After nearly five years, Commander Shepard’s mission to save the galaxy has finally concluded with Mass Effect 3. The game is an absolute triumph, and it succeeds on nearly every possible level. As I’m sure you’re aware, there is somewhat of a heated debate among the online community regarding parts of the game. I’ll definitely get into that in a bit. This is going to be a bit lengthy, so I’m going to split the review into two parts. This first part here will be the main review of the game, and I’ll do my best to keep it as spoiler-free as possible. The second part will tackle the more controversial aspects of the game, specifically the ending.
ME3 picks up approximately six months after the events of the Arrival DLC from Mass Effect 2. Commander Shepard is now on Earth, at Alliance HQ in Toronto, and has been removed from active duty. The commander is summoned to an emergency meeting with top Alliance officers. They inform Shepard that they have been steadily losing contact with their outposts, and blackouts seem to show a systematic pattern heading towards Earth. As Shepard tries to explain – yet again – that the Reapers are indeed very real and will stop at nothing to destroy all organic life in the galaxy, one of the comm techs reports they’ve lost contact with Luna Base (the Alliance outpost on Earth’s moon). Just like that, Reaper forces jump out of light speed directly in Earth’s atmosphere. The Reaper invasion has begun, and it’s even more brutal than anyone could have imagined. Shepard manages to fight through the shock troops and reach the Normandy, and is reinstated by Admiral Anderson for one final mission: go to the Citadel, tell the other races what’s happening, gather every ship and soldier available, and bring them all back to Earth to make a final stand against the Reapers.
I feel like it’s best to just get the negatives out of the way first here. No game is truly perfect, and ME3 does have a few shortcomings. The most glaring issue would be the journal system. For ME3, the journal and the codex have been merged into one menu. All main quests, side quests, and completed quests are combined into one gigantic list. This especially makes completing side quests a little more troublesome, as you no longer actually talk to NPC’s to obtain them. If you happen to overhear a snippet of conversation somewhere, it will add a side quest to your journal. I found myself having to check back frequently to see if I’d opened any new missions, and then try to puzzle out who gave it to me and what I needed to do. Unlike the previous games, which told you who wanted what, where to get it, and where to take it when you find it, ME3 basically tells you “keep an eye out for this, because this guy wants it”. Considering every other Bioware game does a really good job with the quest journal, this change was somewhat confusing.
Another point of frustration is the over-usage of the A button (for Xbox 360 controllers, I’d imagine it’s the same for X on PS3). That poor button is worked to death and used for everything. It is responsible for interacting with items in the environment, opening doors, activating swiches, picking up gear, running, sprinting, taking cover, dodging, hurdling terrain, and reviving fallen teammates. The problems are negligible in the single-player campaign, but become apparent in multiplayer where there is an urgent need to be able to revive your squad. I’ve suffered countless deaths while trying to heal a fallen ally and instead sticking to cover on the wrong side of a wall, surrounded by enemies. There’s also been plenty of times when I’ve tried to dodge an incoming rocket by diving for cover, only to hurdle over a short wall right into its path (both actions require double-tapping the button). It’s not game-breaking by any means, but suffering cheap deaths like that is always going to raise a gamer’s ire.
I also had a minor gripe with the weapon system. Nobody really seemed to enjoy the chaotic inventory from the first game. Then, people complained that it became over-simplified for the sequel. ME3 uses the same weapons from ME2, each with their own base stats that lean either towards high damage or high ammo capacity. However, this time each weapon can be upgraded up to 10 times. I felt like it took me too much out of the game to have to remember to go down to the armory between missions and purchase upgrades for all my weapons. That’s not even getting into the weapon mods and all their upgrades. I like the idea of adding back some customization options for the guns, but I felt like the execution was a bit clunky.
Now that that’s all out of the way, we can talk about where the game excels. Honestly, that would be pretty much everything else. The combat controls (other than some infrequent issues mentioned before) are tighter than ever. I know this will bristle some of the hardcore RPG fans, but ME3 plays like a well-polished third-person shooter. Despite no longer needing to pull up the action wheel to pause combat and choose abilities, I still found myself using it frequently to analyze the battlefield and formulate a plan. This becomes extremely helpful later in the game, because the enemy AI got a hefty upgrade. Opposing forces will utilize cover, lay down suppressing fire to advance, bunker down in advantageous, elevated positions, drop smoke grenades to conceal their movement, throw frag grenades to keep you from camping in any specific spot, move to flank you in an exposed area, and fortify their positions in an attempt to draw you into a kill zone.
