Somewhere along the way since its 2007 debut, the Mass Effect series managed to sneak up on us like a ninja. Like a multi-platinum selling ninja. From its humble origins as an Xbox 360 exclusive to a “take the day off work and play it on launch day” title, the series has become one of the most beloved on this generation of consoles.
Maybe it was the epic sci-fi setting with a malleable story line. Maybe it was the controversial love scenes that forced respected CNN anchors to dedicate pointless minutes to uncomfortably discussing the potentially shocking naked shoulder, and depictions of two people engaging in an act of love that propelled the game to the status it has now. Whatever the reasons, Mass Effect 3 is going to be a hit regardless of the reviews. But is it any good?
In short, the answer is yes. It is a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy that has been nearly five years in the making, and will be played for years to come. It has a few nagging issues, and it is using the same engine that was dated back when Mass Effect 2 was released in 2010, but it also does many, many things right.
The series hasn’t changed much since it was introduced, but the improvements along the way have been for the best. Mass Effect 2 took what worked in the first and scrapped some of the things that didn’t — like the planetary explorations that had you drive around barren landscapes for hours looking for smugglers or fancy rocks, for example. Like its predecessor, Mass Effect 3 takes many of the things that worked in ME2, and streamlines the overall presentation. It doesn’t change much, but it doesn’t really need to in order to offer a compelling and immersive experience.
No two games
For a game built around the narrative, it is a surprisingly difficult task to describe the story. Not because I am trying to avoid spoilers (although I am), but because each person that has played the first two games, or at least the second, could have a markedly different experience than others that played and made different choices that carried over.
While it is not actually necessary to have played the previous games to understand what is going on, nor do you need the save game data from ME2 in order to enjoy ME3, it makes a huge difference. It it is just a better experience and makes you feel more connected to the story.
When you begin ME3 you have the option to import your character from ME2, then you select your class. If you want to play like a standard third-person shooter, you can specialize in weapons, if you want to know biotics, you can, etc., etc. For the first time you can also choose the type of game you want: RPG, action, or story. The RPG mode is the standard Mass-Effect style, while the action mode selects dialog for you rather than allowing you to choose. The story mode is a bit easier on the combat side for players that just want to see the story unfurl.
Assuming you imported a character, you will then see the choices you made in the previous games that will affect the plot of ME3. These will then have a direct shape on the course of the game. If you have multiple characters, you can see what choices have been brought over, but if you have one character with multiple saves the game will pick the most recently completed game. If you don’t have a save, be warned, you will have to pick up the story as you go, and there is very little preamble.
Every character from the previous titles returns in some fashion, as long as they survived. If not, the game simply works around them. The personal story of Shepard — his interactions with friends, the sides he takes, the people he romances — will be different based on different previous results, but the main overarching plot is the same regardless. The only thing from the previous games that you cannot continue from is if Shepard died at the end of ME2. There simply won’t be a character to transfer over.
Repent sinners, for the end is nigh
Regardless of your choices, the primary story of Mass Effect 3 begins as Shepard is on Earth answering for his actions (which stem from the DLC Arrival). With Shepard on the sidelines and the Galaxy not heeding his warnings of an imminent invasion, the Earth is caught unaware when the sky is suddenly filled with the sentient death machines, the Reapers.
The Earth doesn’t stand a chance, and the world begins to burn. Shepard is ordered off planet to rally the other races for a counterattack on Earth, and to find a way to defeat the Reapers before they extinguish all organic life.
The missions are all generally well designed, and each helps to convey the sense that things are going very, very badly as you frantically try to stay one step ahead of the Reapers (and all those that would stand in your way, including a surprising antagonist or two). War is everywhere, and no one is safe. This is a lesson you learn again and again as the story pushes you deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, and into some truly intense moments. There is also a sense of closure throughout the game, as loose ends are tied up, sometimes for better, other times for worse. After you complete the game, there will be moments you remember for a long time to come.
The game then breaks into a series of quests which are designed to unite various alien factions, as well as several side quests which may add to the overall story or just earn you experience. These side quests are typically fairly straight forward, but like its predecessors, Mass Effect 3 is all about choice.
Almost every priority mission will have options that change the way things play out, and old decisions may come back to haunt you — or save you. Your reputation also plays into it, as does your paragon or renegade standing, giving you even more options in the story.
The paragon and renegade options should be familiar to anyone who has played the previous games (they are your “good” and “bad” choice meter), but the reputation is new. While your actions are still judged as good or bad, as you accomplish goals you earn reputation on top of that. The better your reputation, the more people will listen to you.
