The advent of choice in video games this generation is a sure sign of the medium moving forward and becoming ever more mature as the years go on. Giving players real choice, a real feeling that the decisions they make are going to affect their story and the wider universe is a powerful tool to manufacture immersion, keeping players engaged in the game and the series going forward. Few others have quite reached the depth that Bioware has in its Mass Effect series in making player choices matter, and the series has been revered for that fact. Mass Effect 3 is the culmination of that; the end to many a story, the conclusion of the legacy of millions of individual Shepards. In some ways, Mass Effect 3 accomplishes that. This is the end of the series, this is the end of Shepard’s story, that we know of, but unfortunately, it’s a bit of a case of the good, the bad and the just plain ugly.
The universe of the Mass Effect series is second-to-none in gaming. The lore, races, politics and settings that Bioware has created are deep, interesting and fascinating, and this continues in Mass Effect 3. You could bury yourself in the codex for hours, just reading up on the many wars of the universe – the inter-race politics being particularly fascinating – and this plays a huge role in Mass Effect 3’s story, which, for the most part, is fantastic from start to finish.
After the events of Mass Effect 2, a war is starting. The Reapers have started their cleansing of the galaxy, and the allied races are losing heavily. Following an attack on Earth, Shepard is returned to active duty and is set a task that dictates your journey in Mass Effect 3: unite the forces of the galaxy in the fight against the Reapers. You’ll make some important decisions along the way, and the fates of many a race will rest on your shoulders. You’ll bury the past of century-old wars, create alliances against all odds, and bring together the forces of the galaxy for the biggest fight in its history, all while trying to assemble the Crucible, an ancient weapon designed by the Protheans to destroy the Reapers. It’s a wonderful story, full of heartbreak, remorse and emotional impact… or so it should be, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Without giving away any spoilers, despite the recent uproar the ending really is fine. The problem with it though, is that after three games worth of choices, it doesn’t really take any of your key decisions into play which, for a game in which choice is so integral to the experience, is a real shame. Your choices count towards the metric that decides whether the better endings are available to you or not, but in that final moment, your choices aren’t really taken into consideration.
One of the keys facets to conjuring up a brilliant universe and making a player feel part of it is the game’s music, and in a game like Mass Effect, where player immersion is so indescribably important to the experience, music is exponentially more important, and to say that Bioware has absolutely nailed that concept is a gross understatement. The music in Mass Effect 3 is simply perfect, and that’s no exaggeration. The Vangelis-esque score is beautiful, appropriate and ambient. From the thumping sounds of the Citadel’s Purgatory nightclub, to the stunning orchestral pieces of the more dramatic moments, the soundtrack in Mass Effect 3 provides a sense of place like no other. The music feels at one with the world, and that is no easy feat. We’ve seen many a game try to fail to do just that, and it’s a wonder that the new composers have done such a stunning job.
The voice acting, as usual, is a triumph in Mass Effect 3, in particular Jennifer Hale’s female Shepard. There’s nothing inherently bad about male Shepard’s voice work, I’ve just always found it a bit stiffer than Hale’s performances, and hale absolutely knocks it out of the park in the third outing. Other standout performances are unsurprisingly Seth Green’s Joker, Ali Hillis’ Liara T’Soni, Martin Sheen’s Illusive man and Brandon Keener’s Garrus Vakarian. The rest of the cast all do a great job too, and that’s a credit to Bioware for the casting.
Probably the biggest surprise for me in Mass Effect 3 was just how good the multiplayer is. In the lead-up to the game’s release, I was adamant that I did not want to play the game’s multiplayer; to me that just wasn’t what Mass Effect was about, it was about my Shepard, and using a generic body for multiplayer just wasn’t what I wanted, not to mention that the Mass Effect games have never been terribly great shooters either. In the end my hand was forced a bit, I wanted to get the best ending and, unless you carry a save through all three games and do everything absolutely perfectly, you’ll need to play multiplayer to get your effective military strength over 5000 for the best ending, but I’m glad I did.
The multiplayer takes the form of a wave based survival/horde mode on the maps that the single player campaign’s N7 missions take place on, and up to four players can take part. You’ll choose a character from a combinations of five classes and various races, and you can outfit them with various weapons and abilities. You’ll level them up like your Shepard in the main campaign, except there’s a level cap of twenty in place. Once you level up a character to the limit, you can promote them to the war effort which will give you extra military strength in single player, and their level will return to zero for you to level them up all over again. It’s a fun experience that’s even better playing with a group of friends with headsets and, if you want to tackle the harder silver and gold difficulties, pretty essential. Thankfully the combat is far improved and more enjoyable in Mass Effect 3 than it was in its predecessors.
