Review: Mass Effect 3 (360/PC/PS3)

Posted: March 11, 2012 in PC, PS3, Reviews
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All Good Things Must Come to an End

Right from the beginning, the stakes are impossibly high. Earth and its allies are under siege from the Reapers, and once again the galaxy calls on the talents of Commander Shepard, the first human Spectre, and survivor of numerous encounters with the genocidal machines from deep space. Failure means the end of all sentient space-faring species in the galaxy. This time, Shepard is tasked with much more than the usual “put together a ragtag team of misfits and save the galaxy” – this time the mission involves uniting the galaxy’s civilizations against the Reapers, a task made difficult when many of them are at each others’ throats for wrongs in the past.

The gameplay is further refined from its last iteration, offering improved combat and new elements to deepen the experience and draw you further into the climactic battle for known space. In addition to talking to people normally or striking up romances, you also can solve numerous disputes between pairs of people, as well as bringing information or items to characters. This does two things: firstly, your good deeds as well as your Paragon/Renegade scores stack into your Reputation score; secondly, in addition to these factors, the game keeps track of your “War Assets”, the mass of forces you’ll have available for your final push against the Reapers. Obtaining new War Assets is a major focus of the game, comprising everything from fleets, to bands of pirates that have thrown in, and more.

Reaper in Mass Effect 3

The Reapers have come from dark space, and they *really* mean business.

The combat is heightened in both speed and intensity from the previous game. There are numerous new weapons, attacks, and moves you can use. Weapon mods are back, allowing you to add scopes, extended barrels, and piercing mods to your favorite firearm.  Each class can be developed in different ways; for example, an Adept can develop their Shockwave attack to fire in a wider path or a longer one, or can use a shorter attack that does more damage. Or, let’s say you’re playing an Engineer and upgrading your combat drone – you can choose to give it short-range stun attacks or long range missiles. In addition, you have the much-talked about “Heavy Melee” attacks, which vary from Omni-tool blades with technical classes and Biotic punches and slams with the Adept and Vanguard classes, and can use these to pull an enemy over cover and take them out in one hit. You can also execute a variety of combat rolls that would make Captain Kirk proud (although in multiplayer this changes a bit – salarians hop to the side, asari teleport, and for some reason turians can’t roll at all).

It’s a good thing that combat is so polished, as the AI has received a major overhaul. The enemies are ruthless, and even on normal difficulty they’re at least on par with the original F.E.A.R.‘s much-praised AI. Enemies are all too happy to flank you, toss smoke grenades at choke points, or chuck grenades at you from cover. It’s up to you to figure out how to best circumvent their plans and proceed against the enemy.

There are also a few sequences where you man a stationary turret, and for maybe the first time ever, I can say that these are actually pretty fun – they serve as sort of quick breather events rather than prolonged occurrences, and are rare enough that they don’t wear out their welcome. You also get a few chances to charge around in a stolen Cerberus mech, which can be a real kick to use their own tech against them (although technically I guess the rebuilt Shepard is their tech, too). Unfortunately, we never get to participate in any ship-to-ship combat (which Star Trek Online has left me with a serious taste for), but the new elements are fun and welcome additions in their own right.

Shepard’s Omni-blade is an impressive addition to the Mass Effect armory.

Shepard’s Flock

Now onto the real meat of the game: the story and characters. Depending on your actions in the previous games, you may have a very different playing experience from others.  Just about every loose end is tied up by the end of Mass Effect 3 – every choice you’ve made is addressed. You’ll run into people you saved, people with grudges that are still pissed off, and more than likely, quite a few old friends. The game’s atmosphere is appropriately bleak and oppressive – the galaxy lies on the brink of destruction, after all. You know right from the beginning that you can’t save everyone, and some of your old friends are not going to survive. The galaxy is mobilizing for war (and some of them are already under siege), and loss is inevitable. But it’s not all bad news. You’ll likely be seeing others, even those you didn’t expect, signing up to join the fight. The war scenes are particularly intense, showing the scale of the war and the destruction going on around you. The game manages to hammer home a solid “war is hell” angle without diluting the fun of combat proselytizing: it just shows that the Reaper invasion (and other conflicts in the game) are genuinely ripping worlds apart.

Familiar faces return, but their survival is certainly not assured.

