Review: Mass Effect 3

Stand Amongst the Ashes of a Trillion Dead Souls and Ask the Ghosts if Honor Matters.

By on November 22, 2012

All great things must come to an end, as they say, and after five years and three titles, the Mass Effect saga – at least from the point of view of Commander Shepard – has come to a close. Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 hopes to tie together all of those little decisions you made during your last two tours of duty to end humanity’s struggle against the Reaper onslaught. Does it achieve this loft goal? Let’s hope you made some good calls along the way.

The Story So Far

If you are coming into this Mass Effect world blind, this brief overview of the story will not do it justice, but here goes. Basically, what we know by the start of Mass Effect 3 is this: in the Milky Way Galaxy during the 22nd century, through the exploits of Commander Insert-Name-Here Shepard (who by the by commands the SSV Normandy, a pretty sweet starship), in Mass Effect, the human race finds out that an evil band of synthetic life forms known collectively as The Reapers have awoken from a 50,000 year old slumber to purge all advanced organic life from the galaxy. No one really knows why the Reapers, who travel about space in giant self-aware ships that look like squids, are such jerks about it, but everyone understands that they pose a threat to all human and alien life in the galaxy. In Mass Effect 2, Shepard reluctantly joins with Cerberus, a group that supposedly wants to help humans but whose actual goals are always dubious, and travels about the galaxy fighting a new threat: the Collectors. These bug-looking space-jerks also took the task of hurting organic life, but in a different way: they were stealing the bodies and turning them into gross half-synthetic enemy soldiers. Hide your kids, hide your wife. They are snatchin’ your people up. Shepard finds out that they are working for the Reapers(!) so he travels to their home base and ends them.

After Shepard rocks the Collectors, the Reapers pretty much have had enough. Six months after the events of ME2, the Reapers have begun a full assault on organic life in the galaxy. Earth gets hit, and Shepard narrowly escapes on the Normandy. It becomes Commander Shepard’s duty to pull an alliance together among all of the galaxy’s alien races to help put a stop to the Reaper threat. And so begins Mass Effect 3.

Bringing Up the Past

Like Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3 allows you to import your character save from the previous game. This includes not only your character’s facial appearance and level, but it also brings with it all of the decisions you’ve made from the last two games. If you had been playing the series from its inception, then you might have a couple of characters who won’t show up in this third title because they are so very dead from your actions in previous ones. A friend of mine and I had very different encounters on one mission because a character that he had previously let die wasn’t there, for example. Where I had dialogue choices and cutscenes, he just killed some dudes mostly and moved on. Even if characters aren’t dead, their actions towards you will reflect how you have acted in the past. A love interest will still ask if they are important to you, say, or a character might still hate you for being a jerk way back when. Supposedly, there are roughly 1,000 data points that you have impacted along the way that make some affect in this final game, and that in and of itself is an interesting metric to think about.

Regarding the leveling: my character happened to start this game at level 30, having been that level in ME2. You get to choose what kind of specialty your ME3 Shepard will be, so you are not locked into what you were doing before. This couple with a high initial level allows you to pick all new skills if you so choose. Immediately, I was able to level up quite a few of my skills as a super awesome Engineer, and the first was more exciting because I was already a badass. Fortunately, the enemies seem to scale, so they were not simply push-overs.

Regarding your face: I have read a lot of comments from people talking about how your imported character’s face would get all messed up in the game, but that didn’t happen to me so I cannot comment. I will say, though, that I kind of abhor the new female Shepard’s default look. I know it was voted on, but all three options they had at the time were awful. This doesn’t impact the game really because you can change her face, but man the default female Shepard is terrible. Luckily, my old ME2 femshep looks like she did back in the day.

Being a Commander

Following the footsteps of ME2, Mass Effect 3 continues on in turning the mission sequences into more of an action-shooter than ever before. ME2 started off with quicker shooting gameplay, and ME3 adds more Gears of War-esque elements by allowing Shepard to do quick rolls to avoid fire. Holding down the top buttons still pauses the action for a more strategic actions among your squad, but overall, when you are shooting husks and banshees and brutes it will all feel faster.

