The epic conclusion to the most ambitious trilogy of this generation...too bad it took me 60 hours to finish and it's only 30 hours long!
Whatever your feelings are over the differences between the original Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, it's hard to argue that they haven't combined to establish the most ambitious and engaging game series of this generation, and it's definitely in the discussion of all time top franchises. Five years after it all started we get the finale (at least for this trilogy) and all the expectations that come with it. Surprisingly, Mass Effect 3 feels mostly like a hybrid of the first two games, incorporating more player choice while refining the core combat to its tightest yet in the series. But does it deliver on all of the things it set up? Mostly.
Leisure Time & Untold Danger
In many ways Mass Effect 3 is incredibly satisfying, but some stumbles throughout will leave some players wanting and others downright furious. If you're oblivious to internet rage then let me just inform you that a very vocal portion of the fan base hates the ending. Here's the kicker - it's not really the end of the game that you actually play, it's the final couple minutes and ending cutscene. I'm not here to spoil it for anyone but I will say that it does let you down from the expectations that the series has built up over the course of three games. One can make the argument, and I do, that Bioware is in the rare position of being so good at what they've done, that they're now held to a standard that almost no other game developers are. But let me be clear, I'm not defending them or those players left unhappy, I just subscribe to the notion that in a series that reaches upwards of 100 hours of time played it's the journey that's important. And Mass Effect 3's journey is still everything we've come to expect.
It's probably a good time to mention that if you don't know what to expect from the series, Mass Effect 3 is not the place to jump into the series. Though the overall mission is clear, the game spends little time catching players up to speed. So if you finally want to jump into Mass Effect, start with an earlier game: ME1 for those that want the whole experience (Xbox360 only) and ME2 if you just want to see why everyone loves the series.
The overall structure of the game isn't an unfamiliar one. As Shepard, the Alliance's multi-time hero, you must travel across the universe to recruit forces to combat the Reapers, a synthetic enemy that wipes out all organic life every 50,000 years. While the Reapers were previously unknown bogeymen, which only Shepard and those closest to him knew existed, the opening five minutes of the game make it clear who you're fighting and what they're capable of. The one conceit you have to make, however, is that even though Earth is being bombarded and the Reapers are overtaking galaxies, you still have enough time to go on seemingly meaningless missions in before saving the day (or not). The premise remains on thin ice each time you have to make a mandatory trip to locations, like the Citadel, just so you can talk to people.
And that's the dilemma. The very thing Bioware and Mass Effect has been so renowned for is the thing that doesn't fit logically within the context of the events taking place. It's an easy enough concession to make to enjoy a thirty hour game but Bioware could have done a much better job explaining or framing just how much time you're spending away from Earth. Would a ticking clock have helped? Maybe. I'm not going to sit here and proffer to know what would have been better, but I after my umpteenth mission that didn't directly involve recruiting a critical species for the fight I wondered why it would take such an unstoppable force like the Reapers so long to destroy Earth.
Quantity, Quality & Conversation
The one thing that strikes me about Mass Effect 3 is that it felt like there were less combat missions that left a major impression. A few standout highlights make this an easy thing to get over but the large majority of side missions, and a lot of the main quests, are unspectacular, failing to live up to the standard set by its predecessors and many of the DLC missions. I also loved the final battle, an extended period of combat that feels more important, appropriately so, than any other fight up until that point. On the other hand, the conversations within the game are spectacular, heartfelt and often quite sad. Put simply, they're the best they've been in the trilogy.
This isn't a game where you're blown away by revelations or character reveals. Instead, it's just the opposite. There's a comfort in knowing these characters. Most will have spent hours and hours with each of them and that doesn't seem lost in the chaos. In one playthrough I reunited with Liara, who spoke about our future, and in another I stayed committed to Miranda, who professed regret and sadness for previous decisions. Each instance felt dramatically different, personal to my Shepard's story, and it's this that Bioware does better than pretty much anyone. But my favorite moment might have been one between Garrus and Shepard, one which shows the developers grasp on the subtlety of bonds and friendships. If you haven't bought into the series at this point, nothing here will change your opinion. But if you have, it's specifically these moments that will mean a great deal to you and they're exactly what make Mass Effect 3 required playing.
That's not to say the action doesn't cut it. The sequels refinement of the core action remains largely intact, with an added emphasis on cover to cover movement. But you're still shooting and using powers, ordering your squad to attack targets using their abilities and so on. For Xbox 306 users the Kinect has been enabled to help aid squad directions. It's a surprisingly useful tool, especially if you're sick of having to pull up the squad command menus during battle. It's unnecessary, sure, but it totally works as advertised and the novelty makes it worth checking out.
The most substantial change/improvement is your customization options. You're not back to the loot sorting of the original game, but you are getting detailed choices of loadouts and weapon customization. Shepard can also carry up to five weapons, one of each type, at the sacrifice of power recharge speed. This can mean a great deal depending on play style. As a soldier I kept an assault rifle, sniper rifle, and shotgun with me at all times. I'd take biotic squadmates, since it took me over twice as long to recharge my powers. But while playing as a Vanguard I kept a single weapon with me, allowing for my biotic powers to recharge almost instantly. The different styles were both effective and fun, and the freedom of choice is awesome.
