Review by IdealisticCynic

"The weakest in the trilogy, and not just for its abominable ending either."

Infamously bad ending aside, venturing through Mass Effect 3 was a bewildering experience. I'm not quite sure what my overall feelings were about the game, because it's a conflicted sequel where nearly all its strengths and flaws are in constant struggle with one another. Mass Effect 3 is a culmination of the best and worst aspects of BioWare's games, making it their most uneven title to date. Of course, I'm speaking as a someone who's been a fan of the series ever since I strapped into the boots of Commander Shepard.

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 were composed of all the ingredients for good sci-fi, such as an entrancing universe, fascinating aliens, rich lore, and unforgettable characters. All of this, combined with the interactive gaming medium, resulted in one of the most immersive sci-fi experience to date. While Mass Effect 3 does maintain the components of what made its predecessors so engaging, some of the series' soul seemed to be lost during the making. It's not just because of its abominable ending either; it merely overshadows the game's plethora of flaws.

Our tale begins with Shepard now on Earth (Vancouver to be exact) under house arrest, facing charges for his (or her depending on the choosing on your Shepard's gender) actions from the Mass Effect 2 DLC Arrival. That's, until his/her trial is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the Reapers. When Shepard reaches the Normandy with the aid of his/her mentor Admiral Anderson, Anderson reinstates his position as Commander and orders him to unite the civilizations of the galaxy, as it's their only chance of stopping the Reaper threat. After the Normandy leaves Earth, Shepard is then contacted by Admiral Hackett, and informed that Dr. T'soni has uncovered an unfinished Prothean device (a MacGuffin if you will) that's been buried on Mars, and which could be a weapon that could give the galaxy an advantage over the Reapers. From there Shepard's journey expands into a romp from one planet to another, struggling to assemble armies and recruiting support for the construction of the Prothean device left behind species of the past, while he/she becomes faced with ethical dilemmas.

The first ten minutes is permeated with problems, it lacked any cohesive exposition for fans and newcomers to grasp any understanding of the situation they're thrust into. Shepard even chats with a newly introduced squad member (James Vega), as if he/she knew him before. When the Reaper's arrival occurs, the most monumental moment of the series quickly devolves into a tutorial mode. Therefore, any potential emotional investment is tossed aside in favor of teaching the various commands of the action button. This means that witnessing the Reaper's demolishing of Vancouver was about as perturbing as watching Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo. There were also scenes where Shepard fails to rescue a helpless child, only to watch him be killed by a Reaper. These scenes involving the kid were a cheaply manipulative attempt to strike an emotional chord in player. It becomes more groan-inducing when we have to see him three more times in Shepard's nauseating dream sequences. It's understandable that BioWare's is attempting to humanize Shepard, it's hard to take it seriously when Shepard is often portrayed as this sanctimonious figure of Political Correctness.

More problems arise when we're reintroduced to the pro-human extremist group Cerberus, who are now the secondary antagonists. Their role in the story is to ruthlessly combat any opposition to their goal of controlling the Reapers. I have no problem with this, considering their supposed "moral ambiguity" in Mass Effect 2 wasn't handled with subtlety. However, they're more over the top than ever before in Mass Effect 3. One example would be their attempted coup on the Citadel, where a prominent character works a betrayal at the Council that comes out of left field. What's worse they diminish the Reapers' presence by taking the center stage for most than half the game. The Illusive Man's went from being an intriguing anti-hero to a tedious Bond villain impersonator. Then there's Kai Leng, a Cerberus assassin who's first introduced in the novel Mass Effect: Retribution, who had to be the worst villain in a video game since Tobias Bruckner from Turok: Evolution. Nearly everything about him is embarrassing, he looks like Raiden's weaboo cousin, spouts juvenile taunts, incompetently fails nearly all of his assignments, needs a gunship to defeat Shepard, sends a laughable death threat to Shepard via e-mail, and fails to be a supposed foil to Shepard. Whenever BioWare tries to menacingly portray Kai Leng, he ends up becoming the satirical embodiment of BioWare's mishandling of Cerberus.

