Summary: This latest release from EA/BioWare is the final entry in their trilogy of sci-fi action RPGs, putting you in a dire situation: rally the troops to save Earth at all costs. There was a lot of hype surrounding the final act of what has been a vast and highly-customizable story-telling experience, and the reception among many hardcore fans has been less than stellar. Even people that haven't played the game have probably heard about all the nerd rage going on over Mass Effect 3's ending...
If you want to cut through all the crap and find out whether or not the rest of ME3 is worth playing, come check out Will's spoiler-free take on the first blockbuster game release of 2012.
So what in the world does Mass Effect even mean? The first game in BioWare’s trilogy of sci-fi RPGs defines it as a phenomenon where mass is manipulated by dark matter, which is generated by an electrical current passing through the imaginary “element zero,” or “eezo” for short. A positive current increases mass and a negative one decreases it. This is how artificial gravity and faster-than-light travel is achieved, and how pellets the size of a grain of rice can deliver 2 kilotons of destructive power (think Hiroshima). This is what makes the franchise so special – there’s a level of detail in every facet of its fiction that is simply astounding. It gives the impression that the developers actually respect the intelligence of their consumers.
It’s also one of the reasons I prefer science fiction to fantasy almost every time. Whereas in fantasy everyone is inexplicably stuck with Tolkien’s creations (dwarves, elves, orcs and goblins, etc.), sci-fi will come up with things like a monosexual race called the Asari that can reproduce with any species through the psychic conjoining of their nervous systems. My favorite from Mass Effect are the Elcor, a hulking quadruped race that evolved on a high-gravity world; they speak in a monotone voice and need to preface their statements with emotional undertone when interacting with humans, since they rely on scent and other subtle cues to express meaning amongst those of their own race.
The Mass Effect franchise is all about exploration and discovery. Every planet you visit is unique and detailed, every species you encounter possessing some extraordinary trait. BioWare has created these games with a scope and scale that very few developers could achieve. Like a good book, you can get lost in this intricate and vast universe, quickly forgetting that you live in a much more boring reality. And then there are the characters you will meet and befriend -- each squad mate that you bring with you has a unique personality and outlook, growing and changing with every addition to the series. They aren’t a bunch of simple, endearing characters wearing different hats, but people, with lifelike personalities fueled by talented voice actors giving it their all.
In addition to the aforementioned, there’s always been this mystery craftily woven into every thread of the games. The Protheans were a galaxy-spanning race that existed 50,000 years ago, but suddenly vanished. It is assumed that all of the technology used by intelligent beings came from them and it’s left at that. Unlike other stories that hit you over the head with the precursor trope, BioWare lets everything remain implied rather than overtly stated. Little by little, you start to uncover some of the background history, until the end of the game when you’re hit by a massive plot twist that will leave you exasperated and wanting for more.
Now, if you have not yet finished playing ME1 and/or ME2, you need to stop reading right here. Unless you absolutely do not care for the franchise and my summary didn’t make you curious enough to want to check them out… There won’t be any story details for Mass Effect 3 itself in this review, though, so you can rest assured that nothing will be spoiled for you if you’re just trying to find out whether or not it’s worth playing. We’ll be getting into the meat of things next up, promise!
First and foremost, Mass Effect isn’t Star Trek; you don’t need to have even a passing interest in sci-fi to enjoy it. The series began as an RPG/shooter hybrid, but like many hybrids, I felt it was more of a jack of all trades and master of none. The combat was slow and cumbersome, and the RPG mechanics amounted to little more than offloading a ton of junk items to vendors or melting it down for omni-gel (then used for hacking and engineering tasks). Mass Effect 2 got rid of most of that and focused on the combat, replacing weapon overheating with heatsinks that act like ammunition clips while removing spare parts and weapon customization altogether. A lot of fans decried it as dumbing the game down, but I felt it was a welcome change by focusing on what was more important and making it better.
