March 7, 2012
The final installment in this epic trilogy picks up shortly after the events of Mass Effect 2. Shepard's team has managed to take down the Collector base/Reaper factory, to varying degrees of success, but in the aftermath of those events, Shepard is briefly imprisoned by the Alliance for his/her rouge actions under Cerberus.
Fortunately, the Reaper's arrival in the Milky Way quickly pushes any lingering hostility to the side. Mass Effect 3 opens with a bang, as the Reaper's launch a full scale invasion of Earth, devastating humanity's defenses with ease. Shepard reluctantly retreats to seek Council support and begin the wider battle for the survival of all organic life.
Mass Effect's well-realized and detailed universe has always been a strong selling plot for the series, and the third installment in every way lives up to the lofty expectations. It's a tale that will see you traversing around the galaxy, attempting to drum up support for the war effort against the Reapers. But it's arguably the story in the Mass Effect franchise that feels the most coherent, perhaps because it feels as though so much is at stake.
As you progress through the game, relationships will again show how paramount they are to the core Mass Effect experience. The game does a great job of building on these relationships, especially with former squadmates from the Collector mission. Those who survived the suicide mission gradually make appearances in Shepard's latest quest, more often than not in unexpected ways. Overall, Mass Effect 3 feels far less formulaic, in terms of narrative, than its predecessor. Managing this complex web of characters and situational permutations seamlessly is a real credit to BioWare.
It's also quite interesting to see the differences between the default play-through and that where a save has been imported with historical data. Familiar faces show up in different places depending on how history has remembered them and it does help to craft a unique experience. You will often find that the moral decisions you have to make may be swayed depending on who they focus on. For instance, if an old comrade is leading a squad, are you more likely to support them than if it was a new person, who's fresh in Mass Effect 3?
The Paragon (good) and Renegade (evil) side to each choice remains in tact and as with the previous game, these clearly marked paths often lead players to polarize Shepard. If there is a criticism of this morality system, it's that ambiguity falls to the wayside - there is usually a good or bad choice. That being said, what has been built here works well enough to create interesting situations, ones you'll quickly become invested in.
What started off looking like quite a tame experience becomes anything but. Mass Effect 3 will have you making decisions which question your moral fibre - especially if you decide to play through as a renegade for the hell of it. It's rare that a game is able to affect emotions in this way, but it's all because of how choice enters into the equation.
Regardless of which route you take, your journey through the Mass Effect universe will feature plenty of crisscrossing the galaxy on missions largely dictated from the game's Citadel hub world. The Citadel as a hub is nothing new, but this iteration is far more ambitious than before, facilitating the lion's share of Mass Effect 3's mission gathering. This expansion is a welcome change, because it feels like a much more dynamic, living city. It always feels like there's something to find or somebody speak with on the Citadel's various new layers.
After leaving the Citadel to go out into the field, Mass Effect's third-person combat starts to truly shine this time around, thanks to a handful of minor refinements and incremental improvements. For starters, the meat and potatoes of the cover-based, squad-directed system hasn't changed. What has changed is the close-up melee combat, which now features powerful, cinematic strikes if you hold down the button. Additionally, roll and diving maneuvers make Shepard much more mobile on the battlefield - even the running has been sorted out. These minor changes make Mass Effect 3 feel more fluid and versatile than ever. That being said, the clunky close-quarters encounters of old remain, so nobody is going to confuse Shepard with Marcus Phoenix.
There is of course, also the decision you need to make regarding the kind of character you want to play as. You may want to go all traditional shooter and plump for a Soldier, but Mass Effect's lore allows for much more interesting combinations through engineering and biotics.
While Mass Effect 2's over-arching goal was to gather a squad ready for any eventuality, this time around Shepard is tasked with rallying the galaxy's vast and disparate military resources for the final showdown with the Reapers. This is represented by gaining 'War Assets' after completing different faction missions. For example, clearing out a Cerberus base will result in a portion of defectors joining Shepard's overall military roster. Since virtually every action results in some kind of asset accumulation, Mass Effect 3 effectively encourages players to go off the main path and explore.
The Milky Way map on the Normandy still serves as the game's vessel for exploration, but how you navigate the various star systems for resources has changed somewhat. First, the tedious mining mechanic has been overhauled. Shepard's goal is no longer scouring every planet for minerals, instead focusing on finding a select few unique items - which are frequently the basis of the side missions - in each system. To accomplish this, the Normandy can use a proximity scanner to locate items outside a planet's orbit, but doing so will attract the Reapers. Eventually, the Normandy's activity will draw a group of Reaper capital ships into a system, meaning Shepard and Co. need to make a quick escape. It's an interesting new take on exploration that cuts out a lot of the fat associated with mining, and ties things nicely to the Reaper threat.
It means that the campaign as a whole has been fine tuned. Even the inclusion of James Vega, who was meant to help newcombers to the franchise feel more familiar this their surroundings, doesn't feel contrived.
When it comes to the visuals, Mass Effect 3 performs admirably. It's even nice to see that Shepherd's implants still show signs of wear when you become more renegade. While the scale of the battle environments hasn't changed a great deal, everything looks much more refined and the variety in the places you visit shouldn't be understated.
It's also worth noting that the voice cast has again done a fantastic job. The talent pool is even more impressive this time around, with there being a mixture of established voice actors, established screen actors and even rather odd cameos.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Mass Effect 3 isn't found in the single-player component of the game. Instead, it's with a first for the series, multiplayer. In this new arena, customisation is very much at the forefront of everything. You get to create your own character from scratch and take them into the universe of Mass Effect to do battle with up to three other people.
This part of the game also complements the single-player story, so it's not just thrown in there to get more replay value out the title, it actually adds something.
Mass Effect 3 is a very special game. It brings all the elements together to create a package that's like a dream for fans of the franchise and should be for fans of the genre and beyond. The integration of core personalities throughout the campaign works very well and it's a marvel to see how the decision you made so long ago can have their consequences realised in such telling fashion. Mass Effect 3 should not be missed.Editor's Choice
Mass Effect 3 was reviewed on the PS3. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.