Mass Effect 3: Jumping the Thresher Maw
No other game series this generation has had the same kind of following and impact as the Mass Effect series, with three games, spanning five years, which have captured the hearts and minds of many an individual with its gripping narrative, excellent characters, resonating choices and its fresh, Sci-Fi epic feel.
As we entered into the swansong of the series, we were met with all sorts of controversial news, from DLC to Co-Op Multiplayer, sceptics were viewing this as a title to avoid, while others, like myself, remained cautiously optimistic, hoping for an ending that would stay true to the franchise, and deliver something unforgettable.
So did Mass Effect 3 end the series on a high note? Or did it fall flat trying to vault its final hurdle? To be honest, this is probably the hardest question to answer, as what Mass Effect 3 does, it does well, but overall, it delivers an experience that feels rushed, unfulfilling and sours the entire series in a way that does, indeed, make this game unforgettable, but in an utterly negative way.
Mass Effect 3 begins with Shepard being detained on Earth. His ship has been taken away, his crew disbanded, following the events of Arrival. However, all is not well, as Shepard is brought before the Alliances' committee for making seemingly stupid decisions, to be informed that something has been spotted moving towards earth, with everyone now believing that the possibility of Reapers is a real one. Just as Shepard is being made aware of this fact, and confirming their worst fears, the Reapers launch a full-scale invasion of Earth, destroying anything and everything in their path. Shepard and his/her long-time friend Anderson fight through the forces of the Reapers in order to escape, finding a location to be rescued by the Normandy. Anderson decides to stay behind and co-ordinate with the remaining forces on Earth, to create a resistance to hold out against the threat, while Shepard must go and unite warring factions, fearful governments and rectify millennium-long issues in an attempt to bring a fighting force large enough to help Earth. Soon after these events, Shepard becomes aware of a potential weapon that could help defeat the Reapers once and for all; The Crucible. With the fate of the future of galactic ways of life on the line, it is up to Shepard to do what he/she always does...beat the odds, and win the day, no matter what the cost, utilizing every possible race to help complete The Crucible before all hope is lost.
Graphically, the game looks very, very good, delivering some new, crisp, clean human character models, some impressive use of dynamic lighting, and some stunning scenes on different planets. Character models have been brought up a notch, they are more smooth and varied than before. The levels are vast in their backgrounds, and in certain scenarios, you can see people running in the streets, aerial combat, and Reapers destroying parts of cities. The scale has been upped to an insane extent, and the game doesn’t skip on it, flaunting it whenever it can. There are a few issues though; while texture pop-in, obvious in the prior games, is now a non-issue in cutscenes, thanks to the fact that they are beautifully pre-rendered, giving you amazing space battles and world views, the in-game graphics still have the issue, as the game attempts to reload certain areas after load screens, and might have benefitted from just a second or so more of the screen to get it done. It really is small, but off-putting in what is a heart-breakingly beautiful game.
The story structure of the game is pretty solid, though it needs to be said that there are a few issues over how it plays out, mostly due to the structure of the gameplay, thought the fact that you’re playing diplomat in a time of extreme galactic genocide doesn’t help, along with some of the conflicts you have to resolve being...well...out of context when it comes to overall perspective of the game. It has a feeling of jumping the shark, putting certain conflicts too late in the game, while other conflicts are going on too early, and certain areas, especially the Citadel, are seemingly unaffected by it. Players will be railroaded for the first few hours, from Earth, to Mars, then to the Citadel, the central hub of galactic life.
On the Citadel is where the player will find most, if not all, of the less important side missions, along with shops, and the SPECTRE office, which can be used to approve certain elements of side missions. Each of these shops’ inventories will be available to the player on the Normandy, at a slightly higher price however. These side missions help build the overall force that the player needs for the final push, though it should be made clear that they are probably the most irritating elements of the game, as the quests themselves are made needlessly overcomplicated by some questionable design choices. The journal used to convey the missions to the player do not track like in previous games, which is irritating because the player will oftentimes have to travel from planet to planet, scanning for the items they need. However, due to a complete lack of an inventory, or even a competent journal tracking system, it is impossible to know exactly what items you have, or who to give them to, forcing you to run all over the Citadel hoping to find the single person there to give the item to...all of this, with a terrible map, which assigns each area on a specific level a number, with a name of a person of interest of important thing you need to interact with. This is especially galling given the fact that the game does have not a small amount of load times, taking anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds.
