The Soundless Sins of Mass Effect 3

You'd think this would be noisy.

Mass Effect 3 sounds like shit. I mean that literally. Having played the recently released demo on the PC, Xbox 360 AND PS3, nothing struck me with more force than how awful the sound design is. Sure, the animations were robotic and unnatural, the writing was hammy and cringe inducing, but it’s the shocking lack of effort devoted to creating a realistic, or cinematic sound-scape that sticks out like a throbbing, sore thumb.

Remember how amazing Uncharted 3 sounded when the Villa was burning down around you? Bioware doesn't. Mass Effect has special silent flames.

The biggest problem is what’s missing. I’m not about to complain about the voice work, music or specific sound effects. Those elements aren’t bad, they just sound stupid contrasted with the utter silence of the game world. To give an example, in the opening cinematic the player character, Shepherd, is called to speak in front of the Earth’s “War Council”. On the way to their chamber the base is portrayed as all a bustle as soldiers rush through the halls, to and fro, preparing for an attack. But that’s not what it sounds like. It sounds like two people having a conversation in a static, silent room with some music layered over top. Where is the sound of alarms? Of boots clopping through the halls? Where is the squeak of shoes when a young enlisted man bumbles into Shepherd’s path, heavy breathing, nervous chatter?

The lack of background sound, room tone and foley effects is utterly distracting. Eventually the action moves outside when the base comes under attack, but aside from a number of scripted explosions and fly-byes, the environment remains strangely silent. At one point Shepherd is literally standing on a starship, hovering ten feet above the ocean, shouting down to another character while the city is being destroyed all around, and it still sounds like these two people are arguing in the same silent room. No wind, no lapping tide, no roaring turbine engines, no screams or terror in the distance, weapons fire or groaning structures.

It’s maddening! I hoped the missing audio was a bug, but if it is, it’s one that is present across all three versions of the demo. For a game series so preoccupied with emulating sci-fi cinema, to fail so utterly in the area of sound design is unforgivable. We are not talking about a first attempt from an indie developer’s new IP. This is one of EA’s biggest titles for the year, the third in a franchise that will easily sell five million copies and it’s utterly devoid of ambiance.

In Mass Effect 3 the waves break silently, space ships make no noise and it's easy to talk over the world ending.

I don’t remember the previous Mass Effect games in the series having this deficiency, but it’s hard to say if that is a function of my flawed memory, or simply rising expectations. But whether I’ve been spoiled by the high audio standards set by games like Uncharted, or Bioware has been neglecting an important aspect of Mass Effect 3’s presentation, the result is the same: immersion shattering artifice.

It may be easy to overlook, but creating a convincing, naturalistic aural landscape is paramount to giving any game (or film) as sense of verisimilitude. Good sound is one of the first places low budget, strait to video or made for cable movies make cuts, which is why they can so readily be identified by ear. And there is more to good sound design than creating cool sound effects for your city destroying robots, or cribbing the sound delayed explosions from the asteroid chase in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Less sexy, but more important is the task of making your characters sound like they exist in a real place.

Bioware’s inattention to such details has me more worried about the game than I was before the demo came out. Hopefully it will be a minor complaint about a great title, but I fear it is symptomatic of the same dysfunction that lead to a half baked, under funded Dragon Age 2, and the ongoing abuse of the Bioware brand by EA.

6 thoughts on “The Soundless Sins of Mass Effect 3

  1. Now when you mention it it didn’t sound dead although I never paid attention to it before.. nor do I remember how it’s been with the previous 2 games… thanks for introducing confusion into my life! lol

  2. Great article I totally agree and I noticed the lack of emotion during the scene u mentioned near the water when shepherd called to the commander. It sounds dead. Definitely needs work and it’s good to see it mentioned since sound is really important to game design and shouldn’t be under looked!

  3. Hi,

    As the audio lead for the game I wanted to address your issues directly, sorry for the length of this post! Firstly, thanks for writing up your thoughts about the sound, I’m always interested in hearing people’s opinions about our work. So, in response, there are four things I wanted to cover:

    1) Obviously this is a demo not the final game. As you may or may not know, demos are usually finished before the main game is finished. In addition, the audio is usually the last thing to be completed on a game. Put these two together and it often means that game demos have slightly unfinished audio. Much of what you discuss is fixed in the final version of the game.

    2) You may be familiar with the term ‘dynamic range’ in the context of audio. This is the difference between the loudest and quietest sound. ME3 has a HUGE dynamic range, meaning that many of the subtle sounds that you’re describing may appear quiet in the mix next to the loud or more important sounds. Because of this, we added a dynamic range menu option that allows you to constrain this, for less optimum listening environments. Your listening environment and/or speaker setup may be better suited to the ‘Low’ dynamic range setting, give it a shot. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that the game is actually very quiet compared to many games thanks to this high dynamic range, you may want to crank your output a little more 🙂 There are various technical reasons why we made this choice, i can cover that if you’re interested.

