Mass Effect 3 is the long-awaited conclusion to a sci-fi epic that had landed on shelves five years ago in 2007. As one of BioWare's biggest IP gambles, its sci-fi opera and detailed backdrop reverberated with players and pulled them deeper into its universe, science and mysteries.
It wasn't without controversy, most of it centered on its gameplay, which blends third-person action with a traditional RPG framework. ME2 surprised fans of the first game by leaning more toward action, gutting some of its RPG elements to appeal to action gamers. Now, with ME3, BioWare has brought back some of those elements for Shepard's big hurrah. Would the series end as dramatically as it began? The answer isn't as simple as I thought it would be.
The way that ME3 began its demo is exactly how it goes down in the full game; it's a surprisingly terse start that doesn't waste any time with introductory fluff, so it's clear that this game is aimed squarely at longtime fans. Newcomers need not apply.
If you've never played Mass Effect before, the story and its characters won't have as much of an impact. A lot of what occurs in ME3 will be best enjoyed by those who have gone through the first two. It would be as if someone who had never watched Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" decided to start with the third installment, expecting to understand the internal struggles in the same light as someone who saw the first two.
The Reapers, a race of intelligent machines, have finally arrived in the galaxy, and Earth is being turned into blackened glass. Shepard, the hero of the first two games, was seen as the guy who kept crying wolf; nearly everyone thought they had enough time to prepare for an unlikely invasion. Now that he's been vindicated in the worst possible way, he must go out into a galaxy at war and find allies who can help turn back the Reapers.
ME3's effort at maintaining continuity is amazing. If you have a save from ME2, you can import it for a huge level bonus and a bunch of skill points to distribute. A rundown of your decisions from the last game are also listed, along with any content from your experience with ME1. If you mined a ton of ore from ME2, the game accounts for that with a cash bonus.
A number of mechanics have been changed up for ME3. The tedious mining from ME2 has been replaced with the ability to "scan" systems for hidden goodies, such as cash or items. While there's still a good amount of side missions, scanning still feel like a soft substitute.
Experience points are awarded after every mission, and side missions tack on even more. No one drops anything other than heat clips that substitute for ammo, and there's an aggravating issue where they tend to disappear, leaving me with nothing until I found some lying around. Weapons have a larger variety of mods, but they're still restricted to two slots. Anyone hoping to customize their party members' appearance or weapons to the degree of ME1 won't find it here.
The skill system has also been tweaked. Skills now have two branches along which you can upgrade, adding a degree of character development that was conspicuously thin in ME2. A large number of weapons are also discovered through the game, providing an incentive to take on as many side-quests as possible. However, the minute differences between most weapons often meant that I didn't bother with many.
Stores hold lots of goods, particularly weapons and upgrades. This also has an odd effect on what you find in the field. If you don't have a Phalanx I pistol, you might find one during a mission. If you have a Phalanx I, you'll probably find a Phalanx II, and so on, so your current inventory dictates what upgrades you find. Instead of the spontaneity of finding a special mod or weapon that might leapfrog your slate of upgrades, loot mostly plods along a set, disappointing path.
If you've missed something on a mission, you can always buy it at a store or at your "Spectre" storefront. It makes sense considering that the game often pulls you out of an area without allowing for a final sweep. When it's time to move on, you must do what the game tells you.
As for the action, the bar is set pretty high for a shooter with RPG elements after Gearbox's Borderlands made nearly every kill count toward something. With ME3, it's difficult to not expect a little of that. On a basic level, ME3 is a decent third-person shooter. If you remember how brain-dead the AI was in ME1 or ME2, ME3 feels like a quantum leap. They've learned that charging into your line of fire is no longer the smartest tactic. Enemies can often display smart decision-making with flanking maneuvers, effectively using cover, deftly dodging your shots, and retaliating with ridiculously accurate grenade throws.
Compared to its peers, ME3's repetitive combat and enemy waves aren't very inspiring. For all of the glorious eye candy that BioWare's gifted artists have invested in the environments, you'll be slugging it out with repetition. It's almost as if ME3 is still trying to decide whether it should compete with the gameplay in Epic's Gears of War or if it wants to stay closer to its remaining RPG elements.
On a technical level, ME3 feels like the shoddiest one. One rampant problem has a character in a scene who is talking and then, a second later, snaps to face a different direction or disappears and then reappears with new dialogue. It's as if some of the transitions between one position and the next didn't quite stitch things together, and it occurred often enough to not be an isolated glitch. Other oddities included a scene ending suddenly, which then shot over to an empty view of a guardrail for about a minute, almost as if it were waiting for it to speak. In another, my Shepard was having a conversation with an NPC, but both were oblivious to the killer alien mites on us.
The addition of multiplayer is a first for the series and makes up for some of the single-player experience's shortcomings, most notably incentives to lift it above being a rote third-person shooter. The action is also squarely focused on team play. Lone wolves have a habit of dying quickly on the battlefield.
