever you call it, but what's with those badly presented, two-dimensional, stereotypical Chinese villains that keep populating video games? Speaking of which, there seem to be no other Chinese in the game except Kai Leng. Did the most populous nation on Earth just dissolve when mass relays were discovered? And generally, there seem to be only native English speakers in Mass Effect games, with a few token slightly-Hispanic characters thrown it. Come on! Next time I save the universe I want to do it as a mixed Israeli-Indian-Italian of remote Bulgarian-Tibetan descent.