Review by Unrequited_Lust

"A solid conclusion to a much beloved franchise"

Approaching Mass Effect 3, Bioware faced a daunting objective. It was an objective that has thus far been unique to Bioware, a task of their own creation, their own emphasis on player freedom and choice in the plot of the series. How does one go about fulfilling the requirement, crafting multiple outcomes for every individual event, with all the writing, voice acting, motion capture, etc., sometimes incorporating multiple variables from choices made in the past two games (well, mostly from Mass Effect 2), that all seamlessly comes together in a natural way for every player, so that there are virtually countless combinations of every line of dialogue, every minor and major character appearance, every decisive plot point, and deliver in every other department, creating a game that successfully overshadows previous iterations of gameplay and delivers dramatic and astonishing set pieces that properly illustrate the epic and apocalyptic scenario of a galaxy at war with an army of genocidal and deific machines? For other trilogies, it's easy. Gears of War 3 doesn't have to worry about diverging plot points; it can tune its focus entirely on what Cliff Bleszinski concisely described as, “bigger, better, and more badass.” Expectedly, Mass Effect 3 doesn't feel marginally bigger, better, or more badass than its predecessor for this very reason, but it makes a worthwhile attempt.

I say “predecessor” and not “predecessors” because Mass Effect 3 follows the video game tradition of having the third game copy the second game when the second game abandoned the original design of the first game, for better or worse. In the case of Mass Effect 2, it was a bit of both. While scrapping the god-awful inventory system and questionable shooting mechanics, Bioware unfortunately also jettisoned the sense of exploration and RPG sensibilities in favor of linear corridors of stop-and-pop-over-the-shoulder shooting against uninspired enemy types that in no uncertain terms could be described as a rip off of Gears of War. It was peppered with power wheels and engaging characterization, and as a result it was hailed as superior to the original and one of the best games of this generation.

Mass Effect 3 largely follows suit. Strangely, the universe never felt smaller. Traveling to different star systems and their planets, Shepard spends a conspicuous majority of his time in doors, and in claustrophobia inducing corridors at that. These interiors are insultingly prosaic – the “apartments” once supposedly rife with human residence look like nothing anybody could live in, and the insides of the space academy are painted with a drab grey and exhibit an exceedingly ugly architecture for the sheer purpose of providing Shepard cover, to give only a couple examples. The N7 missions (of which there are only five) are directly copied from the multiplayer maps, replacing linearity with smallness. In contrast, other environments, especially at certain milestone points, are far grander and ambitious, containing extravagant backdrops of Reapers destroying cities; it's clear which levels hogged the development time. Still, a return of the Halo-inspired sandbox environments of the first Mass Effect would've received a welcomed return.

Enemy types are vastly improved over those of Mass Effect 2, with the Reaper forces benefiting from the most artistic inspiration. Cannibals devour their brethren to regenerate health, Marauders bring fallen comrades back to life, Brutes lurk the field to ravage you with a massive claw that instantly takes out your shields, and Banshees terrify with a variety of devastating attacks (including one particularly nasty instant death one) and staggering defenses coupled with staccato teleporting movement that makes targeting them difficult. Cerberus forces don't receive the same level of aesthetic design, but employ a variety of tactics that keep you moving like grenades and smoke screens that mitigate repetition. The gameplay is accompanied by a surprisingly unmemorable soundtrack from Clint Mansell, a usually competent composer best known for the acclaimed theme from Requiem for a Dream. Fortunately, the iconic spacey theme from the first Mass Effect makes a return along with some of the more poignant themes of Mass Effect 2.

The game itself looks about the same as every other studio who has hopped on the Unreal Engine 3 bandwagon — that is, not that good. The graphics themselves won't ever come even close to “wowing” you. Enemy bodies will disappear after being killed as soon as the camera looks away, leaving no evidence that a battle just took place over the ground. The bodies of Brutes are transparent, allowing you to walk directly into them. This kind of sloppy work is completely unacceptable this far into the generation, especially when you have a non-linear game like Red Dead Redemption that managed to overcome these problems completely and still look leagues beyond this two years ago. Why this game takes up five disks when Skyrim only takes up one is beyond me.

