With a conclusion ultimately somber, fitting and flawed, Mass Effect 3 memorably concludes a benchmark in game design as an art-form and pound-for-pound, medium-for-medium sci-fi storytelling.
Consider that significance a moment: even such an imperfect coda as this, destined to be remembered by many as closing a landmark trilogy with the saga’s weakest overall installment, will still rank appropriately among the year’s best titles. It’s a testament both to what a crowning overall achievement BioWare’s hallmark series has completed, and to every reason this need be where everything truly ends.
There’s precious little that can be said about the story without chancing egregious spoilers. Commander Shepard begins the game on Earth, giving testimony before the Alliance council that the Reapers are more real and more a threat than legends foretell, but that they’ll soon stake a claim for Earth and wipe out all organic life in their path. No sooner has he finished his warning, then the Reapers indeed make their presence felt with a shower of glass and shrapnel that leaves Shepard and longtime comrade General Anderson the last two men standing in the room.
One tutorial firefight along ledges and debris later, Shepard finds himself “reinstated” as an Alliance commander and bound once more for the N7 Normandy.
Take my word for it, nearly nothing has just been spoiled.
The tutorial adequately highlights every combat mechanic BioWare tweaked. Playing an imported Mass Effect 2 save that I converted from balanced “Soldier” to stealthy “Infiltrator,” the enhanced slickness of Shepard’s movement along and transitioning between cover felt immediately liberating. Shepard can now transition much more effectively between cover objects with a directional tilt on the left analog stick and a press of the Circle button. He can also now be vaulted/slid manually over low cover and steps while missing nary a beat.
Mass Effect 2 has few flaws, but chief among them, running and gunning under fire often presented a suicidal proposition. The dodge-roll addition was indispensable in honing my class’ evasive-maneuvering emphasis, but it could’ve been better mapped than to the same button that sends Shepard into cover. Sure, the two actions are context-specific depending upon Shepard’s position. That doesn’t mean it won’t set up at least one or two catastrophic debacles mid-combat when one misjudges that position, expects Shepard will duck behind a short wall, and instead finds him futilely somersaulting before standing right back into the line of heavy fire.
A major melee improvement also opens up new and more balanced playing-style possibility. Rushing enemies and beating them down manually no longer remains solely the domain of the “Vanguard” class. Oh, no. The addition of a heavy-melee Omni-tool blade executed by merely holding Circle – and capable of wiping out unarmored/unshielded enemies with a single blow – creates a more versatile gunplay-melee balance. That’s that much easier to appreciate when considering that Reaper husks make up at least one-fourth of the encountered enemies, and it’s actually far more practical (and time-saving, actually) to pistol-whip them than to waste thermal clips perforating them.
Even the weapon load-out has been rendered more dynamic. With weapon weight now a variable, the more total weight in weapons a squad member carries, the slower biotic powers recharge. It keeps things sporting, by ensuring that a formidable biotic won’t also be packing an arsenal that would make Rambo wet himself, but that a soldier packing some serious heat won’t also use powers too overwhelmingly. For more effective biotics, carry fewer or simply lighter weapons. For more firepower….well, you get the idea.
Paring down the grind of mining for resources has been taken too far in a well-meaning direction. Mass Effect 2’s constant meticulous scanning of planets for resources has been scaled back to scanning with a single button-press as the Normandy passes through clusters. Scan too often in a system populated by Reapers, and Reaper ships will come tear the Normandy a new one, but that’s but a minor inconvenience with no significant stakes.
Sure, it strips away busy-work, but with less to do and virtually no equivalent to level-grinding between missions, it makes for a thinner game that feels less involved. Sure, Shepard can pick up on new side-quest opportunities via overheard conversations on the Citadel, but it still just doesn’t feel like there’s as much to do.
All of that being said, for better or worse, the game still plays magnificently despite a noticeably more shallow pool of enemies. Shepard and squad will spend virtually the entire game combatting nothing but Reapers and/or Cerberus operatives. In stark contrast, Shepard spent Mass Effect 2 perpetually in the sights of some combination of the Collectors, Blood Pack, Blue Suns or Eclipse. But a handful of foes ever come across as formidable. Banshees – Reaper-converted Asari – are strong enough to be absolute Hell, especially during the final push through war-torn London streets to the Reaper Harbinger when they’re sometimes encountered two-at-a-time and can hardly be beaten without some effective squad command. Phantoms are aggravatingly agile Cerberus ninjas that can easily get behind Shepard and wipe the Commander out with a single fell swoop. There’s little effective strategy sometimes, except backpedal and keep shooting.
Otherwise, though enjoyable, the combat still starts feeling stale as firefights quickly stop presenting new challenges.
Cooperative multiplayer makes itself a fine series debut here, with the mode currently spanning but six maps confronting enemies in ever-strengthening waves, yet with the opportunity to use co-op mode to unlock abilities and items that deepen the single-player experience. It’s only fitting that such a synergistic series would mine the very last depths it hadn’t touched to give its finale one last dimension.
