Mass Effect 3 Review
Back when Mass Effect was being shown at E3 back in 2007, Canadian studio BioWare - before they were bought and made a subsidiary of EA - didn't seem like they were cemented so well as the legends of game design as they are today. Sure, they'd created classics like Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, but that was no guarantee of future success. With a game called Dragon Age still years from release and with no other projects on the horizon, BioWare pitched us a new sci-fi universe called Mass Effect that tried to go where LucasArts wouldn't let them explore with Knights. The turn-based combat core of their last couple RPGs was ditched, and for the first time since MDK2 a decade before, a BioWare game not only took place entirely in real-time, but it also required players to flex their action-gaming skills by aiming a crosshair. The prospect of all this was a little iffy back in those days, but since the release of Mass Effect, BioWare has been perfecting their own brand of action-RPG - the kind with lots of shooting in it - and have slowly worked this budding trilogy into one of the biggest franchises this generation.
With Mass Effect 3, BioWare shows a near mastery of everything they learned in the first two games. They've got the impressive and satisfying shooter combat of ME2 with a new, slicker feel that makes this an even better action game, and they've brought back many of the RPG elements that fans of ME1 missed in the move to the second game. Throw this all on the backdrop of a massive galactic invasion by a seemingly unkillable enemy, and this easily becomes BioWare's most ambitious Mass Effect yet. It may not have the sheer landmass of their just-released MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic and it might not stand the test of time quite the way simpler, more focused games like Knights or the original two Baldur's Gate titles did, but it's still a wonderful game with tons of content, great production values, a masterful eye for humor and drama, and a cast of lovable characters that BioWare has been carefully slow-playing for the last four-plus years.
After spending most of a week playing a review copy of the 360 version of the game, I switched over to PC and have spent a good sixteen-plus hours on it. I've experienced the game both on Normal difficulty on 360 with a brand new game, and on Insanity on PC with a save that was imported from full playthroughs of both previous games. Coming out of that, I am convinced that anyone wanting to get the most out of ME3 must play the first two games. For some reason, creating a new save causes the game to ask you very few questions about what happened in the past, and in some cases simply assumes the worst-case scenario. While doing this may help new players not feel so much like they're coming in halfway through a story (or two-thirds in this case), I can't help but think that substituting some of the series' best characters with inferior stand-ins doesn't really help.
On top of this, many of the small events and some of the best, most insightful conversations that can happen in ME3 (most of which come from completing side-quests and the like in the first two games) simply will not trigger if you do not import a game. The fate of some recurring side characters will simply not be brought up, and while those who never played won't know any better, they're also getting a very slightly shallower game. I do wish BioWare had created some kind of extra option for even new players to generate a fully-populated set of import data that covers all of the things stored in an ME2 savegame.
As before, you choose either male or female Commander Shepard, and as I've said in the reviews for the previous two games, if you can even remotely fathom for one second in your mind that playing a female character in a video game is acceptable, then this is the game where you do that. Male Shepard actor Mark Meer, bless his heart, is simply not as good of an actor as his FemShep counterpart, Jennifer Hale, and this becomes evident in nearly every single spoken line when you compare the two versions of Shepard. Some people simply can't handle the notion of playing a female character in a game when a male is available, and I actually kind of pity them in this particular instance, because Female Commander Shepard is just that much better. I won't go so far as to say that ME3 is a bad game when Mark Meer's got voice duties, but it's ... just not nearly as good. (Apologies to Mark, who I hear is an awesome guy whenever fans meet him.)
I'll try to be vague about Mass Effect 3's very basic plot so as to avoid spoilers. The Reapers are here to wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy, and Shepard needs to collect resources and convince the races of the Council - and a few others outside official political channels - to get together and fight off the menace. To this end, Shepard gets mired in a lot of people's drama, so this isn't a game where the vast majority of the time is spent locked in combat with Reapers and the many new enemies BioWare has invented for this game. You'll be doing that regularly, but you'll still spent a ton of time exploring, talking, and making some very human decisions. Despite what the advertising for ME3 makes it seem like, no, BioWare did not turn their franchise into a mindless, bro-fist shooter specially made for college dorms. If you liked the story, plot choices, characters, and attitudes of the first two games, I think you'll be very happy with this third game.
While I have previously defended BioWare's choice in ME2 of streamlining away RPG elements like inventory management and talent choices, it's become clear to me with this third game that there was definitely some kind of better middle ground between RPG and action. On the RPG side, Shepard and crew have more powers to choose to put points into when leveling up, and players will have to choose between two variations of power upgrades on the last few points for each power. They'll have to make more tough choices on the equipment side, too - weapons are quite distinct when comparing power, weight, capacity, firing patterns, and more, and each gun has two mod slots. There are several "levels" of each gun and for each of the mods you can install into guns, and while we still cannot configure squadmate armor like we did back in ME1, Shepard's own equipment choices have been expanded quite a bit. This way, ME3 can avoid forcing players to flip through hundreds of items in a rather laborious inventory screen, but it doesn't feel like the depth has been stripped away so much just to accomplish that.
There are a few other tweaks to the RPG core that I think players will appreciate. Sometimes it's just simple stuff, like the return to RPG basics: getting experience points in the middle of a mission (mostly for objectives completed and items collected, not monsters killed), having the larger amount of loot to pick up that is sometimes squirreled away in a secret area, and a more natural progression when finishing a mission to returning to your ship. No more video-gamey "Mission Complete" screen!
