Review: Mass Effect 3

*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.

Yes, I played it on Xbox. It caused a lot of trouble.

Strangely, no good Femshep box art.

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.

Femshep versus a harvester.

Robot birds are not friendly birds.

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.

Now THAT'S a sun gun! Little film production humour for you.

Do not mess with Shepard, she has a good cinematographer

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.


  1. Mel
    Posted 2012.03.13 at 13:58 | Permalink

    A good review that reenforces my opinion that I wont be picking up this game. I liked the first two, and I probably would like this game but…I’ve had enough of it. Plus I don’t have access to my save file from the first and second game, and I REALLY don’t have the time to start over again with ME1. The Origin, online pass, DLC, and ending stuff is just further encouragement about my decision.

  2. Durga Syn
    Posted 2012.03.14 at 05:37 | Permalink

    I have to replay ME2 because my whole crew didn’t survive on my last play, and honestly I enjoyed the first two games enough to sit through them at least one more time. I plan to pick up ME3 eventually, but it’s still a ways off for me. Kudos for femshep slider!

  3. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2012.03.14 at 06:49 | Permalink

    You’re right, Ethan. Mass Effect 3 is terrible!

  4. Ethos
    Posted 2012.03.14 at 07:31 | Permalink

    @Durga – Well I had to review the game I was playing. It would be disingenuous to choose Male Shepard when I’ve dropped 100+ hours into Femshep. It causes me to double take. It’d be like seeing screenshots of Final Fantasy VII except Barrett is a chick.

    I adore the first two games, and a lot of the third one. It’s my favourite current-gen series (don’t know if Galaxy qualifies), so that’s why the ending frustrates me so much. The series genuinely deserves better.

  5. DefChaos
    Posted 2012.03.15 at 15:13 | Permalink

    I’ve been playing the PS3 version, and I’m alarmed at how unpolished it is technically.  In addition to the issues you mentioned, I’ve had several freezes that required a hard reset.  One area of the citadel (refugee camps/loading docks) gave me a brief loading message, then a black screen which, again, required a reset.  This happened several times in a row until I researched it, found lots of others with the same problem who worked around the problem by going to the XMB while the game loads.  It’s shocking QA didn’t make sure that all of the parts of the only town in the game didn’t load properly.  I’ve also had a couple other glitches that didn’t break the game but were just kind of weird… during one conversation with a crew member, instead of him facing Shepard towards the front, his head was craned towards the right the whole time.  ???

    Mass Effect 2 was one of the most technically polished games that I’ve played, so I was completely unprepared for this (I don’t have a 360, so I never played #1).  I first started hearing about DLC for this game back in the fall (which I thankfully did not buy), and the release was also delayed by several months – given both of these, I shouldn’t be having the problems that I’m having.  It’s still a good game, but I regret buying it on release day.

  6. Paul Dougherty
    Posted 2012.03.16 at 23:05 | Permalink

    I finished my playthrough earlier… The Hardcore difficulty is broken. Grissom Academy I don’t think is doable the first time through. I heard ME2 was too easy on Normal, so I played it on Hard and didn’t have any problems. Well, not too many. I died a lot. ME3 takes that to 11. They finally fixed the fucking loading problems I was glad to see. And the Citadel isn’t a broom closet this time. 

    As for the ending I got my problem with it was that the theme of the game changed from science fictioney to science fantasyey. They go to exhaustive lengths explaining in the codex what Element Zero is, how FTL travel works, how Omni-Tools work and what Biotics are. And then they just sort of go all mysticism on you suddenly. That, and the motives didn’t really seem to add up. It was like, “That’s a thing you could do, I guess. Sorry, but I just don’t see the inevitability of it, though.” There were also a few times where I pick a dialogue option and accidentally did some genocide. 

    I think a lot of what people hate about the ending is that it’s not all rainbows and everyone lives happily ever after. You can tell in the first five minutes of the game that things probably won’t end well. There were also a few plot holes I noticed, but I’m not going to post any spoilers.

