Those of you who have been reading my reviews for the past decade know that I love Bioware. The Baldur’s Gate series, the MDK series, the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series, Jade Empire, and the Dragon Age series are all visible from where I sit. They represent one of the few times I’ve felt truly starstruck when visiting a game studio, despite having gone to a great many over the years. Bioware makes the games that I love to play, and other than Blizzard, they represent the only developer that makes games that I buy sight-unseen. The secret is right there for all to see – Bioware takes great pride in their work, and it shows in every game they launch.
The Mass Effect series was launched in November of 2007, and it’s hard to believe that it is all coming to an end. Mass Effect 3 represents the end of the Mass Effect trilogy, and the closure of the story of Commander Shepherd. Using over 1000 points from Mass Effect 1 and 2, it also represents the culmination nearly every decision made in over 100 hours of gameplay up to this point. With The Arrival DLC rounding out an impressive run of Mass Effect 2 content, we finish what was started 5 years ago – it’s time to take down the Reapers. I will do my best to be as spoiler free in this review as possible, but I will make the assumption you’ve completed Mass Effect 1 and 2 – let’s get to it.
Illusive Man: Strength for Cerberus is strength for every human.
At the conclusion of Mass Effect 2, we see Commander Shepard stick a thumb in the eye of Cerberus, destroying the Collector base rather than turning it over to the Illusive Man. That, plus the results of the decisions made during the Arrival DLC have not made The Alliance happy, and at the start of Mass Effect 3 we see the culmination of those decisions – Shepard has been stripped of command, and is no longer the Captain of the Normandy. Just as in the demo, the game opens 6 months after Shepard’s demotion with the absolute worst possible fate approaching Earth – the Reapers are coming, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop them. Once again you stand before a confused and scared Council, telling them that their deepest and darkest nightmares are not only real, but on their very doorstep. If there was doubt in your earlier assertions, flaming dropships ripping through the cityscape certainly laid any doubt (and thousands of lives) to rest.
As before, you can import your character from the previous title. When you select your save file it will give you a rundown of the major decisions from both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, including who survived the final mission, your decisions with the Council, and even with whom you cultivated romances with and when. After importing (or in my case it wasn’t able to find my particular customizations and I had to rebuild my Shepard, but it did remember everything else) you can also re-select your military class. As before you can be a Soldier (pure combat specialists), Infiltrator (Cloaking, sniping), Vanguard (close range biotic charger), Sentinel (Biotic and tech blend with advanced shields), Adept (Biotic specialists), or Engineer (Tech specialists, able to spawn drones) as your career field. If this is your first brush with the Mass Effect universe (and it shouldn’t be – the games are dirt cheap from almost every source at this point – go buy and play them!) you can also start a completely new adventure. You’ll be presented with three playstyle options to tailor your specific gameplay wants. If you want to play the game as a shooter, you can. If you’d like a pure RPG experience, you can have that too. Selecting the usual options, plus who died (Kaiden, Ashley, or “Numerous”) in your final assault on the Collectors sends you on your way. The game rewrites itself to cover for the vague answers, and makes seemingly randomized decisions on who lived through your assault against the collectors. To help you get up to speed you also have have training videos on combat, advanced combat, and squad placement on your private terminal to help you understand how the cover system and powers can combine for maximum damage. In short, you won’t feel like you are completely in the dark if Mass Effect 3 is your starting point.
Garrus: Loudspeakers? Someone likes the sound of their voice.
One of the strongest aspects of the Mass Effect series is the voice acting, and Mass Effect 3 continues that tradition in a big way. Before I rattle off the incredible voice actors you’ll hear, I’ll point out that there are some new conversation options for this entry into the series. Selectable in the options menu is a new “Conversation Mode” where you can turn off the decision tree. That is to say that all of the RPG choices in the game will be made for you. I guess this would be for folks who want the game to immerse them like a movie rather than having to pause to select the response you’d like Shepard to issue. I’m a hardcore RPG fan, so it should be obvious that I am not using this method. What I am doing is yelling at my TV a lot.
