REVIEW: Mass Effect 3

Well, I guess that’s it, then. After five years, three games, three books (no, I don’t count that other one), seven playthroughs of the previous two games, hundreds of hours, and seemingly endless conversations, debates, and loving recollections between friends and other fans, I’ve finally finished Mass Effect. One of my favorite game franchises of all time and the one that has probably had the most poignant impact on me in regard to how I view video games has finally come to a close, and as with any closing of a beloved fiction franchise the goodbye is bittersweet.
I’ve sunk a lot of time and a lot of love into these games over the years, more than I have any other franchise, be it game, movie, book, or TV show so perhaps one should not approach this review under the assumption that it will be an objective, purely critical affair; Mass Effect means a lot to me and for me to attempt to remove all emotion and vested interest from this writing would be an exercise in futility and I know that. I’m just a fan, and this is just me talking about the closing chapter in a game series that has captured the interest, imagination, and admiration of myself and so many others since 2007.

There has been a ridiculous amount of hype for this game, which is pretty much unavoidable for such a high-profile release. There have been good signs, bad signs, and more than a few ludicrously pervasive marketing stunts, but the hype continued not only unfettered but actually bolstered by the news rolling out. Me? I’d taken a stance of cautious optimism. Mass Effect 2 had more than a few factors that made me approach the next offering in the series with some trepidation, and the train wreck that was Dragon Age 2 only strengthened that stance. I was worried – no, scratch that – I was scared about what would happen to Mass Effect 3 if the trends I’d been seeing develop in BioWare games over the past few years continued. But when launch day came around I sucked it up, popped the lid on my N7 Collector’s Edition, and sat down to see how things would turn out.

I’m really not sure how I managed to pause to take a picture

Ultimately, I liked it.

Don’t get me wrong, there were still a few things that really rubbed me the wrong way about the game and we’ll get into that soon enough, but overall I was pleased with the game that we ended up with. Most of the major issues and plot points that you’ve been dealing with since the first game are wrapped up in a satisfactory manner and if there isn’t at least one moment that reaches you on an emotional level then you either haven’t played a Mass Effect game before or you have no heart. It’s all in all a solid offering: it’s not the best it could be, to be sure, but it’s still quite good.

To begin with, I’m going to cover the more mechanical aspects of the game simply because I’m a firm believer that you play Mass Effect for the story and while things like “how the game controls” are still important especially in a video game medium, I don’t consider them to be the most interesting parts of the franchise and since I like to base most of my reviews on a scale of least interesting to most interesting (or good to bad, if I’m tearing into a game) then we’ll start with the controls.

In the time between the original Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, BioWare put a lot of time into developing and changing the way the combat of Mass Effect worked. In the original, combat was a fairly simple, somewhat clunky numbers-based affair: your means of attack and defense had definite numerical values attached to them, so that when you saw that a certain assault rifle had a damage rating of 276 and another had a damage rating of 312, then you were probably going to pick the latter. This was in keeping with BioWare’s history of pen-and-paper style RPG game design: Dungeons and Dragons veterans are familiar with the simple fun of balancing or optimizing stats for a certain style of play. But in Mass Effect 2, most of this numerical intricacy was thrown out in favor of a more simplified, action-focused play style. Your inventory was downgraded to the point that you only had about three or four weapons to choose from, no numerical data was provided for any of these weapons, and you only had a short list of upgradeable skills to work with. This re-focusing of combat did, however, allow for the developers to create a more focused, fluid combat system that was both more aesthetically pleasing and more responsive to player skill.

Pew pew pew

In the jump from Mass Effect 2 to Mass Effect 3, little has changed: shooting is still largely a cover-based affair and more importance is put on where you place your shots as opposed to what the damage rating assigned to your current weapon is. That being said, BioWare did manage to bring back at least a bit of the old RPG feeling. Your inventory has been upgraded substantially, with each weapon type having at least something in the area of ten different options to choose from. Each of these weapons feels distinct and it probably won’t take you long to find one that complements your play style nicely. Skills have been similarly refined so that approximately half of your skill upgrades branch off in two directions, allowing you to further tailor your build to suit a particular style (damage vs. recharge time, capacity vs. duration, etc.). There’s still not much of an economy, as you can’t really sell items and the minimalistic loot system is built more along distinct upgrade paths so it’s not perfect for us old, outdated RPG dinosaurs but it’s a step up from the second installment, to be sure.

