Game: Mass Effect 3
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Version: Patched and with Extended Ending DLC
I’ve just completed a very long journey. I’ve fought in a war on an enormous scale. I’ve experienced the joy of great victories and the devastation of terrible defeats. I’ve seen brave heroics and horrific acts of evil. I’ve made tough decisions, so many tough decisions, with consequences that weren’t always easy to live with. I’ve seen cultures unite and civilisations fall. I’ve shared tender moments with close companions and watched on in sorrow as good friends died. I’ve experienced extremes of emotion rarely provoked by a piece of art. In short, I’ve just played Mass Effect 3.
Mass Effect 3 is, of course, the third part of Bioware’s excellent sci-fi RPG series and the final game following Commander Shepard and her/his battle against the Reapers. I’m not going to go into too much detail about what the series is about, since really I’d expect anyone interested in this game to have at least knowledge of the previous ones. The game is set up to be accessible to new players who haven’t played the earlier games and it will make assumptions about decisions made in the previous chapters for you in a way that makes it easier to understand. Ultimately though, it’s the people who have followed the series through from the beginning who will get the most out of it, and if you’ve yet to play Mass Effects 1 and 2 then now is the perfect time to get the full series.
ME3 follows a similar structure to that of the second game, but on a much larger scale. Where the second game saw you travelling around the galaxy recruiting individual team members to join you in your battle to prevent the creation of a new Reaper, this third entry has you travel around the galaxy recruiting entire species in a war against a full scale Reaper invasion. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that portrays the feeling of being in the middle of a conflict of this size so well. You genuinely feel like your actions have huge consequences for the whole galaxy and the war impacts virtually every interaction you make and every location you visit. One of the most impressive things about the game is the way it incorporates the decisions you’ve made previously into the story. Lots of actions, even minor ones, are referenced during the game, but I was a good way into the game before I realised that many of the major characters in the game could very easily have died a game or two ago. Those players who did lose characters will find their roles played by brand new characters in ME3 and surprisingly they mostly have completely different personalities and don’t feel like just a clone of the dead former companion. The way the game fits in these plot changes is completely invisible and you’d never guess while playing that the story could be any other way. It’s one of the most successful attempts at this sort of thing I’ve seen.
In gameplay terms, not a lot has changed since Mass Effect 2. The actual combat missions play out mostly like a third person shooter. You’ve got a choice of weapons of five different types, comprising the usual array of sniper rifles, submachine guns and shotguns. Slightly different to most shooters, and to the previous game, is that you can limit yourself to certain weapon types of take up to one of each, but weapons have weight and the more you carry the slower your powers take to recharge. Biotic powers work in basically the same way as before: you can press a key to bring up a selection screen while pausing the game or you can use shortcut keys for quick access to them. The cover system works quite well. Hitting the cover key will stick you to the nearest surface and pressing the aiming button allows you to pop out and aim over or around the cover. Probably the most significant flaw in the combat surfaces here though. The cover key is bizarrely the same as the sprint key, and the number of times I’ve died in the game because of this is slightly too high. An enemy would be getting slightly too close and I’d try to run away quickly to hide, only for the game to stick me to a wall directly in the line of fire. Its most significant impact is on the multiplayer (which I’ll talk about later), especially since that same cover/sprint key is also the use key meaning when trying to activate devices I’ll often find myself bobbing up and down behind the terminal rather than actually using it. Oh, and the same key is also used to roll out of the way too.
The planetary scanning which was so tedious in the second instalment has been simplified and improved for the third game. Now, rather than having to scan the entire surface of every planet to collect minerals, you only scan planets that have something specific on them. Instead, you have a scanning pulse that you can activate on the solar system map. As you move your ship around the map and activate the pulse, any planets or other areas of space with something of use on them highlight and you can go and collect them pretty much straight away. You have to plan things out carefully though, since every scan you do raises the chance that the Reapers will detect you and come after you, at which point you have to escape their ships quickly. After this point, the Reapers will remain there until after you’ve completed another mission. It’s a shame that scanning never leads to additional missions like it occasionally did before, but at least it’s not a long drawn out process this time. Outrunning the Reapers is always quite easy so the scanning is fairly pain free, if a little simplistic. It at least makes you feel like you’re doing a bit more for the war effort since most of the things you locate through scanning are new war assets, which are vital to success at the game’s conclusion. You’ll basically have to scan as many of these as possible if you want to ensure you have enough for the final confrontation.
