Review: Mass Effect 3

In the transition between the first game to the second game, Bioware focused a great deal of their efforts on improving the way the game played while fleshing out the sterling narrative. Their efforts paid off. Mass Effect 2 was a much more enjoyable hybrid of the third person shooter and RPG genres than its predecessor. That is to say, by bringing the combat up to the level of storytelling that already existed, it became a much more well rounded experience. The leap between Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 is not nearly as dramatic, but that is because there wasn’t nearly as much to improve on.

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: March 6, 2012 [NA], March 8 [AU], March 9 [EU], March 15 [JP]
Platforms: PS3, PC, Xbox 360
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360

What ME3 brings to the table is the same crisp combat introduced in Mass Effect 2, classes that each function in a unique and fun way, and more synergy between a larger variety of enemies. Melee has been slightly revamped with each class gaining access to a devastating heavy melee attack. Finally, biotic powers are still as satisfying as ever due to their physics. Curving a singularity projectile around an enemy’s cover to launch him off the side of a building is just one way in which these powers stand out from your garden variety special nuke ability found in similar games. As a cherry on top, the Kinect enabled voice controls are surprisingly responsive in all of the situations they are useable (dialogue sequences, squad control, and interacting with the environment).

Even the multiplayer has proven a worthy inclusion in the game, though it is somewhat shallow. Players are allowed to build a character for the multiplayer much as they do for the campaign. One can level up, pick a class, loosely customize appearance, choose equipment and weapons, but the level of detail you can get into while customizing this character is severely limited when compared directly to the single player character creator. Also, you must buy your equipment from the Bioware store, either with credits earned in game or with Microsoft points.

The multiplayer itself consists of wave based co-op which has almost become obligatory in any game that is even considering a multiplayer component. Players face off, on one of six maps from the campaign, against 11 waves of geth, reapers, or cerberus troopers with special objective-based rounds interspersed within. As simple as the mode is, it isn’t lacking in lizard-brained compelling pleasure. The cooperative aspect is even sharply reinforced on higher difficulty settings, which is where the mode really shines as something other than a quaint distraction. I only wish that there could be a lobby timer counting down once the lobby becomes full.

What is most fascinating about the multiplayer, though, is how it interacts with the single player campaign. Early on in the game, the player is introduced to a system called “galactic readiness” which contributes to another system called your “effective military readiness.” While the system is never quite laid out in full detail for the player, it works in the following way: The final battle with the Reapers, which has been setup since Mass Effect 1, is on the horizon, and Shepard is tasked with preparing everybody for that final battle. Over the course of the game, the player must make alliances and gather military assets, lest Earth, and all organic intergalactic life, be exterminated. The number of military assets you have is multiplied by your galactic readiness (which starts off at 55%, or .55) to give you your effective military strength. The fate of Earth is ultimately tied to how high your EMS is, and your EMS will be much higher with higher galactic readiness. The kicker? Your galactic readiness can only be improved through playing multiplayer matches.

Fortunately, there are enough assets within the game for players seeking out the perfect ending without having to grind out multiplayer matches. Had that not been the case, I’d be much more inclined to criticize that system. As it stands, though, I find it to be rather brilliant. The addition of a clear quantifiable number telling me how prepared I am for the final battle should be immersion breaking, but it isn’t. Instead, it takes the guessing game of, “if I begin the end-game now, will I lose everything?” away, which allows me to focus on the roleplaying.

Before I continue on, and because I don’t know where else this fits in, I want to add in an aside on the game’s aesthetics. The engine is beginning to show its age in terms of the plastic facial animations. However, the lighting and the vistas are more captivating than they have ever been. The game shows its penchant for visually arresting the player as early as the tutorial level, where you encounter a colossal reaper, amidst bombed out buildings, astride in the ocean as if it were a puddle. The magnificent scale of it all is breathtaking. And every gripping moment is perfectly underscored by the game’s masterful soundtrack. Not just humanity, but all life, is up against the ropes and that unifying theme comes through in the aesthetics better than anywhere else in the game.

These things, though, are all bonuses in comparison to what Mass Effect does best. And what it does best is make you the arbiter between galactic civilizations with elements that mirror cultures both familiar and foreign to us. What it does best is place you in the middle of a conflict far bigger than your character, and heap the expectation upon you to bring order to that chaos.

Mass Effect’s ability to construct entire cultures, rich with history without being overwrought, remains unrivaled. The nomadic quarians are locked in conflict with their AI creations, the geth, who aligned with the reapers to escape genocide. Further fleshed out in the series’ denouement are the proud and collectivist turians, the limitlessly aggressive krogans, the pompous yet brilliant solarians, and the asari who remain loyal to their spirituality despite being the most advanced species in the galaxy.

The climax of the series sees the divide between these species reach a critical boiling point when they need to unite most. The quarians are committing fully to either wiping out the geth, or being extinguished. Meanwhile, the krogans are leveraging their war prowess against the turians and solarians for a cure to a disease (created by the solarians and deployed by the turians as a means of population control) that has caused a high number of krogan offspring to be stillborn.

