The Reapers have invaded. The galaxy is on the brink of destruction. One lone human will rise up and overcome.
Overcome, (s)he has.
Mass Effect 3 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC) Developer: BioWare Publisher: Electronic Arts Released: March 6, 2012 MSRP: $59.99
Following the events of Mass Effect 2's DLC, "The Arrival," the Reapers have set upon their dark task of cleansing the galaxy of all organic life and Shepard is the only thing that stands in their way. In order to succeed, Shepard will have to unite the galaxy's conflicted races in a fight for survival, and they all have their own agendas which must be satisfied if they're going to throw their lot in. And, of course, they are not all compatible with one another. While an opportunity to cure the Krogan race of the Genophage (a virus created and deployed by two other races to keep their rapidly breeding numbers in check) will ensure that the most powerful warriors will join the fight, the scientifically-minded Salarians will pull their support. The decisions made here are to determine success or failure for Shepard's endeavor.
Or, at least, that's what the game would like the player to believe. Progress is charted by a "Galactic Readiness Rating" which shows how prepared for the final conflict Shepard's alliance is and increases or decreases depending on which quests are completed and the decisions made during them. In truth, it's a bunch of smoke and mirrors. Even when performing the bare minimum of tasks set forth, it's simply not possible to reach the final mission without completing the minimum number of tasks required, and if there's any difference between going in with a full force or a depleted one, it's not at all obvious. It's also worth noting that galactic readiness never goes away, either. Creating a new game with a new Shepard still finds all of the collected assets to be present, along with any effects they may have had on them during a prior play through. It's an odd system that seems without purpose or function aside from offering the player a bar to fill.
That said, the game still does an excellent job of making the player feel like the decisions have impact, helped in no small part by the rich characters the series has developed up to this point. Provided that they weren't killed off, almost everybody Shepard has ever had a meaningful interaction with during the course of the last two games makes an appearance. It seems that every mission, no matter how clearly disconnected from the main story arc, has a significant character at the heart of it. Newcomers to the series may feel a little overwhelmed by the quantity of references to past events covered in prior games, but effort is made to provide expository details in conversations to explain why these characters are supposed to be so important. And if that isn't enough, a continually expanding codex with information on the galaxy's worlds, events, and prominent figures fills in any necessary blanks.
Mass Effect 3 is easily the most accessible entry in the franchise, offering a variety of game modes even within its single-player campaign. The standard "Role-Playing Game" mode gives full control over Shepard's stats and abilities and dialog options, but new "Action" and "Story" modes exist to appeal to a wider audience. The Action mode plays out more like a standard, third-person shooter, making all of the dialog choices on the player's behalf (keeping to an even mix of Paragon and Renegade statements) and playing them as cutscenes. By contrast, the Story mode allows those less skilled in shooter game play to enjoy the story and make all the decisions which shape Shepard without having to worry about the combat elements by reducing the difficulty to an extremely low level -- enough that one can almost completely forget about cover for the entire game. Both of these modes will also level up the abilities of Shepard and squad automatically by default.
Playing one of these modes doesn't restrict the player from charting their own story. While dialog choices in the Action mode are automated, in Mass Effect 3 conversation options are more significant to Shepard's personal relationships than they are to the fate of the galaxy. Important decisions are usually made in the moment, utilizing the game's interrupt system which prompts for a reaction in the middle of a scene that could change the course of events. These decisions are often found at dramatic peaks and the repercussions of reacting (or failing to do so) are among the most impactful moments of the game.
The player who wants the full Mass Effect experience, however, is in for a treat. The game's basic systems have evolved to become highly streamlined while offering more possibilities than ever before. Shepard can be one of several classes, becoming a sneaky infiltrator, a powerful adept of biotic powers or just a good, old fashioned bullet sponge. Every class has its own set of special abilities and require different approaches in combat to play effectively. Experience levels grant skill points which are used to improve abilities and experience points to earn new levels are plentiful, awarded in small chunks throughout combat missions and for taking the time to examine items in the environment.
New to Mass Effect 3 is the freedom for any class to use weapons of any type. Sniper rifles, assault rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, and heavy pistols are all available, with around half a dozen of each type to choose from. Weapon loadouts can be set onboard the Normandy or at a few weapon benches found during missions. To balance this new freedom, a weight statistic has been added to weapons which decreases the cooldown rate of special abilities in proportion to how burdened Shepard becomes. It's a simple thing which does a wonderful job of limiting the player while simultaneously offering more options. Weapons can be further improved with weapon mods, either purchased from vendors on the Citadel or found during missions, to improve individual weapon statistics and give a little extra edge in combat.
The combat itself is adequate and an improvement over prior efforts in the series, but still struggles to be more than a passable cover-based shooter. The biggest problem lies in the mapping of one button to perform the functions of dodging, entering cover and picking up items. The analog controls are a bit sensitive and unforgiving in this regard and it's not uncommon when attempting to move into cover that lies a little off of center to accidentally roll (which may or may not result in being in cover when the animation concludes).
The worst example of this can be found in a couple of the game's fiercer combat scenarios: battles against multiple specialty units, where heavy weapons can be found in the environment. These weapons can turn the tide of battle in a heartbeat, but make much better traps for the player who finds themselves crouching in and out of cover, desperately scrambling to collect the weapon before being obliterated.
