Posted at August 1, 2020

The Real Probelm with Mass Effect 3

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of speculation about Dragon Age 4, various versions of which have been in development since 2015. Amid leaks, teasers, and tales of troubled development, it’s easy to forget that Dragon Age isn’t the only Bioware tentpole that may have a new installment in the works.

Mass Effect was once Bioware’s most acclaimed franchise, but a lot of that goodwill seems to have burned off following the lackluster Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda. Still, the franchise isn’t quite dead, assuming remarks from various Bioware managers can be taken at face value.

Now, full disclosure, I never actually got around to playing Mass Effect: Andromeda. I always suspected the game was not nearly as bad as the fan outrage machine made it sound, but I also didn’t hear anything that made me want to drop what I was doing to seek it out.

But I did play Mass Effect 3 several times. Most criticisms of that game were directed to the ending, but I don’t think that was really the main problem. The biggest issue was that Mass Effect 3 didn’t feel like Mass Effect. It had lost the sense of discovery and wonder that made the first two games so spectacular.

One of the most maligned aspects of the original Mass Effect was the vehicle sections. The M35 Mako felt more like a bouncy castle on wheels than an armored personnel carrier. It was also one of the only things that kept Mass Effect from turning into a series of shootouts in interchangeable corridors.

Scattered across the galaxy were several uncharted worlds to explore. Most were unremarkable, but a few were very memorable, and I enjoyed the free-roaming exploration those areas offered.

Was it the most rewarding use of the player’s time? For the right kind of gamer, it definitely could be. I almost never play a game to 100 percent completion, but not only have I completed every side quest and found every collectible in the original Mass Effect, I’ve also done it multiple times.

I get it. Most people didn’t like the Mako. Mass Effect 2 replaced it with planet scanning, which was tedious but could occasionally unlock interesting missions on remote worlds. I still cared enough to visit all the planets just in case I picked up a distress signal or some other anomaly to investigate.

Mass Effect 3 had none of that. There was a mini-game where you would send out sensor pings between dodging Reaper patrols, but that’s not the same thing. It’s not exploration if you zip past for a few seconds then immediately run away.

And that isn’t in the only reason Mass Effect 3’s universe felt empty. The first two games each featured several hub worlds with multiple areas and missions each. This was especially true in the second game, where the player would visit each major planet numerous times. The various spaceports served the role of cities and towns in a fantasy RPG. They were safe areas where the player could shop, pick up quests, and take in the local flavor.

Mass Effect 3 had no exploration, no vehicle combat, and no interesting hub areas. Every single mission consisted of flying to a location, fighting Cerberus goons or Reaper husks, and flying back. Most of the locations weren’t even very interesting. The entire game could have taken place on one planet, and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

And I understand that part of this has to do with Mass Effect 3’s position in the trilogy. The first two games were all building up to the Reaper invasion, and by Mass Effect 3 the invasion has begun. There’s no time to screw around poking at rocks when the space cuttlefish are melting people’s faces off.

But maybe that was the problem. The first two games were about Commander Shepard traveling across the galaxy with a handful of crew members. It only needed to focus on a few planets to tell its story. Mass Effect 3 was about a galaxy-spanning war. It needed to encompass the entire galaxy and stretched itself hopelessly thin in the process.

And I think that was the real issue. Mass Effect 3 wasn’t a good game that dropped the ball at the 10-yard line. It was a game that didn’t know how to tell its story in the framework to which it was accustomed.

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