Mass Effect 3 has something to disappoint everyone. From the lack of a traditional win condition that allows players to unlock a “good” ending, to the uninspired rock-paper-scissors approach to third person combat, it’s a videogame tailor-made for no one. This should come as no surprise. BioWare has been tinkering with systems and storytelling for the past five years, but even at its best the company has always stuck by questionable game design decisions, as Mass Effect 3’s bewildering inventory system and frustrating user-interface proves.
But amid all the hand-wringing over the game’s ending and its more quantifiable flaws, there’s a key element that I haven’t seen discussed. What I found most annoying about Mass Effect 3 wasn’t its final moments (which I thought were quite sophisticated for the medium) or the way BioWare re-purposed the wave-based combat from Dragon Age II into a shooter (which I grudgingly accepted and made my way through as quickly as possible by setting the difficulty to casual). What drove me crazy about Mass Effect 3 is that as a player, I felt rushed.
The primary appeal of computer role-playing games is that they encourage exploration. Modern CRPGs in particular are praised not for their main storylines, but the worlds they allow the player to experience. It’s a running joke that when there’s a world that needs saving, that can always be put on hold to restore the Thieves’ Guild to its former glory or rig an election in the Republic of Dave. In contrast, there’s very little to see in the universe of Mass Effect 3. There are side quests to complete, but they involve little more than clicking on menu screens to scan planets for quest items. From the beginning cinematic forward, there’s nothing to do in ME3 but rush headlong to the trilogy’s long-promised conclusion.
BioWare should be commended for their commitment to assuring that player choices made in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 influence the final stages of Commander Shepard’s journey. But in their quest to modernize and mass-market the CRPG, they’ve eliminated the quintessential element of the genre. There are those who have argued that Mass Effect 3 is disappointing because as a video game, it should be more “winnable”. I’m disappointed because as a guided storytelling experience, it’s not much of a game.