Mass Effect 3 has a completely new feature for the series in the Microsoft Kinect – voice control. If you have a Kinect you can say the conversation options you’d like Shepard to issue instead of merely selecting them with your controller. Better than that, you can also issue commands to your team including individual powers including “Warp!” “James – switch weapons” “Liara – Grenade!” and much more. Calling out where to take cover, where you’d like powers used, and other tactical decisions is far more fun than I had expected, and the fact that it works the vast majority of the time just solidifies this as a great new features instead of a gimmicky tie-in.
I mentioned that Mass Effect 3 has a great cast, but let me put it into perspective – nearly every major character you’ve run into in the last two games have returned in some fashion or another. Party members and periphery friends and enemies return in force, joined by Freddy Prinze Jr. as James Vega. Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Helfer, Seth Green, Keith David, Martin Sheen, and of course the option of either Mark Meer or Jennifer Hale as Shepard all return to lend their voices (and in some cases, likeness) to the title, and as this is their third outing their veteran status shows. The game sports over 40,000 lines of recorded dialog – double that of the previous title, according to Bioware, and from what I’ve heard I have no doubt of that.
On the music side, the soundtrack is once again, absolutely perfect. I can’t describe it any other way other than to use the word perfect as it manages to illicit emotional reaction at the appropriate moments, whether that be sadness, happiness, awe, dread, anger, or inspiration – I can think of no better compliment. Clint Mansell, Christopher Lennerts, Cris Velasco, Sam Hulick, and Sasha Dikicyan all team up to provide this incredible soundtrack, making it one of the best reasons to buy the Collector’s Edition. (though I suspect if you’ve not pre-ordered that by now, you’ll have a tough time getting it – on a side note, the irony of a “Collector” edition is not lost on me)
In a rather large surprise, the previous easily recognized Renegade and Paragon choices are nearly gone. (They do come up, but extremely rarely, and only in special circumstances) Your choices are more organic now, yielding points in both directions more often, but creating a far better flow to the story. This means that you’ll likely have a far harder time towing that “All Paragon” option. You’ll get that maxed out meter (it’s now combined in the UI) in the end, but ultimately you’ll end up getting a little dirty occasionally in that journey. The quicktime trigger pulls for Paragon and Renegade are still present (though not nearly as frequent), so don’t set the controller down during cutscenes.
It isn’t all voice work improvements at Bioware though – benefiting from having EA as their benefactor, they worked with other EA studios including DICE to brush up the combat sounds, and it shows. If you have a decent surround sound system you’ll be able to hear a lot more environmental background sound, as well as a beefier thump to the various powers like Incinerate.
Turian Councilor: Do you enjoy committing genocide, commander?
There are a few improvements to the combat engine of Mass Effect 3 beyond being able to yell commands to your troops. This includes a fairly decent cover system upgrade. When in cover you will now have a small pointer that indicates where you’ll go if you press A while pointing in a particular direction. This means you can combat roll between cover, duck-and-run to other hides, and scramble over the top of cover at will. Also added is a new “Quick Kill” that you can perform from cover. If an enemy has the misfortune of standing near your cover and you can catch them unaware you can yank them backwards over the object and kill them instantly. I can’t say I used it very often, but for players more stealthy than I, you might get that chance more frequently.
My character was level 30 at the end of Mass Effect 2, and we have another 30 levels to go in Mass Effect 3, so you’ll hit Level 31 at your first level-up. The power choices you’ve made from the last game are present, but the game tosses you a few more points to use as there are some new skills to factor in. Engineers can now build turrets, grenades (sticky, frag, and otherwise) are in the game, and a new skill called “Fitness” that impacts your melee damage, health, and shield/barrier strengths make an appearance. Every skill has been expanded, so you can expect a new tier of upgrades at the end of all powers, complete with an either/or choice on what that power will be. Also new to the series is something that’ll make the min/maxers squeal with glee – more stats! The game now tells you all of the percentages for your powers including duration of a hack, recharge speed (out to 2 decimal places), total damage, radius of a power, and everything else an RPG player would want in their game.
