Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Ending to Mass Effect 2 is Bad

You read that right. This post isn't about the ending to Mass Effect 3, because that horse has been beaten to a bloody pulp. No, this is about how I can't wrap my head around the fact that people were surprised about the Mass Effect 3 ending. Had they not played 2? Or, for that matter, had they never played a video game before?

Video games as a storytelling medium have a long history of disappointing endings to great games. Halo, a game that revolutionized first person combat, ends with you driving from one place to another place. Halo 3 also ends this way (Halo 2 doesn't have an ending, it just stops). Half-Life ends with a series of frustrating jumping puzzles; Half-Life 2 ends with a repetitive God-Mode level. Bioshock ends with a generic boss fight. Assassin's Creed, a game based around climbing and stealth mechanics, has you mow down wave after wave of enemies so you can get to a generic boss fight. AssCreed 2 does basically the same thing. Batman: Arkham Asylum takes a page out of the Assassins Creed handbook, as it throws away all of its fun stealth mechanics for, you guessed it, a generic boss fight. Mirror's Edge turns into an awkward first-person shooter at the end. LA Noire throws away all of its unique crime-solving mechanics and becomes an awkward third-person shooter at the end. Etc., etc. Name any video game, bad or good, and the ending will probably be the weakest part of the game.

Spoiler Alert: This level sucks.

The reason for this is simple. Game developers are like a horny teenage boy having sex for the first time; they have a habit of blowing their load too early, and then they don't know what to do after that. Most of the work goes into the beginning of a game, because that has to be cool enough to hook in gamers (and keep them from selling their games early). Then, they add some more levels, allowing the player to experience new challenges and gain new skills. And then they run out of steam, either creatively or financially. So they tack on a boring unimaginative boss fight, add a short cutscene that tells us nothing, and that's it. It's over.

The final cutscene in every video game ever.

For an example of good final level design, just look at Portal. The end of that game is memorable because it is engaging both in terms of gameplay and storytelling. Instead of using the lazy "shoot it until it dies" boss fight strategy, you are forced to use everything you've learned for the previous duration of the game to defeat GlaDos, which makes the end much more satisfying. And, on a story level, you are finally able to come face to face with your tormentor, and escape your strange prison. You get the feeling that as much attention was paid to the final boss fight as was to the rest of the game.
Spoiler Alert: This level is awesome.

Now, back to Mass Effect 2, another game with a serious case of Awesome Game With A Shitty Ending Syndrome. And the crazy thing is, a lot of the issues that I have with the game are the same issues that many gamers had with the end of the ME3.

First off, the ending abandons everything that made the previous 19 hours so much fun. Throughout 95% of the story you are given interesting and important decisions to make, decisions that radically affect the story and its outcome (though it doesn't really. More on that later). This gives you a personal stake in the story, and is the single most important reason why the game is so compelling and so popular. And how does ME2 end? With an extended combat level. Combat in the Mass Effect series is easily its least compelling aspect, and the developers thought that would be the most effective way to end the game. No interesting storytelling or important, dramatic choices to make; just a bunch of identical hallways filled with chest-high walls and identical enemies. And what is at the end of these hallways? Maybe a dramatic scene that wraps up all of the story threads in a unique and compelling way, you say (assuming you haven't played the game yet, in which case, spoiler alert, I guess)? Nope. What you get is the apex of disappointing generic boss fights. There's a giant but ineffective boss, glowing weak points, repetitive attack patterns, and waves of smaller enemies to fight while the main boss recharges. It wouldn't be out of place in a bad Zelda game. Yes, there are a few choices to make during the final level, but they never amount to more than "Assign a crew member to a task that they are good at."

Yes, tiny lasers make much more sense that crushing me with your enormous hands.
Secondly, the choices you make during the game don't affect the ending in a meaningful way. "But," you are no doubt thinking to yourself, "your decisions affect who lives and who dies in the final mission! Also, how are you reading my mind?" See, if that were true, that would be amazing, and the ending to ME2 would go down in history as awesome. However, the way it actually works is some bullshit, and here's why:

1. The ending relies on Mass Effect's stupid morality system, which works by giving you points every time you're a dick or a nice guy. In order to be a giant dick or a really nice guy, though, you have to have enough respective points. This is awful. In real life, you don't have to say some kinda mean things throughout the day if you want to say something really mean later, and you don't have to do some small good deeds in order to do a big good deed. People are nice sometimes and dicks other times, which is what makes them interesting and compelling and 3-dimensional. When a character is always just a dick or always just a good guy, that character is boring. It also puts you in a position where you can't choose the dialogue option you want, because instead of being a Raging Asshole or a Goody Two Shoes, you chose to be a Real Human Being. So your teammates die, not because you made the wrong decision or any other interesting dramatic reason, but because the right dialogue option wasn't highlighted.

2. The character's deaths are an afterthought to the story. What I was expecting from the final battle was Shepherd being forced into a difficult situation with difficult choices to make, where your teammates lives depended on your decisions. What actually happens is, you beat the boss, escape the ship, and the game says, "Oh, by the way So-and-so died, because they weren't your friend. To be continued..."

This picture seemed relevant.

So, basically, to every fanboy who complained about the ending to Mass Effect 3: what did you expect?

1 comment:

  1. I demand you play and discuss Star Control II. It has a boss fight at the end, but it's the boss fight that's been built up for literally the entire game, and it's suitably difficult. The game literally gives you infinite resources to prepare for that final boss fight and then says "good luck," and you need it.