There’s no shortage of reviews for this game at the moment and no shortage of grumbles about the end of the story, which, FYI, I haven’t got to yet and have avoided any such discussion. I’m going to do my best to avoid talking about the plot beyond it pertaining to the game mechanic as I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone.
So without further a do…
Mass Effect, for those that have been living under a rock these last few years, is a 3rd person shooter/RPG/space opera set in a future where humanity is a part of an intergalactic community, and thanks to our inherent ability to stick our nose where it’s not wanted, we’re on the cusp of being accepted as a Council member – a governing body of hand ringer types who tell everyone what to do, without expecting their own people to follow suit. Think of the European Union and you’ll get the idea. Without getting bogged down in too much back story, Mass Effect 3 follows on 1 year from the end of the second game with the galaxy on the brink of invasion by a species known as the Reapers (queue dramatic music). The reapers are spaceship sized sentient robot type beasties who descend upon the galaxy every 50,000 years and wipe out all advanced life, which is roughly when civilisations reach their zenith and have either fallen in to depravity or are attempting to rule the galaxy with an iron fist. The Reapers, essentially, redress the balance. Humanity, the Turians and all the other species we’ve come to know and love in the Mass Effect universe escaped the slaughter 50,000 years previously by being too primitive. So score one for the idiot nations!
And that’s where I have to stop as beyond the key plot aspects, the specifics will vary significantly depending on how you played both Mass Effects 1 & 2, if you played them at all, or if you downloaded and played the DLCs. The important thing to remember is it all kicks off and it falls to Commander Shepherd to rally the Galaxy under one banner and take the fight to the Reapers who have decided to make Earth the focal point for their invasion. Most likely to stick two fingers up at Commander Shepherd who has, thus far, made life difficult for them during the course of the first two games. And as with the previous two games, your decisions and the way you interact with people dictates who lives, who dies, who helps and you leaves you to twist in the wind. And with the stakes massively amped up, each and every consequence is acutely felt.
Obviously relationships are key in Mass Effect as are the love interests. You’ll get to nail your previous bit of stuff from the second game or you can do the dirty on them with no shortage of people, some new, some old, that are eager to throw themselves at the good Commander. It’s so blatant it’s comical but I suppose it’s just Bioware beating us over the head with Commander Shepherd’s heroism. As if being placed in charge of a galaxy spanning fleet wasn’t indication enough.
The thing that has always made the Mass Effect games so good was its perfect blend of combat and plot and it’s something that Bioware, God love them, has refined steadily over the 3 games to the point that in ME3 your team will fire and manoeuvre, use their special abilities and even, on occasion, switch weapons, without even being asked. More importantly, they don’t select the previous weapon after you’d told them to change it. There was a nice moment in ME3 when I had the drop on some dudes so I ordered my team to swap out to sniper rifles and we all hit them at once. It was…awesome.
ME2 and therefore ME3 has come under fire for introducing ‘ammo’, or thermal clips which burnout as too much energy is expended. The original game just caused weapons to overheat. However, the result was you could sit back and snipe your way through the game which may be your cup of tea but it’s not how it was meant to be played. In my opinion. The reality is that ammo, power/equipment use and ‘cool down’ of those powers means that combat is so much more than the standard shoot shit until it falls down. Cover is a key part of combat and some may draw comparisons to Gears of War, and they’d be forgiven but in reality, again, fire fights are messy affairs and standing out in the open gets you killed. The nice thing, however, is that if you’ve got a good aim and you’re a little bit brave you can go toe to toe with multiple targets in Mass Effect 3 out in the open and come out on top.
Which brings me on to the weapon improvements. Bioware have fiddled about with weapons, ammo, and equipment over all of the games. In the first you could customise weapons heavily down to the ammo type. In ME2 the ammo type became an available upgrade and weapons were just items you acquired. In ME3 you can not only buy weapons, but buy improved models. In ME2 weapons could only be upgraded if you stumbled across the right modules to be researched. If you didn’t you couldn’t have the best weapons. This forced players to scour every environment they found themselves in. In ME3 weapons are both bought and found but either way newer versions and upgrades can be bought on the open market and are customizable to suit your style of play. So assault rifles can have combat scopes, and pistols can have extended mags. For example.