On the action side, ME3 feels more fluid and satisfying than either of its predecessors. Shepard can now run or jog anywhere in unlimited amounts now, and the level design has the player hopping over gaps, sliding down inclines, and sometimes being taken by surprise and taking a fall without having to trigger a dedicated cutscene to do it in. There are a lot of smaller improvements that help the whole game quite a bit, like improved hit feedback, better AI for both squadmates and enemies, a segmented health bar to make medigel useful again, and the ability to immediately pick up guns found spread throughout the levels by the designers. As an action game, Mass Effect 3 stands up to many of the best that are out there right now, and of course its story and characters are far better than what we usually get in third-person shooters.
Admittedly, I'm still a bit annoyed that so many functions are mapped to a single button, and now there's even more things this one function controls. The A button (or the F key on PC) now controls running, grabbing and moving around in cover, diving and rolling, talking to and reviving squadmates, and opening and activating objects. Putting all of this on one button means you often dive into a door instead of opening it, or accidentally grab cover instead of reviving a squadmate. I get why this is done on the 360 controller where every other button is used, but there's no excuse for doing this same thing on PC.
Multiplayer in Mass Effect 3 is one of those things that sounds awful until you try it, then your face contorts into something like this after your first game. BioWare has simply applied many of the single player game's enemies, powers, guns, and non-playable races to a cooperative multiplayer scenario without much tweaking, and the end result works surprisingly well. Sure, it's the same sort of wave-based, four-player scenario we've seen in quite a few games over the last several years, but BioWare makes things more interesting with great enemy variety, solid map design, and an interplay of guns, tech powers, and Force-like biotics to make things much more fun than one would expect.
What's even more interesting is that players who don't want to go through meticulous collection of every single little object in ME3 to finish off their "war effort" part of the single player game can actually contribute to this by playing the multiplayer. No, you won't avoid any of the major storylines or events, but some of the more mundane scanning and collection elements can be substituted out by playing together with your friends and then sending some of that progress over as a generic war asset in offline play. On Xbox 360, ME3's multiplayer works just like you expect it to, with voice chat, parties, and the like making joining games very easy. On PC, you can join public games right from inside the game, and your Origin friends list (accessible by hitting Shift-F1) allows you to invite buddies into a game together.
On Xbox 360, Mass Effect 3 comes bundled on two discs, with the occasional switch back and forth between the two. The missions presented to you throughout the galaxy can largely be tackled in the order that you choose, so you will have to do more than a few disc swaps in one play-through, but it's not too bad. In addition, the texture quality and special effects here on 360 are clearly pushing the Unreal Engine, as it's implemented on current consoles, to its breaking point.
On PC, pretty much all of the features, key-binding options, and little tweaks that I want are there, but I'm not the pickiest of gamers and I don't require precise sensitivity options or FOV fine-tune adjustments. That said, the game is a bit light on graphical tweaking options, but the game does exceptionally well on nearly any half-decent gaming PC. I didn't try it myself, but you might even be able squeeze this game onto a few weak video cards and slow processors in the most mobile (or even old) of laptops, too. I tried ME3 both on a modern desktop PC running the game easily at 60fps at 1080p resolution, but I also played on a first-generation Alienware M11X (which has had trouble with some of the more demanding PC games made in the last few years) and had great results.
The overall presentation in Mass Effect 3 is the best we've seen out of BioWare yet. From the deep booms of explosions to the digital noise sound of Reapers and on to the wonderful soundtrack and spot-on voice acting, the game sounds simply amazing. The architecture and design are wonderful, and I want to give a special shout-out to BioWare for finally fleshing out the Citadel enough to make it truly stand alongside other great science fiction mainstays, like the Death Star or Serenity. Now, I'm finally confident that a future spin-off game taking place entirely on the Citadel could be a huge success. Going beyond that, the characters look better up-close (with a few exceptions on a relative few blurry clothing textures) than ever before, and the lore built into some of the planets you visit is complemented well with ongoing conversations that step through the necessary exposition for new players, all without making veterans to the series feel like they're being patronized. Yes, once you meet the meathead James Vega, you'll understand that it's believable for him to wonder why the Krogans hate the Salarians and the Turians.
Nearly all of the game's plots and subplots lead up to a major confrontation that is so closely tied to your accomplishments as Commander Shepard that it's hard to compare this game to nearly anything else. Sure, every player will fight the Reapers in a big battle - no surprise or spoiler there - but who will be Shepard's allies and enemies at the end, and who'll be left standing? What about all of those little accomplishments that make up much of Shepard's story? For those who don't care about those things, those characters, that bigger conclusion than "player kills final boss", there's nothing in ME3 that will dissuade them from considering this third game in the trilogy some kind of failure. For those who have cut down the Mass Effect series in the past by oversimplifying the lore, plot, and mechanics to try and show that it's shallow, I admittedly have no answer that they'll find useful. I guess I just don't play games the way they do, and they'll likely disagree with the score at the end of this review. But if you are either a fan of Mass Effect, or if you're simply looking for an action/RPG that builds some legitimate lore and backstory while mixing in its explosions and headshots, then this is the series you should start with. Just, start at the beginning if you haven't already. Go through the series properly, then hit up Mass Effect 3 so that you can see the progression and understand just why this is one of the best and most satisfying sci-fi franchises in gaming history.
Disclosure: This review is primarily based on a PC review copy provided by EA. The Xbox 360 version of the game was also tested.