The last entry in one of the biggest original sci-fi series in gaming, Mass Effect 3 sets to close the storylines started by the previous two games while also attempting to deliver the choice-based role playing gameplay that’s become the staples of the series.
It all begins in Earth, where Shepard has been residing after being discharged during a particular piece of DLC for Mass Effect 2 that I did not play. Apparently it’s been a few months during which s/he has been grounded while the reapers have been attacking the galaxy, though his time away from the military comes to a sudden end when the Earth is attacked by the Reapers – Prompting Admiral Anderson to reinstate him in his position as the head of the Normandy and helping him make a quick escape from Earth with the hopes he’ll find out how to deal with the Reaper menace.
It’s with that rather weak setting that the third entry to the series begins. Though the images of the Reapers taking over Earth are strong, the storytelling itself isn’t, and such a start for the plot of the game might as well be considered a plot hole or a stupid turn of events, and let’s not even get started on how understanding it depends on having played the Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2 (I had to actually go look up on the web just what exactly had happened). Nevertheless, after such a start, we’re set on a rather high mission: Find a way to complete the plans and then build the deus-ex machina that will allow the Reapers to be defeated.
And the thing is Mass Effect 3 doesn’t quite keep up with the storytelling standards that the previous two games had. The issue in itself isn’t even the usage of a deus-ex machine to solve the plot, but the way in which it is treated: Whereas the original Mass Effect storyline felt dense at all times and Mass Effect 2 offered such a huge order in which to take care of things or not, Mass Effect 3 feels at most times to be on-rails, with very few things properly skippable (Generally side-missions involving smaller plotlines) and almost no proper branches in its storytelling or any bigger effects coming from the previous games – As a general rule for most of the missions, if you killed a character or let it die, a replacement one will be put there, no questions asked and with almost no effects over the plotline, making the squad members we carefully raised in Mass Effect 2 and the decisions we carefully took for most of the game mean very little or even nothing in most cases and having such a small impact over the game that it might as well have none.
And speaking of squad mates, Mass Effect 3 presents with the stupidest excuse for a squad in all three games. First, only three squad mates from the previous games return, with everyone else being new. And from the new people, only two are remotely interesting, three if we count the DLC character – However, none of them (Except, perhaps, the Prothean from the DLC) bring an interesting story with themselves and most characters just end up being shells of the richly diverse team we had before. Oh, and before anyone asks, there isn’t a Krogan squad mate this time around.
Now, setting the generally on-rails storytelling aside, let’s get to the gameplay: It suffers just as much. Though still interesting, most tactical elements are negated by having Shepard simply hide behind things and shoot (I recall at least having to ask Garrus to use situational powers in ME2, not necessary anymore!) and the only twist you’ll find is the huge annoyance of enemies (most often Cerberus ops) either throwing grenades at you or making smoke screens appear, prompting Shepard to move from behind box A to behind box B every now and then. For its fast-pace and the variety of builds you can have, your class in ME3 seems more irrelevant than ever with most fights being easily overcome by using a sniper rifle regardless of your class and with most powers becoming so highly situational they generally might as well not be there.
Aside from the combat, which is the main gameplay element in ME3, the level design also leaves quite a bit to be desired: It is linear as linear can be, giving further support to the linearity of the general storyline. Most missions consist of going from point A to point B while killing baddies on the way, with very little plot on the way and almost no missions even dare consider changing the established mission flow – The only one I can recall doing it being a pretty peculiar mission that involves Shepard actually entering a virtual world.
However, for all its linearity and the huge hole the combat has become, there are highlights to the game that must be mentioned. The storyline, though linear and not as interesting as it could’ve been, manages to keep the player attached to it for most of the way and it does have a few rather important decisions to be taken on the way to the ending – The main problem with them being that, as the rest of the decisions, they barely affect it anyway.
The reason to this is that all you receive in the end depending on your decisions is an amount of “resources”, or units that will help fight the reapers. Therefore, if you decide to finish a whole race in a peculiar mission all you’ll get as a result will be less people fighting along with the promise of a different ending due to it that won’t materialize – But I’ll discuss the ending later on. In general, all big decisions you might have taken before come down to whether you’ll get more resources or not, so having spared the Rachni queen, for example, won’t mean that you’ll get to see the Rachni swarming the Reapers. Instead it’ll mean your resources will go up from 3000 to 3100 or whatever it is they are worth.
The whole thing with the resources, which is the main reward you’ll get from most quests, is meant to help in the final battle to take back earth, and it does, but only sort of. The ending choices you receive and the actual effect of the Catalyst over the battle depends on it, but it is never explained how or even why what comes down to be a deus-ex machina would have its effect changed by whether there are two or five thousand creatures fighting a near-omnipotent enemy. And it all gets even worse when the effect of the weapon actually comes down to a choice the weapon itself gives you – So if you don’t get enough people risking their lives, the god in the machine won’t help you in several ways, but only one. That’s the extent to which your previous decisions will matter, where they do, and the main hole of the game.
You see, the main reason why the Mass Effect series is so highly regarded isn’t just its story, but how the player could pretty much write their own – Within boundaries, but still recognized by the game, with the decisions supposedly having an effect over the final outcome. However, in the practice, this didn’t quite happen – We aren’t really shown how any of our particular decisions matter, instead turning the whole of them into a number that will tell the game whether we qualify for endings A, B or C and then have it offer them to us.
And then there are the endings themselves – I must say first that I did not, and will not, join the horde of self-entitled gamers who have been crying for a new ending. I believe in this story Bioware was the storyteller and their vision must be respected, asking for a rewrite of the ending being akin to asking (or having asked) Kubrick to retape 2001 because people didn’t like the ending. However, the main problem I see with it is that it is a little – too – open ended, making your decisions matter even less. Put in another way, all you get depending on your decisions is a different colored ending that, though textually different, their main difference comes down to the “expected” effect of the weapon and the color the ray it shoots has. Sure, there are a few other smaller differences (Most notably whether Shepard survives or not and whether Earth is saved or not), but the proper effect of said choice is shown so lightly there’s hardly any time to understand the differences. I liked the ending I got, but only because I had a rather liberal interpretation of it that made it all fit.
So, all things considered, Mass Effect 3 is the most hyped, yet the less impressive game of the trilogy – And the prospect of Bioware rewriting the ending only makes it worse, though it is yet to be seen whether they’ll fully rewrite it or just expand on it – I’m all for a “Director’s Cut” styled ending that explains more of what happens. The main issue in it, however, is how the choice-making takes such a backseat for most of the game, the locations visited all seem a little too hand-crafted and the story a little too formulaic, making the bulk of the gameplay fall over the pretty weak combat system.
However, even with all that considered, it isn’t a bad game – Just kind of a disappointment when compared to the previous two ones, particularly for this writer who loved walking through the Citadel and repeatedly went back to Omega on Mass Effect 2 simply because he loved the ambience and found most of the charming ambient gone from the sequel. Add the many pet peeves the game has (Reliance on the multiplayer complement that, though not bad, isn’t good enough to force people to play it to get the “good” ending, lack of proper high resolution textures and many very low-res ones, horrid body characters (particularly hands) and pretty bad sound tuning, making voices melt down with the environment a little too well) and it is just hard to consider this game the masterpiece that was expected. It does its job well, but perhaps just not as well as it was expected to do it.
Final Review Rating: 3.5/5
Availability: Currently available on physical and digital form from Amazon.com and Gamersgate.co.uk