Mass Effect 3 Review
BioWare’s sci-fi opus concludes in excellence, save for a few minor missteps.
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After four years, two beloved main sequence titles, three spin-offs, four novels, and six comics, the vaunted Mass Effect series--arguably the finest trilogy of the current console generation--finally culminates in Mass Effect 3.
BioWare, the Canada-based developer of the series, already boasts a resume that is legendary. They're responsible for classics like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, to name a few. With Mass Effect, the company sought to push their genre of choice, the role-playing game, into modernity. They fused the RPG with the shooter in a way that few had done before. They innovated on narrative and player choice by blending cinematic direction with an immersive conversation system that will be copied for years. For the first time ever, they attempted to link all three games by allowing choices made in the first to affect outcomes in the second and third. And as much as they've advanced the western RPG, they also looked back and drew inspiration from the large-scale space operas of the 1980's, translating their classic appeal for a new audience. This is the stuff of gamer's dreams.
Mass Effect 3 marks the series finale and, as such, isn't bound by future-proofing or other considerations for the next installment. This is it. The plot is free to develop in ways that are drastic and permanent, leading to some of the most arresting and emotional moments we've seen from Commander Shepard and his (or her) crew.
This review is based on over 45 hours of gameplay, including a complete playthrough at default difficulty, 2 hours of online multiplayer, and 3 hours of gameplay at the most challenging difficulty. Our player character was imported from Mass Effect 2, and from the original Mass Effect before that. All impressions are from the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Gameplay is divided evenly between on-the-ground shooting, and all other activities necessary to prepare your squad, unite the galaxy, and generally save the day. These may include exploration and personal interaction on the Citadel (an enormous city in space), flying around the galaxy amassing valuable war assets and fleeing the evil Reapers, or performing sidequests that are secondary to the plot but helpful and generally fun.
While engaged in direct combat, Mass Effect 3 has many of its finest moments. Shooting mechanics have been refined over Mass Effect 2 to the point of near-perfection. Shepard's behavior both in and out of cover has been tweaked, and all of the minor annoyances that cropped up during the second game have been rectified. Remember how aiming to the opposite side from low cover used to cause a glitch? That's fixed. Additional moves have also been added, such as the new combat roll. Shepard may now execute a rolling evasion in any direction, making him or her a much more agile fighter this time around. Transitions between cover have also been improved, and are aided by clear onscreen prompts, notifying the player which movement will be triggered before they actually do it.
It's very satisfying to play as this newly upgraded Shepard, especially since a greater emphasis has been placed on level design, which is now more varied and more challenging than previous titles. Cover is less predictable, less obvious, and areas assumed safe often don't stay that way for long. Melee combat has also been improved. Tapping B will execute the same quick elbow-jab as the first two games, but holding B triggers a much more effective heavy attack which, based on the player's class, could be a biotic blast or a devastating slash with the omni-tool.
Conversation and On-Foot Exploration
When the player isn't shooting their way through overwhelming Reaper forces, it's best to stroll around your ship, the Normandy, and strike up conversations with your crew. These are mostly illuminating, and provide backstory for the characters, the universe they inhabit, and the game's overall conflict; not to mention a few tangible combat benefits that we won't spoil here. This is also the best way to strike up a romantic relationship, a feature that Mass Effect is known for, and one that kept us even more invested in the fiction. Mass Effect 3 also has the distinction of being one of the first titles to support homosexual in-game relationships of either sex, and we applaud BioWare for not only handling these scenes tastefully, but for tackling a controversial topic in a medium still plagued by accusations of immaturity.
When you're tired of love, or feeling claustrophobic in the Capain's Cabin, the Citadel is also ripe for exploration. Populated with members of all the galaxy's space-faring species, the Citadel offers shops to buy or improve your gear, embassies to meet with important characters, and even a nightclub to get yourself nice and inebriated. We really appreciate how the Citadel changes and decays under the weight of the increasingly-desperate war with the Reapers. Before long, a refugee camp crops up near the Normandy's docking bay, and will grow ever-more crowded as the war drags on.
