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Like countless others, we invested well over a hundred hours into the science fiction space opera that is Mass Effect. We rose to the rank of Spectre, the intergalactic supercops working for the U.N.-like Galactic Citadel; we learned about the Reapers, an ancient robotic threat with intent to destroy all organic life; and we put together a group of soldiers to delay the Reaper attack, leading a squad on a suicide mission into the unknown. And now, with the arrival of the final act of the trilogy, we were promised a finale that would bring this tale together in unexpected yet satisfying ways.
For the most part, Mass Effect 3 delivers on these promises, with a satisfying conclusion chock-full of white-knuckle action and a narrative fitting of the Mass Effect name.
The Reapers have arrived on Earth, and their goal is nothing short of genocide. With enemies beating down the doors back on the human homeworld, Shepard is sent off-planet to bring the combined might of the cosmos back with him to fight a battle – not just for his squad, but for all biological life in the galaxy.
Above: Check out our video review
It’s not that simple, sadly. The world(s) of Mass Effect are rife with intergalactic in-fighting, and mending the galaxy’s thousand-year-old wounds proves more difficult than convincing a ragtag group to throw away their lives on a suicide mission. Shepard isn’t helping a few people get revenge – he’s attempting to solve deep-rooted cultural issues between entire alien races that existed when humans were still rubbing rocks together and praying for fire.
And that’s essentially the entire point of the game: get everyone ready for a grand-scale, climactic war. In ME2 we had to deal with characters arguing over their race’s histories, complaining about 400-year-old wars or political disagreements. Now, we got to tell them to shut up and deal with it. It was great to finally be allowed to take off our gloves and get with the fixing, forcing the universe’s races to put aside their differences for the sake of all life.
Our choices in how we handle the issues shape the universe, and every action we take adds to Shepard’s Galactic Readiness meter, a representation of his success in building the army that will come back with him to defeat the Reapers. From scanning remote planets for supplies (which has been revamped from the last game to be more fulfilling and entertaining) to completing objectives for strangers, everything affects the Galactic Readiness, selling the mood of a universe at war.
Above: Expect to spend a lot of time arguing with aliens
Also adding to this meter is the multiplayer, which was a somewhat surprising addition to the series. Successful play in the different maps adds to the Galaxy At War meter, which boosts the singleplayer Readiness. It’s a subtle tie-in, but it works well, and adds incentive to play even for those who usually would shy away from multiplayer.
Even without the tie-in, however, it’s definitely worth trying out. The game’s several maps are genuinely fun, providing a unique spin on the typical wave-based cooperative play. Occasional objectives make it more complicated than simply hunkering down and defending, and each level is concluded with a mad dash to the exit, eliciting fond memories of Left 4 Dead. It’s not going to replace your nightly routine of Call of Duty, but it’s fun enough that we’re happy to see it added, and fits right in line with the story of a universe enveloped at war.
Above: Each level feels different, and defeating powerful foes requires teamwork
As expansive as the multiplayer is, we’re happy to see that it didn’t take away from the core campaign one bit. In fact, we were shocked at how massive and awe-inspiring the single-player missions are. Without warning, regular objectives escalate dramatically, going from run-of-the-mill to explosive, cinematic set piece encounters.
Heading to a remote planet to defuse a bomb will suddenly escalate to the point where it feels like it could be the final mission of any other game. The stakes are that high, and the fate of the galaxy rests delicately on Shepard’s ability to beat the odds and complete a nearly impossible task. And this doesn't happen just once. Oh, no. It's a nearly constant battle against all odds, racing from one planet to the next to prevent the entire galaxy from caving in on itself.
Yes, there’s that much pressure on your shoulders, and it’s intense. You’re constantly thrown into fantastic firefights that feel as well-developed as what you see in blockbuster action shooters like Gears of War or Uncharted.
These firefights still play out like that of a typical cover-based squad shooter. Added in to the mix is a new melee “power attack” that knocks enemies off their feet and weapon customization that allows for every gun to be tweaked, upgraded and enhanced. Beyond that, the engine’s improvements are subtle, refining the experience with tiny changes. Cover is better, bounding over objects is faster, powers and abilities have been changed. The modifications aren’t dramatic, and feel so natural and they might go unnoticed if you haven’t played Mass Effect 2 in a while …
Above: Each class has its own, slightly different melee power move
…Or if you haven’t played Mass Effect at all. BioWare has gone out of its way to ensure that Mass Effect 3 would be accessible to newcomers, and it did a fine job crafting a game that anyone could jump in without being too lost. There’s an in-game journal filled with information, and the ability to create a new character, with a few options to make slight customizations to our back-story.
Even so, we really wouldn’t recommend starting with this entry. While it’s a sound experience on its own, the ability to import a cleared save file from ME2 – complete with your life-or-death decisions –make ME3’s tale significantly more personal, profound, and emotional, and ME2 is a good enough game that it’s worthwhile to start there to get the most out of the new game.
Those choices weigh heavily on the third game’s plot in very serious ways. It can be as passive as characters off-handedly mentioning choices made two games ago, and as dramatic as major plotlines hinging on decisions made in the prior game. Characters from ME2 will play massive, important roles in ME3… unless they died, in which case the story will shift dramatically, and you’ll be reminded of it throughout.
The choices made in the third game are as exciting as ever. By now, BioWare has nearly perfected the craft of weaving morally ambiguous choices throughout its story – but this time our decisions affect the future of entire races, making most of the first game’s choices seem pedestrian in comparison.
But while the decisions are bigger and bolder, the climax just can’t live up to ME3’s predecessors. ME2’s conclusion was arguably one of the finest in recent gaming history. It genuinely felt like the final level was a payoff for all of our previous decisions, with characters living or dying depending on our actions. That sense of build-up and delivery is missing from ME3. Our choices and decisions didn’t really feel like they contributed nearly as much in the finale, serving mostly as nods and winks instead of integral elements. If anything, we felt like the choices we made in ME2 had more of an influence over that story than the choices we made this time around.
Above: Don't worry about loose plot lines - ME3 ties things up nicely
When the credits rolled after 40 hours invested (and, of course the 40 hours invested in ME2…and 40 hours in the original), we felt like we didn’t really have all that much impact on the overall finale, and that was a slight letdown. The ending was tempered to how high our Galactic Readiness was, but that's not really the same as being driven by choices, as a large chunk of the Readiness is tied to multiplayer and scanning countless planets for additional assets. It was still a tremendous, amazing, phenomenal achievement in interactive storytelling, and the ride to that conclusion is unforgettably wonderful, but it falls just short of the expectations when it comes to interactivity, especially when you consider the nearly five years and scores of hours that BioWare built up. It's disappointing to see that after all of the emotional investment in choices, the fate of the galaxy is decided by how much you can collect.
Playing through Mass Effect 3 with a canon save expanding back to the first game is a sublime experience – ultimately exceeding BioWare’s original promise of a long-term gameplay legacy. Developers often say that choices made in one game will carry to the next, but never before has it been achieved on this level, providing a radically branching experience that feels as personalized as any game ever has. Even if the end destination of this final chapter isn’t quite as magnificent as we hoped for, we’ll never regret the hundred-hour, three-game journey we took across the galaxy to get there. Mass Effect 3 is an incredible experience that rewards you for those years of investment and devotion to its stratospheric tale.
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360 as the lead platform. We also played through sections of the PS3 version to see if there were any distinct differences, and we found no technical shortcomings during our playtime.
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