Mass Effect 3 Review: All’s Well that Ends Well
The summer vacation (though I’m not actually on summer vacation) series of game reviews ends with Mass Effect 3. Going into this game four years ago, my expectations were sky-high. I absolutely loved the first two-thirds of the trilogy and there could be no way that BioWare would screw it up, right? Oh, how naive I was. I’m sure we all know about the controversies about Mass Effect 3 by now. The ending did take away from the game but not as much as some would have you believe.
SPOILER ALERT: This review will spoil parts of Mass Effect 1 and 2 as well as any plot points that Bioware showed in trailers for ME3. Some other plot points revealed very early in the game may also be spoiled. If you don’t want any of the Mass Effect series or this game spoiled, you’ve been warned.
I’m starting with gameplay in this review rather than story. Given the controversy over the ending, I thought that it would be best to address the story (including both the ending and the Day One DLC controversies) at the end of the review so as it doesn’t look like it’s influencing my perceptions of the rest of the game.
The basics of the gameplay haven’t changed much since ME2. Combat is still a shooter at heart. The big changes are that cover is no longer a complete safe zone. Enemies can now damage you in cover if they have the high ground (or ding you slightly if on level ground). They’ll also try to flank you or otherwise drive you out of cover in order to do more damage. Automatic health regeneration is gone for Shepard. Now you have to use medi-gel to recover any lost health bars (Shepard has five sections to his health indicator rather than one continuous bar like in ME1 and ME2). Medi-gel can still be used to revive fallen squadmates but you can also revive them by running up to them and doing it without medi-gel (which is also the mechanic used in multiplayer for reviving fallen squadmates). By limiting health regen, it ramps up the difficulty ever so slightly without crippling you into constantly hiding behind chest-high walls.
While combat itself hasn’t changed much, BioWare seems to have gone back to the drawing board with enemies. While you fight three different factions, each one attacks you a little differently and enemy types in those factions seem to have a unique attack strategy compared to others in their faction. The variety of ways that opposing forces come at you force you to prioritize targets, be more hands on with your squadmates’ power use and targeting and use more than your guns to handle enemy forces. So while the basics of combat haven’t changed, BioWare has changed things up to make you work a bit harder this time out. That’s definitely a good thing.
The weapons system has been changed up a little bit. Heavy weapons have been dropped as a permanent weapon class. Now Shepard has to find them lying around in a level (though I found that you never grab a heavy weapon until after you really needed it). As a substitute, you can carry grenades which make a return from hiatus in ME2. While your squadmates still carry two classes of weapons, Shepard doesn’t have a strict limit to the number of weapons he can carry. Instead, he has a maximum weapon weight he can carry which varies based on character class and use of upgrade points. If you carry weapons that put you over the weight limit, your ability recharge speed slows down. If you carry under the limit, your recharge speed is actually faster than the standard you’ve leveled it up to. Weapons also have different weights with the heavier ones doing more damage so there is lots of room to strategize and plan with.
BioWare has gone back a bit from the near complete removal of RPG-esque customization that happened between ME1 and ME2. Researching for upgrades and mining for minerals/elements have been removed from the game. Weapons can be custom modded using a series of upgrades for each character so you can tailor your weapons and their upgrades to each character. For example, someone who relies on abilities would want a biotic damage or recharge booster rather than weapon accuracy upgrades. Ammo types are still handled like they were in ME2 with individual characters and classes being able to select their own ammo type on the fly.
Assigning upgrade points for abilities has changed slightly. First, your upgrade points from ME2 carryover so you start ME3 where you left off. However, now powers max out at Level 6 rather than 4. There is also a branching upgrade system where you can customize powers from levels four through six. For example, a biotic power upgraded at Level 4 could have a choice of increased force or faster recharge time. It’s not quite as in-depth character customization as ME1 but it’s a step back in the RPG direction as choosing a perk from an upgrade has more impact than one more tick on a line.
Stealing a bit from the story part of the review, ME3 deals with the Reaper invasion (if you finished ME2 or saw any of the trailers, it was sort of obvious). All the missions, including side quests, deal with rallying support for the battle against the Reapers. Missions are divided into main story missions, called Priority, and side quests, which are labeled based on which star cluster they occur in. The result of these missions are the acquisition of “war assets” which are accumulated for the final battle with the Reapers.
Priority missions often involve showing up and shooting a bunch of stuff. The story based hook in these is that you often have to make a choice that will affect the amount of war assets received and/or impact future potential for war assets. The order in which you do missions can also affect the outcome of missions in terms of choices available and war assets received. Side quests are around a 50/50 mix of missions that require to Shepard to do something on the ground (find items, buy items, talk to people, shoot folks) and just scan planets for items while on the Normandy. The format of the missions feel much more unique from each other than in ME2 thanks to the different enemies you face (as opposed to the same old mercs every time in ME2), the different circumstances and environments you meet them in and the unique goals in each.
