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Mass Effect 3: Things That Work

I’m still dutifully trucking my way through the galaxy in Mass Effect 3. After a weekend in which I dumped very nearly every spare moment I had into the game (and I had a lot for a change), I’ve poured in nearly 30 hours. At this point I’d guess that I have about a third of the game to go. My Effective Military Strength (with no bonuses coming from multiplayer) is to the end of the progress bar (at 3072), but there’s still at least one big chunk of content to go. I don’t want to get into drawing conclusions about the game before I finish, but certainly I’ve played enough at this point to know what I particularly like about it and what I don’t. Since I’ve been bagging on the multiplayer-singleplayer interconnectedness so hard, let’s go ahead and theme today’s post around what I think works…

1. In past ME games your crew was fairly static when aboard the Normandy. Everybody had a location and there, for the most part, they would stay. Although that did make it easier to run the gamut of tracking them all down to see if they had anything new to say, it didn’t make the Normandy feel particularly lively. In this game the NPCs traveling with you across the cosmos are rather active. Between missions, if you should stroll down to Liara’s quarters there’s no telling if you’ll find her quietly working away, engaged in an intercom dialog with another NPC, or not there at all, in which case you’re likely to find her engaged in some other activity around the ship. It’s the same for everyone, from the characters you take with you on missions to the engineering staff and ship’s doctor. It makes the Normandy feel alive in a way that it never really has before. (Although not perfect about it, the game also seems to do a better job of letting you know when someone wants to speak with you.)

2. The old gang. I can’t say I’ve run across many new characters that I’ve felt added very much to the game, but the legacy cast is aces. I’ll touch on the writing later on in the list, but I think given the challenge of dealing with the variability of who, in an imported game, is alive and who is not, Bioware did an excellent job of giving you at least some time with every past member of the cast and paying worthy tribute to those that didn’t make it to the final act. I’ll use a non-spoilery example from my game. In my game the Krogan, Grunt, died in the Mass Effect 2 endgame. I played through the section of this game where he would’ve appeared and had absolutely no idea he was missing. (In retrospect I should’ve seen it.) The worry has always been, how big will the hole in the game feel for missing characters? The answer, in this case at least, is not at all.

3. Some of the new combat mechanics really do make the shooter part of the game more interesting. Cerberus gas bombs can be a real bitch to deal with as they eliminate your ability to lock onto an adversary (which means no biotic attacks on them). It’s a terrific new dynamic for the series. I also like how, now that you can equip your character with any weapon regardless of class, you have to be wary of total weight. More encumbered characters can’t use their powers as often. Characters who pack less get a bonus to power recharge. It’s a very effective mechanic. Finally, the combat environments are hugely improved in this game, as is the AI’s ability to catch you unawares. There are maps where you have to think about high and low ground, which is awesome if you’re like me and use the Infiltrator class. Almost all maps are laid out such that you can work to outflank your rivals. More importantly, if you’re not careful they’ll work to outflank you. The number of times I thought I was safely in cover only to get tagged with extreme malice by Cerberus troops that had successfully out-maneuvered me has been quite something.

4. The Reapers are vulnerable. For two games we have heard all about how the Reapers are this unstoppable menace. They are more bogeymen than reality. The Reapers come and all life is extinguished. There’s something very right about how not true that is in this game, something that is highlighted rather notably in the From Ashes DLC. I like this because the Reaper menace should exceed their malice. At first I found this rather off-putting because I was so focused on the bogeymen. The Reapers are supposed to be insta-kill aren’t they? They’re here. We die. Done. Yet I’m off flying around the galaxy and the battle on Earth continues to be waged as it does throughout the galaxy. Shouldn’t Earth have been conquered in like a day and a half? No. That’s not the “reality.” Don’t get me wrong, we see them waging savage destruction at multiple corners, but they’re not perfect killing and harvesting machines. They can be held or even pushed back. This is important not just to the internal consistency of the game’s story, but it actually helps humanize the inhuman in an important way. It’s like that moment in The Predator when Ahnold says, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.” Say what you will about that movie, but that’s a critical moment for the good guys. The story arc in Mass 3 is trucking steadily along a consistent line of, “The Reapers are here, we are sooo dead!” to, “We can do this thing.” I dig that.

5. “Someone else might have gotten it wrong.” You’re not going to know what that means if you haven’t played the game yet or haven’t played very far and I won’t spoil it by providing context. I will just say that there are moments in this game and lines of dialog that completely erase whatever misgivings I might have about how generic other parts can be. I’ll stop short of saying any moment has brought me to the verge of tears, but there have been plenty where I just sat back and thought, “Wow,” or generally felt like I’d taken a punch to the gut. There are moments in the game that work so well and are so memorable that, no matter how much I want to punch in the face the person who put Chobot in the game, I can’t help but be happy with my experience playing it. It’s not a spoiler to say that the conclusions to some of the character arcs I’ve seen… I just cannot imagine how they’d do it better. Well done, men and women of Bioware!

Soon: Stuff I don’t like so much.