This problem is, in an odd way, solved with the addition of Kinect functionality in the Xbox 360 version -- though that's going to be small comfort to those without Kinect. Using Microsoft's camera accessory with the game is totally optional and serves to allow most of the game's basic commands to be given by voice. Kinect can be used to issue commands to squad members, activate special abilities, and change weapons, removing the need to open the game's power wheel, pausing the game and interrupting the flow of combat. Spoken instructions also extend to making dialog choices, opening doors, examining objects and pretty much anything else one would just press the 'A' button to do in a passive manner.
The marketing push for Mass Effect 3 states that the game is "better with Kinect," and it's hard not to agree. Voice recognition is very accurate, usually able to pick up commands even when speech is rushed. It's not perfect and does occasionally, rarely, fail to recognize a command but the system proves impressive nonetheless and it's easy to completely dispense with the power wheel altogether after giving it a little test.
Galactic exploration has become more focused -- and more desperate. From the galactic map, the player may pilot the Normandy through a solar system and send out a pulse to scan for assets which could help the war effort. If an asset is within the range of a pulse, the location will become highlighted and can be retrieved. While the Normandy searches, the Reapers are hunting and become more aware of Shepard's presence in a system with every scan performed, represented by a meter onscreen. Allow that meter to fill and the Reapers will invade the system and pursue the Normandy until it either escapes the system or is captured (which results in a critical mission failure and Game Over). The only way to get Reapers out of a system once they've begun their search is to complete a combat mission somewhere in the galaxy.
This mechanic addresses one of the major concerns for this installment of the series -- how to balance the free exploration elements central to the series' success while still conveying the sense that the galaxy has an expiration date and time is constantly marching toward. The player is still afforded plenty of opportunities to return to systems they haven't completed, as there are lots of combat missions available and never more than half a dozen assets in even the largest and most dense systems. At the same time, it minimizes the risk of the player feeling overwhelmed by things to do and helps to maintain an even consistency to the game's pacing.
Still more content can be found in a variety of side missions on the Citadel, the seat of power in the galaxy. These tasks are discovered by eavesdropping on conversations or approaching certain characters and are typically fetch quests requiring Shepard to find or purchase an item and return it to whoever gave the quest. In some cases, this is as easy as walking to another part of the Citadel, while most will necessitate exploring systems or discovering the item in the midst of an unrelated combat mission.
While the additional objectives are appreciated, information on secondary missions is somewhat poorly conveyed. Upon receiving a mission, it's added to the Journal for reference and usually has some instructions as to where to look. These journal entries never update to indicate that an element was completed or to give further instruction, however. As Mass Effect 3 has no inventory to speak of, there's no convenient or easy way to check to see if the required item has already been found and needs returning. This means that the only way to determine if quests are completed is to return to the Citadel and seek the people who've given quests in the hopes that talking with them will wrap things up.
Last (and possibly least) is the game's multiplayer content, which consists of cooperative missions for up to four players. Featuring six maps and a choice of three enemy types to fight with three levels of difficulty, these missions consist of eleven waves of combat, with the occasional wave featuring a special objective awarding big experience bonuses if completed within a time limit.
All of the basic classes in the single-player game are represented here and players may select from a male or female human of a specific class to begin. As missions are completed, the multiplayer character earns experience and grows in ability the same way that Shepard does in the solo game, albeit in a diminished capacity more akin to a squadmate. Additionally, credits are earned which can be spent on upgrade packs from the in-game store. These packs confer some single-use power-ups and unlock characters of different races in specific classes. Some items are more scarce than others and more expensive packs guarantee rarer items. Players who don't wish to earn their unlocks and power-ups the old fashioned way can purchase packs with real-world money instead of in-game credits, but there's really very little reason to do so as credits come in a pretty fast rate.
Completing missions in the multiplayer affects a system called "Galaxy at War," a separate map which breaks the galaxy into five zones, each with their own percentage of galactic readiness. As multiplayer rounds are completed, the zone in which the round took place receives an increase in readiness which is supposed to impact the single-player campaign. As readiness seems to have little effect on the outcome of the game, the whole thing seems like a pointless waste of time.
The multiplayer game is fun, if a little short on variety. Six maps is a decent amount to start with, but all the missions play out more or less the same way, making the long-term prospects of the mode questionable unless new content is released in a timely manner. As there's nothing which can not be accomplished in single-player without the multiplayer, not much would be missed by skipping the mode entirely but it's worth giving it a few rounds at the very least, even if only to experiment with some of the other classes.
When all is said and done, Mass Effect 3 is the conclusion of Shepard's career and as fine a conclusion as they deserve. The story is more fast-paced than anything BioWare has done before and still feels like it's affording the player as much time as they need to explore and discover. While some niggling issues do persist in terms of controls, the storyline is supremely satisfying right up to its climax, which contains one of the most interesting moral dilemmas found in videogames (from a standpoint of long-term implications).
Charming - Not perfect, but it's easy to ignore the rough spots when faced with so many engaging design decisions and entertaining moments. A memorable game that's hard not to like and recommend to others.
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