Grenades are a welcome sight in Mass Effect 3, having missed them greatly in the previous title. The grenade types vary from class to class, but they can mean a very large advantage when you catch a group of husks clustered up. In practice they work very well as you simply select them from your power wheel as you would any other skill, targeting with the thumbstick. Powers and grenades, as before, can be mapped to the face buttons, but you can also map your minion’s powers to the D-Pad for quick access to a frequently called-upon skill. With the Kinect this point is mostly academic as you can call any power from their arsenal at will, cooldown notwithstanding.
In a nod to the MMO world, or the fact that the game has changed and your powers might need to change with it, you can now reassign your points for all of your characters. Allowing you to re-roll comes at a cost, though the first one is free. You will also earn upgrades with your relationships with other characters, and these can be reassigned should you find one you like more than another. Again, the first is free, but the next one will cost you.
Another major change is the way that weapons are handled. If you felt like you stuck with one weapon throughout Mass Effect 2, you won’t have that problem here. There are dozens of weapons with dozens of different mods, and upgrades to every one of them. Extended barrels add damage, expanded clips add more shots per clip, special mods add shot penetration, scopes give ironsight weapons new live with a bit of zoom, and much more. Each character is still specialized by their class, but a new weapon hardpoint and weight system shakes things up. Before you deploy (or at will in your armory) you can choose your weapon and mods, and each weapon will have a weight associated. This weight doesn’t factor into inventory, but instead impacts how fast your powers regenerate. You could conceivably take all 5 weapon slots filled on Shepard, but your power usage would be abysmal. Finding the right weapons and the right balance is key as the AI is no slouch this time around.
Mass Effect has always had a decent AI, but more often than not the enemies you’d face were pretty standard. Mass Effect 3 kicks things off with new enemies right off the bat. Cannibals that eat their dead for healing, the Atlas mech, soldiers with and without armor, guys with grenades, Ninja-like Cerberus soldiers, and much more come at you as your journey continues. The pacing is beautiful, letting you get used to your weapons and powers, and amping things up nicely as you go along. Any time that I died, it was because I didn’t pay attention to cover, or chose the wrong battle tactic – the AI doesn’t seem to cheat in any way, which is rather refreshing. Moreover, this includes the boss battles as well, which is generally where games become unreasonable.
A big part of Mass Effect 2 was making sure your party members were loyal before you took the fight to the Collectors. In Mass Effect 3, the big focus is on War Assets. War Assets are the aggregated people, weapons, armies, fleets, and technology you’ll accumulate throughout your adventures. Whether it be garnered by force, coercion, guile, or cooperation, each item contributes to the galactic readiness to face the Reaper threat. This ties directly into the new scanning minigame on the Normandy.
Through overheard conversation or directly tasked missions you’ll be asked to go scan planets to uncover artifacts, intel, and more. Instead of slowly sweeping the planet, each planet has only one item to find, with the game keeping track of your completion rating on that area in the corner. It means you’ll be scanning and running quickly as the Reapers will come running as you scan. If they reach the Normandy, you get the fade to black game over screen, so hit and run tactics are advised.
Speaking of minigames, nearly every other minigame has been removed from the game. The hacking minigame that had you matching bits of code, and the door bypass system that had you matching symbols on circuits have been removed. I suspect that this was done to aid in pacing as there is a constant bit of pressure to save the world, and stopping to sift through code just doesn’t seem to fit. Replacing these are special weapon sections, chase scenes, and much more – you’ll be moving so fast you’ll likely never have a chance to miss them.
Another gameplay adjustment has to do with health – gone is the uninterrupted health bar, replaced by a gated health system. If you are hurt, your health will only recover to the last bar lost. This means that you’ll have to manage your Medi-Gel more wisely as you may find yourself unable to get back on your feet after a major battle. To aid in this, you can now bring back your party members mid-combat by standing over them and holding down A for a time, reviving them without using a Medi-Gel, or you can use the previous method and aid them from afar consuming one Medi-Gel in the process.
The final major change to gameplay has to do with the much-tauted melee system. Shepard now has a Omni-tool blade that flicks forward to instantly kill most unshielded enemies. This can only be done at very short range, but various weapon mods, armor kits, and class upgrades can extend the damage greatly, taking down even shielded opponents when they venture too close.
Kaiden: I could shoot someone if it would make you feel better.
