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This game currently costs £25 on amazon, less than a month after it was released. I’m not sure if this is due to a special offer at amazon, or whether it’s due to sales being less robust than expected.
The Mass Effect series is a science fiction role playing game. Humanity in the future has gained entry into the galactic community by uncovering ‘mass relays’ which allow near-instant travel to other star systems. The ‘future history’ stuff is all very nicely done, and the first two games in the series saw humanity slowly becoming more integrated with the other species that run the galaxy. But inevitably there is a threat, from the Reapers – ancient, all-powerful machines that swarm through the galaxy every 10,000 years or so and wipe out any organic species that have become too technologically advanced.
By this third game, your character, Commander Shepard, has alerted everyone to the threat of the Reapers, and must now build a galactic coalition of the willing to fight off the imminent invasion.
A lot to live up to
Anticipation for this game has been high. The first two games created a coherent and immensely satisfying game world, and other characters with whom Shepard has interacted – friends, crewmates, antagonists – made for a rare level of emotional engagement for a video game. The character writing is such that friendships built up over the first two games, which between them comprise about 60 hours of play time, are unusually compelling. Fans of the series have been waiting with bated breath to see who would live, who would die, who would get to find love and happiness, and who would be punished for being a jerk. More importantly, choices you make in earlier games carry through into this one and have an effect on what happens.
The problem, perhaps, is that developer Bioware has done its job too well in the earlier games, and that it would inevitably lead to disappointment if the final instalment wasn’t blow-your-mind amazing in every way. One problem was that the Reapers were set up as such an immense, unstoppable threat that it was always likely that there would have to be a deus ex machina ‘kill switch’ type ending if the goodies were to win. And sure enough, right from the start, your side starts building a big cosmic gun that will sort everything out. The other problem, which worried me a bit in Mass Effect 2, was that there was so much going on that it seemed unlikely that 3 would be able to provide a satisfying conclusion to every single storyline. It’s not done too badly on that front. It crams an awful lot in, and if you’re worried about the Genophage, or the Quarian homeworld, or Miranda’s sister, then you’ll probably get at least something you want.
But then there’s the ending, which has caused an immense backlash from fans of the game, to the extent that Bioware has promised to ‘fix’ it. My initial reaction to this was that it was like the ending of The Sopranos – so much expectation had been built up that any ending was going to piss off some fans. I also have an inbuilt suspicion of fan rage, which can often be summed up as ‘But Aquaman, you cannot marry a woman without gills. You're from two different worlds!’ However, having played it, I can understand what everyone is so angry about.
I’ve only played this game with an imported save from Mass Effect 2. I don’t know what it would be like coming to it as a new player, where presumably you would have slightly different choices available. There’s so much backstory, though, I’d strongly recommend playing the first two games before you try your hand at this one.
The good things are very good
The game mostly looks very impressive. The worlds and spaceships you visit have a coherent aesthetic style, the alien races look distinctive without being ridiculous, and humans look more or less human (although their hands,
Pictures of Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360)
I totally dumped this blue lady
frankly, look terrible). The sound effects are all good, the voice acting is terrific, and the incidental music is nice without being earth shaking. In short, the game looks and sounds pretty good. Especially impressive are the terrifying metallic shrieks emitted by the Reapers.
As in previous games, you go on missions which provide you with experience so you can increase the abilities of your character. The missions are a nice mix of straight combat jobs, where you storm into a base and kill a bunch of bad guys; and longer, more involved episodes which usually involve you recruiting a new ally, often resolving centuries-long conflicts in the process. There’s just enough variety in these missions to make them work. As well as the Reapers you also have some human troublemakers to deal with in the shape of terrorist organisation Cerberus, so there are different types of battles to play through.
Combat is relatively smooth, and the series has evolved so that it’s as much a first person shooter as a role playing game. You get special powers which are integrated into the fights easily enough, and various different weapon types. The main problem with combat is that your controller’s A button has too much to do. It is, for instance, used for both ‘take cover behind an object’ and ‘jump over an object’ – I’m sure you can understand why doing one when you want to do the other can be potentially fatal in battle.
