Publisher: Electronic Arts
Game Rating: M (Mature)
Players: 1 to 4
How does one write a fair review of something as big as Mass Effect 3? When the game landed last March, it wasn’t so much a product launch as it was a megaton marketing blast over a groundswell of fan-generated buzz that would make most game developers weak in the knees. The whole circus of trailers, trailers of trailers, space editions, blog posts and Facebook campaigns made it the first real crossover hit by some accounts. Others called it the year’s biggest blockbuster. Or first blockbuster, or… you get the idea.
So what happened? How could “75 Perfect Scores” and yadda yadda yadda morph so quickly into myriad complaints, grassroots efforts to get the ending changed and general vitriol being thrown at Edmonton? Who knows, but I have a suspicion about just how much of the game early reviewers actually played--because everything you may have read about the ending is true. It’s broken, no matter which immaterial choice you make at the end. Or at any point through the preceding 2 3/4 games. And it’s too bad, because when Bioware isn’t stomping on continuity, character development or dramatic structure, the game’s great--if unevenly so.
As the prologue opens, Shepard is cooling his heels (or her heels, depending on your Shepard) in Alliance custody for his activities in the previous game. The action picks up pretty quickly, though: The Reapers arrive on Earth, kicking ass and taking names. Once you crawl over the toasted remains of the Alliance brass, you fight your way off the planet, leaving Anderson to coordinate the resistance at home.
Combat is somewhat improved over the previous games, though it’s more evolutionary than revolutionary. Some enhancements are concrete, like the ability to dive from cover to cover, or the new AI aggressiveness. Some of the goodies are less substantial, though--like biotic and tech effects that look cooler and weapons that act more… uh, weapony. That being said, if I’m holding an assault rifle that shoots grenades, it shouldn’t take three shots to down a Cerberus trooper. They’re grenades, fer gossakes.
Also, the cover system ain’t getting any less unwieldy. Anyone who ever spacebarred to sprint away from an enemy in an earlier game, only to hunker down against an adjacent wall and get perforated by bullets will find Mass Effect 3’s expanded gymnastic possibilities an infuriating experience. Again, Bioware’s geniuses stuffed the whole thing onto the X button (or spacebar). It was a boneheaded choice in previous games; now it’s just insulting.
Personnel-wise, you get some of your old crew back from the Cerberus-branded Normandy, but only if they were companions from the first time you saved the galaxy or computer constructs from the second time 'round. The rest of your ME 2 pals are only available as temporary teammates or incidental chatter. The remaining crew is a mix of friends from the original ship and new faces. And while Liara is an extremely welcome teammate, the fact is that neither Kaidan nor Ashley are as remarkable or fleshed-out as their ME 2 analogues. In the first game, I let Kaidan die because he was the boring crewmember I wasn’t romancing. And while bringing Ashley back is a nice shot at closure, she just isn’t a very stimulating character. Her Mass Effect 2 counterpart, Miranda Lawson, is a different story: From her first appearance as a dark-side femme fatale, Miranda undergoes fundamental change until she finally leaves Cerberus at the game’s denouement. Ashley, on the other hand, remains the same vaguely interesting soldier from stem to stern.
Your choice of romancible teammates is similarly ho-hum. Both Shepards get the usual collection of possibilities from previous games, plus two overtly gay characters for those who find that a compelling choice. Liara’s back, for players who think that subverting the whole gender issue is kinda cool, and if you went for Tali the first and second times… well, you’re probably the type who macked on Merrill in Dragon Age 2. In a general sense, romance in Mass Effect has always been a case of building up expectations, then slamming into a fade-to-black or an after-school-special-grade love scene. True to form, ME 3 is the high-school hottie who dresses like a tart and flirts like a total filthnugget, but still won’t let you peek up her skirt. Dear Bioware, the game is rated M. If we’re playing it, we’re adults.
One of the romance choices is also the game’s biggest casting stumble: The reporter Diana Allers is voiced by Jessica Chobot, the PSP-licking IGN personality known to geeks far and wide as the blueprint for the sardonic-sounding female geek-show hosts crowding YouTube. That Chobot’s voice acting is wooden isn’t the problem. The fact that a game columnist was cast in a game, on the other hand, stinks like rotting squid.
Okay, but aside from all that, Mass Effect 3 is a gameplay tour-de-force and a stonking great time. It builds on the previous two games to make the weapons customization simple yet effective, streamlines the skill trees and just moves with a certain grace. Some levels work better than others, but overall, once you get used to the sorta-familiar, slightly dumbed-down experience, wading through the bloodied corpses of your enemies recaptures much of the satisfaction you felt in ME 2. Likewise, up until the endgame, your choices build on those you made right back to the trilogy's first chapter, and can bring about some delightful moments. As a bonus, the game comes with a multiplayer mode that doesn’t feel like an afterthought. The choice of MP maps is too limited to stay interesting for long, but Bioware has already released DLC maps. It's reasonable to assume that more are coming, though if past experience is anything to go by, they won't be free. Whether paid-for DLC is a reasonable way of expanding your game experience or a sleazy way to further monetize a $50 game is up to you. Linking your Multiplayer performance to the galactic readiness in single-player, on the other hand, is a flat-out fail. I would also like to have seen the in-game puzzles for wall safes, hacking and bypassing locked doors return, but that’s not a deal-breaker. Most of the time, this game is a lot of fun, with good dialogue, characters you care about and visuals that are beautiful yet don’t require a big computer upgrade.
So, what the hell happened? Quite simply: Near the end there, Bioware lost its way. Whether this was due to a headlong rush to get the game out the door, pressure from EA or the development staff simply running out of energy bars is unclear. And doesn’t matter. If you’re one of the three people who still hasn’t bought this game, wait on it. If you can score a used copy, do it. If it goes on sale, do it. But right now, you’re looking at $50 for the game, plus another ten-spot for DLC to get the bloody integral Prothean squadmate. It’s too much for a game that sets you up for so hard a fall.
Level design is very good, with goals that generally keep the overarching story moving without sacrificing playability in the name of narrative. Enemy AI makes the bad guys in previous games look kind of remedial, so you’ll definitely be kept on your toes. The character designs of the enemies and your allies have been re-vamped, generally with very good results.
The game looks fabulous enough that you will sometimes stop and just look around. Faces and movement are vastly improved as well. And some of the non-human enemies are freakin’ creepy.
The sound is extremely well executed. Bioware has a habit of giving us high expectations in the sound and visuals department, and here they definitely deliver. Guns sound more dangerous, the music is of the same high level that we have experienced in previous games, and the ambient sound is lifelike and lush.
Improved but imperfect. As mentioned above, the game features some very nice moves hampered by that stupid X button thing. Next time I hunker down right next to an enemy rather than vaulting a low wall to escape, I’m seriously going to throw the controller through the TV.
I think that the multiplayer segment skews the replay factor a lot. For instance, when I bought Mass Effect 2, I didn’t just play it; I played it into the dirt, then flipped it over and got creepy with its corpse. I really can’t see the same thing happening here, just because I know that instead of heading for an epic final battle, I’m fighting my way toward an ending devoid of meaning, and is not only broken but feels like it was tacked on like a last-minute bandage. I played through Mass Effect 3 once and I’m good with that, though I’ve spent several hours on the multiplayer side.
I’d love to give this game perfect marks, even just to commemorate the two seminal, scene-changing chapters that came before it. But the truth is that the end feels like a betrayal, and there are just enough niggling little issues throughout to make the overall experience disappointing.