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Mass Effect 3 is an unfitting finale for an outstanding franchise (review)

Mass Effect’s finale has been a long time in the making. Commander Shepard and developer BioWare have taken players on an interactive odyssey whose quality is rarely seen in video games, and impossible in any other entertainment medium. That alone infuses the third and final entry in this epic space saga with copious amounts of anticipation and nostalgia. But as George Lucas has taught us, high expectations and benefit of the doubt are two extremely dangerous practices.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

Graphics
The entire Mass Effect trilogy uses Unreal Engine 3 to fuel its visuals. BioWare has made particularly excellent use of the engine, creating stunning interplanetary vistas and some of the most fascinating alien races in science fiction. Mass Effect 3 is no different, only now the art team has really taken the opportunity to let the engine and all of their hard work shine in massive set-pieces. Shepard and company will travel to an assortment of worlds in the midst of an all-out Reaper invasion; at any given time it’s entirely likely that you’ll look to your right and see miles of destruction, collapsing skyscrapers, fighter ships soaring overhead, and 160-meter tall Destroyer-class Reapers annihilating everything in sight. There were a few instances that evoked a sense of war that I haven’t felt since Saving Private Ryan.

The asari and drell are highlights in a gallery of immaculately-designed alien species. If I cared more about art I would storm into the Museum of Modern Art, tear down all of the Jackson Pollocks, and put up a framed screenshot of Samara and Thane Krios. While human characters are not quite as masterfully realized, even after 30 hours of gameplay (or 90, if you count the entire trilogy), seeing my Renegade FemShep’s glowing red eyes piercing out of the darkness as she decided the fate of an entire galaxy never got old.

“There were a few instances that evoked a sense of war that I haven’t felt since Saving Private Ryan.”

Hybrid gameplay
BioWare, renowned for its role-playing games, somehow does tactical squad-based shooting better than most traditional squad-based shooters. Mass Effect 3 employs an elegant simplicity in its gameplay, where a squad of three can be commanded easily and concisely with an Xbox 360 controller. Key powers are allocated to face buttons for instant use, while the game can also be slowed to a crawl at will, allowing you to plan out a series of squad actions before unfreezing time via the power wheel.

The third-person shooter element incorporates special powers that help distinguish Mass Effect 3 from other games featuring cover and similar weapon types. Biotic powers are especially distinctive, creating miniature blackholes that suck up any nearby unarmored enemies. A second biotic power shot into the middle of the blackhole will cause it to explode, damaging opposition in the vicinity and propelling their helpless bodies in all directions. Abilities such as Shockwave can pass through cover, allowing you to get to otherwise protected targets, while Pull can rip the shields out of Guardian class Cerberus units’ hands, rendering them vulnerable to weapons fire. It also seems BioWare was playing a lot of StarCraft 2 while developing Mass Effect 3, as each power now has multiple branching paths when leveling up, prompting some difficult decisions about how you want to evolve your abilities.

As with previous instalments, Shepard can choose between six different classes, mixing and matching weapon proficiency, survivability, and biotic and tech powers. Weapon limitations have been removed altogether (for Shepard only), so an Infiltrator can use assault rifles and shotguns if they so desire. However, each weapon now has a weight attribute, and the more weight Shepard is carrying, the slower powers will regenerate. I eventually just carried a single weapon into most missions, giving my Adept Shepard a 200 percent power regeneration bonus.

But no matter what Shepard build you come up with, you’ll need backup. That’s where your squadmates come in, as having comrades that compliment your strengths and limit your weaknesses is imperative. It would have been preferable to bring along three teammates rather than just two, a personal pet peeve throughout the entire trilogy (and most JRPGs), especially considering Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer allows for squads of four. Unfortunately, it’s almost a moot point now as Mass Effect 3 has less than half as many squad member choices as Mass Effect 2 did, but we’ll get to that momentarily.

Liara

Auto-fish-feeder
In Mass Effect 2, I spent a ton of money on fish. Why? They kept dying. I forgot to feed them between missions, or I filled their tank with a year’s worth of food knowing that I’d forget the next time I was on the Normandy. I was also super-mean to Kelly Chambers, so she didn’t want to do it for me. Either way, my exotic space fish became worm food (irony!). So I was quite happy to find an automatic fish feeder available for purchase at a Citadel shop in Mass Effect 3. But that’s really just a minor example signifying the extra little touches that BioWare put in to the game.

