Game Review: Mass Effect 3

Mark Butler delivers his verdict on the final chapter in BioWare’s epic sci-fi series, out now for PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox360 (reviewed).

The end, as they say, is nigh. After establishing itself as one of modern gaming’s most exciting and critically-acclaimed franchises over the past few years, BioWare’s phenomenal sci-fi trilogy – an action-RPG space opera with real depth and drama – now draws to a close in this final, epic act.

Devotees will already be prepared for the scale of challenge that awaits them. Mass Effect 3 kicks-off with all organic civilization in the galaxy under imminent threat of destruction, as an advanced race of gigantic, malevolent machines known as the Reapers begin their apocalyptic assault on prominent homeworlds, including Earth. With all hope seemingly lost, only Commander Shepard – a human champion who has twice defied the Reapers – can possibly hope to discover a way of defeating this monstrous enemy, and bring peace to the galaxy.

So the stage is set, but does Mass Effect 3 live up to the hype? The honest answer is somewhat – but not entirely. The combat is solid, the story and its major players are engaging as ever, and there are key sequences and moments that will live long in the memory, for all the right reasons.

But Mass Effect 3 is not a game devoid of problems, and to ignore these completely would be a dereliction of duty that Shepard himself would frown upon. The honest truth is that certain aspects of the game do slightly let it down, while the controversy currently raging over its ending is, to some extent, justified.

Taking in a wide-ranging campaign that clocks in at around 30 hours of possible content, your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to unite as many forces and factions as possible in order to strengthen your military alliance and take down the Reaper threat. However, even for humanity’s greatest hero, such an audacious challenge is something of a tall-order.

The enormity of Shepard’s mission soon becomes clear. Not only is the Reaper war-machine formidable in its strength and brutality, but uniting the disparate races of the galaxy to form a coherent counter-attack is easier said than done. After all, old galactic grudges run deep and die harder than a Krogan in a mech-suit, so as you attempt to juggle conflicting loyalties and agendas you’ll invariably recruit valuable assets to your cause – but lose others in the process.

To complicate matters further, a bloody civil-war is also erupting, with shady organisation Cerberus now invading colonies and bases to seize captives and procure powerful artifacts and weaponry for themselves. Their motives are, at first, a mystery, but this element of the story and how it fits into the wider saga is just one of the many intriguing aspects of this final game in the trilogy.

The series’ masterful backstory and political intrigue really pays off here, as you weigh up the relative merits of appeasing one faction relative to another, with genuinely tough moral choices thrown in for good measure along the way. As ever, there are some hard-hitting consequences to your decisions as the action unfolds, and it can be genuinely agonizing when you are faced with what seems like an impossible call.

If you have been with Mass Effect since the beginning and are carrying over your save file, then you’re in for some great little pay-offs, resolutions and consequences depending on your actions thus far, with certain key moments and options hinging on past choices. However, it is also worth noting that some of the previous games’ most talked-about ‘major’ decisions have disappointingly little impact on this outing as a whole, with some altering only minor, superficial details. It’s understandable that BioWare may have found it difficult to diverge the core threads too prominently, but even so – the lack of any meaningful fall-out from certain key choices seems a real shame.

Nonetheless, Mass Effect 3 really starts to come into its own around ten hours in, when the balancing of kick-ass third-person action with complex diplomatic interludes becomes something of a thrill. BioWare master the balance between brains and brawn, throwing enough running-and-gunning sequences your way to keep the adrenaline pumping, while allowing you space and time to delve deeper into the game’s subtleties and sub-plots.

All things considered, the major new characters are probably the weakest of the trilogy so far, with fresh squadmate James Vega having notably less personality and depth than the likes of Garrus or Liara. He’s a macho career soldier with serious insecurity issues who likes to grunt vigorously while doing pull-ups in a hangar bay or, in one of the game’s most mis-judged and unintentionally hilarious moments, engage in a bizarre homoerotic sparring match with Shepard. There is a little more to him than that if you dig a little deeper but, for the most part, he’s basically just there to kick ass and call everybody ‘loco’.

