Review: Mass Effect 3
When examining a game which has been so eagerly anticipated, so regularly discussed and debated as Mass Effect 3, it’s hard to know where to start. The first thing that needs saying is a fact which I believe has been far too easily overlooked in all of the controversy surrounding that ending recently: no matter what your thoughts are on the way in which the narrative ends, the preceding twenty or so hours will provide you with some of the best experiences in video game entertainment of 2012, if not of this entire generation.
From the outset, with the original Mass Effect, the stakes were undoubtedly high for Commander Shepherd and his vigilant team of intergalactic comrades. Since fans chose our hero’s appearances in that flawed but fun first title, they have seen friends sacrifice themselves, committed genocide on several influential space races and made dozens of galaxy-shifting decisions, all in the hope of stopping the Reapers from repeating their galactic edition of Total Wipeout once more. It’s hard to think of any other shooter franchise (or indeed video game franchise in general) that has rested so heavily on the consequences of the player’s actions, providing such heart-breaking twists and moral ramifications as BioWare constantly have over the course of our five-year journey on the Normandy.
The key question on everyone’s tongues, then, was just whether the third and final instalment in this grand trilogy could ever possibly live up to its developer’s and its fan base’s ambitions. There will always be differing opinions on this, but there is no doubt in my mind that I was completely satisfied with how each and every one of my seemingly inconsequential decisions came to light in Mass Effect 3, and had a profound influence on the way in which the campaign played out. Without spoiling too much for those of you who have yet to play it, every squad member who has survived their battles in the past make a rich and justifiable appearance somewhere within the game’s storyline, to the point that if you managed to get everyone out alive in the alleged suicide mission of ME2, you’ll feel the thrill and utter passion of BioWare’s writing team as they thrust each of your allies back into the fray one last time, pushing you further and further towards the daring Earth finale.
With such a breath-taking narrative that so cunningly uses your choices to its full advantage, newcomers may wonder if there is much chance for them to step in at this point as EA have so boldly proclaimed with every chance they’ve had in the promotional campaign leading up to the game’s release. Quite honestly, I reckon that anyone who chooses to start the series with Mass Effect 3 is going to miss out on a large chunk of what makes it such an amazing masterpiece, especially when you consider that ME2 is available for less than a tenner now and will easily provide those of you out there who have missed out previously with the deep character connection and storyline integration that are crucial elements to your enjoyment of this action-packed denouement.
Of course, BioWare were never going to send the most recent addition to their player demographic into the fray without tweaking the series’ accessibility along the way, so there are a few new features added in for good measure to make this swift introduction to the galactic war at hand a little less daunting. Instead of using the motion-comic ‘Genesis’ to recap all of the past two games’ events and have new players forced to make choices which make little-to-no sense without the context or knowledge of the overall story lines. This time around the galactic database containing Shepherd’s records has malfunctioned (it’s a pesky niggle that you would really think should have been fixed by the year 3000, but there you go!), leaving you to fill out his name, appearance details and a few of the key decisions before booting up the campaign. It’s a neat transition to be sure, yet it just goes to show that if BioWare can’t even think of an effective way to cover two games’ worth of content quickly and succinctly, then there really is no substitute for playing the real thing.
On top of this, we’ve now got the much-vaunted multiplayer mode which can be used to increase Galactic Readiness within the campaign. The whole Galaxy At War concept seems a little overblown if you ask me but still, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the online component as you progress characters from various different races through battles with Cerberus and Reaper forces, even if there’s nothing quite substantial enough to topple behemoths like Call of Duty and Battlefield from their thrones.
Xbox 360 owners also have the chance to use Kinect voice commands within the main campaign to control squad mates and do menial tasks like opening doors or selecting conversation options. But while this is quite possibly the most efficient use of Microsoft’s peripheral so far, once again you are gaining nothing here that can’t be done with less hassle using a controller. If such an effective use of Kinect is still proven useless, it might leave us to wonder if there is any true ‘use’ for the hardware on current-generation consoles…that, however, is another debate for another day! (Indeed!, Ed)
Back to the campaign though, and in terms of the graphics and the general run-and-gun RPG gameplay, BioWare as a developer has totally refined every aspect of these two elements of the final product. ME3 easily has the best production values yet, constantly dazzling us with huge spaceship battles, stunning planetary vistas and above all the realistic and believable facial animations that have come to represent the series’ utmost dominance in cinematic storytelling. Although at times the balance of shooting sequences and role-play segments (e.g. conversations; decisions) appears to have been quite challenging for the writers to handle. Overall there is a real sense that both sections of the game have received equal attention; the third-person gun battles are littered throughout proving varied and challenging enough to constantly sustain your interest.
All of this praise, and I haven’t begun to recall the countless moments the team have perfectly riffed on science-fiction storytelling legends. From the unpredictable nature of Star Wars’ galactic conflicts conceptually, to chilling romps through caves and factories clearly inspired by Alien and Dead Space, there are moments where you feel as if the plot is lacking its own innovation. Rather than remembering some of the best moments that its genre has given us in the past and using their foundations to create their own set of ground-breaking revelations and adventures. Remember those constant urges you had just to check out that one extra cave in Skyrim before heading to bed at 4am? Picture that ‘one more mission’ feeling amplified dramatically as you’re desperate to know what unique direction the story will fly into next, and above all to find out how everything comes to a close.
This trail of thought coincidentally brings us back to the game’s controversial ending. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: lest BioWare want to begin a catastrophic chain of events whereby developers are ever dependent on the approval of their fanbases when crafting a video game storyline, they need to stick to what they’ve given us. Sure, there are numerous plot holes in each of the game’s multiple possible endings, and sure, there isn’t as much impact from our choices on what becomes of the first human Spectre as we might have hoped for. But nevertheless, in ending the game as they have, the writing team have reached a daring landmark in video game history in that they haven’t gone for a Hollywood-esque climax where everyone lives happily ever after, despite the odds realistically meaning that that would never have been the case.
Perhaps from now on, we’ll get less of the cheesy bravado that plagued games like Black Ops, and more of the shock factor that’s present here. Did the same kind of hate campaigns get launched at Rocksteady for their choice to kill off Batman’s archenemy in Arkham City? No. The reason for this? The fanbase was different, more accustomed to the variety of ploys and bombshells that the comic-book world could throw at them in its various formats.
Hindsight can be a wonderful thing, and I reckon that it’ll be with hindsight that the complainers realise how futile their quarrel with BioWare has been. Ultimately, Mass Effect 3 comes packed with the most refined gameplay, the most cinematic visuals and the most impactful drive for emotional video-game storytelling of the entire trilogy. It just goes to show that if ‘fans’ can make this much of a fuss about the concluding ten minutes, then they must have loved everything that came before. Soon enough, they’ll realise, as so many of us already have, that it’s thanks to all of the time they’ve invested and the ease with which BioWare manages to provide a hugely satisfying pay-off, that this can be renowned as one of the defining games of this generation.