For the first time in the series, BioWare introduced a multiplayer component to Mass Effect. It was rumoured that multiplayer was wedged in as a result of an EA corporate policy for every game to have multiplayer and this caused a delay in the release of the game from Christmas 2011 to March 2012.
Rather than the usual competitive multiplayer that you would expect from a shooter, ME3 opts for a co-op “horde mode” multiplayer mode. You join up with three other people to do battle against enemy forces in order to help the galactic war effort. While not necessarily mandatory, the multiplayer is necessary to increase your Galactic Readiness rating above 50% and give you additional war assets for your single player campaign by “promoting” your multiplayer characters (effectively resetting the class’ level to 1 from 20) into the greater galactic war for the as Alliance troops. The problem with Galactic Readiness being affected by multiplayer is the fact that your Galactic Readiness is essentially assigned to your Origin account rather than a particular Shepard. So after maxing out Galactic Readiness with Shepard #1, any subsequent Shepard will pretty much pick up where I left off with the previous one (less a readiness reduction for not playing the multiplayer daily).
As with the single-player campaign, you can choose from the six character classes but you also get to pick one of a number of different races depending on which class you pick. You earn experience points for completing mission objectives and killing enemies which levels you up so you can upgrade various powers similar to how it’s done in the single-player game. Everything has been simplified from the normal game, though. You only have three powers to upgrade in addition to the general health and damage upgrade bars. Weapon and weapon upgrades are randomly won by purchasing equipment packs from credits earned in play.
The premise of the multiplayer is fairly simple. Your team arrives at a location, shoots through ten waves of enemies with increasing size and difficulty and leaves. There’s a definite dichotomy between people who like the multiplayer and those who don’t. This isn’t exactly a revolutionary game mode and it has very little to do with the actual plot of the game. However, depending on your character class and what role you fill on your team, it can still be addicting. I found playing as a Sentinel or Adapt was much more fun than playing as a Vanguard or Engineer but those can be fun depending on synergies with other players.
The problem with adding the multiplayer component to the game is that it doesn’t fit what we’ve come to expect from BioWare and this game series. It wasn’t poorly done. Sure, it’s buggier than the single-player campaign (graphics glitches, lag, enemies who seem impervious to damage, etc.) but it won’t break the game because you don’t have to play it. I chose to play ME3 primarily to conclude the story of Commander Shepard and his fight to save the galaxy from the Reapers. I’m not particularly invested in a random collection of avatars blasting away at enemies who spawn into a base out of nowhere.
When evaluating the multiplayer, I keep coming back to two questions: 1) Did I find it fun? and 2) Does it add anything to the game? The answers I come back to are: 1) Sometimes. It depends on the character I’m playing (some classes/races are more fun than others) and who I’m playing with (you Rambos know who you are). And 2) It doesn’t add much to the game except for changing up the ending by increasing your Effective Military Strength. This is a nice to have but not a need to have in the grand scheme of gaming. Fortunately, if you only want to access the best endings and multiplayer isn’t your thing, you only need to invest about two hours.
Let’s talk about the graphics. The ME3 graphics engine seems to have been designed to turn the shadow effects up to 11. It seems regardless of where you are in the galaxy, somebody’s face will be covered with a shadow. Apart from that, the graphics have just been given some slight touch-ups from the last game. The only nagging graphics issues I found were that the textures on Shepard’s uniform aboard the Normandy were less clear than in ME2 and the occasional camera glitch. To compensate, more time was spent on particle effects for explosions. There are just a couple in the massive war between the Reapers and their would-be victims.
The theme of the game’s graphics design appear to be the overwhelming darkness of this war against the apocalypse. The lighting on the Normandy is more subdued and casts an ominous shadow over the proceedings (too much shadow for my taste). (As an aside, I also noticed that the various tarps and cloths hanging up in the ongoing retrofit of the Normandy don’t move. Hanging cloths have been able to be moved by your character regularly since Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. That’s not a big deal as that spot behind Joker where you can get stuck and effectively freezes the game requiring a reload.) A number of the game’s major locations are visited at night and/or have evidence of a massive war strewn about the planet. It does a good job of creating the required ambiance.
Despite the devastation that’s prevalent in the galaxy, one thing that has changed from the last two games to this one is the sense of life in the galaxy. Despite all the death everywhere you go, there is finally a sense that the galaxy is teeming with life just as it’s threatened to all be snuffed out. Your crew moves about the ship and has conversations over the intercom. Various galactic denizens have conversations that progress over time rather than just repeat. And the people of the galaxy generally go about their business as best they can under the circumstances. Business and leisure aboard the Citadel, for example, is a great juxtaposition for the death and destruction Shepard sees everywhere else in the galaxy.