The amount of politicking and in-fighting between species, combined with the ultimate threat provided by the reapers, makes it more difficult to suspend disbelief than was true of previous games. It’s difficult to believe that, on the brink of extinction, that unification is not an absolute priority. A conversation between Liara and Shepard reveals an interesting parallel between Mass Effect and the real world when she expresses her frustration at how much politics stagnates progress, but the meaning in this self-aware parallel is clouded by how different the threats are between anything we face in the real world compared to what these characters are facing.

Furthermore, the magnitude of the threat is rarely felt by the player. Instead, it is more frequently told than shown. While fighting on a turian moon, the flaming orb of their home planet is seen in the distance. This is a powerful image, but it is quickly followed by a general stating that 5 million turians were killed on the first day of the invasion, and 3 million on the second. Such imagery is never allowed to stand on its own, and occurrences where the player is told that an unconscionable threat looms are far more common than occurrences where players actually feel threatened. Never once did my 3-man squad feel incapable of handling a mission, which further undermines the efforts of the game to convey the scale of the conflict. No scenario ever felt too dire to be overcome. An issue, which Bioware failed to resolve, is that the player needs to be made aware of how bleak things are without struggling too much to actually progress. Again, the game’s visuals are powerful enough to accomplish this, but they aren’t used to their full potential because the game insists on telling rather than showing. The sequence towards the beginning of the endgame is a stark reminder of just how overwhelmingly threatening the reapers are, but that comes late into a long game. More on the ending shortly.

Looking past that, though, the game’s greatest strength lies with having the player become emotionally invested in characters and cultures, and then forcing them to make gut-wrenching choices in the heat of the moment.

I found two things especially fascinating about the element of choice within the series’ final installment. The first is how decisions made in Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 have rippled forward – they have finally paid off in huge ways. A certain set of choices made in previous games will literally impact the survival, or extinction, of an entire species in the third game. Even most of the choices within this game lead to a pay-off. For instance, I chose to spare something early in the game, and they later betrayed me, which caused me to be less prepared for the final battle. My only complaint here is that you are given an unchangeable set of default choices if you do not import a save file from previous games. This can have dire consequences for players switching from one platform to another for the franchise’s final installment. A checklist for non-imported characters would have been wonderful here.

Secondly, once I was actually able to suspend disbelief and fully invest in the story, I found the way I normally cognize decisions was influenced by the conflict. I found my moral compass obscured from its normal heading by callous pragmatism; pragmatism which I found necessary to succeed in the face of overwhelming odds. I made choices that I was morally opposed to, but I set those moral qualms aside to make the decisions I thought would best ensure the survival of life everywhere. The way the game played with my own decision making process is simply unheard of.

And there were plenty of these choices to agonize over. It’s a testament to Mass Effect‘s ability to cultivate emotional investment that I was actually brought to the point of tears when a particular character made a tragic sacrifice for the good of the mission.

With such care and attention spread across three massive games, one would expect the crescendo to be immaculate, but the fact of the matter is, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The final minutes of the game, the time which defines any good work of fiction, are slapdash and utterly poor. The ending is not simply fumbled;  it implodes in upon itself.

The ending sequence kicks off with a literal ghost in the machine. The reapers, or collective will of the reapers, whatever it is motivating them to continue their cycle of apocalyptic intergalactic purging, reveals itself as a ghost which is somehow also the key to another deus ex machina super-weapon. The ‘catalyst,’ for this super weapon, ‘the crucible,’ is the will of the reapers. And what is the will of the reapers? What is their ultimate goal? To stop synthetic life from advancing far enough to wipe out organic life. They accomplish this…by wiping out organic life in cycles.

This puzzles me. It is stated that no species from previous cycles were ever able to complete the weapon. How is it they were able to discover this ‘catalyst,’ and why did they never see fit to tell anyone what it actually was? And how is it even conceivable that they could somehow harness that ‘catalyst?’

The conclusion to this franchise is beyond poor, not because many of its endings are bleak, but because they are incomprehensibly written. At the end of scintillating journey, the game asks you to faithfully take a leap in logic one last time, but this time it asks you cross a chasm of absurdity. I could suspend disbelief throughout the first two games, and I eventually overcame my struggle to do so for the majority of the third game, but its ending unravels at the seams, especially when one considers just how ridiculous the super weapon is.

Without going into specifics, the player is ultimately given one final choice to make with three options, all revolving around the use of this weapon. The payoffs for these options reveal just how ludicrous and poorly thought out the game’s second instance of deus ex machina, the ‘crucible,’ is. It takes the worst fix-all properties of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and amplifies them to extreme proportions.

The choices given to the player are equally egregious in the way they play out. Two of the endings are completely identical, and the other varies quite a bit, but you aren’t shown how nearly enough of how those consequence manifest themselves. The ‘perfect’ ending merely adds a confounding plot hole, in the form of an unnecessary twist, to an already poor ending.

Should that undermine the value of the entire experience? Does that make everything up until this point less poignant? No. Not quite. It damages my opinion of the series, and it feels like a betrayal to be met with such an ill-constructed finale after having such a brilliant and memorable experience. It is an unfortunate place for the game’s legs to give out given that it had previously walked with such grace.

Like Lost and Battlestar Galactica before it, the Mass Effect trilogy will be remembered as a near-masterpiece that collapsed at the bitter end. The ride is, without question, worth taking, but it fizzled out with a whimper instead of the bang it deserved.

6.5 / 10

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