Most unexpectedly, this presents some glitchy graphics and audio for a BioWare release. The PlayStation 3 version – i.e., the one I reviewed – did have some aggravating framerate issues. There were also intermittent moments when audio dropped out entirely for up to a second mid-game. Again, it doesn’t create mechanical issues, but glitches like that still take one a bit out of the experience. That’s truly a shame, because the game is otherwise constantly visually arresting with once-more superb voice acting.
Though nothing about the Mass Effect trilogy should ever be more fondly recalled than the execution of the story and its overall depth of character development, it’s tragically where Mass Effect 3 often disappoints most. Shepard is frequently relegated here to Alliance diplomat and go-between. At least in Mass Effect 2, when not in battle, Shepard was still balancing the stakes of the journey almost exclusively among the crew on board the Normandy while betwixt destinations. Here, our hero will spend arguably as much time bargaining with Council brass, mercenary leaders and others while meandering about the Mall of America-looking Citadel as he/she does under fire. As a result the frequent and ultimately mandatory Citadel visits become anchors dragging down the imminent Reaper threat’s imposed sense of urgency. Shepard must scratch this person’s back so that person will scratch his/hers. Doing so means being a middle man between Individual A and Individual B. And ultimately, whatever actions Shepard chooses, the end result rarely changes. Though sometimes pivotal within the previous installment, the Paragon-versus-Renegade karmic quandary is reduced here to little more than a matter of the player’s vanity.
Familiar faces will show up throughout the game, often in roles that, though small, allow a final collective bow that brings their pivotal roles in the saga some closure. Unfortunately, Garrus, Ashley and Liara will be the only previous squad-mates given active, playable roles here – with the many possible outcomes branched down from two substantially long and open-ended games with many fates possible, to include many more would’ve indeed been a logistical nightmare.
Even then, some important things are wrapped up well enough. Mordin gains ultimate redemption for his role in nearly dooming the Krogan race in a surprisingly wrenching moment. Speaking of the Krogan, at the risk of a spoiler, Wrex does seemingly meet the only destiny befitting a true stout-hearted Krogan. Sympathetic Geth sniper Legion redeems his entire race – at a price – while revealing unto Shepard amid a level reminiscent of some throw-away Portal design the truth of the Geth’s origins and the very good reasons they’ve long sought Quarian extinction.
It’s all well and good….right up until the ending.
The manner in which BioWare chose to close this saga after such an established and celebrated motif of choice and consequence is baffling. To be the bearer of extraordinarily bad news, nearly every choice players have made across probably multiple play-throughs each of two substantially engrossing and lengthy games will ultimately prove absolutely meaningless. That’s right. Nothing you’ve done will ultimately matter. The Mass Effect 2 cast largely achieves their respective closures, but everybody else should be so lucky.
Spoilers will be avoided as much as possible, but Earth’s fate comes down to the guiding Shepard down either a left path or right path following a confrontation in Earth’s orbit with a millennia-old A.I. known as The Catalyst. Whichever the player chooses ultimately makes absolutely no difference. There is a slight variation possible, should Shepard rally adequate battle resources before taking the fight back to Earth and if he/she chooses what I’ll only call the “Destroy” option.
That being said, nothing impacts anybody else. The Normandy crew’s fate doesn’t hinge upon any decision made in-game whatsoever. Whoever you romance, lives. And to be perfectly honest, if you pay close enough attention to the dialogue particularly with Garrus, Shepard’s fate is foreshadowed a solid hour or two before the game even ends and starts feeling increasingly more likely the further and further one plays.
Why? It makes absolutely no sense. Mass Effect 2 provided such a sense of meticulous care and consideration for choices, and it ultimately paid off some way or another with certain moves drastically impacting the ending – and as a result, if players imported that game’s save files into Mass Effect 3, how this game unfolded up until the ending. But once the final battle comes, it might as well be as if Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 were never played at all.
That’s fine for the people picking up the series with this title. It’s an insult to people who invested considerable time and, yes, emotion into the preceding two-thirds of the Mass Effect legacy.
Mass Effect is a saga built upon consequence. This tentpole franchise deserves better. It’s built upon an unfolding story that is an endurance trial sometimes in the tradition of the Lord Of The Rings anthology, but one that has always left its fans grasping for their emotionally-bereft breaths by the end. This one feels abrupt, truncated and too open-ended for something so proudly touted as a farewell to such a gripping saga of conflict, personal sacrifice and thinly-veiled social commentary.
It’s largely a satisfying experience, and a must-play for veterans to see the journey through to its conclusion. There’s hope that perhaps upcoming downloadable content will expand the experience, but if it ends up being nicked-and-dimed add-on missions that finally provide a satisfying wrap-up, BioWare will have ultimately betrayed perhaps this gaming generation’s most rabid, devoted fan-base.
(NOTE: Review also appears at http://www.examiner.com/playstation-in-phoenix/mass-effect-3-concludes-trilogy-not-with-closure-but-fan-betrayal-review)