The user interface has undergone another change. The colour has reverted to Systems Alliance blue from Cerberus yellow-orange (more on that in a bit) with some red highlights which complements the colour scheme most often seen on the Normandy. (Maybe I should have started with a review of the story.) The enemy damage bars have changed again. You only see one health bar type at a time and each is sectioned off into ten blocks. For example, a character who has shields and health will show a shields bar which gradually reveals the health bar as shields are depleted while in the previous two games, you would see each health bar when you first target an enemy so you know what you’re up against. The map function is the other major change. As opposed to having the full map of ME1 and the radar to a destination in ME2, now you get a virtual waypoint marker on your destination without much guidance apart from “go here.”
I could probably copy-and-paste the audio section of the ME2 review here and it would be just as applicable. The voice acting is still great. It might actually be better than the last two as Shepard finally sounds like two years (and games) worth of fighting the Reapers is about to completely break him. That was an even bigger challenge than before because BioWare states that nearly twice as many lines were recorded for ME3 as were recorded for ME2. Presumably, most of those added lines belong to Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale who voice the male and female Shepards.
I feel it’s important to talk about some of the new voice actors who came along for this game. None of them really stood out against the rest of the current and former crew of the Normandy. Freddy Prinze Jr. was the most prominently advertised addition to the Normandy crew because he’s one of the few characters you were guaranteed to have on your crew. While he had some decent moments, he just wasn’t up to the standard of the rest of the cast. Jessica Chobot, a columnist for IGN, would be the most controversial addition to the cast. She plays a war reporter who is embedded aboard the Normandy. Chobot has little dialogue in the game so her slightly wooden performance can be excused. It didn’t help the accusations that EA and/or BioWare insisted that she be cast in the game to garner a favourable review from IGN. (Not that BioWare needed to resort to bribery to ensure a good review.)
The third new actor was William Salyers who replaced Michael Beattie as Mordin Solus. I haven’t read why BioWare changed things up but Salyers just couldn’t find the same joie-de-vie that Beattie had as Mordin. Beattie’s Mordin was easily my favourite character in ME2. If I had Mordin on-board the Normandy full-time, I’m not sure I would’ve visited the less jovial Mordin portrayed by Salyers any more than I did James Vega (Prinze Jr).
The biggest change to the audio is the music. Jack Wall was dropped from Mass Effect after composing the first two games. In his place was noted film soundtrack composer Clint Mansell who led a team of five composers. Well, I say led because he was the most hyped member of the music crew. At first, the change of composers worried me but it turned out to be a great idea. The composers brilliantly intermixed original orchestral work with familiar musical cues from Wall’s work on earlier games to give us something new but anchored in a sort of nostalgia. Fans of Mansell will find his contribution lacking as he only really contributed the song titled Leaving Earth which was reused as part of the final song of the game and as a leitmotif in other moments. The majority of the composing was done by ME veterans Sam Hulick (ME & ME2), Christopher Lennertz (ME2 DLCs Overlord and Lair of the Shadow Broker), and the team of Sascha Dikiciyan & Cris Velasco (ME2 DLCs Kasumi’s Stolen Memory and Arrival). The music sits in the background and doesn’t really jump out at you. However, it does complement the action well without overshadowing it.
Finally, let’s talk about ME3’s story. The story continues the ongoing war of Commander Shepard (assuming he survived the events of ME2) against the Reapers. As with Mass Effect 2, your decisions from the previous games will carry into this game and give you a different experience from someone else who played the game. BioWare claims that over 1,000 decision points from the last two games will be integrated into this game to give each player a unique plot.
Action starts up about six months after the events of the ME2: Arrival DLC. Shepard has returned to Earth and more or less re-enlists in the Systems Alliance Navy. There’s a little diplomatic issue of blowing up a mass relay which destroyed a Batarian colony (or just working for Cerberus, if you didn’t play Arrival) that’s left him under house arrest but uncharged because he’s saved the galaxy a couple of times. Then the Reapers show up to unleash hell which sends you off on your galactic adventure to save everyone’s ass again.
For the rest of the game, you’re taking the Normandy from one star system to the next in order to settle everyone else’s problems so they can join the galactic allied forces in the fight against the Reapers. It’s similar in theme to loyalty missions in ME2 but much more important to the plot of the series. In rallying the galaxy, you’ll visit a couple of familiar places (like the Citadel and Tuchanka) and many more new places (like the home worlds of the Turians, Asari and Salarians). And despite the fact that all sentient life is about to be destroyed by the Reapers, Shepard has some work to do to convince everyone that they have to work together to defeat the Reapers rather than isolating themselves because that will really make a difference. (Four years on, that statement sure seems politically relevant.)
