Review by Westen Shelton

"Epic Defined"

Something bothered me during the Mass Effect 3 hype train by Bioware.

"Check out this EPIC sequence here"

"After an EPIC series of events"


I just wanted to scream, "dude, we get it!". Bioware was obsessed with shoving the world "epic" down my throat. But as I played Mass Effect 3, it all changed. The only thought coming to my mind over and over again was "wow, that was epic." I finally understood.

This is more than "another sequel". This is more than "another game". This is a culmination of a story that will end up spanning 100+ hours between all 3 games for most people. This is the end of a long journey alongside old and new friends. This is the end of a quest to save a universe that has begun to feel almost like my own.

Bioware has masterfully crafted this world and the characters in it. It's almost impossible not to care about it after playing the first 2 games (or even just Mass Effect 2). Hence, why the fanbase for the game has become quite possibly insane.

Strong characters and story are back once again for Mass Effect 3, as you would expect. These aspects of the game are actually better than ever, due to the nature of being the last game in a trilogy. We know most of the characters well enough now where many of them have a great rapport with Shepard now. Their interactions go even deeper, and we see serious growth from a few of Shepard's friends. The familiarity that Shepard has with Joker and Garrus especially lead to some pretty cool conversations.

But the best part about being the last game in a trilogy is the closure. Relationships and storylines that have been around since the beginning are finally given dramatic conclusions. Shepard will address the Quarians and Geth, the Genophage, as well as other major plot lines in the Mass Effect universe. Your decisions will end up shaping the entire galaxy, and the war with the reapers that has raged on since the first game. It's pretty powerful,and I found myself in the middle of a few long pauses before making big choices. Some of the final moments for storylines and characters are incredible, and will stay with me for a long time. With the whole galaxy and entire races on the line, Mass Effect 3's storytelling lives up to the "epic" billing.

The amount of closure given in other parts of the story makes the actual game ending's lack of closure a little odd. Frankly, it just didn't make sense given the way so many other plot points were completely closed shut throughout the game. But I also didn't find myself enraged. It's surprisingly vague, but it isn't nearly as offending as half the endings you will see in video games (See: Rage, Bulletstorm). I found myself mostly overlooking it in the end, with how much I enjoyed the rest of the experience. I think there is enough satisfaction in other points in the story, that the actual ending ends up not being that bad.

It's not just the story that lives up to the hype though, it's the gameplay too. Just like Mass Effect 2, the gunplay is crisp and exciting. Weapons feel powerful and damage effects are solid. But the thing that helps ME3's gameplay standout from the rest of the third person shooter pack are abilities and commanding a squad. It's still a lot of fun to use your biotic powers, and order your squadmates to use theirs to weaken enemies in various ways. A lot of strategy goes into making the perfect squad, and making sure they have the right abilities for the way you fight. It's a satisfying mix of quick thinking and fast-paced gunplay.

Despite the strengths of the gameplay, it still doesn't quite live up to the top tier of third person shooters like Gears of War or Uncharted. The main weakness of the game is movement and cover. It's too easy to accidentally pop out of cover, and moving cover to cover remains a bit awkward at times.

Melee combat also lags a bit behind the badass chainsaws of Gears and the cinematic fisticuffs of Uncharted. You have a new cinematic melee move with your omnitool. This gives you a cool camera view before Shepard charges up a cyber blade in his hand and thrusts it into his foe. In execution though, it doesn't always work very well. When enemies would move while I was charging up my attack, sometimes it would register the attack, sometimes it wouldn't. Characters also do not have very good damage animations for this maneuver, making it that much more difficult to know if your attack hit. Simply, this melee attack doesn't feel as impactful as it should. So while your new melee move undeniably LOOKS cool, it doesn't FEEL awesome. So I didn't end up using it as much as I otherwise would have.

The other little weakness of the gameplay is level design. I'm still not a big fan of the narrow and linear levels you generally fight in. One of the strengths of squad gameplay is the extra layer of strategy it comes with. Mass Effect acknowledges as much by giving you the ability to order your squadmates where to take cover. However, when there is no way to flank your enemies most of the time, it becomes pretty useless. There is still squad strategy in building your powers, and using squad powers in battle, but it could have been much more.

The tight levels do seem to have the added bonus though of enhancing the game's pacing. Enemies come at you at a fast and furious rate. Despite the game's levels having a narrow scope, they somehow feel "epic". You feel like you really are in the middle of war on most of ME3's major missions.

And that war atmosphere is one of the best parts about Mass Effect 3. Everything about Mass Effect makes you feel like you are in a war. From the urgent dialogue that is present in nearly all of the main missions and in the Citadel, to the frantic action present in every mission, to the constantly updating list of your war assets, you should feel the pressures of the war mounting on your shoulders the longer you play. By the end, this isn't just Commander Shepard's war anymore, this is your war.

The other element pulling you into Mass Effect 3's world are the fantastic visuals. The levels may be small, but the background environments are huge and gorgeous, and these might be what makes you feel like you are on something more than the narrow pathways you walk through. Bioware then went above and beyond when it comes to the cutscenes. Most of the big space battles in Mass Effect 3 are unbelievable. They remind me of the best space fights in Star Wars history, and they probably outdo Star Wars in some aspects. I feel like I could watch a full length motion picture of just the space warfare in this game, it's that good. And obviously, it fits the theme of a galaxy at stake war very well.

On top of all this, Bioware even threw in its very own "horde" co-op mode. Like all these modes, you fight off increasingly difficult waves of enemies and try to survive. Mass Effect 3 does add a few twists to the formula though. First, you occasionally have to complete an objective of some sort, like holding down a certain position, or killing specific targets. I liked these as a way to freshen up the action, and I hope in the future they add more objectives in. The other difference is a small but really cool addition. After you complete 10 waves, you and your squad must "extract", and all be in the extraction circle when the timer runs out. As you try and extract, a giant wave of enemies is coming at you. It's really intense, and a great way to end every match.

While the gameplay is solid, Mass Effect 3 really separates itself outside of the shooting in its co-op. It has some insanely addictive RPG elements. First off, you can make multiple characters, and level them all up as you play, making tough decisions on what to upgrade as you go. Also, as you play you unlock points to unlock "packs", which essentially work like any trading card pack you might have bought as a kid. Some packs have awesome stuff, like weapons upgrades, and new characters, others might just have simple power ups. It's an addictive system, and it's fun to watch your character grow stronger and stronger as you play. ME3 gives you much more compelling reasons to play than just an increasing rank number. And in the end, the stuff outside of the game ends up almost being better than the game itself. The occasional gameplay awkwardness still exists in co-op, but it still ends up being a surprisingly strong experience.

The way Bioware managed to somehow throw in a successful co-op mode just shows how far they have come. The Mass Effect series has always attempted to be the best of both worlds with RPG and action elements. With Mass Effect 3, they finally nailed it. The story is excellent, the characters are stronger than ever, and the action, while being the one element that doesn't quite live up to the competition, is still very good. Add in co-op, and you have a truly astounding well-rounded package. This is clearly Bioware's magnum opus, and they will be hard pressed to ever top it. But more than anything, Bioware can be proud that they finally created a game that is truly epic.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 04/12/12

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

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