Mass Effect 3 isn’t all good though, and in a lot of ways, it’s a major disappointment that screams of a lack of attention to detail. There are a tonne of issues that just stuck out like a sore thumb. Firstly, it’s not a very pretty game. Despite some really impressive and genius environments, the game looks dated. In many respects, it looks much worse than its predecessor – a shock given the impressive appearance on PlayStation 3. The colours are very flat, and nothing about it is in any way pretty. There isn’t as much variety in locations either. In Mass Effect 2, there were various hub worlds that all had a different look and aesthetic to them, whether it was Illium or Omega, but in Mass Effect 3 all you have are the Normandy and a much less featured Citadel. All the various planets you go to are instanced sections, are there is very little to differentiate between them. It’s all just really bland.
That blandness carries over to the characters themselves too. Mass Effect 2’s characters were varied and interesting, whether in race or in attitude and personality, but none of that comes across in Mass Effect 3. Some of the most intriguing missions in its predecessor were the various loyalty missions, which would provide you much more insight into the characters’ lives that you just don’t get in Mass Effect 3, with its much reduced cast. A lot of the more expressive characters from previous games only get fleeting cameos in 3, such as Mordin Solus, Thane Krios and Miranda Lawson. They just aren’t well represented and their replacements are generic and disappointing. EDI is perhaps the standout of the new squadmates, but Cortez, Diana Allers and especially James Vega are painfully generic.
The animations in Mass Effect 3 are simply abysmal too. There is no differentiation between the male and female Shepard animations, not to mention the animations are poor from the off, meaning that male Shepard runs like he’s got some nasty constipation and female Shepard runs like a man with some nasty constipation. It’s awful, and really breaks you out of the experience. Facial animations are terrible too, with every face looking like cardboard. In a way, it’s understandable that it might be difficult to animate Shepard’s face well, with so many variations on the face, but to see it so badly animated is a real disappointment, and it’s certainly no excuse for any other characters.
It doesn’t stop there either, the questing system is un-intuitive, as is the quest log menu. The variety was limited, leading to boring and chorish missions, which were compounded by poor communication when returning to the required location due to its inept implementation.
Unless you have no other platform choice at all, you should seriously consider purchasing the PlayStation 3 version of Mass Effect 3. When compared to the PC or Xbox 360 versions, it’s a shocking, abysmal port in almost every sense, with the main offender being the framerate, which is commonly below 30 frames per second. In cutscenes and dialogue, arguably the least resource intensive aspects of the game, the framerate will drop even further. Combat is usually fine, however certain scenarios, particularly at the end of the game will drop even further, with one particular battle so bad it was unplayable. It was nothing short of appalling.
The load times are unacceptable too. The game loads so often, so frequently and for such an extended period of time that you’ll likely spend longer loading areas like the Normandy than you’ll actually spend on them. Mass Effect 2 had a mandatory install that actually countered a lot of the loading in it. It still loaded frequently, but the load times were never as insufferable as they are in Mass Effect 3, which offers no install option; mandatory or otherwise, which also creates a problem with texture pop-in. Finally, the PlayStation 3 version suffers from quite few crashing problems, particularly in the elevator (a.k.a. loading screen) of the Citadel – I was frequently sent back about twenty minutes of play time because the game hard locked my system.
When we look back in ten or twenty years at what was accomplished in this generation, at the developments made in our industry, the Mass Effect series should stand out as the shining light of this generation; a series that truly took into account the choices of the player, and created such a strong attachment between the player and the characters. Mass Effect 2 is one game that will always be remembered for this, and with more attention to detail, Mass Effect 3 had the potential to reach dizzying heights over and above its predecessor. Instead, Mass Effect 3 will be remembered as the one that could have been, the one that nearly made it.
There are plenty of fantastic moments within Bioware’s latest instalment, and whilst the majority of it has just been carried over from its predecessor, the improvements in combat and the successful inclusion of multiplayer were well executed. However, undoubtedly, it will be remembered for dodgy day-one DLC; an ending, which despite not being all that bad from my point of view, caused a player revolt the likes of which we haven’t seen in the industry before; and an awful, inexcusably bad port for a third of its potential market. It’s truly a case of the good, the bad and the ugly, and as a huge fan of the previous games, that’s really sad.