Mass Effect 3 is the worst possible entry point for the series. EA and BioWare want us to tell you otherwise, but they’re nuts. This is a conclusion to a trilogy, through and through. Those coming into the series now will have little grasp of the significance of cataclysmic events that take place, nor will they really care. Though this may be the beginning of the galactic war against the Reapers, the relationships between the state of galactic politics, inter-species conflicts and the roles of significant characters reach critical mass. You need to be invested in that fiction to get the most out of Mass Effect 3, because this game is all about the payoff.
The worst sin BioWare has committed with Mass Effect 3 is a tactless avoidance of consequences to major decisions made in the first two games.
But fans who have held onto their save files since Mass Effect 1 are still going to find that payoff lacking. The worst sin BioWare has committed with Mass Effect 3 is a tactless avoidance of consequences to major decisions made in the first two games. Saving or destroying the Collector Base at the end of Mass Effect 2 has zero effect beyond a line of dialogue that tells you whether you saved or destroyed it. Killed the Rachni queen in the first game, and thus brought the entire race to extinction? It doesn’t matter – the Rachni are back in Mass Effect 3 either way, with Shepard’s apparent act of genocide lazily explained away in a few lines of insipid dialogue. Yes, one of your major decisions can get re-written so that the outcome is that of the choice you did not pick.
It seems like somewhere along the line, BioWare realised its trilogy-spanning plot was trying to do too much – especially after the developer shot itself in the foot by making every major character in the second game expendable. Still, you will reunite with most of Mass Effect 2’s colourful cast (provided they made it out of the suicide mission alive) but they are bit players. Mass Effect 3’s squad roster is disappointingly sparse by comparison. Though newcomers like James Vega are, despite looking completely ridiculous, actually quite likeable, Shepard’s line-up is in desperate need of some variety.
The Prothean squad member would have really helped here, had it not been confined to the collector’s edition or the bloody Origin storefront for another ten bucks. This, combined with the re-written decisions and a botox-fuelled makeover for Ashley, plus a shamelessly curvaceous robot body for EDI, give the distinct impression that neither BioWare nor EA are treating their fans with respect. Don’t even get me started on the inclusion of Jessica “I licked a PSP” Chobot as a character; I asked her to come aboard my ship just so that I could immediately tell her to get the hell off my ship.
The story itself also suffers. Finding a way to end the conflict with the Reapers was always going to be a difficult one; prior to release, BioWare stated it would not be resolved by uncovering some long-lost Reaper “off” button. Good stuff; ending with a silly macguffin would not be the way to do it. So, instead, Mass Effect 3 has Shepard look under the couch to find some IKEA assembly instructions for a dick-shaped superweapon that, when activated, will function as a long-lost Reaper “off” button. God dammit.
Shepard is then tasked with scouring the galaxy for “war assets” to assist in the construction of this superweapon. These can be anything from the galaxy’s best scientists to decipher IKEA’s schematics, to fleets of Turian warships to assist in defending the weapon in the final assault. It’s similar to how Shepard spent Mass Effect 2 collecting squad members – but on a galactic scale. There’s a marked granularity to this system; even Jessica “I licked a PSP” Chobot is a war asset, but the least valuable one in the entire game. As such, telling her to get the hell off my ship wasn’t going to lose me the war.
But this granularity isn’t reflected in the final push to retake Earth. A couple of cutscenes may have one or two scenes slightly changed, and some different characters may be present, but the whole Galaxy at War system ultimately amounts to a glorified narrative progress bar. As a way of presenting that progress bar, it’s fantastic, but it gives a false sense that there’s more going on as far as choice and consequence is concerned.
Where the choice and consequence does actually hit its stride is in the couple of major decisions Shepard must make over the course of the game. These involve settling inter-species conflicts that have existed since even before the first Mass Effect game. Shepard truly does have the fate of entire civilisations in her hands, and such fates are always grounded in the reactions of individuals close to her. In a rather bold move, there is no “best” outcome; people will die, civilisations will go extinct, and characters may even commit suicide out of utter despair as Shepard watches.
