Mass Effect 3
Commander Shepard has it rough. Saving the galaxy is a tall order, and doing it three times? Well, that’s just silly. Some people deserve a little R&R, but not good ol’ Shepard. You’d think that all this running around, shooting, punching, and yelling would have gotten to Shepard by now, but when push comes to shove, he’s always there. Well, it could be that she’s always there, depending on the circumstances.
Bioware probabably didn’t have it easy, either. Considering that the series started with an antagonist that threatened to wipe out scores of people around the galaxy, wrapping up the trilogy was probably a tall order. Mass Effect 2 made strides towards improving the overall experience as a shooter, but still fell short of other third-person action games in terms of control, and also alienated a set of fans who preferred heavier RPG gameplay. In a sense, Mass Effect 3 must have been make or break - as obstinately the “last” game in the series (we’ll see if that’s true or not in years to come), this game has a lot riding on it for fans. What results is an interesting, often beautiful mess of improvements and oddities.
Mass Effect 3 doesn’t waste much time throwing Shepard into the action. The introduction to the game begins with a full-scale Reaper assault on Earth. Tasked with rallying help from around the galaxy to help fight the Reapers, it’s up to Shepard to find valuable military assets, solve political disputes, and even save entire races. It’s “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” on a galactic scale, although the game does a good job of making every situation feel urgent, rather than allowing the player to meander. Most missions are presented as time-sensitive, and given that Shepard’s overall goal is quite urgent, a desperate pace is well maintained throughout the game.
The core gameplay has been improved once again, shifting even further towards action, rather than expanding the role-playing mechanics. However, given the extra layer of polish, this feels like the right decision - the action feels good, a marked improvement over Mass Effect 2. It’s now easy for Shepard to dodge and duck between cover points, and the level design usually does a much better job of conveying a sense of place, rather than simple corridors littered with obvious chest-high barriers to hide behind. Mass Effect 3 also provides Shepard with far more guns than 2 did. Funnily enough, the amount of weapons, the fact that each gun can support two modifications, and the fact that the weight Shepard is carrying effects the recharge time of powers actually contributes to a deeper experience. Sure, it’s hardly Baldur’s Gate, but the variety is definitely welcome. The shooting just feels better, and it takes place in many more interesting and dynamic environments where things are constantly happening. There’s a much better sense that all this action is taking place in a living, breathing world - aside from the turret sequences, which are mercifully few.
Of course, it’s not really the shooting that makes Mass Effect interesting. These improvements are definitely welcome, but it’s the choice and conversation system that’s most important to many people. For players who import their Shepard, the game makes some clever changes to the story, adding (or subtracting) characters who helped Shepard in previous games. While this will be a great touch for returning players, some people may be a tad disappointed to find out how modular these characters are - starting a “new” Shepard in ME3 simply provides different characters to fill the same roles old characters would, with slightly different dialogue. There are also a few frustrating retcons that might annoy people who suffered over some agonizing choices in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Suffice to say, everyone’s story will be different, but not incredibly so.
There’s a lot of talking to be had, though, and most of it is as engrossing as it ever was. If the minutiae of Mass Effect’s science fiction drew you into the first two games, there’s plenty more interesting chatter to be had in the third game, although a lot of it will, naturally, be treading old ground. There are plenty of interesting characters, returning and new, who all have plenty to say through very well-acted dialogue, save for a few NPCs here and there. Both male and female shepards have lots to say as well, both saintly and salty - although there are a surprising amount of moments in the game where Shepard says something the player never had any choice in, which stick out rather oddly. Control of Shepard’s words is taken away just enough times to be noticeable, although there aren’t any huge decisions on Shepard’s part that are made without player intervention.
