Welp. I finished Leviathan today, and I must say, BioWare's done it again. By which I mean they've betrayed us and shamelessly sold out their artistic integrity. The Mass Effect universe is forever ruined (again) and it shall never again see the light of the favour of the fans.
Just kidding. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the Leviathan DLC, and despite a couple nagging concerns, I'd say it was an excellent DLC worth both my time and money. It wasn't exactly over the top, and it's certainly no Lair of the Shadow Broker, but it's a good start.
I bought every Mass Effect 2 add-on without thought, and I never regretted doing so. When Leviathan came out, I was a little hesitant. It's a little difficult to enjoy a DLC that takes place before the events of an underwhelming and poorly written ending, but a lot of that is alleviated by the Extended Cut anyway, so I decided a few more adventures with Spartacus Shepard and co. couldn't hurt.
For the most part, I was right.
An Immersive Experience
Despite BioWare's recent track record and seeming philosophy of following Murphy's Law, there was a lot to like about this DLC for me. I especially liked the way it built suspense; The truth behind the ominous "Reaper killer" was something I genuinely wanted to know. This kind of mystery is done very well, in part because of pre-established lore. We know and have seen what Reapers are capable of, and know that taking one down is not easy. Thus, when we hear of some force that can kill a Reaper, we're intrigued.
The whole thing included three missions with trips to Bryson's lab in-between. This worked out well, as the down time let helps to build suspense further with dialogue and tiny hints. Creepy creature sightings and wicked cool experiments are a plus, too.
The missions themselves are pretty straightforward; not a lot was added in the combat department. I would have liked to maybe see a new enemy type or something to that effect, but other than that the gunfights were pretty fun. Mixing it up few mechanics from multiplayer also helped keep things fresh, and I hope to see more of that in the future. Having to run back and forth recharging a battery and defending drone keeps you on your toes at all times, and helps to break up the monotony of "go here, take cover, shoot some baddies, rinse repeat".
I especially enjoyed the action set-pieces, which were all done very well. The climax was also awesome, with an underwater section reminiscent of BioShock 2. The dialogue at the end was pretty interesting, though in itself it presents an issue with the game as a whole. At first, I was a little worried that this add-on would present more issues with the lore, but the story of an aloof race of cuttlefish whose creations go rogue is pretty good stuff.
The Drop Off
There was one horrible moment amidst this mystery, however. Back at the lab, the words "Hey loco, need a hand?" ring in my ears. I whip around and stare in disbelief. My worst nightmare come true.
It was Vega.
Of all my squadmates, it had to be him. Of all the people who had to come down and help out, they chose Vega. This is a man who thinks hacking and smashing are one in the same. He's a stereotype pulled straight out of the Jersey Shore. I stopped bringing him on missions ever since he crashed a shuttle on Mars. I hate Vega. Couldn't it have been anyone else? Why not Garrus, or my love interest, or Kaiden, or Liara? Hell, I would have preffered having Ashley Williams help me out in that scene, had she not gotten vaporised on Virmire (that sounds like a great title for a heavy metal song actually....). I know it sounds like I'm totally joking here, but this was actaully the absolute worst part of the DLC for me. I mean, the scene was tense and really well done (I especially liked the Renegade interupts) but having to talk to Vega....
My personal hatred of Mr. Beefcake aside, I also felt there was a disheartening lack of choices in this DLC. The whole thing was completely linear, with no moral choices being presented to us outside of the usual black/white dialogue choices and a few interrupts. I was hoping the writers would throw a couple of curve balls our way, but instead we got a very linear albeit exciting experience. I hope we can see more choices in future additions, seeing as how important it is to replayability and roleplaying.
The Beginning of a Better End
Note: the following sections are not really part of the review proper, but more an analysis of the ending and how it could have been impacted by Leviathan. Expect spoilers all the way down to the bottom.
So after all this, was it worth getting? I'd say so, yes. It's certainly avoidable, and for those who have given up on the franchise altogether (can't say I blame you) this isn't exactly enough to redeem it. As I've said before, the Extended Cut does a pretty good job of improving the ending(s) enough to make playing through again possible, though a lot of the core issues and bad ideas remain. The bad writing of the ending aside, this doesn't do much to improve it. The extra lines of dialogue are certainly welcome, though it doesn't have much of significant impact. It's better, I suppose, but it's also negligible. I for one won't be replaying the ending until all of the DLC is released, and we can see the true, final ending.
Why do I have to buy and play through all the downloadable content just to understand the main plot? Revealing a bit of back-story and lore is great, but information required to fully understand and enjoy the ending should not be tied to DLC. Part of what made the ending so jarring is that it introduced a new character and a new conflict that superseded the main conflict of the story. The focus of the plot shifted from "Destroy the Reapers" to "Stop the ongoing tension betwixt Organics and Synthetics". This becomes our primary objective, and to change the central conflict this late in the story so abruptly is both confusing and anticlimactic. The trilogy took its time building up a different plot than the one it ended on; As a whole, the Mass Effect series wasn't about Synthetics vs. Organics.