Yes, it’s a depressing game; easily the darkest in the series. It has to be, given the nature of the plot. The hub environments on the Citadel, despite feeling a little small, are packed with environmental detail and soundscapes depicting tired refugees, worried relatives and departing soldiers saying goodbye to their wartime gals. It’s easy to grow weary of the constant foreshadowing of war, death and suffering that colours every single conversation Shepard has with every single character she meets.
More than anything, this makes the game less replayable – this is not a time and place you’ll want to revisit. There’s also less to explore, as you don’t feel like you’re seeing actual planets. Instead, Shepard is shuttle-dropped into various contained hot-zones in a cinematic fashion and is immediately beset by enemies. As the Citadel is the only hub world, the RPG bits and the shooty bits have become even more separate – further evidenced by the fact that Shepard can no longer choose when to holster her weapon.
As the themes get heavier, the series’ characteristically trashy sex and awkward romance dialogue seems even more out of place. The Normandy, hurtling toward doom, becomes even more of a meet market. It is, however, a nice touch that squad members actually move around the ship and interact with one another. Garrus no longer spends the entire game in Gunnery Control in the middle of some calibrations, and Shepard may even find other squad members passed out on the floor with a mean hangover to look forward to. It’s the end of the galaxy; people want to let loose, and they won’t hesitate to remind you of that over and over again. Take a shot every time a character says “Well... this is it.”
It’s telling that BioWare’s most well-written characters are its robots. Despite EDI’s ridiculous over-sexualisation, her conversations with Shepard and Joker are the best in the game. The conflict between the Geth and the Quarians is fascinatingly detailed through the eyes of Legion, and the Reapers’ extinction cycle is explored in much greater depth. The thrust of Mass Effect’s plot as a trilogy is revealed to be this struggle between the synthetic and the organic, and it’s represented at all levels in Mass Effect 3 – EDI at the individual level, the Geth on a racial level, and the Reapers at a cosmic level. All of this stuff is so much more interesting than the single-mindedness of the main ‘take back Earth’ plot that results in Shepard spouting silly lines like “Damn those Reaper bastards”.
Scripted events are an invasive part of the game’s desperate reach for cinematic greatness.
What was once a ‘70s sci-fi homage now thinks it’s all grown up. To an extent, it has, but only to a point where it thinks Gears of War’s “Mad World” commercial is the height of maturity. A few moments of true uniqueness in the characters, and bold experimentation in the environments, give way to a final battle down dark, ruined corridors that could be ripped from any of Epic’s flagship dudebro shooters. One of the Paragon conversation interruption scenes even has Shepard throw down a fist bump. Scripted events – not cutscenes exactly, but moments where control is wrested away and Shepard gets dramatically thrown about – are an invasive part of the game’s desperate reach for cinematic greatness.
Still, it’s clear that a lot of work has been put into the shooting. In terms of raw feedback, it’s the best in the series. You’ll know when you’ve scored a headshot because the enemy will no longer have a head. The weapon selection is broad, collecting and installing weapon mods is much more satisfying than simply buying upgrades, and DICE’s influence echoes through the stunning combat audio. On the hardest difficulty, combat’s pause-based, tactical nature gets a thorough workout, thanks to new enemies and AI routines that make target prioritisation crucial. Occasionally banal and inconsequential turret sections will leave a sour taste. But at its best, combat is snappy, punchy and not a little bit stabby.
Ultimately, Mass Effect 3 is best described by the dissonance experienced in its touching post-credits coda; a sequence that beautifully conveys the sense of scale and wonder inherent to the series and much of science fiction. Where Mass Effect’s scale was once defined by the exploration of a vast galaxy in a small ship, here it’s defined by the height difference between Shepard and a single Reaper as it spews hot laser death at her. Where its wonder was once defined by the traversal of uncharted worlds, here it’s defined by big explosions and space battle cutscenes. This is a spectacular galactic war, and Shepard will lose a lot to end it, but the series has also lost something in order to depict it.