Many crisis moments are whittled down to either-or choices, as well, which feels odd in some situations. Playing the game by ear rather than slavishly pursuing Paragon or Renegade points can be a tad difficult, although the game makes up for this by offering many multi-tiered choices that can be resolved through a mix of Paragon and Renegade choices. Playing a “neutral” Shepard is possible, although similarly to the first two games, it might lock you out of some later choices that require more sway in one direction or the other. Granted, the series has always operated with this binary system, but there are a few missions that offer up scarce choices - there’s not always a third “tell me more” cautious option, although one pops up enough to not be too much of a problem. There are definitely some tough calls for Shepard to make.
There are lots of choices to make, too. Mass Effect 3 is quite a long game, provided the player investigates all of the missions available to them. The actual “story” missions aren’t too numerous, but most of the side-missions are critical to helping expand the story, and have the same level of intrigue as the main missions. Pervasive atmosphere of impending doom aside, the game doesn’t do a fantastic job of letting you know how long you have to complete certain missions. It’s entirely possible to up and fail an entire mission simply because you waited too long - something that happened in previous Mass Effect games but was at least broadcast to the player. The scanning from Mass Effect 2 has been tweaked, instead serving as a third kind of mission where war assets can be won. Conversations can be overheard while walking around the Citadel, usually involving a character lamenting a lack of something/someone that they know would help the war effort. This puts a blip on your galaxy map, and then that thing/person can go be retrieved. It’s a tad simple and nowhere near as interesting as the meaty side-missions, but it at least encourages exploring.
Still, it’s a bit strange that exploring is so encouraged when the bulk of the game’s downtime takes place on the Citadel, the headquarters of the galactic government. Gone are the other planets to walk around and take side-missions from - if Shepard has his/her boots on the ground anywhere other than the Citadel, it’s action time. It’s a bit disappointing, but at least it’s situation-appropriate, given that many systems are being attacked by Reapers. The Citadel has at least expanded, with several fairly large districts to explore with their own characters and missions. The worlds Shepard visits during missions are, at least, far more varied and detailed than they were in Mass Effect 2.
Some of these side mission locations reappear in the game’s multiplayer suite, which pits up to four players against waves of enemies, and contributes to the singleplayer game’s war assets. It’s a surprisingly good addition to the game, helped along by Mass Effect 3’s vastly improved action. While it lacks the narrative draw of the main game, it at least justifies itself with a link to the singleplayer’s war assets - characters can be “promoted” out of multiplayer to help in the fight against the Reapers. It’s not incredibly meaty, but it’s hardly intrusive, and a decent addition to the series.
The overall sense of variety is helped in part by the massive improvements to the visuals and sound design. Texture quality across the board has noticeably increased, with several quite striking details on clothes, armor, and hair. The lighting has also changed - while it may not technically be much different than it was in the past, the art direction takes it in very striking directions. There are lots of gorgeous vistas and sleek, shadowy interiors, with the requisite 1970’s lens flare giving everything that science-fiction sheen. On the 360, the game does chug heavily in some areas with tons of effects on screen, although it never becomes too much of a problem during shooting sequences. While the music may not have as much synthesizer as the original Mass Effect’s had, it’s still excellent - although the melodramatic Clint Mansell-penned main theme might make a few eyes roll. What stick out most in the sound design, however, are the effects. The guns are both satisfyingly punchy and appropriately… well, you know, lasery-sounding. It’s great stuff, and the game also puts Shepard and their squad in many situations where all these sounds are affected by the environment they’re in.
As a story-driven experience, Mass Effect 3 has the unenviable task of wrapping up a trilogy, which it does, for the most part. It’s also strayed quite far from where Mass Effect started, and while the game itself has certainly improved, there are fans that might feel alienated (no pun intended) by the direction the final chapter of the trilogy goes. Mass Effect 3 is an action game with a side-helping of dialogue, and the finale might frustrate fans who have stuck with the series since the beginning - some might even consider it lazy. It’s hard to knock the actual game; it’s a great shooter and the dialogue is well acted and (mostly) well-written. Mass Effect 3 is one of the best marriages of shooter action and storytelling around, and it’s up to the fans to decide if that’s what they really want.
Nine out of ten