Overview Mass Effect 3 serves as the final chapter of Commander Shepard’s story and his fight against the Reapers. Despite constant warnings and evidence of their impending arrival, the ancient machines have launched their deadly assault on the universe in order to end the Cycle. Things get personal for Commander Shepard due to the Reaper attack on Earth and witnessing the deaths of hundreds of people. Seeking the aid of the Council, Shepard’s request for help is denied in favor of a “every race for itself” mentality (I, once again, regret saving them). Armed with the recently refitted Normandy SR-2, Shepard and his crew launch a last ditched effort to save the galaxy.
I’ve come to learn that Mass Effect games are kind of hard to review because of how large a role choice plays in how the main narrative will unfold and tailor your feelings for certain crew members. Your Commander Shepard will be different than my Shepard. Those who lived in my game died in yours. Given all these variables I won’t go into much detail about the plot because chances are it won’t match. I also don’t want to spoil some of the epic moments you’ll get to experience in the game.
Compared to the last two games, where the promise and potential of humanity was celebrated as they travelled among the stars, Mass Effect 3 is decidedly apocalyptic. There are few moments of levity in the game and there are times when the bleak tone gets dangerously overwhelming. That said, Mass Effect 3 works hard to elicit an emotional response from the player and if you’ve been with the series from the very beginning, that response will most likely be greater than those just coming into the franchise. Mass Effect 3’s narrative is truly exceptional, it addressed the series’ numerous loose ends and provides satisfying closures to conflicts and relationships. On the other hand, the game itself isn’t nearly as exciting or engaging thanks to it largely being a retread of Mass Effect 2.
Mass Effect has undergone some serious gameplay changes since its 2007 debut. Originally an action game with heavy role playing elements, Mass Effect 2 changed things considerably by tossing out many RPG components in favor of refined gun play and a cover system. Little has changed in Mass Effect 3 as it continues on the path of largely being a third person shooter. There are still side quests, a levelling up system and basic weapon modification, but it hardly resembles the game that existed prior to Mass Effect 2.
The structure of the game is based on Shepard seeking aid from the different races of the galaxy. However, before they can offer their assistance, Shepard must play errand boy and help solve their problems first. You’ll hop from one hot spot and another, appeasing races and settling old grudges before they will join your fleet. Although this setup seems trite, thankfully the tasks you will perform are almost always epic in scope and conflicts that have served as primary motivations and rallying cries for particular races since the first game (and long before that) finally get resolved. Apart from primary and secondary missions, you’ll pick up smaller side quests from various NPCs looking to score some artifacts or other non-mission specific items. These individuals will tell you where you can locate these items of interest, requiring you to fly to a particular star system and scan the area.
I understand everyone under the sun hated the mineral hunting mini-game in Mass Effect 2, but I really enjoyed it. It was a nice opportunity to escape from the high octane action sequences and engage in a good, old fashioned Easter egg hunt. The much maligned system of scanning planets has been replaced with a more superficial (simplified or dumbed down depending on how you feel) process that involves flying to a system, scanning the area and listening for EDI to tell you when she’s found something. If she’s found something on a planet, you’ll be sent to the last game’s planet scanning interface in order to search for the object. You won’t have to look very hard or for too long, as an indicator points you in the direction of the object. Planets will never have more than one artifact and you’ll never actually land on the surface, so you don’t have to worry about missing anything. To keep things interesting, you’ll have to take the Reaper’s presence in the system into account as they will come after you when your constant scanning attracts their attention. Fleeing the system will allow you to escape but if they manage to capture you, it’s game over. After you fly out of the system, the Reapers won’t disappear from the area until you complete a mission.
When you pick up an artifact or any other miscellaneous object for an NPC, you’ll be rewarded with money, experience points and War Assets. Unlike Mass Effect 2, the success of your mission isn’t dependent on how much you beef up the Normandy. In order to fight the Reapers on Earth, you’re going to need to build a sizable fleet. Completing primary and secondary missions will yield significantly larger Assets than NPC quests. You can keep track of your War Assets and total military strength within the war room on the Normandy and these numbers will certainly affect how things will play out in the final mission. Apart from Military Strength, there is a Galactic Readiness indicator that, at the start of the game, has a rating of 50%. To increase the readiness in various sectors, you’ll need to play multiplayer. Thankfully, this doesn’t have too much of an impact on the main game so multiplayer is purely optional (more on this later).