Your movement abilities have also been diversified and most of the changes are quite welcome. Commander Shepard can now vault over low cover without having to first duck into it, which makes moving around a battlefield feel far more fluid. You can also run much faster and for longer periods of time, as well as being able to execute a combat roll in virtually any direction, which is highly useful for diving out of the way of enemy grenades or missiles (and you’ll need to do that a lot). The only real complaints I have are that with so many new abilities (and with only so many buttons on a standard xbox controller) Shepard can sometimes get… confused. I’ve had more than one instance where instead of taking cover behind a wall, Shepard decided instead to dive-roll out into the middle of a shootout and promptly get shot to pieces. It’s also possible to accidentally vault yourself up over the cover you’re hiding behind, effectively putting yourself between said cover and your enemies’ field of fire. Because God only knows my paragon Shepard couldn’t allow that innocent wall to get shot because of him; he would instead use himself as a human shield so that wall could go on living its undoubtedly fulfilling life in the middle of a pseudo-futuristic hallway.

Punching people in the face is also a much more viable option now

There’s also a persistent issue that is, at first glance, a completely understandable design decision but after a while becomes an incredible annoyance. If you take a look at most cover-based third-person shooters, you’ll notice that your character frequently leaves his head sticking just barely above the top of whatever chest-high wall he’s currently hiding behind but his enemies can never seem to line up a decent shot on this inch or so of exposed human skull sticking above a supply crate. Well, Mass Effect 3 apparently thought this was a bit silly so now that ever-so-slightly exposed head is a perfectly viable target for anybody shooting at you. It makes sense that you’d still be able to get shot while leaving part of your body exposed to enemy fire, sure, but it’s intensely irritating when it happens because you have no real control over it; there is no button to make Shepard crouch lower so you’re left with the feeling that you’re getting shot up only because your avatar is too much of an idiot to protect their own dome. This is further exacerbated by the fact that your shields only begin to recharge after you’ve ceased taking fire for a requisite amount of time; if you’re continuously getting shot while behind cover it makes it very difficult for your shields to gain respite long enough to bounce back up to full strength. This isn’t a major issue but in the instances where it does crop up you’re guaranteed to notice it and it can get very frustrating if it happens more than once in a short time.

On the graphical side of things the game has gotten a pretty serious overhaul; while things like weapons, walls, and environmental objects like ground textures and rocks won’t look much different, the update is most noticeable in the character models. Armor and clothing have much more detail and character faces in particular look a touch more realistic than in past games. Somebody also decided to bring back the abundant blue lens flare that seemed to be missing from the second game, and which I actually really loved due to its almost camp sci-fi quality. The only time the enhanced graphics of the game are an actual detriment is when it comes to lip sync. I’m not sure if there was just less attention paid to it this time around or if the new faces simply draw more attention to it but lip syncing in this game is seriously bad at times. There are moments where it looks like somebody just hastily moved the character’s jaw up and down to give a doll-like illusion of talking while refined human speech flows out of your speakers that has no business emanating from a mouth that moves like that. It’s not always as obvious as I make it sound and it’s fairly easy to overlook after a while but it can be downright eerie when first encountered.

They look nice here, but their lips move like anime characters’

Now, all this is fine and good and makes playing the combat sections of the game just as fun as ever. Only, I would contend that the shooty bits of Mass Effect are entirely secondary to the plot and characters. Mass Effect isn’t something you get into because you can play a space marine; it’s something you get into because you can experience a story, a cast of characters, and a rich galaxy. Talking to people in between combat encounters isn’t adding plot padding to the game, that is the game.

Plot-wise, things are much more focused in Mass Effect 3than they were in the previous game. Of course, that’s not exactly saying too much in itself simply because you spent all of Mass Effect 2 being railroaded around by an organization everybody hated while they made you dance around the galaxy chasing a threat that left the main antagonists of the series sitting in the background. It was a sloppy, directionless mess that was only held up by its fantastic cast of well-written characters and some continuing plot points established in the original Mass Effect. By the time we’ve reached Mass Effect 3, the threat that has been talked about throughout the first two games has finally been realized: the Reapers have reached our galaxy.

See why you shouldn’t have “dismissed” my claims?

As such, the plot of Mass Effect 3 is much more immediate, much more dire, and much more focused than Mass Effect 2 or arguably even the original Mass Effect were. Your goal is very clear: you have to find some way to stop this seemingly unstoppable race of technologically superior machines before time runs out, and time is running out quickly. Your only hope lies in uniting the various races of the galaxy into one coherent force and working together to stop the Reapers. As such, virtually everything you do in the game is tightly focused around this one end goal. Main plot points, side quests, and even item gathering are all dedicated to gaining war assets for the coming confrontation for the fate of the galaxy.

