The Unauthorized History of Mass Effect 3
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the release of BioWare and EA’s Mass Effect 3. The highly anticipated conclusion to the Mass Effect trilogy launched on March 6, 2012, to great reviews from the gaming media but was almost immediately at the centre of a massive controversy among fans over its ending and DLC practices.
Let’s look back at the history of ME3 from launch to today to see what happened and when it happened to make one of 2012’s most anticipated games one of its most controversial.
December 11, 2010
BioWare officially announces that Mass Effect 3 exists with a teaser trailer at the 2010 Spike TV Video Game Awards. There has been some speculation going in as a result of the teaser of the teaser trailer that this would be a spin-off game in the Mass Effect universe but it turns out to be the real deal.
The announcement of Mass Effect 3 surprises no one given that we already knew that Mass Effect would be a trilogy and the ending to ME2 basically spelled out what was coming.What does surprise is that the game is announced with a Holiday 2011 release date which means it hits the market less than 24 months after Mass Effect 2.
During the 2010 video games awards season, BioWare and Mass Effect 2 cleans house. The game picks up multiple Best RPG awards and a few overall Game of the Year awards including from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, BAFTA and IGN. It still stands as the third highest-rated game in Xbox 360 history behind The Orange Box and GTA4.
February 9, 2011
How serious is BioWare and EA about making Mass Effect 3 an epic experience? Famed movie soundtrack composer Clint Mansell confirms in an interview that he’ll be working on ME3. In December, BioWare confirms the full composing line-up of Mansell, Mass Effect series mainstay Sam Hulick, Christopher Lennertz and the team of Sascha Dikiciyan & Cris Velasco.
In the end, it turns out that Mansell’s appearance was more sizzle than steak. His one contribution was the song Leaving Earth which was effectively made the feature song of the game. Elements of Leaving Earth were also incorporated into the ending song An End – Once and For All by Hulick.
More details start tricking out about the fight for Earth (and all life in the galaxy but that was apparently not as interesting a marketing tagline). On April 20th, Game Informer releases the first screenshots of ME3 ahead of their May cover story about the game. The pictures show Shepard and his squadmates (Liara and Garrus) fighting Cerberus forces on the Salarian homeworld. This shows that Shepard would be fighting both the Reapers and Cerberus but the reason why Cerberus would work against Shepard now isn’t clear yet.
In early May, BioWare says that the release window has been pushed back from Holiday 2011 to the first three months of 2012. No one is particularly concerned by the delay because everyone would rather that BioWare spend the extra time getting everything right rather than rushing to release.
At E3, BioWare reveals more info about the game including the official release date of March 6, 2012. BioWare also showed a gameplay video of the game of the same level that we saw in the screenshots in Game Informer. This was the first time that video of actual gameplay was shown off. Unlike the massive jump between ME1 and ME2 in terms of visuals and gameplay, ME3 looked like a small evolution from the previous instalment.
At Comic Con, game director Casey Hudson and lead writer Mac Walters were on the Legendary Pictures panel to discuss the Mass Effect movie. In the 20 months since that panel, there hasn’t been much news on a Mass Effect film.
A leaked ad shows that ME3 would be the first Mass Effect game to include a multiplayer component. While it seemed unusual to add multiplayer to what has previously been built as a single-player experience, this fell in line with an earlier edict from EA encouraging all game to have a multiplayer component to give games longer playing times. A week after the leak, BioWare confirmed the inclusion of multiplayer in Mass Effect 3.
This portion of the game was popular enough (and commercially successful enough) that BioWare was providing free updates and expansion packs to the game for a year after release. Over the five add-on packs, BioWare added seven new maps to the original six, a fourth enemy group, two new enemy units, 40 new player characters and numerous weapons, mods and gear.
A private beta of the game was unintentionally released to Xbox Live. The beta was quickly removed from Xbox Live but not before fans were able upload videos to YouTube and comb through the game’s files.
The first big revelation from the beta was that the game would allow the player to select from three different play styles. They were action mode (which automatically chose dialogue options so you could focus only on shooting), story mode (which lowered combat difficulty so the story flowed quickly) and RPG mode (the traditional Mass Effect experience).
The other big revelation came from the extraction of a rough draft of the game’s script from the beta’s files. BioWare said that feedback from people who read the script would be taken into account in tweaking the game before release. In reality, the game was largely similar to the leaked script with the only major changes being the removal of the mission to Omega and a shorter period of time spent on Earth at the end of the game.
While the leaked script was dismissed as being rough notes, Casey Hudson noted on Twitter that the game’s script had moved into final editing and tweaking on October 27th. For the sake of a comparative timeline, the beta that the script was extracted from leaked on November 4th. The final voice over work was wrapped up by December 7th. The last major component to be completed was the final audio mixes from lead composer Sam Hulick who turned in the last of his work on January 9th.
On February 14th, three weeks before the game’s release, the ME3 demo was released featuring two levels (Prologue: Earth and Sur’kesh) from the single-player campaign and two multiplayer maps. The reception to the demo was positive among the gaming press though that wasn’t unexpected considering how critically acclaimed the Mass Effect series was.
