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March 2012 saw the release of Mass Effect 3, one of the most eagerly awaited video games in recent history. The high levels of anticipation should come as no surprise when you consider the hundreds of hours the average Mass Effect fan has invested into the series. Its unique save feature, which allows players to transfer their progress from one instalment to the next, encouraged multiple playthroughs to discover what impact the decisions you make have on the story at large. Hype for the game was through the roof, which was both a good and bad thing. Excellent sales figures were a certainty, but when expectations are so high is it feasible to live up to them? It’s a tough task which few companies can pull off. For every Metal Gear Solid 4, which did a commendable job of ending the epic saga, you get a Duke Nukem Forever which ultimately proved not to be worth the fifteen year wait.
The game kicks off with the Reapers, who commander Sheppard has been warning the military about in the previous games, commencing their invasion of Earth and the surrounding alien worlds. As the giant mechanical squid like invaders commence the eradication of all intelligent organic life (Loose Women viewers should therefore be safe), Sheppard is forced off world tasked with assembling a combat force to repel the giant cephalopod automatons. Hmmm that does sound awfully familiar BioWare. Didn’t you already use the “recruit an army to save the day” plot in Dragon Age: Origins? Heck it’s not even that dissimilar to Mass Effect 2 were you travelled the cosmos completing missions to assemble an elite team. Ah well, I guess if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
On the back of the game box there’s a quote from Yahoo Games which states “If you’re not a fan now’s the time to start.” That’s not a sentiment I entirely agree with. Yes, with the information you are provided, new players can follow what is going on but they won’t get the full Mass Effect experience. What makes the series so enjoyable is the attachment you have for the characters and seeing how your actions affect the relationships you form. Without that emotional bond with your party the above mentioned story, not matter how well presented, can feel a little hollow. I can imagine new players will constantly question why Sheppard is wasting time on optional side quests when time is of the essence. Why is he dithering on what crew member to get into the sack with when the clock is ticking. Shouldn’t assembling a super weapon to destroy the Reapers have priority over scoring some nookie?
It’s impossible to review Mass Effect 3 without mentioning the ending. Don’t worry I won’t divulge spoilers, but I do have to express how unhappy I was by how it all pans out. In the end it boils down to choosing between three options which have no bearing on what you have done before. It reminds me of the complaints I had with Fallout 3 in that the game is lauded for the freedom it gives the player, only to then restrict you to a few choices totally against the spirit of everything which preceded it. To make matters worse there’s little differentiating the three outcomes which are only a couple of minutes long. After the dust is settled I was left with a feeling of “is that it?” Considering that some of the things you do leading up to the ending have massive ramifications, on the galaxy at large, it would have been nice to have seen an epilogue detailing how your completed quests affected the various alien races making up the Mass Effect universe.
Mass Effect 3 doesn’t play drastically different to its predecessor with BioWare instead choosing to refine the engine so we get a game that feels more like a proper third person shooter, as opposed to a shooting/RPG hybrid. Although the end result is no Gears of War, the action feels less clunky thanks to melee combat being beefed up and tweaks to the cover system. The changes reduce the annoying “cowering behind boxes you bump into” issue which plagued the last game. Sheppard’s interaction with the environment is bolstered by the ability to roll between concealed positions, climbing/descending ladders and being able to leap over gaps. It’s a shame that the design of some levels didn’t utilise these new abilities to their fullest. Some sections abandoned exploration entirely and merely asked you to travel a short distance into an open area were you would fend off waves of enemies.
Facing legions of enemies wouldn’t be so bad if there was a decent selection of adversaries, but unfortunately the variation of foes is rather limited. By the end of the story you’ll be sick of being pitted against Cerberus soldiers/mechs and Reaver forces such as the zombie like husks. The game is even lacking in the boss department with the last level missing a final guardian. You fight your way through an action packed battle and then the dire ending sequence begins. At least before you get to that point you get to go “mano a mano” with a Reaper and square off against a cloaked ninja assassin, who looks a little out of place in a Mass Effect game. Perhaps he was meaning to audition for Metal Gear Solid, took a wrong turn and ended up in the BioWare studios instead.
