I honestly don’t know where to start in writing about Mass Effect 3 at this point. I’m about ten hours in and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s a sprawling, massive adventure attempting to give a worthy conclusion to one of the great sci-fi epics of any medium this generation. It has so many little treats for fans who have been with the series from the beginning, and plenty of thrills for those arriving late to the party. I’m not ready to give it my final review yet obviously, since I’ve barely scratched the surface, but here are just a few random thoughts about what I’ve experienced so far. Truthfully, you shouldn’t have to wait for a review; this is one gaming experience you don’t want to miss.
I love the vistas in this game. It’s easily the prettiest of the series so far. Few things are quite as awe inspiring as being on moon with a planet hanging on the horizon awash in flame. You see lights flicker from the explosions of a massive battle raging all around the planet, and then you turn and see a massive, menacing machine slowly plodding along the surface of the moon you’re on, wiping out soldiers as it goes. There’s a tragic beauty to all of the destruction on display in this game, from the emotional first moments on Earth as it’s devastated by the Reapers to every other system you may visit where this unstoppable force works to wipe out all organic life. The art design and those achingly beautiful vistas of destruction this game regularly puts on display only adds to the haunting, emotional tone of all you experience. Love it.
The gameplay has seen several tweaks. The shooting is tight, fast and fun. It’s not much different from Mass Effect 2, but has seen some improvements. You have more weapon choices, it’s easier to get in and out of cover (though not perfect), enemies are smart enough to flank you (but not smart enough to not just rush right at you), and there are plenty of options for customizing your gear. Kinect is also put to good use, allowing you to switch weapons, move your teammates and use powers all with a simple word. This keeps the combat flowing by eliminating the need to call up menus to switch things around, and it works quite well. There’s also a multiplayer element this time around, which plays like a version of Gears of War 3’s Horde Mode, but with implications for your single-player campaign. It’s a lot of fun to fight wave after wave of enemies with up to three of your friends, so although it may not be a necessary addition, it’s at least well-done and worth-while.
Of course Mass Effect has always been about story, and the third chapter carries that tradition ably. From a gut wrenching opening similar in tone to the opening scenes of the recent Star Trek to some nice character moments that will reward faithful fans to some interesting developments with the various species trying to stop the Reapers, there’s lots of story to explore and it’s all rather compelling. It’s fun to see familiar faces, even if not all of them will join you on this last adventure, while the new characters you meet are interesting and worth getting to know as well. However, I should note that while gay relationships have always been a possibility in the series, this time out the game feels like it has more of an agenda in making such relationships totally acceptable. Does it detract from the experience? Depends on what your opinions are on that subject, but it’s worth noting this issue is a bit more at the forefront of things than it was in past games.
Speaking of characters and relationships, another fun use of Kinect is using it to choose your options when you talk to other characters. The conversation wheel is back, just as it was in other games, but now you can just say…er…what you want to say. It feels kind of silly at first, but to be honest, I found myself actually doing a little “role playing” as I called out my choices in a conversation, complete with various intonations and inflections. You may not get quite as into character as I sometimes did, and you don’t have to use it, but it’s kind of fun.
The game does have it’s issues. There’s still that nagging problem of texture pop-in on occasion, and some occasional frame-rate dips when things get really crazy. Also, characters sometimes have a little trouble keeping track of who they’re talking to (I once had a whole conversation with Shepard looking off to one side instead of at the person he was talking with, weird). Beyond some of the technical issues, side quests now often show up just by over-hearing conversations, which makes them feel less personal, and they’re typically very simple fetch quests that lack any substance. There’s no more scanning a planets for minerals or aimlessly exploring similar looking planetscapes. It’s all been streamlined to scanning a whole system and then just going to scan a planet where something’s detected and launching a probe to recover. Of course, the Reapers may detect your scans and come after you, which at first is a little thrilling but soon becomes an annoyance. Of all the ways Mass Effect has approached this part of the game, this feels the least like exploring the wonders of galaxy, but then, the galaxy is fighting for its survival, so I guess there isn’t much time to explore anymore.
All in all, I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve seen of Mass Effect 3 so far, and I can’t wait to see more. I’m anxious to bring the disparate races of the galaxy together to see if we can put an end to the Reaper threat, but it’s not going to be easy, and I can already tell there will be some tough decisions to make that will affect these characters that I care about in dramatic ways. Then again, that’s what makes this series so special, and I’m glad that it is.