War, Death, and Mass Effect: When Past Meets Present
I would say I’ve been salivating over the arrival of this game since I finished Mass Effect 2, but that would be false. In truth I’ve been clamoring for the epic conclusion of Commander Shepard’s journey ever since I first took down Saren and Sovereign in the first Mass Effect back in 2007. To say that Mass Effect 3 has big shoes to fill would be an understatement seeing as the shoes have become as large as BioWare’s ambition was back when they first set-out to make an epic sci-fi story that would span a three-part series to unravel the tale of our Milky Way galaxy. Mass Effect 3 takes what franchise developer BioWare has done with the series’ past two installments and fine-tunes the trilogy’s finale to a fantastic equilibrium between the best both previous games had to offer. Sit back and read about why the Mass Effect universe comes to life when you enter it and why it’s always a pleasure to take that one small step right back into its fantastic immersion.
You still play as Shepard – the vanquisher of a Reaper (skyscraper-sized sentient robotic beings that purge organic life from the Milky Way galaxy every fifty thousand years) during the battle of the citadel and a rogue alliance militant turned questionable agent of the pro-human organization Cerberus. But, things have changed in the Milky Way. The Reapers for the first time are widely accepted as a truth and are not seen as a mythological fable of omen-speaking sycophants. The overtone of the impending apocalypse following in the wake the Reapers is much more dire than in previous Mass Effect titles as the Reapers have come out of the blackness in the void between galaxies to create the lucidity of a waking nightmare. This waking nightmarish event strikes the human home world you may know as Earth. The Reapers begin their genocide by laying waste to our greatest cities and turning humans into zombie-like husks. Shepard escapes while Earth is being ravaged by the semi-omnipotent Reapers. The Commander leaves with a goal of uniting all the fighting forces of all the races across the galaxy to combat the Reapers. And so, that is what you set out to do. The overtone of the game has a “united we stand, divided we fall” ring throughout many aspects of your encounters across the galaxy and can be quite inspirational at times.
While you are trying to rebuild burnt bridges of past racial disputes to unite a politically enigmatic force to stand against the Reapers you will be making many different decisions most of which consists of conversation choices. The conversation wheel is relatively unchanged from the previous games and is still complemented by the morality spectrums of paragon and renegade. Paragon and renegade actions seems to fill a single meter which both works toward defining your Shepard’s persona. You can still, from time to time, take part in dialogue and quick-time events that are related to your morality spectrum; like when sparring with the new character James Vega you could hit a button during a renegade event and give James a solid punch or if you choose the paragon triggered event you will evade one of Vega’s strikes and hit him with some knowledge instead. Whichever way you choose to play through you will be making many choices which will be influencing your experiences.
Decision making through the conversation wheel can manifest in some interesting ways and loading your game from previous Mass Effect titles is even better than it was in ME2. The game does give a substantially more intimate connection to a returning player and goes so far to even incorporate choices you’ve made from the original Mass Effect as well as ME2 if you have the saved game for it. Because of the intelligent way past decisions manifest themselves, choices can really exemplify the idea of consequence which makes you truly care about your selections and the way they’ll affect the characters and universe you’re struggling to defend.
The overall experience of the Mass Effect series is like a Rorschach test – one person might experience the game and have had completely differing insights than yourself and another person could look at the Mass Effect series and have interactions with the story and characters that is similar to my own yet surmise a totally alternate perspective on the same situations. I’ve noticed that an example of this is easily spotted in the human character Ashley. I personally never had a problem with her, but I read from place-to-place on people saying things like “Oh, I hate that bitch. She killed Wrex in the first game and he was my favorite character”. See, she never killed Wrex in my game because I talked her down—but I don’t know—maybe if she did kill Wrex in my game that would have changed my experience. But that is Mass Effect in a nutshell. Narrative is deeply branching and the framework for choices is too interactive to speculate on everyone’s different experience with the game’s story and personal interpretation of multiple outcomes. All I can say is that it’s an experience that, well…you should experience for yourself.
Mass Effect 3’s story is a slow burn. Sure, the action and the spectacle of the events to get you through it are pretty fantastic, but the story doesn’t truly seem to pick up pace (become appealing) until about two-thirds of the way through. When it does enter last gear the narrative becomes extremely interesting and forces you to make exceedingly tough decisions. In fact, the best written moments of the story might just leave you with a tear on your cheek, your hairs on-end, or your jaw on the ground. I know I had to scrape mine off the edge of my seat…which is where my ass was most of the time. Thanks mostly impart to the pulse-rising gunplay complimented by sci-fi superpowers.