The genophage and Morning War (the conflict between the quarians and geth) story arcs are the two saving graces in Mass Effect 3's narrative. The conclusion to the genophage story arch which easily ranks among BioWare's greatest storytelling accomplishments. Both scenarios are elegantly and intelligently handled, avoiding any contrivances they could've easily resorted to. Fan favorite characters such as Wrex, Legion, and Mordin Solus are flawlessly implemented, and the terrific newest additional character Eve provides fascinating insight into female Krogan culture. Not only does each build up to a sensational showdown against a Reaper, they also end on a powerful and poignant climax that will undoubtedly move fans in tears. If there's one complaint to be had, it's the conflicting ideologies of the quarian Admirals had little to no development. Aside from a few flaws, both scenarios are well-written and will leave one of the most lasting emotional impression. The quality of Mass Effect 3's storytelling is quite uneven, parts radiate with the adamant of BioWare's earlier work, and others contain fanfiction material.

Old fan favorites Liara T'soni, Tali vas Normandy, and Garrus Brokarian make a welcome return to your squad in Mass Effect 3. Thanks to strong writing, interactions with these characters add a more personal draw to an emotionally driven story. There are character interactions that will go down as some of gaming's most endearing scenes, such as the bromantic date with Garrus on the Citadel and the time capsule scene with Liara. And Kaidan surprisingly receives a good deal more development here in Mass Effect 3 than he did in the original. Another nice touch is that there is more banter between them and they even interact with one another on the Normandy. The best new addition to the squad would have to be the long lost Prothean Javik. His snarky remarks are hilarious, and provide a thought-provoking twist to the "last survivor of an extinct, enlightened species" trope. It's even backed up with genuinely humorous moments, such as Mordin performing another musical number and drunken Tali.

One of the new additions to the squad is James 'Slab Bulkhead' Vega, who's surprisingly likable gruff soldier with a heart of gold. Though his weak backstory and half-baked "mentor and student" relationship with Shepard renders him forgettable. EDI, the Normandy's A.I., now becomes a squad mate as a sexy fembot. This sudden new twist is downright contrived, and the romantic relationship she and Joker share with each other seems to be ripped out of a bad fanfic. Ashley Williams makes a disappointing return, as she constantly nags about your past affiliations with Cerberus and becomes a non-entity when she's recruited into your squad. Her new sexualized design, reminiscent of Miranda's catsuit, detracts one of the aspects that made her interesting in the original. Those who've hated Ashley won't have their minds changed in Mass Effect 3, and fans of her will be disappointed with the lack of content for her. Mass Effect 2 squad members make memorable cameo appearances, but their roles are completely marginalized after their brief appearances.

Romance has never been the strongest aspect of Mass Effect's writing, but the romance is sloppier than ever here. The relationships lacked any progressing development and the dialog is often cringe worthy, the only romance that was half-decent was Garrus's. The sex scenes are well-animated and tasteful, but bland and lacking in nudity. Not that I want to advocate tactless nudity in video games, but it pales in comparison to The Witcher 2's sex scene, which are simultaneously tasteful and titillating. As phoned in as the new same sex romances may be, they aren't forced upon you and can be easily ignored. However, Kaidan's being a bisexual romance option is forced and contrived. It can be avoided if you romanced another squad member, but it still comes off as yaoi fanpandering. Another problem is that Mass Effect 2 squad mates receive a barren desert amount of romantic content, a total slap in the face for fans of these characters.

Of course, there's the widely loathed ending. Everyone, including those who haven't played it, knows how abysmal it was and that the Extended Cut was nothing more than a turd polishing exercise. Instead of discussing the game's poorly received endings, I'll be tackling its most glaring flaw: the lack of interactivity. Interactivity is the key distinguishing factor that separates video games from other mediums, and what made the first two Mass Effect titles so immersive was that they allowed us to role-play our Shepard in the way of our choosing. The dialog wheel was an innovative system, as it allowed for more fluid and cinematic NPC interaction. Now the dialog wheel appears sporadically in Mass Effect 3, instead auto-dialog was prevalent. One could argue this was done to provide a more cinematic flow to the game, but I'd argue it's too cinematic to the point of being uninvolving. Half of your NPC interactions won't even allow you to use the dialog; all you have to do is press a button in order to initiate a conversation between Shepard and the NPC. Not only does this limit role-playing, it subsides player involvement.

