Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Wii U, and Xbox 360 (reviewed)
I thought this might be the toughest review I’ve written, but little did I know that I would end up starting anew almost as many times writing this as I have started new playthroughs with Commander Shepard to see how things differ when making other choices during the series. Hopefully, by reading that, you understand (by the other articles I’ve written both solo and in a staff effort) the enjoyment I’ve pulled from this series over the last few years. Each game has had its own set of stumbles, but BioWare said they would address these issues and try to make everyone happy with the experience this go-round.
Mass Effect 3 finds you at the end of your variant of Commander Shepard’s tale. Whether your Shepard is male or female, a hopeless and loyal romantic or a space slut, or a hard ass doing things his/her way or the ultimate boy/girl scout, Shepard’s tale comes to a head here. With so many decisions to have been made across two fairly expansive games, the pressure was on for BioWare to deliver an experience that would satisfy the fans that have been waiting for this moment since the first game released in 2007.
In what’s become fairly standard fare for the series, the overall urgency of the critical path is often downplayed in your exploration of the galaxy. Wandering around the Citadel, the hub of galactic civilization, and your ship, the Normandy, you find a sizable amount of sidequests to complete that can affect your Galactic Readiness (more on that later). While completing them affects your Military Strength meter (I’m getting to it!), some of them are so mundane that they feel out of place. It just seems odd that you have people asking you to find the most mundane things while a war against machines hell bent on wiping out every advanced civilization is on. Don’t misunderstand, some of these are well thought out missions that find you on the ground fighting Reaper and/or Cerberus forces. It’s the fetch quests that don’t ever see you putting your boots on the ground that feel more like filler.
Those filler quest are mostly compromised of you flying the Normandy around the galaxy map, pinging for a point of interest, and scanning a planet for some random item that will help with the war effort by boosting asari commando biotics, finding a fossil of a long extinct beast for the krogan to ride into battle, or a number of other different things along those lines. While these sound interesting, all you ever see of your work is a notification of a war asset added and an update on the codex on your war map aboard the Normandy. While the scanning is nowhere near as dull, laborious, or necessary as it was in Mass Effect 2, it still seems like there could have been a better way of implementing it.
Mass Effect has always been about choice. Whether talking someone down or just popping them in the skull yourself, you’ve always had the options to settle things more in tune with how you might have handled a situation. While these moments are still present, they’re less frequent than in the previous entries. Understandably so, otherwise this game could possibly start running into a near absurd length, but the ones that are there can have quite large ramifications on who aligns themselves with you. Mostly, it comes to sticking to your alignment for the maximum benefit. While I think a real person would, dealing with the situations Shepard does, find themselves balancing the line of paragon and renegade, it would be rather tough to implement into the narrative. Something like that is more nitpicking than an actual critique though.
On your war map aboard the Normandy, there is a list of each of the groups and alien races you encounter and just what they’re bringing to the table. Each of these, as you progress and bolster the forces that each of them will commit to fighting the Reapers, is assigned a number. This number affects your Military Strength rating, which figures into the ending you get. This rating is also affected by your Galactic readiness meter, which defaults and will stay at 50% unless you raise it. How do you raise it? There are a few ways of doing so, but only one way of doing so without venturing beyond Mass Effect 3 itself: multiplayer.
Multiplayer plays much like the terrorist hunts of Rainbow Six or the horde mode of Gears of War. You and a few other people fight off some invading forces for eleven rounds. During these rounds, you’ll occasionally be tasked with taking out high profile targets (slightly stronger enemies that are marked), holding a position for a set amount of time, or finding a switch and deactivating it. You’ll gain bonus experience points and in game currency for doing these and more if you complete them quickly. You have the option of using the same classes that you can assign to your Shepard. Although you start out with only the human female and male variants unlocked, as you progress and buy bolster packs with your earned in game credits (or purchased through XBL, PSN, or BioWare) which will unlock one use items for your character, additional weapons, weapon add-ons, and additional races. It’s a very fun romp and, while it doesn’t really add much to the single player aside from the Galactic Readiness percentage, definitely a recommendation. I was skeptical at first, admittedly, but I found myself enjoying it quite a bit.
Something that feels equal across both the single and multiplayer portions is the combat. Developing strategies against your opponents is key, especially in harder difficulties. Certain weapons and abilities are more effective against certain enemy types than others, so planning out your weapon loadout and which squad mates to bring along to compliment your own abilities will lead to much reloads. Taking cover, as mentioned in our demo impressions, still isn’t quite perfect. I found myself trying to grab cover and rolling instead and the other way around. Once you get in the harder difficulties, this ever so slight distinction can you find you looking at a game over screen very quickly. The enemy AI, on Insanity in particular, is brutal, taking advantage of every tiny error you make. Stay out of cover too long and you might find yourself wishing you hadn’t as you look at the “Critical Mission Failure” screen. Enemies won’t wait for you to line up your shots. You’ll have opportunities to get the shots in, but they won’t be handed to you. Taking advantage of your positioning and placement and usage of squad will find you victorious more often than just unloading a thermal clip into the bad guys.
The weapon selection is, simply put, huge. There are slight differences and weights to each weapon that you can bring along that will have you weighing your options. I mentioned each weapon has a weight stat and that actually is important if you find yourself using a class that relies on abilities more heavily than gunplay. The heavier the weapon is, the longer of a penalty to your power recharge time is assessed. You also don’t need to bring along more than one weapon, so if you rely on your powers a lot, bringing one or two might be the better option to minimize your times in between power usage.