Even the newly-introduced multiplayer aspect of the franchise revolves around the central idea of preparing for war. As you go through the single-player game, you can opt to do a number of side quests that involve flying down to a planet, accruing some critical resources, and flying back up. Your commanding officer then informs you that he’ll be sending in a special forces team to secure the area after you leave. In the multiplayer segment, you are that special forces team. Choosing from a list of various races and classes, you and three other players form a four-man team to go down to the planet and secure it, battling through ten waves of increasingly-powerful enemies while performing other time-critical tasks at the same time. All of this can then increase your “galactic readiness” rating in the single player game, which is essentially a multiplier that ranges from .50 to 1 and influences your final readiness rating going into the final battle. It is not necessary to play multiplayer to get the optimum level of readiness in single player, it just makes it easier to do so. It’s a fun enough multiplayer offering, but I can’t see it staying fresh for very long even with the fairly extensive level up paths for your character. I can’t help but wonder how this will influence the game when people want to buff their readiness rating up to 100% and yet nobody is online to play with anymore.  I was wary about the inclusion of multiplayer at first, and still think it’s an unnecessary addition, but it is an interesting way to provide cohesion between multiplayer content and single player story without making one encroach on the other.

Team up and fight evil with xX P1mpD4ddy420 Xx

While this all makes for a more focused game, which is good, it does sometimes leave a little something to be desired. Sometimes the side quests you do, while still helpful to the war effort, seem like they could have been done by somebody else. I mean, it’s great that we’ve got those extra funds coming in from wherever but isn’t that a job that should be done by somebody else? Somebody who’s not busy rallying the military forces of the entire galaxy under one banner? This is a minor point of questionable utility that in some ways is common to a lot of RPGs (wait, you want me to collect a few wild plants for you? You do know there’s a giant demon-dragon tearing up a town like, three miles that way, right?), but because of the immediacy of the Reaper threat in this game it all seems a bit more out of place than normal.

Similarly, because these side quests are trimmed down to better relate to the main plot, there are certain elements that are lost to the necessity of the situation. Namely, there really isn’t a sense of exploration anymore. Mass Effect was conceived as a reconstruction of the space opera. There was a joy in exploring the galaxy and interacting with peoples and planets that we haven’t really seen much of in recent years, not since things like Star Trek and Stargate tapered off. The wonder of exploring a massive galaxy is mostly gone in Mass Effect 3, but in some ways that is to be expected; we’ve already had two games to explore and the time for whimsical planet-hopping is long since passed with genocidal spaceships bearing down on civilization. This makes sense for the narrative and I don’t really hold it against the game; as I mentioned in the beginning of this review, this is just something that part of me misses because I feel like it is an inextricable part of what Mass Effect is.

To seek out new life and new civilizations… 

What I may hold against the game, however, is the way in which characters are not as deeply developed as they were in the past two games. Mass Effect 2, through its various loyalty missions, established a large, deep cast of characters that are not soon to be forgotten by anyone. The original Mass Effect was able to do the same thing while relying almost solely on conversations with the characters on board the Normandy. Everybody had opinions, hopes, and convictions that helped establish them as truly memorable characters. In Mass Effect 3, most of this has been forsaken again due to the immediacy and all-important nature of the Reaper attack. Now, most of the conversations you have with your squad are simplified so that most of them only really re-affirm their dedication to the mission in various ways. Sure, there are still a few instances where characters can express more personal distinguishing ideas, but they are much fewer and farther between than they were in past installments. One of the characters, Ashley Williams, has actually been stripped of much of the character she had in previous games. In Mass Effect 3, we never hear her voice any concern over having to work with different alien governments, whom she was distrustful of in Mass Effect. We only briefly hear her talk about her family, which was so important to her previously, and she never once brings up her belief in God, something that seems like it would be incredibly related given the fact that everyone in the galaxy is facing extinction. I can’t decide if all of this is simply due again to the nature of the mission, if the developers didn’t want to give too much dialogue to a character that could have died in the first game, or if they simply caved into fan displeasure over her character from Mass Effect and took away all the elements people objected to, leaving her with hardly any defining traits at all. This is again a personal problem and is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that Ash is one of my favorite characters in video games, but it still stings to see a character diluted so much here at the end.