For the most part, this makes little to no difference — until suddenly it does. Late in the game I was confronted by a choice that whatever decision I made would create serious and game-altering changes. I played this mission before I had completed several of the side quests, and the result was that my reputation was too low to offer me another choice than the default options. If my reputation had been high enough, I could have talked a massive group out of, or encouraged them, to do something. Instead I made a difficult choice that carried serious consequences throughout the game.
Moments like those make Mass Effect what it is, and in ME3 the stakes are much higher as you head towards the finale—and make no mistake, the series has a finale–but how it plays out are a result of your decisions and your actions.
I could nitpick over the plot–and there are a few minor issues, including a somewhat convoluted explanation towards the end that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling—but in general, the narrative is not only well done, the incorporation of branching plot lines from three games is impressive.
The ending will certainly have people talking. Some will love it, some will hate it, but such is always the way with a beloved series that reaches its conclusion. It is compelling though.
The ugly choices
While it may be a technical feat to manage so many gameplay variables, Mass Effect 3 isn’t without its technical flaws as well. The most obvious are the graphics, which are showing their age. The scope and presentation of Mass Effect 3 is incredible, and there are some jaw droppingly awesome visual moments, but that is more due to the designs than the graphics. The character interactions are also a bit awkward looking — just like in ME2. All of this is really a minor issue though, and game doesn’t in any way ever look bad. Just a touch dated.
The bigger issue is the glitches that include several game-freezing moments, long load screens (installing your game helps), the odd disappearing teammate, and skipped dialog (you should definitely play with the subtitles turned on, or you will miss lines now and then).
None of is a really a major issue on its own, but it does add up. It isn’t anything that will take away from the overall experience, nor should it influence your decision to play or not play this game, but it can be annoying. Besides, the majority of the issues happened during the non-combat moments, and since that is where you will be spending most of your time in Mass Effect 3, that is what you should focus on.
Have laser, will travel
The campaign of Mass Effect 3 will last upwards of 25 to 30 hours on normal, and most of that time will be spent in combat, which has been slightly improved from Mass Effect 2. But if you hated it in the prequel, you probably won’t be moved by the somewhat subtle changes made here.
Mass Effect 2 made the franchise into more of a third-person shooter than the dominantly RPG-based attacks of the original, and ME3 takes that even further. ME3 is still primarily a cover-based shooter, but there have been tweaks to the overall mobility of the character. A new roll function makes the environment far more functional, and the cover system now allows you to round corners. You can also climb over ladders and jump small gaps, which give you far more mobility.
It isn’t really a huge change from the last game, but the changes made are for the best. They are also necessary, since the enemy AI has also been revamped.
The enemies in ME3 can be brutal. They also use tactics and pair up based on complimentary abilities. If husks — the infected former humanoids that run screaming at you — are coming at you, their tactical options are limited. They yell, grab you, and occasionally explode. Subtlety really isn’t their thing, and their offensive options are kind of limited. But now if you see one coming for you, you can expect an enemy in the distance to open fire when you rise to shoot. Other times enemies with shields will act as the vanguard for snipers, or you may be fighting a massive, hulking enemy while their allies will stand back to shoot rather than getting near the close quarter fighting — then once the bigger enemy is dealt with, they will relocate.
It is a smart system. Simply hiding behind cover won’t get the job done, eventually you’ll be flushed out by grenades. To survive, you will need your teammates.
As with the previous titles, you will have a squad of characters, from which you can choose two on each mission to accompany you. The number of teammates and who they are is dependent on the choices you made in previous games (and one is a launch-day DLC character), but they all have strengths and weaknesses.
The system mostly plays out like in ME2 with you upgrading their abilities. The option and weapon wheels are the same as before (although there are more weapons than ever before), and you can tailor the loadouts to suit you.
The biggest change is that your allies will go out of their way to help compliment your attack, and go out of their way to use complimentary abilities at the same time. They are also death happy, and will stubbornly refuse to kill semi-major enemies, but you can heal them and finish their work easily enough. Other than their near-death experiences, they can be tremendous assets to you.
A lot has been made of the Kinect voice controls, which you can use on yourself, your environment, and your allies. It is a solid addition, and they do function well. There are a few instances where your ally may react to the in game speech, but that is infrequent. It doesn’t really make much difference or hurt your game.
