How will Shepard’s story end? Just how strong are the Reapers? What can be learned from the Protheans? What’s going on with Cerberus and the Illusive Man? Can the races of the universe put aside their differences in the face of overwhelming power? Will that snotty reporter take another punch to the face?
There are many questions to be answered.
Mass Effect 3’s biggest problem was always going to be the level of expectation. The final act in a trilogy that has already sold millions, captured the hearts and minds of almost every sci-fi geek/gamer in existence and set to go down in history as one of this generation’s finest franchises… that’s a tough billing to fulfil.
From the opening moments of the first game, in which you create your own Shepard and arm him or her with a loose back-story, Mass Effect has put an emphasis on allowing you to dictate your own path through the planets, aliens and political unrest that dominate the main narrative. Therefore, Mass Effect 3 will be primarily judged on how successful BioWare has been in providing a send-off that feels unique and personal to you.
This is the kind of game that should provide plenty of ammunition for late night discussions regarding the fate of the universe and your role in it, with each of those involved in the chatter offering a different insight and slant on events.
Given the pre-release nature of reviews, it’s impossible at this point to declare Mass Effect 3 a success or failure using the art of conversation for a guide. But I can tell you that the game feels personal and intimate in the big, important moments, even if it doesn’t when the drama isn’t ramped up higher than a Krogan’s level of aggression or a Geth’s sense of unity. (Planet scanning ‘missions’ still exist, and they’re still not fun or personal.)
In comparison to what has come before, the world and atmosphere of Mass Effect 3 is bleak, gloomy and uncompromising – the kind of place in which good is never wholly good and bad is never wholly bad. There are no right and wrong answers to the universe’s problem; no matter what you do and how you act in keys moments, there will be winners and losers. Whether through force or by choice, there will be sacrifices for the eventual good of the survivors.
This being the final curtain of Shepard’s story and all, I don’t want to spoil anything for you so I’ll stay well away from even hinting at the choices you’ll need to make. Other than to say it falls on your shoulders to decide the likely future of each of the universe’s respective species and that some of those decisions are tough. More than once I had to pause the game and think things over for a few minutes before coming to a conclusion, and even then the choice came with consequences that didn’t sit well with me.
Then again, this is a war. Fail to make the difficult decisions and the Reapers will win and no one will survive. As you can probably tell, your ‘epic’ rating has been increased by a factor of ten.
Choices being ‘difficult’ stands as a testament not only to BioWare’s ability to pull at your heart strings in individual moments, but also their skill in bridging the gap between each of the games and making them feel like a complete whole. Immediately upon putting in that disc, and familiarising yourself with the returning cast (as and when they show up), it’s like being welcomed back by a group of very dear friends.
Upon reuniting with my personal best-friend forever, Garrus, I could barely hold back the delight. Anyone that has played through the previous two games and is eagerly anticipating this entry will likely have their own favourite, and their own similar sense of joy as you link up with your virtual companions. It all sounds a bit sappy and melodramatic, but I dare you not to crack a smile when the time comes.
Because of those pre-existing attachments you’ll likely have with the returning cast, newcomers tend to suffer. There’s no way BioWare could have possibly built up the same sense of companionship with new faces, but they make a decent stab at it.
Talk to Normandy newbie Traynor, for long enough and you’ll get some interesting little titbits (more than a titbit if you’re playing as a female Shepard… if you know what I mean) and something rather interesting happens to EDI that takes him/her/it arguably into the realms of a new character. Of course, if you’ve not played the previous games then none of that will apply to the same extent; although there’s no way we can recommend you start your Mass Effect journey at the third game.
What all of these relationships and narrative choices ultimately lead to is your war ‘Readiness Rating’; a numerical value that literally tells you how ready for the final battle against the Reapers you are. This is increased by gaining the support of the galaxy’s races, its various technologies and even influential members of the criminal underworld.
Whilst this is built up by simply progressing through the main story, it’s also raised by indulging in missions that at the time seem innocuous. For example, a simply search-and-deliver mission within the Citadel (which will be a familiar location to Mass Effect veterans) resulted in the acquisition of an entire fleet for the war effort. The lesson is that, no matter how small something may seem, everything in Mass Effect 3 has the potential to greatly affect your standing and the survival chances of everyone (and everything) who’s counting on you.
Emotionally then, Mass Effect 3 is largely a success. It was for me, anyway. The nature of the way the narrative unfolds depending on your decisions means it could ultimately be a let down for you, but perhaps that’s the point. No one said saving the universe was going to be all triumph and celebration…
As has been the trend with the series to this point, the combat is unable to stand toe-to-toe with the conversations, plot and character arcs in terms of intrigue and quality. There’s nothing bad here, in fact it’s quite enjoyable, but it’s hardly spectacular.
Due to the advances of the third-person shooter genre since the launch of the first Mass Effect, saying that combat feels like a modern action game is no longer accurate (tacking on dodgy turret action and a slightly altered melee system doesn’t change things much). While tweaks have been made to formula, the signs of age are beginning to show.
Gunplay lacks much in the way of impact and many of the weapons differ only in name, while enemy movements are at time clunky and animated poorly. Extended sessions can also feel repetitive as you make your way from place to place doing largely the same thing, only with a different backdrop.
Combat is still class based, and some missions benefit from selecting characters with certain abilities (particularly the skills offered by a master of biotics), but – while functional – the main draw of the fights remains the fact that it will lead to brand new plot twists and turns once it’s over. I wish the overall time spent in combat was reduced… but, well, this is a war.
Character levelling up has changed very slightly for the better. You still raise certain abilities individually, but now those abilities are broken down further to allow greater specialisation. The Concussive Shot, for example, (a common ability available to numerous characters) can be upgraded to make it pack a wide blast radius, a high damage value or a very fast recharge speed.
It’s a basic system and one that doesn’t really penalise you for going against your play style, but any added depth where stats are concerned is welcome… so long as things remain an ‘action RPG’ rather than a ‘statistical RPG’. Similarly, weapons can be modified with parts that scatter the world, but don’t worry too much if you can’t find any; you’ll still be powerful enough to prevent interstellar apocalypse.
For those playing on the 360, it’s also worth pointing that the game does occasionally suffer from a poor frame-rate and the odd audiovisual de-sync. While they were few and far between, the cinematic and immersive affect the series strives for is greatly diminished when they do occur.
Overall though, the less-than spectacular combat does little to diminish what is ultimately a spectacular experience. As a finale to Shepard’s quest it’s fulfilling, engaging and packing enough depth to keep you very much on the edge of your seat and wanting more from the world BioWare has built; it’s not the perfect game, but it’s close to the perfect ending.
Despite the release of three 30-hour plus games, it feels as though there’s still so much room for growth within the Mass Effect universe – be that in RPG form or elsewhere. Here’s hoping there’s more to come because, odd as it may sound, it feels as though things are only just getting started.