On the whole, this faster pace is nice, but throughout this game I had issues with the new dodge/roll. More than several times, I would intend to take cover behind a wall but instead Shepard would roll out into the fire. It seems that if you want to take cover, you need to be pressing straight up on the control stick with the camera directly facing the wall you want to take cover behind. If the stick is in any way to the right or left of center, you’ll roll instead. In writing, this method probably seems to make sense. In practice it never felt incredibly solid, and I never relied on the dodge to get me out of a situation.

Another issue I had was that your allies on the field generally did not feel like they had any idea what they were doing. It has been nearly two years since my playthrough of Mass Effect 2, but I never remember having much of an issue with my squad then. In ME3, I felt like was always holding their hands and telling them what to do. Granted, you generally want to tell them what to do. The squad mechanic is based around telling them what to do, however my issues came from turning around, seeing my squadmates hiding somewhere, and then having to tell them to hurry up and come on as I advanced in the fight.

Before combat, there are new options when gearing out your Shepard and crew. Instead of being “locked in” to certain weapons based on your class, this time around you can weild any weapon, but their weight plays a large role in what you can take and how fast your shields and abilities come back after use. I played through the game as an engineer, and since that class is more geared towards powers than gun usage, taking more than two weapons severly slowed the amound of time it took for my shields to return. Other classes that might not rely so much on powers can easily take five weapons into battle without as much of an effect. It’s an interesting way to balance your character while still giving the player options to do what he wants.

In ME1, everyone hated the Mako tank. In ME2, no one liked to search planets for minerals. Does ME3 have a boring collecting minigame? OF COURSE IT DOES! The scanning of planets is back, but this time you do not have to spend as much time doing so. Instead of minerals, your probes are basically helping you rescue friendly ships (that will help the war effort) or artifacts on planets that have been ravaged by Reapers. The Normandy has been equipped with a scanner that lets you “ping” these items on planets in systems you are in. So as you fly about the stars, you ping planets, and if something happens to be on them, you get a notification. From there you can do the more intimate scanning you are used from ME2. You cannot just ping whilly-nilly, though, as the Reapers can pick up on this signal, and they will show up in your system if you ping too much. If they catch you, the game is over. So in the end, yes, this is another pretty boring time waster, but this time you could spend about an hour or so and knock it all of the scanning in the game.

The War Effort

Shepard’s main goal in its simplest form is to bring the alien races of the galaxy together to help defeat the Reapers, and there is a quantifiably number associated with this that signifies your “readiness” – or Effective Military Strength – for the big fight. The majority of your quests/missions revolve around either creating alliances with various races in the galaxy or saving those in need. After completing your mission, these added war assets will show up in a menu you can access on the Normandy, and you can read the descriptions of each of them at your leisure. Shepard has a minimum EMS score that has to be met before he can launch an assault on the Reapers, and once that is met you can basically do just the main story quests and complete the game. Doing this probably will not benefit you much, as you most certainly will get a terrible ending, but that’s up to you.

The View From Space

Visually, Mass Effect 3 adds an extra bit of flare to what we saw in ME2. Conversations are close up affairs once again, not afraid to show off the characters as intimately as possible. Generally, all of the conversations look pretty great, although there can be some stilted animations here and there. Occasionally, during these close ups, the game seemed like it didn’t know what the focal point was, causing the speaking character to be blurry while some background object sharp and clear. It happened enough to notice, but it really isn’t that big of a deal.

The environments you’ll see as you blast around the galaxy are all pretty impressive. Now that the Reapers are everywhere ruining everyone’s day, on many planet surfaces as you try to do your thing you can see giant Reaper ships walking about blasting everything they can. You are constantly reminded that the Reaper threat is upon you in these instances, and it creates the sense of urgency and the desire to get your mission complete.

