Mass Effect is one of the series that has defined RPGs this generation, featuring a rich universe, incredible writing, and deep gameplay. What sets it apart from other blockbusters this generation, though, is the scope; Mass Effect was designed as a trilogy, and decisions the player make each game transfer over to the next, with hundreds of variables affecting the way the plot progresses. Mass Effect 3 is the final entry of that vision, the culmination of over five years of development by series creator BioWare. Many have invested dozens of hours into the previous two games to see how their Shepard’s fight against the Reapers would conclude, and their investment – both in terms of time and emotion – will reach its end point here, for better or worse.
Shepard, having been kept under house arrest after his actions in the Arrival DLC from Mass Effect 2, is approached by his mentor, Admiral Anderson, after the Systems Alliance detects a large body of vessels moving toward Earth. As expected, it’s the Reapers, who attack Earth in full force. With Anderson’s help, Shepard barely escapes Earth, and not long after, he learns of a Prothean blueprint for a superweapon known as the Crucible, the purpose of which was ostensibly to destroy the Reaper forces, but it failed to be activated in time. Shepard is tasked with brokering a coalition between the various races of the known galaxy in order to retake Earth from the Reapers while at the same time devoting manpower in order to construct the Crucible.
Shepard’s mission puts him into contact with some of the best and worst individuals the galaxy has to offer, and elements such as redemption, vengeance, betrayal, and forgiveness are prevalent throughout the game. The story has a lot of twists and surprise reveals, as well as multiple different forces vying for control in different parts of the galaxy, so those looking for a deep and complex narrative won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately, despite exemplary writing, there are some problems that hinder the overall narrative.
The first problem is the pacing. Earth is under siege during the entire course of the story, yet the player can take his or her time going through the game, and there are no mandatory missions like those in Mass Effect 2. This problem is minor due to the fact that it is stressed throughout the game that the Reaper extinction cycle requires a timescale ranging in the centuries, so Shepard has adequate time to rally his forces. However, suspension of disbelief can be tested sometimes when Shepard is allowed to run around the galaxy solving the most trivial problems while the Reapers lay waste to Earth.
The second problem is the ending; while the individual storylines all have satisfying conclusions, the main plot relating to the Reapers receives a short, almost surreal send-off. After years of investment into the character of Shepard and the Mass Effect universe, I honestly feel that the series deserved a better and more well-rounded conclusion. For this reason alone, I feel just a small amount of disappointment about Mass Effect 3.
Shepard deals with all the major races and organizations of the galaxy directly, putting to rest every loose end and conflict that has been revealed and debated throughout the course of the series. The ultimate fate of these groups hinges on the player’s decisions about the best course to progress, and important characters or even entire races live or die depending upon Shepard’s actions in the game. Some of the choices lead down paths the player might not expect, and as a result can have dire or unforeseen consequences that can really pluck at the heartstrings.
What’s unfortunate is that the choices made in previous games seemingly have little effect on the final outcome of the game. In fact, many of the most important decisions are made in this iteration, with previous choices being mostly secondary. Some characters may or may not be present depending on their fates in previous games; those the didn’t survive prior events are replaced by new characters that fill in the same role, making the overall story effectively unchanged. Similarly, some lines of dialogue are altered to reflect the appropriate choices made previously. The changes that occur to storyline and dialogue due to prior decisions are significant enough that I’m not disappointed with the outcome, but it feels like BioWare could have done better in the aspect.
Speaking of dialogue, BioWare’s writers are in top form in Mass Effect 3. The writing is exceptional and retains the high quality that BioWare’s dialogue is known for, whether it’s the comedic encounters such as making small talk with a teammate who’s stoned out of their mind or the dramatic story setpieces in the storyline proper. It’s not just the individual character interactions that are excellently written, either; even the conversations between the minor NPCs play a huge role in selling the game’s particular ambience.