Although Mass Effect 3’s focus has shifted to action there is still some RPG customisation to be found. As in the last game you earn points upon levelling up which are traded away to learn new abilities. Equipment can be found during missions, researched or bought at stores including various guns each with their own strengths and weaknesses (some have rapid fire, some are more effective against energy fields and so on.) By applying mods to your blasters/rifles its possible to alter your arsenal to improve accuracy or ammo capacity, tailoring things to match your play style. Defensively speaking you have the option of donning different types of armour which grant you various bonuses. You can mix and match different items in each armour slot or just opt for a dedicated suit such as the cool looking Knight gear you get free if you have a Dragon Age save on your hard drive.
Before wrapping things up I’d like to comment on two new features introduced to this third game. Firstly is the new scanning system which replaces the dull resource mining players had to endure in Mass Effect 2. Instead of combing the surface of planets, using a combination of probes and sonar, you now uncover hidden space debris by emitting a pulse whilst flying about on the Normandy. Although not particularly exciting the pulse is much quicker to use making the whole searching for goodies less tedious. Watch out though as using the pulse has the chance of summoning a Reaper to the quadrant of the galaxy you are navigating. If that happens it’s time to get out of Dodge, because touching the incoming threat spells an instant game over. Thankfully Reapers vanish after a while so you can return to the sector later on to continue your exploration.
The most notable addition to the game is the introduction of co-op multiplayer which allows players to take on hordes of AI enemies. It’s a cool feature which adds to the game’s shelf life. I am however disappointed that the developers didn’t go down the route of allowing friends to go through the story instead. Having the option of one player controlling Shepard and his buddies controlling his squad mates, akin to Resident Evil 5, seemed like a no brainer to me. The only negative I can see with the multiplayer is that it will annoy those only interested in a solo experience. The ending you get is determined by a combat readiness score, which increases when completing quests. The problem is that getting a high enough score, for the best ending, is nigh on impossible without the supplemental points awarded for partaking in multiplayer missions. Not good news for Mass Effect hermits who don’t like to mingle with others.
Overall Mass Effect 3 only just falls shy of getting a perfect score. Combat wise this isn’t the most exciting third person shooter on the market, but it’s still heaps of fun to play and its faults are easy to overlook thanks to some well written dialogue which absorb you into the game world. The graphics are slightly better than the last game with the character models looking a tad more realistic. Visually the only fault I could find were the facial expressions which were a little off. I couldn’t help but feel a little creeped out whenever the camera zooms in on Sheppard as s/he tries to convey emotion. The musical score is brilliant and the voice acting is first rate for the most part. The only character who offended my ears was a reporter voiced by a real life IGN journalist. It showed that she isn’t a professional actress and I cannot help but wonder if she only got the part so the game would get a favourable review from a leading games website.
The reason I am knocking off a star is because I enjoyed Mass Effect 2 slightly more as I missed the large selection of squad mates you had in the previous game. The extensive roster was sadly trimmed down to four or five characters with many fan favourites being reduced to cameo appearances. I also feel that Mass Effect 3’s score needs to be penalised to reflect a few glitches which got past bug testing. A number of players have reported issues with their saved games not importing properly which is unforgivable given the importance of continuity between the games is. The most common complaint is that Sheppard’s appearance gets altered during the transfer and certain characters not appearing in the story even if they survived the last game. Gremlins also appear to have infiltrated the rendering of graphics as I noted during a cut scene when my team was talking to an invisible Liara. As a lover of smexy blue skinned aliens I was not amused by her vanishing act.
Ultimately though I cannot bring myself to give Mass Effect 3 five stars due to the lacklustre ending. When I completed Mass Effect 2 I had the urge to replay it again, but that wasn’t the case with the follow up. What’s the point? Even if I take a radically different approach to saving the universe I’ll still get presented with the three same options upon reaching the story’s climax. Thankfully BioWare have listened to the negative feedback and vowed to expand the endings via a free patch. As it currently stands though the game is the epitome of “the journey is more important than the destination.” At the end of the day this is another fine BioWare game, but those quibbles further tarnish the company’s reputation. Following on from the rushed Dragon Age 2 and the subscriber haemorrhaging Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect 3 reminds us that BioWare make good games, but they aren’t the infallible force they once were prior to the merger with Electronic Arts.