The assumption that you’ve played the previous games in the Mass Effect series is an important one. A big part of the game’s impact (and in some cases, its cruelest twists) involve characters the player has gotten to know over the course of the previous games. I grew pretty attached to some of the crew, and was overjoyed to see many familiar faces, both among party members and briefer appearances, and the revelation early on that just about anyone in the plot could die… well, let’s just say I spent a lot of time worrying when my love interest from Mass Effect 2 was absent for a lot of the game and I was scrounging every bit of information for where I might find her. I literally lost sleep over this.

However, the actual plot is unfortunately quite poor. Everything feels just a little too neat and convenient. Shepard is able to accomplish his/her goals far too efficiently and quickly. Some of the conflicts you solve are centuries old, and you show up in the Normandy and solve them in time to make Happy Hour on the Citadel. It’s to the game’s credit that you get to see all the old faces and visit a lot of the places out there, to me it just all happens far too quickly. It all just wraps up so conveniently before the final battle. I hate to keep talking about it as Bioware has never had great plots (rather, they’re the go-to studio for well-written characters), but you don’t get the sense that the game unfolds over any length of time. It feels like the whole game almost takes place in real time. And this, to me, is a major weakness of the game.

Long Live the Fighters

Multiplayer and its tie-in to your galactic readiness rating is actually a surprisingly fun affair (or a frustrating one, if your team is composed of idiots). It faithfully translates the new and improved Mass Effect 3 combat experience into a team-based co-op setting, and gives you many of the same options for developing your characters as the single-player game does. The “pack” purchasing (done either via credits earned in-game or via microtransaction) gets a bit tiresome, in my opinion – I’d much rather just be able to focus on a new rifle instead of getting another upgrade for a pistol I’m never going to use, although it does keep things interesting. I’m just not one for mystery bag gambles, I guess.

Graphically, not much has changed. The modeling is a bit improved in some cases, and a lot of the textures are much better looking than in the previous games, although the Unreal Engine 3’s trademark slow texture loading is evident pretty often. Load times are often noticeable as well, particularly when opening some doors. The PlayStation 3 version – which I played – has some frequent sound dropouts (a carryover from Mass Effect 2, it seems). There have been quite a few glitches reported across all systems: the face import glitch on the 360 and PC versions, and the firing animations in multiplayer occasionally continue after the character has taken cover, making it look like all the futuristic weapons are suffering from “cook-off”.

The music is good. Clint Mansell and the other composers do a pretty good job of stepping up to the plate after the departure of the series’ main composer, Jack Wall, although the game noticeably reuses a large number of cues and pieces from the previous games. The style is occasionally incongruous, with a few tracks sounding like they were borrowed from Daft Punk’s TRON: Legacy score and the soft piano themes seeming out of place in a science fiction saga. However, I won’t argue that the music, despite the inconsistencies and what might have been had Wall returned, isn’t excellent, because it is.

This Hurts You

The game’s ending has provoked some controversy (no spoilers), as the options presented to you come out of nowhere and are inconsistent with other choices offered, as well as your overall reputation and play style having little to do with the ending. The game essentially hands you a “walk down this path to choose your ending”, and from there provides no real epilogue for what forces you brought survived the final battle. All of the endings are vague, esoteric, and invalidates the choices you’ve made, in a series where your choices influencing the story are a key selling point. As if this was not insulting enough, one of the last messages the game gives you is basically “Buy more DLC”.  Are you kidding me, Bioware?

I suppose I expected more of a “Where are they now” ending to provide closure like Dragon Age: Origins and Baldur’s Gate 2 did. The ending is a small fraction of the game’s time, and can quite easily be ignored (or even explained away, as many intrepid fans are trying to do.), but if you’ve played the series from the start it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

The concluding chapter of BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy is an impressive tale that falls apart in the homestretch.

The Final Verdict

It’s been a long journey getting here, but Mass Effect 3 provides a stunning, heroic, tragic, often funny end to the saga of Commander Shepard that is marred by a conclusion that feels more like a summer blockbuster than a thoughtful science fiction epic. And if you’ve played all the way through the series, it’s your saga, as well. The game is a massive letdown in the story department, and while it should have joined Wing Commander and Star Control as one of the legendary science fiction franchises in gaming history, it is now ruined by its slapped together conclusion. It’s just a shame they had to throw it all into a black hole in the end. Unless this changes, I cannot recommend putting yourself through the gut-wrenching disappointment that is Mass Effect 2.

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