So initially I thought I’d post a review for Mass Effect 3 after I played a good chunk of it and had an appreciation for its similarities and differences from the previous games. I wanted to do this so I could get a review out to the…er…masses a bit quicker, but then this flak developed about the game’s ending. Fans apparently were furious. Eventually Bioware announced that they would prepare a new ending for the game, and that’s when I realized any review of the game would have be not just about how it plays, but also about how it ends. We’ll get to that ending in just a moment, but that and a few other technical issues aside, Mass Effect 3 is a worthy, exciting, emotional conclusion to one of gaming’s biggest trilogies.
The Mass Effect series has always been about choice, so gamers such as myself were excited to see how our choices would pay-off in this conclusion. I have to admit, it’s pretty fun to see familiar faces, to re-kindled old relationships, and to spend time reflecting on past adventures with long-time crew-mates. Mass Effect 3 does a great job of giving you ample time to say good-bye to characters you’ve invested so much time with over the course of the series. Yes the Reapers have arrived and are scourging the galaxy, giving you plenty of epic action set-pieces as you try to stop them, but it’s the quiet moments with familiar characters that form the heart of this game. Many of those familiar faces are here as a result of how you played things in previous games, which may sometimes mean (such as in my case) that you run into old acquaintances on almost every planet. I know some feel this coincidence of always running into someone you’ve known everywhere you go makes the galaxy feel more like a college campus, but I didn’t mind it all. I thought it was kind of nice.
Some hard choices were made leading up to this final adventure, but truthfully, I felt that this time out there weren’t any tough ones left to make. I never came across a moment where I agonized over the outcome of a choice (except for the ending, and as I said, we’ll get to that). There were plenty of life or death situations, but I never had to choose who would live or die. There were some pretty epic moments throughout, but again, I never worried about making the “right” choice in a key moment because while those key moments came with regularity, the outcome for them felt pretty well mapped out for me this time around. My choices from the past came to fruition during the course of this adventure, but I didn’t get much sense that I had many opportunities to make new, weighty decisions this time around because it was all coming to an end.
What did improve, however, was the combat. There’s a greater sense of scale for many of the battles you engage in. I never lost sight of the fact that I was engaged in a greater conflict that was raging on a galactic scale. Combat is fast, chaotic and intense this time around. Enemies will flank you, get in behind you, try to pin you down with superior fire-power; this time it really does feel like war. Popping into cover can still feel a little too “sticky”, meaning I stick to cover at times when I don’t mean to, but it’s nice to have quicker options for getting out of cover like quickly sliding to new a new position, swinging around a corner, or vaulting over cover to a new position. The new voice command elements available from Kinect are nice as well. As I played further into the game, I found myself using it less often, but still using it in critical situations. When the firefight gets intense and you run out of ammo or want to quickly coordinate an attack using the abilities of your teammates, being able to call out commands is a nice option and keeps the combat flowing fast. The voice commands for Mass Effect 3 aren’t a game changers, but they certainly enhance the experience and work well as a convenient tool.
A couple other things worth mentioning before we get to the whole “ending” scenario. First, the side-quests this time out are fairly week. You pick most of them up by overhearing people talk in the Citadel, and complete most of them by scanning planets in various systems. In short, they’re glorified fetch quests that don’t do much more than increase a number for your War Assets (which ostensibly will determine which ending you earn). For such a personal game, this system feels rather impersonal and pretty much eliminates any sense of exploration (which has never been the series’ strongest suit, but feels pretty much erased here). Some of the same old technical problems have re-surfaced as well, including things like texture pop-in, as well as some new ones like characters responding to commands that I didn’t give (apparently picked-up through some ambient noise by Kinect…I guess?), conversations where characters lose track of each other and contort in weird ways while talking, and some conversations where characters either pop-in or pop-out (it’s weird to finish talking with someone and instantly they disappear from in front of you). These little glitches don’t detract from the overall achievement of this series or this game, but they are worth mentioning.
