Review by NF_Kodiak
A great series ends not with a bang but with a thud.
The Mass Effect series has been a series with ambitious scope. A sci-fi epic centered around a character, Commander Shepard, whose personality you mold over the course of three games, with the decisions you make, good or bad, making impacts along your journey. While I have heard of this being attempted before, this is the first time I've seen a complete series with this feature.
It is heavily recommended that you have played the first two games in the series as beginning with Mass Effect 3 is no different than reading or watching the end of any other trilogy first. You wind up not developing a connection with the characters, you don't learn about a world you're expected to know and you're dropped at the end of a story you don't know the beginning to. It doesn't mean you won't enjoy the game play but you will miss out on some of the more poignant story moments. I will assume you have played the first two games, it will take too long to bring people up to speed.
The game is separated into combat oriented missions and exploration in space or on foot. The game play during missions creates a solid foundation. The only issue is the space bar being a do-all button and is overloaded with functions. If something you want to pick up or a team mate who needs reviving is too close to a wall or barrier, you'll find yourself taking cover instead of what you want to do, leading to frustrating moments. PC gamers have keyboards which have a significant amount of buttons, there's no need to give one five different functions.
Aside from that the classes play well and differently enough to help make another play through feel fresh. The tactics you use as the gun loving Soldier will be completely different from the biotic wielding Adept or the tech minded Engineer, let alone one of the other three classes that serve as mixtures of these classes. While the combat is cover based, there are times when you're forced to move and be out in the open. Sitting stationary behind cover will sometimes get you killed as you get flanked or the environment doesn't permit it. A point I want to make is the amount of weapons added. You have a large amount of weapons at your disposal, divided between assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, sub-machine guns and pistols. While some are forgettable as there is a version with better stats, a lot fit into their own niche and the ability to equip each with two mods with varying effects further adds to being able to find a weapon that best suits you.
The environments you walk around are lively. While on the ship people walk around and do their thing. On the Citadel people chat with each other telling sometimes interesting stories or talking about the war and how it has affected them. It manages to give you the feeling that a war is going on without seeing it.
The space exploration has been improved from the second game but still comes with flaws. Instead of scanning every square mile of a planet and firing off probes when you find a cache of minerals, you fly around the solar system sending out pulses. If you find something, you're notified and a target comes up where so you can go over and grab it. If it is a Reaper controlled system then you have only a few pulses before they notice and start chasing you, leaving you to flee until after a mission when you can come back. It sounds great on paper but it makes it a chore to have to leave, do a mission and come back if you're looking for something specific. There are a lot of fetch missions where you go out to a system to try and find something and if you don't find it before the Reapers arrive, you have to come back after completing a mission, probably even forgetting about it. Eventually you'll just get tired of it all and focus more on the missions instead.
The game begins with Shepard under house arrest for something he did after the events of the second game, during the DLC The Arrival, in which Shepard sacrifices 300,000 lives to prevent the Reapers from coming. This is one of a few instances that happens between games that you're told in passing that could have been better fleshed out without having to buy and read books and comics. Shepard is brought in front of a military council for his opinion on something large detected in space and, on cue, the Earth gets invaded by Reapers. After a brief period of running and gunning to familiarize yourself with the controls, you're back on the Normandy and tasked with uniting all the races of the galaxy to fight off the invasion.
The story through-out the game is pretty good. The fact that a full-scale invasion going on and the size of the Reapers is conveyed well during the missions. The pacing is well done and separated into three acts, with the first two ending on emotional notes. Everything leading up to the ending is great. It is there where things start to fall apart. The ending is a very controversial topic but I didn't mind it so much except that with the emphasis put on decisions made through out the series, you simply pick one of three endings at the very end of the game. That's it. It was, again, another let down to see that no matter what I did, all I needed to do to get the ending I wanted was walk down one of three paths. Even more disappointing when I saw that two endings pretty much use the same video and the third using 90%, the only difference between all three is the main colour used. It comes off as being incredibly rushed when compared to the writing in the rest of the game.
While the main story is ruined with a rushed ending, it's the moments involving the characters that really shine. To get the best out of the story you should have saved everyone you could in the previous games because everyone makes an appearance at one point or another and each one is handled very well. Some characters may only make a brief appearance while others will be right there with you for a portion of the game. Their moments can be very touching making everyone but those made of stone feel something.
As I mentioned, the Mass Effect series put emphasis on the decisions you make with a promise that they will have big impacts on your gaming experience. It's unfortunate that all the decisions you have made in the first two games feel pointless when, no matter what you chose, you get the same outcome. While you won't notice it in your first play through of the game, your second will make it painfully obvious. I made two characters starting in ME1 and simply made opposite decisions through out the series. One saves while the other kills or destroys. You would think that the experiences would be very different but no. The missions unfold the same, the only differences being dialogue. Large decisions in the first two games yields only minor changes. Characters get replaced, dialogue changes but in the end, the story is impacted minimally. There are quite a few points I could go into but to see so much potential be wasted was disappointing. It is a pity though, your first time playing the game will feel great but as you see the possibilities behind all the decisions the magic quickly fades.
If taken individually, Mass Effect 3 is a great game at its core. As a series finale, it continues on Mass Effect 2's superb game play and character development but then fumbles at a crucial moment and because of this the great experience up to that point will be forgotten. It is for these reasons that I give the game eight out of ten despite the flaws.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Mass Effect 3 (US, 03/06/12)
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