But it’s a tribute to the world building and character writing that combat has always seemed a bit incidental. You can just wander round your ship chatting to your crewmates, or stroll through the Citadel (the galactic capital) listening in on conversations that play out over time. The atmosphere is funereal from the outset, and it drops plenty of hints that things won’t end well for everyone. It’s actually quite upsetting seeing this wonderfully appealing universe being slowly destroyed by the Reapers, and this is a fairly dark game, with a whole lot of ‘war is hell’ stuff thrown in.
The characters continue to develop, in ways which are consistent with how they were presented before. I still like some characters over others (Wrex and Garrus and Tali are cool; Ashley, Miranda and Jack are tiresome). In Mass Effect 2 you had something like eleven characters you could take with you on missions; this was a few too many as you had to spend hours trudging round your ship to talk to all of them for their character arcs to play out. 3 has whittled it down to a more user-friendly six (seven with downloadable content), and apart from new boy James, all are old friends. (James, I suspect, is the ‘new pair of eyes’ included as an identification figure for people coming to the series only with this game).
You can romance certain of your crew, and halfway through the game I callously dumped my blue long-term girlfriend for my lesbian secretary, who has a much sexier voice (I always play as a woman). There is a love scene, but both ladies kept their underwear on throughout, which I found disappointing. On the whole, the game has been commendably even handed about same-sex relationships (there’s also a gay male character on board, who you can romance if you play as a man). Equality and tolerance as values are frequently extolled in the game, and most conflict is shown as the opposition of two perfectly reasonable points of view. We know Cerberus are irredeemably evil because there goals are openly racist, although even there the game presents them and their leader, the Illusive Man, as once-admirable idealists corrupted by their own success, like Steve Jobs and Apple.
The plot is a bit too similar to other Bioware games (Dragon Age, most notably, but also Baldur’s Gate), but I guess it’s a good one and lends itself well to the format. The ‘all-powerful ancient evil coming from outside space to eradicate all life’ is an idea borrowed from Lovecraft (the Reapers even have tentacles, like big metal Cthulhus), and the threat is evoked incredibly well. There is real desperation, and the feeling that something huge is at stake.
Tugging at the heart strings
It would be difficult to think of a game which gets its players so emotionally invested in the fates of its characters. This gives plenty of forewarning that not everyone will be around at the end, and there are a couple of long-running characters who die long before before the climax. One, especially, is wrenching, but provides a beautiful end to that character’s story arc. But there’s a lot of horror in this game, and occasionally you learn of the death of an old ally just by chance, by overhearing something as you walk along a corridor.
There’s a danger this could all become a bit overwhelming and deadening, but the scene just before the final battle in which Shepard gets to go and have a last chat with each of her friends, who we’ve come to know over the course of three games, is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve witnessed in a game like this. I’m not ashamed to say the roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry.
Mass Effect’s ability to combine these lovely little character moments with bad-ass space marine battles is a big part of what made it so good.
They’ve included a multiplayer option, which seems slightly odd for a game like this, but which turns out to be surprisingly fun. It isn’t related to the story (although controversially, it does affect it). It’s a four-player co-op shooter where you and three others are dropped into an environment from the game and have to defeat up to ten waves of attacking villains. These are nicely judged, starting with a simple wave of base-level baddies and working up to tough boss-fight creatures by the end. It’s not earth-shattering, but it is a fun add-on to the game.
The big problem is that playing multiplayer increases your chances of success in your single player campaign. The more multiplayer you do, the better the ending you’ll get and it is not possible to get the best ending without multiplayer. Quite aside from this breaking the fourth wall and taking you out of the story, it also costs money, as you need an Xbox Live Gold Membership to play online. Mass Effect 3 has shipped with two days free Gold Membership with every purchase, but this still feels mean and unnecessary.
Which is a good lead-in to talking about what’s wrong with the game.
Too much bad stuff
Firstly there are quite a lot of little glitches in the graphics and gameplay. Some conversations were conducted with Shepard’s head twisted round unnaturally, like in The Exorcist. The little ‘loading’ graphic moves around a bit when it clearly isn’t meant to, which is just sloppy. One of my crew members seemingly vanished for hours so I couldn’t talk to her (it was that self-righteous cow Ashley, though, so no great loss). Frustratingly, some of the little missions you’re given can’t be done for ages, until you’ve unlocked the right part of the galactic map. Others become unavailable if you accidentally progress the story too quickly. This is annoying in the extreme, especially for a game which encourages completism.