    3) There are some creative choices being made that you are presuming are accidental and a bug. For example, the scene with anderson and shepard before you leave earth is deliberately quiet; it is an intimate moment between you and a close friend. It is bookended by the chaos of battle on one side and emotional intensity on the other… we wanted to bring the mix down at this point to focus on the dialog between the two characters to draw you in. At this point, the battle doesn’t matter, it’s all about you and Anderson. This is a common creative trick used in film which you may have misinterpreted as a bug. Also, as a general theme we wanted to focus the first level on the Reaper invasion, for obvious reasons… so the mix is skewed towards these sounds… other levels in the final game are skewed differently depending on context; some have more focus on environment, just not this one 🙂

    4) There is a great deal of dynamic mixing going on under the hood. For example, each time a Reaper puts his foot down, some of the ambiences duck a little. The same happens when you fire your gun. The same happens when Shep/Anderson talk. A bunch of other stuff causes this too. This is used to clarify the mix, add impact to those sounds and focus the sound on the important things…. which in this case is the Reaper invasion, not the subtle sound of air conditioning equipment, sparks, fires, etc. As you can tell, the demo level you reference has a LOT of this stuff happening all the time causing a great deal of fluctuations in the volume of the environmental audio.

    Finally, we can’t rule out a technical or playback issue at play on your side… or perhaps just personal preference; maybe you just don’t personally like the direction we went with the audio… and that’s totally cool! The only reason I mention this at all is because the response to the demo audio has been overwhelmingly positive… reading the BW forums the sound particularly has been called out by many people as being one of the highlights. Naturally, with a shift like this we’re going to get some people that don’t like what we’ve done… but I hope it doesn’t detract too much from your enjoyment of the game.

    So you know, we put a HUGE amount of effort into the sound design of this game. If you add it up, a total of about 15 years were spent working on JUST the sound effects of this game. Pretty much everything in the game has a sound effect added, despite the fact that ME3 is probably 5 or 10 times larger in scope than most linear games. The audio team at Bioware is a very passionate and talented bunch and we put a lot of blood sweat and tears into this game… and we’re pretty darn proud of the end result. Give the final game a second chance, I really hope you enjoy it… it’s a very special game to us 🙂

    All the best!

    Rob Blake
    Audio Lead – Mass Effect franchise

    1. Hey Rob,

      I really appreciate you taking the time to comment. I suppose as a matter of full disclosure I should have been clear about my audio setup. My PC, PS3 and 360 are all connected to an Onkyo 5.1 channel receiver with 2 way JBL sat. speakers and a 150 watt powered sub-woofer. The PC is connect via 6 channel analog output and the consoles are both connected via digital optical. Audio tests from the receiver and from my computer verify everything is operating correctly.

      I do, however, understand that the demo represents an unfinished version of the game. I look forward to seeing the final version and hope my concerns will be mitigated. And while I found the audio off-putting, I will say I enjoyed the mid-game mission and the multi-player in my time with the demo.

      It may, as you point out, come to a difference of opinion, though. I understand that you’ve made certain choices in the interest of clarity, or dramatic emphasis, but I’m skeptical that they had the desired effect. For example, you mention lowering ambient audio during scenes of intense activity, but it just comes across strange if the more active the scene is, the less activity can actually be heard. And I think hearing stuff like air conditioners, sparks and fire is important because it makes it feel like the Reaper invasion is happening to a real place, and not an empty sound stage!

      Actually, I think the recently released “Take Back Earth” extended trailer is incredibly successful at the things I feel are missing in the demo. There is some amazing use of sound, like the chirping birds in the Sunflower field, or the random dog bark as the Reaper is landing near the little girl in the trailer that goes a long way to establish a sense of place. Mass Effect has raised the bar in production quality that I expect those kinds of touches in the game itself.

      Anyway, thanks again for your friendly, thorough response, especially in the face of my rather provocative tone. Good luck with the launch of the game!

  4. Dear Mr. Blake,

    “Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that the game is actually very quiet compared to many games thanks to this high dynamic range, you may want to crank your output a little more There are various technical reasons why we made this choice, i can cover that if you’re interested.”

    It’s very nice seeing creators taking the time to directly engage with the audience and the critics. Thanks for your message.

    I am a video game developer and film-making aficionado. Because of this, I would be very interested in reading more about the technical reasons behind this decision.

    My personal experience is that using the high dynamic range option makes the game sound way too low on integrated laptop speakers (I know, that’s the worst possible scenario for playing this game…). However, the high dynamic range option sounds *great* with headphones.

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