Fans will be very pleased to hear that Mass Effect 3 further improves the combat and also brings back weapon upgrades. You can now pick up or purchase a variety of different weapon parts, which are used to customize your arsenal at workbenches. You are limited to just two accessory slots per weapon, though, so you have to be strategic in deciding what you want to use and when. In addition, types of weapons are no longer restricted to being used by specific classes. You can equip any weapon you want, even one of each of the five types, but the trade-off is that carrying more weight increases the time it takes to recharge your abilities. Classes that rely heavily on using a lot of powers rather often will find themselves sticking to lighter guns anyway, but at least this time the choice is yours to make.
Armor customization is also here, unchanged from previous games. Commander Shepard can mix and match parts of his/her N7 suit or wear special one-piece outfits that offer a unique look in addition to coordinated group of enhancements. New to the Normandy ship is a procurement terminal where you can buy anything from any store you have visited at least once. You have to pay 10% more to cover the cost of delivery, but you can avoid that extra trip back to the Citadel to find a store that you vaguely remember had something you wanted to buy. Unfortunately, armor customization for your squad mates is limited to swapping between two outfits with different benefits (by default, DLCs add more), but at least you can pick and choose exactly what weapons and add-ons they use.
Combat itself flows very well, partly because the game now makes the option to disable mouse dampening available in the menu (rather than leaving it to you to discover you can tweak the config file). I also feel that the AI has been considerably improved in how they use the map to their advantage: enemies will always search for cover, flank you, and even seemingly work in teams. This also applies to your squad mates, who are capable of intelligently deploying their own abilities if you have the option set to let them. Sadly, the difficulty setting you choose determines just how aggressive the AI will be. Even on Normal, most enemies will stay behind cover for the duration of the battle, requiring you to carefully aim for any exposed parts or charge headlong to eliminate them. If only the difficulty settings could be manually adjusted according to play-style, rather than vague settings with pre-determined values… at least ME3 makes a better effort than its predecessors.
On the bright side, talk of the game being made “more accessible” (marketing-speak for dumbing something down) prior to release ultimately led to little more than there being additional gameplay options in the menu. You can choose to let the game pick all of your dialogue and play them as regular cutscenes, automatically level-up you and/or your squad, have your squad use their powers without micro-management from you, or even make use of a new super-low difficulty setting for those that don’t enjoy any challenge at all in the combat. Veteran Mass Effect players that aren’t interested in those things will be relieved to know that you can play the same way you did in ME2.
Though third-person combat has always been central to the series, the story side of things is equally important. It’s what separates a mediocre Gears of War clone from a truly memorable experience. Like with the combat, ME3 does not change much from ME2 in the story-telling department. This was very welcome considering how BioWare screwed up Dragon Age’s successful formula by trying to change it in the sequel, without realizing what they had done before was what made the original so great in the first place. However, Mass Effect 3 does go a step further by not only refusing to change, but by reducing itself to its base parts.
Neutral dialogue, which before was the middle option between Paragon and Renegade, is gone. There is no ambivalence in dialogue choices save for a few instances where the Paragon option is actually the Renegade one and vice-versa. This can be annoyingly frustrating during times where your choice impacts the game world. It would be fine if all dialogue wasn’t categorized, or even if it referred strictly to “good” and “badass” trees, but offering haphazard and sometimes misleading options is not how it should be done.
What’s more, Renegade and Paragon interrupts feel less common and are less severe, which is sad because they were one of my favorite additions to ME2. There are no more hilarious scenes like interrupting a krogan monologue by shooting a gas pipe underneath him, tossing an uncooperative witness off of a skyscraper, or other moments of bad-assery. In fact, playing a Renegade Shepard isn’t what it used to be: he/she is quieter, more reserved, less snarky, and plagued by PTSD. And my God, is the PTSD forced.
At the beginning of the game (playable in the demo), a young boy will be killed by the Reapers. Shepard is sad because that kid represented all of the people he couldn’t save. Okay. Cool. But then at the end of every act, Shepard has these vivid dreams of running through a dark forest, chasing after the little kid that died, as if all of the other deaths Shepard has witnessed and caused didn’t matter. It just seems a cheap way for the writers to add some false tragedy to the story without really trying.
