A little while ago I temporarily emerged from my sock drawer to play some mainstream AAA titles. The last part of this streak was all three games in the Mass Effect series. I actually timed things pretty well so that I ended up finishing ME2 just in time for the release of the third game which I also immediately played through. I thought about discussing it right away before all the hype and fan rage/defence settled down(not that it hasn't,) but that's not my style anyway. I'm not here to give consumer advice, and I'm not here to give everybody my two cents on the ending. I'm here to talk about interesting game design concepts and manifestations in games, and today I feel like Mass Effect 3.
I'll be straight up with you. I'm not going to waste much time talking about the ending. There are already 100 deconstructions, alternate endings, defences for the ending, etc out there. I'm going to make this short and simple. The ending to Mass Effect 3 is bad. If you haven't yet, don't play anything past the mission "Priority: Cerberus" if you ever want to enjoy the Mass Effect series as much again. Trying to fix it in DLC will be a gamble at best, and trying to explain the ending away with the "indoctrination theory" is like trying to explain that when your x-friend used his hole puncher on your ear, he was just trying to save you money getting it pierced. And you never said you wanted it pierced in the first place.
Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the other 99% of the game.
Bioware is famous for having above average writing and story in their games. The original Mass Effect had such a compelling story, universe, and set of characters that I and a lot of other people didn't care that the gameplay was mediocre. The story and gameplay merged and flowed together in an elegant and inseparable way. In Mass Effect 3 however, the gameplay is even more finicky, even more repetitive, and often transitions very clunkily between story exposition and pop-up shooting. In some of the roughest places it just feels like you're taking turns watching an interactive movie for a bit and then breaking to spend a little time playing a sub-par shooter. In essence, the magical flow and mix of gameplay and narrative that helped make other Mass Effect games awesome is much less prevalent in this game. Sure it's in the game, but the ball was fumbled here on way too many occasions throughout the game.
While the gameplay and story don't flow together very well, the story is pretty solid all the way up to but not including the end. It's full of narrative closure, tying up of loose ends, and moments of fanservice. It's a dark story about being on the loosing end of a war, fighting to avoid extermination and groping for a chance to survive. This feeling is conveyed rather well throughout the game. I was rather happy to see that a number of the resolutions to the various sub-plots, significant and otherwise, that had begun in previous games could end in a number of different ways depending on choices you made in previous games and the choices you will make in ME3. Of course none of those choices have an effect on the ending or the big picture of the rest of the Mass Effect universe, but who liked the ending anyway?
Of course I must talk about the choice system. Bioware stuck to the paragon/renegade minigame all the way to the end. In the first two games, a ton of the renegade options(at least the ones I chose) made shepherd look like a lobotomized jerk who didn't give a shirt about reason. In the third game however, most of the renegade lines actually make sense. They actually seem like the kind of thing a real person might say. Maybe it was just the specific renegade options I chose, as I did play paragon again, but they sure seemed a hack of a lot more logical and reasonable.
In some places the story is stupid, unconvincing, contrived in feeling, illogical, uninteresting, or just plain poorly presented. However, the overwhelming majority of the storyline is quite good. It's well delivered, clever, interesting, well presenting of good characters, and more. Until the end anyway. Did I mention the ending was bad?