There is no arguing that Mass Effect has become one of the more significant franchises to come out of this generation. BioWare managed to create a detailed and intelligently crafted Sci-Fi epic that had just as much drama as action. By importing save data, the decisions, sacrifices and relationships everyone has made in each game can carry over to the next, encouraging a level of emotional attachment that is rare. Mass Effect 3 marks the end of Shepard’s story and 5 years’ worth of investment made by fans.
Let me just say right now, that despite what BioWare and EA have been saying in their advertisements for this game, Mass Effect 3 is absolutely not a great point to jump into the series. This isn’t a knock against the game; in fact I feel Mass Effect 3 is targeted at exactly who it should be, the fans. Just like the last film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Return of the King, this entry is not about getting to know the world or the characters, it’s about closure. You are introduced to characters with the expectation you know these people already, they talk about events as if you know exactly what it is they are talking about. There is no time to catch up newcomers; there is a fight to finish. If you haven’t played the previous games, go play them now. The events of Mass Effect 3 aren’t going to have nearly the same impact if you haven’t experienced the set up and character development of 1 and 2.
Mass Effect 3 starts exactly the way you’d expect, the Reapers have invaded, and it is up to Shepard to unite the galaxy against this common foe. And so for most of the game, Shepard is helping conclude many of the major conflicts that have been a part of the Mass Effect universe from the very first game. Of course, Shepard will have to make difficult choices at certain points on his quest. But I felt these choices only really had a short term emotional impact, rather than seriously affecting the end game. How many missions Shepard completes, and how well he performs slowly fills up a bar that represents the galaxies military strength. This seems to have much more impact on the end game, than any major choices you make. One thing that won’t be troubling poor old Shepard on this adventure is the loyalty of his party members. It is assumed that if they have joined you, they are ready to die for the cause. By and large I enjoyed the story Mass Effect 3 told, but I did have issues with certain narrative decisions, and quite a few choices felt limited compared to previous Mass Effect games.
What is impressive is the sheer amount of data Mass Effect 3 seems to be tracking from 1 and 2. At one point Wrex told me, in secret, of a mission that specifically tied into a choice I made in Mass Effect 1. This made me so uncontrollably excited I gave out a very audible “YES!” Obviously not every choice will have a major bearing on the plot. Sometimes these choices will manifest as side missions or just a character Shepard can talk to at the Citadel…or an email. But the big choices all have an effect, and will either bite you in the ass or reap unexpected benefits. Even DLC is referenced in one form or another.
Shepard will encounter every major character from the previous games throughout his quest provided they have survived up to this point. Some will return as party members, some will take part in major events and others will simply step in for one mission. I was lucky, as many of my favourites were either in my party, or accompanied me for large sections of the game. But there were a couple of great characters that I felt weren’t given their due. Which wasn’t helped by the presence of James Vega, your newest party member voiced by Freddie Prince Jr. James is a vapid meat-head stereotype, who would be more comfortable in a Gears of War game than Mass Effect. I interacted with him for the mandatory 2 hours, and then never spoke to him again. I kind of wish Bioware didn’t feel the need to introduce another character to an already large cast, and instead gave more screen time to someone I actually cared for.
The small moments that Shepard shares with these characters are amongst the most memorable scenes in the game. Because I had spent so long with these characters, and the dialogue and voice acting is so strong, these scenes were exceptionally moving. This game even managed to make characters I previously didn’t care for, such as Jack, Miranda and Ashley, much more endearing. I know I have grown particular close to both Garrus and Tali over the years, and I will admit a few exchanges I had between these two caused my eyes to water. The quality of writing in this series continues to be amongst the best in the business.
As with all previous Mass Effect games, The Normandy acts as Shepard’s mobile base of operations where he can chat with friends, pick his wardrobe, and manage upgrades and inventory. A lot of people felt Mass Effect 2’s inventory was limited, and was an extreme reaction to complaints that Mass Effect 1’s inventory was too vast. This time Bioware have found a middle ground, with plenty of different guns to play around with, but not so many it gets overwhelming. The way Mass Effect 3 handles load outs is much more elegant than previous games as well. Rather than restricting certain classes to certain weapon types, every class has access to every kind of weapon. But, each weapon has a specific weight, and this weight can affect how fast your special abilities recharge. So instead of going out into battle with a full arsenal, you just pick the guns you need. Upgrading these weapons has been simplified greatly, and instead of wasting time collecting different minerals, you just purchase them with regular old boring money.
