The Mass Effect series has, so far, been a bit of a critical luvvy, and the sci-fi space opera RPG has quickly risen above the competition to become one of the most successful and critically acclaimed titles of its ilk ever released. So, now that the final instalment in Commander Shepard’s trilogy is here, has BioWare managed to do the saga justice? Or, is this a series that’s doomed to exit stage left with an ill-placed step?
Picking up a short time after the events of Mass Effect 2, ME3 begins right in the thick of it, and the Reaper attack on Earth frames the third outing’s story, and gives the developers a chance to paint an emotional picture. Humanity is in a seriously dire predicament, having ignored Shepard’s warnings of the imminent threat, even to the point of kicking him out of the military, and the future is very bleak indeed. Now, the Reapers have turned up to devour all life in the galaxy, and they’re hungry.
A short tutorial sequence, which takes place in the midst of the invasion, suitably opens the conclusion, and quickly demonstrates a few new additions to the game, such as the new melee power attack and cover-based stealth kills. And, after a harrowing escape, and a sight that will remain lodged in Shepard’s mind, he (or she) and the Normandy head off to the Citadel to appeal for help defending Earth.
So begins the final act, and it’s a beginning that quickly shows you what you’re in for, and solidifies the grave situation the entire galaxy is in. Make no mistake, this is going to be war.
The more things change…
Mass Effect 3, as the third outing of the series, comes with a very familiar feeling to it, but this is no bad thing. The majority of the game’s core mechanics are as you remember them, and, thankfully, BioWare has embraced the axiom of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
ME3 plays almost identically to its fine-tuned predecessor, and the mixture of exploration, conversation and cover-based shooting is ever-present. Experienced players will be right at home, and the controls are almost identical, barring a couple of additions, such as the aforementioned melee power attack which sees Shepard repurpose the Omnitool into a deadly short-range blade.
The exploration and conversation systems are the same, and the dialog trees, which worked so well before still represent some of the best, and most fluid branching conversations in the genre. This is all helped along by some great voice acting and the usual BioWare presentation.
Combat is, perhaps, where the game has changed most, and although the base of the system is the same as ever, seeing players seek cover in order to return fire to a range of deadly foes, it’s also very different at the same time.
Run and gun
The most apparent change I found in my play through was the shift to a more hectic and mobile battleground. In the previous two ME games, combat was enjoyable (much more so in ME2, of course), but was quite sedate compared to most other cover-shooters. Enemies were, for the most part, content to sit back, find cover and swap projectiles with you from a distance. Because of this, even in some of the more difficult fights, you could hunker down behind cover and stick out most battles in relative safety, barring a couple of boss battles.
Mass Effect 3, on the other hand, does away with this, and now enemies are far more bullish, often running you down and forcing you to adapt and move to alternative cover. Husks will, as they always have done, storm towards you en masse, and new enemies, such as the large, powerful brutes, will charge at you, blasting you out of cover whilst its allies pepper you with fire.
This makes for a much more enjoyable, and rewarding combat system, one that rewards tactical use of your team’s powers and abilities, something that was, although cool, more of an optional skill in the previous games. Here, especially on harder difficulties, your various special abilities can be the difference between seeing your next sunrise, or bending to the Reaper’s will.
Unfortunately, as glad as I am to see more challenge and tactical play arrive on the battlefield, I’m less fond of the actual combat controls, which seem to have taken a knock since the last outing.
The combat controls, in my opinion, feel much looser than ME2‘s tight, buttery system. The multi-use context sensitive A button is one of the major problems here, and it’s asked to do much more than double duty, functioning as talk, interact, run, cover and evade all in one. This plethora of action assigned to a single button can cause major problems in the midst of battle, and I was constantly sticking against walls right in front of enemy fire when I actually wanted to roll out of harm’s way or dash to a safer spot.
It’s not a game-breaker by any means, and in truth, the combat is better than most other titles, but I feel that BioWare needed to re-think the controls a little, maybe putting cover and run/evade onto different buttons, thus eliminating the ‘sticky cover’ issues seen in many games before.
Speaking of cover, I found that a lot of cover wasn’t exactly dependable, and although you seem to be safe behind, say, a large chunk of debris, you can still take damage. This wasn’t problem in ME2.
