Alright, I just finished Mass Effect 3‘s Citadel DLC last night and I’m still a little bit baffled so forgive me if I’m not altogether cogent while writing this. I’ve gone back and edited this thing about a dozen times, adding in further elaboration on plot points, plot holes, and general contrivances. I’m just posting as is now because at this point I’m not sure if I want to keep examining this thing very closely. It’s just going to continue to frustrate me, though whether that frustration will be greater or lesser than that I’ll feel when I realize I forgot to include a particularly biting criticism later remains to be seen.
In case that lead-in wasn’t enough of a clue, what follows isn’t going to be particularly kind. While it’s true that my outlook towards the Mass Effect franchise has been soured a bit over the last year, I do always try to point out good or entertaining pieces where I find them, and whether I can recommend something is based on whether or not those good things outnumber and/or overshadow the bad. Mass Effect 3 on the whole managed to squeak out a thumbs up from me because there was enough good stuff in it to balance out the flaws (so long as you ignore the last 10-20 minutes). Everything surrounding Tuchanka for example still provides a lot of great memories for me to fall back on even when the finale can still summon up a lot of lingering nerdrage. The game had a few saving graces, and it’s why I still get the desire to fire it up again every once in a while.
Citadel really doesn’t have quite as big of a safety net, though. While still being technically part of the Mass Effect series, albeit as an add-on, it doesn’t even remotely fit. It’s a discordant, directionless hodge-podge of ham-fisted fanservice that awkwardly stumbles over its callbacks and in-jokes and outright faceplants into the new content it tries to deliver. While it does boast a few bright spots here and there, the whole experience felt like a net loss that I really could have done without.
If you haven’t played it yet (and I’m not sure that I can recommend that you do) then be forewarned: spoilers follow.
Citadel begins on (surprise, surprise) the Citadel, where you’re given Admiral Anderson’s private apartment as a place to “recharge between missions”. I suppose we’ll just ignore that the Normandy has a pretty nice Captain’s cabin, a stocked kitchen, and a complete lounge and bar where Shepard could relax if he really wanted, but what with Anderson being stuck on Earth using small arms to battle two-kilometer long starships I guess he won’t really be needing it. So with your swank new digs, you’re free to enjoy some shore leave, which is promptly cut short by yet another group of mercenaries who can’t seem to understand that you’re trying to save everyone (including them) from certain destruction. This opening sequence feels like Die Hard on a space station (something which I’d really love to play, so get on that developers) but quickly shifts focus to a mystery/investigation story as you try to hunt down the people coming after you and figure out what they want.
At the very least there’s a few interesting environments to fight your way through, and one to explore and interact with in a party atmosphere similar to the ME2 Stolen Memory DLC (it even uses the same background music) before you finally find out who’s behind it all:
Yeah, you read that right. I know, I kinda wish I was imagining things too but I couldn’t drink enough to make that particular bit of stupid go away. In a plot twist straight out of Star Trek: Nemesis (a plot that no one should ever try to emulate under any circumstances) Commander Shepard has to face off against his own clone.
|Yeah, it’s kinda like that|
Apparently the DoppelShepard was created from Shep’s own DNA during the Lazarus project, so that Shepard would have a source of perfectly matched replacement parts if he lost an arm or needed a kidney or something. There are a couple of really glaring problems with this. For starters, this is probably the most needlessly complex way to produce medical inventory I’ve ever heard of. In a setting where cybernetics are moderately common and things like tissue growth and organ cloning are already possible, there is absolutely zero need to create an entirely new being, complete with consciousness to use for harvesting body parts. And since it apparently cost a stupid amount of money to bring Shepard back to life, then wouldn’t this thing have cost an equal amount of money and resources? All to get a few cautionary backups that could just as easily be fulfilled by something far less expensive and unstable? But I guess it was made by Cerberus and everything they do is stupid and a danger to themselves and others so actually that’s about on par.
What I can’t explain away, however, is that Miranda, who was in charge of the Lazarus Project that revived you and oversaw all things related to the second coming of Shepard is just as surprised by this as the rest of us. The person who ran the project that would have created this clone has no idea it exists? That’s… very implausible, BioWare. I know this is difficult for some writers to grasp, but there’s a big difference between a plot twist and an ass pull. This was the latter. I have no earthly idea why, in a setting and time where things like indoctrinated sleeper agents would be a very real threat to contend with in a refugee-heavy place like the Citadel they decided instead to go with Attack of the Clone.
