Already since the first game, I felt that the Mass Effect series was the grandest undertaking of the current console generation. And now, having finished the trilogy, I am absolutely certain of it. While none of the individual games are perfect, this is one of those cases where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. The vast, detailed universe (actually, that is just the Milky Way galaxy) BioWare have created, with all the different intelligent species, with hundreds of planets, with complex political relationships, is beautiful. Just beautiful. I can only think of a handful of cases in the history of gaming where comparable amounts of effort have been put into crafting a game/series’ universe. And Mass Effect may actually be THE most complex one of all.
Since I first played the game quite a few months after it came out, I couldn’t help expecting a mess of an ending, as that was the almost unanimous opinion among gamers on the internet. However, I can now safely say that those claims are incorrect. Mass Effect 3 provides a very fascinating conclusion, staying true to the principles of the series. It’s natural that there are people who don’t like it, but, given the size of the saga, there is no possible ending that couldn’t have ticked someone off. So fear not, BioWare did NOT mess up with Mass Effect’s ending. It’s a fitting conclusion to the saga.
Game: Mass Effect 3
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360; Wii U
Original release: 2012
The third game in the series is another solid entry. Like the second one, it improves on some things in the predecessor, but is then weaker in other aspects. The thrilling struggle against the Reapers and the brilliant finale have Mass Effect easily leapfrog the second game in terms of overall story. Sadly, it doesn’t hold up as far as conversations/development of your teammates goes (even though we are already familiar with a great part of them). Annoying gameplay features from the second game like streamlined stats distribution as opposed to precise, point-by-point growth, and thermal clips (ammo), sadly remain here. Neat things like hacking are completely gone. It was clearly important for BioWare to keep the game tuned for the average gamer and maximise its sales. But those issues still do not detract much from the overall excellence of Mass Effect 3.
Seeing as I played the game on PC, this is another review where I provide my own screenshots.
- Great conclusion to the saga
- The sheer scale of the Reaper threat is shown quite well
- More development of characters from the first two games, plus a great newcomer
- Good mix of key JRPG (story) and WRPG (choice) fundamentals
- Gameplay sees no improvement from the “safe” streamlined state it was reformed to in Mass Effect 2
- “Political correctness” gone crazy results in disappointing romance options
GREAT END TO A MAGNIFICENT SAGA
Mass Effect 3 provides the long-awaited conclusion to the saga. The Reapers are making their move to destroy organic life, and it’s up to Shepard and his team to stop them. Humanity is the spearhead of the resistance, with main figures such as not only Shepard, but also Admiral Hackett, who is leading the Alliance fleet and organising the rest that volunteer to fight the Reapers, and, naturally, Anderson, who is leading the resistance on Earth, where, as the player can see as soon as the game starts, Reapers have hit hard. The role of humanity is further increased by Cerberus’ activities during this war – true to their principles, they want the best for humanity, but they would also not hesitate to achieve it through unethical means.
None of the other advanced civilisations are safe, either – turians, asari, salarians, krogan… The Reapers want to destroy them all, to “harvest” them for their purposes. As already made clear in the first couple of games, they will show no mercy whatsoever, and their power is completely overwhelming. The foolishness of the Citadel council members, who refused to heed Shepard’s warnings, has left the galaxy even less prepared for the massive, obliterating enemy. Shepard is the only glimmer of hope in this desperate situation, as he sets off with the Normandy to end all interspecies conflicts, to rally and unite everyone in face of the new enemy… At least until the Reaper threat is dealt with.
The ending… So much controversy, and I just do not see the reason. As I already said, the ending and its consequences make perfect sense in the context of the Mass Effect universe that three whole games have shaped. Surely, BioWare could have put more effort into it on the technical side of things. But, from a purely narrative point of view, it is very good and fulfilling. I feel that with the hype BioWare built up through their excellent work on the first two games, there was just no way they could have satisfied everyone. Any possible ending they could have chosen would have had a great number of haters. So do not let the internet comments discourage you, the ending is fine.
GOOD FRIENDS FROM THE PAST, AND MORE
The cast is, as usual for the series, one of the game’s strong points. Mostly, we’ve got teammates from the first two games returning to join the ultimate fight, but there are also some cool new additions. Garrus is pretty much the star of the game, he and Shepard become the ultimate bros (yeah, I played the default, male Shepard), and he is further fleshed out really nicely, adding a good deal of depth to his personality. Sadly, none of the other returning squadmates get such great treatment – Tali fades in comparison to how she was in the first couple of games, they tried to make Kaidan a bit more badass, but, with the likes of Garrus and Javik in the same team, it’s pretty hard for him to stand out. Liara is more interesting than before, but she just fails to really appeal to me. Joker is as awesome and hilarious as ever.
Javik is a new character the “From Ashes” DLC adds, and he’s really awesome, definitely my favourite in this game, after Garrus. His resolve in fighting the Reapers is exceptional, and his determination has shaped him into a really rational soldier, even if it must lead to perceived cold-heartedness at times. Javik will have none of those petty sensitivities, though, even if he is nice to someone else on Shepard’s team, that’s just to keep their fighting spirit up and increase the chances of winning the war (or at least that’s what he would have you believe).
