Review: Mass Effect 3
|REVIEWS - VIDEOGAME REVIEWS|
It’s the end of the universe as we know it...
One of 2012’s most anticipated games has officially landed and it’s been well worth the wait. Mass Effect 3 is the concluding chapter in Bioware’s epic cinematic space-opera which began back in 2007 with the original Mass Effect. Since then, Bioware have flown main character commander Shepherd back and forth across the galaxy building a cast of great characters and a legion of loyal fans along the way.
ME3 sees the culmination of one of the most epic and engrossing videogame stories ever told and you’re not going to want to miss it.
Mass Effect, for the uninitiated, is an RPG from legendary Canadian developers Bioware who previously created Baldur’s gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Where Mass Effect differs from many of its RPG forefathers is in its preference for running and gunning over dice rolls and hit points.
Mass Effect’s gameplay is that of third person cover based shooter with players taking cover from enemy fire before jumping out and returning fire or moving on to the next piece of cover. These game mechanics were clunky in the first game, much improved in ME2 and have been further polished in ME3. Yet, it has to be said that the gameplay still doesn’t quite compete with best in-class-third person shooters like Gears of War - from which ME3 steals many of its ideas, including Commander Shepherd’s new collection of acrobatic mid-combat leaps.
However, alongside it’s more derivative mechanics Mass Effect 3 still has many of its own unique combat bells and whistles to spice up fire fights. Foremost amongst these are the biotic powers which you and your squad mates can develop and use to turn battles to your favour. Of these my personal favourite remains the biotic charge which is accessible by the vanguard class. Introduced in ME2 before being beefed up for ME3, the charge catapults you across the battlefield smashing into a selected enemy which staggers them whilst also bringing you in close enough to finish them off at close range. There are few more satisfying game experiences than surging 100 yards across the battlefield to take out a troublesome sniper, before turning around and wrecking vengeance on enemies no longer protected by the barriers they were using as cover.
As for the guns themselves Mass Effect 3 introduces a fantastic new weapon customisation feature which allows you to upgrade your weapons and purchase power boosting attachments. This feature provides a level of RPG detail (which some felt was lacking in ME2) but without alienating users who are unfamiliar with this kind of customisation. It’s a difficult line to tread but with weapon customisation - and indeed throughout the game - ME3 does a great job of catering to gamers of all playing levels.
I have heard complaints from some that combat is boring with too much repetitive grinding down of enemy shields using the same methods (find cover, pop up, shoot, repeat). Admittedly there is a degree of artificiality - courtesy of a world so well populated with handy chest high crates/boulders/tables that you don't know what to do with them all - but this is a criticism that’s hardly unique to Mass Effect 3.
And yet the variety of battle still remains solely with you, the gamer. It's up to you to mix up your tactics once in a while - it’s never too late to abandon your heavy melee for the satisfaction of a well timed sniping headshot or tactical biotic attacks. Whatever you try you’ll find plenty of variety in the powers, weapons and play styles at your disposal as well as a decent roster of enemies to take apart. Mass Effect’s gameplay is the finest the series has seen and whilst certain patterns do emerge the combat is always fluid, satisfyingly visceral and never boring.
I’d like to begin this section with a quick anecdote about how great the universe Mass Effect can look. The moment when I first truly fell in love with this franchise was something I saw in ME1 whilst exploring our Earth’s moon. During what was a rather dull vehicle mission (wisely since dropped) I swung the camera around and caught sight of a beautifully blue-green planet (Earth) hidden away and visible only to those with an intuitive nature. In Mass Effect 3 however, you’ll find yourself regularly confronted with such astounding vistas.
Enormous Reapers trample on horizons and planets burn before your eyes, all of which adds to damning sense of conflict you’re taking part in.
Throughout the game everything has been given a notable layer of polish and whilst the occasional texture pop-in and slight frame-rate drops indicate the groaning limitations of current gen technology the game still looks fantastic. Facial animation remains a difficulty with lip syncing disappointing at various points. However, the way in which conversations are shot along with the strong voice acting and script (more of which shortly) means that you never fail to buy into the characters the game creates.
It’s clear that the technology isn’t getting any younger but Bioware are doing a fine job of milking every last drop of quality from their hardware. Beyond simple graphical polish every effort has been made to create some of the most believable game environments I’ve played through.The only possible complaint here is that having been similarly stunned in open world games like Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim there is always the nagging frustration of being presented with beautiful landscapes which you can’t then explore further. Still, Mass Effect 3 remains a beautiful game and delivers hugely impressive visuals at every turn.
Multiplayer (I played it so you don't have to)
Like most Mass Effect fans I felt that the addition of multiplayer was at best unnecessary and at worst a sign of EA's vampiriccommercialagenda gnawing away at the soul of a great franchise. I was considering not playing multiplayer at all. But, given my review obligations and the fact that I hate people who actively avoid further knowledge of things they criticise, I reluctantly logged out single player 10 hours in and connected to the EA servers. I selected generic faceless soldier number one and coloured him aggressive shades of pink and orange (to show I wasn't taking this seriously). Next, I joined with three other players and played a few hours of what proved to be thoroughly decent multiplayer.