BioWare's take can also feel a little thrifty on options. Players are restricted to setting things like the enemy type, difficulty level and map for their public or private game sessions. There is no support for PvP, but that makes sense considering the backstory since N7s don't go around killing each other. Multiplayer modes are fixed on 10 waves that mix together horde survival and objective-based modes. The objectives vary; players may be asked to deactivate four nodes scattered around the map, hold a spot for a certain amount of time by staying inside of it, or assassinate VIPs. The 11th wave is when your team is called to hold out for an extraction, and that's when everything but the kitchen sink is thrown at you.
All of the classes are up for grabs. If you want to play an Adept, Infiltrator, Soldier or Vanguard, you're free to pick and run with any of those — as a human. Not all powers are initially available and can't be customized. They're still as upgradeable as they are in single-player, up to the hard stop at level 20. Characters that are at level 20 can be "promoted"; it's like Modern Warfare's "prestige" system, which resets that class while adding points to your N7 rating. If you want to try additional character types such as an Asari, Drell, Krogan or Quarian, they're locked.
The only way to unlock those characters and their modifications, skills and weapons in this mode are to buy packages from the store. That means you'll be grinding unless you luck out early and get the character you want. Otherwise, there's no other way to pick up another character, weapon mod, or even a weapon outside of sheer chance. If you don't want to grind, you can gamble with real money and purchase the more expensive packages with Microsoft points.
Playing multiplayer also impacts the "Galactic Readiness" rating for each zone of the galaxy. Everything starts at 50 percent and remains that way regardless of what happens in single-player. It also acts as a multiplier for your war assets, which have led to a degree of controversy over whether MP is necessary to get a particular variation on one of endings, depending on your readiness scores.
Despite the shallow options and limits, MP still has enough to recommend it for a spin with friends or strangers online. Again, it's the incentive-based chase for credits and experience used to develop each class that kept it from feeling like a total waste of time, though it's hard to ignore how much less it has to offer against others within its peer group.
ME3 fast-tracks players toward the end. The overall feeling is that there are no more long-term decisions to think over, aside from the ones that affect whether you get certain assets for the war effort. Everything feels self-contained, and a number of decisions made in the last two games are revisited during your journey to the end.
ME3 marks the end of Shepard's story, and not everyone will be happy with it. On the one hand, I'm okay with the end to this arc of the Mass Effect universe, though the journey was clearly better than the destination. Its strengths are also embraced within the moments shared between my Shepard and his former crew. Tear-jerking farewells and new beginnings are part of this emotional, and often deeply rewarding, roller coaster.
On the other hand, the surprisingly weak climax comes off badly after those high notes. The denouement won't answer every question — it will open new ones — and it concludes things in a tired manner. It's as if the game was exhausted after giving players so much and created a deus ex machina to sew up things — though it's not quite as blatant as FFXIII-2's. The supporting framework could have definitely used a second look, though.
Everything else in the prior moments is a shaky patchwork, but it's the ending format that BioWare chose. Anyone who remembers the consequence-filled smorgasbord following Dragon Age: Origins won't get the same delivery here by a long shot. Though it provides multiple endings to Shepard's arc, there is little to set them apart, turning a moment of triumph into one of disappointment. It really is all about the journey.
I picked up the Limited Edition of ME3, which came with the controversial Day One DLC, a Prothean team member who joins you in the single-player game along with a new weapon that seems a bit overpowered. On the other hand, it's probably the most "futuristic" weapon that makes it feel as if you're playing a proper sci-fi shooter. For ME lore hounds, this sounds like a major addition to the game, but I was disappointed to see that it wasn't much of one.
There's a mission that involves finding him. Afterward, you can use him in your party, talk to him about his past, and he'll comment on certain things, such as his surprise at seeing who has finally mastered writing and which race used to be a delicacy 50,000 years ago. It's entertaining, and he's a decent team member with a unique skill. The bad news is that he doesn't have as deep a quest arc as Shale's from Dragon Age: Origins, or even similar to Zaeed's loyalty mission from ME2.
It took me over 40 hours to finish my Shepard's paragon-powered career. Much of that time was spent scanning systems for lost assets and pursuing a majority of the more interesting side missions, though your mileage may vary. It's possible to finish the game in much less time if you only focus on the main quests and do only a few of the sides, but you'll miss out on even more of the story's wrinkles. Finishing the game also teases the impending arrival of even more DLC, which was oddly anticlimactic.
ME3 was a mixed bag for me. In some ways, it comes off as a television or anime series that everyone likes but is forced to put up with the filler episodes for the moments that matter. It offers a confusing conundrum of powerful story elements with an impact that can only be measured against the investment a player has made into the first two games. At the same time, it wraps much of it within uninspired mechanics and an ending that is satisfying on one level while coming up short everywhere else.
In spite of the hollow feeling that I got from pieces of the experience in Mass Effect 3, there is a degree of finality. This chapter is closed, at least in my story, but the universe will doubtlessly continue. Perhaps the most important gauge of ME3's success is how willing I am to look forward to BioWare's next venture.
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