Mass Effect 3: Half-Way Through

I’m at what I think is about the midway point of the game, just at the start of the Citadel mission. I’m happy with the game so far, but with a mass of reservations, so to speak. There will be spoilers.
Ditching Kaiden early on instead of having him as a full party member makes a lot of sense in retrospect, since any developer work done with him also has to be done with Ashley. Given a desire on the part of the developers to get him out of the way, this seems like a good way to do it. Killing him off early would feel like a cheap way to up the tension and stakes. This way, at least, he’s still around and we can have quality conversations with him.

During the conversation with Kaiden where he’s on his feet and has accepted the offer to become a Spectre, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that Kaiden is going to be indoctrinated and become a late-game boss. There was something about the way the conversation drifted towards Kaiden following in Shepard’s path, and the sort of work Udina wanted Kaiden for that felt… ominous. Udina subsequently calling Kaiden “incorruptible” and the subsequent revelation that Udina may have been indoctrinated already did not help. It’s actually kind of surprising that there hasn’t been a big mid-game betrayal yet in a Mass Effect game. Brainwashing is embedded in the fiction, and Bioware has a tradition of classic betrayals in their games. If I’m right, then I have to give Bioware credit for effective foreshadowing.

Actually, the game has possessed a pretty masterful control of tone overall thus far. The situation is genuinely apocalyptic and the game stays true to that. Walking around the refugee-filled Citadel I could feel the desperation and hopelessness. Things like the conversation with Liara where she talks about how she’s worried she’ll live to see the entire extinction event reinforce it.

I’ve been pretty happy with all the returning character appearances thus far. I got a nice conversation with Garrus where we reaffirmed our relationship (although he hasn’t had much to say since). Jack is thus far the clear winner of the “Most Improved” award. The game gets a lot of mileage out of existing relationships. (The second game did a good job of this too – Garrus, Liara, Tali and Kaiden were all pretty bland in 1 and then felt greatly improved in 2.) Grunt and Miranda have put in decent appearances, though there wasn’t a lot to either of them. (I did think they were going to kill of Grunt – maybe they do if he survived 2 but wasn’t loyal?) They seem to be in a position to put Thane to good use in the Citadel mission I’m in right now. Mordin’s return was the most fan-servicey of them. Having him sing so many times in an attempt to recapture one of the best, most unexpected moments of the second game felt pretty overboard. On the other hand, his relationship with Eve, and his final send-off were genuinely touching.

A few of these are reaching the point where I have to wonder how the missions work if the character is absent. The Wrex stuff seems pretty easy, but it’s possible that both Grunt and the Rachni Queen could be dead, which seems to throw a pretty large wrench into that mission. And who do they substitute in for Mordin if he’s gone?

So the experiences with returning characters have been, across the board, pretty great so far. But the game has been leaning very heavily on these existing relationships, and hasn’t really tried hard to form any new ones. I suppose it’s nice that everything is focused on the war plot, but that hasn’t left much room for telling new character-focused stories. The new Turian leader and Eve were both pretty interesting, but by this point in Mass Effect 2, we would have already met Samarra and Mordin, EDI and the Elusive Man, and there just doesn’t seem to be anyone to compare in 3. James is a total non-entity (and is there any way to make him stop calling me Lola?) There just aren’t a lot of party members, and he’s the only truly new one so far. The new Kelly is a little too aggressively cute (I wouldn’t be surprised if she was written by the same person who wrote Merrill from Dragon Age 2.) I do understand the decision to replace Kelly. Even though she survived my game, she is probably the one character who is dead in the majority of Mass Effect 2 saves.

The collection-based scanning side-missions have been pretty inoffensive. They’re not exciting, but it’s better than the equivalent content in either of the two previous games. I like how the game handles equipment and upgrades. I’m still collecting loot and feeling like my gear is improving, but I don’t have to put a lot of thought into it. The encumbrance system is particularly clever. It feels a lot like the also quite smart system from Dragon Age: Origins. The premise behind both is that if you want to be more effective directly in combat, with more weapons in Mass Effect’s case, or heavier armour in Dragon Age’s, then you get to use your powers less. It’s an intelligent way to push the player into not always using the biggest stuff without just implementing hard class-based restrictions.

I’m not sure how I feel about making Cerberus so giant and hostile. In Mass Effect 2, they were cast as being willing to defend humanity in places and at times when the Alliance wasn’t. They had access to immense financial and information resources, but they didn’t necessarily have a huge military presence.  They weren’t nice people, but their goals were such that Shepard could work with them. Now, they’re being cast as pure villains in command of a vast army. They’re kidnapping scientists, attacking schools, murdering colonists, invading the Citadel, and trying to brainwash and control the population. It makes me wonder how they handle things if Shepard parted with Cerberus on better terms in 2. My guess is that they don’t handle it well at all.

I have a couple of other quibbles. There still haven’t been a lot of interesting conversation interactions. It feels like party members don’t have as much to say as in 2. Garrus, in particular, has been completely stand-offish since the one early conversation reaffirming our relationship. There’s still almost never a neutral response option, there haven’t been that many Paragon overrides, and they haven’t done anything particularly cool. I’ve seen a single persuasion check. I think I got Renegade points for picking a Paragon-positioned dialogue option in the Grunt-Rachni mission (for insisting Grunt’s troops hold the line). I’ve had to swap discs more times than I should. Mass Effect 2 managed it perfectly. One disc swap after the introductory sequence, and another going into the end-game. This time I’ve had to swap five times already, and there will be a sixth at some point. Judging from twitter, I’m not the only one with this problem. It seems to stem from the game giving access to a pair of side-missions that are just on Disc 2 while current main-story missions are still on Disc 1. Since it’s natural to do side-missions before main ones, and to alternate between them, this leads to more disc swaps. The obvious solutions would be to either not give access to these side-missions so early, or to include them on both discs, and I’m not sure why they didn’t go with one of those routes.

Speaking of bizarre bugs, I’m still annoyed about the character importation bug, and it’s particularly troubling that it impacts exactly the people who would care about their Shepard’s appearance – those who had kept his appearance consistent through the first two games. If they could bring my character from 1 to 2, and they can bring everyone else’s characters from 2 to 3, then it’s clearly technically feasible to bring in mine? My recreated Shepard still doesn’t look right. I got her hair and colouring correct, but her face just doesn’t quite feel familiar. Again, it’s a small thing, but it matters. It really does.

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