Along with this complication, comes the fact that the dual discs are structured badly, as in about 6 hours of gameplay, I was forced to switch discs between 6 and 7 times, because I didn’t go the predetermined route, as I didn’t know whether the next main mission would eliminate the current side missions I had available to me off the list. The unnecessary drain on time doesn’t end there however, as after every mission, you’ll be forced to report to Admiral Hackett, and then proceed to walk through a scanner, which, I swear to god, takes about ten seconds of your life every time you walk through it. God help you if you walk through it to get to the war room, as it takes nearly 40 seconds to load the area. The Normandy itself has some awful load times, often stopping the game outright to load the back rooms of the ship on the middle deck. Door opening times have also been increased, a special mention to a door in a mission that didn’t open for a minute. In-mission hacking minigames are also a thing of the past, and the game basically breaks down to combat and scanning in the end. To put a rather rotten cherry on the crap-cake that is this broken system, many of the systems on the galactic map do not open until you’ve complete a predetermined number of main missions, which is supremely annoying, and hardly worth the effort at the end of the day, and the fact that you can easily waste fuel due to the fact that you may have already gotten an item, but didn’t know, can supremely piss you off. The side missions serve as a kind of throwback to ME1, but they never really have the same ease of access that they should have. Coming in at around 20 hours on average, the SP is the shortest of the series, and really the most unfulfilling, with an ending that is, at best, an element that renders the players choices down to three different scenarios, all roughly similar in results.
Speaking of planetary scanning, it makes a return, but not in any meaningful way. Now you simply fly around a system, hit the left trigger, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find an item of interest, like fuel from destroyed ships, or a planet with something scan on it. These are War Assets, and will be the catalyst for how the game plays out, and to what extent. The stakes are high though, as the scans for items of interest ping the nearby Reapers of other systems. If they are fully alerted to you presence, they will arrive in force to chase you down. Though they’re easy to escape, getting routed by them really only puts you back to the system without any of the items you’ve scanned, which you can regain again at your discretion. This is highly confusing, as the planet scanning in ME2 didn’t require this new ping element, and would actually make more sense in the context of the overall game. While in the previous game, you used the different resources from the probing of planets to upgrade weapons and abilities, now you simply use credits to upgrade your weapons. While this might be better, the fact that you may constantly find new weapons leaves you holding off on upgrading and saving your credits until you find the weapon you think you’ll stick with throughout the rest of the campaign...it’s badly thought out at best, and really should have been refined a lot more. While scanning planets, or running through levels, you may find an item that appears as a question mark. These items serve as slight upgrades to one of two of its functions, like power recharge/damage bonuses. It is a pretty cool idea, though they require a little digging to find, and seemingly do very little in practice.
Choices, the Paragon and Renegade you’ve been dealing with over the past two games, make a return, as you see all of your decisions come to fruition. You’ll have the interrupts from ME2, though a few of them are pretty silly and inconsequential. Reputation is now key to building up your forces, as with more Rep, you gain important conversation options. Due to the fact that the game allows you to import your Shepard, you’ll have more than enough alignment points to do you, so reputation is all you’ll really need to build. However, there are very few meaningful choices throughout the game, as it would seemingly rather tell you a story, than have you participate and screw it up. It really is a letdown, forcing the players hand on many issues they might not agree with.
The combat and levelling mechanics are improved to an extent in this title, with combat being more fluid than ever before. Shepard can now roll in and out of cover, is much more nimble, and has access to a powerful charged melee-attack. This attack varies between weapon, biotic and tech users. The mechanics are less than refined, with tighter areas making the player fall victim to some rather annoying problems, like hugging a wall they never aimed for, or switching weapons when they simply want to reload. Weapons, this time around, are in abundance, and can now be upgraded, much like they could be in the original ME game. There aren’t that many variations of upgrades, on maximum about five per weapon, and while you can attach them to your squadmates weapons, they never really feel like they make a difference to the situation. Heavy weapons have taken their leave from your arsenal too, instead being put down to level-specific weapons in certain scenarios...that you will, for the most part, miss, as you’re too busy paying attention to the hail of bullets coming straight at you to notice the quite frankly dark weapons on the ground, even while they flash at you. You also have access to a lot more armour this time around, along with sets; you can now alternate pieces of your initial armour with pieces you find throughout levels, the same can be said for weapon upgrades.