Mass Effect’s gameplay is still about your group of people and their ability to use technical aptitudes, firearms, and biotic skills as a coordinated and cohesive squad of futuristic death to take down groups of enemies in a third-person cover-shooting fashion. You can either use these skills while in real-time combat with mapped buttons or you can pause time to manage your team. You will be choosing between six different classes who use either a mixture of these different skills and weapons or tend to focus in one category with more powerful skills not varying far from their specific skillset. A balanced team of matching strengths to counter enemies’ weaknesses is important to success.
You will be managing your two other teammate’s skills as well as your own during combat. When you use specific skills in combination with one another they can amplify their intensity or make the area affected larger. For example, you could conjure a singularity in a chokepoint to have enemies swirling through the air helplessly when meeting with it and then another ally could throw a skill called “warp” into the singularity to make it detonate on impact for massive area damage. The combining of skills and tactics with a group of teammates makes for an intelligent experience and allows for different group compositions that can encourage the idea of synchronized teamwork.
Also, different weapons are proficient at taking apart different types of enemy shielding and it is a good idea to bring a team that has a range of skills and weapons that can thwart these different types of enemy protections. Guns will play a large part in your fight for the universe and this time around affect powers in a very influential way. You are no longer restricted to specific gun-types pertaining to your specific class like in ME2. Now you can equip whichever and as many guns as you have slots for. The catch is that now guns have a weight which affects your power’s recharge rate. So, the more guns you’re carrying the longer it takes special powers to be ready for use again and the fewer guns you have the faster they recharge. And, with five different gun-types and over six guns to choose from for each type you can bet there is a weapon that will strike your fancy.
So, you will need to choose what style fits you best. Do you enjoy shooting more or using special powers more frequently? Or perhaps you like to find an equal balance between the two?
This seems fitting because many aspects of Mass Effect 3 seem to find an equal measure throughout its gameplay and RPG features. Mass Effect 3 takes the barebones customizations of the second installment and the surplus of the original to find a level place between the two. Once again you can attach weapon modifications to weapons and they are a welcome returning feature from the original Mass Effect. Weapon mods range from making guns able to penetrate walls, scopes that can see through smoke, or even make your clip have a chance not to extinguish ammo when you fire. You can only have two mods per weapon but they add a nice level of customization nevertheless.
You’re going to be taking a lot of cover when you’re shooting these guns and for the most part the cover-shooting movement and mechanics have improved over ME2’s already enhanced systems. In a perfect world you might be able to not compare the game to other third-person cover-based shooters, but quite frankly we do not live in a vacuum in which all of these other games have not been made to contrast Mass Effect’s cover-shooting mechanics to. Mass Effect 3 doesn’t stand-up to the best in franchise cover-shooting mechanics like ‘Gears of War’ but with the new additions of summersaults, cover cornering, powerful face-to-face melee attacks it is hard not to draw similarities to it and to say Mass Effect is not an extremely close competitor. It is hard not to say that Mass Effect has become what you might think of if you were to imagine when sci-fi superpowers, Gears of War, and RPG elements were brought together to create its current gameplay style. Not to mention the co-op is very similar to horde mode. So, let’s talk about that.
If you were anything like me when you first heard that BioWare was implementing multiplayer into Mass Effect your heart may have dropped. Multiplayer in a game that was originally about sci-fi group micromanagement by a single person?! Preposterous. Well, I’m here to reassure you so you can put aside any fears you may have had about the online co-op.
First, I’ll start by saying multiplayer is strictly online ONLY and you cannot play through any type of co-op story either. Multiplayer is your standard co-op fare. You choose from 5 different maps (all of which can be found in the single-player game), an enemy-type, your class, race, and jump into a match. If you’ve ever played a third-person game with online co-op you’ll be right at home. Matches objectives run the gamut of things like holding a specific point of interest, activating terminals around an enemy infested battleground, and eliminating key targets all while on a timer. In between objectives you will simply fend off enemies until a new objective is issued. Waves become exponentially more difficult and the better you do and faster you complete objectives the more money and XP you’ll get at the end.
You level-up and dispense points just like in the single-player game, but level 20 is the max instead of 60. Each class and race has a specific set of skills which are all pre-mapped to buttons. This means you can’t stop time in multiplayer to think about your actions.
