perryvandell's Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360) review

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Mass Effect 3 Review

I feel kind of bad for Bioware. Up until recently, people looked at the developer almost with a sense of reverence. But when Dragon Age II released to a lukewarm reception, Bioware ceased to be the masterful storyteller that could do no wrong. So when it became official that Bioware was working on Mass Effect 3, the game inherited an atmosphere of apprehensiveness so palpable you could choke. Every announcement, preview, and trailer has been met with glaring skepticism, which is a strange testament to how much fans care about the Mass Effect series. The decisions you made during Shepard’s fight against the Reapers have lasting consequences unlike any other series out there. Every Commander Shepard is a unique persona someone has carried with them for the last five years. And while Mass Effect 3 might not blow everything out of the water, it’s still something every fan of the series needs to play.

I hate to say
I hate to say "I told you so" but...

Things start off guns blazing with a massive Reaper invasion of Earth. Of course, humanity’s no where near ready to fend off the Reaper threat on their own, forcing Shepard to convince the other races to lend a hand before Earth becomes a steaming pile of rubble--or worse. Unfortunately Earth isn’t the only victim of this intergalactic genocide. Most of the other races have been hit just as hard and aren’t about to send support with their homeworlds still in jeopardy. And so it becomes your job throughout most of the game to solve century-old issues between the various species.

As usual, the way you handle these problems greatly varies depending on which decisions you make. No one is getting out of this war unscathed, and it’s your job to decide which side comes back with the deepest scars--if they come back at all. I played paragon on my initial run-through and I’m hesitant on going back through with my renegade Shepard. Not because the game is bad, but because some of the renegade options are so disgustingly evil that I don’t think I could carry them out. Bioware has a knack for creating uncomfortable situations with no easy answer, and weighing out the consequences of my actions is easily Mass Effect 3’s greatest aspect. My only nitpick is with how the Paragon/Renegade morality system labels which tough decisions are “right” or “wrong” rather than letting the player decide for themselves. Not every problem Mass Effect 3 throws at you is morally ambiguous--nor does it have to be. But when a curveball does come your way, it’d pack much more of a wallop if it let you decide the best course of action on your own terms.

You'll be happy to know that mods are back in action.
You'll be happy to know that mods are back in action.

All these missions revolve around the same cover-based shooter combat system from ME2, along with a few minor changes. You’ll find a few new guns, though now you can customize them with all sorts of mods, such as slapping a scope on that powerful semi-automatic assault rifle or adding a few more rounds to your heavy pistol’s thermal clip. You also get a few more options when it comes to upgrading your characters. Every ability now has six levels with the first three being standard upgrades. The last three, however, give you a choice between two upgrades that alter an ability’s behavior. Do you want that overload to hit more enemies, or do you sacrifice that wider blast radius for a stronger punch? Thankfully, you can reset these abilities in the med bay whenever you want, though that option becomes increasingly expensive after you use up the first free one.

Along the way you’ll reunite with your former squadmates from Mass Effect 2, assuming they survived the infamous suicide mission. I’m glad they all get an appearance in the trilogy’s final act, but I couldn’t help but feel like the whole reunion was a little contrived. It’s great meeting up with old friends, but things start feeling a bit hokey after you accidentally bump into five different friends in the span of a couple hours. I realize some might want these circumstantial reunions to be a surprise, but it quickly becomes obvious when your next squadmate will pop up. If you’re visiting a salarian lab, dealing with the geth fleet, and searching for a turian leader, you can guess which three characters you’ll find along the way. That said, most of the characters are well integrated in the main story, preventing these chance encounters from feeling overly artificial.

Expect to see some old acquaintances, assuming they survived of course.
Expect to see some old acquaintances, assuming they survived of course.

While Mass Effect 3’s main story is fantastic overall, most of the optional stuff is disappointing. The majority of the side quests you’ll come across are extremely basic fetch quests that are automatically added to your quest log as you wander the Citadel. Most of the time the game doesn’t even tell you when a new fetch quest has been added, though I’m not sure whether or not that’s a bad thing. There are a lot of fetch quests and I could easily imagine getting annoyed. Most, if not all these quests are completed by exploring the galaxy and scanning planets. All the precious minerals and Element Zero from ME2 have been replaced with alien artifacts that are crucial to the random passerby you encounter on the Citadel. Finding these artifacts isn’t especially time-consuming, but it’s hard for things to feel dire while I’m wasting time searching for relics for some person on the Citadel that I didn’t bother talking to.