March 6, 2012
The game is officially released to glowing reviews. The console versions of the game scored 92% on Game Rankings and 93% on Metacritic. The PC version of the game scored 88% and 89% between the two aggregation sites, respectively. ME3 picked up perfect scores from major outlets such as Game Informer, Eurogamer, Polygon, G4 and 21 other outlets that make up Metacritic’s total score. BioWare claims over 75 perfect scores. The game went on to win Game Informer’s game of the year award for 2012.
Before fans got their hands on the game, some reviewers were hinting that the game may not be the perfect conclusion to the Mass Effect saga that fans were hoping for. UGO’s review (scoring the game A+) included the line, “there was no way to end Shepard’s story without angering fans.” GameTrailers practically spoiled that there wouldn’t be a happy ending for Shepard by warning, “while the fatalistic conclusion is a disappointment…”
For the most part, the gaming press ignored any potential issues fans might have with the ending, the fans sure didn’t miss it. With some players done the game in under 24 hours, it wasn’t long before fans lit up the internet with justified outrage over the ending. Problems included, but were not limited to, the lack of consequence your decisions had on the ending, a lack of closure, lore contradictions and plot holes. Making things worse was the fact that the seven possible ending cinematics were virtually identical.
Fans reacted in different ways. While most fans were vocal about their displeasure with the endings, either in polls, forums or blog comment sections, some took action. The biggest movement was the Retake Mass Effect campaign. The Retake ME group was more than a petition to get the ending changed but also a charity fundraiser for Child’s Play. While Child’s Play wasn’t happy with being associated the movement so the fundraiser was ended early. That didn’t stop most Retakers from following through on their donations anyway.
Some fans went so far as to effectively write their own ending based on their interpretation of what happened. The most popular was the Indoctrination Theory. This fan-created interpretation of the ending said that the inconsistencies in the original ending could be explained away if they were the result of a Reaper attempt to indoctrinate Commander Shepard. While the theory was very popular among fans jilted by the ending, BioWare largely ignored its existence when talking about the ending on-the-record.
The controversy wasn’t helped by some apparent internal strife inside BioWare. A post on the Penny Arcade forums made by Patrick Weekes said that Casey Hudson and Mac Walters wrote the ending themselves without any peer review and that the released ending was missing content that was originally in the script. While BioWare didn’t officially respond to the comments, they did say that the account was an impersonation of Weekes despite the fact that forum users and the press knew the account was Weekes’.
Polls conducted on the BioWare Social Network (the official BioWare forum) and elsewhere around the internet showed an overwhelming number of gamers didn’t like the ending. One poll on the BSN conducted shortly after the game’s release saw 91% of 75,000 respondents say that the original ending was bad. An extensive survey by the fan site Mass Effect Universe showed that about 90% of 17,500 respondents weren’t satisfied with the ending. However, to this day, BioWare claims that its own research shows that the majority of fans liked the endings despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The gaming media also found itself divided over the ending. Those who liked the ending or thought it shouldn’t be changed took to calling those who didn’t like the endings “whiners” despite the numerous legitimate gripes they had with the ending. Others claimed that BioWare’s “artistic integrity” allowed them to be effectively immune from any criticism about the ending. Those in the media who believe there was a problem with the endings cited the same issues with the ending that fans had been noting.
Day One DLC
Lost in the commotion over the ending was the controversy over the Day One DLC, From Ashes. The From Ashes DLC was released alongside the game on March 6th for $10. Gamers who bought the Collector’s Edition of the game had the DLC included for free but ME3 CE also cost $10 more than the standard release of the game.
The From Ashes DLC allowed Shepard to recruit a Prothean character, Javik, into his party. This seemed like a critical character in Mass Effect lore as Protheans were the forerunners to the current galactic population but were wiped out by the Reapers.
While first day DLC is controversial because of the impression that it was content that was cut out of the game to gouge gamers for more money. In the case of From Ashes, it actually was gouging on the part of BioWare and EA.
Knowing that diehard Mass Effect fans would want to play a Prothean character, they created the character’s recruitment mission as DLC. However, data mining of the game’s files found that Javik’s character model, scripting and all the necessary pieces to make him playable were on the disc. The only thing in the DLC was the recruitment mission required to add him to your party.
BioWare defended this practice by saying that work on From Ashes was done after work on the game was completed. However, Javik was already part of the game’s script from the early on and then was apparently removed later in development only to be re-added as DLC.
Further to that, BioWare said that putting Javik on the disc made it easier to integrate him into the final game’s coding and that they did that with the DLC characters in Mass Effect 2. That omits that in Mass Effect 2, Zaeed was a free DLC character (one of several pieces of free DLC released for ME2 that weren’t part of plans for ME3) and Kasumi was only $7 (and a much better written character than Javik).
April 5, 2012
BioWare caves to the pressure of fans feeling utterly dissatisfied with the ending of Mass Effect 3 without admitting they’re caving. In a press release, they announce an updated ending called “Extended Cut” which would extend the scenes of the ending and expand on it with new cinematics and cut scenes. However, the endings would not be altered.
