No game series, to my knowledge, has accomplished what Bioware set out to do with Mass Effect.
Yes, good/evil decision trees have existed in games before, as have alternate paths and endings. But to even attempt to carry a galaxy’s worth of dilemmas across the arc of three long, storied campaigns is unthinkable by comparison. The pieces in play are numerous, and the work in making it come to fruition?
Bioware probably exhausted the entirety of Costa Rica’s coffee reserves along the way.
That work, of course, would be wasted if the end of the Mass Effect trilogy failed to deliver on the promise inherent in its predecessors. But while there are some bumps along the way and, yes, even at the end, the overall execution of Shepard’s story –your story– is powerful, engaging, and heartfelt. Players who have been waiting to see how the end (or salvation) of the galaxy plays out will be mostly satisfied.
Storytelling has always been the primary strength of Mass Effect, though the questionable events at the end of Mass Effect 2 leave the plot in an awkward position at the beginning of ME3. Having destroyed the seemingly pointless human/Reaper hybrid in Collector headquarters, Shepard returns to Alliance space with seemingly zero evidence to support her entire adventure.
The plausibility of this premise aside, the plot kicks off as our hero’s predictions come true and hundreds of Reapers descend upon the galaxy to begin… ahem… reaping organic life everywhere. Each race is determined to fight for survival, but your task over the course of the game is to leverage Shepard’s skills, both in combat and in conversation, to bring all sentient life together to stop the Reapers. As you might imagine, this mainly consists of surviving insanely unlikely battles and screaming at people about sacrifice and what’s at stake; namely everything.
There are plenty of plot holes along the way, but given the scope of the hell Bioware’s writers must have endured to create a coherent story across three games with hundreds of decisions, it’s largely forgivable. What stands out is not the individual events in the story, but the overall tone.
In contrast to previous games in the series, Mass Effect 3 portrays a Commander Shepard who is continually broken as the game wears on. From the moment she witnesses an early civilian casualty, to the inevitable losses of long-time comrades, she faces considerable emotional stress. Many discussions throughout the narrative force the player to put on an optimistic face for the good of the galaxy, but as the fight drags out, even the small victories achieved come at increasingly greater cost. Unlike previous iterations, it feels, at a certain point, that Shepard’s failure is almost a likely outcome.
By now, you most likely know the game’s ending is extremely controversial. Many consider it an overbearing case of deus ex machina. Other theories circulating the internet posit the ending was not entirely real, and that the actual plot ends somewhere before the grandiose final events. Having read the associated evidence, I think it’s plausible, if unlikely.
But while I was disappointed in the last 90 seconds or so of the game, I can’t actually complain. Bioware has created a story that, while not satisfyingly resolved, succeeded in its goals. Over the course of 45-120 hours (depending on your pace), Mass Effect made you Commander Shepard. Sure, some of your choices didn’t always matter, but they always felt like they mattered. Unsurvivable odds were survived, but they always felt dire and impossible. The series’ colorful characters became a part of every story, and their own sacrifices along the way cost Shepard both strategically and emotionally. I don’t think any three minutes of gameplay, no matter how bizarre, could ruin 98% of an otherwise masterful narrative production.
The good news is that if you’ve played Mass Effect 2, you already know how to play Mass Effect 3.* The vast majority of the gameplay: hiding behind cover, using abilities, controlling squadmates, and making dialog choices, are basically the same with small tweaks. Each character class has received tweaks to existing skills and gained an additional ability, so the transition won’t be as rough as between Mass Effect 1 and 2. Cover works a little differently, with additional options for vaulting around the landscape, but not to an extent that will drastically alter your strategy.
The biggest changes to the way Mass Effect plays is that Mass Effect 3 has improved or eliminated most of the annoying quirks of the previous two entries. In most cases, the solution has been to take what fans liked about ME1 and ME2, and combine them in a richer, less aggravating way.
- In ME1, biotic combat was godlike. In ME2, it was nearly impossible to perform well. In ME3, enemies react more realistically to abilities like Singularity despite their armor/shield protection.
- In ME1, players had deep weapon customization but a complicated inventory system. In ME2, players were limited to using stock weapons they found in the game. In ME3, weapons are still found, but can be upgraded along many paths. These upgrades can be purchased or found.
- In ME1, dialog made up so much of the intro many gave up before firing 100 bullets. In ME2, the game seemed intent on having you punch people instead of finish conversations. In ME3, players can choose to play a dialog-only or action-only version of the game (or the normal default of both).
- In ME1, the Mako made planetary exploration for resources unbearable. In ME2, scanning planets for resources was even worse. In ME3, you don’t have to hunt for resources at all. Any scanning you do is highly optional and much less time consuming.
- In ME1, players had limited grenades of differing varieties. In ME2, grenades were forgotten about in favor of abilities. In ME3, grenades are a type of ability that also requires ammunition.
- In ME1 and 2, you could be a heterosexual male or female Shepard. In ME3 not only can you be gay, you can also flip the cover art of the box around to proudly display Femshep on your DVD rack. Three cheers for fair sexual plurality!
None of these changes are major, but they show that Bioware took a long, hard look at what made their game tiresome and removed the bulk of it. Tons of little problems still remain, of course. Cover is too easily slipped out of or into in certain contexts. Certain level layouts are baffling with few clues as to the correct direction to head, partly because the compass autohides.Enemy behavior is largely idiotic and easily exploited, making the majority of the game easy, even on harder difficulties.
I also encountered a number of game-breaking glitches. At one point when talking to EDI, Shepard got stuck to the Normandy’s floor afterwards. I wasn’t able to move and was forced to load a recent previous save. A few times the game crashed on boot, or crashed during a Mass Relay jump. At another section, a Husk got stuck under the floor of the world and the game wouldn’t let me progress until every enemy was killed. Luckily, I was able to use Shockwave to attack it through the floor.