    I played on the PC and it looks and ran great.  Only problem was a I got stuck standing behind Joker on the Normandy and had to load from an auto-save to be able to move again.

  7. Ethos
    Posted 2012.03.17 at 14:39 | Permalink

    Yeah, I don’t need a happy ending. I need an ending that makes sense.

  8. HK
    Posted 2012.03.18 at 10:11 | Permalink

    The last sequence is absolutely brutal on Hardcore, especially as a Vanguard. That’s one thing I’d like to chalk up for this game – the difficulty is pleasantly ramped up something fierce. It made for some high intensity moments. I never really needed my teammates all that much except as meatsacks in the last two games, but now I found myself being glad I saved medi-gel for certain fights. I’m going to try on insane, but I’m probably going to lose my hair.

    Spoilers, although really, if you’re here…

    As for the ending… I liked it, but you’re absolutely right – if you spend so much time writing in-depth characters and you offer no closure on their stories, or show how they’re shaped by anything you do, you’ve wasted your own time. My romantic interest was Ashley, and she steps off as if nothing really happened. I think it’s great to infer that the teammates you took with you are dead, and that realization hit as I was “walking towards the light,” making that scene much more devastating. But show Tuchanka with the females, show Rannoch after the geth have exploded (I chose that option), Palaven rebuilding, etc. And we talked about this a bit: you go through the whole game collecting various factions, but you only see them on your “downtime” before the last few fights. It would have been really nice to see some of them show up and help you out. I realize that larger fights are too much for the engine, so write your teammates out of the fight and have a squad of Krogan or Turian show up. Or geth! That would have been fun.

    Still, I don’t mind an ending that you have to infer a lot. It was nice to think that they could have written the story as “yes lots of people died, but everything else returned to normal” but instead they chose to destroy the mass relays, synthetics, etc. so that essentially the universe would regress to only a slightly more advanced version of ours. At least things happened – more than I can say for the ending to Deus Ex.

    There’s no way they could have lived up to everyone’s expectations, or even please a majority of their fanbase. Too many people want too different things.

  9. Paul Dougherty
    Posted 2012.03.18 at 16:53 | Permalink

    What really bothered me about the ending was the plot holes. 

    Didn’t we establish like at the DLC from ME2, that I didn’t play, that a Mass Relay going critical sort of wiped out life in that system and made a nuclear winter seem pretty pleasant by comparison? 

    Didn’t we assemble a massive fleet of most all the sapient species in the galaxy, bring them to Earth, and then…blew up their only ways home and apparently destroy FTL travel? Good luck spending 35 million years getting back to the Outer Rim Geth/Quarians.

    Also, so the Citadel is a thing that’s much larger than a Mass Extinction Event sized asteroid. And it was last seen right over top of Earth. So, um, what happened with that? 

    I’m OK with them not telling us what happened to all the other races, but springing some out of nowhere 11th hour mysticism was very off-putting. It was like they weren’t sure how to end it, so they sprung some Max Payne-esque Dream Sequences on us and threw some Inevitability at us instead.

  10. Ethos
    Posted 2012.03.18 at 19:15 | Permalink

    Great points, Paul and HK. 
    Of course the ending would never please everybody, but I’d much rather hate an ending that makes sense within both the game’s world and the gameplay philosophies of the trilogy. Because then I would still want to play it again. Right now, I just feel like a great series got cheated, and I’m certainly less likely to revisit the series as quickly and often as I expected.

    Like I said, I don’t want a happy ending, necessarily, and didn’t even expect one. Mass Effect has always been about sacrifice. But sacrifice that was important because it was personal. 

    Take Star Wars, it sucks when Alderaan blows up,  but it sucks so much more when Obi Wan dies. That’s because as an audience, we are connected to Leia and Obi Wan. Therefore, when Alderaan blows up, we don’t feel the loss of 2 billion people, we feel bad for Leia because we like her and it sucks for her. When Obi Wan dies it sucks more because he’s not just going through a horrible loss, but the fucker DIES.