But the NPCs aren’t the only ones who have seen their ability to express themselves cut down a bit. Shepard himself has suffered a similar fate. Admittedly, a lot of the dialogue in Mass Effect and even more in Mass Effect 2 failed to give Shepard much characterization. But here in Mass Effect 3, things have gotten a bit out of hand. You’ll notice right away that Shepard starts talking a lot without player input. I can’t tell if it came down to time constraints when recording dialogue or if it was a conscious decision to direct you towards specific plot points, but it gets very hard to ignore as time goes on. In previous games many people expressed annoyance that the brief descriptions on the dialogue wheel resulted in them saying things they didn’t agree with (i.e. “I don’t work for Cerberus” becomes “I’m only working with Cerberus because…”). In this game, that annoyance is taken to the next extreme as players often aren’t even asked what they want Shepard to say. A good chunk of Shepard’s dialogue is instead recited automatically without the player inputting their choice first. In an RPG where players have spent two games shaping their character, this feels like a slap in the face at times. It gets worse when you notice that even when you are given the option to choose your response, virtually every dialogue choice is a binary one. In the previous games you had at least three ways to respond, giving you a subtle way to shape Shepard’s reactions on a smaller scale outside of the “big choices” of the game. Here, you can’t do that. My straight-to-the-point, die-hard Marine Commander Shepard, for example, was forced into choosing either the “nice guy” or “jerk guy” responses in every conversation: there is no middle of the road option. For somebody like me, who really values the roleplaying aspect of Mass Effect, this just downright sucked. If the rest of the game wasn’t so good, I might have considered this a deal-breaker. But there’s still enough opportunity for player choice and characterization to save at least a little bit of the RPG that still survives in Mass Effect, if only barely.

Remove every option except “Paragon” and “Renegade” and you have the
ME3 dialogue system

Luckily, a lot of the other aspects of choice in Mass Effect remain intact. There’s not a whole lot of new choices to make that are original to this game alone, but rather most of the major divergences come from the decisions you’ve made in previous games. This is the benefit of importing a save all the way from the beginning: you get to see a lot of the choices you’ve made come to fruition. The resolution of the Krogan Genophage and the Quarian/Geth conflict are so ridiculously rewarding to finally see carried through to their ultimate conclusions (that’s not a spoiler, you knew you were going to address those again) that I really can’t even put it into words. These events are something that will mean different things to different people based on how they approached these issues previously and what opinions they formed through those interactions. My thoughts on the Geth and how I subsequently choose to deal with them will differ from someone who had different interactions with them. This variation is fun, and while I haven’t done multiple playthroughs yet, I most certainly will in the future and I look forward to seeing how a differently-structured character can approach each problem. This is what defines Mass Effect for me, and it’s completely awesome.

The only time this falls apart is sadly enough the conclusion to the game itself. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything here because I recognize not all of you have finished or even bought the game yet. I may address all of my various points of consternation with it in another post because there really is a lot to talk about, but the short version is that after five years and three games, the ending is a colossal disappointment. If you’re anything like me, then you’re going to end up setting the controller down at the end of the day feeling largely unfulfilled and upset that this is the way your 100 hours or so finally pays off. It just doesn’t fit within the major themes and previously established tone of the Mass Effect universe, and you’re left with something ridiculously out of left field and borderline insulting to the player. Really, there are only two possible options here: either they ran out of time and had not yet established an ending for their blockbuster trilogy (which makes them stupid) or they legitimately thought this was the best way to end their blockbuster trilogy (which makes them really stupid). It should also be noted that I’m saying this after having built up my resources for the final battle to a point that ensured I got the so-called “best” ending. Like hell.

Epic-looking, but what follows is worse than the Ewok party at the end of
Return of the Jedi

Ultimately though I’m still pleased with Mass Effect 3. The story is focused and largely well-written, especially when compared to Mass Effect 2, and it ties a bow on top of the series as a whole, no matter how haphazard that bow might be in some places. Taking a character that you’ve created and seeing their story and the story of those around them come to fruition is something that we haven’t really seen before in a video game, at least not to the extent that BioWare has done here. I won’t say that this game has completely restored my faith in BioWare, they’re still on my watch list due to some of the crap they’ve pulled in recent years and to the people they’ve been losing. But when I look back on my time with Mass Effect 3 I find that I still really liked the game. Despite the flaws, despite the grievances, despite the outright terrible ending to the franchise as a whole, everything else still makes it stick in my mind as something good. The game made me smile, the game came damn close to making me cry, and most importantly the game made me care. Anything that reaches you on that level is something special, and I’m pleased to say that Mass Effect 3 fits the bill.
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