It has all come down to this. No game company has had the bravery of BioWare to make something with the ambition of the Mass Effect series. A true trilogy in every sense, your decisions in one game have never mattered more in each sequential release in any other franchise. Importing your saves from game to game has made each Mass Effect player incredibly attached to their Shepard and their universe. Stakes are astronomically high in both the game and the pressure to deliver a satisfying conclusion that fits within the series’ long buildup. BioWare could have folded under that sort of burden, making a game that lives within the cold confines of Mass Effect 2‘s broad shadow. It could have been that. Thank goodness that Mass Effect 3 abolishes any worries and makes a fitting end to such a worthy trilogy.
As the previous Mass Effect games have foreshadowed, the Reapers have once again been summoned for their spring cleaning of all things living. In this cycle, we have Commander Shepard, someone who wants fate to be a little different this time. No more of the cyclical mass genocide, just an all out galactic war. Whereas Mass Effect 2 made Shepard assemble a small crew of guns for hire, this title exponentially raises the stakes by needing to earn the trust of entire species for efforts in this grand battle.
The scale of recruitment jumps tremendously and in turn makes these times more desperate. Hopelessness and almost empty promises for victory give the game a satisfying narrative punch that is a refreshing take on the subject. It’s not all military “hoo rahs” and macho chest bumps, but rather an on-edge galaxy that is worried sick about the imminent threat with palpable tension. It’s almost depressing, something that may caused me to have an even greater attachment.
Attachment partly grew because I was molding the story in key areas. A Mass Effect game wouldn’t feel right without choice and this title exhibits such freedom. Dialogue wheels are typical (top right is usually paragon and bottom right is usually renegade) and make the conversations entertaining, but decisions grow much heavier than deciding whether or not you will say please.
Although there are decidedly fewer of them, story path choices carry more weight than a bus load of Krogans. I’ve had to pause and thoroughly contemplate choices in games before (Heavy Rain comes to mind), but few compare to the magnitude of the ones found in Mass Effect 3. When presented with these game-altering choices, I’d sit there debating in my head, forcing myself to come to some sort of logical, ethical conclusion. Most of them dabble within an ambiguous morally gray area that is gratifyingly hard to choose between.
Gray areas are even rewarded more within Mass Effect 3. Was Jack or Tali unloyal because of your inability to talk them down in Mass Effect 2? While that can technically still happen, you are no longer over-rewarded for maxing out one path. A reputation system remedies this by adding to your overall good/bad bar when you accomplish something and it makes the charm and intimidate options more apparent. As long as you are completing missions (even the poorly explained side quests) and gaining reputation, you have a higher chance of seeing those dialogue options. It was a system that was frustrating and contrived in Mass Effect 2 so seeing it overhauled picks out the one bug found in that section of gameplay.
The story, while good on its own merits, may heavily lean on how well the characters uphold the already intriguing plot. As you might have guessed, the galaxy is filled to the brim with interactive beings. Thankfully for us players, collaborating and listening to them is always a highlight. The writers at BioWare have really nailed how to write creative, engaging dialogue in addition to crafting aliens that feel like real people, regardless of their species. Lines never seem cheesy and even occasionally throw in some humor. No lines are flubbed or come off as lacking, a true achievement with a narrative scope this large.
This goes hand in hand with the great voice acting, something that has gotten even better since the last game. Emotions tend to take over during the dramatic situations, leaving the door open for better performances for everyone, including Shepard. I felt he was a little robotic in Mass Effect 2, but after seeing him improve his inflection and acting skills (along with better animation), I walked away satisfied with his execution. It’s good to know I didn’t import his awkward facial animations from Mass Effect 2.
Instead, I imported just about everything else. After using the accessible save import system, witnessing the angelic or devious aftermath of my actions in prior ME titles leads to a sense of continuation rarely seen in games. Seeing the results of previous choices makes me feel like I had an effect (a massive one?) and leaves me to wonder how some missions would be executed with different choices. Now more than ever, I want to journey in past titles to see their rippling effect present here.
As long your final mission in ME2 wasn’t a complete disaster, familiar faces pop up every now and then. I spent a lot time warming up to these people aboard the last Normandy and seeing them again was equatable to seeing your long lost best friend from grade school. The emotional attachment seen here is exemplified by fact that they’ve had extra time to establish a friendship. BioWare is well aware of this and does a fantastic job of playing with your emotions, resulting in some of the most heartwarming and tear jerking moments seen in this medium.
Of course, all these things come to an end, something ME3 definitely has (no need to avert your eyes; I’ll keep this spoiler-free). As the credits rolled, I found myself increasingly befuddled. Certain events happened without proper explanation and I was just trying to make sense of it all. Taking it at face value, it seemed super contrived at the moment and appeared to have come out from nowhere in the name of trying to end the game.
However, after some critical thinking and reading on the Internet, the endings actually seemed thoughtful. While the finale wasn’t executed at nearly the same quality as the rest of the game due to large plot holes and info dumping, it made me think outside of the box and could be something worth thinking more about. It wasn’t perfect and maybe wasn’t even intentional, but, if you are up for it, its unanswered questions can let your mind roam freely. Whether you like it or not, something good can usually be said about ambiguity.