While still having its fair share of humor and lightheartedness, the entire game has a somewhat somber and melancholy atmosphere, and a good deal of it can be attributed to the small conversations overheard while walking through areas such as the Citadel. From a mother who has deluded herself into thinking her dead son is still alive to an Asari recounting a traumatic experience with her doctor, the game sets an incredibly immersive atmosphere of sheer hopelessness, which only makes the resilience and hope of Shepard and his crew that much more memorable.
The graphics also do much to further this funereal atmosphere, with locations depicting darkness and desperation – even the brightly colored and well-lit areas like the Citadel convey a sense of impending dread. The Reapers themselves are unbelievably imposing and terrifying to behold, as the player sees them ravaging nearly every planet Shepard sets foot on; there is no doubt that the art direction in this game is outstanding. The graphics themselves have been much improved from previous games, with better facial rendering; the characters all look much better while still retaining their own unique appearances. Small details such as the various nicks and scratches on Shepard’s armor, as well as the more subtle facial expressions during conversations, bring the game’s universe to life. The environments show a similar attention to detail, and are as varied as they are large.
Mass Effect 3 pulls the best music tracks from the first two entries of the series and mixes them with some superb original compositions to create a soundtrack that is simultaneously nostalgic and refreshing. The original tracks match the reused music in terms of quality, and it’s honestly one of the best game soundtracks I’ve ever heard, considering that the reused tracks are some of my favorites, and the new tracks hit all the right notes. The adrenaline pumping battle tracks are effective, but what really sells the new music are the tender, somber piano tracks during the more emotional scenes. Also of note is the sound direction; while gunshots and explosions are certainly well-done, what’s more impressive is the now iconic Reaper shriek that can send chills down anyone’s spine. The art and sound direction combine with excellent writing and technical aesthetics to create an atmosphere that can only be equaled in the video game industry by a select few.
The voice acting is, as always, excellent, with Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale reprising their roles as the male and female Commander Shepard, who easily give some of the best performances of the series. That’s not to diminish the excellent jobs the other actors do in this game, however; Mass Effect 3 has some of the best voice acting ever heard in a video game, but to list all the voice acting I found exemplary would be unrealistic – the voice work in the game is nearly flawless.
Many who played Mass Effect 2 bemoaned the supposed lack of RPG elements. While this statement is contestable, it is a fact that Mass Effect 2 streamlined the gameplay elements put forth in the first game, some might say to the detriment of the gameplay itself. Mass Effect 3 corrects this while keeping the system streamlined and more organized by expanding the progression system in the second game.
Characters have more abilities than in Mass Effect 2, and these are also much more varied, able to have different chosen effects at later levels. For example, an upgrade for a grenade ability can either increase the player’s stock or increase the damage each individual grenade causes, but not both. This allows the player to pick and choose proper ability upgrades more suited to his or her playstyle, a definite advantage considering that each class available to Shepard serves a specific function and operates vastly differently in battle. Infiltrators cloak themselves to avoid enemy attention and line up a kill shot with their sniper rifles, while Sentinels have unequaled defensive abilities. At the game’s late stages, Shepard can also take on an extra ability from one of his teammates, as well, so there is a huge amount of versatility and replayablility where gameplay is concerned.
Weapons and equipment have undergone similar changes. Unlike in the previous game, any class can equip any weapon in Mass Effect 3. However, each weapon has a set weight, and Shepard can only carry so much weight before he or she is put at a disadvantage. This disadvantage comes in the form of increased recharge times for special abilities, so players have to weigh the pros and cons of bringing each weapon onto the battlefield. While classes focusing mainly on weapon use benefit from bringing an arsenal into the fray, biotics and tech-based classes are at a severe disadvantage from having their powers locked off for longer periods between uses.
