Sequels are commonplace in the gaming industry, yet few of these follow-ups manage to deliver in the same way as Mass Effect 3. While BioWare’s latest sci-fi epic is great in its own right, as a sequel it truly excels. The previous Mass Effect titles did a fantastic job of building a galaxy worth caring about, and because of this, Mass Effect 3 is all the more stirring when it threatens those associated feelings. Playing Mass Effect 3 feels like returning to an old friend; there is a sense of familiarity which manages to enhance the experience rather than sour it. Despite niggling issues, Mass Effect 3 provides a truly outstanding adventure worthy of the beloved franchise name.
Mass Effect 3 starts with an invasion of Earth by giant, sentient machines (known as Reapers) determined to harvest and destroy all civilized life in the galaxy. It’s a powerful set up, but perhaps a misguided one. The Reapers are a terrifying presence (and clearly a superior enemy), yet there is no sense of urgency in the game. The idea is that Earth is under constant attack and that Commander Shepard must save it before it’s too late. Retaking Earth amounts to leaving the planet and uniting the galaxy’s races in an all-out war against the Reapers – the only viable solution seeing as humanity could not best this formidable enemy alone. However, these races harbor their own issues and are not used to full cooperation. This means you spend your time dealing with the requests of others (for the greater good of course) while Earth slowly dies in the background. This approach to saving the galaxy provides some great strengths, but also proves to be Mass Effect 3's greatest weakness.
Familiar faces, along with several new ones, return to aid Shepard.
The story of Mass Effect 3 is structured in the same way as almost all other RPGs: You have your main quest which furthers the core storyline and then numerous side activities to keep you engaged with the universe for longer. Most of this content is good, superb actually, but the lack of any real driving force makes it hard to care about Earth’s continual plight. The side content links into the war effort (giving you reputation bonuses and assets that better your chances in the inevitable conflict), providing a compelling reason to experience all this content, but this decision harms the overall structure. The way that side missions – which are mostly uninteresting – tie into the war effort means there is more to gain from ignoring Earth’s supposed problems as opposed to taking action. The most efficient way to help Earth is to effectively ignore it. Disregard the fact that while you are off completing alien errands, hundreds should be dying. The story only progresses when you let it.
Luckily for Mass Effect 3, the game's quality content makes ignoring structural issues easy. With a galaxy as interesting and fleshed out as Mass Effect’s, any reason to explore it further is good enough. The premise of having to convince all of the races to cooperate (by any means possible) is a great excuse to revisit familiar environments. Mass Effect 3 benefits from being a sequel. Mass Effects 1 and 2 did an excellent job of laying a foundation of tension between the various races of the Mass Effect mythos. You therefore come into Mass Effect 3 knowing that uniting these species will be no simple task, and this familiarity with the world aids you in making difficult decisions. Some races clearly won’t work together like the Salarians and Krogan, and sometimes you will be forced to make decisions that will draw one species to you and another further away. Your choices have consequences and are incredibly memorable when situations pan out differently than expected.
Earth is understandably overpowered by the near-invulnerable Reapers.
Sadly, the impact of these choices is somewhat undercut by Mass Effect’s incredibly restricting morality system. The Mass Effect morality system has been a staple feature with consistent issue. Mass Effect is based around choice, and that is where its brilliance lies; however, the morality system either restricts you or forces your hand. Shepard’s decisions are constantly judged. Noble decisions net you Paragon points and being the galaxy's grandest asshole (but still ultimately the hero) awards you Renegade points. This leads to big problems. Certain dialogue options are grayed out unless Shepard has a high Paragon or Renegade rating, and the game's constant judging means you never truly make your own choices. You have to stick to one approach rather than what you see to be the right decision, and sometimes, it’s not a straight good and evil system; sometimes the Renegade option might look like more attractive even though you frequently choose Paragon. However, Mass Effect 3 punishes you for playing middle-of-the-road, especially later in the campaign where certain options need Shepard to be fully aligned one or the other. Rather than asking, "Is this how I would act?" you will be asking, "Is this the Paragon or Renegade thing to do? But even with the limiting take on morality, there are still plenty of great (and importantly rather difficult) choices to make, even though some seem quite contrived.
