Review: Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect has become a household name since its first release in 2007.  It has ensnared its followers with beautiful graphics, unique gameplay, and most importantly a phenomenal story.  Finally, our long awaited end to the trilogy is here.  The Reapers have reached Earth and begun their mission to destroy all life in the galaxy.  Commander Shepard is the only hope we have to stop the Reapers and save life as we know it.  Welcome to Mass Effect 3 (ME3).

ME3 begins a few months after the end of ME2.  Shepard has been stripped of his military status thanks to his involvement with the galactic terrorist group Cerberus.  He hasn’t given up trying to convince the new Council that the Reapers are real, not to mention their threat to humanity.  In the first sequence, the Reapers arrive on Earth – those terrifying, monstrous robo-cephalopods slowly descend from the heavens and lay waste to everything in sight.  Shepard is unceremoniously reinstated and charged with the most important mission in the galaxy: to rally what little help he can from the other galactic species, hoping that a unified force will be enough to stop a seemingly hopeless end to all life.

This task proves to be easier said than done.  Each species that you reach out to is waging a war of their own with the Reapers.  In return for their help with Earth, they need your immediate help with some of their battles and missions.  These missions force Shepard into some of the deepest seeded conflicts between species, and puts you in the position of making terribly difficult decisions.  Those savvy to the series may think this is nothing new, but the truth is these decisions seem to carry more weight the third time around.  I’m guessing this is because we don’t have another unseen game in the future for Shepard to deal with these choices; the repercussions of each choice are immediate and in your face.

Ninety-five percent of Mass Effect 3‘s story is composed of the best writing that Bioware has ever produced.  It rivals any story-driven game that I have played in my time.  Every conflict that lies between your galactic neighbors and their willingness to come to your aid feels complex and thoughtful.  Moments of doom weigh on you with urgency and despair.  Humor is delicately placed just when the player needs it, though with a knowing glance and a hint of sadness.  Both new and former teammates have multiple interactions with Shepard, and each conversation is amazingly poignant and personal, placing you directly into Shepard’s combat boots.  So what’s the deal with the last 5% of ME3‘s writing you may wonder?  We’ll touch on that momentarily.

Great writing deserves great direction, and ME3 has it in spades.  Not surprisingly, the voice acting is top notch, giving every line of dialog impressive believability.  Subtle emotions ooze from every conversation, inciting an immediate emotional response from the player and in turn making the player’s choice for response much more personal.  The framing of the cinematic scenes are more impressive than anything I’ve seen in film.  The graphics are absolutely beautiful, and the transitioning from cinematic to in-game scenes are so flawless that they can almost catch you off guard.  The backdrops and camera angles mirror the drama of the story, showing the enormity of the world of Mass Effect, making it impossible not to get caught up in its grandeur.

With all of ME3‘s drama and storytelling, it’s easy to forget that the other huge aspect of this game is the combat.  ME3 decided to stick with its predecessor’s sleek mobility, allowing Shepard to easily take cover, shoot, and command his teammates with a simple press of a button or two.  Bioware made a few changes to this formula, and they are much appreciated.  You can now run from cover to cover without clumsily detaching yourself from a wall and getting killed while the delay for dashing is in effect.  Running doesn’t fatigue Shepard like it used to, allowing you to haul ass when in a time crunch or to escape a charging enemy.  You can still direct your squad’s actions using the D-Pad and a placement arrow, or instruct them on how and when to use their powers.  ME3 went one step further this time, utilizing voice commands directly from you via the Kinect (sorry PS3 and PC owners).  This is possibly the best voice command system to date, but unless you can memorize every squad member’s powers and abilities, you may just want to stick to your power wheels.

If you’ve played Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2, you will be familiar with the gameplay.  ME3 manages to make a perfect balance between the heavy RPG elements of ME1 and the tight combat controls of ME2.  We are given multiple guns for each genre (heavy pistols, sub-machine guns, sniper rifles, etc.), and each gun has multiple upgrades and perks, like scopes, suppressors, and higher capacity ammo cartridges.  An interesting twist is that regardless of your character’s class, you can carry any or all gun classes with you at all times.  To off-set this ability, Bioware created what may very well be the best balancing system for your character’s weight encumbrance that I have seen in any modern RPG lately.  Instead of Shepard’s speed slowing due to the weight of all the guns he is carrying, Bioware chose to slow the player’s recharge abilities for biotic and tech powers.  Allowing players to fine tune their characters and find their own personal balance between firepower and abilities is just one of the reasons why fans love this series so much.

