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Mass Effect 3's excellent middle

I've been super busy lately working on way too many things at the same time (I know, what's new?), but I'm still finding time to play Mass Effect 3 when I can. I think I'm closing in on this notoriously bad ending now. I've avoided spoilers, but haven't avoided the never-ending conversation about it. Every game site, twitter feed and podcast has talked about it. By now my expectations are so low I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy it.

The one thing that bums me out with all this ME3 talk is that no one seems to focus on what was done right. The game might have a bad ending, but it has a fantastic middle. Here are some improvements over the previous two games I've noted and appreciated while playing:

-More talky talk.They scaled back the chatter in ME2, to the point that the only time you heard from your companions was if you sought them out. In ME3 they have more to say to you and to each other. They talk during missions, spit out quick quips and observations, they bring up past escapades, even call each other from different rooms when they're on the ship. You also see them out when you're on the Citadel, doing their own thing, sometimes hanging with other members from the crew or people from past games. The ME3 crew is a lively bunch.

-Better level design.There's nothing in the codex about the universe discovering ladders between ME2 and ME3, but I'm glad they did. The levels in ME3 are more dynamic and vertical and the backgrounds often depict scenes of epic battle. There's a richness and depth to them that make it feel like you really are a specialized crew weaving in and out of a greater conflict. A couple of the missions easily outrank anything the first two games did, even the well-regarded DLC missions for ME2. There's particularly cool one with the Quarians and Geth that offered something completely different while delivering some great story bits.

-It's like a movie!Remember when the first Mass Effect came out and we all flipped over the conversation wheel and the cinematic camera angles that framed your talks with aliens? Well the improvements in cinematic presentation made in ME3 (compared to ME) are like the difference between a crappy indie film and a big budget action movie. People walk and talk, camera angles shift multiple times in a conversation, set piece moments have some nice shaky cam to up the immediacy and urgency. How come no one is talking about that stuff? Look at the cool quick videos in the shuttle as you fly out to a planet. Shepard checks a computer screen, walks to the cockpit, talks with the pilot, chats with his companions, then hops out and starts shooting, all of it in-game. Also, lens flare!

-Multiplayer is fun.When the multiplayer was first announced, I wasn't outraged like some purists, but I couldn't say I was excited. It's not what I go to Mass Effect for. Turns out it's actually a lot of fun. You know how Call of Duty borrows some of the RPG-like level progression in its multiplayer? ME3's is like that, but deeper. You get the same powers and guns as you do in the single player, and you level up skills on branching trees the same way too. Plus you can play as aliens. No it's probably not going to unseat Call of Duty as the world's most popular multiplayer, but it's still a lot of fun.

So the ending isn't great, oh well. I've read plenty of books and seen tons of movies that didn't end well (Wise Man's Fear anyone? What about the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy?). Maybe I'll have more to say when I finally see it, but for now, I don't regret my time with Mass Effect 3 or my purchase. And I really don't like the idea of Bioware caving in and changing the ending. That creates a bad precedent, and all the petitions make gamers look like a bunch of whining, self-entitled douchers.

Just like the last two games, I'm already planning my second play-through. There are some parts in the middle of this game I can't wait to see again.

On a related note, Gamespot is holding a Mass Effect pixel art contest. I've never done pixel art, but it's something I always wanted to try. Here's my entry, a 2D "demake" of Mass Effect. Pixel art can be extremely tedious, but it's a lot of fun to figure out how to use the limited space to convey as much information as possible.