Developer: BioWare / Publisher: EA / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Violence]
I like to think that of all the Mass Effect fans that work in gaming, we here at Machinima have the most passionate group. At least once a week for the last year, Mass Effect has been the subject of lunchtime conversation. To that end, to say that Mass Effect 3 was eagerly anticipated around these parts is a galaxy-sized understatement. When I wasn’t trying to shield my nearby coworkers from massive story spoilers as I played, I thought I might have to physically beat them away from my desk. Their eyes glinted with Gollum-like desire and their mouths frothed up just a little bit when they caught sight of the box. So when they asked me how the review was going, I felt as though I was taking my personal safety in my hands when I said “it’s goddamn amazing.”
On the bright side, I was telling the truth, and Mass Effect 3 is easily the best game of the year up to this point. Why? Let’s take a look.
To speak in any sort of detail about the plot and narrative of ME3 would be to do a disservice to anyone who plans on playing it. From the opening moments of the Reaper arrival on Earth, the game takes you on a space-faring adventure that compares with the best sci-fi has to offer. The real star of this story is not any particular event, per se; instead, this yarn pulls you through to the end credits on the strength of its character moments. BioWare’s writing team has achieved an incredible victory with the conclusion of the trilogy, in the way that they’ve managed to showcase a fictional galaxy facing imminent destruction, the complete removal of fictional life from fictional history, all the while creating characters that feel more real than you’ll be able to comprehend.
And they’ve done this because they’ve had more than five years to develop and mold these characters into beings with extended arcs. Looking back at the young, naïve asari scientist Liara T’Soni from Mass Effect 1, for example, and comparing it to the brooding, sometimes haunted Liara of Mass 3, you’ll get the sense that this character, this person, has lived an actual life that has persisted, even when you weren’t playing a Mass Effect game. In other words, every single being that you have come across in your time with the Mass Effect franchise has stayed with you. You just didn’t know it. But they’ve been in your head, whether you were conscious of it or not, and their presence in the story of Mass Effect 3 is their opportunity to remind you of their intricate depth and subtle personalities. The crew of the Normandy are your friends, they’ve been there with your Shepard as you flew out to save the galaxy time and again, and I dare anyone not to feel some sort of emotional connection during some of the game’s poignant conversational moments.
If it was just the characters alone that were indelible, you might think I was writing off the rest of the storytelling as average, but that is simply not the case. Each successive mission you play builds on the previous mission’s atmosphere, establishing a rising sense of scale that is so massive it will drop your jaw when you see it. Take everything you remember about Mass 1’s final mission against Sovereign, and ratchet up the intensity two, three, sometimes tenfold. And might I add that the reward of seeing the game’s amazing conclusion is truly something I will treasure as a gamer.
Fanboys and fangirls everywhere will rejoice at the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to detail, as well as the small surprises sprinkled throughout; even elements from the novels play a role in the story. The only major downside to all the great narrative is that occasionally the storytelling gets a little lazy, and convenient circumstance will help the heroes get through some tough spots. But if you’re not expecting every miniscule plot hole to be buttoned up firmly, the overarching story is engaging, compelling, and entertaining.
The game’s visuals aren’t too shabby, either. In classic ME style, the game will give you a portal through which to view the beauty of the universe, be that the multi-hued nebulae of space; the grand, sweeping vistas of alien worlds; or the ravaging beauty of a city crumbling under the siege of Reaper forces. ME3 doesn’t want for aesthetically pleasing locales.
On the downside, we are playing a game that is based (at least in part) on tech that’s closing in on seven years old. Because of this, many textures won’t exactly set the world on fire. Animations, too, are a bit stunted and jerky, especially when you answer questions in dialogue before NPCs finish their speech, causing Shepard to unnaturally shift to a new position without the intervening frames allowing for natural movement. Lip-syncing isn’t too great, either, which makes me long for L.A. Noire’s facial tech to be broadly applied to other games.
All that said, the game doesn’t look bad; it’s just not revolutionary. The various filters and lighting effects all serve to evoke emotional reactions to the game’s many atmospheres, and the characters are so well written that you should be able to forgive the blemishes.
