Forty-eight hours after completing Mass Effect 3, I sat at my desk listening to a song on the soundtrack called An End Once and For All, and that’s when I finally came to terms with the trilogy and its inevitable conclusion. I found commiseration in the despondent piano chords and comfort in the message therein: an end, finally, and now we can rest. With the salvo of overzealous attacks on BioWare and EA pre- and post-release, any given player could hardly approach the game without preconceived notions. We weren’t given enough time and space to think and reflect without being bombarded with others’ thoughts. Everyone needs time to heal after the departure of something beloved, and the Mass Effect trilogy is no exception. Let us lick our wounds now, because Mass Effect 3 is a thrilling, compelling, and heart-breaking end to our beloved trilogy.
Whereas the first Mass Effect focused on exposition, setting, and plot, Mass Effect 2 was like a series of character-centric short stories with an overarching theme and central ambition. In one final narrative shift, Mass Effect 3 tells a war story. Shepard’s prediction of an eventual Reaper invasion proves true, and the Reaper War begins. For better or worse, Mass Effect 3’s wartime narrative feels unfocused and disorganized, setting a pace different from the first two games, but appropriate to the chaos of war. Moments of immense drama intermingle with quiet conversations and introspection. Although largely outstanding, the dialogue and presentation seem slightly less confident and intelligent compared to the first two Mass Effects. The few awkward moments and stilted conversations are remarkable only because most of the game is so excellent, however, and even its worst offenses lay above average.
As an undercurrent to the titanic plot events, a deep melancholy pervades the game. BioWare achieves this affecting atmosphere with realistic details, intimate moments, and well developed NPCs. Mass Effect 3 is full of miniature stories, such as the tale of an asari traumatized by war and parting lovers dodging the reality of a final goodbye. An abundance of physical affection fills the Citadel, and subtle displays of piety and musings on the afterlife show the breadth of BioWare’s vision. Exploring the galaxy delivers subtle punches to the gut as the player discovers more and more planets laid to waste. Even minor characters share intimate details – an ex-wife back on Earth, a deceased husband – that make the Reaper War realistic and devastating. Most of Mass Effect 3’s emotional power, however, comes from the recurring characters we’ve grown to love.
BioWare has always known that character trumps plot, and Mass Effect 3 creates the greatest relationship between characters and players in video game history. I have never had such a profound and complex emotional reaction to a video game, and the characters made this possible: Garrus, Mordin, Tali, Thane, Joker, EDI, Wrex, Anderson, and so many more. Despite the emphasis on bittersweet goodbyes and long-term relationships, a few new characters make a surprising impact. These include a certain krogan, a humble new assistant, and the shuttle pilot Steve Cortez, one of the best representations of homosexuality in a video game. With so many indelible characters, Mass Effect 3 provides a dozen pinnacles of emotion, a single one of which could be the defining moment of a lesser game.
The infamous ending deserves only a fraction of its disparagement. I found I was more upset that my story ended at all than I was about any final development or brief epilogue. Even if there isn’t an amazing revelation, the conclusion provides enough closure while leaving enough open for speculation. A few additional answers may have been a kindness, but too few is better than too many. Even those who abhor the ending, however, must admit that it leaves a potent impression. Those final moments have been replaying in my mind for days after seeing them. BioWare’s unconventional and daring ending will never be forgotten.
Unfortunately, the endings lack differentiation, as well as representation of the player’s choices throughout the trilogy. The several endings depend almost entirely on the success of the player’s shepherding of galactic powers throughout Mass Effect 3. At first glance, the endings ignore Shepard’s decisions, including two enormous choices made in the third game. The consequences are merely left to the imagination, though, and each player’s Shepard brings a unique history to the end. The player is left to imagine the eventual outcomes of each choice, but at least the consequences aren’t spelled out in a hokey montage that neatly closes every character and story arc. Unfortunately, the lack of differentiation between endings can’t be as easily dispelled.
The art direction provides subtle support to the game’s dark tone. The trilogy has gotten figuratively and literally darker with each iteration, and Mass Effect 3 has the darkest color palette of them all. Even the Citadel, once a bright refuge, amps up the oppression, and darkness seems to pervade the Normandy as well. Furthering the effect, familiar faces seem older, with more scars and worry wrinkles. These are the faces of war.
I didn’t notice an appreciable upgrade in graphical fidelity from Mass Effect 2, but the game looks stunning regardless. A setting sun can be used to devastating effect, and the Reapers are more unsettling than ever before. Some graphical glitches harm immersion at times, however, and BioWare may need to upgrade the engine for future games. There are a few shortcuts taken as well as occasional framerate drops, but these are typically forgotten during the next big mission.
