A Week With "Mass Effect 3"

It's been a week since "Mass Effect 3" came out, and I've spent pretty much every free moment since then* playing the game. I haven't finished it yet -- I still go to work during the day and sleep a little bit at night -- so I'm not going to comment on the ending other than to say no matter how bad it is, it couldn't possibly be worse than KoToR 2.

I'm also not going to have any extended comment on the multiplayer, since I haven't touched it and don't plan on it. I don't even have Xbox Live Gold, and I've never been a fan of shooter multiplayers. I know that playing the multiplayer can have an impact on the single player campaign, and I was all ready to be pissed about that, but my galactic readiness is high enough that I don't even need to concern myself with it.

Now that the stuff I'm not talking about is out of the way, let's get to the stuff I do want to talk about.

Day One DLC

Before the controversy over the ending, this was the thing everyone was losing their shit over. My first thought when I heard about it was "I don't care, I got the collector's edition" which was true, but selfish. Playing the game, I've come to realize how integral Javik -- the Prothean character included in the DLC -- is to the storyline. Obviously everyone plays "Mass Effect 3" in their own unique way based on which characters survived previous games and which ones are used on particular missions, but I couldn't imagine playing the Thessia mission (not part of the DLC, but a core storyline event) without Javik.

Along those lines, let's talk about...

MY ME3 Story

The "Mass Effect" franchise has been incredible ambitious in terms of establishing a continuing story, with events that happened in ME1 having an impact on the story of ME3. For someone like me, who has a single continuing save file that's carried through all three games*, this is huge, and completely shapes the overall experience.

Aside from making it incredibly difficult to talk about the story of the game with someone else who's playing, it ramps up the emotional attachment to the characters. When I saw Ashley for the first time in this game, my reaction wasn't "oh yeah, I remember her from the other games" it was, "Right... Ashley... because I let Kaiden die." I worked so tirelessly in ME2 to have everyone survive the suicide mission, and it was awesome as each of them showed up in ME3. So when Mordin and Legion ended up sacrificing themselves for the greater good, it hurt even more.

And then there was Kelly Chambers. I'd saved her at the end of ME2, and was pleasantly surprised to see her again in ME3 (and she saved my fish!). I had the conversation with her and figured that was the end of her involvement with the game. Then, after the Cerberus raid on the Citadel, I overheard the conversation about her being killed, and realized it was my fault for not telling her to go into hiding. It made me feel like crap and pissed me off, but in a good way. I didn't think a video game could produce that kind of emotional response.

In general, knowing that this was the last piece in an ongoing story shaped many of my decisions. When I played ME1, I knew my choices would carry over to ME2, but I didn't put much thought into those choices (except for when I saved before the Kaiden/Ashley decision, in case I decided to backtrack on it). I took more care in ME2, with the notable exception of my relationship. I was with Liara in ME1, but when she showed up on Illium in ME2 and wasn't recruit-able, I moved forward with a relationship with Thane, not even considering the possibility that Liara would come back into the picture in ME3. That led to one very awkward conversation at the beginning of the game, where I ditched Thane and got back with Liara, thinking Thane was dead. Only, then HE WASN'T DEAD. More awkwardness!

Eventually I talked with Thane, but ignored the option to go somewhere private with him, and then he died anyway, and I barely felt sad about it (God, I felt sadder about Kelly than I did about Thane... WTF?!). I also played dumb when Specialist Traynor was trying to get me in the shower with her, which I'm pretty sure makes me a tease since I'd led her along the entire time up to that point. Either way, my Shep is with Liara now, and that's the way it's supposed to be (that's also the point at which I left off in my last gaming session: the final romantic encounter before the assault on Cerberus).

Actual Gameplay Mechanics

About a week before ME3 came out, I read this great piece about the huge interface problems with the original Mass Effect, and all the things I hated about playing the actual game came rushing back to me.