Another new character is James Vega, an Alliance marine joining Shepard as the game starts. He’s a muscle-head, but he’s a rather funny guy, and I came to like him as the game went on. EDI gets a body and can help you in missions this time around. It’s fascinating, but how much of a personality can you really expect from an AI? Still, she asks a couple of fun “philosophical” questions regarding organics vs. synthetics. The lack of a krogan teammate this time around comes as a disappointment, but Wrex expectedly plays an important role in the story, as do Mordin, Legion, Miranda, etc.
I must say that interaction with teammates is one step below what we had in Mass Effect 2 and even 1. You do not get to gradually build a relationship anymore, you just get to chat occasionally about stuff. It’s true that you already know most of the people on your team, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a dialogue system similar to Mass Effect 2’s. All in all, while conversations can still be cool, it’s all a bit disappointing because of the high standard the previous game set in this regard. BioWare also overdid the “political correctness” of the game, offering about as many straight and gay romance options regardless of the gender you play Shepard as. It’s rather irritating to have someone who you knew was a romance option for female Shepard in the previous games suddenly jump at your male Shepard. The new for Mass Effect 3 romance options are also nothing to write home about.
STREAMLINED AND SOLID
Truth be told, Mass Effect 3’s gameplay is weaker than its story. And it’s not because it is bad, per se, it’s because they just kept the “improvements” from the second game and even further streamlined some things (the lack of door/computer hacking comes to mind, and that’s a neat mini-game that I really missed – now you just click on the computer/door and you instantly receive a sum of money or wait a few seconds to unlock it). I put “improvements” in quotation marks because I am a big opponent of the Mass Effect 2’s gameplay changes in comparison to the first games – things like the ammo system as opposed to managing the heat of your weapons, distributing many points at a time as you level up instead of a more precise, point-by-point skill improvement approach, I even liked the Mako much better than the Hammerhead. Anyway, Mass Effect 3 shows that BioWare’s main goal was to sell as many copies as possible, which, sadly, requires pleasing the average gamer more than the RPG fan. So the game is, again, more third-person shooter than RPG.
As you start the game, you can import your save file from Mass Effect 2 (ideally, it also contains your Mass Effect 1 data). That will carry over your important choices from the previous games and they’ll affect the situation in the third game. Still, Mass Effect 3 can be played and understood perfectly well on its own. But you’re really missing out if you haven’t played the first two. Decision-making is, naturally, still a key thing in the game, and your choices throughout it will affect events on an even grander scale than before, considering the Reaper threat which can wipe out all life in the galaxy, and the necessity to stand united against it. You can also pick a class to your liking in the beginning, even if you import a save file. When you do missions, your squad is three people – yourself and two teammates. You get to choose them among all the playable characters you’ve recruited until that point. Sometimes, a squad member is required for a certain mission, so you only get to choose the one remaining character for the party.
As you level up, you get points to spend towards unlocking improvements for the different abilities you possess. As you reach the fourth level of an ability, you can choose between two different upgrades for it, and that can be done until the sixth and final ability level. There’s nothing really special among the abilities, they’re mostly things already seen in the previous games – the different kinds of ammo (incendiary, cryo, disruptor, etc.), the biotic and tech abilities, and some special character ones. The Paragon and Renegade bars are, of course, still present, your decisions affecting which one goes up. There are many different kinds of weapons you can use, including pistols, SMGs, shotguns, assault rifles and sniper rifles. My favourite weapon is the Particle Rifle because it’s the closest to the original Mass Effect’s ammo-less, heat-based weapons.
Shootings work like in the previous games, and especially the second one. They are heavily cover-based. You have shields and then your life bar, once they are down. Once your life bar depletes fully, it’s game over. You would do best to stay in cover to recover shields. You have limited control over your teammates, you can choose to determine yourself what powers they use every time, or leave the selection up to them. You can also give them a point on the screen they must go to, and switch the weapon they’re currently using. Fortunately, your teammates are usually adequately making their own decisions. In order to choose a power (or item, like medi-gel) to use, you effectively pause the action around you, which allows you to choose in peace. Occasionally, there are tougher, boss-like battles, where you’ll need to work hard to win. Later in the game, there are even really tough enemies that appear relatively often, such as the Banshees. It takes some really quick thinking and a lot of hard hits to take them out.
The Citadel is once again a hub of activity, full of individuals from all over the galaxy – even more so than usual, as everyone is seeking shelter from the Reaper threat, and the Citadel is the safest place in the galaxy. There is plenty of stuff to be done there, plenty of side missions you can pick up. Among the areas accessible to Shepard are the Citadel embassies, the Presidium commons, the docks, the Purgatory night club, a refugee camp, etc. Sadly, you do not get to endorse stores to your heart’s content this time around. You will have to go to the Citadel multiple times throughout the main quest for various reasons, and, understandably, it will once again be the theatre of important events during the war.