Mass Effect 3’s soundtrack combines fantastic original music with all the best from the first two games. Film composer Clint Mansell contributes two devastating piano-based tracks, while the others craft tracks that are atmospheric, thrilling, and inspiring. The new music sounds more like that of the original Mass Effect, and therefore more appropriate for the science fiction setting. Overall, the soundtrack ranks among the best in Western RPGs. Also of note is the commendable voice acting, as varied as it is excellent. Considering the volume of emotion required by the story, the voice actors do well, although some can’t muster enough passion for every line. These moments are isolated, however, with only one exception. As reporter Diana Allers, Jessica Chobot provides the only wholly disastrous voiceover.
Mass Effect 3’s combat is sublime. Despite undergoing almost no major changes from Mass Effect 2, guns pack more power, enemies seem smarter, and the flow of combat feels just right. Driving a melee blade into a husk’s abdomen after capturing three others in a biotic effect feels heroic. Chucking grenades and lobbing explosive projectiles at a screeching Reaper-raped asari while running for dear life is terrifying. The forces of Cerberus and the Reapers employ new, ruthless tactics appropriate for a final confrontation. As the game progresses, enemies come on faster and harder, but Shepard and his team are ready.
Mass Effect 3 features an amazing arsenal. Discovering a new weapon in the field is a joyous event; trying out that new weapon is nirvana. Each gun is incredibly individualized, with unique capabilities, stats, and even sound effects. The sound design goes a long way in making gunplay more satisfying. I rarely notice good sound effects, but now I know what to listen for. Whether popping Cerberus heads, shredding husks at close range, or firing sticky bombs with a salarian pistol, the action feels genuine and crisply executed.
Compared to Mass Effect 2, character progression allows more customization while also reintroducing RPG elements. Each ability can be customized after a few rudimentary upgrades. The game asks the player to choose between increased damage and decreased cooldown, for example. The final upgrades for each ability often offer more significant bonuses and special effects. Leveling Shepard and his crew proves fun and versatile, and I always sought out the few extra experience in a stray datapad during a mission. There are fewer squadmates compared to previous games, but this actually works toward the game’s theme of change and departure. Shepard’s allies must move on to different roles, and no longer having them by his side can strike a potent note of nostalgia, a sense of good times lost.
Although wandering through the Citadel and the Normandy has its own rewards, the player won’t find Cerberus goons to gun down there. For such entertainment, Shepard must embark on missions, which come in a variety of forms. Story missions take Shepard to major locations and Reaper War hotspots, including many species’ homeworlds. These landmarks make the third entry appropriately grandiose and dramatic. Having seen such places, one gets the feeling that his galactic tour is coming to an end. And so it is.
Optional missions typically fit into one of three categories. One variety sees Shepard reuniting with old friends (provided they’re still living), often leading to bittersweet hello-goodbyes that are over all too soon. Others have Shepard foiling various Cerberus plots throughout the galaxy in brief, combat-heavy skirmishes. The third type occurs when Shepard overhears individuals in need, which prompts a galactic fetch quest. These tie in with space exploration and scanning, made simpler in Mass Effect 3 to avoid the tedium of endless planet browsing. Scanning too heavily in one solar system alerts the Reapers to the Normandy’s presence, enacting a mini invasion that can lead to the crew’s premature death. Even such a minor detail makes the Reaper War all the more immediate.
Despite its lengthy development time, Mass Effect 3 has scratches in its otherwise beautiful presentation. In addition to the aforementioned graphical bugs, a few glitches bar progress by preventing certain event triggers. These necessitate loading a previous save file, which means potentially lost progress. I also missed an entire cutscene once. Had another glitch not forced me to load an old save file, I never would have known about the scene. The quicksave, autosave, and restart mission features help alleviate the bugs, but Mass Effect 3 still falls short of perfect. These glitches, combined with the occasionally hackneyed dialogue and slightly sticky cover, make me wish BioWare had held Mass Effect 3 back just a few more months.
Supporters of the video games as art debate almost always intone the same names: Braid, Limbo, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus. My chosen representative would be something that better exemplifies the unique capabilities of the medium. I might choose a game that employs player choice to create a narrative tailored to the player’s mentality, an impossibility in other mediums. I would choose a game that fosters a bond with the player through many hours of harrowing scenarios. I would also choose a game that doesn’t forget to be a game, something immensely entertaining and full of gameplay. There’s an entire trilogy of such games. Mass Effect 3 puts the finishing touches on this monumental series with powerful moments and an affecting theme of departure. The package may be less confident than Mass Effect 2’s, but the individual moments of brilliance more than compensate. Mass Effect 3 towers above most video games. Taken as a cumulative experience, the Mass Effect trilogy finds few peers.
Editor’s Note: This is a review of the single player content only. The editor wishes the score to reflect the single player content without being modified by multiplayer, as many people play the trilogy solely for its single player campaign.