This is going to be split into two parts: non-spoiler where I talk about the mechanics of the game and how I feel it pulls them off in as vague a way as possible, and then another part where I go into slightly more spoily plot details. This is the non-spoiler half of the review, but please bear in mind I have to talk about some really, really general plot points like the basic premise of the game in order to explain how certain bits and pieces work. It’s only stuff that’s revealed in basically all the marketing material for the game, but if you’ve somehow managed to avoid that and want to remain unspoiled I’d stop reading now.
It’s always puzzled me how there seem to be two Biowares. They’re an inherently schizophrenic developer, responsible over the last few years for both the fine RPG-lite that was Mass Effect 2 and the nadir of “RPG” design represented by Dragon Age II as well as the DLC/expansions for the original Dragon Age. DA II was very nearly the straw that broke the comel’s back as far as I was concerned; I had become convinced I was watching the rapid deterioration of what had once been the biggest and best developer of western RPGs in the world. Mass Effect 3 was their last hurrah, a game I was buying more for old time’s sake and to round off the triology than I was out of any real expectation that it would actually be good. I was all ready to hate it, condemn it, cut tites permanently and move on with my gaming life. Having played through and finished it now, I’ve come to the bittersweet realisation that Bioware very nearly proved me wrong.
The short way to describe Mass Effect 3 would be “Mass Effect 2, except a bit better.” It uses the same engine, same textures, some of the same maps, same locations, same galaxy map and many of the game characters. It’s a fair bet that if you enjoyed ME2 at all you will also enjoy ME3. And yet to describe it this way would be to do ME3 a disservice despite the massive superficial similarities, as ME3 makes a huge number of significant under-the-hood changes that have a sizeable impact on how the game plays.
Somewhat ironically – given my initial reaction to the news that they were going to shoehorn a multiplayer mode into a game that seemed to need it like a majestic wildebeest needs an attack by a pack of blood-crazed, starving hyenas – I am forced to concede the multiplayer has actually had a very positive effect on how ME3 plays. ME3’s multiplayer is light, disposable fun rather than the half-assed effort I was expecting, and in order to make this work Bioware have had to pay a lot of attention to the one area of Mass Effect that always seemed like a bit of an afterthought: the combat.
In the two previous ME games I didn’t bother with the combat – didn’t understand it, didn’t enjoy it, and didn’t want to. It seemed like an annoyance, like a series of mindless shooting galleries whose sole purpose was to provide breaks in between the conversations and cutscenes, and consequently I stuck the difficulty down to Easy and blasted through it as quickly as possible. Probably ME3’s greatest accomplishment is that it makes the combat fun, that it’s something I looked forward to – or at least, didn’t try to actively avoid – rather than having to grin and bear it. There’s much more to do than just running and gunning this time around; the biotic system has finally reached the point where it’s quick and easy enough to use that it’s a viable choice over just shooting someone in the face, while the added melee is also a lot of fun and actually encourages you to close with the baddies and engage them at close-range. For the first time ever I started using a shotgun, which was satisfying; and then I stuck a bayonet on it, which was hilarious; and finally I upgraded it to the Graal Spike Thrower, which was utterly brutal.
The story and mission structure is workmanlike at best, but what’s interesting here is that Bioware are trying something new: actions and decisions with actual, genuine, and sometimes personal consequences. Instead of the suicide mission the premise this time is that you’re gathering forces from across the galaxy for a war against the Reapers – and this provides an intriguing method of tracking the player’s actions throughout the game. The choices you’re given are still the milquetoast Bioware Good/Evil (or Good/Dick in this case) binaries; however, ME3 differs from other Bioware games that have tried the same thing in a more tedious, conventional way (step forward, Dragon Age) by providing you with about a zillion war assets you can find and add to your army. These range from single ships you can find while scanning planets and characters/factions from previous games making cameo appearances, to the fleets and ground troops of an entire race which must generally be secured by running errands for them. Most of the time once you’ve secured an asset its presence in the game is reduced to a number and an entry on the war asset list, but that number isn’t fixed and can fluctuate up and down depending on subsequent decisions you make. It’s a little bit clinical, and the ultimate consequences basically boil down to “Get this much military strength for a five second clip added on to the ending sequence”, but as a record of your actions and moral choices it’s far more effective and fluid than the now-meaningless Paragon/Renegade alignment bars. Which are still inexplicably present, by the way.