But ultimately, what you'll really be doing is on the Citadel is talking. Your squadmates take shore leave here, and they're always a chatty group, not to mention the extensive cast of secondary characters all itching for your attention. This is when Mass Effect's famous conversation mechanic comes into play. For those unfamiliar, Shepard's spoken dialogue isn't selected by the player word for word. The analog stick is used to point to different positions on a dialogue wheel, which vaguely suggests different attitudes instead of literal phrases. Conversations therefore play out more cinematically, and represent one of the best parts of this series. For Mass Effect 3, "Paragon" and "Renegade" conversation choices (these are often simplified into "good" or "evil" options, but the difference is slightly more subtle) are each tallied into the same pool called "Reputation." That means there's no advantage to specializing in one alignment or the other, unlike Mass Effect 2 in which this was a sound strategy. The result is a more realistic, less one-dimensional Shepard. Responses are also more closely-related this time, so you won't see Shepard illogically flying off-the-handle after one Renegade option, as was the case in games past. All this talking will also likely earn you some side quests....
Side quests in Mass Effect 3 are composed of about 40% fun and about 60% confusing boredom. The fun side quests have you landing on planets, shooting bad guys, and solving mysteries; usually all at once. These often result from conversations or desperate in-game e-mails, and require Shepard to play through levels that are less ambitious than the main quest, but just as compelling. And depending on which characters you managed to keep alive in the first two games, you're probably going to meet some old friends along the way too. There are also "N7" special forces missions, which take place inside static arenas (later used as multiplayer maps) and require Shepard to complete a few basic objectives while holding off enemy forces.
Then there are the not-so-fun side quests. These are usually the result of literally overhearing two NPCs in conversation. One of them will mention the Lost Artifact of Whatever, and Shepard's journal will make a note instructing you to go off and find it sometime. The worst part of this is that the journal has been downgraded since Mass Effect 2. It's vague, never updates with new information, and often mentions locations that aren't even available on the Galaxy Map yet. We'd like to believe this was a conscious decision to make the game more "hardcore," like a traditional RPG, but we've got a feeling it's really just rushed development.
Speaking of the Galaxy Map, in order to find the Lost Whatever Artifact, the player must use their interface on the Normandy to fly semi-aimlessly around the galaxy and "ping" planets for anomalies. Problem is, each ping attracts Reapers to your ship. Ping too often and they'll chase you, and if they catch you, you're dead.
This mechanic probably isn't as frustrating as we're making it sound, but the whole experience is unnecessary. Plus, our rushed development theory is supported by other seemingly unfinished mechanics, such as the puzzle element that appears once early in the game but then never again. Then there are the notably odd storyline problems, but we'll digress for now and address those on the next page.
Every once in awhile, maybe on a mission or a side quest, you'll stumble upon a weapon modification or, better yet, a brand new weapon entirely. These components are part of an all new weapon customization mechanic that's actually pretty deep. Weapons are divided into five types: assault rifles, sniper rifles, heavy pistols, shotguns, and sub-machine guns. From there, each individual weapon has a number of characteristics, like accuracy, firing rate, and, most importantly, weight. The less total weight of all your guns, the faster your biotic and tech abilities recharge. This is a great tradeoff that caters to any play style. It's possible to equip all five types of weapon, and head into battle as a versatile death-machine; or it's equally possible to equip only one weapon and let your biotics do most of the butt-kicking. Each weapon is further influence by a maximum of two "mods." These are upgrades that may be installed to reduce kick, improve penetration, etc. But you only get two per weapon, adding another layer of strategy. Each mod changes the appearance of the gun too, a nice touch.
Finally, all this, everything we've written on this page so far, is in pursuit of a singular goal: acquiring war assets. Your overall mission for the game is to travel around rallying forces to your cause: the destruction of the Reapers and the liberation of Earth. These allies are tracked very literally and numerically in your war room on deck two of the Normandy. They come in all shapes and sizes. For example, we recruited a journalist named Diana Allers (this is Jessica Chobot's character) to report directly from the ship. That's five points. We also, through much greater effort, rallied the entire Turian fleet to our cause. That's about five hundred points. You'll need thousands of points-worth of military strength to have a chance at victory, and will spend the whole game working toward this end. Strangely, the system is never directly explained, and that could lead to some early confusion. There are also a few unique ways to bolster your war assets outside the main game, but we'll save that for the multiplayer section.
