This post was inspired by an article I read on Lasertimepodcast.com entitle “Why Mass Effect 3 scares me”, which can be found here. This is not a direct response, so much as giving my two cents on the issue.
As we creep nearer and nearer to the release date for the final chapter of the Mass Effect series, I get the impression that an increasing number of gamers are expecting to have a poor experience with the game. All over the internet, in forums, comments, and blog posts, people are expressing their distaste for the changes in directions they feel the series is taking with the final installment.
Shots have been taken at EA, day-one DLC, the inclusion of multiplayer, the demo, and the supposed de-emphasis on story. These have led to everything from debates on the game’s outcome, to sexists death threats against a Bioware employee who is not even involved with Mass Effect 3.
I’m sorry, what?
Look guys, I get it: EA is marketing the game in a way that makes you uncomfortable. We’ve seen more of Shepard running-and-gunning in the promo material, instead of chit-chatting with Salarians. Fans see this and think, “hey, wait, that’s not what Mass Effect is. They’re ruining my game!”
No they’re not. EA wants money, sure, but let’s look at things from a different angle here: for those of us invested in the series, we’re guaranteed customers, we’re going to buy this game. EA knows that, they don’t have to prove anything to us. They do have to prove to CoD fan #456,670 that their game is worth playing. So what do they do? They go out of their way to assure them that “Hey! it’s not all talking and hard sci-fi story. Look, we have explosions, and guns, and Earth is in it, too!” Fans are outraged at the supposed uneven ratio of “shooty-pew-pew” to talky-talk, and throw a fit. Mind you, these are probably the same people who drooled over the extraordinarily high amount of “pew-pew” in the new Avengers trailer, too.
Anyway, so EA releases a demo, again going out of their way to highlight an (admittedly dumb) extra feature wherein players can choose to skip the dialogue choices entirely. Cool. Great. A way to get more people to buy your game. But what does this mean for us, the “true” Mass effect fans?
It means better gameplay.
Let be honest for a minute, if judged solely on gameplay, the Mass Effect series would fall into the “good, not great” range. We don’t play these games because we love the combat, we play because we enjoy the story. For the first time, fans are looking forward to a game solely because of its story. That’s unprecedented in a medium that usually relegates narrative to an afterthought, or a distraction from the “pew-pew.” That wasn’t the case in Mass Effect and its sequel. For me at least, the action was the distaction to the story. Only in rare occasions did the actual gunplay and exploration move the narrative forward in a meaningful way.
With EA trying to rope in the shooter crowd, you better believe they’ve done their damnedest to make sure Mass effect 3 can hold up to the high standards of Gears of War, Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc. If not, they won’t find this new audience — they’ll be stuck with us boring story-lovers, huh? I can’t see the logic in lamenting better gameplay and combat. Take a game with a great story — let’s say, uh, the Mass Effect series for instance — and add in mechanics from a game with great third-person combat — we’ll go with Gears of War here — you’ll have a better game. No, really. One of the biggest things I took away from the ME3 demo was how much better the combat felt. I enjoyed capping Cerberus soldiers, sliding from cover to cover, and avoiding explosions. Because, y’know, I like good gameplay. That’s not a crime, is it?
Now, I can hear what you’re saying, “but Brendan, this means EA and Bioware want to focus more on gameplay and dumb down the story!”
Wrong again folks. Look at it this way: those millions of frat boy shooter fans are the hard sell, not you. Do you really think a hackneyed horde mode in a third-person RPG space-opera set in a universe 3 games deep that none of them played in the first place will become the next online shooter phenomenon? Fuck no.
EA and Bioware are fully aware we’re their bread-n-butter for this franchise’s success. Let’s pretend for a moment that the large majority of Mass effect fans will be waiting until after reviews come in to make their purchases. There’s no real way to measure it, but let’s pretend it’s about half. If the story isn’t good, it’ll be in every review, every person who bought it day one will spread the word — we’ll know, make no bones about it. Suddenly, those 50% who were on the fence won’t be buying it, potential new comers will hear about how bad it is, Gamestop will be flooded with returns for the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. It would be a failure, because its success rests solely with the strength of the story.
But there’s a truth with Mass Effect 3 being the final chapter that we must all accept: it’s going to be more finite, and less malleable than the previous games. That’s the nature of a finale — it wraps up the loose ends, caps the story, and closes the narrative. Finales don’t open up new plots, or leave us with a sense of ambiguity or unanswered questions (at least, not the big questions). The consequences of our previous actions are unfolding and coming to fruition, and ultimately ending. Remember, this is a videogame constrained by technology and disc-space. It can’t have hundreds of new choices to build off of the last games. The majority of story sequences will probably be spent with us watching how our past decisions turn out.
We’re moving toward a final moment in mass Effect 3. That could very well mean we’ll face fewer choices in Mass Effect 3 in order to show how our previous choices play out in a meaningful way. And don’t forget, Earth is being invaded by massive robotic aliens, the very premise would make fiddle-farting around the galaxy and trying to rekindle a romance with Liara T’Soni seem out of place. And yet lo and behold, we’re gonna be able to dick around the galaxy and in our crewmates as much as we like.
Some people seem to think these games offer an immense ammount of choice to being with. They don’t. Mass effect games give you the illusion of choice whilst funneling you down corridors to the next set piece or story moment. Yes, there are big choices concerning the outcome of these moments, but for the most part we’re picking between slightly different paths which lead to slightly different endings that have little impact on the main events of the story. The Geth were always going to attack; the Collectors were always going to abduct humans; the Reapers were always going to return; we were always going to be fighting to take back earth. That being said, I still expect a high caliber of tension and emotion writing when it comes to the narrative itself, as are all Mass effect fans.
Remember that one thing EA wants more than anything else? Money. Who do you think is ready to throw the most of their cash at this product? We are, the fans who care about the story above all else. You can bet EA and Bioware know this, and have gone to great lengths to ensure we’ll be satisfied. It would simply be idiotic to turn against us now.
On the flip side, there is this DLC business. Basically, Mass effect 3 is being launched with extra content that contains some pretty important things to the Mass Effect lore. EA may be assuming a little too much that we will throw more money at it. This is the one issue I can commiserate with the internet on. But no matter how appealing the DLC is, there’s a simple solution to this problem: don’t buy it.
Again, money. EA wants it. If you don’t give it to them, it’ll prove a point. And don’t forget, it might be “your” Shepard, but hey guess what? It’s their game. And they can do whatever they want to it, and all you can do to send a message is choose to buy it or not. What you can’t do is attack someone for changing something you somehow believe is “yours,” but really isn’t, and expect them to listen. We don’t consider the music of The Beatles “ours,” or the work of Stanley Kubrick to be “ours,” so why should a video game be any different?
Look, everyone has a right to their opinion, and the right to scream it with the caps lock on, but don’t let your opinions cloud your judgement or control you into saying or doing something hurtful and unnecessary. If Mass Effect 3 empirically sucks, I’ll accept it. Similarly, if I find myself to be in a minority who enjoys (or does not enjoy) the game, I’ll recognize that it’s just my opinion, and one that doesn’t need validation. The same should go for everyone. And don’t get me wrong here, Mass Effect 3 might be my most anticipated game of this generation.
When Mass Effect 3 launches, the reviews come in, and more importantly we get our hands on it, these arguments will finally be put to rest. But if you find yourself on the fence, waiting to see the outcome, remember: how much of this is true criticism, and how much of it is just angry nerds bawling over something because of some ill-conceived notion of entitlement?