(If you’re new to Mass Effect, you may want to first read 10 reasons to play Mass Effect 3. Any minor spoilers in this review are mostly covered by playing the ME3 demo.)
Commander Shepard never wanted to be in this position. He’s a soldier, not a politician. Yet the Reaper’s invasion of Earth has made things desperate, and he’s their best hope of survival. Tension between these two races have never been higher, and you’re right in the middle of it. Everyone is waiting on you to make your choice. You need to round up more fleets to help fend off the Reapers, who won’t stop until all organic life is wiped from the face of the galaxy. But both sides won’t budge.
Looking on is a teammate that you saved in the first Mass Effect. Also present is one you met in the second game; you recall you didn’t exactly treat them so well. They deserved better, you think. You make the call, taking your side – Shepard begins to do it. But it’s a big decision – he pauses. Do you really want to do that? Yes, you confirm your choice – you owe them that much. Over the next few minutes, the results play out and are nothing short of spectacular. Jaw drops, a tear wells up in your eye. Did I just do that??
These are the kind of choices that you can expect to come across in Mass Effect 3, the final installment in a trilogy by Edmonton’s BioWare Studios, for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.
Interactive storytelling has always been the highlight of the Mass Effect series, and the third game continues on where the last two left off. The beauty is that many of the choices that you make, large and small, carry over from the first two games – often to dramatic effect. The gang is back – from old teammates like Liara and Garrus, to characters like Captain Anderson (now Admiral), Councilor Udina, and The Illusive Man. Old flames can also be rekindled, if you sparked them in either of the last two games, and new characters step in to shake things up. Throughout your journey, you’re reminded that things you did and people you met before all matter, and open up new opportunities you wouldn’t have had otherwise; you definitely will feel back at home in Mass Effect 3.
The third-person shooting, a staple of series, has been improved once again with the introduction of a “duck and roll” mechanic where Shepard can roll in any direction and duck from cover to cover. It feels a lot like Gears of War, allowing for more freedom and control. With the introduction of ladders, the battlefield now extends vertically; and along with enemies’ increased aggression and flanking, cover is not the invincible barrier it once was. Grenades are also available (for both friend and foe) and hand-to-hand combat is improved with the addition of heavy melee. By holding the melee button, Shepard will take out his Omni-sword and gore foes for massive damage. From these additions, movement around the battlefield is now essential for success, and overall the action mechanics feel tighter and more refined.
Also back from the first Mass Effect is the health bar, and although it partially recharges, you will need to use medi-gel to fill it back up or revive your teammates. The skill tree also has been expanded and there are a diverse array weapons to buy and use, customizing them with two add-on slots. The difficulty level has also been tweaked, so “veteran” difficulty is gone (which is what I played the second game on). Instead, normal is a bit tougher than the last game, and I imagine the two highest difficulties, hardcore and insanity, are quite unforgiving as in the last game.
The excellent dialog wheel makes a return, largely unchanged from Mass Effect 2. As you progress through the game, you will need to make conversational choices, usually to the effect of paragon or renegade. With each choice each of these factors are boosted, so the more conversations you seek out is the higher you build up your persuasion skills. This comes into play in some conversations on the left side of the wheel. Without enough paragon or renegade, these left-most (and more powerful) dialog options will be greyed out, and you’ll be painfully forced to settle for one of the lesser options. Also making a return are the “trigger moments”; during the course of conversations, a time-sensitive prompt to press either LT or RT will pop up, and if activated, will make things more dramatic. These appear to great effect in the game and really help you to feel involved, rather than just sitting and watching things play out.
Kinect voice support has been added for Mass Effect 3, and although a neat addition, I rarely used it as the game went on. It would be best to use if you’re playing with someone else and want them to make conversation choices, or don’t want to bother pulling up the skill wheel to access additional weapons and powers for you or teammates. However, because I was a soldier class and mainly stuck with 2 weapons and 3 powers and let my teammates do their own thing, I rarely found the need to use Kinect to keep things flowing along.
Visually, the game is stunning. This is definitely one of the best looking games for the Xbox 360. Environments and characters are richly detailed and fleshed out, making every location feel alive. Because of Shepard’s mission, you will also get to see the beautiful homeworlds of many of the races you met previously, as well as the unfortunate consequences of all-out war on Earth and elsewhere – the destruction is immense. You’ll get to do battle on many of these impressive planets, and combat effects seem to also have been spruced up. Bullets hit with a satisfying punch (and crackle with effects, depending on your ammo skill) and the flash of your shield dropping makes it clear when to seek out new cover. Because of the sheer size of the Reapers and other foes, many battlegrounds take on a massive scale. There will also be times you just need to run full-speed to escape a bad situation, which really show off the impressive visuals.
The Citadel makes a triumphant return with the stunning Presidium once again viewable in all its glory, although you can’t get as close to it as in the first game. The Normandy SR-2 is also fully explorable and looks better than ever, familiar territory for those who played the second game. Mass Effect 3 also has some of the most massive space battles I’ve seen, impressive in size, scope and destruction. And because all of the cutscenes are done with the in-game engine, this is not only impressive but makes you feel, and often literally, you have a part in them as well – this makes choosing your teammates take on more weight, as they will be right there for those big moments.