Weapons themselves can be upgraded via credits, boosting their overall effectiveness, and modified using different parts that can give vastly improved performance in one area, such as damage or accuracy. There’s also a huge variety, with more than thirty different weapons available, each with unique performance statistics. Armor is handled in much the same way as the previous game, with each individual piece granting different enhancements or a single armor set giving specialized boosts. Players can also find upgrades on missions and sidequests that, when activated, give a permanent boost to one aspect that affects the entire party.
All of this would be a moot point if the combat wasn’t any good, and thankfully Mass Effect 3 delivers an excellent third-person shooter experience. Combat makes up the bulk of Mass Effect 3’s gameplay, and it’s much improved over the previous game. Enemies are much smarter and more aggressive, no longer hiding behind cover and popping out to fire periodically; they actively seek out Shepard and attempt to flank him, surround him and attack from all sides, or protect themselves or each other with special abilities that recover shields or health. Proper use of class specific and squadmate abilities are required if the player wants to finish the game on anything above casual. Normal offers a healthy amount of challenge, and only those with nerves of steel will be able to conquer the game on Insanity. Even improvements that seem minor, such as rolling and heavy melee attacks, must be utilized in order to survive. The only problem is that the new combat controls seem to have mapped too many commands to the same button. As a result, every so often the wrong command will be chosen because of the context-sensitive controls, which can end with Shepard bursting out of cover into enemy fire. It doesn’t happen often enough to be a problem, but often enough to be a mild annoyance.
Missions and sidequests take place in hugely differentiated environments from a war-torn moon to the inside of a computer system. The gameplay never strays far from the core shooting mechanics, but in certain missions, players will be treated to variations such as puzzle solving. Shepard can also build up his fleet and find artifacts and credits by scanning the various systems in the galaxy. Planet scanning is no longer as monotonous as it was in the last game, either. The Normandy now sends pings in a system to detect planets with points of interest, which can then be scanned once to reap the rewards. Scan too much, however, and the Reapers will detect the Normandy and attack, forcing the player to retreat. These different sidequests and missions make Mass Effect 3 the longest game in the trilogy, with my final time being well over 40 hours. Those who just want to go through the storyline missions can expect at least 20 to 25 hours of game time. A minor problem, however, exists with the mission log, which doesn’t update according to the level of quest completion, making quests that assign more than one task to the player difficult. However, most missions and quests aren’t long enough for this to be a severe problem.
Aside from building up forces in the single player game, players can also increase their readiness level by participating in the Galaxy at War campaign, which is connected to the multiplayer. While not required, the multiplayer is a meaty addition to Mass Effect 3, and makes for a nearly infinitely replayable game. The multiplayer plays much the same as the single player, but with the added bonus of allowing the player to play as all of the major races featured in the game, such as Krogans, Turians, and Asari. Each race has both class- and race-specific abilities, different fighting styles, and different stats – while a human warrior is well rounded and good in all aspects, a krogan of the same class has much higher physical attack and defense, but lacks the time slowing Adrenaline Rush, instead opting to destroy enemies with the Carnage ability. Multiplayer games are purely cooperative, with players working together to fight back waves of increasingly powerful enemies while having to fulfill objectives at certain points. The focus on cooperative gameplay as well as the variation between playable classes and races makes multiplayer an incredible investment for those who want something to spend their time with after finishing the single-player campaign.
What more is there to say about Mass Effect 3 that I haven’t already said in the last 2,000 words? Mass Effect 3 is simply brilliant – a peerless sci-fi epic that has created an incredibly high standard in video game storytelling. The few small flaws are overshadowed by the excellent experience the game provides. It is the pinnacle of one of the greatest sci-fi stories of our time, with breathtaking aesthetics, a well-crafted and excellently told story, memorable and realistic characters, and incredibly well-designed gameplay. Anyone who has invested any amount of time in the previous games will enjoy watching the final chapter of Shepard’s tale unfold, and among the feelings of excitement and joy as they meet and fight alongside old friends for the fate of the galaxy, they will also feel just a tinge of disappointment and heartbreak as they bid farewell to the colorful universe and memorable characters BioWare has created.