Many of those problems still exist in ME3, and they can at times be frustrating as hell. In particular, I found it incredible hard to monitor the health of my two teammates, and pretty much just fell into a pattern of "let them die during a battle and only resurrect them with First Aid if the enemies overwhelm me." I know that's probably not the best strategy, but it seems to have worked out so far. It also took me awhile to get back into the swing of telling my teammates to use powers or grenades, since the "pausing to pull up the wheel in the middle of the fight" mechanic has always seemed a bit awkward.

The "inventory" system is something of a hybrid of the unmanageable mess of ME1 and the non-existent system of ME2, and it still pretty much sucks. There's no unified inventory (as was the case in ME2); you just have weapons, upgrades and armor. Once again, each gun has 10 levels of advancement, bringing back the fun roman numerals from ME1, but you can't have multiple levels of the same gun. If you upgrade your a particular shotgun from I to II, everyone in your party has access to that upgrade. That's a nice improvement from the previous games, not having to worry about multiple copies of upgraded guns. They've also made it easier to compare the different options available to you during loadout, but that comparison disappears when you're doing the upgrades, unnecessarily complicating things.

Fortunately for me, the collector's edition came with a pretty impressive set of guns, and those were the ones I focused on upgrading early, before picking up some more powerful equipment later in the game. I didn't do much shopping, since most of the guns and upgrades were available as pick ups on levels, and I could never tell in the store interface if an upgrade was a duplicate or improvement on something I already had (another problem with hiding the inventory).

My Shepard is an "adept", so I rely heavily on biotic powers, and it took awhile to get used to the fact that enemies in this game were much better at dodging them than in past games. But that's a significant strategic improvement, one that didn't go unappreciated by me. It's nice to see the third installment of the game make things harder in a way that isn't just "more enemies" and "enemies with more hit points".

Other miscellaneous thoughts

- Loading screens can go fuck themselves. Seriously, this, more than any other innovation, needs to be the primary focus of next-gen console makers. Having to sit and watch a 20-second loading screen between every level of the Citadel -- even with the beautiful artwork they used instead of those redundant framework graphics from ME2 -- made me want to throw something through my TV. And don't even get me started on disc switching (an unfortunate necessity on the lower-capacity Xbox 360 discs).

- I got ME1 after ME2 was actually released, so I was able to play through with the content complete. With ME2, I actually left my game in a holding pattern for awhile because I knew DLC was on the way (I had ME2 for a few months before I started playing because I needed to play through ME1 first). However, I'm at the point in ME3 where I can't just leave it sitting around waiting for DLC that may or may not come, so it looks like a second playthrough is in the cards. KELLY, I'M COMING TO SAVE YOU!

- I liked planet scanning so much more in this game than in ME2, and the added involvement of the Reapers gave it a sense of urgency, rather than the endless tedium of ME2's element scanning.

- The Joker/EDI relationship creeps me out. That is all.

- The new character, James, annoyed me at first but grew on me as the game progressed.

- As I mentioned, I got the collector's edition, and I really enjoyed the in-game benefits and the steelbook case. The art book would have been cool too, except I got the full-sized "Art of the Mass Effect Universe" book, which has the same content plus much more. I haven't downloaded the soundtrack yet, so I can't say whether it's good or not.

- Once I get to the ending I'm sure I'll post some thoughts on it, but my main thought it that I'm just going to be sad that this whole saga is over. "Mass Effect" is the only reason I still own an Xbox 360 (after playing through ME1 multiple times, there was no way I was ditching all those choices to switch to ME2 on PS3), and I feel such a connection with the game, that it's just going to feel weird that it's all over.

*Well, technically every free moment since Wednesday after the Heat game, since I missed the UPS delivery on Tuesday and had to pick it up a day later, and I couldn't watch the basketball on my AppleTV, since it wasn't available on League Pass. But pretty much every moment since then.

*I, however, did not encounter the face import bug, since I'd changed my Shepard's look between 1 and 2. I hated how I'd set up the custom face in 1, and the Cerberus rebuild at the start of 2 was the perfect in-game excuse to rebuild.