March 06, 2012
Here we are then. Mass Effect 3 is finally upon us, and this is what it's all been building up to. The last hurrah for Commander Shepard and his faithful crew, as the Reapers threaten humanity and the rest of the galaxy. Suffice to say, BioWare has got its work cut out delivering with Mass Effect 3, as anything less than a heart-wrenching, dramatic and entirely satisfactory conclusion will do. The thing is, you've been working towards this ending with your previous actions, meaning that it's as much your story as it is BioWare's, and there are more of the same kind of huge, sweeping decisions to be made in Mass Effect 3.
Revolving around the Reaper invasion, Mass Effect 3 sees every corner of the series' known universe plagued by the vertiginous, spider-like synthetic hulks of impenetrable armour, whose imposing shadows are plunging each and every planet in every system into abject darkness. Naturally, there are other shady forces moving in the galaxy, meaning that Cerberus, the Illusive Man and a mysterious assassin all have a hand in events. Enter Shepard, whose iconic status is the key to uniting the galaxy under the Alliance against insurmountable odds. You start out Mass Effect 3 with little chance of success, so your most pressing objective is to gather as many resources and war assets as you possibly can while there's still something left to salvage.
Accumulating these valuable war assets all counts towards your 'Galactic Readiness', which you're able to keep tabs on using the Normandy's newly installed War Room, and goodness knows you're going to need the full might of as many races and their fleets as you can muster. That's easier said than done of course, and means a great deal of trotting from planet to planet, striving to win over each race to join your cause. You might head to the crumbling krogan civilisation of Tuchanka one minute and cruise on to Rannoch in order to aid the quarians the next. Time is ticking away fast though, as the Alliance, under the direction of Admiral Hackett, work around the clock to construct a Prothean super weapon known as 'The Crucible'. It's your last hope.
Mass Effect 3 is crammed full of missions, and if you want to reach that all-important higher level of Galactic Readiness, you'll need to occasionally veer off the beaten path to complete the side quests, especially if you're not planning to use multiplayer to bolster your recruits for the war effort. As BioWare has stated, it is possible to achieve the optimum conclusion by completing numerous single-player N7 side missions to gain the Galactic Readiness required to successfully launch the final assault against the Reapers, but if you decide to go ahead with the minimum of resources and assets, you're likely to struggle.
However, engaging in combat missions is a joy thanks to the refining of the third-person shooter mechanics, enabling Shepard to roll in any direction and charge up a devastating melee attack. Shepard and his/her crew are truly a force to be reckoned with, but you needn't worry that BioWare has gone too far in tipping the scales into action-shooter territory. On the contrary, Mass Effect 3 is a happy medium between the RPG depth of the first game and the comparatively action-heavy, stripped-down Mass Effect 2. You can certainly define this one as an RPG, as there's more than enough depth with the return of weapon mods, skill assignments, weapon levelling and more. You can also use Kinect to issue voice commands to your squad, which works well enough, but is a feature that you can take or leave as you see fit. For the most part we coped without it, finding the D-pad squad commands more immediate than barking out phrases at the TV screen.
As ever, the crux of Mass Effect 3 is what it's always been. Building relationships, making tough choices and engaging in a bit of interstellar diplomacy. More than ever though, your choices have more permanent and far-reaching consequences, and you get a palpable sense that a wrong decision can have drastic repercussions on the route the narrative arc takes. No two player's games will be the same given the number of variables that can arise from certain situations, and there are some forks in the road that will have stop you dead in your tracks, as you ponder the right thing to do. There are few games that succeed in evoking such an attachment to the universe and the characters that they make you consider your next move so carefully.
In the previous Mass Effect, you were always aware that your choices would carry through to Mass Effect 3, but now you have to own those decisions and face up to what's gone before. It all matters and it all has a bearing on what happens on a grand scale. The emotional heft of the series is still very much intact too, so no doubt someone among your squad will manage to tug at your heartstrings at some point during the epic trilogy conclusion. Every character has their role to play, which is presumably why BioWare has reduced the number of recruitable squad members, to retain the focus on the interactions and relationships. And Shepard can still woo the opposite sex with the best of them, meaning reigniting an old romance or starting a new one.