The control layout is almost exactly the same as Mass Effect 2. Analog sticks are used for movement and aim, while the two main triggers are used for precise aim down the sight and firing your equipped weapon. The shoulder bumpers may be tapped to quickly fire a preset biotic, or held to pause time and bring up a radial menu to select weapon or biotic options individually. In addition to the bumpers, biotics may also be mapped to Y. Rudimentary squadmate commands, like attack and follow, are available on the directional pad. The A button is contextual, and used for sprinting, jumping over gaps, locking to cover, transitioning between cover, and (pay attention, this last one is new) performing that evasive roll in any direction. The function of the A button changes based on the situation, and a few onscreen prompts will pop up at appropriate times to help you remember which is which.
Aiming characteristics will feel ever-so-slightly different from Mass Effect 2. While the aim of ME2's Shepard was locked strictly to inputs from the analog stick, controls have a bit of an acceleration to them this time. This means that aiming speed will slightly increase, or "accelerate," the longer a single direction is held down. We do not approve of this change. Although this decision seems to smooth the camera, and seems to help very new players stay in control, all it really does is rob skilled players of precision. This isn't a severe issue, but will take a few minutes to get used to.
In the past, replayability was part of Mass Effect's core value proposition. These were never games to be played once and set aside, half the fun was starting over, making different decisions, and seeing how things played out this time. In theory, Mass Effect 3 offers the same capability. But in practice, the endgame ruined this feature for us.
We'll go into a little more detail regarding the end of the story in our next section, but suffice to say, the way this conflict pans out is so thoroughly mishandled that it diminished our compulsion to replay the game. We wish we were mature enough to rise above this flaw, but we're not.
The lesser appeal of going back to collect achievements or master the hardest difficulty is still there, but that's true of any game, and a sad concession for Mass Effect.
There are, at the time of this writing, two pieces of downloadable content available for the game: a free but yawn-inducing package of multiplayer content, and a totally compelling ten-dollar addition called From Ashes.
We're not going to touch the controversy of "Day 1 DLC" and the ethics thereof, but we do think From Ashes is a very important and necessary component of the Mass Effect 3 experience. This add-on nets you an extra squadmate and, aside from being one of the coolest characters in the series, he's also a very illuminating source for those who enjoy the lore. We certainly do.
BioWare has already announced plans to release a free update this summer that will expand the game's ending sequence with additional cinematics, and if the robust DLC portfolio of Mass Effect 2 is any indication, this game should have legs long after the credits roll.
Pacing & Flow
Pacing is extremely deliberate. Individual gameplay types are never allowed to continue long enough to become boring. It is as if the game instinctively knows when enough shooting is enough, and it's time to do some exploring or conversing or have a change of scenery. Each mission evolves like a self-contained story, starting slow with exposition, slowly ramping up excitement with bits of dialogue in between, and finally culminating in a larger-scale exhilarating battle.
Which isn't to say the game is repetitive, just well-designed. And all this refers to individually missions themselves, otherwise pacing is of course largely up to the player, according to the order of missions they select.
Enemy A.I. has come a long way since the suicidal bullet-sponges of the original Mass Effect. Bad guys will flank you at every opportunity, especially during N7 missions. They'll throw down smoke bombs very frequently to obscure the line of sight, toss grenades at your position from time to time, and deploy hardy automatic turrets in suspiciously inconvenient locations. Most enemies will also rolls and dodge much more effectively than they did in Mass Effect 2, but whether or not this is an A.I. upgrade or just an animation upgrade isn't entirely clear. And as is usually the case with this series, physically larger enemies seem to be dumber in general, perhaps simply to balance their extra attacking power. We encountered no "unfair" enemies or sections.
Squadmate A.I. has not been improved, though it didn't really need to be. Our play-style involves letting them do their own thing, though we do control abilities manually, and for the most part they did a decent job staying alive. No more or less so than in Mass Effect 2, but we were never ever frustrated by squadmate actions.
In a series that relies so much on story, Mass Effect 3 maintains tight--sometimes too tight--control over its plot. For the most part, the story is easy to enjoy, but a few very severe problems mar the experience.
