The Reapers were once believed to be nothing more than a horror story. Their myth was terrifying enough: a synthetic armada with the sole objective of either assimilating or destroying all organic life. But they remained nothing more than myth for centuries. Even when Commander Shepard warned of their imminent arrival, the Reapers were dismissed by the galaxy as a fixation of overactive imaginations. But Shepard was right. The Reapers are very real, and they’ve come to complete their goal. Their arrival marks the beginning of Mass Effect 3, the closing chapter of BioWare’s masterful sci-fi saga. And by delivering an emotionally charged story and tight, focused gunplay, Mass Effect 3 is a triumph.
Mass Effect 3 opens with the Reapers bombarding Earth, the beginning stage of their onslaught on the rest of the galaxy. With things getting dire on our home planet, Shepard is reinstated as Commander (fallout from ME 2’s last piece of DLC) and sent to unite the galaxy to stand against the Reaper threat. But that’s no small task. Uniting the disparate species and races means resolving long-standing cultural issues that have been around since the last Reaper attack—roughly 50,000 years ago.
To solve these issues, you’ll have to make the biggest decisions the series has to offer. Without giving away too much, you’ll decide how an ages-old conflict between creator and synthetic plays out, and whether or not a certain species has been punished enough by a devastating genocide gene. The choices you’ll make as Shepard are bigger than just Paragon or Renegade options (although that alignment is still as important as ever). They are choices that you’ll have to seriously ponder before making, because the game makes sure you feel the consequences of your actions.
With Shepard’s primary goal being the formation of a giant cosmic army, the tone of the story is less personal than Mass Effect 2. While I miss that to a degree, the tremendous scale of Mass Effect 3 more than makes up for it. BioWare captures the scope and the impact of the Reaper War wonderfully. The Citadel, once the shining galactic hub, steadily becomes overpopulated with the war’s innumerable victims and refugees. Entire species’ livelihoods are threatened as they are enslaved to the Reapers’ whims. Planets everywhere are collapsing under the strain of the war. The galaxy is at stake, and you can feel it at every turn.
But while saving the universe was the ultimate goal, it wasn’t the primary reason I fought. I fought for those I had built a relationship with over the last two games. I fought to make sure Tali had a planet to call home. I fought to give Wrex and Grunt the chance to lead the Krogans into a new life. I fought to make sure I could still hang out with my best friend/turtle Garrus after this war was over. I fought for the chance to rekindle my romance with Ashley.
My attachment to Mass Effect’s cast was vital to this game’s story, and BioWare knew that. They crammed so many beautiful character moments into Mass Effect 3 that it seemed like I was choking back tears at the turn of every hour of gameplay. Creating nuanced characters that I literally fell in love with is the game’s defining achievement. Seeing their stories end after 5 years of work was satisfying in a way no game has ever been.
Of course, your cast of characters will likely differ from mine based on deaths that may have happened in previous games, but you’ll no doubt feel the same connection to your mates. However, it’s for this reason that I can’t really recommend starting with Mass Effect 3. Your playthrough would suffer from diminished relationships that lack importance, and the numerous dangling story threads that are either mentioned or resolved altogether would lose a lot of their emotional impact if you weren’t there in Mass Effect 1 or 2 to set them in motion.
On the gameplay front, your progress in uniting the galaxy is tracked through War Assets, which basically amounts to a green progress bar that shows the galaxy’s readiness to face the Reapers. Every aspect of the game charts back to War Assets, from planet scanning (yes, it returns, and no, it isn’t much better), to completing primary objectives and side missions. The higher your War Assets total, the better your army will fight against the Reapers in the final push. This could certainly be a divisive mechanic as it basically distills your actions into a progress bar, but the game does a good enough job of showing your impact on the galaxy throughout the story that it’s easy to not be bothered by your War Assets count (although it should be noted that your War Assets total affects the ending you’ll get).
Mass Effect has been shuffling further away from its RPG roots as the series has grown, and it’s clear that Mass Effect 3 is intended to be a third-person shooter first and an RPG second. To that end, the cover system has been tweaked again, and while it’s still not perfect—it’s too sticky in some areas, too imprecise in others—it’s not problematic enough to diminish the game’s tactical edge in combat.