While these bugs may sound bad, they were spread very thinly across the 30 or so hours I spent in the game. They’re not enough to make me discourage trying out Mass Effect 3, though I would recommend saving very often across multiple save files.
Graphically, Mass Effect 3 is middling. Character models look great, with reasonable detail (and significant TNA augmentations on Bioware’s part), though movement animations can be stiff or unnatural. The world as a whole is stunning and captivating, but textures that get too close reveal themselves to be extremely muddy, if not highly pixelated. At the point of the game when Shepard returns to Earth to finish what she started, another character commented on having “a great view” of our blue planet. I could only balk in reaction since Earth was so blurry I couldn’t make out a single landmass, ocean, or cloud. I played Mass Effect 3 on Xbox 360, so it’s certainly possible higher resolution textures were used on PS3 or PC, but it’s no guarantee.
Aurally, the game is another story altogether. Carrying over the powerful theme of Mass Effect 1, many moments in the third iteration’s story are tearjerking by audio cues alone. The music does a wonderful job of adding character to the emptiness of space, as well as underscoring the emotional rises and falls (and there are many) throughout the game’s speaking and action sequences. Voice acting is largely masterful, with the returning role of Commander Shepard played by Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale. The rest of the cast returns from the previous games, though their acting quality is directly proportional to their roles in the narrative. Characters like Ashley/Kaiden, Miranda Lawson, and Jacob Taylor, who are all barely represented, are not particularly impressive. Brandon Keener (Garrus), Ali Hillia (Liara), and Martin Sheen (The Illusive Man) easily steal the show when Shepard’s not in the spotlight.
The game’s UI and general presentation is largely unchanged from Mass Effect 2, which is primarily a good thing. I certainly miss the elevator chats of the first game, but I understand most players don’t. The codex and in-game manual are there, as is Electronic Art’s suffocating presence. The game generally boots quickly, but takes a moment to establish an online connection to Origin, update all your files, then shove DLC sales pitches down your throat. It’s not welcome, but it makes up a tiny minority of the play time.
New to Mass Effect 3 is co-op multiplayer, which pits 4-player teams against eleven waves of increasingly tough enemies. Interestingly enough, the game’s multiplayer ties directly into the story; as Alliance operatives, the player’s multiplayer characters fight to increase “Galactic Readiness” in anticipation of the counterattack against the Reapers. The better you are at playing nice with others, the more quickly Shepard will meet the requirements for initiating the war at the end of the game. For those without the ability or desire to play online, this feature is definitely optional and can be achieved with special single player N7 missions instead. Hell, both are optional as it’s extremely easy to earn Galactic Readiness without either gameplay type.
The multiplayer itself is challenging, varied, and fun. The game throws fairly difficult opposition at you even at the lowest difficulty, and your inability to pause time online means you have to think and react a lot faster to survive these matches.
Instead of a simple Horde Mode infinite survival, players must only last ten rounds, then survive until emergency extraction. Along the way, random objectives like “kill four VIP targets” or “disarm four enemy jammers” or “have four players hack this terminal” appear.** Working with teammates to achieve these goals in time while fending off relentless enemy forces is rewarding.
Instead of the full six character classes, players must choose race/class combinations that feature fewer abilities than Shepard would have on her own. Choosing the right character for certain maps or enemy compositions can make a big difference, as can planning a full squad with other players. Experience is gained based on damage done, challenges completed, and other bonuses, to be spent on skills as usual. Players also earn credits that can be spent on randomized “packs” to unlock or upgrade weapons, single-use equipment, customization options, and more.
It may sound grindy, and it is, but I was able to come in first or second in most matches I played, despite being ten levels under many players in the room. Players who want to spend Microsoft Points or real money to buy packs faster have that option, though it’s certainly not necessary to kick ass.
Is Mass Effect 3 perfect? Far from it. The presentation sees numerous hitches, including major bugs and signs of last minute changes. The story begins and ends with major plot holes, sprinkling a few more into the narrative along the way for good measure. Some decision trees turned out to be red herrings. And you still can’t have sex with a Krogan!
But despite these considerable flaws, I have no reservations proclaiming the Mass Effect trilogy is a masterpiece. On so many levels, ME3 and the series as a whole have set themselves far apart from other games. They’ve combined tense action and rich narrative with a deep, ingeniously-planned galaxy… and woven the tapestry of Shepard’s life across three full-length titles. Bioware created a cast of characters that didn’t just require befriending; you wanted to get to know them. Hell, you might have even fallen in love with one or two.
And Mass Effect 3′s ability to gash your heart while doing the same to the characters you’ve gotten closest to speaks volumes of the level of player investment they’ve managed to earn. I may be sappier than the average geek, but I’m sure gamers playing this title will be left speechless at more than one point in the story. That can’t be said of most games, because most games don’t give you 100 hours to give a damn about the virtual people dying in your immediate vicinity.
You might hate the ending. Hell, I guarantee you’ll hate the ending. But Mass Effect 3 has never been about single plot points. It’s been about who Commander Shepard is to you, the player, and how you choose to bring a galaxy of warmongering idiots to their senses. It’s been about making tough calls and dealing with brutal consequences. And if a single choice and an accompanying cutscene can ruin the magic that Bioware has spent years crafting, I’m sorry to say you’re simply not human. You’re probably not even organic.
And here in Alliance space, that’s pretty much grounds for your extermination.
Not happy with the Mass Effect 3 ending? See proof the ending may be more than it seems…
* If you haven’t, why the hell are you reading this review? Are you one of those people who reads the ends of books first?
** It appears Bioware has a fierce, raging hard=on for the number four.