Review: Mass Effect 3
If you follow the site or podcast at all, you know I have been waiting for Mass Effect 3. The BioWare Sci-Fi RPG series had made its way into my top 5 games of all time with its first entry, and with the improvements made in Mass Effect 2, the opportunity was there for this series to take the top spot. Still, Kinect integration, the addition of multiplayer and the daunting task of wrapping up a game which could be radically different based on the decisions made by the player made Mass Effect 3no sure fire hit. As the release date neared, one question kept running through my mind: Could BioWare pull it off? Could they make a final game in the trilogy which would not disappoint. For me, at least, that question has been answered with a resounding yes.
The Story So Far
In Mass Effect 3, you once again take on the role of Commander Shepard. The threat you have been trying to warn the entire galaxy about is now here. The Reapers have taken Earth, and much of the rest of the galaxy is under heavy attack. You must rally the various races together to beat back this seemingly unstoppable foe, getting them to set aside their own differences in the process. Let’s just say this is a bit of a tall order. BioWare is a master of storytelling, and Mass Effect 3shows this in spades. From the very beginning, you are faced with just how desperate the situation is. Earth barely puts up a fight against the Reapers, and the rest of the galaxy is not doing much better. As you work to try and unite the various factions against what should be a common foe, you are constantly reminded of just how desperate this battle is. You find yourself in the middle of intense negotiations between species who have been enemies for years, and it will take more than just some well chosen words to bring them together. Add to that the herds of displaced refugees, the overflowing hospitals, the snatches of conversation you hear as you explore, and you come to realize just how much time and attention the developers paid to making the reality of this war come to life.
Returning players are also given a chance to interact with former team members, even from the first game. Some will join you on the Normandy, pitching their lot in with yours to stop this threat once and for all. Others will fight this war elsewhere, but their interactions with you can affect just how much good they can do. As someone who has been playing my version of Shepard since the very first game, it felt great to get to work with the people I have come to know as my friends and comrades. BioWare has done a great job of building a rapport with the characters of the game, and that is even more evident in this final installment of the trilogy. While many of the storytelling devices, including choosing the tone of what you will say instead of the exact words, will be very familiar to veterans of the series, one thing really stood out. In previous games, the choice between Paragon and Renegade was very well defined. Paragon was obviously the “good guy” choice, while Renegade was definitely the “bad guy” option. As EDG writer Jordan de Boer once put it, your choices were along the lines of “Throw the puppy in the furnace or turn off the furnace.” That is not nearly as true in Mass Effect 3. The Paragon choice is often the idealistic response, the one chosen by someone trying to save everyone. The Renegade is the realist, understanding it is not possible to save everyone. When in past games it was obvious to me which choice I was going to make for most situations, I often found myself contemplating which would be better this time. This added a weight to your decisions, making the story truly come alive. At various times in this story, I found myself screaming in anger, laughing out loud and nearly driven to tears. This game drew me in emotionally in a way few games have, causing me on more than one occasion to have to step back from it and process just what had occurred. Stories of this quality are rare in any form of media; they are especially rare in games.
Refining the Fight (Mostly)
While the combat in Mass Effect 2was greatly improved from that of the first game, many complained the actual RPG elements were removed. This one brings many of those back. The power up options feel more like true level ups, with the latter choices making players really consider which option would be better for their style of gameplay. On top of that, you will find many different weapons and weapon mods throughout the game, and how you manage these can be crucial. While heavier weapons may do more damage in a firefight, carrying extra weight slows down your biotic cool down time, making your choices of weapons critical. As I was using a Sentinel and really wanted his biotics to be available for use quickly, I often would carry a heavy pistol and a sub-maching gun into battle; I was willing to trade the lower damage for a much faster recharge time.
