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Game review: Mass Effect 3

Fri 23 Mar 2012
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Four and a half years ago, Bioware – already a revered developer of RPG game titles – launched what would become one of the most popular sci-fi gaming franchises of the last decade.

Finally we have reached the long awaited final chapter in the Mass Effect trilogy: the Reaper invasion to which the last two games have been building. So was it worth the wait?

Long term fans of the Mass Effect games will feel right at home initially, with little changed in the controls from prior games, with one notable addition in the form of support for Kinect on Xbox 360 for voice controls in the game.

The great thing about the Kinect integration is that it is entirely optional to use – while the system is always ‘on’ it will only respond to specific commands that you dictate. While some people will enjoy using the Kinect system for every interaction, others are free to find the balance they prefer – personally I found it quicker to press A when opening a door then say ‘open’, saving Kinect commands for directing squadmates and triggering powers in combat to spare myself the trouble of opening the radial menu system.

Mass Effect’s unique selling point has always been that the decisions you make will affect the game world, both in the current game and in future games to come. We saw this in Mass Effect 2 with key game plot elements changing depending on your choices in the first game. Mass Effect 3 continues this feature, and at several points in the game I was pleasently surprised to run into a character that I had met (or saved) back in the original Mass Effect who was now in a position to be able to help me out. Meeting up with old friends from both preceding games is a recurring theme in Mass Effect 3, and as expected the character interactions are masterfully bittersweet at times. This is definitely a galaxy at war, fighting for survival, and that means that at times sacrifices must be made. 

Mass Effect 3 also pitches itself as an ideal entry point into the series, and if you choose to keep the newest character addition, James Vega, in your squad, then you will learn a lot of back story that helps new players fill in the blanks from the last two games.

However, one has to question if the game has the same level of emotional impact for players who have not already invested tens if not hundreds of hours of time (depending on whether you’ve repeated your playthrough) into journeying with these characters. 

Graphically, Mass Effect 3 is about what you would expect. There are some stunning set pieces, but also a few areas with low resolution textures that let the game down a little, particularly where they are right next to a high resolution texture (like Shepard’s face – see pic). The sound is also on par for expectations with the same beautiful soundtrack style as the previous games. 

Control-wise, the game doesn’t really innovate much beyond the second game. Vehicle combat has been axed almost completely, except for a few missions where you might control an atlas suit or a fixed turret emplacement. 

The cover system still works around the A button, proving that it works, but is still fiddly with the distinction between going into cover, coming out of cover, and leaping over cover, all dependent on how quickly, long or how many times you press the A button.  It’s not the worst cover mechanic out there, but it’s not perfect either.

One of the things that totally confused me with Mass Effect 3 was the new weapon upgrade system.  In the original game you acquired armour, weapons and gear that you could use to outfit to your squad and swap between members depending on the gear type they could wear or use. In the second game you had almost no armour customisation for squad members, but researched weapon upgrades at a terminal that rolled out upgrades across all squad members for that weapon. In Mass Effect 3 there seems to be no squad armour customisation again, and two different ways to upgrade weapons: firstly, you can find or buy ‘upgrades’ that you can fit at an armoury bench, like a better barrel that boosts sniper rifle damage. You can then apply this upgrade (individually) to any squad member’s weapon – which can be a pain if you like to mix up your team and want to make sure they always have the best gear. Secondly, there is the ability to buy better versions of each weapon that you have – you start with Grade I, and can buy better grades via a console on the Normandy with increasing levels of cost. Couple this with a research terminal for shadow broker upgrades that provide other occasional upgrades, and the whole system starts to feel a bit messy and confusing. 

A big point of contention for Mass Effect fans prior to the game being released was the announcement that Mass Effect 3 would feature a cooperative multiplayer mode. In multiplayer, players take part in a four-man strike team, and must defend against increasingly difficult waves of enemies with occasional extra objectives thrown in for good measure. Players have to choose a class for their character and outfit their weapons and skill points just like in the main game. As characters complete missions they gain experience and money which leads to better skills and being able to purchase weapon packs, increasing the gear and weapons available to the character.

As far as multiplayer goes, again, it’s not terrible, but it’s not amazing. Matches that I took part in were generally fast-paced and lag free, even if the concept started to get tired after only a few games. BioWare has already started introducing events to engage the community – the most recent one based around killing a certain number of particularly tough Reaper enemies – resulting in a bonus unlock for all multiplayer participants, and specific extra bonuses for players who can successfully survive a multiplayer Reaper mission on silver difficulty or higher. 

The reason that fans were nervous about multiplayer was that they didn’t want to have to play a multiplayer game in order to advance the main single player storyline. Bioware says you don't, and while this is technically true, playing multiplayer helps a lot. During the game the main story is focused on Shepard travelling around the Galaxy trying to gain the support of the different races and prepare to fight off the Reaper invasion. Throughout the game your ‘readyness’ is measured by the number of galactic war assets that you have rallied to your cause. Multiplayer plays a key component in this by acting as a multiplier for your level of galactic readyness. Initially sectors of the galaxy all stand at 50% effectiveness against the Reapers, which adds (or detracts rather) into your readyness score. Playing multiplayer directly boosts these percentages, thus dramatically increasing your end game readiness. What BioWare said is true, you don’t ‘need’ to play the multiplayer, it’s just that if you want to see the ‘best’ outcome at the end of the game you will need to spend a lot more time travelling around the galaxy doing side quests and scavenging war assets if you don't have a good multiplayer multiplier to boost you along. 

Speaking of side quests, another area that bugged me slightly was the pacing of the side story elements in Mass Effect 3. The initial level features a fast-paced escape from Earth which is under attack; however, the rest of the game moves at a much slower pace. Yes, I can understand Shepard having to scratch a few backs in order to get the support he needs to take on the Reapers, but with the Invasion spreading across the galaxy, do we really have time to go looking for some Elcor's lost artifact? Some side missions seem either a bit pointless or trivial given the bigger picture.

Coming to the end of this review it’s impossible to not discuss the well-publicised fact that many players felt dissatisfied with the ending/s of Mass Effect 3. Responses varied from players being happy with the ending, to mildly dissatisfied, to starting mass petitions and charity fundraising begging BioWare to change it completely.

I can certainly appreciate where these gamers are coming from; personally, I did feel a bit let down by the ending that I received myself. However, it is Bioware’s prerogative as the storyteller to tell the story. We as gamers are just along for the ride – to experience the story that Bioware wants to tell. Up to that point the story had been amazing and there were moments that I would rate as the most compelling I have experienced in a game to date. As mentioned previously, gamers who haven’t played the first and second game might not get as engaged in the story along the way, and possibly will find the ending to be more acceptable and wonder what the fuss is about.

Already one of the co-founders of Bioware has stated that they are acutely aware of the fan feedback and they are still considering their options around what action they may or may not take in terms of alterations or downloadable content. 

Looking back on this review, you might think that I have just highlighted negative points about the game, and to an extent this is true. Mass Effect 3’s greatest strength is its story and its characters, which are – for the most part – amazing, perhaps even some of the best that I have ever experienced. Unfortunately, to tell you specifics to illustrate how incredible the story is would rob you of the surprise of experiencing it for yourself. While the game platform itself isn’t perfect, and the ending may not match every fans expectations, this is one roller-coaster ride which I can definitely recommend experiencing for yourself.

Graphics 9

Gameplay 8.5

Sound 9

Lasting appeal 8

Overall 8.75

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