One of the series's flaws was its reliance on morality meters, which is in Mass Effect's case the Paragon and Renegade system. The problem is that it results in a more meta-gamey approach to choices, where you spend your time concerned about which bar you want to fill up the most, rather than the consequences of your actions. When you're faced with an ethical dilemma, the Paragon and Renegade score allows the players to either Charm or Intimidate their way out of these situations with everyone happy. This system doesn't work because it oversimplifies the moral complexity of these dilemmas, and your choices have little to no railroading on the plot. Whereas other role-playing games that don't depend on morality meters, such as The Witcher 2 and Alpha Protocol, respect player choice by allowing the choices to have multiple outcomes with consequences. Even major choices imported from saves in prior Mass Effect games matter little, as events play identically and dead characters are replaced by doppelgangers.

The deprivation of interaction rears its ugly head in the game's side quests. They consist of eavesdropping over an NPC's conversation to initiate a fetch quest and scanning the planet of your destination to increase your war asset ratings. It reduces replayability, as these statistical ratings only offer minor variations of the game's already atrocious endings. And the most disorganized journal system since Morrowind didn't really help either. There are enjoyable quests that involve combat and NPC interaction with the dialog wheel, but they are few and far between the game's tedious fetch quests.

Mass Effect 3 improves upon Mass Effect 2's stellar combat model, making it the best combat system in the series to date. The emphasis is still cover-based shooting, but BioWare took more cues from Gears of War. You now can swap from cover to cover, there's combat rolling, and gunplay is more visceral this time. The more open-ended level design provides more versatile and tactical maneuverability, such as flanking positions and high vantage points. The melee combat has been improved so Shepard may use a devastating strike with the omni-blade or biotic punch if you're an Adept or Vanguard, while a bit overpowered it's balanced out by leaving Shepard exposed to gunfire. The health system changed into five separate health bars that regenerate, but you're still vulnerable, and you must to use medi-gel since these health bars remain empty when they're completely depleted. It's a clever health mechanic that's similarly used by The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.

Combat is more tactical thanks to new special abilities dependently exclusive to each class, such as the Vanguard having the ability to send enemies flying by pounding onto the ground Jax style, Engineer can set up turrets, and the Soldier class is able to use frag grenades. The weight limit for the amount of weapons you can carry impacts the cooling time for abilities and movement, forcing the player to carefully consider their choices. Weapon customization makes a return, but it's not very noteworthy as it only has a minor impact to your weapon'ss performance. Enemy A.I. is adequate as they will work in groups to flank you and frequently be aggressive, but they can be occasionally stupid by not reacting to your gunfire and not even being aware of your presence while in cover. Squad A.I. isn't particularly good, but their special abilities are also usually essential for combat and they do their job as being meatbag shields. The action button has a drawback of having too many command options, which leads to unintentional mistakes in combat. Examples would be leaping over a wounded squad mate instead of manually healing them and acquiring a weapon mod during a gun fight rather than taking cover. These polish issues are only a hindrance to a solid combat model, along with cinematic set-pieces offering some of the most intense third-person shooting action available.

Unfortunately, the improvements of the combat model become a detriment to the core role-playing. The game focuses too much on the third-person shooting, as if BioWare has forgotten one of Mass Effect 2's strengths was that it balanced role-playing and third-person shooting. Along with the sparse dialog options and uninvolving side quests, there's only one hub world to explore. To make matters worse, there's an online multi-player component is nothing more than Gears of War's Horde mode. It detracted from the single-player experience, because it felt like a tacked on feature. Sure, it's fun to play for short bursts, but I couldn't help but wonder if the developers could've used up that extra disc space for more meaningful single-player content. The skill stats was the only improvement in the RPG department, it's more balanced this time and skill trees serve impactful customization to the combat. Remember when I stated Mass Effect 3 lost the soul of its predecessors? There's little to no incentives for replayability, due to the game's linear progression that hardly leaves room to feel you're role-playing as Shepard. Instead, you feel as if you're partaking in a ventriloquism act that's entirely scripted for you than by you.