As you level up, you can put more points into your talents and survivability. By the type you reach the level cap of 60 in single player, you’ll be able to have all but one of your abilities totally maxed out. If you find yourself wishing you had invested some more points in other abilities, you can always zero out your invested points and experiment with them again aboard the Normandy. You can also do the same with your squad members, which can be critical if you find yourself finding more usefulness for certain abilities despite having invested more in another. It’s a fairly straightforward character tree, but definitely more depth than Mass Effect 2.
While getting the galaxy ready for the assault on the Reapers, you’ll find yourself frequently on the Citadel. Be it for picking up supplies, dropping off found artifacts for the above mentioned filler quests, or just to see how certain events change the situation on the Citadel, you’ll find it’s the hub of the galaxy for a reason. Some of the most striking moments in the game can be found in the passive, ambient conversations happening that you have no part of. From an elderly woman trying to find out where her son is, to a teenage girl speaking with a C-Sec officer about her escape from her home, sometimes the most subtle moments hit harder than any of the giant battles you become involved in.
Those giant battles often lead you to seeing how your choices in previous games play out. Characters that may have lived or died will make an appearance if they survived your previous outings. Major choices will come to their climax and you’ll see just how a seemingly small decision in Mass Effect 1 can affect an event in Mass Effect 3. There are too many variances to go over reasonably, but rest assured that nothing you’ve done in previous entries that wasn’t already addressed and wrapped up will be brought to its conclusion before the credits roll. I don’t mean that during the game’s ending cinematic it will go over every decision you’ve made (this isn’t a Kojima Productions game here). Rather, you’ll see some of these storylines reach their conclusion at some point during the game. Seeing some old friends (and foes) return and seeing how things pan out is what kept me going. As I mentioned previously, I really feel that these events are more what Mass Effect is about than the overall “impending doom of the galaxy” that makes up the main plotline.
Graphically, Mass Effect 3 is beautiful, but not without its flaws. Many of the background set pieces will move as they would in reality and you’ll see some rather fascinating things going on if you take the time. The flaws often come more from the actual moving characters. I found Shepard staring off to the right during an entire conversation, effectively removing my emotional involvement. If you skip some portions of the conversation but continue at the normal pace for the rest of it, you may find the person you’re speaking with suddenly no longer on screen. It does kill the immersion when it happens, but I only found that to be the case when skipping dialogue because I had heard it before and was trying a new approach or during my currently incomplete Insanity run.
Mass Effect 3’s sound is quite impressive. Sound effects are at their peak for the series here. Weapons have the proper sound to them, during both firing and impact. And some of the biotic effects really add to what you think those abilities are actually doing. Voice acting is top notch, although you might notice a bit of reusing certain voice actors if you’re really paying attention. Nothing so much that it takes you out of the moment (unlike the occasional oddball graphical glitch), but enough that makes you wonder why a random volus would sound nearly identical to a random salarian with a respiratory infection. With new composers handling the score, I was a bit concerned we’d lose some of what I feel made the previous entries’ soundtrack so special. I always felt that they had had a strange 1960-1970’s space science fiction to them with a hint of “John Williams” dramatic effect. While it lost a bit of the former, it still is a fantastic soundtrack and compliments some of the game’s most stunning moments with almost so much subtly, you forget it’s there. I normally knock a game’s music for blending in too well, but going back and listening to the soundtrack by itself, I’ve found myself reflecting on the moments these pieces happen without even needing to look at the track list for a hint as to when it occurred. Obviously, somewhere along the line, my mind picked up the music during these events and has almost interwoven the experiences together without my realizing it. Hat’s off to that.
Graphics – Aside from the occasional “moment” breaking glitch, the galaxy has never been more beautiful.
Sound – The new composers did a marvelous job continuing the tradition of great soundtracks that has been with the series since its first entry’s opening menu music. Sound effects and voice acting bring you further into the world than just a pretty screen can do.
Gameplay – Slightly clumsy cover mechanic aside, the combat in Mass Effect has never felt tighter. Mass Effect 3 feels like the child of Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 that was supposed to be. Inventory is a happy medium of the tediousness of the first and the barely there of the second one. Leveling is handled much the same way.
Story – Aside from the ending (a debate for another time), the entire game feels like it wraps up everything that BioWare’s been building up for you over the last few years. Characters big and small make an appearance wrapping up their storylines. Ambient conversation is at its finest here as well.
Replay Value – If you own the previous two games and want to see how things are done differently, you’ve got a lot of reason to go back. Sometimes even the smallest thing in done in Mass Effect 2 comes back and affects something in Mass Effect 3. Multiplayer can keep you busy for a fair amount of time once you finish any additional playthroughs until more DLC comes our way.
Overall Length – If you’re going for a bare bones, critical path only playthrough, you’re looking at around 15 hours. In my first playthrough, hitting every side conversation, every deck of the Normandy to speak with my crew, my timer hit 34 hours. Multiple playthroughs, including the even more challenging Insanity difficulty, can find you losing yourself for 100 hours. Add in multiplayer to that equation and you’ll be lost in this game for a long time.
Since the first Mass Effect, BioWare has been tweaking what works and what doesn’t for what feels like this moment. Every decision you’ve made matters, some of them just resolve more subtly than others. With returning friends and foes alike showing some change and growth and new characters being fleshed out as best they can (I’m looking at you, Vega), the writing staff has done a marvelous job of finishing what was started more than half a decade ago. This might be the end of Commander Shepard’s tale, but, if BioWare can find a way to make it work properly, here’s hoping the Mass Effect universe lives on somehow. If not, this was a glorious send off to one of the most important series of this generation.