Mass Effect 3
It’s not quite the end of the galaxy, but you can see it from here. The Reapers are invading and Earth is ground-zero in a war that will decide the fate of an entire galaxy. Commander Shepard returns for the final instalment of the Mass Effect trilogy, and this time it’s all or nothing.
There can be no doubt that the Mass Effect series is the greatest space opera/RPG/intergalactic dating sim this side of the Arctureus mass relay boasting sumptuous graphics, outstanding storytelling and some hugely innovative features. But even with all these, some fans are worried about the final chapter in the series and it isn’t difficult to see why. The original Mass Effect was a quintessential Bioware RPG with decisions that affected the entire galaxy, a morality metre and outstanding storytelling. Yes the shooter mechanics were a little lethargic and the game was riddled with bugs and glitches, but it was easy to look past these as the overall experience was exciting, unique and fresh.
Mass Effect 2, though, saw the series embrace more shooter traits and abandoning some of its RPG heritage. For many the series was no longer an RPG with shooter elements, it was a shooter with very few RPG elements. Happily, it seems that Bioware has listened to the fans as Mass Effect 3 sits somewhere between the previous two titles. It is a thoroughbred RPG (complete with skill trees, weapon and armour customisation) with shooter mechanics that wouldn’t look out of place at a Battlefield 3 party. But when all is said and done does Mass Effect 3 live up the hype?
Mass Effect 3 takes place six months after the events of Mass Effect 2. Shepherd has returned to Earth and the motley band of Cerberus agents, vigilantes, exiles, Geth and terminally ill assassins he assembled to take down the Collectors have gone their separate ways. The Reapers are still widely discounted as myth and Shepard is grounded on Earth. All this changes in one action-packed opening sequence that sees the Reapers attack Earth in force, laying waste to all those that oppose them. The same sequence sees Shepard reinstated to the Normandy with the mammoth task of uniting all the species in the galaxy in order to launch an offensive against the Reapers and save the universe from mass extinction.
Bioware also uses this opening sequence to set the tone of Mass Effect 3, a grittier, darker tone than the previous two games. These are times of desperation which is reflected in the kinds of missions you undertake and the depths Shepherd has to plumb to ensure the alliances that might save Earth. Shepard himself doesn’t escape this drastic shift in tone. You no longer play the arrogant Shepard of Mass Effect or the vengeful Shepard of Mass Effect 2; you play a character who is feeling the weight of his decisions, both past and present, and a character who is struggling to deal with loneliness of being the only person who can prevent the destruction of the galaxy. This is a broken Commander Shephard and this is brought vividly to life in dream sequences that take place throughout the game. These depict Shepard chasing a child through a burnt forest whilst being haunted by the mistakes of his past. It’s characterisation at its finest and demonstrates that Bioware certainly haven’t lost their knack of giving characters real emotional depth or getting players to emotional invest the character they play.
Anyone who has played a Bioware game knows that they excel in a lot more than characterisation and this is very much the case for Mass Effect 3. Graphically, Mass Effect 3 is stunning with some locations that are genuinely breathtaking in both scope and detail. The Asari home-world of Thessia is probably the best example of this and even a destroyed London, sporting an almost intact Big Ben, deserves a mention but for very different reasons. As stunning as the locations are, it’s the improvements to character models that impress the most. Characters move in a more lifelike fashion – faces are no longer washed out and generic and even the lip-syncing sees significant improvement. Battlefields have also seen a cosmetic upgrade.
Weapons, biotics, tech powers and explosions are all beautifully rendered with extensive attention to detail. It is a tremendous technical achievement, especially when we take into account that many of the battles in Mass Effect 3 don’t take place in isolation, rather they are one of many that are taking place both on the ground around players and the skies above them. If the graphical experience of Mass Effect 3 is stunning, the auditory experience is riveting. Battles, cut-scenes and important events are accompanied by a soundtrack that delivers the extra oomph visuals alone can’t.
