Mass Effect 3 is arguably the first big release of 2012. With that, it carries a great deal of excitement. But not only does it have to carry the hype of its own advertisement, it must shoulder the burden of a story that began over four years ago. Despite the enormity of this proposition, Mass Effect 3 almost lives up to it, providing a mostly satisfying ending to not only Commander Shepard, but your Commander Shepard. Never before has a series of games allowed you to carry a single character that is uniquely yours through three games. Obviously, there are things Mass Effect could have done better, but then it is the first of its kind. For that, it should be viewed with both commendation and reservation.
Despite its blockbuster scale, Mass Effect 3 tells an incredibly personal tale. The game is littered with references to your actions from the first two games. And whereas Mass Effect 2 only feels as though it is flavored by your actions in the previous game, the variables in Mass Effect 3 really feel like they make a difference. Even the most minuscule actions can have some interesting consequence in this final chapter of Commander Shepard. The game picks up roughly six months after the end of Mass Effect 2 with Shepard having been stripped of his or her title and ship due to actions from the second game and it is downloadable content. But the Reapers, an ancient race of machines, have arrived on Earth to wipe everything out and Shepard is reinstated with the task of uniting the galaxy in order to fend off the Reaper threat.
To explain too much of Mass Effect’s story specifics would diminish the greatest part of the game. Characters close to you will give their lives for the sake of the battle and other relationships will deepen as you play the game. I've never cared so much about digital characters as I did in Mass Effect. It is to suffice to say that it is epic in every sense of the word.
Mass Effect 3 plays like a much more refined and full-fledged version of Mass Effect 2. Your inventory is no longer limited to just a handful of weapons, with welll over 30 weapons, each with multiple modifications and upgrades. Armor customization also plays a bigger part with far more variants and combination options than previously. But more important than either of these are the improvements made to both the way the combat feels and how you level up your character.
Mass Effect 3 is much snappier and fast paced than either of the previous games. Aiming is easier and powers have a much more impactful feel to them. The speed that your biotic and tech abilities zoom towards your targets simply makes everything feel more immediate. Commander Shepard also feels faster and more agile this time around with the addition of an evasive roll. The ability to roll has saved my life on several occasions, but it has also caused my death just as many times. For example, on several occasions I would try to get into cover only to roll away from it and into combat. Checkpoints are frequent enough that it never became too big of a pain, and the addition of being able to auto save by pressing the Back or Select button also helps.
While the shooting is good, I would not put it on equal terms with a Gears of War game. There’s still something that feels a little unpolished. Thankfully, Mass Effect 3 comes with a much-improved character leveling system. Like the first Mass Effect, ME3 has level cap of 60. And if you’re importing from Mass Effect 2 you’ll actually start at the level you reached in that game. Otherwise, you start at zero. Each ability you level up has six levels to upgrade. The last three levels of each ability actually split, allowing you to customize your play-style further.
The increased customization of your character is definitely an improvement from Mass Effect 2, but it also harkens back to the depth of the original game. The action, while better than ever, is tough to not compare to other shooters and see where it falls short. ME3 is definitely a hybrid of two types of games. Because of that, it loses some of what makes each of those genres great.
Mass Effect 3 for the Xbox 360 does feature some Kinect features allowing you to activate power, order around squad mates and even interact with the environment with only your voice. It works, but I found myself repeating my words more often than not and I also noticed a delay to action that is not present when using buttons to enable the same actions. Mass Effect 3 doesn’t provide a great or more streamlined experience by using Kinect. But it’s there if you want it, and it is sort of serviceable.
The biggest addition that ME3 brings to its franchise is probably its most unremarkable: the multiplayer. Multiplayer is a four-person wave-based survival mode. You can level-up your characters just like you can in the campaign but without quite as much flexibility and cap at level 20. Certain powers are relegated to particular races, essentially serving as class load-outs. The multiplayer fits into the story by raising your Galactic Readiness, but is not at all necessary for completing the game. Within the story mode, you can raise your raw military strength by doing both main and side missions. Your Galactic Readiness determines the percentage of that raw military strength that you can utilize. The multiplayer is not bad by any means, but nowhere else in the game does it draw more comparison to other shooters and thus seems to fall that much shorter of attaining the level of polished action it sets out for.
