Reviewed on XBOX 360
Chances are that if you’re reading this review, you probably have a pretty solid idea of what Mass Effect 3 is all about. Many of you out there have played the previous two installments and, in doing so, have created an entire narrative that defines your Commander Shepard. The choices that you have made for Shepard, whether male or female, have helped shape the galaxy and storyline in numerous ways. In Mass Effect 3, all of those decisions are about to come to a conclusion, bringing a satisfying sense of closure to the series while also leaving open the possibility to come back to this universe for future BioWare games. No matter what spoilers you may have heard about Mass Effect 3, and as controversial as some of the plot points may be, this doesn’t change the fact that the game is utterly fantastic.
Mass Effect 3 picks up six months after the events of Mass Effect 2. Commander Shepard has left the pro-humanity terrorist group Cerberus and is now back with the Alliance. However, because of the ties to Cerberus, Shepard has been suspended from active service, and the Normandy SR-2 spaceship has been impounded and is in the process of being retrofitted for Alliance use. All of that changes abruptly when the Reapers, a race of sentient machines, invade Earth in their campaign to eliminate organic life from the galaxy. Taking control of Commander Shepard, it falls on you to traverse the galaxy and rally as much support as possible from the other alien races, in the hopes of defeating the Reapers once and for all.
In an effort to help you save the galaxy more efficiently, BioWare has refined many of the game mechanics, seemingly combining the best aspects of the previous two games. The leveling system in Mass Effect 3 is one such example: it is not the daunting skill list of Mass Effect, nor is it as watered down and simplistic as it was in Mass Effect 2. Instead, you get a listing of abilities and powers like in ME2, but each of these powers can be customized to a small degree. The first three ranks in a skill are standard, but the final three ranks each give you two different options. So, for example, playing as my Vanguard I had the option to either make my Shockwave ability do more damage, or throw people into the air and hold them in place for a few seconds, giving me better crowd control. It’s a small tweak to the system, but it allows you to customize the combat to your particular needs and play style.
Upgrades and weaponry also got some tweaking this time around. Instead of each class having a specific set of weapons they can use, classes now have the option to use any type of weapon they want. Different weapons have different stats, including Damage, Accuracy, Capacity, Weight, and Fire Rate. Weight in particular adds an interesting new dynamic to the game: the weight of your collection of guns determines the recharge rate of your skills and abilities in combat. If you utilize a lot of guns, or take a few heavy ones, then it will take longer for you to recharge your powers. If you only take a few, you won’t have as many guns to fire, but your powers will recharge much more quickly. Weapons can be upgraded a maximum of five times, granting better stats with each “level up.” Additionally, guns can hold up to two different weapon mods that will give them unique properties. It’s a delicate balance and, like the new leveling system, it allows for a highly customized experience that’s tailored to your style of play.
Being that Mass Effect 3 is a giant war against a force that threatens the entire galaxy, you are going to need some help. The Normandy now sports a War Room that will give you information on what kind of military assets you have available to you. These include things like Starship fleets, Military ground forces, characters from previous games, and technology that can boost your troops. Obviously, the more of these resources that you have, the better your chances of defeating the Reapers at the end of the game. Some of these war assets are acquired during specific story missions, but the galaxy is littered with additional assets and upgrades outside of the main storyline areas. This is where planet scanning becomes a very important aspect of the game. There are hidden resources and upgrades in each planetary system, so there is definitely a push for you to explore and scan everything you see. You have to be careful, though, as the more you scan a system, the more likely the Reapers will notice what you are up to. Scan too much, and Reaper forces will pursue the Normandy until you escape or they capture and kill you.
