Mass Effect 3 is the conclusion to the brilliant sci-fi RPG series detailing Commander Shepard’s efforts to save the galaxy from total destruction. Or at least partial destruction—you can never trust a bad guy to do this sort of thing right. You’ve probably already heard and read many dissenting opinions about the game, so I imagine you’re asking why you should read mine. Because I’m entertaining, that’s why. Also, I have some good, common-person common-sense opinions. So read on.
The Mass Effect universe is a beautifully-crafted masterpiece, filled with diverse alien species, multitudes of star systems and planets, missions and battles galore, heroic heroes, villainous villains, and an epic story so epically epic that it all but puts Star Wars to shame. In fact, some people have called Mass Effect the Star Wars of our generation. Personally, Mass Effect has always brought another great sci-fi game to mind: Star Control II. The main series of Mass Effect has now come to an end (well, the bits of the series that feature Shepard—Bioware assures us that they’re not done with the Mass Effect universe), and of course I’ll be writing this review with the assumption that you’ve played at least the first two games and have an understanding of what’s gone past. I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the first two games, of course, but I can’t promise anything beyond trying to avoid spoilers for the current game.
For the sake of a little background, the Mass Effect series has mutated past the core video game series and, like any great series (and also like a few less great ones), now encompasses its own series of books, comics, spin-off games (mostly iOS games), and even a definite upcoming fan film (actually starring Mark Meer, the voice actor behind male Shepard), and a possible big budget feature film backed by such names as Thomas Tull (founder of Legendary Pictures), Avi Arad (CEO of Marvel Studios…yes, the same “Marvel” as Marvel Comics), and scriptwriter Mark Protosevich (who also penned the scripts for I Am Legend and Thor, amongst other films).
Mass Effect 3 follows the events of the prior game and sees Shepard gathering allies and resources much in the way one would gather Pokemon. All this gathering and befriending is, of course, in preparation for the inevitable war with the Reapers. The game also includes a new 4-player co-op multiplayer aspect that ties into the single-player campaign, more about that later. All told, and if you import save games from both prior Mass Effect games, Mass Effect 3 pulls in well over a thousand different variables and decisions. That’s about all I’m going to say about the plot. There! Majority of spoilers averted!
The gameplay within the solo campaign is not the drastic difference that the change between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 was. For one thing, the weapons still use the same “cartridge-based” ammo system, and powers and stats haven’t changed much from the second game. One nice change, however, is that combat has been refined somewhat, so you can at least run around the battlefield and melee opponents, as opposed to trenching yourself into cover in the second game.
If you’re playing the Xbox 360 version of the game, you’re in for a much bigger change than the others: Mass Effect 3 supports a series of vocal commands—provided you have a Kinect attached. The vocal commands were far more prolific than I’d thought. Yes, you say things like “Use”, “Open”, and “Pick up”, but you can also give orders to your squadmates while in battle. So instead of bringing up the weapon or powers wheel interfaces, you simply yell out “Liara, Singularity!” and she uses her singularity ability, if she’s able. Or you could yell, “Transformers, roll out!” You COULD yell that. It just wouldn’t do anything. But there’s still nothing stopping you. The clever chaps at Bioware have also given you the ability to answer any of Shepard’s dialogue options verbally, removing the necessity of pinpointing the answer you want with the analogue stick. Seriously, this is possibly the best use of the Kinect that I’ve seen so far. It’d have been disastrous if they’d added motion controls to the game, like having to hold up an imaginary gun and going “pew pew pew!” to fire, so we’re quite glad that Kinect integration stops at vocal commands.
Another interesting change—I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it’s a good or a bad change—is the way you scan planets. Not all planets are scannable, and this time you’re not after raw materials like you were in Mass Effect 2. Instead, you’re after resources for the war effort, and as opposed to scanning an entire planet inch by inch, you scan a solar system. You can’t scan at will, however. Firstly, Will doesn’t answer to scans, and secondly, if you scan too many times, you risk casting “Summon Reaper”. Either that, or the Reapers hear your scans and come scurrying to investigate. The end result is the same, though: press the “Scan” button too many times, and suddenly you’re chest deep in Reapers and trying to bugger off for another star system as fast as your engines can carry you. Successful scans show up on screen, allowing you to investigate whatever anomaly you’ve found. What’s useful is that there’s an indicator to let you know how many of the hidden objects you’ve located in any given solar system, allowing you to know when to stop giving the Reapers the “come hither”. [Ed: I understand that the Reapers find the Normandy a sexy little beast...Rule 34, and all that.]