The main focus of the game though is on the story and especially on the characters. This is where Bioware always excel themselves. There are some new characters here but most of the pleasure in the interactions comes from meeting up with many of the people you’ve worked with in the previous two games, which is why the game just wouldn’t work as well if you haven’t played them. Conversations are done extremely well and the dialogue options have improved so that it’s usually clear what the intention behind the line is before you select it. This saves the occasional moments I had in the previous game where I’d end up having to reload because the option I’d selected turned out to be completely different to what I actually wanted to say. The game actually has various options available at the start and you can choose to play a mode without conversation options, though I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do this.
Romance is another returning feature. Any relationships from previous games can be resumed or one can be started with one of the new characters. The long term romances are obviously more rewarding and feel more intimately written since there’s so much happening in the game that the relationships with the new characters can feel a bit rushed. On the other hand, I have to praise Bioware for finally including openly homosexual characters this time round as opposed to simply heterosexual characters and ones who’ll go either way. This time there’s a pilot called Steve Cortez and a Comm Specialist called Samantha Traynor available as romantic options for male and female players respectively. Most importantly, their sexuality is treated as perfectly normal by everyone else, and is not treated as a defining feature of their personality. Cortez is grieving over the loss of his husband and Traynor’s preference is hinted at but they’re treated as believable characters without the writers feeling the need to focus on these aspects. And all this in spite of campaigning from the usual homophobic morons who can’t cope with anyone different to themselves. In general though the most rewarding relationships in the game are the ones that have built up over the series and so feel more meaningful. My initial relationship was with Kaidan resumed from the first game, (Commander Shepard is a woman, I don’t know who that male impostor is in the marketing for the game) and thanks to events in the second game it can be a bit rocky at times but feels more like a series of realistic interactions than a one-dimensional love story.
During the game, you have to make some of the toughest decisions to be found in an RPG. Often you’ll have to choose between the lesser of two evils in order to progress. You could be in a situation where two people or groups of people are in danger and you know that saving one would result in the death of the other, but the decision has to be made. It makes it feel like the sort of decisions a commander would have to make in a conflict like this. It’s not easy, but that fact itself shows how drawn into the story you can get while playing.
Completely new to ME3 is the multiplayer mode Galaxy at War. This allows you to take part in four player cooperative missions, supposedly battles that are part of the war from the single player game. Mass Effect is primarily a single player game still and that’s how I will mostly be judging it, but this mode needs to be mentioned for various reasons, both good and bad.
Multiplayer modes tend to be tacked on to games these days whether they need them or not. Often they’re poorly thought out and rushed. At first glance the Galaxy at War mode seems to fall directly into this category. There’s a variety of different maps to play through but they’re mostly just reused maps from missions in the main game. Each game features ten progressively harder waves of enemies of any one of the four featured opponent races, followed by a final defence round while waiting for extraction. On certain rounds, rather than simply throwing waves of enemies at you, the game also sets one of five different objectives. These are basic things such as activating or deactivating four devices, escorting a drone or assassinating certain highlighted enemies, all within a time limit. After a couple of games you’ll probably have already seen all of the possible objectives so it’s understandable that the game initially feels rather slim and underdeveloped.
It’s also quite difficult to get started. At first you’ll only have a basic level 1 character with only weak abilities and the basic weapons that do little damage. Trying to start on a private server and playing with just two people for practice before joining the public revealed that the game doesn’t seem to scale in difficulty to cater for the number of players, so unless you have the full complement then you could well struggle. Even Borderlands managed to scale its battles to the number of people in the game. There are a few details that the game doesn’t really bother to tell you too, such as the fact that in one of the levels where it rains, your shields are drained automatically until you get inside. I spent a couple of minutes thinking the game was bugged and something had gone wrong before I realised this. Also, for one of the objectives where you have to pick up a package and carry it to the extraction point, you have to walk otherwise it is automatically dropped, which again you have to discover for yourself.
Perseverance pays off surprisingly well though. Get through a couple of nights to increase your character’s level and to obtain and level up your abilities, get onto a public server with three other people and the game proves to be far more enjoyable than you’d initially expect. The combat works in the same way as in the single player game and adapts very well to a pure action game, aside from the occasional problem with the cover and sprint actions being assigned to the same key as mentioned earlier. Cooperative play is encouraged well by the design, and if you’re taken down (aside from some of the boss creatures with annoying instakill moves) you get a few seconds to either heal yourself with medi-gel if you have any or for a teammate to come and heal you. In my experience many players will go out of their way to save a dying player, no matter their skill level.