ME3's multiplayer is nothing to get either excited or angry about. Bioware know basic gameplay mechanics and have created a serviceable stripped down clone of Horde mode from Gears of War. Horde is one of the greatest innovations in multiplayer (perhaps the greatest since big-heads mode) and Bioware certainly isn't the first studio to churn out a Horde-like multiplayer bolt-on to their game. Of course the problem is that when you take away Mass Effect’s standout elements (narrative, conversation, exploration) and throw it into a format as well known as horde mode you’re only inviting negative comparisons with games like GOW.
Bioware does attempt to link the multiplayer with the main story by using experience earned online to boost your 'galactic readiness'. Of course this gimmick is completely undercut by the assurances that ignoring multiplayer will not negatively affect your chances of success in the main game.
Ultimately, multiplayer is unnecessary and not hugely entertaining, but it isn’t a travesty either. If you want to extend your game experience and see how the Mass Effect world translates into co-operative multiplayer then it’s worth a look. However, the game is by no means the poorer if you choose to ignore it completely.
Story has always been Mass Effect’s defining feature and Mass Effect 3 doesn’t fail to deliver a truly knock-out final chapter; one which will leave you gawking on more than one occasion before the final credits roll. As you would expect, continuity from the previous games plays a big role. Shepherd’s old squad mates (assuming they survived ME2’s final ‘suicide mission’) show up in the narrative with a regularity which seems surprising given the supposed size of the universe. By the latter stages of the game I started to actually be surprised if I pitched up on a hostile planet and didn’t immediately bump into a familiar face in the midst of the fighting. No matter what the game’s PR department says these appearances from old characters will frequently go over the heads of new players. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.
One of the very few areas where I felt slightly let down in the game was the inability to get some of my favourite squad mates back aboard the Normandy. As an example, at the end of ME2 I found myself conflicted over my initial tilt at the final mission in which my tactics managed to get my favourite character, Thane Krios, killed. I loaded the game again and managed to save him but was so conflicted and impressed by the emotion of the whole experience that I put it at number one in a list of breathtaking videogame moments I wrote for Shadowlocked a year ago.
Eventually, I justified my decision to go back and screw with the narrative (resulting in mad scientist Mordin Solousnobly taking Thane’s place amongst the fallen) based on the fact that I didn’t want to play through ME3 without Thane at my side. Whilst Thane does feature in ME3, and indeed has a very touching and well wrapped up story, he is still reduced to a bit part. Despite my best efforts to save him, I never got to fight alongside him again. Of course having the drell assassin or indeed any other member of the extended crew from ME2 involved in the entire story of ME3 was always unfeasible. The huge amount of potential extra dialogue and animation this would have required would have been too great a strain.
All things considered, the fact that I missed my crew from ME2 is more a testament to the power of that game than a criticism of ME3. Bioware should be applauded for managing to satisfactorily tie-up of all existing character arcs whilst also looking to introduce new characters. If you haven’t played any of the previous games then you will still be able to jump into ME3. However I would still say that you owe it to yourself to at least play Mass Effect 2, as much for the fact that it’s an excellent game as for the extra level of continuity it provides.
As for the overall narrative, the plot is masterfully paced. It moves the story along at a steady rate which doesn’t force you to rush you’re exploration but also never lets you forget that you’re in a race against time. The inclusion of a war room on your ship and regular updates from a war torn earth add a sense of pressure and urgency to every mission. As you would expect from the original “conversation ‘em up” franchise, the game contains an enormous amount of dialogue. Despite a somewhat shaky start and the occasional burst of cliché the script remains tight and well written for the vast majority of the game; Bioware remain the masters of storytelling and they can’t seem to do too much wrong.
Even quick time events are transformed into powerful storytelling tools through the returning renegade and paragon actions, used - of course - to interrupt conversations. Like the rest of ME3, the choice of interruption is yours - you may tap them kindly on the shoulder or, if you're feeling outwardly brash, shoot them in the head. Other games have found other ways to tell great stories but when it comes to allowing the player a degree of agency over the narrative, Mass Effect 3 is light-years ahead of the competition. With generally strong dialogue, believable characters and a truly epic story - swept along by a magnificent score - it may be some time before we experience a story this full and compelling again.
Mass Effect 3 is not a perfect game but it’s still one of the best I’ve ever played; sitting right alongside its predecessor. Its flaws, such as they are, barely register when compared to the masterful way in which Bioware melds exciting gameplay with a story that stands alongside the greatest ever seen in videogames. One of the biggest questions for Bioware is where to go next. We may see more from the Mass Effect universe (it’s too big a franchise now for EA to abandon it completely) but this trilogy is a complete and near perfect game arc which will always stand as an incredible achievement. My personal hope is that Bioware go on to create a brand new piece of IP. They’ve shown with Mass Effect 3 that they can do storytelling on any scale they like and with that under their belt they have the opportunity to go ahead and make whatever game they want.
As for whether or not you should play this game I think my recommendation is clear. Mass Effect 3 arrived with a huge weight of expectation on its shoulders and yet it more than delivers on that expectation. If you have played the previous Mass Effect games then it’s unlikely I need to sell Mass Effect 3 any more, as you’ve probably already bought it (and you should get back to playing it right now). If you haven’t played a Mass Effect game yet - but intend to in the near future - than all I can say is that I envy you.
Whether you start at the beginning, jump in at Mass Effect 2 or opt merely to play through this brilliant final chapter you’ve got an amazing journey ahead of you.
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