The sound also does not disappoint. From the crackling sounds of gunfire hitting shields or armor; to all the various background sounds and conversations you overhear as you peruse the Citadel; to the soundtrack that kicks in at just the right time to highlight the most dramatic moments. The series has always excelled at getting the environments just right, both in visuals and sound. But background noise aside, where the series really shines is in the excellent voice acting. All the original voice actors are back, and voice work remains top-notch. Mark Meer, the male Shepard, delivers his lines as solid as ever, and an all-star cast is there to back him up: Martin Sheen, Seth Green, Keith David, Tricia Helfer, Carrie-Ann Moss, and Freddie Prinze Jr. are just a few names you might recognize behind some of the faces.
4-player co-op multiplayer is a new addition for Mass Effect 3. Handled by BioWare’s Montreal division, this is a welcomed addition to the main game. While I did get a few hours of fun out of it, it really doesn’t match the fun of the single-player experience. It’s not bad, but at the same time could be so much more. You have to fight through 10 waves of a certain type of enemy (i.e. Geth, Reapers, Cerberus) in one of several arenas. The controls are solid; where it falls short is in variety. Each round is either a straight enemy elimination, deactivate 4 terminals, kill 4 select enemies, or hack a console (stay within a certain radius of the console). In any case, you’ll need to kill off any stragglers at the end, and the game seems to excel at spawning enemies the farthest away from you, so expect to spend good chunks of time searching out the last few enemies. It takes 20-30 minutes to clear all 10 waves (if all your teammates die in a wave, it’s game over).
After a few games you’ll have seen all the arenas and enemy types (there are only a handful of enemy types for each race), and you don’t get any fun toys like in single player such as turrets, barrier generators, or drivable robots. Therefore, arenas end up feeling a bit static; even the announcer gets tiring after a while. If they incorporated elements such as base building and heavy weapons (like in Gears of War’s horde mode) and added more enemy types, it would really boost up the replay value. Also, while infrequent, there were a few bugs that I encountered in multiplayer – one time I clipped right through the ground and was stuck; another time my buttons stopped working and I could only use one attack for the rest of the game; and in another, our team killed all the enemies but it wouldn’t advance us to the next wave.
The tie-in to single-player is that by playing various multiplayer arenas, the “galactic readiness” percent of each system rises, which improves your success in the final battle. Besides leveling, you can also buy random packs of equipment to better survive the multiplayer difficulties (bronze, silver, and gold), but it’s just the same enemies, only tougher. Although I enjoyed it for a while, I can’t find enough there to justify it over the long term.
A more streamlined experience
BioWare has focused on what made the first two games so successful, while paring away most of the rest. Like it or not, gone are the minigames such as cracking simple door encryptions or mining planets for minerals. Also, if you liked driving around the Mako in the first 2 games you can forget it, as they took it out completely from the third. In the place of all these is a simple “scan” button, which scans a portion of the system for any points of interest, and when you find one you just launch a probe to retrive whatever artifact or item you need. But scan too often, and you’ll need to make a quick exit from the Reapers. There are also a few planets that will throw you into an arena-style setting (like multiplayer), where after a few waves and activating consoles, you get what you need.
Side quests also seem to carry less weight. There are a few good ones, mainly to recruit more fleets for the final battle, but many are simply activated by running past someone talking aloud on the Citadel, or running up to two people and taking sides (like a shopkeeper arguing with a customer) with no conversation wheel. Still, you’ll run into characters that remember what you did for them years ago (in earlier games), which is a nice surprise when it happens. The reduction in side quests meant I ended up just breezing through the main game, and felt less compelled to seek out new people or planets of interest. Overall it took me just over 15 hours for the main game, plus a few hours of multiplayer to get my galactic readiness up to 100%. I’ll be returning to do a few more side quests and try for some alternate endings; but by comparison I spent about 30 hours on my first playthrough of Mass Effect 2.
Also gone are the numerous mini bosses of the last two games; it’s clear the Reapers are the overwhelming threat now. I used to enjoy testing my mettle against tough enemies with multiple barriers, shields and armor, but these occurrences are extremely rare (although the few villains are well done). It’s a shame, because the standard enemies, while the toughest do pack a punch, don’t give me the same satisfaction as defeating a real baddie. Personally, I think that they should have kept minigame elements and more bosses instead of removing them, which would have brought more diversity to the gameplay. However, the characters you meet and choices you make are so memorable that it’s easy to overlook these omissions.
BioWare has come through on the promise of Mass Effect 3 completing a tightly woven trilogy. It’s a great game in it’s own right, but like any good movie trilogy, you will get the most from the story, characters, and universe by experiencing the first two games. As always, the game is all about choice; the many choices you make during all three adventures truly have a ‘mass effect’ on the way things play out by the time the credits roll. From the memorable characters and excellent voice acting, to stunning visuals, immersive sound, and improved combat controls, it all comes together to create one of the most dramatic and engrossing games of our generation. While the multiplayer does leave a bit to be desired, and less focus on side quests and minigames may have you beelining your way towards the final battle; this is one battle, and story for the ages that you definitely don’t want to miss.
Score: 9.5 / 10