Combat never really evolves beyond spawning a specific number of moves and pulling together combos from tech and biotic attacks to deal massive damage, and it isn’t really that difficult. The only time you’ll ever die is after a misjudgement, and really, in some cases, it’s easy to misjudge the situation you’re in. Levelling up is also another throwback to the original game, now ranging well beyond a set of simple skills up to level for, there are now variations from level four onwards in abilities, albeit two to each level, but they have some pretty noticeable differences, and it’s a nice touch to the customisation that should have been present in ME2. Power recharge times are now affected by the amount of weapons Shepard carries, so the best way to be able to use powers consistently is to keep the weapon loadout down to powerful essentials, which allows for a type of balance that hasn’t been seen in the ME games before. While now, no matter what the class of the player, they can choose whatever weapons they want, the weight system is used as an excuse to why they couldn’t carry anything beyond a pistol if they were an Adept. It’s interesting, if a little redundant, but at least it’s a better explanation than ‘because we said so’. Grenades make a return, though now they are a power, along with ammo, which is both confusing and annoying, as sometimes the player will come across a group of enemies that they could have just blown up, instead of having a fire-fight with. On top of these changes and additions, there are some turret sections in the game...ranging from useless, to OK, though they’re poorly executed at the best of times, at one point, causing the game to glitch and having me reload a save file because certain enemies didn’t spawn. The AI is a bit better in this title, although they’ll sometimes have a brainfart and stand in front of an enemy who is ripping them to shreds with a heavy machine gun.
Characters and dialogue are where the Mass Effect series has always shined, and now, to go along with these elements, are the large-scale set-pieces that the game brings to the table in level-design. The original squad from ME1 return, Garrus, Ashley/Kaiden, Liara and Tali making up your squad, along with the new human character; James Vega. While he might look like a lump of meat without a brain cell to spare, and acts like it at first, Vega actually turns out to be a decent character by the end of the game, though his use of Spanish words to portray that he is, in fact, Latino can come across as a little unnecessary and forced at times. To make matters worse, he is a soldier, and you’ll already have him replaced with someone new when you can manage, because he adds nothing new to the game. The ME2 cast, if they survived, also make a return, and have their own problems and contributions to make to the overall campaign, deciding to join you if your cause if you complete their missions, which all seemed to have been designated to specific missions throughout the game. They have some nice nods back to characters, some even join your squad for a time, but in truth, they don’t make another appearance in your squad, or in the game, after that, save one or two scenes. Dialogue is of the high quality we’ve come to expect from Bioware, with characters and conversations delivering some funny, and some excellent moments, including Vega, and the new, homosexual love interest Esteban Cortez, debating whether the Mako or the Hammerhead is best, which is a nice shout out to long time fans. However, there are a fair few glitches in the conversation system, with characters not looking at each other, eyes locking in place, heads turning to impossible angles, npc dialogue being cut off mid-sentence and npc to npc dialogue not working in tandem like it’s supposed to, forcing the player to run away and come back to hear the next part of a conversation, which is a pity, because those scenes are usually informative and interesting. Even in full conversation mode, the game has some noticeable lag between characters finishing their sentences, and another character replying. Its simple things like these that really stint the players’ enjoyment of the game, and make it feel rushed and sloppy.
Enemy variation is higher than it’s ever been in the ME games, with several different Reaper husk variations, all with new abilities to make your life hell, along with new Cerberus troops to deal with, including the massive Atlas mech, and the Phantom, the biggest pain in the ass ever to exist in videogames, as they attack with swords, and have powerful, long range hand blasters to knock your shields down with. There are some nice mini-boss type enemies, but they’re severely overused, and by the mid-point of the game, you’ll be able to deal with them without a second thought.
