I'm behind on my 2012 gaming goals. My original plan was to finish one of my target games each month and finish with all twelve completed on the year (probably manageable). Well, it's only March, and those plans have been derailed thanks to the continued (final?) adventures of one Commander Shepard. A review of the unusually controversial Mass Effect 3 lies ahead.
Mass Effect is a big fuckin' deal. Over the past four years, millions of gamers have become deeply invested in Mass Effect's science fiction universe and the core trilogy has spun out into dozens of books and mobile games. Mass Effect 1 and 2 were both successful but ME2's design diverged from that of the original in a number of ways: Mass Effect 2 featured smaller, more linear stages to explore, and gave characters fewer powers and skills to work with; on the flipside, Mass Effect 2's action and shooting mechanics were much better than those of its predecessor, and gamers instantly connected with its more character-driven narrative. Mass Effect 1 placed a greater emphasis on exploring the new environment, experiencing its rich lore, and saving the entire galaxy; Mass Effect 2 was about recruiting a diverse team of humans, aliens, and synthetics for an impossible mission to save humanity. Differing factions within the Mass Effect fandom claim that one approach was better than other, but one thing can't be denied: Mass Effect is a big fuckin' deal.
Since Mass Effect 3 closes out the trilogy, it has a number of loose threads to tie up and character arcs to resolve. And boy howdy does it ever. ME1 established the universe, ME2 introduced new characters and organizations and elaborated certain conflicts, and ME3 brings everything together in a spectacular finish. The two biggest plot flashpoints prior to the game's finale wraps two of the biggest sub-conflicts in Mass Effect: the Krogan genophage and the Quarian exile. The decisions made by Shepard for those situations are heavy indeed and the action that takes place in order to reach those decisions is some of the most intense gameplay I have ever experienced. Every sequence only got me more excited and itching to play more.
The major plot framework of the game (avoiding a few spoilers) is that The Reapers, an evil race of sentient machines, have arrived to annihilate all sapient organic life in the galaxy. Commander Shepard escapes a Reaper invasion in the first few minutes of the game and must travel the galaxy to rally every species into doing battle against the Reaper threat. Throughout the game, locating and recruiting like-minded forces increases your party's total of "War Assets" - finding an comrade from a prior game is typically worth 25-30 War Assets, locating an allied cruiser or squadron might be 50-100 War Assets, etc. My final count was just above 7,000 - most of those come from the decisions you make during major conflicts.
Perhaps even more than in Mass Effect 1 or 2, Shepard goes out of his way to right wrongs in Mass Effect 3. You can eavesdrop on random conversations taking place in The Citadel (the Milky Way's largest space station), run out and grab the object being spoken of, and then present it for a small bonus. It's also possible to alter War Asset totals by resolving arguments between to passers-by. I suppose these weird background conversations make for a decent environment enhancer, but when I'm accidentally resolving them when I mean to simply engage a character isn't cool, and really the whole process makes Shepard seem like a weird celebrity busybody.
The other side content of the game is managed a little better, with N7 missions (short quests that take place in open areas that eventually become maps in multiplayer) and optional missions featuring Mass Effect 1 and 2 characters taking precedence. Although none of Mass Effect 2's cast is playable in Mass Effect 3, just about all of them return as NPCs or love interests if they survived Mass Effect 2. They're still awesome. They were a great squad in Mass Effect 2, and now they're great potential War Assets in Mass Effect 3.
But they can die. Death is all around in this game. To borrow a term from @miki-sei that I took to instantly, Mass Effect 3 is grim-dark. It's a war story where beloved, beautiful environments are razed and destroyed, and no-one in your party is safe - every playable character in the entire trilogy lives or dies depending on your choices in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. And in almost every case it's well-executed - when one of my favorite party members in Mass Effect 2 dies performing a noble sacrifice, I almost teared up. And I'm pretty sure he could've survived if I had made a few different choices (I know for a fact he survives in Jon's playthrough). Mass Effect is like that.
Overall, Mass Effect 3 has a pretty strong cast (sorry, almost done with the character discussion). Your party has up to seven playable characters in addition to Shepard (eight playable but seven maximum, avoiding spoilers), and they are a more diverse group than Mass Effect 1 or 2, in large part thanks to the larger variety of powers available. My favorite in terms of character development were either Garrus or Liara, who have quietly turned from friendly acquaintances to lovable badasses over the course of trilogy. My favorite teammates to use for most missions were the EDI the synthetic AI and Ashley the Alliance officer. EDI is a blaster great at breaking down defenses while Ashley has top-tier firepower and is no slouch with busting shields either. The only brand-new characters in Mass Effect 3 available for your party were tank-extraordinaire James Vega, a human marine voiced by none other than Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Javik, a new character available as DLC.