Thankfully, there are plenty of returning favourites on hand to deliver the goods. Pretty much every significant squad-mate and NPC from the past two games makes a well-judged and sometimes quite poignant cameo (assuming you didn’t get them killed last time out of course), and several feature as major players in the unfolding adventure. Mass Effect fans will feel a genuine jolt of joy upon being reunited with their own personal favourites, and the impact of their outlooks and fortunes varies from the brilliantly entertaining (Garrus taking the piss out of Shepard during a friendly catch-up, for instance), to the deeply touching.

It is a great testament to BioWare’s brilliance at characterization and storytelling that you feel genuinely heartbroken when certain allies meet their demise – and make no mistake, they will do so. Sacrifices and heroic last-stands are inevitable in a conflict of this scale, and the fact that certain losses actually leave you experiencing something akin to grief, speaks volumes for the level of emotional investment this series has induced in its audience.

The wonderful film composer Clint Mansell, enlisted to series musical duties for the first time, also helps to add awe and poignancy to proceedings with some phenomenal pieces at key moments; the epic soundscapes reminiscent of his incredible soundtrack to The Fountain, and the sorrowful, reflective serenades of piano and strings akin to his beautiful score for Moon.

An ‘effective military strength’ rating in your ship’s very own War Room (which, sadly, does not seem to boast any ‘Dr Strangelove’ references) helps you keep track of what forces and resources you have at your disposal for the final battle, as well as illustrating how well-prepared you are for said show-down.

This is somewhat muddled by the fact that only half your recruited assets actually count towards your effective strength, unless you upgrade ‘Galactic Readiness’ by completing multiplayer missions online. Although this isn’t necessary to maximize military strength – and you can apparently get the ‘best’ ending by simply completing as many quests as possible and making effective choices – it does seem a little unfair that those uninterested in the multiplayer component may feel potentially disadvantage in this regard.

Much as before, major action sequences are interspersed with complex interactions and exchanges, and opportunities for exploration away from the ‘prioritized’ missions. On that note, the labelling of main storyline missions with ‘Priority’ is deeply ironic, as they are in fact the only quests in the game that are seemingly not time-sensitive. If you actually do take Mass Effect 3 at its word and go for these first, it’s possible to miss-out on interesting and valuable side quests that will vanish before long – so you have been warned.

Side-questing now feels more meaningful than in the first two games, if somewhat less fun. No longer are you giving awkward couples relationship advice or helping dodgy Salarians smuggle contraband; instead, you’re performing tasks for the alliance or other interested parties in order to gain further leverage and assets in your fight against the Reapers.

Some of these ‘non-priority’ missions are simple fetch-quests or conversational tasks, but the best of the bunch are gripping and atmospheric adventures in their own right –  adding a great deal to the canon and storyline. One particularly fantastic episode sees you investigate a dark, foreboding system of caverns in search of a lost scouting squad. It’s brilliantly reminiscent of Aliens as ominous sounds emanate from the shadows and your torchlight dances of the dank rock, and stands as an early highlight in a game of memorable events.

To balance the need for galaxy exploration with the sense of ongoing chaos and danger, visiting systems threatened by the Reapers is not without risk, as scanning for secrets and resources on the map screen can see you swiftly hunted down. As you send out sonar-style signals to uncover hidden assets a red bar gradually fills, and should it fill entirely the Reapers will enter the system in hot pursuit. Escape and you’ll have to complete a combat mission before returning. Get caught – and you die.

On the ground, some fantastic set-pieces really add to the spectacle and sense of scale (let’s just say that the way the Krogans take down a Reaper at one point has to be seen to be believed), and with the Reapers harvesting familiar species to create new, monstrous armies, you can expect to face an array of fearsome and occasionally jaw-dropping enemies on your travels.

The opening assault on earth doesn’t provide quite the bombastic, devastating spectacle you might expect, though the Transformers-esque sound-design is undoubtedly effective and an emotional kick towards the end of the sequence does pack a bit of a punch (that said, when Shepard is haunted by this ‘unfortunate event’ subsequently, it’s all laid on a bit too thick with some uber-cheesy dream sequences).