The melee is also a little broken at times. Quick melee strikes are fine, but the charged power attack can easily miss its intended target, and the animation locks you in place, even if you miss, causing you to take damage, and in some situations, even die.
Still, knowing when it’s safe to use this balls-out attack is part of the games tactical challenge, so this isn’t a major problem, and is more about taking chances than a legitimate design issue.
Mass Effect 2 did away with a lot of ME1‘s RPG elements such as inventory management in order to deliver a more action-oriented and streamlined experience. ME3 largely follows suit here, but it does add a few new features. Again, you can find special armour parts around the galaxy, which you can equip for more armour bonuses, and you’ll also find weapon mods strewn around. Unlike before, however, these mods alter the look of weapons, and can only be attached at a gun bench.
Other changes include a revamped Normandy, which, after being repurposed by the System Alliance, has been redesigned with a few new features, including a war room, which ties in with the online component.
Travelling around the galaxy is also changed. You still use the galaxy map and control a miniature Normandy, but there’s no more mineral scanning (no doubt a relief for many). Instead, this is replaced by minimal scanning for simple bonuses and other, interesting discoveries, and the scanning mechanic also extends to space, where you can send out a scanning pulse to detect nearby anomalies. This can also attract Reaper attention though, so needs to be used carefully.
Characterisation and world building has always been one of Mass Effect‘s strengths, and it’s no different here. As much as I love the combat and action sections of the game, ME3‘s character interaction is simply superb and steals the show. As I said, this is heavily down to the excellent vocal performances, but also down to BioWare’s impeccable ability to craft deep, believable worlds.
It may sound like rampant hyperbole, but Mass Effect’s universe is easily equal to, if not even more interesting and accomplished than either Star Wars or Star Trek’s. As a huge fan of both sci-fi giants, I realise this is some claim, but Mass Effect’s universe is so well developed, with a back story to almost every race, planet and character, that you simply cannot help but be sucked in by it. These are people and places you actually care about, so if you loose a crew mate, you really do feel it. After all, if you’ve been playing since the first game, you’ve been around these guys a very long time.
This attachment is compounded by the excellent character import system. If you’ve played the previous games, you can import your character into ME3. This brings along not only character bonuses, such as skills and experience, but also drastically changes your world depending on the decisions you made in previous instalments.
Let a key character die in ME1? Then they’ll be dead here, with ramifications carrying on. Pursued a love interest in ME1 and changed your mind in ME2? You’ll see the effects here.
The fact that your actions in previous games makes such a notable change to how people perceive you, and to how events have unfolded by the time ME3 take place is impressive, and although this importing of characters isn’t new (BioWare has done it before), it works particularly well here.
The importer isn’t perfect, though, and as has already been reported, it’s prone to issues, especially for players bringing characters in from ME1. Although your various past decisions are left intact, visually you’ll get a more hit and miss result. My character, for example, looked okay, but the facial structure, hair and skin tone were incorrect. It’s not hard to put things right, however, so the complaints have been a little strong.
A lot of Mass Effect 3‘s story revolves around the gathering of resources and allies in the fight against the Reapers, and this continues into the online component. In fact, this aspect of the game is all about contributing to the greater good, and sees players partake in Horde-like rounds where teams face waves of enemies.
You can choose to play as a range of classes, including alien races like Krogan and Turian, and, contrary to the many worries fans had that Mass Effect was selling out and going multiplayer, it all works well.
The mixture of traditional ballistic combat coupled with biotics and other abilities makes for some great online action, and as this all contributes to your single player experience, it’s all the more rewarding, and makes for an interesting game dynamic.
The action itself isn’t groundbreaking, and it’s not going to be the next CoD, but it’s a nice addition that, as the developers often reassured fans, doesn’t get in the way, or detract from the main campaign. It’s simply an optional extra, and you can give it a go, or miss it out entirely as you see fit.
With a game as good as ME3, it’s easy to wax lyrical about it, and file it under the perfect game category. Indeed, ME3 doesn’t stray too far from this lofty goal, but it’s not quite as perfect as it first appears, and as much as I enjoyed the game, it does have issues, most notably in combat.
However, for all the things that Mass Effect 3 may do wrong, it does a multitude of things right, and the sheer quality of the story, and the world you’ll be enveloped in for a very long time, makes this one of the best games you’re likely to play, this year, or any other. It’s a truly worthy end to an already epic series.