It wouldn’t be a Mass Effect game without choice and you’ll be making a lot of important decisions that will have a significant impact on you (via Paragon and Renegade options), your crew, allies and the war effort. Characters old and new will look to you for orders and your moral stances will change the nature of missions. Some decisions are lighter than others, but expect to spend some a few moments weighing options and possible consequences.
I just noticed that I’ve gone this deep into the review without discussing combat. That’s because it is, more or less, the same as the previous game. Little innovation has been made (if at all) and it doesn’t offer the same leap Mass Effect 2 did. Combat isn’t as graceful as other cover based shooters, but it’s competent and moving from cover to cover feels as though it has been improved, with Shepard’s movements feeling much more responsive on the keyboard than before. The in-game inventory is still gone, replaced by a weapon loadout screen that allows you to assign weapons to your party members and equip mods that boost gun performance such as decreased weapon weight and and ammo effectiveness. Unique to Mass Effect 3 is the implementation of a weight system that affects how often you can use certain abilities. Although you can easily turn Shepard into a walking munitions depot by setting a weapon in every available slot, you’ll be forced to contend with extended cooldown periods for your biotic powers.
The Mass Effect series is known for presenting a beautifully realized universe filled with distinctive alien races, sprawling and complex megacities and the cold, hard fringes of colony space. Although each game is a visual marvel in its own right, Mass Effect 3 stands as the best looking game in the franchise. I can’t say how it looks on the consoles, but the PC version offers up stunning visuals. If you ever have an opportunity to play it on PC, give it a look. Screenshots and game videos don’t do this gorgeous game justice. I’ve always loved Mass Effect’s lens flared vision of the future and I’m happy to see that the look has stayed consistent across all three games.
The design of the characters that return from previous adventures have changed very little, but the two exceptions are Ashley Williams and Captain Anderson. Ashley Williams looks noticeably more sexualized with her hair no longer tied up, but flowing down over the shoulders of her new uniform which accentuates her womanly form more than her previous gear. Captain Anderson has changed dramatically and if you compare his design from Mass Effect 1 and 2 with the third game, he looks startlingly different. Shepard’s newest squad member, James Vega falls a bit flat and looks too much like a thick necked, beefcake caricature. There’s a great looking character included with the day one DLC, From Ashes, but in the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, I won’t mention it.
There are some really nifty looking monster designs in the game that are worth mentioning. For a franchise that had you mostly fighting Geth, humans and aliens, you'll now be forced to contend with monstrosities created by the Reapers using various alien species including the Batarians, Turians, Asari and Rachni. The Asari-based Banshee is probably the most terrifying creature you'll see in the game.
Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic experience and excels beyond the two that came before it. The characters feel decidedly better written and the game’s script is exceptional. Commander Shepard seems to have changed a bit this time around as he doesn’t feel so much like an avatar for your moralistic desires. The Reaper attack on Earth has affected him far more than the attack on the Citadel or the Collector raids on human colonies. He’s haunted by nightmares of those who died on Earth and his interactions with the crew of the Normandy and the races of the galaxy seem far more emotionally charged than ever before. Even if you choose to play the game strictly as a Paragon, you’ll discover that he’s got a new, darker and harder edge.
In all of the trilogies I have experienced throughout my life, I have yet to see one that introduces so much closure for such a wide range of characters in the final chapter. The cameos by those who survived the Suicide Mission appeal to or stumble upon Commander Shepard’s path and these small vignettes are not simple “I’m saying hello to say goodbye” affairs. Instead, you’ll help them tie up very personal loose ends that have defined who they are.
I only wish the gameplay could be as good as the narrative. Combat never really felt exciting because it doesn’t offer anything new. The game’s missions are of the “Go here, shut off/destroy/rendezvous at X, meet Y and blow up/escape to/from Z” variety that was featured prominently in Mass Effect 2. This was fine then considering how different it felt from Mass Effect 1, but having to do all that over again just made things seem dull. What really stuck in my craw was the game’s overuse of the “Defend X while he/she disables/repairs/hacks/set detonators on Y” sequences that must have come up at least half a dozen times during my twenty three hour adventure. Such lazy and uninspired sequences made me wonder if BioWare simply ran out of ideas. If they show up in DLC missions, I just may not bother with them.