The money you’ll be getting for completing objectives is used, well…for one thing, but it applies to many different aspects. When you earn enough credits you can purchase different “packs”. These packs have varying degrees of cost and the more you spend the better your chances are to get rare items. Packs give you five random items which range from things like unlocking a new race for a class, a weapon, a weapon level increase, weapon mods, and consumable items like medi-gel and a rocket launcher.
How much influence multiplayer has on your single-player campaign is dependent completely upon you. You can completely avoid it if you wish, but if you do enjoy the multiplayer it can help your single-player game passively as you take down waves of foes with friends online. The way it ties-in is through your “galactic readiness level” and obtaining “War Assets”. Your galactic readiness is basically how well your army is going to do against the Reapers during the final battle with them. War Assets improve your galactic readiness. The way multiplayer contributes to your War Assets is by “promoting” a character you create and leveling them to the maximum level so they can then be sent to the front lines. You are not required to send them to do this whatsoever and promoting simply feels as though it is a way to restart your character if you want to do so. Promoting multiplayer characters is not necessary to get a surplus of war assets during the single-player game.
When all is said and done, the multiplayer is a fantastic edition to the game. It’s simple and has a ton of room for improvement, but thankfully the focus of the game is still on the single-player campaign. And quite frankly, doesn’t that feel like it is the way it should be in Mass Effect? Of course it does. I enjoy the multiplayer for many reasons, but two standout the most. FIrst, I like it because it allows me to try all the classes I never got the chance to play because I didn’t want to play through the game six different times. And secondly, the multiplayer keeps me coming back even after I’ve finished the campaign so I can smash some enemies apart with some friends. In the end, the multiplayer only adds to an overall value to an already great game and takes nothing from what fans have come to love the series for.
You may have seen a generalized story idea like this before if you’ve played BioWare’s medieval fantasy game Dragon Age: Origins. You could exchange the word “Reapers” with “Blight” and come to find that it is very similar in the way that you are trying to stop a ravenous force of death and destruction by garnering the aid of different races and cultures. After the initial clichéd beginnings of mending some burnt bridges an appealing final act is revealed to close in a style that Mass Effect’s mythos has made you love with a story that truly spans eons and the creatures that inhabit that universe. The narrative will feel genuinely heartfelt throughout with a finale departure for many of the franchises’ heroes, villains, and companions alike. Your struggle is not so much about finding new allies as it is about saving the ones you’ve come to love during your journey to become an unmovable object to halt the unstoppable momentum of the Reapers. This is all built upon a foundation of story-altering decisions that have serious ramifications and are extremely difficult to make.
Mass Effect has become something of hybrid. The classes, squad-based combat, gear mods, character-driven storytelling, and time-stopping superpower-infused mechanics of the RPG elements are what make it stand apart from any other third-person shooter, but also the cover-based shooting, slick cover movements, and the hand-to-hand melee are what make it stand apart from a traditional RPG. This seems fitting because Mass Effect in its entirety has found a place as a franchise with its own distinctive gameplay and storytelling which transcends what is “traditional” and has redefined itself into its own unique play that no gamer or lover of a great space opera should miss.
Your teammates are as dumb as a rock (understatement) at times and have pathing issues often while trying to navigate a terrain with declines and elevations which can make them absent from combat. Or their pathing issues can extend into movement points you’re plotting for them and they go through a platoon of enemies instead of a route that is closer, shorter, and enemy-free.
Disc swapping is very annoying if you’re playing on Xbox. I was swapping discs very often even after installing the game into the Xbox. It is more noticeable if you are doing side-quests, it felt as though every side-quest was on the second disc and every “priority mission” was on disc one. This will force you to disc change annoyingly often if you want to have any semblance of a thorough play through.
Feels like they assigned the ‘A’ button to far too many key functions which cause you to attach to cover, roll, or activate an object when you’re trying desperately to revive a fallen ally before they succumb to death.
Everyone really should play all three games in order to get the “real” experience. Sure, you could start the game fresh with ME3 and be completely coherent to what is going on, but it simply is not the same.
There are camera jitters and other oddities while cinematic storytelling is on-screen from time to time, but nothing I would consider even bad. These flubs are only noticeable because so much of the game is extremely well-crafted.
Later in the game frame-rate issues can crop-up from time to time in specific areas.