As I noted in the graphics section of the review, the plot tends to be dark with death and destruction following Shepard at every turn. This ranges from the deaths of civilians and soldiers fighting the Reapers to, well, spoilers. More personal than the fight with the Reapers is Shepard’s internal struggle as the demands of being the de facto leader of allied forces and the pain and suffering all around him slowly takes its toll on him.
Mass Effect 3 is another well-told, if slightly shorter (five or so hours shorter than the first two games for me), story from BioWare. The plot’s focus on fighting the Reapers may have something to do with that. The rest of your crew plays far less of a role than in ME2. They demand involvement in certain missions but despite the return of the suicide mission talk, this is Shepard’s story from start to finish.
The biggest problem with the plot, other than the ending, is the other enemy in this game. I would have thought that fighting the Reapers would have been enough to keep the writers (and Shepard) busy but I’d be wrong. I can’t say who else is involved as an enemy without spoiling the game (though I believe that EA did a good job of spoiling this in the trailers). It’s too bad that it doesn’t make any sense in the grand scheme of the trilogy and felt wedged in so you’re not just fighting Reaper forces for the whole of the game.
The mention of the ending brings us, inevitably, to the controversy surrounding the final scenes of the Mass Effect Trilogy. Personally, I thought the Day One DLC (From The Ashes) should have been a bigger controversy because I had to pay an extra $10 for content that was included on the game disc which I paid $60 for. I won’t go into great depth on the ending here because I’m trying to avoid spoilers. However, the finale did leave me more confused than anything else. I didn’t expect to see a summary of everyone else’s lives after making my last decision. I did expect there to be some sort of closure for characters other than Shepard. While this game was almost exclusively Shepard’s story, I would imagine that most players are as emotionally invested in the fate of their squadmates as they are in the fate of their Shepard.
The question then becomes: Does the ending of this game ruin the whole of the rest of the game? I’ve come to think of it as: Do the final ten minutes of this game (though some would argue that the screwed up ending started about 20 minutes from the end of the game) ruin the preceding 1,800 or so minutes of this game and 6,000 minutes of the trilogy?
I’m going to answer that question with a “no.” The ending was confusing but I don’t think that it was so overwhelmingly bad that it ruins the rest of the game. The game was really treated as one long goodbye to this series. The conclusion of Shepard’s story (pre-Extended Cut) isn’t really a point of contention or confusion for me. The conclusion of every other story in the galaxy is what I have an issue. BioWare promised closure in Mass Effect 3 and instead we are left with more questions than answers, especially if you don’t end up with one of the bad endings. The fact that the “bad” endings to the game provide more “closure” and are functionally better endings than the “good” endings is a colossal dropped ball by BioWare. (Unless, of course, you buy into the old indoctrination theory. Remember that?)
The ending screen which says something to the effect of “start a new game or buy some DLCs to continue Commander Shepard’s story” is another massive slap in the face to people who dropped upwards of $200 and 120 hours into the story of Commander Shepard. If the ending itself wasn’t enough to garner EA support to win the title of the worst company in America, saying that you need to buy DLC to get the full Shepard story cemented their place as the most hated company in gaming. Of course, they’ve long since been passed by the likes of Ubisoft and WB but this was incredibly offensive to gamers at the time.
So if the final ten minutes of the ending is not so bad that it completely overwhelms the other 1,800 or so minutes, is this still a well-written game? Absolutely! I don’t think anyone can deny that the first 1,800 minutes of this game is a very well written tale of coping with loss, fighting the odds and hope for the future. The relationships with the other characters you’ve met over the course of three games are wrapped up with the characters you had close contact with in ME2 getting better written send-offs than those from ME1 who only had cameos in ME2. Apart from that ending, the writing overall was better in ME3 than the other two games.
This game is very up and down. Apart from that final ten minutes, the game is superbly written. The gameplay hasn’t been radically overhauled but is still a bit more satisfying than ME2 thanks to increased difficulty and an increase in RPG elements in weapon and character upgrades. The voice acting is still top-notch apart from the noted exceptions. Sure, the multiplayer isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire and I feel more like I want to play that because I’m obligated rather than some great desire to play it but it doesn’t drag the whole game down.
The biggest failing of BioWare might be setting the bar so high with the last two games. That led to such massive expectations for this game. While the occasional plot hole throughout the game can be overlooked, that ending really doesn’t sit well with many people. There’s no such thing as a perfect game but ME3 came about ten minutes away from being very damn close.
Mass Effect 3 was reviewed on PC but is also available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Your impression of the game will change depending on platform played on, PC specs and whether you played the original ending or just skipped straight to the Extended Cut.