There's plenty to love about the writing in Mass Effect 3. More than a few characters, even minor ones, had genuine surprises in store for us. These can be humorous moments, such as a particularly disarming encounter with investigative news reporter Khalisah al-Jilani, or well-executed somber moments that imbue major plot devices with true poignancy. We also loved occasions in which the game was able to poke fun at itself, like one snide remark about Shepard's dancing abilities, a reference to the first two games. For the most part, we found the script just as sharp as Mass Effect 2, and at times even better.
That being said, while writing is spot-on for the majority of the experience, many of the worst problems in Mass Effect 3 do originate here.
We wish we could say we didn't see this coming, but from the moment we began our adventure we knew something was off. Mass Effect 2 boasted one of the most compelling opening sequences of all time, but this game's intro is bland and predictable. Once we arrived at the second environment, we were turned off by a remarkably convenient and unconvincing plot device. This may not sound like much, but it was the first time in the entire series that we started to question whether or not the writers had any clear vision of where this story was going. Then, much later, our suspicions were confirmed by the much-talked-about ending sequence (which we'll get to in a minute), and this is just a humiliatingly poor scene.
These three examples aside, there was an overarching problem we detected pretty frequently. The writing often seems "corralled" by plot decisions made by the player, rather than allowed to flourish and develop in different directions. This of course brings us to the next section....
Plot & Player Choices
It's hard to imagine a game for which this section would be more important. Player choice is the cornerstone of the Mass Effect experience, and plenty of fun is derived from this element of the game. We loved seeing all our old friends return and interact with us in ways that make sense based on the past. Literally thousands of variables are imported over from the previous games, so NPCs are constantly referencing events or actions that took place long ago. Amazingly, we detected no mistakes with this system. Characters never misremembered or said anything inconsistent, and this is one of the main reasons Mass Effect is such an epic and immersive series.
On the other hand, as the conclusion to the story, Mass Effect 3 in some ways represents a failure of this concept. Events always play out fairly similarly, with only slight regard for the choices made in previous games or the current one. Were you forced to kill Wrex in the first game? Doesn't matter, a stand-in replaces him if you did. Did you hand over the Collector Base in Mass Effect 2? Doesn't matter, Cerberus is just as hostile. How did you handle the Turians in the beginning of Mass Effect 3? Doesn't matter, things play out pretty much the same.
When drastic changes based on player choices do occur, they usually result in the absence of something, rather than new or different content. A squadmate might be killed, for example, or a mission will get locked out, or a specific encounter won't ever happen. But there are no advantages to making certain decisions, only disadvantages for picking the wrong one. In this way, as mentioned above, the writing and plot only do their best to cope with or excuse player choice, rather than providing a truly individualized experience. This is yet another example of a flaw we think suggests a rushed production schedule.
Finally, we’re supposedly professionals here, and would prefer to distance ourselves from this game’s infamous ending controversy as thoroughly as possible. After all, only time will tell what the lasting legacy of this polarizing sequence will be. Yet our review wouldn’t be complete without some analysis, so here goes….
In its current form, the last 15 minutes of Mass Effect 3 are a wholly unsatisfying disaster. If—like us—you were hoping for a conclusion that would be thematically, emotionally, or even logically sound, then—like us again—you’re going to be disappointed. By now, plenty of gamers have plenty of different opinions on this topic; but no matter where you stand on issues like audience entitlement, the malleability of art, the ethics of downloadable content, or the influence of Electronic Arts on Bioware’s development schedule, the truth is that many of the criticisms levied against this ending are just plain factually accurate.
For example, most potential end-results are indeed independent of the choices made in all three games. That's a fact. It’s also quite true that a few characters and their locations are simply inconsistent with narrative events that took place moments before. All ending options are strikingly similar, right down to the pixel, and the greatest mystery of the Mass Effect universe, the origin and motivation of the Reapers, is explained away in one sentence, a sentence we felt was pitifully inadequate.
The burn is so bad because we’re all fans of this series, super-fans even. So to see one of our favorite sagas go down in flames instead of flying off into the sunset, it’s just heartbreaking. Even if you’re not like us, we think the ending has something for everyone to hate. Whether you’re mourning the end of one of gaming’s greatest trilogies, deflated by a decidedly unhappy conclusion to the story, or infuriated by the absence of logic and internal consistency, this fictional finale will leave you real-life depressed.