For the most part this is the best any Mass Effect has ever looked. The facial animations are more expressive and the vistas are more jaw dropping. But with this, the lens flare has also increased and I can only take so much lens flare. Still, the game looks great.
But what captured my attention more than anything is the directed nature of the game. Transitions between action and dialogue are incredibly smooth, making them feel natural, not like you’re playing the combat portion and then the story portion and then the combat portion again. Cut scenes have also seen a noticeable bump in cinematography. Characters pace, use gestures and walk in and out of scene with a noticeable Hitchcockian flare, making what characters say that much more engaging. And the voice acting behind all that is seriously top notch. You won’t be skipping dialogue while playing this game.
One area that doesn’t necessarily the graphics but nonetheless provides a more pleasing visual aesthetic is the diminished time that you will be watching load screens. Now, each mission features a short briefing as you travel towards your object in the form of a video feed in your shuttle. This not only makes every mission feel more important but seems to help hide loading. Loading is also hidden behind pre-rendered cut scenes that depict you traveling to a particular area, which keeps you looking at the game more than loading screens. I’m not sure that was true for Mass Effect 2.
The story is the fun part. The gameplay of Mass Effect 3 may not be as deep or as polished as I’d like, but it is not at all why anyone should play it. ME3 provides a personal and emotional conclusion to a great trilogy. And while that’s almost as much as I need to say, I want to address the game’s end in a spoiler-free way. This game’s end is not just the end to one game, but to three. The story ends in such a way that it actually seems to diminish the importance of some of your decisions. At first, it seems like it doesn’t matter what you did before; the ending is dependent solely on the choice you make in that moment. There are only a few endings to the game. While this may seem like a horrible thing, it’s not.
Traditionally, we want RPGs to provide a plethora of endings that represent all the possible variables, all the decisions we’ve made along the way. This idea can be represented by multiple straight lines extending from a point on a flat surface. Each line will continue in a direction that causes it to never intersect with another line in the same manner as spokes on a bicycle wheel. But in a story with as many variables as Mass Effect, this is simply impossible. Mass Effect is instead like several straight lines diverging from one point on a sphere and meeting at the same point on the other side of the sphere. Like the seams on a beach ball, all of those lines will intersect but the difference between each line is not where it ends, but the journey it takes to that point.
All of your actions lead you to this end no matter what choices you’ve made. Thus, while the number of endings may seem small considering the vast amount of influence that Shepard has had over the course of the series, the choices you are faced with in the end actually apply directly to who the Shepard you have created is. The game is so ambitious in allowing you to see one unique character across three games that in the final choice is offered, the game buckles under its own weight.
Mass Effect 3 thus puts the onus heavily on you, the player, asking you to truly role-play. What would Commander Shepard do? The choices you have made are actually incredibly important in this final decision because with them you have crafted a Shepard that can really only choose one of them. In those final moments of the game, I knew which choice to make not because of what I would do but because only one of those options was logical when looking back at all the decisions I had made before it.
And because of that, Mass Effect 3 provides a gripping and chilling end to the best science fiction of the past decade.
In many ways, Mass Effect 3 is the game Mass Effect 2 should have been. It is a better hybrid of the role-playing and shooter genres and it tells a much better story. But the impact the story can have on the player is really limited to the player’s prior exposure to the game’s fiction. I can’t imagine that a shooting contest with Garrus, rekindling my romance with Ashley or finally seeing the home worlds of some of my favorite alien species would have meant as much, if anything, without having had the buildup of the previous two games. Recommending Mass Effect 3 without advising that you first play Mass Effect 1 and 2 would be like recommending that you learn to drive before having learned how to walk. It just doesn’t make sense.
Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic game and an even greater achievement upon the landscape of video games that is only held back by some small gameplay issues and its own grandeur. Honestly, the worst part of the game is knowing that there will be no Mass Effect 4 to import my Shepard into. It’s like saying goodbye to a friend and it is an experience that, while sort of heart aching, every single person who plays video games should have. But it’s nothing without its predecessors. So do yourself a favor, start with the original Mass Effect and see this story through to the end. There is nothing else quite like it.
Jonathan is the host of the DarkCast, DarkCast Interviews, and Gamers Read. He loves books, video games, and superheroes. If he had to pick favorites, they would be Welcome to the Monkey House, Mass Effect, and Superman respectively.