The maximum level of a character is 20 but once you’ve maxed out one there are many others available. All the classes from single player are available, from pure fighting classes to engineers and biotic specialists. Each of these is available for a variety of different races and each class/species combination has a different set of three abilities. The races themselves have different characteristics that can affect the way you play. Some of the less flexible aliens might not be able to bend to take cover or dive out of the way, where in contrast the Drell are incredibly acrobatic and can somersault around the battlefield.
At the start you only have humans available, any alien race has to be purchased before you can use them. The same goes for weapons and any equipment you might want to take into battle. Unfortunately, you can’t actually buy specific items that you might want. You have to buy packs in which you get a set of five (or in one case ten) random items. These range from the cheap basic packs to stock up your medi-gel and basic equipment to very expensive ones that increase your chances of getting new characters or weapons. You gain credits from completing missions though it takes quite a few games to make enough for one of the more expensive packs. You can also buy them for real money. I don’t mind this too much since everything is available within the game without having to pay for it, but when combined with certain other features it becomes a bit unpleasant.
This brings us to the dark side of the multiplayer mode. The fact is that the multiplayer mode has been linked into the single player. Within the game, in addition to the war assets that you collect you also have a combat readiness rating which by default is set to 50%. Whatever value of war assets you have is multiplied by the readiness rating. The only way to increase this rating is by playing multiplayer missions. So while someone who enjoys the co-op mode could get a rating of 100% anyone who doesn’t play it at all needs to find twice as many assets. This is easily possible now with the patch, but before patching it was impossible to get the best ending without increasing readiness, which is absolutely inexcusable. I think the fact that the item packs can be bought with real money as well in game money was a motivation to try to force people to play it, along with the fact that people who bought the console version of the game pre-owned had to pay extra to get access to the multiplayer mode. (On PC it’s even worse, since it installs through EAs awful Origin software linking in to your user account meaning you wouldn’t even be able to play a second hand copy.) And it’s a good job that you can get enough assets without multiplayer now, otherwise it would mean in a few years’ time when no-one else is playing multiplayer it would be impossible to get the perfect ending.
The ending of the main game caused some controversy on release, with a set of three nearly identical endings and with the fate of some characters left unexplained. I review games on whether they’re worth playing though, and this has all been fixed in a free DLC pack and the endings I’ve seen have been a perfect conclusion to the series, so I’m not going to penalise it for problems that it no longer has. Everything culminates in a final decision that, in keeping with the series in general, refuses to offer a simple good or bad choice and instead gives you three alternatives that each have their positive and negative sides. It might not have the perfect happy ending, but then what war does?
Most other flaws not already mentioned are fairly minor. For example, when walking around the Citadel you’ll overhear people having conversations and each time you return you’ll hear the next part of it, but once the conversation is completed many of them then return back to the start all over again. There are conversations that I’ve heard play out in full five times which is a bit distracting and pulls you out of the game. I heard a conversation with a soldier requesting a transfer to a different assignment and having it granted three times over, so apparently they must have kept reassigning him back again or something. Also, a couple of times in the cockpit I found myself stuck to the spot and unable to move, but surprisingly this is the only bug I can remember encountering, which is quite impressive considering the amount of different options the game has to cater for. None of the small niggles affect the game in any significant way. Mass Effect 3 is the conclusion to one of the greatest epics in the gaming world and is well worth your time.
Save System Review: Save anywhere except while in direct combat, including quicksave. The only time this changes is in the final mission, when saving is disabled for extended periods of time for some reason, but it’s not a big issue. The game still autosaves regularly throughout this.
Graphics: The graphics are fine throughout the game with some of the scenes on war torn planets looking particularly spectacular. It’s nothing groundbreaking but it looks good.
Sound: Excellent voice acting throughout, appropriate sound effects and a great score. Nothing wrong here.
Bugs: All I really noticed was the couple of times when I got stuck to the spot on the bridge. Nothing serious.
Gameplay: Great combat and tough decisions make this one of the finest RPG experiences around.
Storyline: A powerful story focussed on characters as much as action. A conclusion to a truly epic story.
Arbitrary Final Score:
A fitting conclusion or has the game finally reached critical mass? (Sorry, I couldn't avoid the pun this time.) Tell us on our forum!