Movement in combat has also been improved. You have better control over your characters while running now, allowing you to actually dodge attacks. You also have a side dodge and forward roll, both of which can save your life in the heat of battle. You can also transition from cover to cover in this game, and you no longer have to pop into cover before vaulting over something; a quick double tap of the cover button (A on the 360 controller) allows you to do just that. You also will find yourself less likely to stick to the wrong cover this time, something which was a major issue in part 2. There is also a heavy melee attack which does massive damage to enemies and, if used when in cover against enemies immediately on the other side of said cover becomes a one hit kill. That is extremely useful. There is one major problem with the combat, however. Just like Gears of War, all the major movements are mapped to your cover button. This includes dodging, running, forward rolling… any of the major actions. The designers even added the ability to revive a fallen comrade by walking up to them and holding that same button, allowing you to save medigels for times you cannot get to them or need healing yourself. Unlike Gears of War, Mass Effect 3 does not handle having everything mapped to one button well. I lost track of the number of times I dove forward when I was trying to take cover, something which proved fatal on more than one occasion. I also tended to find myself taking cover instead of reviving someone. We will revisit this particular problem when we get to the multiplayer. That issue aside, the overall gameplay of Mass Effect 3is extremely enjoyable, even if there are a couple of times where your team will be facing insane odds. One segment in particular was really annoying me until I found some weapons which would have made the battle that much easier. And then there is the one major change to the gameplay: 4 player coop.
This Is How You Add Multiplayer to Mass Effect
When BioWare announced there would be four player coop in Mass Effect 3, the response was lukewarm at best. Many people were ready to write it off as something EA was forcing them to add so they could have something to put behind the gate of the Online Pass. I was actually looking forward to it, and the more I heard about it, the more excited I became. Well, if the shear number of people I see playing it is any indication, the criticisms were wrong. In multilayer, you and up to 3 other people put together teams of N7 Special Ops soldiers to take on a hoard-style mission. The ultimate objective is to make sure everyone reaches extraction, the point after facing all 10 waves of enemies where the team is picked up via shuttle and taken to safety. I am sure this all seems pretty basic so far, right? Well, it gets better. You can choose to play as any of the classes within the Mass Effectuniverse, giving you a great opportunity to try each class out. Ever wondered what it would be like to charge an enemy as a Vanguard but don’t want to switch from your Sentinel class? Choose a Vanguard in the multilayer and rush into danger as much as you like. You level each class up by playing as that class, getting experience by killing enemies, achieving goals like melee or biotic kills, reaching extraction and completing mission objectives.
What are mission objectives you ask? As opposed to just trying to survive 10 waves of increasingly greater strength, on waves 3, 6 and 10 you are given a timed mission you need to accomplish. These missions can range from killing high profile targets to hacking databases. If you complete the mission in time, you are awarded with credits which can be redeemed for bonus packs. Failure means failure to advance to the next wave. Getting back to those credits, you use them to buy packs from the store between missions. The more expensive the pack, the better the chance you have of getting rare items. You can even unlock alien races for the various classes, each bringing a different set of powers to the class. In other words, a Quarian engineer has different abilities and plays completely differently than the human or Salarian engineer, and don’t even get me started on how different the Krogan is. If you find yourself wanting to experience these new races and weapons but not having the time to spend accumulating the credits, you have the ability to buy packs with Microsoft points. This is completely optional, and yes, I have done it a few times. After each mission, you are awarded with the credits and your experience. As with the main story, you choose how to level up your character’s abilities. The level cap for each class is 20; once you reach that, you have the option of promoting that class into your single player game, adding it to your war assets. If you do this, all of your characters in that class will drop to level 1, but any races you have unlocked will still be available. There are a couple of issues with the multiplayer. Remember what I said earlier about the battles getting frustrating because so many actions are mapped to the same button, which is the A button on the 360 controller? This really becomes an annoyance in the multiplayer. You will often find yourself taking cover while trying to revive teammates, diving forward when trying to take cover and at various points cursing the fact that no one has been able to master the “one button handles all movement” other that Epic with Gears of War. The other issue is there is a major jump in difficulty based on the level of challenge you choose. While higher level characters will often skate through a Bronze Challenge with relative ease, the same characters may barely be able to complete a Silver and have absolutely no chance to taking on Gold. You’ve heard the phrase “The difficulty ramps up?” Well, in Mass Effect 3, the jump in difficulty is more akin to going from relatively normal speeds to escape velocity. While this does encourage teamwork, it can also make even experienced players think twice before selecting the higher difficulties. Still, there is something about the multiplayer that keeps me coming back, and it is not just the various missions BioWare keeps running. It is a great example of what you can do when you set out to create a tight coop experience which can be enjoyed in bite sized chunks, as most Bronze matches will only take experienced players around 20 minutes. I would love to see BioWare expand upon this framework in future Mass Effectgames. So, engaging story, overall improved gameplay and great multiplayer. Everything you need for a great game. The 360 version, however, has one added bit of functionality.
