With a Library approaching two hundred game titles on GameCube, Xbox, Xbox 360 and PS3 (and even a hand full on PC), to say I have played a number of games is a bit of an understatement. Of all the games I have played very few have captured my imagination in the way the Mass Effect Trilogy has. The story of Shepard’s personal struggle to save the universe from The Reapers or the Collectors is a narrative I have fully embraced. I painstakingly crafted the appearance of my “custom” Commander Shepard when I began the first Mass effect and I carried his “personality” to Mass Effect 2 unchanged. He made the moral choices, spoke with other characters in the Mass Effect universe, and attacked challenges in the self-same manner I would if I were faced with the same circumstances. I like Shepard and I like playing as Shepard. In many ways when I play a Mass Effect game, I am Shepard.
I anxiously anticipated the release Mass Effect 3, the Electronic Arts/Bioware sequel to Mass Effect 2. This is the third and final instalment in the Mass Effect trilogy, with some degree of uncertainty, and I had a lot of questions heading in. Would Commander Shepard be the Shepard I needed him to be? Would the storyline and the characters within the story draw me in as the previous two games had? Would the gameplay engage and challenge me? Was the inclusion of the Kinect Sensor or the addition of multi-player a good idea and how would it enhance the experience that I have come to know as Mass Effect? Would the path before Commander Shepard be a path I would want to take? Will the denouement rise to the crescendo as the battle to save the universe rages to a finale? The most important question that hungered for an answer: will I really be Shepard again?
Single Player Campaign
As noted above, I relate to the Mass Effect trilogy’s central character Commander Shepard in a visceral way. I have meticulously crafted this “person” in look, word and deed in the Xbox 360 versions of the game (Mass Effect was not originally published for the PS3). Needless to say I was crushed when the appearance of my custom Shepard could not be imported to my Mass Effect 3 campaign. All of the choices, outcomes and skill level from Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 carried over but the visuals did not, which left me to realize that my familiar, comfortable, grizzled old Shepard was gone. It must be noted that Bioware has accepted responsibility and immediately offered this on the Bioware Forums:
“Hi everyone – We are aware that some players are having issues importing the faces of characters from Mass Effect 1 or Mass Effect 2 into Mass Effect 3. The issue is likely in how faces were detected when imported from Mass Effect 1 into Mass Effect 2, and we’re working on the best way to correct it for affected players. – Chris Preistly.”
At time of the writing of this review Bioware have yet to provide a patch to resolve this issue on the Xbox 360 or PC versions. This is reported to not be an issue on the PS3 as the importation of character was limited to Mass Effect 2. I mention this at the outset of my review of the Single Player Campaign because it is the “Elephant in the Room” and the Bioware Forums lit up with outraged gamers. Was I outraged? No. Was I disappointed? Sure. Did this importation error cause me to attempt to re-craft the look of My Shepard in Mass Effect 3? You betcha! Okay, now that we all see the Elephant, let us move on.
Three years have passed since Shepard aligned with Cerberus to defeat the Collectors. Life on Earth is in peril. Despite Commander Shepard’s repeated warnings to the Council; the Reapers have the human race in a chokehold as alien ships orbit the globe. The Council yanks Commander Shepard before them to offer salvation and prevent the Earth’s certain annihilation by the Mechanical Monsters. Will Shepard be able to assemble foe and ally in his quest to save life in the universe? All Shepard can do is fight, cajole, and earn the respect of all those who would stand beside him as he bolsters a force of rag-tag combatants amongst the ruins. Only he can rally an army to defeat the Reapers.
I have never felt that Mass Effect was a shooter, or an RPG, or an interactive narrative. For me it was a treasured experience. This has never been truer than the gameplay in Mass Effect 3. For the first time in the franchise the player is offered the choice of playing the game as a “straight-up” shooter by negating the dialogue choices, playing the full narrative complete with classic Mass Effect fighting, or they can select to strictly play the entire game in a narrative of cut scenes and dialogue trees sans the shooting. Expectedly I chose the second option, all fighting, all narrative, all the time. That is how Bioware has endeared the Mass Effect 3 trilogy to me and this is how to get the most out of the game.
Everything about Mass Effect 3 feels better. From allying with old friends, to battling a familiar foe, the gameplay just feels right. Weapons are more customizable, the leveling offers greater flexibility in power and attribute selection, and the annoying method of scanning planets in Mass Effect 2 has been simplified in this outing, but it also comes with at a price. The act of scanning a solar system and launching a probe carries the risk of alerting Reaper patrols hell-bent on your destruction.