The same can be said for the RPG leveling system.  ME2 lacked that role playing element that we loved in 1.  ME3 returns to those early roots, but with a much more refined approach.  Each class is given specific skill trees with each tree having multiple options for individual preference.  For example, when you reach level four in any skill tree, you will be asked to choose one of two options for that power.  Usually the differences are between a longer duration of that power vs. the radius affected, number of enemies affected vs. a recharge bonus, etc.  Like the weapons, these skill trees and their multiple variants give a huge amount of depth to the gameplay, and ultimately ensure the fusion of the player to their own personalized Commander Shepard.

Enemy AI is especially well-rounded.  There is a wide variety of enemies, reflecting Reaper assimilation of each species in the galaxy.  Some enemies will take cover, others will throw smoke to hide their advances, and still others will charge you with out a second thought.  Gamers are challenged to flex their strategic combat skills and utilize their squads powers and abilities wisely.  This virtually eliminates the the stop-and-pop strategy that haunts most third-person shooters.

Every Mass Effect game has that one element that rudely sticks out and tends to feel more like “grinding” than an integral part of the game: collecting minerals and artifacts.  In ME1 we had to suffer through climbing ridiculous landscapes in the MACO.  ME2 traded the MACO for scanning entire planets in the hopes of finding these items.  Now we are only asked to scan star systems to find planets with these vital items, which is far preferable to all the predecessors.  Of course, there is a catch.  Some of these systems are occupied by Reapers.  After three or four scans, the Reapers will become aware of your presence and drive you out of the system, keeping it on lock-down until you complete a mission in another system.  While it still feels like “grinding”, scanning isn’t tough enough to throw completionists for a loop.

One aspect of ME3 that was disappointing was that many side missions are unplayable.  You pick up various small missions as you play through the game, but instead of getting to go to these planets and play them out, a simple scan of the planet takes care of it.  There are plenty of playable missions in ME3, but it just made the story feel a little shorter than the first two.  I suppose the reasoning behind this choice was that if Earth was really getting attacked, you wouldn’t go searching a planet for a lost Turian squad flag or go find a special poison to help a doctor come up with an antidote.  Still, it is a small letdown amidst a largely fantastic game.

Every mission you complete on your trek to find Earth assistance rewards you (or denies you, depending on your choices) with War Assets.  These assets come in many forms, from a fleet of battleships to a small group of scientists.  These assets combine to tell you what your overall readiness level is, and what your current odds are against the Reapers.  This is a big help, allowing the player a chance to strategically pick when they wish to begin the final battle on Earth.  Another factor in your readiness level deals with a little something called “Galaxy at War”.  To achieve a high readiness level, Bioware encourages players to go online for some horde-style multiplayer.  Maps are located in different sections of the galaxy, and every time you play a map in each system, that system’s readiness percentage goes up.  Multiplayer is surprisingly fun and addictive, offering plenty of difficulty levels to keep you on your toes.  It follows suit with other multiplayer games, allowing you to level up your characters and improve your weapons.  While it lacks a certain complexity of the single-player mode, it’s a nice distraction from the dramatic and hefty story.

Remember that five percent of the story that doesn’t quite work?  Unfortunately, it can be found in the most critical of places: the end.  I won’t spoil anything for you here, but I have to say that as a loyal Mass Effect fan with a FemShep who carried through from the first game, the ending was shockingly disappointing.  While many of the choices I made throughout the series thus far came full circle in this third installment, many more were left unresolved.  Choices that I felt would be vital to my own specific ending became unimportant or left completely out.  Questions about Reapers and their origins were thrown wild, curve-ball answers, and regardless of how I played my game (paragon or renegade), my final choice in the game wasn’t dictated by my character’s morality levels.  I assume this was done in an effort to allow players to either stay true to their characters’ personality or let them choose a different option based on their own personal ethics.  This is one of those times that I’d rather forgo the freedom of choice and be forced to live with my decisions.  Bioware produced 24 different endings in ME3, but don’t get excited just yet.  The same three choices exist for each Effective Military Strength number set, which are grouped into seven stages.  While the three main ending choices are fairly different, the differences for each choice due to your overall readiness level are minute to say the least.  By going against the very formula that made the series great to begin with, the entire last sequence feels like a slap in the face to those who have been with the series since the beginning.

Mass Effect 3 is the Epic to end all epics.  It may have an unfortunately under-thought ending, but the fact remains that this is one solid game.  It doesn’t alienate newcomers to the series, it plays wonderfully, and has around 40 hours of exciting and intriguing gameplay.   If I hadn’t played this series with maniacal fervor for five long years, I may have given it a 5 out of 5.  However, I cannot excuse Bioware for allowing the series to close on such a poorly tended ending, when the rest of the game was so meticulously cared for.

I give Mass Effect 3 4 “Broken Hearts” out of 5.

by Rachael Edwards


About Rachael

I'm here to be honest with you about where best to spend your hard-earned dollars on entertainment. Besides being a cinephile and gamer, I'm a lover of whiskey, karaoke, board games, premium TV series, and 1911's... and not necessarily in that order.

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