There are a few nods to memes spawned from previous games that longtime fans will undoubtedly find amusing, and Shepard seems to have become aware that he/she is a ridiculous dancer. I got a laugh out of that one, and appreciated BioWare making fun of themselves. I was particularly happy to find Mass Effect 2’s pre-order armor available for purchase at different weapon shops, and the ability to customize when helmets did or didn’t appear. They may be small things, but they can go a long way, especially when so few games take the time to add them in.

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

Technical issues & cut corners
I may have praised Mass Effect 3’s visuals in the previous section, but it’s not all rainbows and space hamsters in Unreal Engine land. For some reason, BioWare is atrociously bad at rendering humans. Throughout the entire series, human characters have shared more in common with creepy animatronic mascots from Chuck E Cheese than actual humans, and that remains true in Mass Effect 3. Even Diana Allers, who was modeled after the beautiful Jessica Chobot, looks like a run-down caricature of herself.

And BioWare’s failed quest to needlessly “sexify” Mass Effect is perfectly personified by the revised Ashley Williams, who now looks like Michael Jackson with eyeliner. Bioware embraced nuance in the sensual nature of the asari culture, but sadly devolved to simple parlor tricks when it came to individual human females.

But that’s all just bad design. From a technical standpoint, Mass Effect 3 also manages to be the most haphazardly constructed of all three games. The wonky eyes are back with a vengeance, and they’ve brought friends. During cutscenes (of which there are countless, obviously) you’ll quickly be introduced to berserk hand and arm animations, poor lip-synching, and there were more than a few times where the camera would be aimed at absolutely nothing while a character was speaking.

“This rote survival mechanic has bled into the single-player campaign, and rears its ugly, lazy head far too many times for comfort.”

I also experienced severe freezing during my playthrough, and again on a second console. At a handful of points throughout the game (generally during combat), the game froze upwards of 30 seconds. This happens very rarely (especially nowadays) in some games due to Achievement checks in the code, but that didn’t seem to be the case with Mass Effect 3. I’m not sure why it happened, but it was annoying nonetheless.

Lastly, while a great amount of attention has been given to the game, there are some very obvious cut corners. The reveal of Tali’s face, for example, is one of the most anticipated moments in the entire series, and BioWare’s execution of it boiled down to a poorly Photoshopped stock picture from Getty Images.

Likewise, even years after the events of Mass Effect 2, most characters are still wearing the same exact outfit as before. I understand that Miranda might literally be stuck in that skin-tight catsuit, but what about all of the ex-Cerberus operatives still wearing their Cerberus-branded gear? I can’t get into it much more without spoiling something, but considering active squad members have several unique outfit choices now, would it have been too much to ask for a wardrobe update on other key characters?

Bland, greedy multiplayer
Mass Effect 3’s tacked-on multiplayer revolves around up to four players surviving 11 waves of enemies on one of several different maps. To be blunt, it’s Horde Lite.

While it does provide basic levels of entertainment when playing with friends, it’s about as much of an afterthought as humanly possible. BioWare attempted to supplement the repetitive gameplay with a trading card-esque unlock system, where purchasing reinforcement packs with in-game Credits or real-world money will provide the player with randomized weapons, characters, and items. However, as our case study shows, the rate-of-return is potentially so utterly low that it’s not worth the effort. We can’t help but feel like the required Credits were purposely amped up in the hopes that players would instead pay for them using Microsoft Points, as there is no alternative way to unlock anything in multiplayer.

Worse yet, this rote survival mechanic has bled into the single-player campaign, and rears its ugly, lazy head far too many times for comfort. Whenever you approach an objective, there’s a 50/50 chance that you’ll need to assign one squad member to interact with it while you and the other hold off waves of attacking enemies. You’ll even visit each of the multiplayer maps during the story, so BioWare really wanted to get their money’s worth out of these assets.

Joker

DLC
I wasn’t particularly fond of the DLC practices in Mass Effect 2. I played through the game nonstop upon release, only to have BioWare trickle out new characters and new story missions over the next year. It’s a bit pointless to go back and play this content after you’ve already concluded your entire playthrough, and in the case of Liara and Lair of the Shadow Broker, the paid downloadable content seemed like it belonged in the original retail experience.

