Mass Effect 3 is a soaring space opera of a game, and there’s plenty of quality content to keep you occupied. However, Mass Effect 3 is less enjoyable for players who haven’t played the rest of the trilogy, and those who have might feel a bit of gaming deja vu.
Mass Effect 3 is a bit like having a boyfriend that everyone loves but you. He treats you nicely, remembers your birthday, does his share of the washing up. He’s attractive, charming and clever. Your friends like him. Your parents like him. Your mum keeps asking you when you’re going to get married. Everyone likes him so much, you start to actually feel bad that you don’t, and wonder if there’s something wrong with you.
This is the third act in one of the most popular game franchises ever made, and I can’t argue it’s anything less than an impressive game. With some 40 hours of gameplay, remarkably few meaningless side missions and high production values, Mass Effect 3 is objectively an excellent game. And yet, we’ve done it all before.
Like an old boyfriend, it just keeps taking me to the same places and doing the same old things – and it’s boring. I’ve been to the Citadel already, twice, and to be honest, it was a more interesting place to explore in the previous games. I’ve explored all the different areas of my space ship, the Normandy, and I’ve mined planets for resources. I’ve already been pleasantly surprised by BioWare’s decision to allow me to play as a woman and to have gay relationships. I’ve convinced a squad mate to have a virtual romance and giggled at the ‘sex’ scenes. I’ve fought the Geth and the Reapers and discovered ancient Prothean artifacts. I’ve learned about the fascinating Krogan, Turian and Asari cultures. This time around, I was hoping there might be something… more. Perhaps a different city to explore, a different ship to command, new races to discover and a different set of squadmates. But there’s nothing new to see here, so move along. It’s hard to really enjoy a game when you feel like you’ve played it all before, and that’s how it feels to play Mass Effect 3.
Mass Effect 3 starts with the player-created heroine (or hero) Commander Shepard under house arrest. She’d tried to warn the Galactic Council that the whole galaxy was under threat from synthetic beings called the Reapers, but they locked her up for her efforts. It seems that life in the galaxy is trapped in a 50,000 year cycle – as soon as organic life reaches a certain point of intelligence, the Reapers come and wipe it out, and the whole cycle starts again. As Mass Effect 3 open we are nearing the end of our cycle, the Reapers are coming, and time is running out.
The whole ‘saving the universe from being destroyed’ plot is getting really old, and the ‘we’re destroying organic life to save organic life’ plot line doesn’t really make any sense, but it just about manages to pull it off. What is harder to forgive is some of the cheesy dialogue in cutscenes – if Steven Spielberg made video games, Mass Effect 3 would be his War Horse.
To “win” Mass Effect 3, you’ll need to gather War Assets (Krogan soldiers, Turian ships and new technology, for example) and rally others to your cause. The amount of War Assets you have represents the Galaxy’s likelihood of pushing back against the Reapers and will therefore determine how your story ends, so you spend most of the game watching your War Assets meter like a hawk. You can also accumulate War Assets by playing Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, though the developers claim achieving the ‘best’ ending is possible without ever joining a multiplayer match. What you will need to do in order to rack up War Assets is side quests, and lots of them, but then I’m not sure that anyone who enjoys playing RPGs could really have a problem with that. However, the ‘good’ ending, where Shepard lives, is incredibly hard to get – you’ll probably need to follow a walkthrough to guide you through it, and as it’s based on the choices you make as well as completing side quests it would take away the fun of being able to play the way you want to play. I completed 95% of the side quests (but without access to the DLC or multiplayer) and only managed 2917 Effective Military Strength, presumably as the choices I made during the game were the ‘wrong’ ones. For the ‘perfect’ ending, I needed over 5000.
Collecting War Assets makes you feel like you’re achieving something measurable with almost almost every action you take, as you watch your score slowly stack up.
If you choose to import your saved data from Mass Effect 2, the choices you made will impact the game in many different ways, including the choice of potential endings you’ll get. You’ll also get to make several tough choices during the game, which usually result in characters you care about dying – it’s quite a bleak game. It’s hard to see the true impact that your decisions have – sometimes it feels like they’ve genuinely changing the game – like when a character I saved in Mass Effect 2 steps in front of a bullet to save a doctor. Sometimes it seems like there is simply the illusion of choice – for example, when I decided I didn’t want a particular character to die, I played through all the different combinations of choices, but whatever I did, he still ended up dead, just by a different method. Clearly someone had it in for him, poor bastard.
BioWare intends to sell multiple pieces of downloadable content for Mass Effect 3 that include new features, characters and missions, but the game does not feel ‘incomplete’ without the DLC. Mass Effect 3 is probably the longest game I have ever played, although it is disappointing that EA (and many other publishers) choose to release downloadable content for sale the same day a game hits store shelves to try and wring more money out of us rather than just include that extra content with the game. It’s worth noting that the Mass Effect 3 DLC will help you increase your War Assets and Effective Military Strength, so keep that in mind when making your purchasing decision.
Since Mass Effect 3 is a sort of action-RPG hybrid game you’ll spend most of your missions in third-person mode, shooting enemies while exploring creepy deserted bases and ruined alien worlds. The control system leaves a bit to be desired – using the A button on the Xbox 360 (spacebar on PC) for several different commands, including interacting with items, running and diving for cover, can be troublesome and cause Shepard to execute headache-inducing maneuvers like crouching down in the middle of enemy fire rather than running for cover. There are also some graphical glitches that really should have been ironed out, including a headless squad mate and cutscenes that place your camera facing directly into a wall. Hopefully patches will soon be released that fix these technical problems.
Although Mass Effect 3 is still a role-playing game, the character-building mechanics have been streamlined and simplified. As you level up you earn and spend points to improve your characters’ skills, but it’s difficult to really feel the difference the next time Shepard enters the battlefield. All of your skills are unlocked at the start, so you just spend points to build them up as the game goes on. You can also collect or buy mods for your guns and armour to improve them between missions, and there’s a very nice assortment of firearms (assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles etc.) to choose from.
It’s hard to write anything bad about Mass Effect 3, a game that seemingly everyone but me loves unconditionally. But I think it is far from the perfect game – too much feels recycled from previous Mass Effect games, and the difficulty at obtaining a satisfying ending is frustrating. It’s a good game, even a great one, but still a disappointing end to the Mass Effect trilogy.