Now, about that ending. I get where some are coming from; it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting either. However, to demand a totally different ending seems a bit extreme. The whole ending fiasco for Mass Effect 3 reminds me of the fervor over the Lost ending. Some felt that didn’t do enough to answer long lingering questions from the shows mythology (which, in fairness, it didn’t). However, others felt that despite that issue, it was a worthwhile goodbye to character we’ve grown to care so much about over the years. It provided closure on an emotional level, if not an intellectual level. So it is with Mass Effect 3. I felt like I got closure with these characters that I’ve spent so much time with, but the ending just didn’t fulfill my expectations so far as concluding the epic plot. It got a bit existential and I didn’t really feel like I won; which after all Shepard’s been through, would’ve been nice. Well I did win, but it was a win fraught with sacrifice and compromise and…well, it’s complicated. While what you do in multiplayer has an effect on which ending you get, I have to be honest, after looking through the various endings, I didn’t see any that were all that radically different from any other. There are slight tweaks here and there, but they all follow the same basic template ranging from not quite saving the day to barely saving the day to saving the day and not surviving to saving the day and surviving to saving the day in an entirely different way than anyone expected. Do I think a new ending is needed? No, but I can see why some would want one.
Ending aside, the real question is did Mass Effect 3 fulfill all my expectations for the conclusion of this trilogy. To be honest, no, not really, but it fulfilled most of them. Far too often I felt more like a spectator than like I was in the driver’s seat, with big decisions determined for me. However, as a gameplay experience and as another game in the Mass Effect universe, my expectations were met. The game is immersive, action-packed, has a fascinating story and is filled with fully-realized, vibrant characters with interesting stories of their own. It has all the hallmarks of what makes the Mass Effect series so great, adds a few tweaks and improvements (some better than others), stumbles a bit with the ending at a few other points, but on the whole is a very satisfying experience. The Mass Effect trilogy is one of the great sci-fi epics of this generation in any media form, and it’s been a joy to journey with it all the way through to the end; more so because much of the story was my story. I was bit emotional at the end of it all, not necessarily because of how it ended, but more because of the simple fact that it is the end, and it’s never easy to say good-bye.
Score out of 7:
Graphics: 5 - Some of the vistas and environments in this game are stunning. We’ve come a long way from all the similar looking hallways and planetscapes of the first game. Some the character models are a bit stiff, lip synching doesn’t always synch, and clipping, texture pop-in and occasional frame-rate issues are all present, but they’re minor nuisances that don’t detract from the overall experience.
Sound: 6 - Voice acting once again is stellar, making these characters come alive. The soundtrack also does a good job of capturing the drama, excitement and emotion in a variety of situations without ever being too intrusive. Weapons all sound like they pack quite a punch, as do the various biotic powers, which makes combat an aural as much as a visual treat.
Controls: 6 - The wheel menus has always been a slick interface for getting the powers, weapons and commands you want issued to you and your squad. The addition of voice command with Kinect just makes that all the more slick. I didn’t use it often, but it came in handy in hectic moments when I just need to issue some quick orders.
Gameplay: 5 - Side quests and exploration are weak this time out, but the main story, the combat, and the conversations you have are all excellent. Again, voice command for conversations is kind of fun, but even less necessary than it was in combat. Multiplayer is fun, but it’s impact on the campaign isn’t really felt all that dramatically, and the same “horde mode” gameplay as the only option can wear thin after awhile.
Story: 5 - Personally, I liked the finale of Lost, and I don’t have as many issues with the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 as some apparently do. It was a satisfying goodbye to some beloved characters even if it didn’t satisfy my need for the story to come to an appropriate conclusion (sometimes the bad guy can be so powerful, so overwhelming, that the only way to defeat them is with some plot sleight-of-hand, which is what I think happened here.)
Content: 4 - Not as much swearing as the last game, although there is some; so that can be a concern. It also seemed like there were a lot more more same-sex relationships being flaunted this time around. Speaking of which, you’re character can easily get mixed up in one of those, or spend some between-the-sheet time with a member of the opposite sex. Nothing explicit is shown (no more so than on a racy scene from a TV show), but it can be a bit sensual. Just a few things to consider.
Final Score: 5 - Mass Effect 3 brings to a close an ambitious project, and for the most part, does that well. It captures many of the elements that made the earlier games so great, adds a few improvements, takes some steps back in other areas, and struggles with the ending. Still, at least for me, it was a satisfying, exciting journey that provided an appropriate good-bye to an iconic galaxy filled with great characters.