As it turns out, most of the story in ME3 plays out that way. What you saw in the demo is exactly the beginning in the full game, save for more a bit more clarification as to what happened in the past for those that didn’t play the Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2. As mentioned in our demo impressions, the beginning leaves a lot to be desired. There is just no meaning to anything you do and the first few hours feel like you’re dicking around while Earth burns.
But then BioWare manages to masterfully probe that exact sentiment, experimenting with how everyone would handle a disaster like that differently. Some decry the situation they’re in and demand to get back to the fight. Others party away like nothing is happening. One squad mate breaks down emotionally. Some try to act nonchalant but will frequently slip… And then there are the moments of triumph, where you win a crucial battle and everything goes as planned, only to see all of it stripped away at the last minute. It’s an emotional roller-coaster made entirely possible by the depth of the game’s characters and their voice actors.
Thankfully, established characters from previous Mass Effect games maintain their high quality and rise above and beyond the mediocrity. But virtually all the new faces in ME3 elicit feelings of a high school drama production with stilted dialogue, embarrassing voice acting, and Twilight-level romance. Some new characters like Diana Allers (embedded news reporter), Steve Cortez (shuttle pilot), Samantha Traynor (personal secretary), and James Vega (squad mate) are forced down your throat and offer little more than atrocious single-dimensionality.
As for James Vega (or ‘Beefie McLargeHuge’ as I like to call him), he is never really introduced and merely appears in the beginning of the game as your new best friend. He basically looks like he walked off the set of Jersey Shore and behaves like a stupid man-child for the first half of the game. As a native from Spain, James’ forced attempts at injecting Spanish slang into everything he says is, quite simply, painful. He does somewhat redeem himself by becoming a somewhat more relatable character free of the petty dramas others suffer. His interactions with other members of your team are actually funny, and he will frequently blurt out what you, the player, are really thinking about a particular situation. In fact, he is a great foil to Shepard’s new-found softness.
Garrus Vakarian deserves a shout-out for being the best “bro” character of all time. He mentions moments in past games for you to laugh about, hangs out with you, always has your back, and knows when and how to make light of any situation. He alone helps bridge all three games together. I never realized just how much I loved him until Mass Effect 3. The other veterans of the trilogy, Liara and Tali, contribute just as greatly to the overall story. Liara’s heartfelt attempts to deal with the tragedy are endearing and full of legitimate sorrow, while Tali’s new-found hopes and dreams help alleviate the doom and gloom. Last character mention goes to EDI, the artificial intelligence of the ship, who you get to shape and mold throughout ME3 to realize what it means to be alive. So that makes it even worse to see the mixed bag that is how BioWare handled her, which is at times both brilliant and sloppy.
Pretty much everyone from the first two games makes some sort of cameo appearance, and if your old squad from ME2 survived the suicide mission, you get to have one last side-mission with each of them. Some are really cool and touching, like Thane Krios dealing with Kepral Syndrome and Jack growing up, but others felt like a bit of a throw-away. Without revealing anything, I’ll say that a few of your former squad mates do play an integral role in the plot of Mass Effect 3. If some of them died in ME2, the game’s story can play out very differently, perhaps even becoming excessively tragic and depressing.
In my case, I kept everyone alive and did most things right, so ME3 played out like a huge triumph over evil. However, other players who either weren’t so vigilant or did not import a save file, may have seen a completely different outcome to a wide array of situations. So that talk and hype about an immensely divergent and fluid ME3 experience actually has a lot of validity to it. Unfortunately, not all choices that you’ve made in ME1 and ME2 really matter. Most of the time, they merely merit a side mention or contribute to your Galactic Readiness Rating.
Put briefly, the Readiness Rating is a number that represents all of the War Assets you’ve rallied for the fight against the Reaper invasion. We’re talking Krogan battle-masters, highly-skilled biotic trainees, dreadnaught flagships or entire fleets, basically some kind of military component from almost every race or organization you help out along the way. Everything is gained as a result of completing missions during the campaign, as well as scanning and probing planets via exploration, and the size of your army has a direct impact on how the end of the game plays out.