Where the improvements to the visual splendour of Mass Effect are noticeable from the outset, it’s a case of refinement over improvement when it comes to gameplay. The real triumph of Mass Effect 2 was the huge improvement in the shooting mechanics, changing the limp and inaccurate gun-play from the original into a tight and solid shooting experience. Bioware have refined these already very good shooting mechanics for Mass Effect 3 with the end result being sublime. The various weapons on offer are accurate and responsive providing a satisfying bite with shotguns and sniper rifles feeling especially meaty.
The same can be said for the biotic and tech powers too. Abilities like pull, throw, incinerate and cryo no longer feel like hit and miss abilities, they now feel like integral and devastating parts of your arsenal. The ability to bend powers around corners and over cover is now much more effective and will allow those players who have mastered the ability to make a mockery of enemies in cover. As a whole, the gameplay is remarkably similar to Mass Effect 2 but there is one change to the gameplay that not all players will immediately notice.
For Mass Effect 3, Bioware have included a weight system that affects how quickly powers recharge which is dictated by how many weapons are equipped and how heavy they are. It’s an interesting inclusion that does have implications on how some players will approach combat. Those who prefer to use biotic powers or tech powers will want to use one or two weapons to keep the weight as low as possible whilst soldier classes will revel in the fact that they will have a weapon to take out all types of enemies, from all ranges. Bioware ran the risk of unbalancing the biotic/tech and shooting elements with this system. Happily though, as players progress through the various skill trees, players will have the option to reduce the weight of all weapons. Score one for forward thinking.
So what about the features that have been added Mass Effect 3? Anyone who followed the development will have seen the two new features added to Mass Effect 3 in the form of Kinect functionality, for Xbox 360, and multiplayer. Let’s talk Kinect functionality. First off, Mass Effect 3 is only Kinect enhanced meaning that you won’t need to use any silly gestures to get things done; rather it makes use of Kinects voice recognition to allow players to command squad-mates by simply uttering the action they want them to perform. I’ll admit I was sceptical at first, after all it feels very much like Bioware were forced into using Kinect, but after a short period it isn’t hard to see the benefits of playing with Kinect.
There is virtually zero between calling out a command and a squad mate carrying it out and it also removes the rather stop-start nature of multiple power use that goes along with using the on-screen power wheel. However, Kinect should only be used when it combat. Being able to use Kinect as part of the conversations is redundant. It’s often quicker and more accurate to manually select conversation options rather than using Kinect to input them. Even with that said the inclusion of Kinect does make Mass Effect 3 a more seamless experience. It’s great for those who already own Kinect but not something worth shelling out for. The other new feature is multiplayer, something that has divided fans since it was announced.
Multiplayer isn’t really something that seems like it fits with the Mass Effect series but credit to Bioware, they have created a multiplayer mode that fits beautifully into a galaxy at war. The best way to describe multiplayer is to call it objective-based hoard mode. Groups of up to four players face 11 waves of enemies, ranging from Cerberus operatives to Geth and Reaper forces, whilst completing objectives that are given out at certain points during these 11 waves. Players can choose from character classes identical to those found in single-player but the real draw is the chance to play members of the other species. Asari, Drell, Krogan, Salarian, Turian and Quarian characters are available for use, once they have been unlocked, and provide a degree of variation that is lost with the human characters.
Seeing the various species utilise their skills makes playing multiplayer great fun, however there are issues. Firstly, multiplayer becomes very repetitive very quickly with only 5 maps and 3 types of enemy to compete against. This in turn ensures that multiplayer has no real lasting appeal. Three or four games are often enough to satisfy the itch and it is very easy to simply ignore the multiplayer. It can’t be denied that multiplayer is great fun and a nice addition but after playing it you can’t help but feel that Bioware shouldn’t have shouted so loudly about it.
Mass Effect 3 is a simply outstanding game and the crowning glory of a series that has delighted and amazed in equal measure. A compelling story is complimented by stunning graphics and a stirring soundtrack to create a galaxy that has a real atmosphere that draws players in, giving them a beautifully emotive gaming experience unrivalled by any title this generation. A fitting send off for a character and a series that will live long in the memory of gamers the world over. Thanks Bioware it’s been emotional, or whatever Paragon/Renegade conversation option I could have chosen.