As I mentioned before, Mass Effect 3 is all about collecting resources for war, and in an interesting move, Bioware has integrated this into multiplayer thanks to a feature called “Galaxy at War”. Four players can come together in a cooperative fashion to take on missions involving taking over fortresses, rescuing civilians, and more. Players will not play as Shepard, instead picking between Drell, Krogan, Salarians, Turians, and Asari. Each race has various powers and skills, allowing them to capitalize on their racial advantages. Given that you can only carry 2 weapons, you’ll have to choose more wisely for the particular arena you’ll be assaulting. Coordinating as a team is also a major factor, as it is in any semi-class based game. Upon completion of your mission, you’ll be given a score and a medal rating. Scoring closer to Gold gives you additional experience for this character, leveling them up to level 20. Just as in single player, you’ll select your skills at level up. When your character hits level 20, you can convert them to a ‘resource’ for your single player game – this feeds into the War Asset system, giving you a better chance of getting a good ending to the game.
In practice, I’ve not gotten to play the retail version of this mode very much. The servers went live just a few hours before this review went up. The demo and limited time I’ve had with this mode reminds me heavily of Horde mode in Gears of War (and that’s not a bad thing), but the great news is that this mode is in no way required to reach maximum readiness. The N7 missions you’d take in multiplayer can be tackled in single player as side missions. Given that bit of knowledge, play the multiplayer for fun and enjoy Mass Effect 3 as a single player game if you are inclined. For those who don’t care much for multiplayer, simply being a completionist will yield the same outcome.
Kaidan: When you look out and see something this beautiful… well, it really helps you understand what we’re fighting to save.
Those who purchased Mass Effect 2 on the PS3 got a small taste of the Mass Effect 3 engine. Having played that version, let me assure you that taste was smaller than you think. Mass Effect 3 received a fairly large overhaul in terms of animation, tech, interaction, and overall cinematic feel. The first and most obvious thing is that the facial poly count has gone up significantly. Gone are the rough edges, replaced with a more believable look to all characters in the game – when you see the Banshees for the first time you’ll really see what this engine can do! Similarly, the environments are bigger, the enemies are MUCH larger, and the beautiful lighting engine just looks that much more clean. The tight corridors of Mass Effect 2 and 1 have been replaced with much larger open spaces. This lets the AI flank and kill you, and it lets you spread out, place your troops, and move more freely. Climbable ladders make an appearance, giving snipers like me high ground to destroy my enemies from afar.
To help with the immersion aspects of the experience, Bioware has worked hard on the Unreal Engine 3 to clean up the cinematic portions of the game. In-engine cut-scenes are more dynamic with characters walking and talking, performing tasks, and much more. No longer does everyone come to a halt to have a conversation with you. Similarly, the fade-to-black transitions have been removed from the game, so there isn’t such a jarring transition between action and talking. This means you can go from opening a door as normal to suddenly having a tense action cutscene and then right back to combat without a pregnant pause in between.
There are some odd things going on with the engine, however. You still occasionally still have ‘crazy eyes’ on some of the characters during cutscenes, and the framerate can occasionally dip during walks through the Citadel wards. You’ll also see some occasional texture strangeness with armor clipping through your neck, or enemies that pop out of cover and then stand on thin air. During talking scenes, you’ll also occasionally see NPCs ‘snap’ back to their default position before you started the conversation. It’s very infrequent but certainly stands out when it happens. Thankfully, it never happens during combat.
Sovereign: You exist because we allow it and you will end because we demand it.
I won’t spoil the game for you, but I do have to caution you – Mass Effect 3 is going to hurt your feelings. This is war – casualties are inevitable. Whether it be friends you’ve made along the way, or long-time companions, everyone is at risk. The Reapers have come to destroy all life and Mass Effect 3 will let you make decisions that can change the landscape of the galaxy forever. As I prepare to kick off the final battle, I am struck with the thought of how much Mass Effect 3 is like the first title. The party member list is much smaller, allowing you to connect with each character on a personal level, but the stakes are so much higher. This game concludes the planned trilogy, but I hope it’s not the end of this franchise as Mass Effect 3 should easily win our RPG of the Year award. Very few games pull me in like this – I will miss you Commander Shepard. Godspeed.