With such an emphasis on the unfolding story, conversations and the tight shooter action, BioWare has torn out the mini-games almost entirely. So there's no longer any hacking or decryption distractions, and fans of the therapeutic mining will be disappointed to find that it's been drastically watered down. You still use the Galaxy Map to streak through space, but now instead of exploring and mining planets, you scan the surrounding areas using the left trigger, hoping that EDI will detect something. When she does, you can start mining with the cursor, which directs you straight to the point of interest with an arrow. There's nothing to it anymore, which some will love and some will hate. Some might be indifferent.
The same might be true of multiplayer, which many have seen as an unnecessary addition. In reality, it's actually an excellent Horde mode with on-the-fly objectives thrown in for good measure. You level up custom characters in a number of classes and complete challenges and objectives that gradually counts towards your Galactic Readiness in the single-player campaign. It's an elegant, well-built multiplayer mode that's more than a mere afterthought, and having it link in with the story component of the game ensures that you feel more invested in the action. The only issue is that at the time of writing this review, we found EA's servers to be somewhat skittish, randomly disconnecting us without warning. Overall though, multiplayer is a worthy addition and an enjoyable time sink.
BioWare has nevertheless taken great care with the achievement list to ensure that you can take or leave multiplayer regardless, so strictly speaking, there is and there isn't a set of MP achievements to unlock. It's your choice either way. The rest of the list is comprised of story-progression achievements, a few grinding level-up ones and a few combat-based ones that'll test certain skills in battle. It's a good balance and a decent list. You'll have to finish the game on Insanity difficulty again too. We saw that one coming.
It might not be as deep and detailed as most RPGs, but when the trade-off is as accomplished a shooter as Mass Effect 3 manages to be, you can't complain. It does everything is sets out to do, and does it all exceedingly well. BioWare knows this stuff inside-out now, so Mass Effect 3 is quite possibly the most unadulterated, uninhibited expression of the developer's vision yet. But the bottom line is that Mass Effect 3 is the finale that we were all hoping it would be. Engaging and compelling, it'll resonate with players long after the epilogue has played out. Especially the ones who've invested themselves emotionally in Mass Effect 3's rich universe and cast of complex characters.
A characteristically stunning orchestral and synth score that's subtle where appropriate, yet bold and memorable when it needs to up the ante. Clint Mansell's involvement is hard to distinguish, but there's no faulting the soundtrack. Voice acting is of the usual high standard too. Stellar stuff all round.
BioWare has gone the extra mile in making Mass Effect 3 the best-looking iteration yet. It's smooth, fantastically detailed and brilliantly cinematic. It's also testament to the developer's mastery of visual style and flair in the genre.
The perfect balance between its third-person shooter and RPG elements, this is Mass Effect at its best. If this doesn't please both the action game and RPG camps, then we don't know what will. It plays like a dream and has the depth to back up the game's combat proficiency. It's nice that loading times have been cut down too.
You could conceivably race through Mass Effect 3 without going off-piste in about 20 hours or so, but why the hell would you want to do that? Mass Effect 3 is something to be soaked up and savoured. There are loads of missions to get swept up in and multiplayer provides extra replay value beyond repeated playthroughs. You'll be playing for ages.
There's some overlap here between this and Mass Effect 2's achievement list, but there's a great deal of encouragement to approach the endgame with the maximum war assets and explore the multiplayer. It's a strong list that's worth investing the time to complete.
Mass Effect 3 is the perfect ending to a masterful trilogy that's gone from strength-to-strength with each title. It's the conclusion you're hoping for, with each decision demanding that you think twice before pulling the trigger. Thanks for the memories, BioWare... It's been emotional.