Time for some final calibrations.
The stage is set. Shepard has been cast away to Earth for working with Cerberus; the Reapers have reached the galaxy; the Normandy team is scattered.
Everyone’s holding their breath, waiting for the destruction to begin.
If you don’t know what any of this means, you might want to brush up on the events of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 3 relies heavily on its ties to the previous games in the series, and though there’s a prequel comic allowing newcomers to change their choices from previous games available as DLC (or, in the case of the Wii U version, on-disc), Mass Effect 3 is at its best when played as an ending to the trilogy. Characters are constantly referenced, and the plot serves as, in part, a “best-of” the Mass Effect universe, taking Shepard from planet to planet, meeting her former teammates and gathering forces to fight off the Reapers.
For those new to the series, it’s a hybrid third-person shooter/role-playing game, set in a massive sci-fi universe, filled with multiple races, each with their own struggles. All of them, however, need to unite in this installment to fight off the Reapers, sentient spaceship-like synthetic beings that are hellbent on wiping out all life in the galaxy. Players take control of Commander Shepard, who can be male or female, and further customized. Various classes are available, from biotic (think magic)-heavy Adepts to weapon-toting Soldiers to tech-savvy Engineers, as well as dual-use selections.
Action is paused mid-battle when players bring up the Power Wheel, allowing them to choose from a variety of class-specific abilities, though these can also be set to one of two preset buttons to avoid interrupting the action. I personally played as an Adept, choosing to fight off enemies through combining various biotic powers. My favorite was probably the “Pull” power, which sends non-armored enemies hurtling up into the sky while screaming; by combining another biotic power with it, I could cause huge explosions, turning combat from a gritty space-shooter to a gorgeous fireworks display. More powers can be unlocked through trading in experience points from battle to power up and change weapon properties, whether increasing damage or firing off multiple shots at once.
Adding to customization is the weapon system; powers can be added to them through abilities off the Power Wheel, and various modifications can be added to allow for better damage, piercing through barriers, and the like. One upgrade, for instance, lets sniper rifles see through smoke, which a new enemy type in this game generates to cloak the battlefield. Furthermore, a weapon weight mechanic was implemented. With each new weapon equipped, power recharge times rise; as an Adept, I carried around only a sniper rifle, and was blessed with 150%-faster recharges, allowing me to use as many abilities as I wanted nearly instantaneously. If I’d chosen to go for a more Soldier-type route, with stronger weapons and more kickback, I would have had to wait between hits. It adds an interesting balancing mechanic to the game, forcing players to prioritize.
Of particular interest is the resource system, changed from Mass Effect 2. Mining is still present in-game while the Normandy traverses the galaxy, but a scanner has been implemented, allowing for area scans instead of searching each planet’s surface. These scans can be helpful, bringing in War Assets, money, or ship fuel, but also run the risk of alerting the Reapers to the Normandy’s location.
The graphics in this game get an even shinier coat than the previous one’s did. Just the very beginning mission is gorgeous, with a massive Reaper traveling across cities in the background, firing everywhere. While many of Mass Effect 2‘s backgrounds were static, Mass Effect 3 doesn’t shy away from the dynamic, throwing wars in the background of many stages to add not only to the frenetic action but the sense of destruction. The music, too, lends a great aural setpiece to each stage without being intrusive. Characters are beautifully rendered and acted, and while some of the changes were offputting–for instance, Ashley Williams is much more traditionally-pretty than before–most of them lend even more authenticity to the world.
Speaking of characters, they are what is at the core of the series. Between missions, Shepard can interact with her shipmates, and while not all of them are present from previous games, former squadmates sometimes will arrive on the Normandy and spend time with the crew. There are new characters, too, such as the ship’s communications specialist, the delightfully-dorky Samantha Traynor, or the macho frat-boy-esque riot, James Vega. Each of them has their own distinct personality, and get well fleshed-out not only in scenes aboard the Normandy but on the various locales Shepard and crew visit. There’s even a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor, from Garrus arguing about calibrations with other teammates to people making fun of Shepard’s dancing. Mass Effect 3 is a celebration of the universe and what makes it so special, relying on its characters for much of its charm.