Although before you reach that ending, you’ll be opening fire at plenty of fleshy (and not so fleshy) targets, which displays the biggest advancement seen in ME3. Shooting, despite its drastic overhauls in each subsequent title, always left me a little wanting. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t refined to the point of being something to always look forward to. Oh, how things have changed.
Transforming from “thing to do between conversations,” combat is now something that can gracefully match the delightful dialogue system. Shepard is dramatically more mobile on the battlefield this time around. Every action from reloading to movement in cover to basic traversal has been sped up considerably. Cover also works a lot better overall, especially with the on-screen indicators showing where you can slide or roll to. Speaking of rolls, the new dodge roll might be the biggest advancement. Since Shepard moved and turned like a tank in ME2, getting caught on the bad side of cover was almost always fatal. The quicker turning radius coupled with the dodge roll make Shepard much more likely to avoid fire and make firefights much more gratifying. Even little things like hit markers, better indicators (for receiving damage and using powers), a more responsive melee strike, varied enemy types, and sound effects that bang do wonders for the overall package of combat.
Upgrades have also been given more depth. Skills have multiple, reallocatable trees that extend beyond just better range or better damage. Complication never arises and it further gives you a chance to mold Shepard’s powers into something that works for you.
Firearms have also been overhauled with more choice in mind. Mods have added to morph the gun into a tool of destruction that fits your play style. Scopes, damage modifications, clip extensions, and weight modifiers give just that little push of RPG into the shooter territory.
Shepard doesn’t bring his newly discovered agility and abilities to just one mode. The new cooperative multiplayer also shares these advancements. Having up to four players, a wave-based survival mode has been added and is a worthwhile addition to the franchise. The multiplayer slices out the story in favor of just focusing on the combat, but since the combat is fun, this mode can easily get its hooks into you.
The same classes are available from single player, but each has an individual level count and power set that you can easily switch between and individually level up. This requires much less of a commitment and lets you experiment with different play styles, ones you may not be willing to make in the campaign.
Killing yields experience that gives upgrades akin to the ones found in single player. Pouring points into new abilities is just as fun, but weapon upgrades are a bit different. Although they are applied similarly, they must be purchased from the credits earned by completing objectives. They are essentially card packs, with randomness and rare pick ups being the only way to get new gear. While you can buy packs using real money, getting enough credits can take a few matches, but it ensures that you have something bigger to work towards. Although to be honest, I was playing mostly because I thought the core gameplay was fun, a true testament to the value of this mode.
Because I can’t seem to manage my saves correctly sometimes, I actually played through Mass Effect 2 again a month prior to popping in Mass Effect 3. Going through it again was a blessing in disguise, but it was a rigid reminder of how much of a technical mess that game could be. Mess might be a little extreme but loading screens were long, the game was frequently jittering, and many environments were dry, narrow, and flat. Right off the bat, Mass Effect 3 remedies all of these issues.
Loading screens still act as a gateway from area to area, but they don’t feel as long or as frequent. Jittering usually stemmed from the game constantly loading or saving every other minute. The game still loads and saves appropriately, but the game doesn’t ever slow down or downright temporarily lock up. A fix like this sounds small, but it makes the game run more smoothly, which in turn makes the game more streamlined and enjoyable.
Mass Effect 3 doesn’t have the film grain filter, but a feature such as that is useless. It would probably just hide how beautiful the game actually is. Brown isn’t nearly as prevalent, leaving brighter blues and reds to take over the screen more often. Lighting also has been beefed up considerably and is the most visually impressive part. Everything is appropriately shiny or shadowed well, making the overall game look more futuristic and exponentially better than anything seen in Mass Effect 2.
Mass Effect 3 will be remembered. Not only because it is a great game, but because of what it achieved. With all of the narrative permutations, writing the script must have been a daunting responsibility and the near flawless implementation of new and old systems (shooting or otherwise) demands even more praise. The end of the road is always bittersweet and Mass Effect 3 is no different, but the long journey aboard the Normandy will be one to be fondly remembered.
+The shooting, upgrades, cover mechanic, and combat overall have been drastically improved
+Importing decisions and your Shepard makes the game more personal
+Tense, bleak (but amazing) story filled with heavy decisions and amazing characters
+Graphics look more crisp and the game runs a lot more smoothly
+Co-op mode is addicting and allows experimentation
-Side missions are peculiarly handled
-Endings can seem confusing
Final Score: 9.5/10
Platform Differences: As with Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3 is loaded onto a single Blu-Ray disc on PS3 and two DVDs for the Xbox 360. However, the green console isn’t at a complete loss here. Kinect support has been added, showing up in combat (calling out abilities) and in dialogue options (just saying what you want Shepard to say). Kinect owners should try it, at least to just test its novelty. Just be warned, for the renegade and paragon quick prompts, you will need a controller in hand.