Quests in Mass Effect 3 feel a lot more linear and much less interesting than those in the last two titles. Most missions lack an air of mystery and uncertainty, unlike ME1 and ME2. Maps are usually about half the size and much less detailed. To make it worse, there are only a handful of different enemy types: mostly Cerberus and Reaper forces, with some Geth thrown in later. New worlds that have never been seen before are plagued with copy-pasted architecture (Earth is the biggest offender) and are generally lacking in spirit and originality.
There are few locations, like the Asari home world of Thessia, that are absolutely gorgeous, but you don’t really get to see much of it. To offset this, BioWare did put more effort into the background vistas, so there is always something to look at during lulls in the action. The first mission on Earth (available on the demo) has some really cool things going on off in the distance. They don’t hold up very well to scrutiny, though, as you’ll quickly notice there are only one or two animated sprites replicated all over the place… The civilian population running around Vancouver whilst it was being razed to the ground was laugh-out-loud hilarious.
As usual, you decide which two squad mates to take with you on every outing, and use their skills to help you destroy everything in your path. Most individual missions revolve around fighting the Reapers and those assisting them (usually Cerberus) and last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. There is also an incredible amount of fetch quests available from various individuals around the Citadel that require you to roam the galaxy scanning for objects. These side tasks do contribute to the Readiness Rating and offer small rewards of XP and credits, but otherwise have almost no point to them. Something I really missed from ME1 and ME2 is the existence of more developed side quests that you embark on only after discovering them through galaxy exploration.
The middle of Mass Effect 3 really picks up in terms of plot and mission quality, fortunately. A lot of questions are answered and a lot of progress is made by that point. It’s also where most of the game’s dramatic moments occur. I won’t spoil anything, but there are two very memorable moments in particular that had me practically jumping out of my chair in excitement. It builds up like this straight up to the final battle at the end, but then you’re let down when you don’t get to witness any of the War Assets you’ve spent the better part of the game collecting actually do any fighting. It turns out that the Readiness Rating is just that, a number; you won’t really see any mounted Krogans or Hanar warships charge into battle.
However, I will admit that several of the pre-rendered cutscenes do deliver some heart-pounding action that is enjoyable to watch. ME3 rivals just about any other sci-fi space battle you can think of, in terms of the sheer number of ships of all sizes on screen, flying around and blowing each other up . But like with most of the rest of the game, whatever BioWare does right it also does wrong: these mega-awesome cutscenes are compressed to a quality that’s worse than what you’d expect to see on YouTube circa 2006. I suppose the bad presentation is also partly due to BioWare’s liberal application of lens flares and motion blur.
The lens flares – those damned lens flares – are apparently the chief component of EA’s new philosophy to minimize effort required for graphic design by simply obscuring everything. Just about every square inch of the game is atrociously illuminated with bright lights that shine in your eyes no matter where you look. Add that to an already prevalent over-bright bloom effect, and the whole thing is rather fatiguing and will strain your eyes after a while. Unfortunately, this seems to be a popular trend in today’s games… Battlefield 3, Syndicate, and Mass Effect 3 are all EA products that do not understand the meaning of subtlety in visuals at all. Though in the case of ME3, the lighting does sort of help in covering up some pretty low quality textures.
Unlike ME2, most of the graphics options you get in Mass Effect 3 offer little more than what console gamers have access to. The resolution feels stretched, in-game anti-aliasing does a poor job, the dynamic lighting creates some bad and uneven shading that is very noticeable in the character’s faces, and the particle effects leave a lot to be desired. But that’s not all! Either BioWare fired their entire animation staff before starting work on ME3 or they should do so right away, because movement of most objects looks so wooden and artificial. Sprinting characters seem to be gliding across the ground like it was made of ice and awful facial animations make them look like ventriloquist dummies…
Cue another example of Mass Effect 3’s mind-boggling yin-yang quality control: while BioWare royally screwed up the animations, they did very well by the sound effects. With the addition of dynamic range sound, explosions and gunfire sound louder than the ambient noise, creating a 3D environment that succeeds in immersing you in scenes of battle. Also, most weapon sounds were overhauled to sound much more “pew-pew-y,” which I thought was a nice change but not everyone will agree.