Kinecting With the Game
Mass Effect 3 has a small blurb on the front of the box stating “Better with Kinect.” This phrase has started appearing on many games, and many gamers have questioned whether adding Kinect functionality to core games like Mass Effect 3really improves them. Well, I for one feel this game is improved by Microsoft’s latest toy. The Kinect adds two things to the 360 version of the game. The first is the ability to control combat without constantly having to pause the game to select squad powers or biotics you do not have on the hot buttons through voice commands. For example, if I need to activate Overload, I can just say “Overload,” and Shepard will hit the area I am currently targeting with one. I can call out commands like “Follow Me,” “Attack” and “Liara, Singularity” and have my teammates react as if I had just given them the orders. This is very useful, and while there will be times it does not work perfectly, it really does help to be able to give commands on the fly when necessary. As impressive as the voice commands for combat may be, it is the other functionality of Kinect which really drew me in. I remember watching the demo at E3 where the player was speaking Shepard’s dialogue suggestions and thinking “Why would I want to say something just to have Shepard say something else?” Still, I decided to give it a chance, and it did not take long for me to realize this was adding a whole new level of interaction to the game for me. I truly became Shepard, even if what my Shepard said was not exactly what I was saying. Even more impressive was I did not have to say the lines in “voice recognition speak.” You know what I mean. If I was reading the line “Don’t ever do that again,” I did not have to say that over-enunciated so Kinect could understand. I could even practically snarl that line with the venom I felt Shepard would have at that time, and that allowed me to role play within the game in a whole new way. I thought this was going to just be some throw away idea BioWare added as they were already using the voice recognition, but it became so much more than that for me. Now there have been arguments that all of this could have been done with the 360 headset or that these do not really add that much to the game. All I will say is Kinect made my experience with the game better.
A Fitting End to the Story
Before the game was released, BioWare had confirmed Mass Effect 3was going to be the end of Shepard’s storyline. Many gamers were wondering just how they were going to tie up all the various loose ends which could be created by the various choices you made throughout the games into an ending that would appease the fans. Well, unless you have been living under a rock, you know many fans were not pleased with the way BioWare chose to end the game, and the outcry was loud enough BioWare is actually working on an extended cut of the ending which the company says will fill in the gaps. While many gamers may decide to revisit their thoughts about the game after the extended ending releases this summer, I do not need to wait. I loved the ending.
So why did I like it when many other gamers did not? Well, I think the way they chose to end it puts you as a gamer in the position of having to decide if you are going to betray the way you played Shepard for three games. I do not want to spoil anything (you can read my spoiler-filled commentary on it here), but I thought the ending was just about perfect, and it is an experience which still sticks with me. A fantastic story, excellent gameplay, phenomenal addition of multiplayer and an ending which has affected me in a way few endings have. Gee, guess what score I am giving Mass Effect 3? For cementing the series as my all time favorite in all of my years of gaming, Mass Effect 3 gets a 10 out of 10.