Storywise, Mass Effect 3 does a very good job of bringing closure to the trilogy. Almost everything that you did in the previous games has a bearing on your ME3 story in some fashion. The people you helped will remember your generosity and feel inclined to aid you in your war efforts, while some of your more ruthless decisions will result in not having certain help available to you. For those players that are importing characters from the previous Mass Effect games, this means that you get a very personalized experience. New players, on the other hand, will be issued a “default” storyline, and certain content or missions will be unavailable to them without having played the previous games. There is a story codex that will provide background information on alien races, locations, plot points and more, which may be a bit daunting for new players. Even so, new players should be able to follow the main storyline without too much difficulty.
On the technical side of things, the game is a bit of a mixed bag. Graphically, the game looks better than it ever has. Especially on the XBOX 360, BioWare did a great job getting every last bit of power from the Unreal engine. They also did a much better job of improving the quality of how custom Shepard characters look and animate. Sound design and music are also very strong, allowing players to become completely immersed in the universe. Some problems arise, however, with freezes and hard lock ups that occasionally require a restart. In addition, some of the cutscenes and dialogue scenes suffer from such massive lag that they can become difficult to watch.
Kinect support on the XBOX 360 side is also hit or miss. The Kinect allows you to recite dialogue options to select them, order characters to move around the map, and even have your squad use certain powers and abilities. When it works, it’s absolutely amazing–you truly get a sense of what it feels like to “become” Commander Shepard. However, be very careful of how your room is setup; if you have a lot of people in the room talking, it can be difficult for the Kinect to discern your commands. Frustratingly, it will sometimes even misinterpret the game audio as you attempting to issue orders, which can lead to powers being activated when you don’t want it. The Kinect support is a great idea, and it works–but you really need a perfect setup to ensure that it works flawlessly.
The addition of multiplayer was a very controversial topic when it was first announced a few months ago. But once people played the demo, it became clear that this was not just some tacked-on feature. Mass Effect 3 multiplayer is a cooperative game mode that pits teams of up to four players against ten successive waves of enemy NPCs. In each match, players face off against Reapers, Geth and Cerberus soldiers, with each wave becoming progressively more difficult. Mission objectives change periodically throughout the match, forcing players to change position and to better coordinate their efforts to ensure that the team can survive.
Players can level up their multiplayer character(s) similarly to how it’s done in the Single Player campaign. Each match grants some experience to your character, which enables you to customize your skills and abilities. You also earn money during multiplayer matches, which allows you to buy packages containing weapon mods, single-use power ups, and even access to different races and classes. If all of that wasn’t enough to keep you engaged with multiplayer, consider this: your success online has an impact on your Commander Shepard in the offline campaign, as winning games will raise the military readiness of Shepard and his or her allies. In other words, investing time in multiplayer mode will assist you in obtaining the best possible ending in single player mode.
Speaking of the game’s ending(s), this portion of the game is likely to cause a lot of controversy. Obviously, I don’t want to delve into specific spoilers, but it’s easy to tell you that no matter what conclusion you get to Commander Shepard’s adventure, it will not be something that you are fully expecting. Even before the game was released, spoiler overviews of the game had fans and critics ranting and raving to anyone that would listen. I was able to get the best ending for the game, and I wasn’t all that happy with it initially. Yet, the more that I thought about it (and after I went through the ending one more time), I found myself really enjoying it and feeling like the choice that BioWare made was very bold and interesting. Even if players don’t like any of the game’s endings, the story that precedes them is so good that it is unfair to bash the overall game because of it.
Ending a story is hard. Bringing closure to a trilogy is even more difficult. One must strike a balance between seamlessly finalizing all of the plot points that have arisen throughout the series, and avoiding an ending that is unrealistically “perfect” to the point of cliché. Mass Effect 3‘s ability to end in a satisfying way for every player is further complicated by the wide variety of choices that each player has made over the span of three games–all of which must come together somehow.
Thankfully, BioWare was able to fully realize the potential of the Mass Effect series in this third installment, creating a game that is beautiful to look at, fun to play, and emotional to experience. The ending may indeed prove controversial; however, when you factor in the engrossing single player campaign, how your choices from the first and second games come together, and the addictive multiplayer mode, Mass Effect 3 is one hell of a game.