Although the graphics engine has received an impressive overhaul since Mass Effect 2, character animations have not. There are problems with lip-synching that may have been unremarkable at the time of the first game's release, but stand out nowadays. Conversation animations also lack variety, you'll see Shepard wave an arm or point a finger the same way ten or fifteen times over the course of the game.
Voice acting, on the other hand, is consistently excellent. Squadmates are all expertly voiced, and we reserve special praise for Seth Green as Joker, Ali Hillis as Liara T'Soni, Freddie Prinze Jr. as James Vega, and Tricia Helfer as EDI. This series has always raised the bar for voice work, and the third installment is no different.
Pre-rendered cinematics are rare in Mass Effect 3, and they're usually pretty short too, used mainly for exposition. All of them are well done, especially the climactic battle. In fact the only cinematics we have a problem with are those used for the various endings, which are all basically identical except for a palette swap. Very lazy in our opinion.
Realtime cutscenes are much more prevalent. This is a design constraint since everyone's Shepard could look different, and they work very well for highlighting plot, or introducing new characters and concepts. Some even feature some advanced choreography. We were especially impressed by scenes with Kai Leng, a new antagonist in this game.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
Mass Effect 3 paints a compelling, consistent universe to explore and enjoy. The vision for this game and this series never wavers, leaving players free to utterly absorb themselves in BioWare's stunningly well-crafted world.
Art design is completely consistent with the Mass Effect universe, and instantly recognizable as soon as the game gets going. The 80's sci-fi motif has been toned down slightly, armor doesn't look quite as retro-futuristic, and the popular "film grain" option has been removed. But rest assured, the game still feels like Mass Effect, right down to the lens flares.
A significantly upgraded graphics engine makes Mass Effect 3 looks far better than its predecessors. The first change you're likely to notice is the way faces render. If your Shepard uses a custom face, this will cause some slight inconsistency when importing your character, but the tradeoff is well worth it.
Lighting has seen incremental changes, biotic and tech powers now have an otherworldly glow, and Shepard can use a flashlight to navigate dark areas, but the best part of the graphical update is environmental detail. Perfectly sharp textures have been sacrificed in favor of additional geometry. The results are environments that finally speak for themselves. In Mass Effect 2 and especially the original Mass Effect, many combat areas lacked identity. For example, we knew Nassana Dantius was holed up in an office building because, well, the narrative told us it was an office building. In Mass Effect 3, it's easy for the player to walk in a room and see "oh, this is a kitchen," or "oh, this is a cargo bay."
Overall, this is a much more realistic world, and BioWare should be proud of the upgrade.
Jack Wall, lead composer of Mass Effect 2, does not return for the third game. That job went to pop artist Clint Mansell, and his efforts are entirely successful here. The score reintroduces elements of the first game, merging those classic sci-fi techno themes with the darker, more action-oriented music of the sequel. Mansell also does an excellent job serving the melancholy, introspective moments of this game's plot, while staying internally consistent to the universe. This entire series represents an incredible achievement for in-game music.
Design-wise, sound effects are punchy and extremely well-suited to the environment. Gun effects vary logically, in terms of both volume and style, depending on the size and class of the weapon. It's possible to identify which weapons your squadmates are using, and which enemies are currently attacking, based solely on auditory cues. This gives players a sense of instinct, and not only makes them feel like experienced soldiers, but lends a real sense of dread to many of the most powerful enemies (wait 'til you meet the Banshee).
Unfortunately, some technical hiccups dating back to the original Mass Effect still haven't been resolved. The engine seems to be limited by the number of concurrent effects playing, so when the action really heats up, sounds like gunshots or biotics may suddenly drop out entirely. There are also some problems with levels, on rare occasions a sound that is supposed to be very loud, like a stirring Reaper, will play relatively quietly, even with the new Dynamic Range audio option set to high. This isn't a major problem, but it does rob some very exciting moments of their appeal.
We spent relatively little time with Mass Effect 3's multiplayer mode, and found it a fun but unnecessary addition. Players are no longer cast as Commander Shepard, but instead play the role of an average foot soldier fighting in the greater galactic war.
