As the final part of the epic sci-fi adventure trilogy, Mass Effect 3 appears with expectation levels running to fever pitch. Pre-release stunts saw copies launched into space, presumably to see whether any passing Salarians would catch one and come and say hello (sadly with no response as yet). As with any blockbusting franchise, the final installment has the power to make or break the legacy of the series – stakes are high, but will the developers come out all guns blazing, or will it be an expensive misfire?
Part of BioWare’s skill has been to make the series such that upon firing up ME3, players of the previous games will welcome seeing their old character returning, slipping back into the action like it’s merely a familiar pair of particularly well-worn slippers, as opposed to an all out war for the survival of sentient life itself. New players setting foot in the galaxy for the first time will soon feel equally at home as the game walks you through the mechanics expertly as you escape your scorching homeland, and the plot begins to draw you in.
Barely has the dust settled on the events of Mass Effect 2, when the Reapers decide to invade Earth. Commander Shepard, who is being held on Earth following his Cerberus associations in the previous installment, is predictably the only one who can save the planet from the havoc wreaked by the deadly alien menace.
The first emotionally affecting point comes when you realise you must flee your homeland and leave it to the mercy of the enemy, before flying off to work out a way to beat the relentless Reapers. As ever in Mass Effect, this involves recruiting some new crew for your re-designed Normandy ship, and seeking a solution to the universal problem of how to defeat something that is to all intents and purposes the equivalent of a huge bottle of God’s correction fluid.
A lot of the fun is in seeing old friends appear in familiar locations, the Citadel again being a kind of hub with missions leading you to return to it several times. Of course with Mass Effect’s ‘Choose your own adventure’ style, this will largely depend on how things turned out for you in previous games.
For instance if Miranda survived ME2 then you will meet her in the Citadel early on in this game, but if she died, the encounter won’t happen and you’ll be talking to someone different, about something completely different. Perhaps time to go back to previous versions for series newcomers then.
As with previous installments, talking makes up a large part of the experience. BioWare have removed many of the safe ‘fence-sitting’ options available, in order to make you really choose between good or bad. Personally I found this excellent as it neutered my natural instinct for the middle-ground, so allowing more honest choices as opposed to becoming mired in endless shades of grey.
Battles themselves are much the same as Mass Effect 2, albeit with extra mobility added by the use of ladders and requiring more scenery jumping. The cover system works excellently, apart from a tendency to combat roll into enemy fire from time to time, but it’s still the same excellent blasting fun.
Perhaps more variation in the enemies could have improved the game, but at the same time getting to play as a massive mech from time to time, or the fun of sniping people who haven’t even noticed you, easily balances the repetition of Cerberus and Reaper enemies.
The planet scanning has undergone a revamp, and here I definitely think they made a backwards step by changing it – there’s just not as much to do when cruising the universe in the Normandy, and the threat of Reapers arriving when you do try and find treasures only makes it more irritating when you have to flee a galaxy and come back later (only to find that missed ‘treasure’ is just some fuel that you could have bought anyway).
Technically, Mass Effect 3 is as solid as you would expect. Visuals are uniformly excellent as well-built environments effortlessly incorporate breath-taking use of scale. Seeing a burning planet in the far background, for example, as Reapers destroy cities in the middle distance, as you face combat in the foreground makes for a really cinematic gameplay experience – a feeling only intensified by Clint Mansell’s excellent musical score.
As far as the ending goes, I won’t spoil it except to offer a caveat – I didn’t like the end of The Sopranos either, but no-one said that it spoiled the six series that preceded it. I have never even seen the final episode of The Wire, despite watching the entire series through at least three times – I just can’t bring myself to let it end. And we all know what happened to Lost.
The internet uproar surrounding Mass Effect 3′s denouement means it will be subject to special scutiny by every gamer, but perhaps those disappointed should look back over videogames history and try and remember completing Super Mario Land on the Gameboy, to name just one of the many million examples. The ‘ending’ was just that you had to play the same thing over again – but harder. No emotional climax, no scripted twists, just plain old ‘play it again’.
As a great comedian once said, ‘life is just a ride’. So are videogames, and if you let their endings frustrate you, then put things in perspective. Lots of things happen every day in the real world that are far worse than an awesome series of games that kept millions of people hooked to their consoles for upwards of forty hours per game. Mass Effect 3 probably doesn’t better it’s predecessor, it’s more like an extension of it, but it’s a compelling story, an addictive high-speed relay through space, and well worthy of anyone’s time and money.