Final parts of trilogies are tricky things – the expectation of payoff, both in terms of plot and emotion, and the hope that the quality won’t drop just as we reach the final hurdle. There’s the chance that while we hope for a The Return of the King, more often than not that third act can be a massive disappointment (see Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Matrix Revolutions). So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I unboxed Mass Effect 3 last week. The final act of Bioware’s sci-fi odyssey (as opposed to their OTHER sci-fi odyssey) has been my most anticipated game since… well since about 30 seconds after the end of Mass Effect 2. But can it end the saga on a high note…or does the world end with a whimper?
Taking place roughly 6 months after the end of ME2, we find Commander Shepard on Earth facing charges of destroying an entire star system to stop an imminent Reaper (huge squid-like synthetic life forms that wipe the galaxy clean of higher organic life every 50,000 years) invasion. However the charges are quickly dropped when the Reapers invade Earth en masse, carving a path of devastation across the planet. Shepard narrowly escapes and is charged with amassing a galactic alliance capable of striking back and reclaiming Earth.
At which point I can no longer tell you anything about the plot or the characters as I have no way of knowing if you’ll ever see them. Mass Effect 3 allows you to import your finished game save from Mass Effect 2 which in turn allowed you to import from Mass Effect 1. This means that depending on decisions you could have made up to 4 YEARS ago, plot lines, side characters and party members may be different or not even there. At one point, a decision that I made quickly in ME2 meant that instead of a gaining a unified force from an alien race, they were splintered with infighting and were nowhere near the deadly offensive ally I had hoped for.
Decisions like this make ME3 incredibly unique for each person that plays, sometimes to the detriment of being able to talk about them. At least one conversation I’ve had over the last couple of days has gone very much like this Penny Arcade comic (Warning, there will be swearing). Don’t misunderstand though–the central plot of the game will be fairly unchanged no matter what, with your decisions within ME3 being the biggest influence as to how events unfold. While it would have been nice to allow previous decisions to have a much greater impact, and some still can, to incorporate them all would have made the game incredibly unwieldy to not only play, but create.
So speaking of playing, how does it hold up? Well the answer is quite simple: Incredibly well. Combat has taken all the cues given by ME2 and tweaked them just enough to make them faster and more intuitive. The new weapons system allows any class access to all weapons, balancing power recharge rate with available firepower. Playing as a biotic-wielding adept, I found going into battle with a powerful assault rifle while smacking people with telekinetic shockwaves incredibly satisfying. Difficulty has definitely been ramped up a bit too with Normal mode feeling much more challenging than its predecessor. More than once I found myself completely overrun by enemies who had outflanked me, especially in the later stages of the game.
Gone, happily, is the incredibly annoying planet scanning mechanic used to gather resources in ME2, replaced by a pulse scan that picks up possible resources in the star system. However, repeated use of this scan can alert Reaper forces to your location, requiring you to hightail it in order to avoid premature annihilation. There’s also a vast improvement to the much maligned (read: non-existent) inventory system. Now there is a huge array of new weapons to choose from, each with its own modular upgrades, allowing everyone to customize not only Shepard’s load out, but each squad member’s too. Also added to the Xbox 360 version is Kinect voice functionality–allowing you to issue commands to your squad for attacking and power use simply by telling them what to do. While it worked very well for the most part, it had enough issues with a Scottish accent shouting “Warp!” and “Overload!” that I eventually turned it off. It also allows you to pick conversation options by actually saying them out loud, which was a nice way of immersing yourself in the story even further.
Another addition to the franchise is the Galaxy at War co-op multiplayer. Taking a squad of four to fight 10 waves of objective-based combat may sound like it’s been ripped from Gears of War’s Horde mode or Halo’s Firefight–but this is a much richer experience. With the same leveling and weapon system as the main game, customization is key. I built an Asari adept armed only with a pistol; but once I’d leveled up a few powers, I was a powerhouse throwing enemies left and right. The emphasis is really on teamwork in this mode, with players being easily overwhelmed and picked off unless they learn to work together. It’s fast replaced Assassin’s Creed: Revelations as my go-to multiplayer game. Also, in order to give a greater scope to the multiplayer, your victories here count toward your Galactic Readiness level in the single player, allowing you a greater advantage in your fight against the Reapers.
Mass Effect 3 is a stellar achievement, marrying story, gameplay and character work better than most games can dream of. It’s an epic end to the trilogy, already my game of the year, and is unlikely to shift from that position anytime soon. Bioware has to be credited with how well they’ve used the story and characters to evoke emotional responses from the player. Many times throughout my initial playthrough there were moments that I’m not ashamed to say made me more than a little teary–and that’s the key to Mass Effect 3: Bioware has written a story, but allowed you to tell it in your own way. Your decisions shape not only Shepard, but the fate of every race in the galaxy–from a political scale, down to the friends you’ve had since ME1. The feel of the stakes rising with every deal made and planet invaded is palpable from early on–and as you continue you realize that there will be a price to pay. You’re not looking forward to the bill coming, but you’ll damn well enjoy getting there.
Mass Effect 3 is out now on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.