The rest of the main adventure has you chasing down your evil twin, trying to stop him from stealing your identity, your ship, and your life as a whole which he wants to steal because just like every other clone in fiction, he has has homicidal sibling rivalry issues. Throughout it all it seems like both Shepard and the squad realize just how stupid this whole thing is and steadfastly refuse to take it seriously. Bad one-liners, wink-at-the-audience in-jokes, and borderline leaning on the fourth wall runs rampant throughout the whole misadventure until you finally vanquish the DoppelShepard and nothing on a grand scale is really changed apart from a lot of property damage on a Citadel that’s destined to be destroyed by the end of the game anyway. You never really have the opportunity to make any choices, and those that you do make don’t matter or affect the plot in any way at all. Additionally, the obnoxious binary dialogue options have now given up all pretense of player choice, with real in-game examples including “you’re lucky I don’t kill you” vs. “I want to kill you” and my favorite, “I will end you” vs. “I will end you painfully”. I’m not kidding, these are actual dialogue wheel choices in the game.
|Full comic here|
Finally with that out of the way the DLC can get around to what it’s really here for: transparently kissing the collective ass of the character fanbase while still not resolving many real problems. It’s the equivalent of some jackass buying his wife a necklace instead of actively trying to fix the relationship.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully in agreement that the way Mass Effect 3 handled a lot of characters from the previous two games was pretty awful and even a lot of the interaction with more current squadmates left a lot to be desired. It’s just that everything here is dripping in so much feel-good, fanservice-y schlock that I think I dislocated a cornea from rolling my eyes so hard. I haven’t checked to see who was actually in charge of the writing for this DLC but as far as I can tell it was outsourced to 15-year-old girls writing fanfiction on Tumblr.
See, after putting the boot to your clone, you round everybody up back at Anderson’s place and throw a big party, because y’know, that’s obviously a pressing matter that we need to attend to. You can invite the whole crew, including your squad from Mass Effect 2 and let them hang around the apartment, doing the party thing. Characters will gather in groups in various parts of the building, talking about this and that and you can drop in to take part or just listen in. Though by “take part” I mean “hit a button to lean against a counter and then let auto-dialogue unfold”. I don’t think the dialogue wheel pops up once during this entire sequence and all you can do is listen. And a lot of what you’re listening to is just so discordant with the tone of the rest of the game that it’s genuinely disconcerting.
The interactions going on are all pretty juvenile, as Traynor talks about latent desires to get it on with EDI (because the sexbot body wasn’t creepy enough, apparently), Liara’s drone assistant puts on a holographic bowtie, and everybody busts a move on the dance floor. Seeing Samara, the rigidly stoic warrior-monk and Jack, the deeply disturbed violent psychopath get jiggy with it (na na na na na na) is just… I mean, I don’t really know how to respond. Perhaps most egregious is Javik, the vengeful, angry, and warlike last remnant of the Prothean species cracking jokes and slamming back beers with the rest of the crew. I’m not sure if I can think of anything more out of character than this off hand.
Except for maybe Zaeed, the violent mercenary trying to get a plush toy out of a claw game for hours on end.
Again, no, I’m not making this up.
This is what I’m talking about when I say that the DLC plays out like fanfiction. Characters are doing things that they would never reasonably do and for no reason other than “it’s cute/funny/whatever”. I’m positive that there are people who were overjoyed by some of this stuff, regardless of how out of place it felt. If you look at the BioWare forums (which I don’t advise you to do under any circumstances) you’ll see page after page of “character support” threads and “fan creation” threads all dedicated to stuff just like this. I guess they’d probably be pretty happy with this whole thing, then, and I can understand why. I mean, we do like these characters and seeing them get to cut loose like this could be fun for a lot of folks. If you like this DLC then cool, enjoy it, but I’m just not that kind of fan. The anime-style “beach episode” has never been my cup of tea.