More impressive is an epic mission to the Asari homeworld and – in the latter stages –  a breathtaking return to war-torn Terra, where you fight your way through devastated city streets, car parks and office buildings, fighting for your life as Reapers dominate the sky-line and air raid sirens sound in the distance. There’s a real sense of intensity, atmosphere and grit to the action here, and you feel that a few more sequences along these lines would have been eagerly welcomed.

The third-person combat remains slightly less slick than that of the Gears Of War series, but Mass Effect 3 still stands as a highly competent cover-based shooter. The new beefed-up melee attacks are a satisfying and valuable addition too, allowing you to run enemies through with your fearsome omni-blade attachment, or attack them with bayonets.

Weapons can now also be enhanced with the addition of up to two mods, boosting damage, accuracy, capacity and so on, while the most notable change is that the ‘Heavy Weapons’ of Mass Effect 2 have been done away with as a category in their own right: the bigger guns now classed either as Assault Rifles, or picked up on the battlefield as ‘bonus’ items for that mission only, with limited ammunition available. This does seem something of a shame, as it was fun letting rip with heat-seeking missiles last time round, and it’s not entirely clear why the Soldier class no longer have the ability to wield such weaponry.

The RPG mechanics remain basic, but integral. You gain experience points for completing objectives and finding useful materials, and each time you ‘level-up’ you are awarded skill points to invest in abilities and powers, enhancing your squad’s potential for offensive or defensive tactics as you see fit.

One significant development, however, is the effective introduction of separate ‘gameplay modes’. In order to broaden the appeal of Mass Effect 3 to an even wider audience, BioWare have now given players the ability to pretty much trim out whatever core aspects of the game they don’t like. RPG-phobes can choose to auto level-up, those not fond of shooters can make action sequences so easy they’re pretty much un-failable, and people who don’t wish to make dialogue choices themselves can have the game simply select Shepard’s questions, speeches and responses on their behalf.

Good luck if you decide to go with this latter option though, as it will render huge chucks of the experience little more than gigantic, bloated cut-scenes. In any case, Mass Effect veterans understand that choosing what to say and how to say it is every bit as crucial to the saga as what Shepard and his team do on the battlefield. The star of this game has to be a diplomat and metaphorical bridge-builder, as well as a soldier.

Indeed, BioWare clearly appreciate that the cover-based combat, while solid, remains the least defining aspect of the Mass Effect experience. Thankfully, they’ve not gone down the road of turning this game into a straightforward third-person shooter as some had feared, and have avoided the trap of providing endless gunfights with little of the meaty exposition and character-interaction that has made this series great in the first place.

On the downside though, when it comes to the endgame it’s fair to say that BioWare’s knack for spinning story threads, and inviting the player to dance around them, starts to unravel.  Without going into specifics, and steering clear of spoilers, its framing and presentation is impressive – even powerful – but it adopts an eyebrow-raising ‘Deus Ex Machina’ twist, certain aspects are muddled or bizarre, and the eventual coda rings a little hollow.

Moreover, the major problem with the game’s conclusion is that its outcome actually depends very little on your actions up until that point, including the effective military strength that you have mustered. Fans may well feel let down by the lack of genuine difference their efforts and decisions have made to the ultimate finale and its leftfield prelude, and for a series that has placed so much emphasis on player decisions and how they affect the gameworld, characters and story, this has to stand as something of a disappointment.

Mass Effect has been set-up from the beginning as the ultimate in ‘choose your own adventure’ gaming, and as such, the ill-feeling many players have voiced upon realising that this ideal has not been lived-up to is understandable – even if some have expressed their discontent rather harshly.

Ultimately, whether or not you feel satisfied or frustrated at the end of Mass Effect 3 will depend largely upon your outlook and priorities in approaching it. And whatever your opinion on the matter, it would be highly surprising if you hadn’t enjoyed the ride along the way.

When it comes down to it, the Mass Effect series has been a fantastic saga to immerse ourselves in, and its final chapter is, for the most part, another rare kind of treat. This is a title brimming with fast-paced action, audacious spectacle, and a deep sense of drama that so many games lack.

You may decide you’re not happy with how it ends, and it’s understandable that some will feel sour at the eventual destination. But my God, what a journey it’s been.


FMV Rating: ****



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