The game tries to combat this monotony with a sort of reaper mini-game. When you open your galaxy map, you’ll notice an imposing reaper icon hanging over most of the galaxies. This means the reapers have reached that system and every time you scan for an item, you fill up your reaper detection bar. Once the bar fills, you’ll hear the Inception blast, signalling the reapers are about to chase you out of the system. It’s not particularly difficult to elude them, and even if they catch you, it’s no big deal as the game autosaves every time you enter a new system. All in all, the new system makes the reapers more of a nuisance than the omniscient slaughterers they’ve been made out to be.

The N7 side missions are just as pointless, proving to be nothing more than clones of the the survival-based multiplayer. There’s no meaningful dialogue or major impact to the story--just ambiguous objectives telling you to “survive until help arrives” or “survive until this progress bar is full”. It’s nothing more than superficial padding. Thankfully not all the side missions are complete busts, with a handful of them reuniting you with previous crew members who weren’t important enough to make it into the main story. It’s just a shame you have to dig through pages of vapid content to find them.

The Omni-Blade lets you hack both terminals and people.
The Omni-Blade lets you hack both terminals and people.

All these missions contribute to your “Effective Military Strength” rating, which is an actual bar that tells you how ready you are to face the reapers. Much like in Mass Effect 2, you can choose to go into the final mission at less than full strength as long as you’re willing to live with the consequences. I managed to max out the bar long before the final conflict, so don’t worry about skipping a few mediocre side missions during your romp through the galaxy.

And if for whatever reason you’re sick of all that dialogue and just want to pump rounds into waves of enemies, you can always jump into the game’s multiplayer where you’ll need to outlast 11 waves of enemies until extraction. Every so often a wave will require you kill four certain enemies or hack four different terminals, forcing you to abandon whatever sanctuary you and your team are holed up in. Failing these will bring you to a game over screen just as if everyone died. The objectives do a relatively good job keeping you on your toes, though it would’ve been nice if there were more variety.

You acquire weapons and upgrades through a system similar to trading card packs. The basic pack will net you common items while the more expensive ones guarantee at least one “uncommon” or “rare” item, depending on which level you purchased. And like trading card packs, the rare item you get oftentimes isn’t the one you wanted, which can be frustrating as it takes two or three 20-25 minute games on medium difficulty to afford the most expensive pack. Unless of course you’re willing to throw down real money. I didn’t bother throwing Microsoft points at upgrades as I’m not the biggest fan of microtransactions. But that’s just me.

No fighting in the War Room.
No fighting in the War Room.

Even if you’re not interested in the multiplayer, it’s still worth checking out as it’s one of the few things that contributes to your “Galaxy At War” rating. You remember that “Effective Military Strength” rating I mentioned earlier? Well that rating is a little deceiving. Even if you’re at full military strength, that number is multiplied by your overall “Galaxy At War” percentage which starts off at 50 percent. So that 7000 military strength rating you’re so proud of is actually 3500 if you didn’t touch the multiplayer. Building that rating up to 100 percent took me several hours, though you could probably get away with a much lower percentage if your military strength is high enough (5000 is the magic number to get the “best” ending). The multiplayer itself is fine in short sittings, but Mass Effect’s combat just isn’t strong enough to stand on its own as a separate feature.

Somehow, Mass Effect 3 manages to take past decisions you made and wrap them up with iconic, often heart-wrenching consequences. Few games have forced me to pause and contemplate the events that transpired, and Mass Effect 3 has earned a place in that category. I would’ve preferred the developers focused on providing more in-depth side missions rather than multiplayer, but the weight of the main story is enough for me to forgive these grievances. I wouldn’t recommend this game to newcomers, but anyone who’s even remotely invested in the Mass Effect series deserves to see it to its final hour.

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