Disclaimer: This review will not touch in any major detail on the ending controversy, the multiplayer, or the From Ashes DLC. This is a review of the single-player content of Mass Effect 3, and its gameplay. A subsequent article may follow covering these topics.
NB: I will not provide numerical scores for reviews.
It’s March 2012 and already people are claiming they’ve found their “game of the year” (perhaps meaning so far but with the exception of Binary Domain and perhaps Lord of Elemental 2: Revelation of Evil God and Final Fantasy 13-2, there’s not much competition yet in my eyes). It’s Mass Effect 3, the long-awaited and much complained-about conclusion to a sci-fi trilogy that has taken a significant change in style and tone from game to game. Has the third installment really addressed the concerns of fans? Find out below.
Reviewing a sequel is a difficult business; your expectations built up over previous series entries are guaranteed to shape your opinions of the sequel itself. There’s a temptation to forgive it errors because they’re the same errors as previous entries made, or just because the game itself is more of _____. I don’t agree with this and am going to try and review Mass Effect 3 as even-handedly as possible.
I’ll begin by saying that ME3 is a good game. I enjoyed my time spent playing it. As a conclusion to a trilogy which many people will have invested significant amounts of time in, it provides closure to the open storylines and takes a risk in its ending with a non-obvious choice that I felt was much more effective than most video game endings nowadays. The action and basic mechanics are well-refined from ME2′s more streamlined system, with almost all the flaws evident in previous games removed, and a return to elements of ME1‘s more in-depth customisation system.
Indeed, the greater variety of weapons in all categories is something that at once is a significant improvement on all other entries in the series. While ME1‘s system gave the impression of greater depth, and provided some innovation in the form of replacing ammunition with the heat metre, its weapons all felt like different skins of the same basic gun and the much-criticised return in 2 and 3 to a traditional system of reloading does at least allow for easy variation in weapons. The problem is this “easiness” – with the exception of a very few high-end late-game weapons, ME3′s arsenal may as well be that of any modern shooter. There are assault rifles in burst-fire, semi-auto and full-auto variants, shotguns the same and likewise sniper rifles. They’re predictably balanced along easy lines – slow-firing high damage, high-fire-rate, inaccurate. The only real innovation is in a couple of DLC weapons – one linked to the very controversial day-one DLC, and the other requiring you to play a demo of a completely unrelated game. One is tremendously powerful to the point where it was the only weapon I used for 80% of the game. The other is almost useless.
It’s the fact that once you get to the base of it, unless you’re playing a Soldier class and get access to specialist ammunition, ME3′s shooting works because it’s based on the most basic of modern shooter weapons despite being set in the far, far high-tech future, that means it’s slightly less of an improvement than you’d think. ME2 added heavy weapons; you got very little ammo for them but there were a fair few, that did interesting things but were ultimately too infrequently featured to be really worthwhile. ME3 reduces them to scripted sequences in the Call of Duty vein; you get a rocket launcher when you need to for the plot. Why not leave the Soldier class able to use them at other times? Indeed, why not really add some more futuristic weapons like the few you get at the end? You get party members from a range of alien races, so it would be nice to have some more variation in equipment.
It is the same with characters; returning to ME1′s tight cast list, compared to ME2‘s massive list of potential party members, limits your options in a way that doesn’t fit with the game’s trying to make you specialise your team for any given mission. There are, broadly speaking, three enemy factions in the game, and there are parties you can form from your available characters to suit each. Trying blindly to use your favourites throughout is an exercise in frustration at times as you may not have the right powers to really suit the enemies. This would be a strength if the range of characters weren’t so limited in narrative terms; the two human characters are in my opinion dull by virtue of being ordinary soldiers in a game largely about interesting aliens. ME2′s human characters were somewhat more interesting, at least, but the return of the one of the least memorable ME1 characters and a new arrival who’s similarly uninteresting in concept is not ideal in my mind.