Even on the normal difficulty setting, firefights have a sense of urgency and real danger that never came across in the previous games. It makes sense, considering whether you’re shooting it out with Cerberus, the Geth, or Reaper forces, you’re going up against the best, deadliest fighting forces the galaxy has to offer. In the later levels, surviving these encounters provides a satisfying feeling of accomplishment.
Everybody’s least favorite part of ME2, planet scanning and resource mining, has been streamlined almost to the point of being bare-bones. This is actually for the best. You’ll no longer find yourself jumping from system to system and scanning every planet for resources. A quick button tap will scan the immediate area of the map. If a planet has a resource available, it will become highlighted. At that point, your scanner will direct you right to the item you need. To balance out the simplicity, if you scan too many times, Reaper forces will swarm the system and force you to flee until you complete a different mission.
Scanning for resources and completing these side quests also doesn’t feel like as much of a chore as it did in ME2. Towards the end of that game, with the gravity of the situation at hand, it felt a little silly to be running around playing courier and solving people’s daddy issues. In ME3, every mission and side quest ties directly into your overall mission. Each completed mission, quest, side quest, and discovered resource feeds into your Effective Military Strength, which is a measure of how big the army is that you’ve assembled, and how likely you are to successfully fight back the Reaper invasion. Exposition throughout the game reinforces that it will take the Reapers several years to completely take Earth, Alliance forces are holding them back as much as they can, and they will continue to do so for as long as it takes you to assemble your fleet and launch your counterattack.
This leads to the heart of the matter. The story itself is the best of the entire series. Mass Effect has always been an epic space opera, but in the finale everything is ratcheted up to the highest degree. The stakes have never been greater, and everything you do has that certain gravity to it. Every decision you make will condemn people to death, even ones you know and love. There are no “best” options to ensure everybody lives and everybody is happy.
Even while trying to save the galaxy from a threat that can no longer be denied, Shepard still has to fight against political maneuvering and every race’s own instincts of self-preservation. At first, each species is only concerned with saving themselves and their home worlds. Throughout the course of the story, Shepard has to show the galaxy that not only can they put aside their past grievances and work together, but that it’s the only chance they all have to stop the Reapers. Even the game’s staunchest critics will admit that all the action leading up to the conclusion is utterly amazing.
You have to give the people what they want!
I would be remiss to not mention the multiplayer feature of ME3. Bioware’s take on the Horde Mode archetype is extremely addictive. The most brilliant thing, from the developer’s standpoint, is the credit system. Rather than earning new weapons and classes strictly through leveling, each successful mission earns credits which can be exchanged for equipment packs. This adds a collectible card game feel to the multiplayer, with each pack containing common, uncommon, and possibly rare items. Not only does this keep players coming back again and again to try to unlock a specifically coveted feature (mine was a Krogan soldier, which took probably 30 packs to finally get), but packs can also be purchased with MS points. I can’t lie. I’ve probably spent $30 just to unlock new packs. I’m sure thousands of other players have gladly done the same. It’s a smart business model, and I don’t mind it one bit. More than anything, that’s probably due to how much fun it is to team up with three of your friends for a few hours and fight endless waves of enemies.
I think the highest praise I can offer is that ME3 is the first game that has truly let me experience its narrative on an emotional level. Over the 50 hours I spent on the campaign, I felt genuine sorrow, anger, regret, and even a few bits of joy. Leading up to the experience, I played through both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 again. To enjoy the complete story, from beginning to end with no interruptions, is one of the most powerful gaming experiences ever created.
Mass Effect 3 is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It makes solid, tangible improvements on nearly every aspect of its predecessor. The story is top-notch, powerful, and never drags on with filler. And, despite what other people may say, it provides a fitting end to the tale of the legendary Commander Shepard.
Continued on Page 2, with minor-ish spoilers and thoughts on the game’s controversial ending