A nice addition to combat is a chargeable melee super-attack. It is appropriately empowering, even though it’s easy to miss if your enemy simply slides to the side. Beyond that, most of the combat mechanics are carried over from Mass Effect 2, a decision that’s hard to fault considering how well the game plays. Biotic and tech powers are still a breeze to use, and the ability to set up hot keys for your squadmates’ powers makes executing devastating combos simple. Moreover, your squadmates’ AI is vastly improved, allowing them to move across the battlefield more freely and use powers liberally. Combine all of this with intense set piece battles and a wide enemy variety and you’ve got the best gameplay the series has seen so far.
RPG elements aren’t entirely discarded, thanks to a heavy focus on customizing your Shepard and your crew. You’ll still pick a class which determines the abilities you have access to, and those abilities can be leveled up as you progress. Branching power trees and the ability to adopt a squadmate’s power after you’ve built a relationship with them create additional variety. You’ll also find weapon mods that can be equipped at various workbenches and individual pieces of armor that you can mix and match on the Normandy between missions.
I also really enjoyed the way your power recharge time is tied to the amount of weapons you equip. It’s a simple mechanic: the more guns you equip Shepard with, the longer it will take his/her powers to recharge. But it creates interesting dilemmas when suiting up for missions. Would you rather be a shotgun and heavy assault rifle-toting battering ram, a biotic and tech specialist who relies on pistols as backup weapons, or a healthy mix of both?
I’ve glowingly praised Mass Effect 3 so far, but it’s certainly not without flaws. For one, planet scanning is still a chore because of the Reaper presence. As you scan a system for War Assets, a Reaper awareness bar fills quickly. Once the bar is full the Reapers flood the system, forcing you to flee lest you be captured and killed. It’s immensely frustrating trying to find the last asset to clear a system only to have the Reapers ward you off. And because the quality of your ending is tied to your War Assets, you’ll have no choice but to endure this painful mechanic if you want the “best” ending.
Side missions are also a bit of a drag. Whereas they were universe-expanding quests in the previous games, they’ve been reduced to “go here, scan this planet, recover this ruin, and bring it to blah-blah on the Citadel.” Even more distressing is the way you acquire most side missions: you simply overhear people talking about their problems on the Citadel, and then the fetch quest is added to your journal. Not only does this break immersion, it kind of makes Shepard seem like a creep.
I was also astounded at the number of graphical glitches that plague Mass Effect 3. Animations would sometimes turn wonky, characters would disappear entirely in conversation cutscenes, and some textures would take an uncomfortably long time to load. None of these gaffes are game breakers, but when Ashley’s head has turned completely around to look at Shepard mid-conversation, it’s hard not to be unsettled.
Mass Effect 3 marks the series’ first foray into multiplayer with the four-player Galaxy at War mode. Structured like any basic Horde mode, you and up to three other players defend against increasingly-tougher waves of enemies on a handful of maps. The real draw of multiplayer is the ability to create a full range of characters that differ in class, equipment, and species. Your character will level just like they would in single-player, and the ability to switch between characters between matches creates that “one more match, just to get a new level” feeling. Unfortunately, after a while the battles start to feel stale, and unless you’re trying to improve your War Assets in single-player (which is done by improving your Galactic Readiness percentage by playing multiplayer), there simply isn’t much incentive to keep playing. Galaxy at War isn’t a bad mode, nor does it affect the quality of the rest of the game; it’s just clear that Mass Effect 3 would have been fine without it.
But the thing I disliked most about Mass Effect 3 is that it means saying good bye to gaming’s first epic. BioWare has created a series that has amazed gamers everywhere by changing the perception that a video game can’t possibly have a rich, engrossing, powerful, and deeply impacting narrative–which makes it so difficult to watch it come to a close. But they’ve made sure that your last adventure in this trilogy would not be forgotten. Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic, tremendous, heart-warming and heart-wrenching conclusion that will absolutely stun you. It will go down as one of the medium’s greatest achievements and is, simply put, one of the greatest video games of all time.
And lastly, to Garrus, Ashley, Joker, Liara, Tali, Wrex, and everyone else I’ve befriended along the way:
Good bye. I’m going to miss you.
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