One of the key things that was hyped up and promoted as a selling point of this series was choice, and the creation of a persistent narrative throughout the trilogy. ME3 manages to partially achieve this, but not completely. In order to ensure a player has the potential to achieve the “good ending,” concessions are made in the form of new NPCs being introduced to fill the gaps; these NPCs feel a little superficial and uninteresting compared to the options you get if you’ve preserved characters from past games. As a result the “choices” that carry over have minimal bearing on the entire plot; with the exception of one set of missions where there are a variety of outcomes, the overwhelming sense in ME3 is that your choices aren’t as important as they could be. Indeed, many of the cameo appearances from past characters are superficial to the extreme; a single mission along the lines of “hi, remember me? Awesome! [Thing] is happening, help and I’ll join you.” If you don’t have the character in question present in your save, generally a new NPC will replace them. For all the complaints about the superficiality of the final level, the real insult to me is how ME3 has made many of the references to past games almost meaningless.
This disillusionment continues into the sidequests. ME1′s Mako missions and recycled warehouse environments felt primitive, but almost every sidequest was a little narrative in its own right; you found someone’s problem, solved it (often, I’ll admit, by shooting a warehouse full of men then talking to someone), and saw the effects. ME2 continued with this in theory, drawing more of the sidequests into the main plot thanks to the larger hub areas and “loyalty missions”, but replaced the divisive Mako missions with planet scanning, a remarkably boring exercise in busywork that padded out the game length. ME3 is a compromise between the two, falling more on a ME2 style scanning mechanic. As you wander around the hub area, you will overhear people talking in stilted terms about how they really need a [Thing] from [Planet X]. As you then complete other missions, planets appear on your map; if one of them is [Planet X] you get the [Thing] via ME2 style scanning and have to find the person again to say you found it. Quite often you find the things needed for sidequests before the NPC who gives them appears, and so this boils down in the end to after each main mission checking for new hits on your map, scanning them, and going to the hub and checking the minimap for people to give things to.
The ability to do many of the sidequests in the game without even knowing you’ve done them is really quite a major flaw; one imagines Shepherd flying about with a hold full of bric-a-brac from various planets and blundering around his base shouting “does anyone need a Prothean Statue? Got one going cheap here…” Add to this an unintuitive quest log that sometimes gives you all the information you need and sometimes doesn’t, and often doesn’t update properly (saying “you need to find a [thing]” when in fact you already have one) and you have somewhat unrewarding experience that doesn’t even fit the narrative; it’s a race against time to save the universe, but you’re effectively space DHL for a good chunk of it.
Similarly, the ambient conversations are at times a little awkwardly done. The theory is each time you visit the hub, various little scenes will have advanced; however, these are tied to plot advancement so if you spend time doing various delivery missions, you might hear the same chunk of a conversation two or three times. You are also given a “Spectre Terminal” where you can “activate” some of the more diplomatic sidequests, involving finding NPCs and talking problems out; some of these, however, don’t work. One task is “approve the transfer of a soldier to a different unit” – you acquire this by listening to her complaining about her posting, and go to your computer and approve it. I then returned later to the same NPC and they were still saying the same lines as ever.
For a game so heavily based on immersion and the creation of a compelling universe, ME3 unfortunately has too many sections that break this immersion; the newly-introduced NPCs filling in for important ones. The unintuitive delivery missions. The Spectre Terminal and its occasional breaking of NPC scripting. These aren’t massive flaws, I’ll admit that – but they are still things that are quite noticable and which did, for me, reduce my enjoyment of the game.
To conclude, the single-player portion of Mass Effect 3 is a highly entertaining third person shooter with an enjoyable narrative, interesting setting and a choice and dialogue system far ahead of many other entries in the genre. Its ambition, to be the concluding part of a trilogy of games with even some kind of links between all three, is undeniable. However, its ambition often leads to immersion-breaking flaws and equally often highlights the limitations of the gameplay and mechanics used.
VERDICT: I thoroughly enjoyed Mass Effect 3 but at the same time cannot ignore its flaws. It is certainly a game that is only worth playing if you have played previous series entries, since it requires a significant amount of storyline knowledge.