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.
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.
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.