The reason for this seemingly heavy-handed approach to mission load out is down to the fact that one of the key tenants of the games has been stripped back. And that is resource collecting. It was something the featured heavily in Mass Effect 2 – visiting every planet in the galaxy to get hold of enough raw materials to upgrade weapons and the ship you’re commanding to prepare you for the battle at the end of the game. It was, to be fair, tedious. And I loved ME2. Sublight engines required fuel so moving from system to system once you’d made a mass relay jump meant you had to manage that resource which cost money. Scanning planets required probes which had to be replaced. And depending on what you were searching for you could use a lot of probes. Running out would mean having to find a system with a depot, re-equip and then jump back. ME3 has, thankfully, done away with that because the galaxy is at war and resources aren’t as much a priority as men and materiel. I also wish Bioware had thought up the new way of scanning planets which is, simply, pulling the left trigger as you move the ship around the system. Planets with stuff worth finding ping up in red. A quick drone launch later (that is free and infinite) and the relevant item or resource has been collected. Simples.
A really nice touch is that scanning planets attracts the attention of the Reapers who will, if you scan too much, descend upon the system and run you down. It’s a nice little dose of excitement as you attempt to outrun them. And they don’t sod off until you’ve completed a mission. Of course, there are natty little tricks you can pull to sweep into a system, nab what you’ve detected and bug out before they get you but I’ll leave that for you to figure out.
So the game is all about gathering war assets from a resource point of view which will be flung at the Reapers at the allotted time. This is done either by completing side missions or following key missions as part of the main story. It gets a little flimsy at times as one side mission required me to find a medical treatment for a wounded Turian general. For my trouble I get a fleet committed to the war effort. A fleet!? Really?! Obviously it’s all slightly representative but flitting about the stars trying to find trinkets and the like while the galaxy burns seems a bit pointless. The actual missions where you fly in to the fire and kick some ass and take names and in return you earn the trust of a people makes sense. Finding an investment banker and artefact in exchange for military might, does not.
When you’re in the thick of the action Mass Effect 3 is almost without peer. Without going into too much detail you get to spank a couple of Reapers during the course of the campaign and it all gets a little bit tasty. Combat is slick, the AI on both sides is responsive and if you die in Mass Effect 3 it’s because you’ve out played, plain and simple. Although the ‘snap to cover’ move is also the same as a running dive which means, from time to time, instead of diving out-of-the-way of a grenade, you’ll just slide around the cover leaving still very much within the blast radius and out in the open to get shot at. But the fact that the enemy uses grenades intelligently is also an indication of the quality of the programming behind the game.
Going back to the war assets, one of the big changes, down to the galactic war raging, is galactic readiness. This will indicate how much of your gathered might will survive the strike against the Reapers. The only way you can increase this readiness is by playing the multiplayer. At first I was a little incensed by this as it’s bad enough that games like Battlefield and Call of Duty put multiplayer over story but Mass Effect is all about the story. However, I gave it some thought and it makes a degree of sense. You fight in the various theatres of war, fighting off wave after wave of enemies, driving them back so those sectors can better prepare. That’s the theory. In practice you get one map per sector and every game follows pretty much the same formula which means beyond getting your readiness level up, you’d be out of your mind to play it once you’ve completed the campaign. However, the kick to the hojos is that your readiness decreases. So, in between campaign missions, you have to stop and play a bronze level multiplayer match to top up the readiness level. It’s a pain and it breaks the golden rule of any good RPG; which is never break the flow of narrative. Halting the story – the main reason I play games – to fuck about blasting 10 waves of Geth/Reapers/Cerberus is annoying.
Like I say, I understand why Bioware did it but it feels bolted on, an after thought as if they go worried that people wouldn’t buy a game that didn’t have multiplayer functionality. The lack of maps and the hatefully repetitive nature pretty much proves it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some cracking good games on multiplayer, especially if you get a good team of people with you. But, all the while I’m back to back with a fellow soldier, I’m wishing I was taking the fight to the Reapers for real.
All in all, Mass Effect 3 is an outstanding game. The balance of resources, combat and story is spot on. It’s application isn’t perfect as I’ve mentioned but the intensity of the game and the frenetic combat means you’ll very quickly forgive it of its failings. And if you’ve played the first two games you just won’t care because, like me, you’ll already be a convert and you’ll want to, as the chaps at Bioware have coined it, take back Earth.