After nearly 30 hours in the company of BioWare's latest and having nearly flung our controller at the TV during its controversial ending, JOE's Mass Effect 3 review is finally here.
Prior to the release of Mass Effect 3, there was a sense that developers BioWare were attempting to provide every single feature that the sci-fi series’ fans had never asked for.
Rather than story trailers or elusive quotes on returning cast members, months went by with the announcements of seemingly unwanted multiplayer options, Kinect functionality and most galling of all, day one paid downloadable content. The suggestion was that BioWare had simply already won over their fans from the incredible goodwill afforded to Mass Effect 2 (JOE’s 2010 Game of the Year) and could line those players' pockets, while introducing gimmicky new gameplay elements to entice newcomers.
Having spent 29 hours in the company of Mass Effect 3 (12 hours less than my completion time for its predecessor), I can safely say that such concerns are valid, but merely irk rather than lessen the entire gaming experience. With the stakes higher than ever before for series protagonist Commander Sherpard and his multicultural ragtag band of heroes, this is a game that aims high from the opening minute and hits its targets more often than not.
The basic storyline of Mass Effect 3 unfolds extremely quickly and can be summed up in just a few lines – the series antagonists, an ancient race known as ‘The Reapers’, have attacked Earth and are seeking to destroy the galaxy by systematically conquering nearby star systems. Your mission is to complete missions to earn the partnership of races, recruit squad members, settle age-old disputes and run pointless Citadel errands throughout the universe in order to build up ‘war assets’ and ultimately boost your ‘Galactic Readiness’ rating,
The “Galactic Readiness” rating – literally, a giant green bar you can access aboard your Normandy vessel – is the game’s equivalent of the classic ‘suicide mission’ third act of Mass Effect 2. The higher that bar goes, the likelier your chance of reaching a satisfying story resolution (no sniggering at the back; we’ll get to the now-infamous Mass Effect 3 ending soon), with every story beat and player decision corresponding to ultimate preparation before taking the Reapers head on.
Cerberus assassin Kai Leng is one of the game's most intriguing new characters
It’s obvious that the idea of saving the entire galaxy and deciding the fate of alien races – rather than merely recruiting one of each for your team, as in Mass Effect 2 – was perceived by BioWare as a surefire concept for Mass Effect 3 to trump the epic scale of its predecessor. Indeed, there will be moments where you will stare at the screen for minutes before making a devastating decision, while Mass Effect 2 squad members are likely to meet heroic ends during your adventure.
This feeling of fear, sacrifice and the face of overwhelming odds permeate throughout the entire experience and makes Commander Shepard’s task seem both insurmountable but vital. From the moment skyscraper-high War of the Worlds’ tripod-resembling Reapers take over Earth, there’s a feeling of helplessness, chaos and the need to strike back as soon and as hard as possible.
Rather than the freeform galaxy traversing of the previous title in the series, Mass Effect 3 essentially unfolds in a straight line, albeit one of the most exciting straight lines you’ve ever seen. With trips to the Asari, Krogan and Quarian home worlds, there’s a sense that we’re glimpsing the planets most vulnerable to the Reapers’ strength, while the fact that each is home to some of the series’ most loved characters lends a feeling of responsibility to our Shepard character that no game can match.
The game also wisely introduces a third element into story proceedings, in the elusive machinations of terrorist organisation Cerberus, seemingly emboldened by the loss of Shepard and potentially playing a dangerous game behind the scenes. While the motivations behind your galaxy-saving exploits are immediate within minutes of firing up your game, those of Cerberus are teased throughout, reaching a dramatically satisfying conclusion later on.
Unfortunately for BioWare, the shadow of Mass Effect 2 and its meaningfulness to gamers casts a long shadow over Mass Effect 3, to the point that depending on your previous series installment save files, every squad mate will reappear, usually by apparent coincidence. While it’s great to see the likes of Thane and Miranda once more, it means that occasionally Mass Effect 3 feels like the conclusion to Mass Effect 2, rather than the stand-alone, epic installment it should be. Perhaps this is the main drawback of BioWare’s highly ambitious decision to carry over save files, yet fan service ultimately muddles the experience.
Speaking of fans, it cannot go unmentioned that the trans-media launch of Mass Effect 3 is one of the most cynical many gamers have experienced. Take for example, the aforementioned Galactic Readiness level. I personally completed nearly every single side mission available in the game, yet it is actually impossible to achieve the game’s two ‘best’ endings without delving into the game’s multiplayer mode for greater XP, or instead giving a small boost from two iOS apps or shelling out €10.00 for the day one downloadable content ‘From Ashes’, which contains a playable character whose backstory is vital to Mass Effect 3’s storyline.
In short, it’s remarkable just how much players’ wallets can be wrung in this game, to the extent that multiplayer survival sessions can be boosted by weapon and item packs– costing up to €1.99 and completely random in their content – which are single-use. That’s right; find yourself saddled with three rubbish human partners for the multiplayer’s wave-based survival mode and that cash could be squandered in just a few minutes.
In the game’s defence, while the multiplayer component’s ‘Horde Mode’ thrills don’t attempt to confound player expectations, it’s still compulsive fun and should still get plenty of play from gamers after they’ve reached Mass Effect 3’s ending.
As for the ending itself, I won’t go into spoiler territory but suffice to say, any game whose ending has inspired Internet-wide protests is sure to result in lowered expectations from players, yet even I was dumbfounded by the Matrix Revolutions-style denouement Mass Effect 3 opts for. When the post-credits screen is an actual prompt from the producers to continue the adventure by purchasing further downloadable content, it’s understandable why BioWare is actually being pushed to create an entirely new ending for disgruntled players.
Thus Mass Effect 3 is at times a misjudged, at times worrisome sequel and one that pales in comparison to the grandstanding success of its predecessor. Yet for at least two thirds of its story mode, it is also blockbuster entertainment, engrossing and genuinely moving. Mass Effect fans should seek out the dramatic conclusion to this generation’s greatest RPG series, though their expectations and wallets will certainly need to be re-aligned beforehand.
Format: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Developer: BioWare; Publisher: EA