The problem is that most of your allies have one attack that you will use more often than any other, and you can map that to your D-pad. You can also direct them in the same way, and both are faster than speaking. It isn’t major factor, but it does give you options.
The Milky Way of the warrior
[Update: As promised, this section has been updated]
In a first for the series, Mass Effect 3 features a multiplayer: specifically a multiplayer co-op mode, which plays out like Gears of War’s horde mode.
The “Galaxy at War” multiplayer unfolds through five sections, each with maps that support up to four players. The objective is to survive 10 waves of increasingly difficult enemies. Every third, sixth, and tenth wave the game will have you complete one of three objectives: assassinations (take out selected targets in time), hacking (capture and hold a point), or devices (complete sequential objectives by reaching the target and interacting with it).
The multiplayer also features a leveling system that is specific to each character class — the same classes that you can choose for Shepard. Each new level opens up something: new weapon, perk, etc. Once you hit level 20, you have the option of receiving a “promotion,” which is similar to a prestige on CoD. Weapons can also max out at level 10.
As you complete waves, you slowly alter the galaxy map in the single-player campaign. It doesn’t affect the story, but your online actions will be represented in the game as a readiness level. Each section of the galaxy is at 50-percent prepared. With each wave completed you slowly up that percentage, but it drops again when you don’t play often, and it will take a long, long time to reach 100-percent across the board.
If you love the combat, then the multiplayer is an excellent addition to the game. It won’t be enough reason to get people to buy it, and it may not keep the attention of fans of competitive online games, but it is a solid offering that fans of the game should enjoy.
After spending some time with the multiplayer–more time than I would care to admit, I was surprised to see how addicting it can be. That comes down mainly to the clever decision to make the equipment packs spew out weapons that are left to random chance. If you need something to help you out immediately you can purchase a lowly 5,000 credit pack that will offer a common weapon and an assortment of equipment: things like medi-gels which you use to revive yourself in a game, or cryo ammo which can be equipped and used throughout one run. The next offering is the 20,000 credit Veteran pack, which contains better equipment and a rare or uncommon rated gun. The third is the Spectre pack, which will cost you 60,000 credits, but is the only way to receive rare weapons, including the “N7 weapons,” which are the best in the game by far. There is also a 20,000 credit equipment-only pack that is occasionally offered for a limited time. Of course, if you are antsy and don’t like to wait, you can always put down real money and purchase the Veteran and Spectre packs for 80 or 160 credits.
Everybody loves to level up in online play, and ME3 is built around levelling. You level characters, you level weapons, you can even level up the equipment you earn. With each new level in a character class, you can add ability points. As you progress you will also earn additional playable characters through the packs you purchase, and they generally feature abilities that the default characters don’t, so you’ll end up levelling them up too. The entire multiplayer experience is designed to be as addictive as possible, and it works.
Of course none of it would mean a thing if the gameplay wasn’t fun, but it is. It’s horde mode–a proven formula. The odd glitch and blemish do happen–I once became unto a god as enemies couldn’t hurt me, and even though I couldn’t shoot them, my bionic powers could hurt them. Another time I got stuck in a wall. That one was less fun.
The multiplayer is an excellent addition to the game, but with just six maps, even with three enemy classes to battle, it gets old and may not be able to sustain a community. Ten or twelve horde-like maps would have made this offering epic (no pun intended), but as it is, most will play until they burn out, which won’t take long–there will be some that continue to play this non-stop though, you can bet on it. New maps have also been promised via DLC, which will keep it interesting.
Mass Effect 3 is the biggest game of the year thus far, and with good reason. Although it doesn’t drastically change much from the last game, and it has its share of glitches, the storyline is compelling and epic in scale. There is also a fair amount of variety in the missions, and the monotony that plagued the previous games is gone — or at least drastically cut down. Even the mining has been replaced with a system-wide search for random objects that may lead the Reapers to you if you aren’t fast enough.
The story has one or two moments where it chooses convenience over storytelling, but those instances are more than made up for with the plot points that do it all right. After playing a game on and off for five years, having our choices significant makes this a gaming experience that we may not see again. At least not to this degree, and not from anyone other than BioWare. If you are a fan of the series, this game is the culmination of all the hours you spent playing, and it is a worthy finale to one of the best franchises around today.
[Update: While I tried to avoid discussing the ending (as I mentioned above, some would love it some would hate it--seems like more were in the latter category), it was obviously an issue, as anyone following the game can attest to. To address that, BioWare has announced that it will be releasing something soon that will change, or at least further explain the ending. You can read all the details here.]
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by EA)