Navigating the galaxy map on the Normandy hasn’t changed that dramatically since 2; the only major change is how they handle scanning. Now that upgrades are handled differently, there is no need to mine planets for minerals like last time. Instead, the Normandy scans a large area within a solar system to see whether any of the planets or debris have resources that could increase the galaxies military strength. But if you use the scanner too many times in one solar system, the Reapers will know where you are and try to catch you. This could have been interesting, only there is no consequence to being caught by the Reapers. You simply respawn in that same solar system, and carry on. So instead of cautiously scanning, I just tapped the scan button like a mad man. I prefer this system to mining for material, but that isn’t saying much.
The Citadel has now become a hub area that Shepard revisits several times during the game. It is nowhere near as vast and overwhelming as the Citadel portrayed in the first game, but there are a lot of places to explore and tasks to accomplish. There are shops where you can buy new weapons, upgrades and armour. There are many side quests that random strangers will give you… well, actually most of the time Shepard just overhears something and decides to stick his nose in it. This is also the place where Shepard can just sit back and relax with a few of his ship-mates, and chat about their history together. I found myself revisiting the Citadel without prompt, simply because it’s an area that lets you catch your breath, before you plunge into the next mission.
The combat is the area where Mass Effect 3 has seen the most improvement. It was Mass Effect 2 where Bioware decided the combat would more closely resemble a cover based shooter than an action RPG. Mass Effect 3 refines this further, and now feels like the equal of something like Gears of War, rather than second best. Small additions like the combat roll, blind fire, and everything feeling a little more precise, makes the player feel in complete control. Having toyed around with the different class types, I feel like choosing the biotic classes, such as the adept and vanguard, makes combat situations a lot easier. Especially the Adept, whose powers are so destructive, that I only equipped one gun, as I wanted my powers to recharge as quickly as possible. There is also a lot more enemy variety this time out. I felt like I was using my squad mate’s abilities more than any other Mass Effect game to take out more powerful foes. The Reaper forces were especially interesting to fight, with units like the marauders that can make other weaker enemies stronger. And the unsettling Banshees, that can teleport erratically around the battle field, releasing powerful biotic abilities.
On the presentation front Mass Effect 3 is definitely an upgrade from 2. The environments in Mass Effect 3 are the biggest improvement. BioWare have done a good job of making areas feel unique, but also reminding you that a galactic war is going on by having massive Reaper ships waging war in the background or a planet, with burning cities, fill the horizon. The lighting and textures have also been improved. It’s not a huge leap from 2 visually, but I definitely appreciated the tweaks they made. The soundtrack, composed by Clint Mansell, has a lot more in common with Mass Effect 1 than 2, returning to the retro 70’s sci-fi feel.
Lastly, there is the controversial addition of multiplayer in this entry. Essentially it’s Gears of War’s horde mode, except with Mass Effect’s classes, powers, loot and levelling built in. The classes available are the same as the single player, and they level up in much the same way. Inventory and upgrades, as well as unlockable races, are handled in a weird way. Instead of unlocking them as you level up, like Call of Duty, you earn credits that let you purchase a pack with a random selection of items. More expensive packs increase the chance you’ll get more powerful or more interesting unlocks. What is slightly insidious is that if you want to bypass the credit system, you can just buy the packs with real money. Normal credits are easy enough to earn, but it does bother me that players can buy their way to greatness.
That said, I enjoyed my time with it, and I’m glad BioWare went down the co-op route, rather than a competitive multiplayer. This style of multiplayer amplifies the best qualities of the single player combat scenarios. Working with a team to take down a tough enemy is similar to using your squad in the single player, except of course having real people in your team is much more effective. I can’t see it being a major player in the multiplayer scene, and I doubt I’ll be playing it for much longer, but it’s definitely worth a look.
Mass Effect 3 is a great game if you’re a fan of the series, and makes a number of improvements to the structure, the controls and presentation. It isn’t a seamless experience though, and some elements could have used a little extra work. But for me, Mass Effect’s strongest virtue has always been its dialogue, characters, and voice work. And in these areas Mass Effect 3 delivers in spades. I will sorely miss spending time with characters like Garrus, Tali, Wrex, Thane, etc., etc. But most importantly I’ll miss my Shepard, and the journey he took me on.