masseffect3_02

The criticism of Mass Effect 2 that's always irritated me the most is the accusation that nothing happens in it. "All you do is spend the entire game building a crew". It's the implication that "all" equals "nothing" in a game such as this that strikes me as profoundly wrong-headed.

What I loved most about the middle game in the trilogy had nothing to do with anything so grand and presumptuous as saving the galaxy. It was the simple human drama, those relationships patiently developed between Shepard and the humans and aliens he met along the way.

This aspect is very clearly at the core of the Mass Effect experience: the freedom to play my way and to deal head-on with the consequences of that. By the end of the game I had a palpable sense of my Shepard growing as a person, forging lasting bonds with those closest to him on his journey.

I also had a greater sense of the characters around me being on their own personal journeys. In allowing the game and its characters to breathe, Bioware created the conditions for an experience that proved that much more vivid after the fact.

The action sequences were excellent, but if you ask me now what I remember about the game it's all in the character interactions. You say nothing happened? I say everything happened.

Mass Effect 3 is a stunningly good game. But I had almost the opposite experience with it. In the final episode the focus is squarely and necessarily on the action and the giant chunk of plot left to rattle through as organic life teeters on the brink of destruction.

The game sets out its stall brilliantly, with a balls-out, blockbuster opening sequence during which the Reapers begin their savage assault on Earth. From this fiery start right up to the mesmerising climax, the action scenes are for the most part beautifully orchestrated with a flair that puts Bioware, already the great storyteller, alongside the greatest practitioners of the action genre.

The final section of the game – the point beyond which, in story terms, there is no return – must surely rank as several hours of the most spectacular, overwhelming, drop-jaw amazing sequences of warfare in gaming. And although fresher in the mind, I expect the memories of those encounters to linger far longer than Mass Effect 2's.

The flipside to this, though, is that Mass Effect 3's character development felt oddly insubstantial in comparison to the previous instalment. To an extent, that's understandable enough: Shepard built his team, earned their trust, obedience or otherwise, and now the cast must pull together – locally and galactically – for the grand finale.

There was one standout shocker of a moment in the middle of my Mass Effect 3 experience. I made a terrible, terrible decision in the heat of the moment that had devastating consequences for my major love interest. I could only watch in horror as she killed herself in front of me.

It took a couple of days before I could go back to the game after that. I was bereft. And that is Mass Effect at its best: it made me care. But in ME3 this was more of an exception in a narrative where many of the major relationships had already reached maturity.

There are notable exceptions, such as the roles EDI and the magnificent Darth Maul-esque super-villain Kai Leng play in the piece. But beyond that, I felt I'd already made my key allies and enemies, leaving less space in which to travel emotionally and psychologically with the rest of the characters I met in the final part.

The side effect, whether on the Citadel or the Normandy – the game's two main hubs - was a cast who would, for what seemed like half the game, offer little more than brief snippets of chat with relatively little scope to change the dynamics of the relationship. And the consequence of that was something I never expected to experience: it made the game feel small.

There's no fundamental structural difference between this game and its predecessors, of course. But what seemed revolutionary five years ago has since become familiar, and without the intoxicating distractions of (virtual) human contact, the limitations of the form are that much more pronounced.

None of which should undermine Bioware's astonishing, game-changing achievement in producing three interlinked episodes of dizzying scope with such dazzling success. Rather, the Canadian studio is an unfortunate victim of this success, creating a simulation of a world that proves so convincing at times, we are saddened or irked when faced with its inevitable limitations.

Bewilderingly silly 'campaigns' aside, I can understand the disappointment and frustration of some with the ending. It was, however, enough for me - a consoling conclusion to gaming's greatest epic.

No, the problem with Mass Effect is not how it ends, but in how much more alive it felt on the journey there.


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