There are few new characters in Mass Effect 3, but this is no bad thing. Instead of replacing beloved friends, this final installment concerns itself with completing their character arcs. You can import your save from Mass Effect 2 into 3, making for the best experience. The choices you’ve made in the previous games have a profound impact on the world in Mass Effect 3. Characters will appear (or be absent) due to your commands in previous titles, and the way you treated somebody in the past could have a large effect on whether they live or die in Mass Effect 3. Mass Effect 3 concerns itself with sacrifice; even if you come into Mass Effect 3 with a perfect save with all friends alive, you probably will not leave in a similar fashion. The galaxy is at war, and war leads to losses, tough decisions, and ultimate sacrifices. The emotional resonance this provides is a testament to BioWare's talent at creating relatable characters. You may leave Mass Effect 3 feeling that some of your favorite protagonists didn’t get the treatment they perhaps deserved, but this is definitely the exception rather than the rule. Old friends return at a regular rate, and your relationships with these past acquaintances fashion new memories all the more genuine, a feat achieved by few other games.
Solemn moments, such as the one pictured above, remind players Earth is still worth fighting (and dying) for.
Mass Effect 3 does falter in some areas though; particularly in regard to how the game controls. Mass Effect 3 plays like a cover-based shooter, a fun cover-based shooter at that. There is a nice variety of classes to choose from each with their own special powers, which makes it a more tactical game than your average shooter. The level designs and enemy encounters are better than in prior Mass Effect titles also, containing a decent amount of enemy combinations, but the combat can outstay its welcome. At certain points you will just want the combat to end so you can get back to the story. On top of this, the controls can be problematic. The A button controls running, rolling, getting into cover, vaulting over cover, and reviving fallen comrades – too much for one button to handle. This means that on many occasions Shepard will do precisely what you don’t want him to, and this can be frustrating. The cover system is subject to scrutiny, too; the game’s definition of cover is sometimes suspect, and when changing weapons, the Commander is more than happy to randomly leave cover without your say-so. In general, the controls lack the responsive required for the situations you face, often evoking a weighty, cumbersome feel that hinders movements in tight spaces. While not Mass Effect 3's gravest issue, the annoyances can be off-putting.
One major addition to the franchise is the inclusion of multiplayer: a simple four-player, cooperative, wave-based survival mode. While by no means revolutionary, Galaxy at War does contribute to the single-player in a worthwhile way. Completing matches raises your Galactic Readiness rating, which in turn raises your chances of saving Earth. You don’t need to play multiplayer to get a high rating in the campaign, but it’s nice that the multiplayer helps. The multiplayer is also a great way to try out the different classes and shows how fun Mass Effect 3’s core combat can be. One disappointing feature of the multiplayer is how it handles playing as other races; for the first time in Mass Effect history, players can don the armor of a Turian, Asari, Krogan, and so on, but only humans are available at the start. Other species are unlocked after buying separate supply packs in the in-game store. You can spend real money if you want or in-game currency, but the random nature of these packs means that even if you put your own money into the game, you are not guaranteed to get what you want. The multiplayer is still enjoyable, however, but adds little to the overall package.
Even the classes are divided between the races. Don't expect to play as a Krogan Adept.
Mass Effect 3 is an excellent game. It is heavily reliant on a familiarity with previous games, but this assumed cognizance makes for a superb story. BioWare build on your past experiences in meaningful ways; and while the results may sometimes disappoint you (like a relatively poor ending that barely takes your past decisions into account), the overall quality is still incredibly high. Previous games made you care about these characters and these places. The fact that these could be taken away from you by the Reapers cements your emotional investment in the game. This referential nature may alienate newcomers to the series, but to veterans it creates an unparalleled experience. Mass Effect 3 rewards your investment in the series and is a fitting coda to a fantastic trilogy.
Release Date: March 6, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-4 (Cooperative)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), Playstation 3, PC