The beginning of the end
It's been 5 years coming, but the ending to the critically-acclaimed Mass Effect trilogy is finally here. From what began as a relatively hopeful foray into RPG-space with Mass Effect 1 has now come full circle as the fight returns home to good old planet Earth. Can BioWare deliver excellence three times in a row and tie up all the loose ends in time for dinner? Read on to find out.
Dissecting the technical aspect of the game, it quickly becomes evident that an immense amount of resources have been poured into Mass Effect 3. The engine, whilst on occassion responsible for some freaky looking animations, does an amicable job at creating a universe that exudes atmospheric quality. Apart from a few humorous moments where Shep's eyes would bug out, or an animator forgot which way heads are supposed to go on a neck, the characters look great. The default Shepard facial texturing is particularly good, unfortunately however the same cannot be said for some of the NPCs. Anderson suffers from a particularly bad case of muddy-coat texturing, as do a few of the enemies you face. Art direction is undoubtedly top notch and the vivid backdrops are alive with all manner of sights and sounds evoking the bleakness of war. Make no mistake - this a bleak game, infused with all the horror and unbridled tragedy that war creates. Combat animations can be hit and miss - fluid and responsive one moment, and jittery the next. Whilst these are small niggles that barely distract from the gameplay, there is a certain sense of lacking polish that should be present in AAA title such as this. Sound design on the other hand is a total and unequivocal win for the team at BioWare. War blasts into life with the sounds of gunfire, starship cannons and above all, the monstrous, metallic howl of the Reapers drowning them all out in suitably horrifying fashion. Special mention must go to the voice acting talent because for the third time running they have well and truly brought their characters to life. The vocal range displayed by Jennifer Hale's female Shepard is particularly impressive, as is Seth Green's lovable ad-libbing. The frequent inter-party banter feels more organic than any previous BioWare game, which is a feat in itself, largely thanks to the wonderful chemistry the cast shares. They've been together at it for 3 games now, and it clearly shows. Clint Mansell's soundtrack, whilst doing an amicable job of carrying the torch from Jack Wall's iconic work on the first two games, seems to lack that one bombastic theme that defines a Mass Effect game. Mansell's work is touching and appropriately poignant, but never quite manages to reach the heights of Wall's soundtrack.
The gameplay improvements introduced in Mass Effect 2 (such as the improved inventory management) are wisely retained, lending to a smooth and enjoyable experience. Some new additions such as the revamped galaxy exploration are going to be hit and miss with the fans. Some will praise the expulsion of the boring planet scanning mechanic, but others will feel restricted by the "strike-out" system introduced that prevents players from staying in the same system too long, lest they be wiped out by the patrolling Reaper fleets. The cover mechanic is unfortunately still clunky on the PC. I hope BioWare knows that keyboards have other keys beside Spacebar right? You would have thought they could use something other than Spacebar for literally every combat cover action. Mapping roll to Left CTRL for example, would have helped immensely during the frequent gunfights . Minor complaints aside the combat is enjoyable, albeit a bit too easy on the default settings. Veterans of the series will almost certainly want to scale the difficulty up to Hardcore right off the bat. Enemy AI impressed on more than one occasion, executing clever flanking maneuvers to get behind my squad whilst using cover to their advantage. They also appropriately flush you out with grenades, and whilst boss fights are few and far in between they are generally passable. Squad powers are wonderfully presented, complete with whishes and whomps as Biotic powers rip foes apart, and in some cases create deadly chain explosions when you combine them. Mission design is a mix of your typical fetch and return quests found on the Citadel -which are anything but exciting and normally revolve around finding something on a remote planet via scanning - and your standard BioWare juggernaut main quests. The main quests are the real meat of the game. You'll be reunited with old squadmates, save NPCs that can contribute to the overall war effort, and generally do your best to hunt down Cerberus forces across the galaxy. The level design for these quests is consistently excellent, and never feels repetitive.