Is there some inherent problem with this conflict? No. Actaully, I think it would have been a pretty good idea, if it were introduced earlier. The problem here isn't foreshadowing (or lack thereof), but thematic cohesion. It is bad that this wasn't played up enough, but the real problem is that all of the themes and motifs are mixed up. BioWare tried doing to many things at once, and none of it really stuck. In an epic trilogy such as this, it's more important to have one idea and build off of it rather than tacking on new ideas at the last minute. The only real example of Synthetic and Organic conflict was defenestrated by revelations in the second and third instalment. The geth didn't rebel because their masters lacked purpose, they fought back in self-defence. When they started attacking again, it was due to the Reaper's influence.
The fact that we got little to no foreshadowing about this being the main conflict wasn't what made it so underwhelming. The story was never about that. Mass Effect's story has been about the unification of insignificant organics against implacable and inscrutable enemy. It's about their struggle for freedom against the tyranny of the Reapers and their cycle. I like this story about squids with a superiority complex who, through their own blindness and sense of self-righteousness, create a race of machines that both give birth to new life and damn it. If it weren't for the creation of the Reapers, the human race might never have existed, and if it did, the Leviathans would have dominated us entirely. At the same time, it's their existence that guarantees our annihilation. It's hard to get mad at the Leviathan for creating them, when in all likelihood, we owe our existence to them.
All of this is pretty fascinating, but it wasn't implemented properly. We didn't see enough of this kind of storytelling, and thus, we got a confused narrative. The ending suffers from not knowing what it wants to be, as does the DLC. The only real build-up we see to the "Organics vs. Synthetics" conflict was saved for DLC. With the From Ashes add-on, Javik mentions the Metacon War, and how Organics lack purpose. This is an example of strengthening the main theme, not foreshadowing. Seeing the Leviathan's dominance echoes this as well. We see how they struggled against other organics, and saw the Reapers as a solution. This genesis works well as a reveal, but it's the only time we actually see the supposed tension betwixt organic and synthetic life. More of this should have been spread throughout the series.
As a standalone idea, the Leviathan DLC is great. However, it also highlights one of the major problems with downloadable content nowadays. A good add-on should both fit in will with the story whilst simultaneously being distinct from it. Take L.A. Noire for example. The DLC cases fit in snugly between the others across different desks, but all of them are self-contained; you don't need one or all of them to enjoy the story of the original game. The Mass Effect 3 add-ons serve to reinforce the ending's themes a day late and ten dollars short. Games shouldn't need DLC for them to have a cohesive or coherent plot. A good add-on can shed some light on certain areas, but it needs to be separate from the core plot.
From Ashes, despite being on-disc DLC, did this correctly in one respect. It made a major reveal about the Prothean people, and for those invested in the story's lore, their imperialistic nature came as a bit of a shock. What's so great about this revelation is that it sheds light on the back-story, not the main conflict. It made the narrative richer, but it wasn't needed to have a sense of thematic cohesion.
This, I think, is why the ending to Mass Effect 3 failed. It's isolated from the rest of the trilogy, and whilst the theme had potential, it never lived up to it. This and other DLC may make the game as a whole better, but without any of the DLC, the story doesn't resonate; if these add-ons are so important to the theme, it should have been included in the core gameplay experience.
Whilst an enjoyable piece of add-on content, it isn't overly spectacular, and I feel that it's trying to build on a theme that began with the ending of the trilogy. Fallout: New Vegas has a similar scheme, but the story arc for all the add-ons was isolated from the main game. Knowing "the why of it" and the Courier's past isn't essential to understanding the conflict surrounding Hoover Dam. Ulysses's involvement in the plot is minimal; he merely serves as an instigator. The main plot is not dependent on them, and its themes are separate from that of the core game. If the Reaper's orgins weren't so integral to the final moments of the story, Leviathan would have been a great reveal. Instead, it's something we should have seen in the main game.
My real beef with BioWare is that they didn't implement it. They saved all these themes and ideas for DLC, and as a result everything in the ending fell flat. The fact that we even talked about the Catalyst's problem was in itself a problem, because relatively new ideas have no place in the ending of a story. The shocking discovery behind the Reapers origins would be a cool side story saved for DLC, but because the "Synthetics vs. Organics" problem was brought up in the ending, it should have been addressed in the core plotline. That's why so many people were confused, disappointed, and upset. I like the "Synthetics vs. Organics" idea, hell, I love it. That's why I'm criticising it; it wasn't implemented properly. I don't disagree with their artistic decisions; I'm simply stating that how they did it was the problem.
With all the add-ons, the ending may have enough proper reinforcement to be cohesive and coherent, but it seems a bit silly that we have to pay more than the 70+ dollars I paid just to play everything on my disc. That said, the lack of build-up for the "Organics vs. Synthetics" conflict isn't a criticism of the DLC itself per se, but it is reflective of why the ending angered thousands of people.
To summise my thoughts on Leviathan:
- Big action set-pieces: APPROVAL
- Mystery and suspense: ALSO APPROVAL
- Reinforcing themes that were shoehorned in the ending: BAD IDEA
- Having Vega pop out of out nowhere: NIGHTMARISHLY HORRIBLE