In an interview ahead of the release of Extended Cut, Casey Hudson implied that the original endings were written in a way to leave the resulting state of the galaxy up to the players’ imaginations. However, most players interpreted the ending differently than how Hudson and lead writer Mac Walters intended. To clarify how the endings were intended to be interpreted, the Extended Cut would be released.
June 26, 2012
The Extended Cut DLC is released. The endings didn’t fundamentally change but BioWare did add a fourth ending which contradicted their original announcement that said that they that the original endings would only be expanded on.
The new ending was termed “Refusal.” In it, Shepard rejects the options presented by the Star Child, saying the galaxy would stand on its own merits rather than select the unacceptable choices presented. The result was the Reaper cycle of galactic extinction continuing and the player effectively losing. BioWare also ended the practice of gamers shooting the Star Child out of frustration over the ending by having that trigger the refusal ending.
Apart from the addition of the fourth ending option, the Extended Cut saw scenes added to fill in some plot holes (though a couple more were opened as a result), a new epilogue slide show that gave a high-level overview of what happened in the galaxy following the ending and a final scene aboard the Normandy to see what happened to your crew.
The reaction to the Extended Cut was still mixed. The general consensus was that the Extended Cut endings were better than the original endings but there was a feeling that BioWare trolled the fan base who wanted a refusal option by effectively making it a losing option.
It wasn’t even 24 hours after the release of Extended Cut that the internet was buzzing with news of ME3’s first single-player DLC. Folks combing through Extended Cut’s files found references to a new mission called Leviathan which was originally thought to be about a rogue Reaper named Leviathan. A couple of weeks later, voice actor Anthony Skordi (who voiced Leviathan) confirmed the existence of the DLC. BioWare didn’t officially announce the DLC (nor did they acknowledge its existence) until August 2nd.
The DLC was released on August 28th to mixed reviews. While the visuals and voice acting were nice, nothing was really added in terms of gameplay. At its core, Leviathan was a lore-centric DLC that filled in the back story about the creation of the Reapers. There was a general feeling that given that this DLC dealt with an important part of the lore, it should have been included as part of the main campaign rather than as paid DLC.
Another data mining job confirmed that the expected Omega DLC was being worked on. August’s Firefight weapon pack DLC had files tagged for maps set on Omega. This wasn’t a surprise as dialogue in the single-player campaign hinted that an Omega mission was coming.
Like From Ashes, there was some controversy over the fact that Omega was very likely cut from the main campaign only to be repackaged in the DLC. The game’s files on-disc contained script elements referring to the mission on Omega. The taking back of Omega was also a part of the leaked script I wrote about earlier. Even an official BioWare news video about the game’s development showed Omega’s ruler, Aria T’Loak, as a squad member in an early build of the game.
BioWare first officially hinted at the upcoming DLC by showing screens at Montreal Comic Con in August. In September, BioWare GM Aaryn Flynn confirmed the existence of Omega in a post about the company’s future after the departure of founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk.
While Omega was good fan service that brought back a fan favourite character and location and introduced the first female Turian character in the series, it was crushed by the weight of expectations. BioWare promised the moon with this one by introducing the Adjutant enemy unit and promising a DLC twice as long as Leviathan. It turned out to be only marginally longer than Leviathan.
The biggest complaint about the DLC was that Omega was more about shooting waves of enemies than about the story. While there may have been more action than Leviathan, it certainly didn’t have as interesting a narrative.
Mass Effect 4
In addition to confirming that the Omega DLC was coming, BioWare’s Aaryn Flynn also confirmed that work had also begun on Mass Effect 4. Unlike the Shepard trilogy, the next game would be developed by BioWare Montreal, who developed the “N7” missions in Mass Effect 2, ME3 multiplayer and ME3 Omega. Although not officially confirmed, given that there is no release date for the game yet and that it’s being developed on the Frostbite 2 engine, Mass Effect 4 is likely to be released on the next generation of home consoles.
Once again, data mining had confirmed the existence of a Mass Effect 3 DLC. This time, files included in the Omega DLC hinted at the creation of new Citadel levels. The Citadel DLC was also rumoured to exist thanks to an alleged leaked DLC schedule. While that DLC schedule turned out to be false, Citadel turned out to exist.
In December, BioWare employees started to confirm some of the leaks that had popped up around the internet. Manager Mike Gamble said that had played two hours of the DLC before having to be pulled away. Level designer Jos Hendriks took to the BioWare Social Network to answer questions about who was involved in the DLC and what stage of completion it was at. Hendriks revealed that most of the game’s writers were involved and the initial work had been completed with “polishing” work still required.
The DLC was released on March 5th which coincidentally was the closest day that PlayStation and Xbox Live stores are updated to the one-year anniversary of the game’s release. While it wasn’t the ending changing or post-ending DLC that many fans were hoping for, it was one last chance for players to see the characters they met over the course of their adventures as Commander Shepard.
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Cross-posted from The Lowdown Blog.