All gameplay is cooperative, with teams of four facing off against Reapers, Cerberus, or Geth forces in a series of 11 increasingly difficult rounds. Comparisons to Gears of Wars' hoard mode are natural, and this take on that mechanic is just as fun.
All arenas are lifted directly from the singleplayer "N7" missions, and this does make it somewhat difficult to imagine a fiction for the mode. We would've preferred maps of similar size and configuration, but with scenery and backgrounds showing far-off engagements, to really hammer home the idea that this is part of a larger conflict.
Participating in online multiplayer also affects the singleplayer campaign via a system called "Galactic Readiness." This is simply a multiplier for War Assets acquired in the main storyline. Say you've gathered 5000 War Assets but have a Galactic Readiness of 50%, that means only 2500 War Assets will be applied to the final battle against the Reapers. Alternatively, with those same 5000 War Assets and a Galactic Readiness of 100%, all 5000 War Assets will factor into the final battle. Each multiplayer match increases Galactic Readiness.
There is only one game mode, but within each match are multiple rounds, and each round will present players with different objectives. These may be goals like retrieving scattered data packets, hacking terminals, etc. Finally, on the 11th wave, players must secure and hold a landing zone for a certain amount of time, allowing an evacuation shuttle to land and ending the match in victory.
Character customization in multiplayer is almost as deep as singleplayer. Different races and classes offer diverse strengths and weaknesses, plus class-specific abilities. Some weapons and mods are unlocked during gamplay, while others may be purchased at the Store. The Store allows players to spend credits earned in multiplayer on a selection of equipment packs, which contain a random assortment of goodies that vary based on price. It's also possible to buy packs with real money, using Microsoft Points or "BioWare Points."
Multiplayer characters level up in a similar way to singleplayer ones, meaning new abilities are unlocked as you play. Once a character hits level 20, you may "promote" them back into singleplayer as a War Asset, and start the process all over again.
Matchmaking is quick and painless. It's easy to find other players to do battle with, and if you have specific goals in mind, menu options are in place for requesting certain maps, a specific enemy type, or a suitable difficulty level. No complaints here.
There are a few other ways to improve Galactic Readiness outside the proper multiplayer suite. A decent iOS game called Mass Effect: Infiltrator is available from the US App Store for $7, and playing this can lead to bonuses in Mass Effect 3. Alternatively, a free iOS app called the Mass Effect 3 Datapad is a flawed but functional interface, used for deploying fleets around the galaxy. It is possible to achieve 100% Galactic Readiness using only this free app.
Unfortunately, all this connectivity depends on EA's digital distribution and digital rights management platform, "Origin." This crude, underdeveloped system runs in the background of Mass Effect 3, but offers no user-interface or settings from within the game. Instead it runs automatically, invisibly, and poorly; requiring an hour of our time on EA's website just to get everything synchronized. No wonder a chunk of the gaming community considers this service a bit of a joke.
The typical Mass Effect 3 experience proceeds as follows. Boot up the game, painlessly import your ME2 character. Note the more-than-subtle differences in your custom face since the last game, become slightly frustrated, eventually move on. Criticize the weak opening sequence, worry about the future but, again, move on. Play through the second planet, smirk at a too-convenient plot device, realize your face doesn't look so bad after all.
From there, you will experience roughly 40 hours of uninterrupted gaming bliss. Fun, satisfying combat mixed with more detailed RPG elements, framed by an epic sci-fi saga that all denominations of nerd will appreciate. Forging alliances, nurturing relationships, affecting outcomes, saving the galaxy. Even side quests are fun, and the one's that aren't, well at least they don't take very long.
Finally, you will spend 15 minutes betrayed and let down by the plot, coming away with a bad taste in your mouth.
While the endgame is a real shame, and a few other elements felt rushed, how can we criticize a title that delivers no less than 40 hours of gaming ecstasy? We can't, this is an awesome game, and it deserves a place on your shelf.
Mass Effect 3 is not perfect, indeed there are times when its failures are spectacular. But taken as a whole, this game--and this series--is one that should not be missed by any science fiction or RPG fan. Go out and buy it.