Mass Effect 3 is finally here. The effects are pretty much as predicted; an attendant shower of hype and commensurate drops in productivity. The juggernaut is thundering through, and there's little or nothing to be done but let it roll by.
What has been effective (possibly even SUPEREFFECTIVE) was the user rating system on Metacritic. New users have created accounts just to post extremely negative scores and vote others who did same up, until anyone who reads the user reviews is greeted with a wall of red zeroes. The avalanche of down-checks dropped the user rating to 3.6 as of this writing, while the professional rating is over a nine.
This isn't the first time this has happened. Portal 2 received a similar treatment, mostly from PC users complaining that the game was a console port and others complaining about the day-one DLC. Bastion and Toy Soldiers: Cold War both had similar problems last fall, but Metacritic found the culprits and removed the reviews that were skewing things. Metacritic is investigating the Mass Effect 3 situation, and we'll see what they do.
Any big aggregator with user input systems like this is vulnerable to this sort of abuse, and it's not even limited to games. Amazon's ratings system has been used as a club to beat people in many media, many times. And who cares? It's just anonymous user input, right? Not necessarily. In the case of Metacritic, there is another layer of complexity and some bigger issues outside this box that make the comparison a little more invidious.
Amazon isn't purporting to be an authority on the official critical reception of the item. Metacritic does. But they don't just pull in all the scores and take an average. Metacritic grades on a curve, and grades the cheerleaders higher than the geeks (I thought I got past that nonsense in high school). They're not shy about it, either.
Then the can of worms gets the whole top half torn off when you realize how many business decisions game publishing companies make based on those numbers. Everything from funding choices, royalty payments, PR decisions — you name it — is bound up in in chasing that little green box. It's so crucial that last fall Telltale was caught trying to up their own scores on the site.
Good news: As a player you aren't trapped in that quagmire. Since you're not a game dev trying to get a word in edgewise with one of the great green-belching publishing gods, you can decide how big of a bucket of salt you want to take with all of Metacritic's numbers.
And you control how the game plays at your house. When you're facing the dilemma of how to handle the additional romantic possibilities in your own playthroughs, I have a secret trick to help you. If you don't want any homosexual sex, then don't flirt with anyone in the same gender. Really. It totally works. Not only that, but if you buy into the notion that any commander who starts playing with his "privates" that way is just looking for trouble regardless, you can simply not flirt with anyone at all.
Don't worry. You will not accidentally make one wrong choice and wake up somewhere awkward. None of your potential partners in this endeavor are slinking around on the Normandy's bridge so they can try and trip you and beat you to the floor. It takes some serious attention to the steps of the mating dance to get that short, lame-o cutscene, and there's no guarantee of success with any of them.
There are similar tactics you can use for the other issues I've seen raised. If you don't want to participate in what you see as a cash grab with that DLC, then don't buy it. The game plays just fine without it. If you're feeling particularly pithy, instead of an ephemeral entry in a dubious anonymous forum that will be washed away by their rose-colored scoring system, you could try a sternly worded note to EA as to why you voted with your feet and didn't buy it. If you don't like the fact that your actions in multiplayer affect your single-player game, don't play multiplayer until you've finished it. Some people might even consider that a sort of ExtraHard mode and give you a little e-cred. Or heck, just play the game in Story mode and avoid the whole issue if you want.
==== Warning: the next few paragraphs make a lot of vague assertions about the ending that may or may not count as spoilers. ====
The various endings of the game have the opposite effect. I've earned two of them, and now that I know the score, I'm not sure I'm going to go after the third. I spoke to a friend of my son's on St. Patty's Day, and we discussed his feelings. He's frustrated and angry. Not to the point of reporting it to the FCC or joining a class action lawsuit, but genuinely upset. I see it as two separate problems.
First off, it makes all three games seem pointless. You've made thousands of choices to shape your character and their story through all three games, but you end up at the same spot whether you're a jackbooted thug or a knight-in-shining-armor. Then you make what they try to build up to be a great final choice, and all roads lead to the same place. They even use a lot of the same footage, which doesn't help this impression.
Second, none of the choices feel like you actually won. This, I think, is the real key. The game was about saving the universe, but no matter what you choose in the end you're left staring at a shattered galaxy. Whether your Shepard lived or died didn't matter in the face of the rest of it.
The genre set certain expectations. People were expecting to bulls-eye a few womprats and drop a torpedo down the exhaust shaft. At worst, they would have faced their own Kobayashi Maru and tricked or fought their way through it. They were not expecting Seven Samurai, and they feel betrayed.
I understand where people are coming from, but I don't feel it. I thought it was kind of ballsy, myself. I see a lot of value in the fight to get there, and I'm not under any illusions that all battles can be cleanly won. I'm old; these days I'm not sure any battle can be considered "won" at all.
==== End Warning ====
The whole thing confuses me. With one hand they gave us more choices, and everyone complained. For people who seem so attached to the notion of having the freedom to choose and taking control of our own actions, we sure seem scared of having to make those choices. Then they take it all away and make things simple, and we complain some more. And in both cases, the means of complaint don't send a clear message to the powers that be.
I've read rumors that they're thinking about going back and changing things somehow, but I don't know how that would make any difference at this point. They made their choices, and they're going to have to figure out where to go from here.