Speaking of character cameos and ultimate consequences, I think Bioware have hit much closer to the mark this time than ME2 did, especially considering the fact that they’ve now got 12-15 NPCs that all have to be dealt with. Nearly all of them get actual face time in the game (a far cry from ME2’s cop-out emails) and most of them have whole missions centred around them even though they might not be recruitable. Many of them are, but – awesomely – you’re given a choice whether or not you want to take them, and if you don’t they join the general war effort instead and show up in the asset list.
That’s if they survive, of course. ME3 doesn’t quite adequately portray the stark, relentless nature of the Reaper invasion – while individual civilizations are crushed effectively, you seem to have all the time in the world in which to save Earth – but it it pulls no punches when it comes to deciding the fate of your NPCs. I lost at least five during my playthrough, and some of those deaths I absolutely did not see coming, with the determining factor sometimes being (apparently) reliant on decisions I made in ME2. While securing the support of the larger races is somewhat underwhelming, it often necessitates the sacrifice of one of your companions – and I should stress again, those sacrifices seemed organic and natural rather than the RNG encountered at the end of ME2. Bioware seemed to be adjusting to a new paradigm, one where it is not possible to get a “good” or “best” outcome without taking some hard blows along the way. Watching Shepard’s friends die in the course of the mission brings home the stakes of the game far more effectively than war reports on the news or refugee camps in the Citadel.
This has come at something of a cost, unfortunately; there’s so many returning characters present that the game spends very little time on new ones. In fact I counted exactly one brand new recruitable NPC, a stock human male soldier who manages the impressive feat of being even blander than Kaidan Alenko. It’s a bit of a problem with the game in general, in that I feel it spends a little bit too much time revisiting the things that worked in the past and not enough time doing new stuff. For a trivial example, you know how when Portal 2 came out we were all pleasantly surprised that Valve had shown some restraint and there was nary a reference to cake or Still Alive in the whole thing? Bioware could learn a thing or two from them. The Blasto joke? That’s still going. Shepard VI? It’s here too. It’s like the game is trying a little bit too hard; like it’s jumping up and down just behind your shoulder shouting “Look! You found this vaguely amusing/fun in the first/second games so here it is again! Aren’t I clever?” The sad part is that the injokes are pretty much the only humour to be found in the game. Mass Effect 2’s premise was a suicide mission on which literally everyone could die, and yet it still found plenty of time for levity. Mass Effect 3 is incredibly grimdark in comparison, and while that’s understandable given the mass slaughter that’s going on it does make the conversation part of the game a little bit less enjoyable. There’s only so many times you can watch Shepard ruminate on the futility of her struggle against the Reapers before it starts to get a little bit old.
Still, while the story doesn’t exactly blow my socks off it does work, the missions you go on are entertaining to play through, and the character interactions with both Shepard and each other are as outstanding as ever. For twenty hours I was enjoying myself and immensely, and I was all ready to declare Bioware partially rehabilitated since ME3 seemed like a fantastic return to a form that I thought they’d lost two years ago. Then at twenty hours plus one I reached the end of the game and the wheels promptly came off the wagon. Most of the flaws in the game were revealed in that hour-long finale, and that’s what I’m going to talk about in the spoiler half of the review. If you don’t want to read that, you should know that ME3 — despite its innovations — is still a Bioware game through and through: it didn’t just collapse at the end, it completely imploded, leaving me with a very bad taste in my mouth. If it had been a standalone game I wouldn’t have minded so much, but as a way to round off the trilogy it is almost comically awful. I can guarantee that almost no-one is going to come out of Mass Effect 3 feeling satisfied about the way the story of Shepard has finished.