With these large environments comes a price, though, and occasionally the frame rate will drop (at least on the Xbox version I played). Interestingly, the place that has the most trouble is the Citadel, an ancient, giant ship where the galaxy’s races come to live and do the politics. While there is not a lot of action here, the environments are full of characters and has quite a bit of architecture that cause the frame drops. Nothing to crazy, but it is noticeable. Luckily, you aren’t shooting anything on the Citadel, so who cares?

A Rightful End? [spoilers]

Since this is the final game in Shepard’s tale, the story writers didn’t need to make sure characters’ stories had any place to go after this. As a result, you’ll see some characters die. Sometimes this is because of a choice you had to make. But other times the death is inevitable, and your choices beforehand simply push Shepard’s Paragon or Renegade score. It sucks SO MUCH when one of your favorite characters bites it, but that’s war. I am actually glad they had the balls to destroy some well known people and areas in the game’s universe. I would not have been upset if they went even further with it.

Now, let’s talk about that ending. There is pretty much no way that the ending to series five years in the making could please everyone. True to form, the ending to this game sure did anger a ton of people, but I feel like some of their gripes are justified. The ending that I will talk about here is the original one before Bioware caved and made an extended ending. I played the game with no internet access like some crazy person so I couldn’t download the extended ending.

Spoilers ahead:

Since I personally was not as invested in the Mass Effect story as some, the result of this game did not hurt the core of my being like it did some, but I certainly wasn’t that impressed. The three choices you are given to make as your final decision all seem like their outcomes will make the galaxy a vastly different place in vastly different ways, but what actually happens is that each of the three endings are nearly identical and pretty lame. Nothing is really explained, and the only thing I could think about was the poor alien species who are now trapped in Earth’s solar system.

Every one of the endings destroys the Mass Effect relays, and while they all stop the Reapers from their task, the remaining races of the Milky Way no longer have the ability to get back home. The Quarian fleet by itself has something like 70,000 ships. They might not be the best example because they are a nomadic fleet anyway and can survive on their own, but Shepard’s goal of getting all of these other races to help seems to have backfired. Earth is basically a giant ball of fire now, and none of our other planets are habitable. I suppose these ships can travel to other systems in our immediate area, but getting to the other side of the galaxy is nigh impossible even at faster-than-light speeds. In one mission in the game, you help the Quarians rescue their home planet, and they offer to help you now that they will be able to go back home finally and stop being a migratory fleet. Now they cannot get back to their newly rescued home. The same goes for everyone else. In the end, all of the organics were doomed win or lose. The Reapers could have destroyed everything if Shepard failed, but if Shepard defeated them, every is screwed anyway.

Another big gripe about the ending was that there is a character introduced in the game literally in the last ten minutes that gives you these last three choices. This didn’t bother me too much, but it comes back to this thing about not explaining anything. The character basically tells Shepard that synthetics and organics will always fight each other, so the character set up this 50,000 year cycle to balance things out…somehow. But how does it know this? I can give sci-fi stories quite a bit of leeway, so I wasn’t putting my hands on my hips and harumphing like some people, but I have found out that in extra DLC you actually get to learn the origins of this brand new character and even the Reapers. The whole series has been asking questions about the Reapers and their origins. It certainly would have been nice to have learned about them without having to spend even more money to do so, since it seems like a natural progression of the story instead of “Oh, you spent 100 hours with these characters and this over-arching story, let’s not clear things up for you!”

Should You Save the Galaxy?

It is somewhat hard to say goodbye to a character like Shepard that has defined much of this generation, but we always knew it would happen at some point. Other than a shaky final conclusion, Mass Effect 3 generally does good on bringing the stories of the people you have met along the way to a close.

If you have been playing the other Mass Effect titles and have enjoyed them, then you certainly will probably like this game, although your emotions about the ending may vary. I came from playing just Mass Effect 2, and I thoroughly enjoyed the game. So if you come from a similar background then you will be pleased. If you haven’t touched any of them, then instead opt for the recently released trilogy pack that has all three titles in it.