Mass Effect 3 Review
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360
The Reaper invasion has begun. The galactic cycle is nearly at a close. An immensely powerful artificial life streams into the galaxy, prepared to execute every sentient species that has achieved more than a modicum of technological progress. With Earth and every other homeworld at risk of total annihilation, only Commander Shepard can unite the disparate races to save the galaxy from the Reaper threat.
Mass Effect 3 actually affected me profoundly. For exactly that reason, it actually managed to alienate me well before the end of the game. I hadn't realized how attached I'd become to the franchise's secondary characters, particularly those introduced in Mass Effect 2, until this latest game started killing them off. I painstakingly guided the game's characters through the suicide mission at the end of Mass Effect 2 only to have them sacrifice themselves nobly to save the universe.
It was poignant the first time; it was actually meaningful to see their names appear on the memorial wall aboard the Normandy. But then, they started dropping like flies. While not all of them died, so many perished on the way to saving the galaxy, I fell into some role-playing-game version of war weariness. I had always appreciated the variety of choice in squadmates; I could bring on missions those folks whose company I enjoyed. In this latest game, however, I missed Mordin Souls, Legion, Thane Krios, and Jack. That, combined with the massive mortality, meant that by the time I landed on the Asari homeworld, I just wasn't that attached to any of the characters, and I wasn't going to see my favorites return.
The remaining squadmates were all so... professional, that the journey to save the galaxy felt more soulless and mechanical than the mechanical, soulless beings out to extinguish all galactic life. There were professional soldiers (in varying shades of grizzled), an earnest biotic, a puppet longing to be a real boy (or a shapely female robot along the same lines), and a hacker. The one squad member I really enjoyed was the Prothean, Javik, whose grim fatalism in the face of his race's extinction led to occasional gallows humor. The problem? Despite being an important element of the story and clearly deeply integrated into the game, getting Javik by your side requires paying an extra $10 for the "From Ashes" downloadable content. It felt like extortion.
I've loved the Mass Effect games, because I've felt so tied in to the story. It's so personal. BioWare has always done an amazing job presenting each player with a different experience based on a long history of choices. But once I'd landed on Thessia, I realized that all the characters I'd ever loved were gone, and I felt as if I were playing Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares. I was just trying to amass enough resources to defeat the seemingly unstoppable alien fleet that threatened to destroy the galaxy, playing by the numbers, not for the relationships and dialog. We saved the galaxy, but it didn't feel nearly as personal or moving as stopping the proto-Reaper in Mass Effect 2. Of course, I was only so disappointed in my emotional involvement with Mass Effect 3 because of the stellar quality of the previous game.
Launching Mass Effect 3 wasn't nearly as difficult as starting up Mass Effect 2, but it was irritating that I couldn't import my version of Shepard from past games. The facial data import bug is a known problem. You can import faces created in Mass Effect 2, but not faces created for the original Mass Effect that were then imported into Mass Effect 2. I understand that all that reverse-compatibility is hard to pull off, but when you're deeply invested in a character, it's hard to rebuild from scratch. It felt like Shepard was involved in a terrible accident before Mass Effect 3, more so than when this was an actual plot point in Mass Effect 2.
The opening moments of the tutorial and escape from Earth launch with a stellar pace, and the velocity of Mass Effect 3 only flagged when I decided to explore some obscure corner of a mission or eavesdrop on conversations. Instead of loping around planets or leisurely scanning them for minerals, this game forced me to scan star systems while fleeing the Reapers, in hopes of adding a few more resources to the galactic war effort. But I didn't mind. I did resent that Mass Effect 3 executed a small boy in the opening moments to make sure fully grasped the scope of the destruction, then forced me to revisit that moment using awkward metaphorical dream sequences populated by the shades of comrades I'd lost. Most of the time, I still got to enjoy the same exploration and dialog that had had me anticipating the conclusion of the trilogy.
While combat in Mass Effect is shamed by games for which that is the focus, it remains quite enjoyable as pausable, role-playing game–style combat. Combat continues to consist of sheltering behind waist-high walls and either activating various powers or taking pot shots at enemies until they all fall down. It's a little awkward when you have to move between elements of cover – all cover-based games seem to have the underlying conundrum of determining whether you should run away from the massive Brute about to kill you or hide against a nearby wall so it has something to smash you against.
What Mass Effect 3 does that's new is insist on engaging you in as many ways as possible. The game introduces the "Galaxy at War" system. The five different segments of the galaxy each have their own readiness ratings, leading to an overall, average readiness percentage. You need to gather resources in the single-player game to survive the final encounter, but the percentage of those resources you get to use depends on the readiness rating of the entire "Galaxy at War." You can increase that readiness either by participating in the game's cooperative multiplayer mode or by engaging a really annoying iPad app that has constant connection problems and rewards tapping the screen every five to six hours. This works fine if you plan to finish the game in a sleepless weekend, but with play spread out over days or weeks and your readiness constantly dropping, it's a really irritating of making me constantly look at the Mass Effect 3 and Electronic Arts logos.
The multiplayer is fun... for a time. Four players cooperate to fend off wave after wave of enemies that threaten to overrun one of a few locations. It's a very different experience from the single-player campaign, mostly because it requires the combat system to stand on its own merits. Without the ability to pause the action and command a squad, using some of the biotic abilities gets pretty awkward. It would be fun right off the bat, but the multiplayer mode requires unlocking an incredibly long sequence of items and weapons to be competitive. Most advanced players don't want to share the battlefield with a poorly armed newbie, and advancing is a long, hard slog... unless you pay cold, hard cash. Paying to advance in the multiplayer game feels a lot like the betrayal of getting nickel-and-dimed with the "From Ashes" DLC. At least, when you advance a character enough, you can import it into the single player battle to add to your resources without losing your unlockables.
While the ending tried hard to be poignant, I couldn't get nearly as worked up as the rest of the internet about the conclusion of the trilogy. I'd stopped the Antarans (I mean, Reapers) and the galaxy was saved. Yay. The game was over, and while Mass Effect 3 managed some spectacular accomplishments, I, too, was done, and ready to move on.