The music is as amazing as ever, delivering all the right notes to all of the emotional moments, at some points adding to a sombre mood, to nearly making you cry outright during certain events. Nothing can be said against this element of the game, as it just...works. Nothing is out of place, nothing is ever off key, and everything is just right in tone. The voice acting is once again top-notch, of that, I cannot deny, with all the characters sounding like they should, with all the conviction that has come to be expected from a Bioware title. However, there are some weak links, such as Diana Allers, voiced by Jessica Chobot, being among the only person in the game that cannot deliver their lines with any sort of excitement or tone that suits the situation. Other than that, it’s a stellar element all around.
Multiplayer Co-Op is also worth a mention, as after months of debate, the final verdict on it is in...it was: a tacked-on and pointless mode. Other than contributing to the Galactic Readiness, which isn’t really needed to complete the game at all, it just lowers the amount of overall assets you need in Single player, it is pretty much a horde-mode knock off, with six maps with variable difficulty levels and a series of randomised, unlockable content that you can buy using in-game credits earned in matches, or by buying them using real money. You have all of classes available in single player, though they’re not as strong, and can level up their powers and abilities as usual. You can also unlock weapons, races and bonuses for your characters, but really, it’s a throwaway mode which can easily be ignored. Seeing as it is part of the overall game though, it will have to be factored into the overall score, fair is fair, and we’d do it for any other game.
Overall, Mass Effect 3 is a mixed bag. What it delivers, it delivers well, giving us an array of epic cutscenes, fluid combat, amazing characters, excellent large scale set pieces, and a feeling of a return to the old RPG elements of the original title. On its own, it is an excellent game, but in the context of the entire series, most of the small issues become magnified. The feeling of being railroaded never really stops throughout the game, and while the story is epic in scope, it never really feels like the Reapers are knocking at your front door, as you’re busier resolving puzzling, out of place situations, which is understandable, but they do seem to be mixed up in the order they come in. Load times are horrible, and because they pervade the game in such a way, because of the poor tracking for missions in journals, that they make the game more than a small hassle to play, and can really grind on your nerves. Glitches in gameplay and dialogue just seem sloppy, something that was never really an issue in either of the prior titles. Poorly thought out and half-baked ideas are littered throughout the game, and while they aren’t huge, they are noticeable and more than a few in number. The Co-Op is pretty much pointless, and can be outright ignored if one should so choose. Yet, the possible only nail this coffin needs is the terrible, terrible ending, that, without spoiling it, outright decimates the entire series storyline-wise, and perverts the enjoyment that you should feel, or in fact, any sense of emotion it should invoke. All the player is left with is a feeling of emptiness. That is not what the end to a trilogy should be. I hate being so down on this game, because it did deliver something amazing...it just didn’t deliver it where it really should have counted.
6/10 (Decent game, dragged down by poor design choices and questionable elements)
However, it gets a standalone score: 8/10
· Amazing graphics and cutscenes
· Epic music
· Excellent voice acting
· Combat is smooth and fluid
· Conversations are as stimulating as ever
· Characters are interesting, deep and strike a real emotional connection
· Level up system gives feeling of total control to the player
· AI has been improved
· Epic, large scale scenes in-game are often breathtaking
· Emotional scenes really hit at the core of the player
· Urgency of the situation can never really be felt with full force
· Conversation glitches can be off-putting
· Load times are horrendously bad
· NPC conversation triggers are oftentimes broken, and require the player to leave the area and come back to hear the rest
· Journal is utterly useless
· Map is pointless
· Single button for rolling, using and cover is a nuisance
· Pop-in still an issue
· Conversation lag is noticeable
· Pointless Co-Op
· Certain situations seem to be placed oddly in the campaign
· Disc-switching is irritating
· Overall feeling that the game is rushing to the end, unpolished feeling surrounds basic mechanics at times
· Shortest of all three titles
· Ending is unfulfilling and completely different in theme to the rest of the game
WTF? Moment: Hundreds of hours, dozens of decisions, millions of sacrifices, the fate of the universe hanging on our every decision...and we get that kind of ending? No dice.