Mass Effect 3’s day one DLC has seen no small amount of controversy and lashback from the fans. Now that the game is out, is it vital to the main game? Absolutely. While the DLC’s gameplay was clearly rushed out with “B team” quality, the story elements provide much-needed insight into the backbone of the Reapers and the underlying mythos that BioWare has been building up for the past five years. Not just in the games, but in comics, apps, novels–From Ashes gives the answers everyone has been waiting for, and without the DLC, there’s a gaping hole left in the Mass Effect lore.

With so few playable characters available in Mass Effect 3, it’s an absolute insult to restrict one for DLC, let alone what is arguably the most interesting new character in the entire lineup.

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE (cont.)

Less compelling than Mass Effect 2
I remember Mass Effect being a solid spiritual successor to BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Mass Effect 2, however, had the advantage of building off the first game’s strengths, while further expanding the overall universe and Shepard’s legend. The Seven Samurai approach to gathering a rag-tag team of characters and heading off towards a grand finale unreservedly referred to as the “suicide mission” was space drama at its best. The uneasy alliance with Cerberus and the Illusive Man added an extra layer of tension and intrigue to the story, all while the incalculable Reaper threat loomed ever closer.

In Mass Effect 3, all of that mystery is stripped out. Before you’ve even gained your bearings, the Reaper invasion of Earth is underway. There’s no build-up (unless you literally just finished Mass Effect 2 five minutes ago), and therefore the big moment rings somewhat hollow when it finally arrives. And then you’re off, on a mission to rally the different races of the galaxy together for a major push against the seemingly invincible Reaper forces.

“Sorry Shepard, but we have troubles of our own. If you go down to this remote planet and check on a single fucking scientist to make sure he’s okay, we may consider helping you with your thing.”

–every character in Mass Effect 3

At any point you could fly the Normandy through the plot holes in Mass Effect 3’s story. How can any race spare even a single ship when their homeworld is being systematically obliterated just as Earth is? Why does Commander Shepard still have to jump through hoops to get people to help save the galaxy? This is how every conversation should play out in Mass Effect 3: “I need your help to stop every organic life-form in the galaxy from becoming extinct. Grab your shit and let’s go.” And this is how conversations actually play out: “Sorry Shepard, but we have troubles of our own. If you go down to this remote planet and check on a single fucking scientist to make sure he’s okay, we may consider helping you with your thing.”

A huge part of what made Mass Effect 2 so great was all the different characters, and while they will make predictable cameos in the third game (assuming they didn’t die before), the playable cast was cut in half. On top of that, one of your characters spends the majority of the game in a hospital bed, and another slot is assigned to James Vega, a moronic meatbag voiced ineptly by Freddie Prinze, Jr. I’m not sure why BioWare games always need to stick you with the most vanilla character from the onset (Kaidan, Jacob, Vega, Alistar), or why they would waste another slot on such a boring character when there are far more captivating alien races to choose from–many of which have not and now never will be playable.

Unlike Gears of War 3, which was too cowardly to kill off anyone in its final moments, Mass Effect 3 plays out like an episode of Game of Thrones. I sadly found very little attachment to characters I held on to for dear life in Mass Effect 2. Knowing that this was the conclusion of the trilogy and their survival was ultimately meaningless (especially given the fruitless endings, and the fact they weren’t playable), the supporting cast easily became expendable.

Finally, as you may have heard from the thousands of angry Redditors, forumgoers, BioWare community members, and Metacritic user reviews, Mass Effect 3’s ending is a major letdown. Like in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you’re given a “what’s behind door number X” multiple choice, but all three endings use the same cookie cutter template. All your actions as a Renegade or a Paragon, all your sacrifices, all of the story, thrown out the window in a matter of minutes. The fate of the Normandy and its crew is left vague, providing no closure whatsoever. Basically, this game is the Terminator 3 of the Mass Effect series.

CONCLUSION
I’ve played thousands of games in my lifetime, and I’ll play thousands more. Mass Effect 2 will undoubtedly continue to put the large majority of them to shame, while Mass Effect 3 will be remembered as an exceptional experience marred by no small amount of issues, both technical and by design. Make no mistake — what BioWare does well, it does better than the vast majority of other developers. I was equally exhilarated and disappointed by Mass Effect 3, and though I mostly enjoyed Commander Shepard’s final chapter at the time, I’m now left pondering everything that it could have been, yet sadly never will be.

Score: 75/100

Mass Effect 3 was released on March 6, 2012, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC. An Xbox 360 copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.