And really that’s all this is: a bit of disconnected filler that has no impact on anything. I’d be more forgiving of this kind of thing if it didn’t hit us right in the middle of the story Mass Effect 3 presents to us. Remember that this game is about a galactic-scale war, with nothing less than the fate of all life, organic and synthetic, hanging in the balance. The Reapers are out there reaping everything and everybody and if they continue along their current path we’re all going to die horrible deaths. Now you tell me: does this sound like a good time to take a break and throw a house party for your buddies?
Wait, didn’t the game itself already deride this sort of thing as being completely stupid?
Ugh. Looks like we found contradiction #… oh, who even keeps track anymore?
The point is that you just can’t reconcile this absurd little side story with the main narrative unless you imagine the whole thing as some kind of post-ending, alternate universe sort of thing. But we’ve already had to do far too much of that with this game, especially considering that no one should ever have to resort to this kind of “head-canon” in the first place.
The rest of the game is based around urgency: you need these resources and these allies right now or you’re going to die. Taking extended breaks in the middle of that doesn’t make a lick of sense and I felt like I couldn’t really get behind what was going on because I knew I should have been somewhere else, helping to save the galaxy. This kind of awkward sense of avoiding your duty isn’t really helped by the light and cheery dialogue that’s always pouring out of everybody’s stupid, grinning faces. Billions of people in the Parintha system alone are getting massacred right now and- wait, James, what are you doing? Are you ordering a f*cking pizza? And now everybody’s cracking really forced, awkward jokes about it? Why the hell am I playing this again?
|Once more, I’m not kidding|
Fortunately I don’t have to end things here, though. Despite all the problems there were still a few good things about Citadel. Even though basically everything happening was stupid and out of place, some of it was nonetheless entertaining. You may not get to interact with much of the chatter in the apartment, but there’s some genuinely amusing stuff going on. By the end of the night Zaeed, Wrex, and Javik have turned the bar counter into a makeshift firing range, using the furniture as cover. Zaeed tries to hit on Samara with predictable results, and Grunt has a little bit too much to drink and drops a Cowboy Bebop reference. I’ll admit, I laughed. Most of the jokes fall flat and feel way too forced but some of them are actually pretty good.
And there’s even one or two moments that manage to tug at your heartstrings a bit. You can find recordings from Anderson’s in-progress biography scattered around the apartment which provide some nice background on him, the Normandy, and even Shepard himself. You get a chance to talk one-on-one with some of the members of your squad, both old and new, and some are pretty nice. And if you really want to tempt tears, you can even find a recording of Mordin singing a few lines from “Amazing Grace”, along with a few more humorous adaptations of classic patter songs. And the last scene with you and your squad before you board the Normandy at the end of the adventure is in all honestly probably a good place to just go ahead and turn the game off, leaving the ending up to your imagination. It’s not the perfect capstone by any means, but it’ll do in a pinch.
So Citadel isn’t entirely without merit. It does manage to hit the right buttons every now and again but I can’t help but feel that it’s only because it was desperately flailing its hands against the keyboard in one last-ditch attempt to endear itself to fans. Ultimately, it’s too little, too late, and too ridiculous to really work for me. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything that was so willfully irreverent towards its overarching subject matter as this DLC is to Mass Effect 3. It’s just a shame as this is the last bit of the Mass Effect trilogy we’ll ever see, and it comes across as the final discordant note in an opera that has in all honestly been dying a slow death since 2010. As I said in my review of the Extended Cut, none of this can ever really destroy the great stuff we’ve gotten out of the trilogy over the years but it does wreck some of the potential that we always thought the series had.
So now we’re done. One year after Mass Effect 3 launched and just days after its last piece of DLC hit the market I guess I’ve finally run out of Mass Effect. I’ll be honest, I don’t really know how to end this post in light of that, as I think I did a better job of wrapping things up in my last two Mass Effect-related reviews, both for the main game and the Extended Cut. There’s certainly a lot more that I could say about this DLC, the game, and the franchise as a whole but I just don’t know how to get into it without making this even more rambling and difficult to follow than it already is. And really, a part of me is just tired of talking about it. I’ve had so many discussions about this game over the last year and I’ve never walked away from a single one of them feeling good about anything. Really, I think I’m just feeling a little bummed now that it’s finally done for good and it was all less than we knew it could be. That said, it still remains one of my favorite game worlds. Whether that says more about me than it does the quality of the game is up to you, I suppose, but there it is. So long, Mass Effect. And thanks for all the good times.