*Author’s note: Mass Effect 3 is a game in which major plot points are highly influenced by previous decisions in the series. Because it would be nearly impossible to observe every different consequence of every choice, this review deals with the storyline experienced by the reviewer. This review – while not revealing specific details – also discusses the ending. Please be advised while reading.
Bioware’s space opera trilogy Mass Effect has swiftly transformed from the little IP that could into a massively-marketed, highly anticipated event. The most obvious question, “does it live up to the hype?” has an answer that is unfortunately far less clear-cut. Mass Effect 3 takes steps both forward and backward for the series, with some missteps more notable than others.
Thankfully, the series does not try to find a new way to “reset” Commander Shepard as the second entry did. It worked well for that title, but another attempt would have been contrived. Instead, the game picks up shortly after the conclusion of Mass Effect 2 with swift explanation of what took place in the interim. The game not only carries over Shepard’s choices and appearance from the previous games, but this time also her level and abilities. To deal with the discrepancy between players who might be starting the series with the final game, Bioware chose to let the game’s starting difficulty scale to the starting level of the player. It is a decision so simple and effectual, one wonders why it was not implemented for the second title.
Mass Effect 3 also wastes no time in letting Shepard’s past decisions influence everything that happens around her. It is one of the major selling points of the series, after all. Hundreds of choices made through the previous games serve to tie together in the final battle against the terrifying Reapers; sentient machines that harvest all advanced organic life every fifty thousand years. The way the result of these decisions manifest themselves range from brilliant to downright disrespectful to fans.
On the more pleasant end, Mass Effect 3 continues to lead the pack where it always has, personal relationships. From friendships to rivalries to romances, Mass Effect 3 is relentless in its ability to provide satisfying and moving conclusions to the relationships Shepard has formed over the saga. While Bioware’s writing is often highly praised, it can actually delve into the cliched and hyperbolic during the main quest. However, the praise is fully deserved when witnessing the carefully crafted personalities and relationships. There is no other gaming series with such deep and nuanced characters. Whether players love or hate a character, it is in a way that rarely exists elsewhere in the medium. Even new characters like James who might initially feel like a throwaway are given surprising depth. Players will soon realize that they probably know a person like him in real life. James, like most of the cast, is not a shadow of a character, but a complex personality.
It is this realism combined with the player being invested in his choices that makes for so many powerful scenes scattered throughout the experience.
The trade-off, however, is that Mass Effect 3 is far less focused on choice than it is with conclusions. The result is that a player who has chosen to play with an inclination toward a certain type of decision will have less reason than ever to change his mind.
For example, this reviewer made largely paragon choices in the first two games, but there were still decisions in those titles that gave any player pause, regardless of his previous decisions. Mass Effect 3 very rarely gives that feeling which was a staple in earlier titles. It feels like a thematic necessity, and it is often worth it for emotional payoff of long-running storylines, but it also still feels like a loss because players will likely be going through the motions in conversations instead of weighing every decision.
Losing the feeling of choice is a small hit in comparison to how all decisions feel entirely pointless in the face of the ending. First off, there is a War Assets station that is a little too literal. It essentially boils down to a progress bar showing the player which ending he will receive. However, no plot details are necessary to state that all available endings to Mass Effect 3 are very similar and all entirely antithetical to the series’ emphasis on relationship-building and world-shaping decisions. Considering the series’ strong story and intrigue, the ending is a slap in the face to fans. It extinguishes the otherwise exciting prospect of replaying the series knowing what an unsatisfying conclusion lies in store. It is akin to spending hours intricately building a beautiful sand castle only to have it washed up by the sea.
While the ending certainly casts a distasteful shadow over the series, it would be unfair to judge the entire game on this disappointing factor.
Mass Effect 3 puts in a valiant effort to both separate itself from previous games in the series while also feeling familiar. The results are mixed.
On one end, The Citadel is thankfully back. And while it does not fully return to its glory from the first game, there is certainly more size and variety when compared to the second iteration. In addition, the areas are given incredible life by including interactions by NPCs that continue throughout the experience. Characters that would normally just be stand-ins are often given stories that range from silly to interesting to legitimately sad or touching.
On the other side of the spectrum, reacquiring The Citadel came at the loss of any other “town” excepting the Normandy spaceship. There is no Omega, Illium, or any other location that is not a battle platform. This also works thematically, but it is a major letdown to finally visit major locations previously only talked about, just to experience nothing but steel platforms and waves of enemies. The environments are the most beautiful in the series but they only serve to tease of the nature and culture of the world.
The original game was so captivating because of all the worlds and races that were introduced. Conversations and locations were rich with culture. The focus on humans and the war on the Reapers drain much of that intrigue. The game feels a little claustrophobic in that sense.
Even the return of a version of the Mako dune-buggy in the first game would have been a welcome return. The issue was always the controls, not its existence. In fact, the presence of such a vehicle greatly added to the scale and dynamic of the game’s world.
The music ranges from the excellent sci-fi techno mash-ups to the generic and passable orchestral tunes. Another area that the first game was never bested in.
Strangely, the biggest concern with the initial game – graphical performance – has returned after being largely fixed in the sequel. Mass Effect 3 is rife with texture pop-in, character model jumps during cutscenes, and occasional slow-down. The problems never touch the original’s state of disaster, but it is certainly strange to see the issue return in such form.
The RPG mechanics sit somewhere between the depth of the original’s and the watered down disappointment of the sequel. However, added to upgradeable and customizable guns, some great new powers, and super-tough enemy designs, the combat is easily the best the series has seen.
Most of these disappointments are within the context of the Mass Effect series however, which overall serves as one of the best written, most exciting, and most inventive franchises of this generation. Before the horrible antithetical ending, the final iteration makes good on wrapping up relationships and situations that were carefully crafted up until that point; all while giving Shepard more humanity and realism than she has ever had before.
It is certainly disappointing that no other game in the series lived up to the achievements of the original, but Mass Effect 3 is still certainly a must-play for fans. Well, as long as fans cop-out before the ending.
Full disclosure: the author was provided with a free copy of the game for review purposes.