So I thought the story, characters, and mission structure were solid overall. I wasn't wild about the return of Mass Effect 2's galaxy-travel interface, and the new reaper-tag minigame that replaced the planet-scanning from Mass Effect 2 doesn't bring anything to the table. It's less time-consuming and boring than driving around on the Mako in the first Mass Effect, but it's still not great. Mass Effect always tried to feature an element of planet exploration in its games, but never seemed to get it quite right. One small disappointment.
I'm going to address Mass Effect 3's ending with a caveat and no spoilers: a lot of people hated the ending so much that petitions to have it changed have already generated over $100,000 in pledges. I thought the ending was jarring and impactful, and it succeeded in wrapping up a seemingly impossible situation in a dramatic manner. I thought it was pretty good. My suspicion is that many of these disgruntled fans either 1) wanted an "everything-is-great" happy ending, 2) are upset that most of their decisions made throughout the trilogy didn't matter prior to the ending, except whether you got the "good ending choices" or not based on War Asset count, and/or 3) are a bunch of self-important over-entitled whiners. I'm a little annoyed with these so-called fans for their entitlement and disrespect, but hopefully when BioWare puts out some DLC (you know it was always going to happen) they'll curb their hate a little bit.
But enough about the story and the controversy. Back to the game part of the game. For the most part, Mass Effect 3 continues the more recent game design trends from Mass Effect 2. The individual mission design occasionally resembles that of a corridor shooter or multiplayer shooter (more on this later), even when the setting of the mission appears vaster than it is. The environments are quite large and impressive at times, but there is generally only one way to navigate it. The action and mechanics of guns and powers are extremely similar to ME2 - the only changes are a few control quirks, more ranks of powers available, and new interfaces for weapon loadouts. For the most part, ME3 takes over from where ME2 left off.
There is mixed good and bad here - the new controls are okay (I like the lack of a stamina meter for a dash), but Shepard turns incredibly slowly and dropping in and out of cover is a little more awkward than I remember from Mass Effect 2. The shooting and power-mapping is basically the same, which is to say it's a lot of fun. Powers are better-executed than ME2 - Every class gets their powers back from ME2, plus an extra active power and an extra passive. You import your Shepard, and both his level and his skill layout is exactly as you left it in ME2. Powers can be upgraded to six levels instead of four, and skills have three different branching upgrades instead of one. Each of your teammates gets four powers and one passive. This is the best team variety and skill system in the entire series (despite having fewer squad members than Mass Effect 2), and my obsessive team-designing, arsenal-organizing brain fuckin' loves it.
Gun variety and customization is also the best it's ever been, with the exception of an annoying interface for selecting your loadout. Mass Effect 1 had every gun function identically with newer guns doing more damage with more accuracy. Mass Effect 2 had only 3-6 guns of each type plus a few heavy weapons - each gun had different handling, damage, and accuracy with cross-weapon upgrades increasing overall damage. Mass Effect 3 combines the best of both worlds - there are 6-12 of each gun available, with each behaving different from others in its class. They bring back weapon mods from the first Mass Effect, but make them much easier to deal with since you aren't picking up hundreds over the course of the game. The loadout interface itself is a little wonky, but the mechanics and selection of guns and mods are awesome and the best in the series.
The final bit to Mass Effect 3 I haven't addressed is multiplayer. It's... surprisingly good! Similar to a Horde Mode or similar from games like Gears of War 3, in ME3 you can create a generic character in one of Mass Effect's six classes from one of seven different species (only Human is unlocked from the start, but you can get more later). You team up with other players and take on waves of Geth, Cerberus, and Reaper forces in various self-contained stages where you complete N7 missions in the main game. ME3's multiplayer is great. The action's intense, the teamwork aspect is solid, and the "booster pack" of rewards you receive after each completed mission to unlock new guns, mods, and characters is a fun little addition that will certainly keep people playing. This is something I could really get into.
I've already gone on too long, but I don't feel like doing much editing. I think Mass Effect 3 has some annoying parts, but is ultimately an intense, satisfying RPG experience. The ending is weird and vague and a TON of people have lamented it, but I wasn't quite as disappointed as most people seem to be. I'm glad I got into this series so I could finally see why Mass Effect is such a big fuckin' deal.
Games Beaten: 2012 Edition
1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
That was too long and rambling, I know, but luckily this is a blog and not a formal review. As I mentioned earlier, I'm falling behind in my 2012 goals, but I'll hopefully have a strong April to make up for it. Next games I'm planning to take on are the critically-acclaimed Journey for the PS3 plus another 2012 target: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.