The multiplayer segment of Mass Effect 3 is a squad-based, co-op affair. You initially start out with only human character classes available to you, but with play, you earn points with which you are able to unlock more races, classes, gear, and each race and class has definite advantages and disadvantages compared to the others. The missions themselves are similar to Gears of War‘s Horde mode, where you have to fend off wave after wave of enemies. The “Kill All The Things!” waves are interspersed with bouts of more mission-based waves, but still involve making sure you don’t get taken out by the foes. The last wave is an “extraction point” wave, where you all have to hold a point on the map ostensibly until the dropship comes to fetch you (read: until the timer runs out).
Unlike Gears of War, none of the existing characters from the solo campaign are playable in multiplayer. You create a whole new character (or set of characters, if you wish!) for multiplayer. Levelling up works the same as in single player, but you only have two guns and three powers available to you. Furthermore, you can also promote levelled up characters from the multiplayer campaign to the solo campaign, improving your galactic readiness and bolstering the war effort. Since the level cap is set at 20, it means you’re constantly creating new characters and sending them onward.
I think it’s worth spending a little time talking about the ending to the game. If you don’t want any potential spoilers, you might want to skip this paragraph..and possibly the next. Go on…I’ll catch you after the pretty picture. After playing Mass Effect 3 to its inevitable conclusion, I went back and started reading through a bunch of articles and opinions I’d saved for when I finished the game. I wanted to understand what had the fans of the game so incensed. I certainly didn’t feel that way, but part of that could have been because I’d been told to expect an ending so bad that I’d go into a catatonic coma just trying to deal with it. I know what it feels like to have one excellent game spoiled by a single really, really crappy ending or experience (if you ever want to hear me complain, mention the game Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits for PS2. That game REALLY gets me cross, and all for a single, solitary reason.)
What felt weird for me was that I’ve not seen a fan reaction like this in a while. What it seems to boil down to is this: given the sheer amount of choices and moral decisions that you’ve taken Shepard through over the course of three games, many of the fans felt that nothing up until this point was of any consequence, given the dearth of decisions that Shepard was given. Yes, there are around seven endings, each marginally different from each other, but after a bit of thought, I came to a few conclusions. Yes, the endings might have been somewhat lacking and a bit “cliffhangerish”, given the fate of the Normandy and of the Mass Relays. Fair enough also, though, for Bioware to have said that this game wasn’t the last foray into the Mass Effect universe—I’m keen to see how the story will continue past the game’s ending, and that’s always something to look forward to. But it’s also true that the game’s final decisions were a little…well…lacking in terms of taking the overall experience and summarizing it. Last point for now: I think it’d take Bioware another year or two to build enough conclusions and endings that took enough of the significant decisions into account. It was simply a matter of time and money, I imagine. Everything I have to say about this debacle would take up another article and a bit, I think, so I’ll leave things here.
Overall, I think that this game is a brilliant way to end Shepard’s story—ending notwithstanding. I dearly HOPE that Bioware are going to keep the Mass Effect universe alive, because I’ve come to grow really attached to the place and the people. If you’ve been involved with the series from the start, you are going to want to see how it ends, for better or for worse (hint: the more prepared you are, the better it goes). If you’re just joining us for the ride…I really suggest you go all the way back to the beginning and start afresh. It’s one of the best stories that I’ve experienced in a long time, and for once, I’m glad that the multiplayer isn’t the same ol’ “PvP, King of the Hill, CTF” assembly that we see in so many other games. And if you DO happen to foray into Mass Effect 3 on the Xbox, give me a shout…I’ll be glad to watch your back in the multiplayer.
Final Score: 9 sci-fi prawns out of 10
Distributor: EA South Africa
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PC
RRP: R599 (PS3 and 360—R699 for the N7 collector’s edition), R399 (PC)
Age Rating: 18+