Take Back Earth (and, like, the rest of the galaxy) in Mass Effect 3
Monday, March 12, 2012 1 Comment
In 2007, Bioware and Microsoft Studios introduced the world to the sprawling science-fiction universe of Mass Effect, a vast, story-driven action/RPG. In 2010, Bioware brought us the much anticipated sequel with the aid of publishing behemoth Electronic Arts. Mass Effect 2 was a much leaner, more action-focused experience, stripping out many of the dense RPG mechanics in favor of streamlining the cover-based action mechanics. The constant in the Mass Effect series, however, has always been a notable attention to detail in the story, lore, and character; something Bioware has been known for as a studio for quite some time. Just this past week, Bioware and EA released the final game in their epic space-faring action/RPG trilogy, Mass Effect 3. Does it go out in a blaze of glory, or retreat disappointingly into the darkness?
Mass Effect 3 finds the heroic Commander Shepard on the cusp of a massive invasion. The incomprehensibly powerful Reapers (giant, ship-like synthetic creatures with an unwavering penchant for wiping out all organic life in the galaxy every 50,000 some-odd years) arrive at Earth during the game’s explosive opening sequence, bringing the might of a seemingly unbeatable wave of destruction and death. Shepard manages to escape Earth, but not without being reinstated into the Alliance military force and charged with the responsibility of uniting the many races of the Milky Way galaxy under a single banner so that any of them might have a chance of not, you know, going really fucking extinct.
Gameplay-wise, this challenge manifests itself as the collection of “war assets.” Shepard travels from star system to star system, helping the various alien races in their own struggles against the Reapers, gaining their trust and their promise of aid in the war. The amount of these “war assets” you’ve discovered determines what choices will be available to you during the game’s finale. You can lower the minimum war assets necessary for the “best” ending by playing Mass Effect 3‘s cooperative multiplayer mode, but there are enough war assets available in single player that this is in no way necessary.
Don’t think for a moment, though, that this means you’ll be spending most of the game flying around space playing politics. It is still very much a shooter, and the shooting mechanics are tighter than ever before. Gone are the slow-moving, stick-to-cover-and-wait mechanics of ME2. Now Shepard runs faster and has the ability to dodge-roll from danger. While you will be doing plenty of sticking to cover, the addition of enemy grenade spam and more open level design forces you to adopt a more mobile strategy. While I wish Bioware had stolen Uncharted 3‘s grenade throwback mechanic, the action is still more furious and exciting than ever before in the series.
“But wait a minute!” you may be indignantly shouting at this review right now, “The LAST time Bioware upped the action, the RPG elements fell by the wayside! WHAT SAY YOU?” I was getting to that; don’t be rude. While Mass Effect 3 still doesn’t have a full-on inventory system, it has a far more robust gear system than its predecessor. The weapons, in particular, are very open to player customization, and there are a LOT of them. Each weapon can receive a handful of base upgrades as well as a variety of weapon mods that allow you to tailor each gun to maximize your own unique playstyle. Armor is less varied than the weapons arsenal but still allows for plenty of player preference and customization.
In addition to the vastly improved gear mechanics, class powers have been given a sweet, sweet injection of more player choice as well. Every skill has six ranks and the last three provide two options the player can choose from. When you roll all of these choices together, you get an overall experience that really allows the player to build their Shepard however the hell they want. This transitions nicely into a discussion about Shepard from a story perspective, as the game also has a much-improved morality system.
No longer must Mass Effect players feel confined to the options of good-natured Paragon or brutal Renegade; the new system allows players to explore shades of grey. As Shepard makes decisions, you gain reputation points. Some actions provide points that influence your Paragon/Renegade score, but others just give general reputation points that simply increase the already-present ratio between those extremes. It frees the player up to make whatever choices they want while still increasing Shepard’s conversational prowess.
That wouldn’t matter, however, if those choices were part of a bland or uninteresting story. Luckily, I found Mass Effect 3‘s story to be wonderfully engaging from start to finish. I played the game on the PS3, and I imported my Paragon FemShep adept from ME2. Those who have played that game know that any of the squad members can die in its final moments, and I had lost a couple on that playthrough. This allowed me to see a combination of returning characters and replacements in ME3, and I was disappointed in neither. Returning characters make appearances of varying importance, but they all feel very well suited to who those characters are and where we left them in previous games. New characters may feel unwelcome and forced at first, but as you play through the game and get to know them, you’ll find their unique personalities intriguing and often endearing.
There’s been quite a bit of complaining on the internet about the game’s ending. I was aware of these complaints as I was in the process of playing the game, and I was cautiously dreading what might be awaiting me in the game’s finale. When I finally did reach it, I was very pleasantly surprised. The final sequences of Mass Effect 3 are incredibly tense and cinematic. Every passing moment was more suspenseful than the last, and the big final choice did not at all end up being what I expected it to be. I found the ending to be rather beautiful, and I didn’t feel cheated. I look forward to seeing how Bioware plans on adding to the story of the universe through future DLC.
As incredible an experience as I had with Mass Effect 3, it’s not without its flaws. I ran into a handful of tremendously annoying bugs, including squad member mysteriously disappearing before a major boss fight and odd graphical freakouts. I also had issues with the game’s quest journal, which is far less intuitive than the previous game’s. The game’s release has also been tarnished by an unfortunate day-one DLC debacle. I’ll tell you right now, I got the DLC (which includes a squad member whose very nature is considered a spoiler). I found it to be not nearly as big of a deal as people were afraid it would be. It’s really interesting content, but it’s in no way necessary to plot of the game. It’s really only interesting if you’re a huge fan of the series’ universe (in which case it is quite interesting, indeed), although I do think the $9.99 price point is a bit steep.
Despite all this, I believe that Mass Effect 3 is an astounding experience. Bigger, more cinematic, and more exciting than its predecessors, it’s the kind of game that illustrates the towering potential of interactive entertainment as a narrative medium. Full of gorgeous, moody art direction and an achingly melancholy score by the great Clint Mansell, it has a fantastic aesthetic atmosphere. It’s a story about how wartime affects everyone. It’s a story about whether or not the cyclicality of history can be avoided. It’s a story about personal relationships and how important they become when all else seems lost. It’s a story about Commander Shepard, whoever you decide that is.
It’s the end of one of my favorite stories in the history of science fiction, and it is glorious.