Getting older with ‘Mass Effect 3’

Lately I’ve been playing the popular sci-fi action/RPG Mass Effect 3 on my PS3. Overall it’s a blast, yet the game feels rushed, even a bit played out. It makes me wary of AAA console gaming for the next console generation. But is it the game? Or a reflection of a gamer in his 30s who’s been console gaming too long?

The best parts of ME3 hit me early. The core gameplay formula – a balance of straightforward combat and dialogue heavy cut scenes – remains intact. The graphics got a nice bump compared to the previous Mass Effect, especially in the facial animations. The extra fidelity adds a lot of depth to chats your character encounters on his journey. And the Mass Effect setting gives a better sense of space and presence than virtually any gaming series.

However, cracks in the ME3 facade emerge around the ten hour mark. The game has the budget of your average summer blockbuster and sadly, about as much care went into the writing. You get your obligatory sequel fan service of poorly written, coincidental bump ins with old teammates (“Grunt? What you doing here?”), halfhearted attempts at real emotion (Shepard has interactive, slo-mo flashbacks of a child lost in an early attack on Earth) and well worn, cliched lines between fighters (“It doesn’t get any better, does it?”).

Then there’s that sense that I’ve been down this road far too many times. Combat is sped up and adds grenades (thanks, Call of Duty sales!) but in the process, it becomes harder to distinguish from other third person shooters. Walks through larger non combat areas can stretch on for too long. Your combat partners still act fairly stupid; they often march straight into gunfire.

In short, there’s a general lack of evolution here, something I’ve also noticed in most AAA games I’ve played this year. In many ways, big budget console gaming parallels the Hollywood studio machine during the summer: repetitive genre works with proven plot lines aimed at a progressively younger audience.

Luckily, summer flicks have exceptions to the rule: strong counter programming (e.g. Magic Mike, Killer Joe) and blockbusters that exceed critical expectations (The Avengers). This happens in console gaming as well, but I’d argue we’re seeing those gaming exceptions further and further apart as current-gen consoles trudge on.

Nevertheless, when I contrast this with recent experiences on other platforms, I’ve got a lot of hope for gaming overall. I played the indie puzzle games Braid and Limbo on my Mac back-to-back, and it was, without exaggeration, a total joy. My iPhone also has been a nice match for casual gaming on the subway. Admittedly most iOS games are pretty poor, but a few times a year there is a game comes along that hooks me.

So where does that leave consoles? Digital distribution, combined with a thriving indie game scene, is key. I want a console that’s the home equivalent of the film scene in New York or LA: a blend of both big budget heavyweights and little indies, both readily available.