Characters are romanceable, too; while players from previous games can continue their relationships with several characters such as Liara, Kaidan, or Ashley, the new characters are also available to romance. Not everybody is allowed for each playthrough, though; for instance, James Vega is unavailable, where Steve Cortez is locked only to male-route playthroughs. It’s nice to get a diverse crew, with bisexuality and homosexuality represented alongside heterosexuality, where we can have Hispanic characters beside white characters and aliens, where none of these are treated as tokens or after-school specials. It’s a shame that there are fewer options for queer people, but even so, it’s comforting to see ourselves represented in gaming with some of the most endearing yet flawed characters I’ve seen.
The story itself takes a much darker turn from previous entries in the series, focusing on the violence of war. Nobody is spared; women and children are killed even at the very beginning of the game, and the plot’s various twists and turns constantly show the brutality of combat. Even smaller subplots, down to random citizens in the Citadel (the galaxy’s center hub of government) searching for lost loved ones, boil down to this. It’s a bleak, bleak atmosphere, though broken up with occasional bouts of humor–or in the case of one DLC set, Citadel, an entirely-comedic mission. There are other DLC sets, including one entitled From Ashes that includes a new playable character, and none of them are necessary to complete the story. That being said, I’d definitely recommend them to get the most out of the universe and plot.
One element that bears mentioning, however, is the Galaxy at War system. In-game, various missions–as well as choices from previous games–lend Shepard and her effort War Assets, which can help determine the course of the final confrontations and ultimately the fate of the galaxy. The more War Assets players collect, the more likely they are to be able to choose their endings and stop the Reapers. The Galaxy at War system plays into that, through the use of multiplayer, and is a definite turnoff.
That isn’t to say that the multiplayer is bad, though; it’s a modified version of the core combat, with many unlockable characters (even the various alien races!) and limited powers and cooldowns, all justified by being various crews fighting off the Reapers, the Collectors, and Cerberus. It’s all cooperative, and while it’s difficult it’s actually a lot of fun… but again, it ties into the single-player. Each round of multiplayer increases part of the “Galaxy Readiness” rating, depending on which stage was played; the higher the rating, the easier it is to get the game’s best endings. It’ll never fall below 50% readiness, but for players that maybe made mistakes in the campaign or simply aren’t very good at video games, it’s an exercise in annoyance. As the Galaxy Readiness rating declines, the value of players’ War Assets do as well, making this segment of the game intensely frustrating. I was lucky enough that I had many Assets; friends who played the game weren’t so lucky.
That leads me to mention a controversial piece of downloadable content: the Extended Cut. After the game’s initial release, many players were disappointed with the ending, which abandoned several potential plot threads and heard rumors of the lead writer taking it over completely. The Extended Cut was developer Bioware’s answer to many player complaints, adding in various scenes to help flesh out the events that happened as well as providing insight into the state of the galaxy after the game’s conclusion. It also brought down the Galaxy at War threshold dramatically, making it easier for players to get the various endings. The Extended Cut is definitely worth downloading; while I didn’t have the same vitriolic attitude I’ve seen many gamers take against the ending, I did find that it helped to create a more-satisfying conclusion to such an enthralling series.
Overall, I’d have to say that while Mass Effect 3 is excellent, it’s not my favorite entry in the series. It’s a little disjointed, sending players from place to place as if to highlight pieces that the fans wanted to see more of. As a standalone game, while a little confusing because of the lore, I think it’s excellent, and definitely does a great job of showing the horrors of war and allowing exploration of the universe Bioware created. As a conclusion to a venerated series, it’s not as bad as many people said, but it’s definitely a little weaker than the previous game. It could be an issue of my preferring the exploratory tone of the second game more than anything else.
Regardless, for fans of the series–or even people interested in it–Mass Effect 3 is something worth experiencing.
- Compelling gunplay peppered with powers
- Endearing characters, each well-fleshed-out
- Unafraid to show the brutality of war
- Huge tonal shift from previous games
- Disjointed feeling, hopping from plot point to plot point
- Multiplayer can be practically necessary for some people
Play it if: you played the previous games in the Mass Effect series, you’re looking for a strong action-RPG to sink your teeth into, or you’re a fan of science fiction.
Mass Effect 3 was completed over the course of approximately a month, with a playtime of around 57 hours. It was purchased at the retail price of $30USD as part of the PS3 Mass Effect Trilogy, and is also available for PC, Mac, and Xbox 360, developed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts. Images courtesy Bioware, taken from the PC version; header image cropped from official Mass Effect 3 wallpapers.