It has tiresome dream sequences that you have to run around in, in slow motion. I hate stuff like that. The game has been criticised for having too high a ratio of cut-scenes to gameplay, and I’d agree that there’s too much watching and not enough playing; but if you must include dream sequences, make them cut-scenes, for goodness sake. Preferably skippable ones.
But the main problem – the big one, the one that has the entire internet up in arms – is the ending. And having played it, I can totally see the problem. It’s going to be difficult to talk about without spoilers, but I’ll be as careful as possible.
Firstly, and this was a problem with Mass Effect 2 as well, the final mission is too easy. It doesn’t seem like it should be the last mission – everything you’re told suggests there will be one more big thing to do, but instead you get a hell of a lot of cut-scenes, which although they feature some gameplay, have a predetermined outcome. At least 2 ended with a boss fight, even if it was a bad one (Mass Effect 1 had it right – a difficult boss fight that was very obviously the end of the game). Mass Effect 3 does have one semi-difficult boss fight, against a supertough assassin who looks like he’s wandered into the wrong game, but it comes ages before the actual end mission.
But that’s only scratching the surface. The problem is what happens at the end. Most importantly, Mass Effect has been sold as a game in which the choices you make have lasting importance, and that things you choose to do in previous games will resonate through the entire trilogy. This seems to be true, until you reach the ending. And whatever you do prior to this turns out not to matter at all – you get the same three (very similar) options no matter what you’ve done. The only difference is how ‘war ready’ you are (where the multiplayer stuff comes in), which determines how successful your ending is. But even there, we’re talking superficial differences. To say this feels like a kick in the teeth is putting it mildly.
And plotwise, the ending is a shambles. It feels like they didn’t have an ending in mind and just threw something together in five minutes flat without thinking it through. I can’t say much without giving it away, but if the implications of what has happened are followed up in a way with what’s consistent with what we’ve already been shown about the universe, then there really was no point in any of the stuff your character has done in the first three games at all.
Also, the final cut scenes feature something that makes literally no sense in the context of what’s just happened, and reeks of cheap emotional manipulation. Perhaps worst of all, an explanation for the Reapers is offered that is probably the dumbest plot reveal since, well, whatever the latest M Night Shyamalan film is. It makes no sense at all.
Presumably we’re all supposed to be so caught up in the emotion of the climax that we don’t notice that it’s mean-spirited, reductive, dumb, contemptuous, and lacks any sense of closure. Unfortunately for Bioware, an awful lot of people have noticed. We are now promised that a new ending will be available (probably a big cutscene rather than anything playable). It had better be good.
There was already downloadable content (DLC) available when the game launched. It’s very good, a mission which gives you a new crewmember to interact with. But it really ought to have just been included in the main game rather than be something we had to pay for – this habit of releasing games that are incomplete unless you spend money on DLC is getting on my nerves (see also Arkham City).
The game has angered fans yet further by ending with a little message telling us to buy more DLC. But it’s hard to see what they can possibly offer now that would be interesting. Perhaps some new multiplayer maps. Any additions to story mode will be pointless, given that the story is done. Previous instalments had downloadable missions that advanced the main story, like the excellent Shadow Broker episode for Mass Effect 2. There is no scope for anything like that now. If Bioware think I’m paying £10 just for a couple of extra Cerberus bases to fight my way through, they are sorely mistaken.
In fact, I doubt I’ll be buying into any more of Bioware’s big roleplaying franchises. If six years of build-up goes nowhere, there doesn’t seem a lot of point. My interest in Dragon Age 3 just nosedived.
Is Mass Effect 3 worth playing? Yes, just about. The ending is terrible, but the rest of the game is every bit as good as its predecessors. And whatever else, it really nails the sense of the epic like nothing else I’ve played. If you can get behind the idea that it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination, then you should still enjoy it. It took maybe 30 hours to play through, which isn't bad.
Unfortunately, if you actually care about the story, you’re going to be in for a nasty shock…