I couldn’t help but feel slightly overwhelmed with the sheer number of quests that populate the in-game Journal. All of your missions can be found here and every time you walk past certain people in the Citadel, a new quest will automatically appear in the log. Thumbing through the massive list, I felt the same kind of pressure from Skyrim to get things done. Adding to that pressure was the constant reminders that Earth is in trouble. Admiral Hackett keeps asking you to deliver supplies and Captain Anderson will often tell you the people of Earth are in desperate need of help. I did all I could to boost my War Assets and effectiveness in order to get the best ending, but with all the weight placed on my shoulders it seems ridiculous to devote time trying to hook Joker up with one of the Normandy’s crew.
The worst part of having so many things to do is that if you hold off on doing a secondary mission in order to do something else, you may very well lose your chance to complete them forever. At an early point of the game, your personal assistant alerts you to suspicious transmissions coming from a Cerberus academy and that I should investigate. I opted to hold off on the mission for the time being as I focused on securing Turian aid. Some time after, I spoke to my assistant who said something to the effect of, “You didn’t check out the academy signal, Cerberus took over. Let’s pray there were survivors.” Wait, what? I was being timed on this? That didn’t seem right. Oh well, it probably was a short and ultimately pointless mission. Come to find out, I talked to a friend about this and told me that the mission was quite sizable and involved getting to use some heavy Cerberus ordinance. This made me marginally upset because the only way I could play the mission was to start a new game.
And then there’s multiplayer. The much discussed mode doesn’t affect the story in any great way and is built very much like Gears of War’s Horde Mode, tasking you and three other players to survive wave based attacks from Cerberus and Reaper enemies in various locations found in the main game. From time to time, the game will mix things up by having your squad locate and interact with four beacons. Picking your class is important (pro tip: people will kick you out of the game if you choose the Soldier class) and you’ll want to create a character that has a good selection of offensive and defensive capabilities. Like many multiplayer modes of the generation, you’ll earn experience points for kills and successful completion of a round. These points feed into a levelling system that will grant access to better weapons and powers. Time spent in multiplayer will also increase the Galactic Readiness, though it is never implied how large an effect this has on Shepard’s military strength. At best, multiplayer is a diversion. I didn’t particularly enjoy my time with it and doubt I will go back.
From a narrative standpoint, Mass Effect 3 offers an satisfying experience and conclusion to the story BioWare started in 2007 (though if you’ve been online lately, you’ll find many that aren’t too thrilled with the ending). For a series that centers its experience around the survival of characters and the choices you’ve made in previous games, it does a fine job managing all sorts of variables and presents strong, emotional and - best of all - fitting conclusions to the lives Commander Shepard has influenced. There’s a lot of heart and soul crammed into the story, which makes this game such a joy to play through.
If you’ve been playing Mass Effect from the very beginning and have been transferring your saves, you stand to get the best experience possible with Mass Effect 3. Characters you have chosen to live will make cameo appearances and even join your crew. You can even re-romance characters you’ve met before, old passions can be stoked or love can be found with a new partner of either sex or species. My game had every member of the Suicide Mission crew survive and I’ve enjoyed the moments of respite with them, whether it’s shooting cans off the top of the Presidium with Garrus or having a quiet moment with Liara in the captain’s cabin. To me, these ended up being the best parts of the game.
Initial reporting on Mass Effect 3 mentioned that BioWare was interested in making the game more accessible to those who haven’t played the previous two games. While that is possible, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it given that it is easy to be confused about certain events that have roots as far back as the first game. If you start a fresh game, you’ll be prompted to select from a list of scenarios and make decisions. Clicking “yes” or “no” is a bit of a disservice both to the player and the game itself. Choosing who lived or died from a menu won’t yield the same sort of emotional response for those who anguished over the decision to either let Kaidan or Ashley die or forced to see Mordin, Jack, Miranda or whoever be killed during the Suicide Mission. Appealing to a new audience is never a bad thing, but doing so for the last game in a trilogy probably wasn’t the best idea. The game doesn’t really suffer too much for that, but the end product just feels...lacking.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.