Overall, though, the art style of ME3 remains unchanged from the previous two games, almost to a fault. Rather than seeing some new props, models, and map types, we’re treated mostly to copy-pasted content from ME2. A majority of the environments come off as excessively bland and generic, which may remind you of another recent BioWare release that was churned out in less than 18 months... One thing that did noticeably change, however, is the sex appeal of the characters. The biggest victim of this is squad mate Ashley Williams -- she had the Botox injection in the lips, Lara Croft-style breast implants, extra make-up around the eyes, and her skin polished to a flawless plastic sheen. She’s become a monster!
Mass Effect 3’s bugs are many. Some players, including yours truly, experienced issues with importing a previous save game. That might have resulted in some characters ending up dead when they weren’t supposed to or even some of your choices becoming reversed. I finally got everything squared away after the third try, but it was still a pain. Some players didn’t even notice until they were halfway through playing, which must have really sucked. I also had problems with installing the game from the disc, as Origin kept insisting on being a piece of shit and forcing me to download the whole thing from their server.
With the exception of the overall quality of the animations, I also noticed some instances where the characters’ bodies could become boneless and warped. Too many times Shepard had his head turned all the way around like an owl while he was talking... Hit-box detection and invisible walls are a travesty, and it’s a little too easy to get stuck on the terrain somewhere and have to reload.
For some reason, EA insisted on including a multiplayer component to ME3. First off, I believe the combat is Mass Effect’s weakest feature and secondly, rather than having a co-op campaign or some kind of persistent universe you’re left with the same old horde survival mode. Up to four players fight around a special arena map from the campaign against a specific type of enemies for ten waves, some of which task you with a shallow objective. At first I thought it was pretty fun, especially if you’re with a group of friends or a competent squad, but after the same couple or so maps against some brutally difficult AI it became a tedious waste of time.
Added into the multiplayer is this persistent leveling system, with the spin being that all unlocks are random. That sounds like a pretty cool idea for extending play time, but in practice, it doesn’t work very well with the few classes that require planning out a build to be effective. These random unlockables are given to you via special containers that you purchase from the in-game store using either credits you accrue by playing or with real money that you converted to BioWare points on their website. To be fair, I had enough of the virtual money to buy a nice pack after two or three decent rounds, but the inclusion of this pay-to-win component is still somewhat infuriating to me.
Pre-release marketing hyped the multiplayer up as having some tie-in to the single-player campaign, and it does. However, it merely amounts to increasing your, you guessed it, Readiness Rating, by way of affecting a percentage of effectiveness your War Assets will have. There are also iOS apps that contribute to your score and give you online items, if you’re into that sort of thing. What sucks is that it is impossible to achieve the absolute most perfect ending without playing at least some multiplayer, which is not how they claimed it would work.
Now on to the most controversial aspect of Mass Effect 3: the ending. There are NO spoilers here but rather a warning to any fan or would-be fan. Firstly, don’t believe any of the marketing EA and BioWare were spewing, that there will be a billion-gazillion different endings that played off of all the vast amount of choices you made throughout the series. In reality, you get three. The plot will not be resolved, mysteries will not be unveiled, and the status of everything you have ever done for the past three games will be untouched. The tone of the game will rapidly change and you will have no say in the matter. There are several gaping plot holes and ideas that defy explanation. It’s stupid in every conceivable way and insults the intelligence of every fan... If there was a way to play the game and have it be done with15 minutes earlier, then it’s likely ME3 would have received universal acclaim from everybody, not just the high-profile publications that may not have even seen the game through to the end.
To top it all off, you get a nice little text message after the credits roll letting you know that Shepard has become legendary and to wait for the DLC to continue his adventures. Congratulations!
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