And now ladies and gentlemen, we come to the main course - the story. Yes, the hallmark of BioWare games and the single most compelling reason to play this trilogy. You'll be happy to know that for 99% of the game's length the story is absolutely magnificent. We'll talk about that 1% later. But for now, rest easy knowing that the fight to retake Earth is every bit as glorious and epic as the hype would lead you to believe. Right from the explosive start on planet Earth where Shepard is entrusted to essentially "go and bring back some help" the game tightly grips you in absolute immersion and refuses to let go. The aforementioned excellent voice acting combined with the masterful pacing of the story result in a completely addictive experience. Depending on the choices you made in ME1 and ME2, entire storylines shift and change accordingly. You'll be surprised to hear characters reacting to things you did in the very first game, and how it has directly affected their lives. Some will even return to pledge themselves to the War Effort, which also leads to the first major complaint.
You see, the War Effort is a score-based system that keeps track of all the NPCs and resources you have found in your travels, and assigns a numerical value to them, which consequently contribute to your overall Military Power. Essentially it represents the chance of success you'll likely to have going up against the Reaper armada. Help a well known Asari criminal mastermind unite her warring gangs, and you'll receive them as a "War Asset" to contribute to your score. Unfortunately this overall score is pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things, due to two reasons. Firstly, because you still have to play multiplayer matches to activate a "multiplier" that increases your overall Military Strength, and second because you don't get to see all these cool, eclectic and wonderful collection of assets you have collected in action. They are just a number. A value. Essentially a meaningless integer. You don't get to see the Salarian commandos in action against the Reapers, despite making some heavy sacrifices during the story to obtain their loyalty. Sure, they "pledge" themselves to you, but in the end, there is no visual payoff. They're just a number. And this is an unfortunate disappointment, and ultimately breaks BioWare's vaunted "illusion of choice" philosophy. Ultimately in the end the War Effort score meter turns out to be a double edged sword. On one hand it's a satisfying way of keeping track of all the allies you have collected, on the other hand they serve no real tangible purpose other than to fill in a green bar and determine what kind of ending you get. And on that topic...
Ah yes, the endings. I'm not going to give anything away, so don't worry. Unfortunately, and it saddens me to say this, but the ending to the trilogy is the equivalent of being drop-kicked in the balls by a very large and angry bear. It's quite simply unfathomable that BioWare have created this wonderful, engrossing and captivating mythos and then so close to the finishing line, have quite inexplicably managed to drop the ball. Yes, you heard it right folks. BioWare has dropped the ball. They have come up short where it matters most. And thus, ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at the 1%. The ending. The part in the trilogy where you should provide closure to the people who have embarked on this 100+ hour journey with you. The people who have invested countless hours of their time into these fantastic characters and their engrossing back-stories. Instead we are treated to a cliffhanger ending with zero closure, and promises of DLC, which by that point feels like the bear who just kicked you in the balls is now using them as chewtoy. It's been 48 hours since finishing the game, and I've tried to come up with every possible combination of explanations to try and decipher why the writing staff at BioWare have decided to end it the way they do. And I have failed.
Regardless of the lacklustre last 7 minutes and 30 seconds, the entire storyline preceding it is majestic. Which makes it doubly perplexing to be sitting here with a sense of crushing disappointment. Make no mistake, Mass Effect 3 is the best game in the series. Captivating, engrossing and tremendously atmospheric in every sense of the word, it will rightly be up there at the end of the year awards, and will most likely win it too. Without a shadow of a doubt the characters are the soul of the game. The transformation of the character of Liara, from tepid scientist in ME1 to determined and capable information broker in ME3, will stand out for me as one of the highlights of the series. Every single romance (straight, and same-sex) is wonderfully touching and some of BioWare's best work. The backdrop of galactic suffering and the overwhelming sense of despair powerfully drives the narrative forward, and gives Shepard (and in turn, the player) a reason to fight.
Undoubtedly the greatest sci-fi epic of our generation, the Mass Effect trilogy has been the magnum opus of a company that prides itself on excellence. Which is precisely the reason why, with a heavy heart, I have to judge Mass Effect 3 as an overall disappointment. The fact that in essence, none of the choices you have made in the previous three games has a tangible outcome on the ending of the trilogy, combined with rendering all the war assets you have collected relatively meaningless means that BioWare have shattered their strongest pillar - The illusion of choice. One can only pray amongst the inevitable slew of 5-6 DLC packs, at least one will rectify the situation by inserting a proper epilogue that provides a semblance of closure. Until then, we are sadly left to cling to the theme that has kept Commander Shepard going through thick and thin:
Hope lives on.