If you’ve played a Mass Effect game before, especially Mass Effect 2, you’ll be right at home (which is great, since the game doesn’t come with a physical instruction manual). The gunplay does feel marginally tightened up, even over ME2’s improvements, and the new functional melee system means close-combat situations don’t induce panic attacks.
It’s interesting. The structure of ME3 is like an amalgamation of the first two games. Where ME1 felt very wide open (and sometimes aimless), and ME2 felt too tightly constricted, Mass 3 straddles a fine line, adopting both games’ strengths and discarding their weaknesses. Obviously with a plot about the fate of galactic society hanging in the balance, it pushes forth a sense of urgency and driving narrative. That said, the Citadel is much bigger this time around and serves as a side quest hub for those looking for content off the beaten path. The galaxy map, too, is bigger than it’s ever been. By the end of the game, dozens of star clusters will be available to explore, most containing valuable supplies or soldiers the Normandy can recruit to the fight against the Reapers.
Thankfully, the tedious planet mining from ME2 is gone in favor of a more elegant solution. You now scan solar systems from space (which has a chance to draw Reaper attention to the system; get caught and it’s game over). If something valuable shows up on the scan, you can then zoom in on the planet or area of space in question and use the world-scanning interface from ME2 to locate said asset and recruit it to the cause. Sure it’s nothing more than menu management when all is said and done, but at least your fingers won’t be bleeding.
All that out there, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Kinect. Thankfully, the Kinect integration is unobtrusive, optional, and at its best, actually useful. While there are a number of functions Kinect can supplant during your experience, the best are the ones that allow you to forego using the weapon/power wheels during combat. Simply using your own voice to tell Garrus to switch weapons or Liara to use her singularity power on the enemy on you is an experience that is vaguely futuristic, but definitely cool. Protip: Don’t play with a friend behind you who has a penchant for messing up your gameplay on purpose by yelling out random commands to trip you up.
Using the Kinect to speak Shepard’s dialogue choices is somewhat less fun, mostly because pressing a button is faster and doesn’t make you look or sound foolish.
Unfortunately, the multiplayer side of the game was not yet operational at the time of this review. From what I can tell from my time with the demo (and assuming everything is working properly on launch day), multiplayer should significantly extend the life of the game with its addictive upgrade system and gameplay-differentiating classes and races. I really wanted to give the full suite of features a whirl, as I put more hours into the multiplayer demo than some full games I own. The jury is still out, so please take the final score on this review to be inclusive of the main campaign only.
The voice acting is incredible. The actors themselves feel like they’ve grown as much as the characters they’re portraying, leading to some incredibly authentic and nuanced performances. Musically, the soundtrack is varied and generally well-conceived. Combat features explosive, driving melodies that heighten the intensity. Old classics return (such as the galaxy map theme, and the Illusive Man’s foreboding anthem), but the most standout pieces are the gentle lilts of the music that accompany the more touching and understated moments between characters. These songs reflect the ties between beings who relate to one another as individuals, a fact that stands in direct opposition to the cold logic of the malignant Reapers. Naturally, the songs used in these most human of moments drive this point home nicely.
On the sound effect front, there’s a great meatiness to the audio textures. When guns fire, you know that whatever is on the other end of that bullet is getting decimated. The mechanical whirring of machines, the sinister noises of enemies, and the general ambience of the environments are all just component bits of a delicious auditory meal.
I’ll say it: Mass Effect 3 is the best game in the trilogy. It takes enough elements from its two predecessors and combines them very effectively, an achievement that very clearly indicates a BioWare team who has spent the last half decade refining their success and missteps to master their craft. The niggling issues with the visual glitches detract slightly from the overall score, simply because everything else is so damn good that they really stand out as the major dings. But what you’ll remember when you’re done with ME3 is not the glitches, it’s the adventure and the characters you shared it with. As a trilogy, it is one of the most well-realized pieces of science fiction ever created. As a videogame, let’s just say I hope I’m alive to see a series of this scope again.
It’s not perfect, but it certainly holds a special place in my gaming experience. I can’t think of one reason you wouldn’t go out immediately and pick this game up, unless you haven’t played a Mass Effect title before. In that instance, go and start with the first game; it’s a large commitment yes, but you’ll be glad you did when you get to experience firsthand the incredible arc the franchise will take you on. For everyone else, you have no excuse.