The missions that advance the main quest are called “Priority” missions, and pretty much all of them are really interesting. As I mentioned before, the overall goal is to unite the galaxy against the Reaper threat, so you can imagine that there will be interaction with all the relevant races, and attempting to solve their problems so that they can focus on the really big issue. You’ll go to pretty much all the awesome places you knew existed and wanted to go in the first two games, but couldn’t. DLCs like “From Ashes”, “Omega” and “Leviathan” offer fascinating side missions, especially the last one, which reveals a lot of unexpected things about the Mass Effect universe. There are, of course, other, less important side missions as part of the main game. Also, throughout the game, you must build your “effective military strength,” which designates the Milky Way’s readiness to fight the Reapers in a full-scale war and the chances of success. There is also a co-op multiplayer aspect to Mass Effect 3, you join together with other players to fight enemy forces. Your success in it influences the “galactic readiness” of your single player game, which in turn influences the military strength number.
As any good game with a vast universe, Mass Effect 3 is full of little titbits that are seemingly insignificant, but add greatly to the player’s overall enjoyment of the game. A few examples I can give are the aquarium, space hamster and ship models in Shepard’s cabin, the Shepard VI in the refugee shelter on the Citadel, which “can predict what the real Commander Shepard would say with 7% accuracy,” and the hilarious exchanges between engineers Donnely and Daniels in the Normandy’s engine room. “It’s the little things that count” holds a lot of water regarding the Mass Effect series.
GRAPHICALLY NICE, IF NOT EXCEPTIONAL
Mass Effect 3 looks nice, but, truth be told, it does not look better than its predecessor in any way. This is undoubtedly a result of the console limitations burden, as we know that the main audience for the series is, sadly, mostly buying the console versions. And Mass Effect 2 pretty much reached the peak in how well the Mass Effect universe could look on this generation’s hardware. Still, visually, Mass Effect 3 does offer something distinct from the first two – namely the large scale of the destruction the Reapers cause. Burning battlefields, piles of dead bodies, skies littered with flying Reapers and the planet’s forces fighting them off… It can be a depressing picture, but it is certainly impressive.
One thing BioWare just can’t get right are the female character models, and especially faces. Men look cool enough, but the women just fail to pull off a sexy look. With asari, that’s easy to not pay too much attention to because they’re alien, but there are also human girls in Mass Effect, where it becomes painfully evident. Even Diana Allers, a newcomer in Mass Effect 3 and on par with Miranda in terms of body attractiveness, like Miranda fails to pull off a really pretty face. Other companies can achieve that with their 3D female models well enough (my favourite semi-recent example being Sheva Alomar from Resident Evil 5), so I don’t know why it’s so damn hard for BioWare. Still, this is a relatively minor issue.
The soundtrack does an excellent job at setting the game’s atmosphere. This time, they had even world-famous names like Clint Mansell, and, to a lesser extent, Cristopher Lennertz work on the OST, but most tracks are done by composers mostly known for their video game work, like Sam Hulick, Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan. While most of the tracks are good, but not particularly memorable, there are a handful that are worthy additions to any video game music collection. Voice work is top-notch, as usual for the series, with Mark Meer being stellar once again (and I’ve heard that Jennifer Hale is, too). Anyway, my favourite song on the soundtrack is the end credits theme, but, in the spirit of not spoiling the game, I’ll leave it for you to discover. The theme I’m providing as part of the review is also among the best, and is called “Rannoch”.
AN INSPIRATION FOR THE FUTURE
The Mass Effect trilogy is among gaming’s biggest achievements in history. The amount of dedication to this project and the level of detail to which BioWare crafted the Mass Effect universe are absolutely incredible. In the face of this mostly disappointing seventh console generation, Mass Effect is, like Shepard, a glimmer of hope for the future. I admit to not having enough experience with Western RPGs, having not yet played some of its best games (like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment or Fallout), but I believe the Western RPG genre as a whole can benefit from improving the quality of its storytelling, like Mass Effect does. I feel that Mass Effect is an impressive mix of JRPG (story) and WPRG (choice) fundamentals, one which will chart the course for the RPG genre in the future.
The third game is probably not the best one in the series – it doesn’t provide neither the customisation and freedom the first game did, nor the detailed character interaction system from the second game. In terms of gameplay, it confirms the series’ position towards the third-person shooter rather than the RPG genre, the financial reasons lying behind that choice being just a sidenote. But Mass Effect 3 provides the conclusion of the whole epic saga, and that matters. I did not feel that BioWare messed up the ending, either, so I cannot help feeling very happy with the game, as a whole.
It’s certain that the series will not end here, financially successful series of such a scale rarely do. And no-one knows how exactly future Mass Effect titles will turn out… But I know one thing – I want more RPG franchises like Mass Effect, ones that can get me so utterly engaged in their universes, ones that show me that my choices really bring change from that point on in the game, ones that are not afraid to put a great amount of effort into the story, even if the average gamer will skip the cutscenes to get to the next bit of action.