During my time with the game I even noticed that the dialogue trees feel better and the rewards seem greater. While strolling around the last refuge for humankind, aka the Citadel, the simple act of eavesdropping on conversations nets new side quest or missions. When completed, the “bonus” missions get Commander Shepard that much closer to assembling the War Assets he needs to champion over the Synthetic Menace. You will want to explore every conversation and every world, engage in every mission and every battle to help save the Universe. Why? Because Bioware have done something that is rare in a video game, they have created a Universe worth saving. As Shepard and his team battle with more fluid movement in the midst of a heated gun battle, as you fire off powers and command your team to capitalize on their own powers, you can’t help to feel that you are engaged in anything other than triumph over evil.
I should mention a little about the Kinect Sensor integration of Mass Effect 3. The Kinect offers the player voice command of their squad members and works in harmony with the Xbox 360 controller. I could direct my teammates to take cover, use a power, or rally to me location, but I found it cumbersome and the computer AI seemed slow to react to my commands. My experience may come with a bias to use only the controller, solely for the reason that I have only ever played Mass Effect with a controller, as it is how I feel comfortable playing the game, so in many ways the use of the Kinect may be a personal preference if anything.
Multi-player Co-operative Gameplay
Bioware has introduced online multi-player for the first time in Mass Effect 3, and the inclusion has been controversial to say the least. Many have asked why it was added as the two previous games were indeed single player games. Mass Effect 3 is, at its core, a single player game too. How would it enrich the final instalment of the trilogy? At the risk of appearing that I am denying the validity of those questions, when examined as a gaming option the multiplayer mode can be found to be very enjoyable, excruciatingly difficult, and not meant to be played solo.
It offers a class/squad based co-op mode, challenging players to secure strategic locations found in the single player campaign. As you and your teammates battle wave after wave of enemies in a “Gears of War” like horde mode, you will gain experience to level up and currency to upgrade weapons and armour. I will admit the requirement to participate in micro-transactions when “buying” up-grades was a pain; the ability to do so with Microsoft Points was distasteful. That being said, I found the multi-player to be a lot of fun and I found it helped to improve my chances of success in the single-player campaign by increasing the readiness of my War Assets. Was it a welcome addition? Not totally. Will it encourage me to invest in the mult-player? With such a rich single player campaign, I don’t think so. Is it worth playing though? Absolutely, as in the end it helps with your own single player campaign!
In regards to the visuals, Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 is very good. Although the overall visual sense of the game may appear bleak as the colour spectrum tends to venture to the darker side, the environments are spectacular and massive in scope, the battles are exaggerated with explosions of colour, and massive Reapers wreak havoc while shafts of red and blue slice the sky as they decimate those who strive to stop them. The presentation of the characters during the many moments for dialogue is flawless. Even the subtleties of the camera angles serve to confirm that Bioware has met the challenge and upped the ante when they drew a finale worthy of the Mass Effect name
A storyline as finely written as that of Mass Effect 3 must have stunning audio. I found that the narrative is punctuated by sound. As Shepard walks through the Citadel there is a palatable murmur amongst those who populate the refuge. The murmur serves to reinforce Shepard’s heroic presence. The environment of the Citadel is alive despite the number of its residents who have fled certain death. The voices are always there, be they in distinct conversation or simply going about their day. They are always there to promote hope for a war yet to be won. What struck me most is that Mass Effect 3 has a voice. The number of characters, including those from the two previous games to those who are newly introduced in this third game, left me with the sense there was a collective voice of hope. Alternately, the environs of space are a stark contrast to the life of the Citadel. The silence of space is deafening to the point of oppression, and rightly so, for space is being oppressed by the Reapers, but it is also where a war is being waged and the cacophony of battle assaults by the combatants with rage matched only the resilience of those wrestling to fend off the Synthetic Reaper onslaught. The musical score of Mass Effect 3 sets the tone and tempo of the game and is a very solid sound track. It is the foundation on which the conflicts of death, destruction, hope and victory are forged.
Bioware have pulled all of the tools out of the box to craft Mass Effect 3, the penultimate conclusion to an elaborate and ambitious trilogy. For me the success of Mass Effect is greater than the sum of its parts. I believe my satisfaction is somewhat coloured by my love for the Mass Effect Story. Is that a bad thing? For me no, but it is for the individual gamer to decide. Will the ‘first time’ Mass Effect player feel as drawn to the story, engaged by the characters, and satisfied by the gameplay? Yes they will, but in a less steadfast way than I, and many others who have played all three games, will. For me, as a player, I signed on to the Normandy and all its foibles back in 2007. I have not been disappointed and my commitment has been rewarded with an exceptional conclusion to what I feel is one of the best video game series I have ever played, and I think that many others will end up feeling the same way.