One improvement pulled straight from obscure message boards is the on board chemistry between crew members. Despite gathering an all-star crew in Mass Effect 2, each crew member stayed secluded in their rooms, inactive save for your obligatory conversations with them. Their only interaction with one another was the occasional mix and match of comments in a few missions. Your team was hollow until the final mission. Exploring the ship in between missions is much more interesting this time around because characters aren't confined to their room and will regularly converse with one another. You'll find Tali drunk in the lounge, James Vega and Javik awkwardly trying to relate to each other in the kitchen, and many other hilarious vignettes that for once provides a sense of realism to the NPC's. It's a shame that the rest of the NPC's don't act this way; the Citadel is occupied by the same stationary and immovable characters repeating the same conversations.

But Bioware is best known for the worlds they create, and Mass Effect 3 is no exception. The story feels alive and real, comfortably suspending disbelief despite a range of curiously anthropomorphic aliens. The political and historical backdrops of all the individual species and factions are expertly realized and convincing, providing a masterful foundation for this wonderful space opera. And space operas aren't exactly my forte. I don't even like Star Wars or Star Trek. But Mass Effect is something different, despite its obvious inspirations. Key moments scream with pathos, always evocative but never sentimental. If you've spent a good 100 hours at least in the past five years with Liara, Garrus, Tali, and everyone else, you can expect to cry a few times. The characterization is that good. It is a story of redemption, compromise, devastation, hope, and loss, depending on how you play. These qualities shine resoundingly throughout the entire story, every climax offset by the sober realization that this is the end one way or another. The level of writing never falters, allowing Mass Effect 3 to supplant even its predecessors in engrossing you in this genuine and authentic world.

That is until the last five minutes.

Oh yes, I can't truthfully praise the story without lambasting the ending. By now you've inevitably heard the “controversy” over the “polarizing” and “unconventional” ending, so I don't consider this spoiler worthy. But here's a spoiler alert for you: The above sentence is dishonest, despite permutations of it littered throughout the professional gaming sphere. Replace “controversy” with “righteous indignation,” “polarizing” with “almost universally condemned,” and “unconventional” with “objectively abysmal.”

Look, if you want to wax metaphysical, that's your prerogative, and I'll hail you for it. Hell, The Tree of Life was my favorite film last year. But the execution has to be there, damn it. Introducing myriad plot holes, themes wholly averse to ones already inextricable to the series, and such an overt and crude deus ex machina within literally the last five minutes is not good writing. There is a shocking lack of catharsis or closure imperative for a story of this scope.

All that and the multiple endings are all virtually identical. All that really matters is having a strong enough “effective military readiness” ending (for which multiplayer is required), all other choices be damned. That hard choice at the end of the first game? Doesn't matter. The one at the end of the second one? Nope. Every other decision painfully contemplated and deliberated? Utterly inconsequential.
It really is a testament to Bioware that they actually managed to unintentionally tarnish the entire series within literally five minutes. Give it a few hours after you complete the game, and it will leave you with such a repugnant aftertaste in your mouth, a biting thought that incredulously asks, “Wait, that's what it was all for? That was what I worked for? Those horribly conceived last five minutes?”

An 8/10 isn't a bad game. It would be a 9/10 if Bioware showed the same level of competence with the ending that they showed in every other aspect of the story. And because this is Mass Effect, the story is indisputably the most important part. Everything else is just gravy. Yes, there are talks of a new ending, or, if you believe certain conspiracy theories (which I shamelessly do), a “true ending,” but as it stands, this is the ending you get on the retail disk.

Still, it's a trilogy I would strongly recommend, and the third installment for the most part doesn't disappoint — despite player choice impeding other standards gamers have come to expect by the year 2012 — but it must be offered with the disclaimer, “Don't fall too in love with world and its people, because if you do the ending will really, really hurt.”


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 04/03/12

Game Release: Mass Effect 3 (US, 03/06/12)


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