    Anyway, the ending for Mass Effect sucks balls. Hard. And I can love games without loving the ending. The ending to Shadow of the Colossus makes me shrug my shoulders at best, but it’s an ending that makes sense for the game. I was disappointed in it, but it wasn’t disrespectful.

  11. Lusipurr
    Posted 2012.03.18 at 23:52 | Permalink

    Off-topic, but I am *delighted* to see HK, DefChaos, and Paul all commenting! 

  12. Paul Dougherty
    Posted 2012.03.19 at 16:45 | Permalink

    One of the better explanations I’ve seen put forth is that they pulled a Squall Is Dead on us. But in this case the writers are good enough that they might actually have done it. Which I still think is crap, but it would explain all the insane nonsense. Or at least some of it anyway.

    And I just noticed another plot problem. There’s dormant Mass Relays that aren’t turned on because nobody knows where they point. Those aren’t linked to any of the active network, so shouldn’t they still exist?

  13. HK
    Posted 2012.03.19 at 19:15 | Permalink

    I’m not sure, but I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch if a race older than the Reapers designed this kind of self-destruct mechanism such that it would target inactive relays, and also destroy them in a way that doesn’t make them go supercritical.

    I actually like the fact that the other races were stranded in the Sol system. Most of them were wiped out but, in my head, it made for an interesting dynamic of the aftermath. At first, the races banded together to save the galaxy. Now they’re FORCED together. 

    I don’t think the ending was GREAT, by any stretch. But I liked it. I liked it more so because I didn’t get the perfect ending, so shit got real. I actually haven’t seen the perfect ending, so I don’t know the exact differences, but in my ending, most of my teammates die and there’s a pretty dramatic confrontation, then I meet up with Anderson and they have their moment, then I get a choice of two things, both of which result in me dying. There’s a very brief flash of some of my teammates making it to Earth. All in all, very emotional, quite dramatic, and keeping in the theme of sacrifice. I’m bleeding heavily from a stomach wound, my left arm is rendered useless, my armor’s stripped off, and all of my comrades and allies are dead or dying around me. But, I’m there to do whatever it takes to save the galaxy, so I make one final sacrifice, and I have no idea how it turns out.In my head, that’s what it was – this is the ultimate role-playing game, and my role as Shepard, at least in my playthrough, ends with that final choice. I don’t know how things are going to turn out, so details are sparse. Maybe the races, being in close proximity, tear each other apart. Maybe Paul’s right, and the Citadel and mass relays end up destroying everything. Maybe maybe maybe, but I don’t know. Because I’m, like, dead, and stuff.

    Now I’m playing again as a renegade on Insane, and I’m dying every 5 seconds. wwwtttttfffffff turrets

  14. HK
    Posted 2012.03.20 at 09:59 | Permalink

    So I read a bit more, and I guess I was lucky. I assumed the planet they landed on was Earth (which I still assert it is – that’s where the Normandy was after all), and the teammates I took to Earth didn’t walk out of the Normandy at the end, so I thought it was fully consistent. Apparently, other people had squadmates walk out, which would make absolutely no sense. If I had seen that, I would have been furious.

  15. Paul Dougherty
    Posted 2012.03.21 at 22:07 | Permalink

    I’m pretty sure it’s not Earth. I think they tried to imply some Adam and Eve type thing in the ending after Joker and crew abandoned Shepard before she picked her preferred ending color and jumped at a Mass Relay for some never explained reason. There’s also two moons/planets/something that you can see looming large in the sky that shouldn’t be there if it’s Earth.

  16. Ethos
    Posted 2012.03.22 at 07:29 | Permalink

    I’m with the indoctrination ending now. I say the paradise planet is made up.
    The two people who exited were the two people I brought with me on the final mission including my LI. Shepard just wanted them to be safe.