Much like the story itself, the presentation is a mixed bag. The team of music composers behind the series delivers another stellar original soundtrack that combines techno rhythms and a striking orchestral score. The music naturally invokes the wonder of sci-fi, along with riveting action that takes place. Unfortunately the music isn't as memorable as the prior two titles. While I was able to play ten old Mass Effect tracks in my mental jukebox, I was only able to recount five memorable tracks for Mass Effect 3. DICE's audio team from Battlefield: Bad Company assist in the sound designs of the weapons in Mass Effect 3. Now the weapons sound more powerful and impactfing than they did in Mass Effect 2. Apart from three wooden performances, the voice acting in general is on par with the high quality standards we have come to expect from BioWare, with notable performances by Martin Sheen as The Illusive Man, Liz Sroka as Tali, and Raphael Sbarge as Kaidan Alenko. Jessica Chobot is just horrendous as Diana Allers, Mark Meer still sounds a bit too stiff as Male Shepard, and I can't blame Troy Baker for overacting as Kai Leng given the material he received.

Visually the game looks good, with well-detailed character models and some sweeping vistas, along with a dazzling art style strongly suiting the game's sci-fi atmosphere. BioWare is no Ubisoft when it comes to animation, yet the animation in Mass Effect 3 is clumsier than ever. Character movements are more puppetry than they were before, Shepard sprints as if there's a wedge stuck in his/her ass, and their heads disproportionately twist like a horror movie. There is also some 8-bit quality, sprite animations of husks charging during the opening of the game. The game contains more Hollywood aesthetic, with characters looking like they placed high quantities of makeup on their faces and the film grain (that lent the original's feeling of 60's/70's sci-fi) is completely gone. But the laziest aspect of the visuals, would have to be Tali's face, which turns out to be a half-assed photoshop job of a stock image from google.

Yet despite all of my criticisms against Mass Effect 3, it's not a terrible game. It certainly was an enjoyable time between the first and last ten minutes of the game, in spite of its flaws, because it at least emanated a level of craftsmanship that was absent in Dragon Age 2 and Star Wars: TORtanic. There are memorable moments that every fan of the series should experience. But there are also parts that no fan should've endured, which leaves Mass Effect 3 to be cautiously recommended. Mass Effect 3 reeked of decisions that were carried out by focused test groups, in order to appeal to a "wider audience". As much as I love Javik as a character, his side quest doesn't justify paying ten dollars to unlock content that's already programmed in the disc. Which is a cynical, marketing ploy in order to increase revenue for EA.

It's ironic how BioWare claims they want to maintain their "artistic integrity" by not changing the ending, when the ending had no artistic merit to speak of. Especially in a game that's littered with fanservice, what with gratuitous shots of Miranda's ass, Jessica Chobot, the fact you can kill one of the Virmire Survivors, and the asari themselves as nothing more than a fanpandering species. BioWare's promises of Mass Effect 2 squad members returning as temporary squad mates and the Rachni Queen containing a major involvement in the central story, have even turned out to be false. With the ending aside, it's still the weakest in the trilogy. I'm hesitant to label it as the "Return of the Jedi" of the trilogy, at least that movie had a satisfying conclusion to its arch. The ending stabbed a sword so deep into the Mass Effect lore, that the only way heal the wound would be if another developer got hold of the license and made a reboot.

It's nothing new to see a once great studio decline underneath the new management of EA. But it's disheartening to see this happen to BioWare, a company that once crafted games with meaning and soul. Like with most studios under EA's management, they release one or two great games only to be followed by sub-standard titles. Mass Effect 3 is the last strike of any hope that BioWare could regain their former glory days. When Dragon Age II producer Mark Fernando announced they wanted the Call of Duty audience, I shrugged it off as almost every studio makes exaggerated marketing spiel and has release one mediocre AAA title. Sadly, it's clear at this point this is no longer the BioWare that used to sit upon the golden pedestal among the other extraordinary game developers.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 09/21/12

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

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