This game is a crushing disappointment.
Back in the prehistoric year of 2010, I decided mooching off my brother’s PS3 just wasn’t enough anymore (and the Wii didn’t have anything I really cared about). It was time to scrape together $300 in wrinkled old dollar bills and buy one of the brand new Xbox 360 Slim models. And, of course, I needed a game. Something critically lauded that I couldn’t get on the PS3 (at the time) was what I had in mind, so I settled on a new copy of Mass Effect 2. I adored the tactical combat, the fantastic writing, and, of course, the interrupts. It’s pretty safe to say that Mass Effect 2 is one of my favorite games of all time. So you can imagine how excited I was to play Mass Effect 3…and just how disappointed I am with how it all ends.
First off, looking back on my demo impressions, I’m happy to report I was wrong on my biggest fear (the dialogue being dumbed down), because the dialogue is as fantastic as usual. Conversations between random background characters are back in full force, and I frequently found myself going back to areas just to hear the next part of the story. And the highlighted Paragon/Renegade options are just as awesome as before.
The game’s emotional moments for the most part are derived from the connection players have made with their characters (as opposed to that crap with the kid from the beginning of the game) and come off as more organic because of it, like a scene on the Citadel with Garrus, that I won’t spoil for you, is easily one of the highlights. The new squad member, James Vega, is a pretty great character in his own right, despite looking like he wandered off the set of Gears of War. The campaign has some absolutely amazing moments that almost make the sixty-dollar price tag worth it for longtime fans.
But that’s where my praise with the writing ends. The particulars of the actual plot make little sense, and I actually hurt my brain trying to figure out some of the plot canyons. I won’t spoil anything for you, but the ending was undoubtedly one of the most disappointing endings in gaming. After an enjoyable final encounter, there’s an awful scene that attempts to (poorly) explain everything in the entire series by introducing brand new elements in the final hours of the last game.
The Ending-Tron 3000 from Deus Ex: Human Revolution makes a return by literally offering you three different paths that have little to no relevance to the decisions you’ve made up to this point. The best part? All three endings are basically the same, right down to the cutscenes. It’s a disappointing end to a really great story-based trilogy. (The Extended Cut gives different cutscenes, but the inherent problems with the ending are still there – Ed.)
Weapons have been changed up a bit, with weapon mods returning from the first game…in a fashion. This is only possible on weapon benches, and each weapon can hold up to two modifications. Modifications range from damage increases to practical things like scopes you can use on pistols. Some mods even lower the weight of weapons, which ties into another new mechanic. Instead of limiting different classes to certain weapons, each class has a certain amount of weight allotted for carrying weapons. If you go over the weight limit then your power recharge time is reduced, but being underweight results in faster power recharge.
The way armor works is the same as in Mass Effect 2, so if you liked that system, you shouldn’t have any problems here; it’s the same armor with just bits and pieces modified to fit the player’s liking. Scanning planets is gone and replaced with the Normandy scanning the nearby area, which is done by tapping the left trigger. If an asset is nearby, then it will appear on the map, and you can fly over to pick it up. However, if you’re in a Reaper-controlled system, then too many pulses will alert the Reapers to your presence, and ships will fly to your position. If the Reapers catch you, it’s game over. Leaving the system will lose your tail, but you won’t be able to re-enter it unless you go do a mission somewhere else in the galaxy. This system works a lot better than scanning planets in Mass Effect 2 (which I actually enjoyed), and has an excellent story benefit by constantly reminding you of the ever-present Reaper threat.
Combat isn’t that much better than Mass Effect 2. The previous game had more tactical action, with enemies taking positions on the far side of a room and (for the most part), staying there and allowing for a back-and-forth of powers and bullets. As a result, combat in that game felt more like a mix of turn-based and real-time combat than a Gears of War-style third person shooter. In Mass Effect 3, enemies regularly move around the map, which means you can’t get a lock on them long enough to shove Carnage or Warp up their asses. Since the galaxy is uniting, the kinds of enemies you fight have been reduced to Cerberus troops, different types of Reaper husks, and the New and Improved™ Geth. Enemies usually just move from cover to cover, occasionally shooting at you while the annoying variants associated with their particular army run toward you with the intent of ripping your spine out, at least on the Normal difficulty. Most of the battles follow this formula and thus makes combat a little less fun than the previous game. It’s certainly not bad, and I found myself enjoying it at times, but it feels less like Mass Effect combat and more like something you’d find in a licensed game based off the summer blockbuster of the day.