Yo Dawg, I Heard You Hated Multiplayer In Your Single Player Games So I Put....
Are you one of those people that constantly say "I don't want multiplayer taking away from my single player experience"? Here's the thing: it doesn't. A lot of people were worried that the Galaxy At War multiplayer would negatively impact the single player portion of the game. It's really only important if you want to mainline the story without completing the majority of extracurricular missions. During the game you'll be made aware of your Galactic Readiness, essentially your ability to combat the Reapers. Without ever playing online that number will always be a 50% total of the war assets you've acquired. Given the options you have at the end of the game, a thorough run through the campaign will give you more than enough war assets to complete the game with the same options as someone else.
But then - Galaxy At War is also really awesome. You and three other players battle ten waves of enemies and complete random objectives on one of nine maps. It's a lot of fun because it isn't just four people running around with the same or similar weapons. It's easy to jump between characters and classes in between missions (all classes are open for you) and since you level up quickly you're never left waiting to unlock a specific classes abilities. Mass Effect's universe allows for players of substantially different abilities to play together, creating powerful and dynamic teams. The action is always tight, tense and very difficult.
Galaxy At War features three levels of difficulty, Bronze, Silver and Gold, and different enemy types, Cerberus forces and the Geth. Depending on your selections, or even by setting choice to random, the experience that you can earn from missions will vary. But it's not just XP that you're after; you're also out to earn coins. XP lets you add or upgrade your abilities while coins let you purchase packs from the store. These packs can cost as little as 5000 coins or as much as 90000 (the most I've personally seen), and will unlock new weapons, new characters and new equipment for you. The equipment can be extra ammo packs, medi-gels (for saving yourself from death), health packs, armor and weapon boosts or even special weapons like a rocket launcher.
If you're playing on Bronze that extra stuff isn't so important, but on Silver and Gold it can mean the difference between success and failure. Even unlocking a new character can be useful, like when I earned a new Asari that came with 100,000 XP, it allowed me to start with already established skills. Electronic Arts is often guilty of milking customers for anything they can (like the despicable Tiger Woods 12 & 13), and the store definitely skirts that line. Fortunately players always have a choice and nothing is restricted so long as you put in the time. It may frustrate players that their Galactic Readiness is affected by a mode they may not want any part of, but the truth is you're only slighting yourself if you don't give Galaxy At War a try.
NOTE: Multiple issues have tarnished the experience for a fraction of players, including myself, please read below and check for updates at Bioware.com
While some players complain about the ending, I have something far more important to complain about. Bugs. Big, game-breaking bugs. I played though the campaign and reached the "point of no return", saved the game and headed online to bump up my Galactic Readiness. After getting it over 90% I was satisfied to go back and finish the campaign. Too bad I could. Upon start up the game froze. I erased the cache, tried using a different system, even borrowed a different copy of the game - nothing worked. Apparently I'm not the only one. A quick look at the forums on Bioware's website proves that I'm not alone in this. I've gotten almost no response from Bioware, save for a "Sorry for the inconvenience, we're currently investigating the issue now". At the time of publishing this review that was well over three weeks ago.
That was on the Xbox 360, and since we're an independent site I took it upon myself to purchase the game on the PS3 so that I could finish it and review it (I'd played ME2 on both and planned to do this anyway). Though I didn't encounter the same game-breaking bug, I did witness some terrible slowdown during a couple scenes, and the odd graphical hitch. We're not talking a chasm of difference visually, but the fluid performance just wasn't the same. So do you risk the possibility of having to wait on Bioware to fix the game or play it on a system that it doesn't run as well on? Your choice, obviously, but it's sad that Bioware has allowed either thing to happen for one of their biggest franchises.
Mass Effect might be the most important franchise of this gaming generation. Mass Effect 3, however, is not the best game in the series. It manages a welcome balance of RPG elements and pure action while delivering the most harrowing relationship sequence in the series to date. But the odd pacing and failure to frame the time limit in a coherent narrative way undercuts the importance of your whole mission. If you can't get beyond that type of issue then you'll be unhappy with the way the game finishes, too. But with that said, if you've been on board with the series to this point then Mass Effect 3 is an absolute must play .
It's easy to be cynical about the smallest of things in Mass Effect 3, because we've grown so accustomed to Bioware doing most everything right with this franchise, especially when compared to any other titles like it. I can't say I'm totally satisfied, as the ending did leave me with some questions, but I also wasn't disappointed with my Shepard's epic journey. Ultimately, I was sad to drop the controller because I didn't want things to end. In my view that's the highest compliment of any medium - wanting more of it. It might have taken me two tries, and it might not be the best game in the series, yet even still, Mass Effect 3 is better than most games produced and it's the best game so far in 2012.
Final Score: 90%
Astonishing -- An exceptional accomplishment in gaming that has only a couple minor flaws that are easy to forgive because it's just too damned fun. A standard we wish all games could achieve and something everyone should try.