The Good: Combat is better than ever. Gone are the dull, repetitious planet scanning and safe/pad cracking minigames. RPG elements are well-balanced. The Bad: Completes the ME story arc, but does so in a vacuous, unsatisfying way that makes your decisions in getting there meaningless. It poorly draws gamers who are less familiar with the ME universe into the plot. The Ugly: Abysmal multiplayer.
I am not the average gamer. I fully accept that. As a game reviewer I play upwards of 40 games a year, probably more. So while I friend of mine bought Skyrim and played it constantly, investigating every little niche, for more than a month, I was in and out of Skyrim in ten days flat. I’d like to go back and experience more Skyrim. For that matter I’d like to go back and experience more Torchlight. And I bought a copy of Borderlands and never even got to install it. But I’ve got Mass Effect 3 to review and Defenders of Ardania hot on the heels of that. Too many games, not enough hours in the day – such is the life of a game reviewer. So in my mind not only is Mass Effect 2 two years in my past, but it’s like 80 games ago. I have no more visceral, emotional connection to Colonel Shepherd and the plight of the various Mass Effect races and characters than I do to the guy driving the tank and trying to defeat Gir Draxon in Stellar 7 back in 1982. And whatever portion of Mass Effect 2 I played (I’m pretty sure I completed it), that save game and the associated memories are long gone. I must admit that I had, briefly, a lamebrained plan to play through all of Mass Effect 2 and then review Mass Effect 3. Sure, and what nether regions is that 100 hours going to spring from? So I’m coming into ME3 without a save game, and without a truly heartfelt desire to learn of the lives or deaths of my various teammates. Take that with whatever sized grain of salt you will.
Given that I didn’t have a ME2 save game handy, I was forced to play ME3 cold. There are, friends who have lived and bled the ME franchise tell me, lots of previous decisions and branch points in the earlier games which impact this one. I personally suspect these are mostly superficial, like if I had gotten one character killed in ME2, I would still do the same mission my friends did in ME3 only with some other character, one of the survivors. I am also highly suspicious that whatever the state of diplomacy with the other races at the end of ME2, I can, perhaps with a little groveling, get everyone to the table for the last battle with the Reapers. I can’t, of course, prove those suspicions without playing through the game twice or more at the expense of a couple of hundred hours I don’t have – good luck with that. What I can tell you with certainty is that by trying to construct and narrate a world which fulfills all the possible outcomes of ME2, some very strange consequences have arisen. The most glaring of which is that at the end of ME2, Shepherd might be (ME2 spoiler) dead or alive. People who come into this game with a dead Shepherd (or without a defined Shepherd, like I did) can make a new Shepherd, someone who appears to be Shepherd’s niece or nephew, or son or daughter, or maybe a somehow reincarnated original Shepherd, but in a male or female body, whatever. I created a woman and named her Britney, Britney Shepherd. Everyone who knew the original Shepherd that I ran across instantly recognized this new woman as the same Shepherd. They called me Shepherd (not Britney) and made references to things that the original Shepherd did as if I had done them. The whole narrative is in frigging shambles. I’m having arguments with my crewmembers about the work I did for Cerebus, when I hadn’t done it, and they talk about the reanimation of Shepherd at the beginning of ME2 as if that were me. For people (though I have no idea who these people are) who didn’t play any of the previous ME games but for some perverse reason have a yen to play ME3 as a standalone, the game does a piss poor job of integrating you into the plotline. Perhaps to try and smooth these bumps over, the game has an “action” mode in which the story interaction is minimized, but if you want to partake in the RPGness of ME3, you’re going to have to deal with some narrative hiccups. Beyond that problem, the whole plot is completely predictable (with the exception of the ending, which I’m not going to go any farther into except to say “ick”). It’s going to take a coalition of all the alien races to fight the Reapers, and it is up to you to get everyone on board. This turns out to require a depressingly narrow mission spectrum, almost all of them being of the “fetch” variety. Every alien race wants me to do something for them first before they’ll join, and I started to come into conversations trying to find the quickest dialog choices that would tell me what it was so I could get away from the cutscenes and back out into the action.
Thankfully it is the action where this game shines. The enemies are smarter, and your teammates take better direction (I’m sort of mixed as to whether or not your teammates are any smarter, because without adult supervision they’ll still do some horrifically stupid things). The combat areas are better designed, no longer looking like random hallways filled with a collection of waist-high objects. There are opportunities to both take the high ground and flank the enemy, and both of them work very realistically. The space bar now does a lot of different things with regards to taking and leaving cover, and can be a little unpredictable at times, but overall it works OK. The biotic powers (which I can’t help think of as force powers, aka Star Wars) individually are powerful, but can be combined to create some truly amazing effects. Many of the slower parts of the game, like planet scanning and safe cracking, are no longer present. Instead of using various elements to research upgrades, it all comes down to simple cash now. Weapon upgrades, like telescopic sights, can be popped onto a weapon, and then later popped off and moved to another compatible weapon as many times as you like. And only a handful of times did I feel like the third person camera was out to kill me.
Linked into the single player game is a 4-person cooperative multiplayer game. When I say linked, I mean that in multiplayer mode you can earn points for galactic readiness (I think that is what it is called), which (supposedly) effects the “goodness” of the game ending. Otherwise, the multiplayer game is completely unlinked – you need to generate a multiplayer character separate from your single player one, and any equipment you have in the single player game doesn’t carry over, and vice versa. All that said, ME3 multiplayer is some of the lamest multiplayer I’ve seen in some time. The game lobby is bare bones with few choices of what to do there except find a game to play. Players are tossed together at random (unless you join up with friends), and there’s no filter for player level. My very first multiplayer game, I’m a 1st level character in a map with two 20th level characters, and a 15th level character. They gamely carry my useless carcass through a couple of waves, and then kick me out. I can’t blame them, I did less damage with my gun than they did with their bare hands, but as a plus for me I gained enough experience from just those few waves to gain 6 levels. Back in the game lobby, however, I can’t level up the character; I can only do that from a map intro screen, which means the other players who want to just play, have to wait until I go through the leveling process – pick power upgrades, visit the weapons store, that kind of thing – and they get impatient and I get kicked out a couple of times and have to start again. Once through all of these machinations, the multiplayer game itself is very uninspired. You are tasked with fighting back a number of alien waves, as well as tackling some simple interactive things like standing by a computer while it downloads, or finding and disabling some modules scattered around the map, all of which takes place in a single map which isn’t all that large. This, I think, is as limited and unimaginative a multiplayer offering as I have come across in some time.
Production values are high. The graphics are great. Depending on your memory for bit actors, you’re going to catch a lot of recognizable people voicing the various roles. The cutscenes are very cinematic. The game contains good sound effects and lots of wonderful music; ME3 presents a very polished and professional package.
So, wow, Mass Effect 3. How to summarize it? It closes off the plot arc. People who are entrenched in that universe will probably be interested in learning what happens to all the characters you’ve interacted with and perhaps grown to empathize with, but the ultimate ending is, without spoilers, unsatisfying to say the least (if, after you’ve played it, you think of it as the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you might get a chuckle out of it). For those who have no particular emotional dog in the ME3 fight, they’re going to find the plot particularly peeving. To answer complaints that there was too much RPG or not enough RPG or whatever in the earlier Mass Effects, you now have three flavors from which to choose to try and find one that fits your taste. ME3 does have good combat and RPG elements to it; I’ll give it that. Though I defy anyone to email me and tell me that they like the multiplayer. The sum total? ME3 is a tough game to love, but a pretty easy one to like.
This review is based on the PC version of Mass Effect 3 provided by Electronic Arts.