This combat is also the focus of the game’s multiplayer component. It’s a wave-based survival mode that has you and up to four friends attempt to fend off eleven waves of either Geth, Reaper forces, or Cerberus troops. Since having every player be a Shepard would break the game, players can make their own alien or human to fight in the war against the Reapers. The five classes available to Shepard are available here, with four options per class. Usually you have a human male, a human female, and then two aliens to pick from. Each race has different powers to use, so if you want Fortification on your Soldier, you’ll need the Krogan. However, different races aren’t pre-unlocked. Weapons, races, weapon mods, and one-use items can be unlocked in randomized packs that one can buy with either in-game credits earned in matches, or real life money. It’s the kind of thing that might result in a free-to-play option later on a la Killzone 3 if it earns enough money on its own.
The way the multiplayer ties into the regular game is fairly ingenious: the more you play, the more your “Galactic Readiness” percentage goes up. The higher your Readiness is, the more War Assets you collect in the main game you’re actually allowed to use in the final conflict. The more War Assets you have when the final conflict rolls around, the more endings you have to choose from. Your Readiness starts at 50%, and just going through the campaign without playing any multiplayer or doing side missions results in 3000 total War Assets, but you need 5000 War Assets in order to gain access to all the endings in addition to a neat little thing after one specific ending. Supposedly, a “fairly completionist playthrough” will result in around 6000 potential War Assets, but I did everything I could find and only managed to net around 3500.
It’s a tad more complicated than it needs to be, and will most likely result in you having to play a ton of multiplayer in order to get the amount of readiness you need. Thankfully, the multiplayer does lend to some fun moments if you’re playing with a group of friends, but if you do decide to play the amount required to choose your own ending, you’ll probably get bored of it should you decide to go that route. I played enough to get 100% readiness, and I could use a break from the multiplayer for a little while. However, your Galactic Readiness goes down over time, so if you decide to come back to the game later, you’ll have to gain all that Readiness all over again. (With the release of the Extended Cut, the readiness needed to see the basic amount of all 3 endings has been dropped significantly – Ed.)
You would think the big assets you gain would be earned by doing varied and interesting tasks, but this is sadly not so. You either earn assets by progressing through the story, doing multiplayer missions in the singleplayer disguised as “N7 Missions”, or by doing fetch quests on the Citadel. I was worried about how the game would handle sidequests, considering the apocalyptic nature of the story, and I’m glad this problem was at least addressed, but I’m not sure this is the answer.
Due to the Reaper invasion throwing a wrench into the works of the galaxy, the Citadel is really the only place where Shepard can visit to undertake quests. Having the safest place in the galaxy be the only hub world makes sense in the story, but it causes everything to feel kind of same-y after a while. After a couple of missions, I would head to the Citadel and see if anybody would take any of the things I had picked up along my travels. It became more of a chore than anything else; a chore with interesting dialogue and characters, but a chore nonetheless.
And I suppose that’s the big problem with Mass Effect 3. It has flashes of brilliance that definitely make this game feel like the end of a big sci-fi trilogy, but for the most part it feels a little directionless. I can’t claim to know what goes on behind the scenes or in the minds of the developers, but I think the writers wrote themselves into a corner. If you come into this game untainted, then how the story plays out will seem fine to you as a big, explosive third act. But that’s not what the series is all about. It’s about the smaller things going on with the backdrop of total galactic annihilation to add larger stakes to balance out the smaller emotional stakes that go with the smaller conflicts. That’s what makes Mass Effect’s story work. And there are moments like that in Mass Effect 3, but there aren’t enough to overwhelm the issues that pop up along the way. Better sidequests, completely improved combat, a more nuanced story, and a complete overhaul of the readiness system could’ve made the game great, or even exceptional. It’s a shame those improvements aren’t coming. All I can say about Mass Effect 3 is that it’s a mediocre shooter married to a frustrating multiplayer hook and some fantastic campaign moments. Shame, really. The franchise deserved better.
Oh, by the way, Mass Effect 3 will only appeal to fans. I hate to say that because if you’re invested in the game to the point where you have a file starting from the first Mass Effect, you already own this game, love it, and are heading off to the comments right now to complain about the endings. But if you aren’t invested, you shouldn’t use Mass Effect 3 as a jumping-on point because the sheer weight of everything will crush you before you get to character creation, especially since there are lighter and more competent third person shooters out there. If you don’t want to go out and spend around $35 to get the first two games plus the $60 for this one, then don’t bother. (Since the Mass Effect Trilogy is coming, you can now get all 3 games in one package for $60, which is a little more reasonable – Ed.) The heavily invested will enjoy the big moments, the reunions with all the characters, and hate the endings, but the uninitiated will be confused at best.
(Version reviewed: Xbox 360)