RPGs are probably the hardest type of game to design. The sheer number of permutations and combinations that go into skills, character balance, player choice and consequences must make it a nightmare for developers. And don’t even get me started on the amount of writing required. Get it right though, and you end up with more than just a game. Get it right and you end up with a personal saga that takes you through a range of human emotions and forces you to ask yourself some pretty tough questions. And it has to do this while still being “fun”. It’s no wonder then, that a good RPG is a rare thing indeed. Because more than anything, a good RPG is an experience. A very personal one.
The Mass Effect (ME) series has been a favorite of mine. ME2 is one of only four games I have played over five times. As I mentioned in my review in 2010, it was an excellent example of showing just how far video games have come as a medium. Mass Effect 3 is the conclusion of a saga that has been 5 years in the making. It’s fair to say then, that this reviewer’s hopes were pretty sky high right out of the gate.
The game continues with the “Reaper” story which, for the uninitiated, centers around a race of machines that are hell bent on exterminating all organic life across the galaxy every 50000 years. As Commander Shepard, it has been the player’s job to keep that from happening. The first two games in the series were all about finding out and delaying an all-out invasion by the things. ME3 begins with the Reapers finally launching their invasion and as an opening act, nuking the bejeezus out of Earth.
As is typical of the franchise, the game has you scampering across the galaxy in search of allies to lead a desperate defense. The series has always emphasized cinematic presentation with a heavy presence of digital actors and ME3 is no exception. The first half hour is nothing but a scripted event that is more cut scenes than actual gameplay (although there is a basic tutorial in there too). I suppose this was a necessary evil needed to introduce the story to new players. I could not help but notice that the engine was really beginning to show its age. The lip syncing was hilarious and it took me a while to remember that this thing blew my mind 5 years ago. In any event, this awkwardness pretty much disappears as soon as the opening credits roll. From this point on, it’s like visiting an old friend.
Old hands will immediately get back into the swing of things. And if you have you have your old save games handy, they can be imported into ME3 so as to continue your personal journey. The world of Mass Effect is rich with sci-fi lore and interesting characters and the story pushes you along with a sense of urgency. Just like the older games, there are side quests in abundance. Only this time, everything you do, no matter how small, is somehow tied to the galactic war effort. It a subtle thing, but makes the dated mechanic of “go there and get me that” seem meaningful. The series has never really been about exploration as such. Though the games send you all over the galaxy to complete missions on different planets, each one of those planets is essentially a very constrained map tied together with shooting corridors. Corridors chock full of conveniently placed things to take cover behind. This sounds dull until you consider just how much of a joy combat actually is.
Played from a third person perspective, ME combat is all about balancing straight up cover based shooting with devastating biotic (essentially sci-fi magic) powers. Shepard is always accompanied by two squad mates, each with their own specialties and unique personalities. Achieving a balance between different kinds of attack and defensive abilities is key to winning battles. Some foes rely heavily on biotics for instance, which will make a particular squad member’s skill-set essential. One of the biggest complaints of the series so far was how quickly combat became repetitive. This is one thing Bioware have certainly worked on and the results speak for themselves. The action in ME3 is undoubtedly the best the series has to offer. Enemy AI has been bumped up and foes will react in an intelligent manner (most of the time). They make judicious use of cover, grenades, smoke etc and present more of a challenge than ever before. There are a bunch of new baddies making an appearance some of which can make a seemingly easy battle suddenly tense. Expect liberal use of the “active pause” feature that allows you to make tactical decisions like squad placement and specific use of powers. Good as the enemy AI is, your companions do have a tendency to get themselves killed when the opposition puts on some pressure.
The one thing that did annoy me was Bioware’s decision to use the space key as the “cover” “run” “slide” and “interact” key. This lead to frequent moments of frustration where I would pop out of cover at the worst possible time. Seriously devs, is it too much to ask for to have them mapped to different keys? My mouse alone has 12 buttons and I’m pretty sure the keyboard has some to spare. Cross platform development does not excuse laziness like this. I can easily attribute half of my in game deaths to this reason alone. That being said, combat is an absolute joy for the most part and seeing your squad tear into an enemies’ formations with all the tools at their disposal is spectacular and extremely satisfying.
The skill system has been revamped and there is now a lot more depth to character development. Each skill set has two possible branches to develop which caters to different play styles. The classes themselves are unique but one feature that deserves special mention is the effect of “weight” on power cool down times. Unlike the previous games, where Shepard’s class dictated what kind of guns he/she could carry, ME3 has no such restrictions. However, the more weight the Commander carries, the longer it takes for special abilities to charge up. This allows you to tailor your play style according to your tastes. Run and gun types will appreciate the ability to pack every weapon they can get their hands on. Biotics have the option of carrying a light sidearm and nothing else so as to lay down a steady stream of devastating mind bombs.
Weapons themselves some in all shapes and sizes and in typical RPG fashion, have their own strengths and weaknesses. Some are discovered during the course of a mission while others can be purchased from merchants. All weapons can be upgraded and customized.
The music is expectedly cinematic and complements the action well. Emotional scenes are given more weight by the magic of Clint Mansell . Though the purist in me is saddened by the departure of Jack Wall (composer on the last two games), most of his work has carried over. Sound production is excellent across the board. Some of the creature audio effects are creepy as hell and the Reapers deserve special mention. The high standards apply to the voice actors as well. ME has some of the best voice overs that exist in games today. When you consider the fact that any time the player is not blowing shit up, he/she is engaged in some sort of dialogue, this is good news. This brings me to my favorite part of the series, ie, the characters.
Loyal fans will see the return of some old and very welcome faces. There are some new ones along for the ride of course but having some of the old companions back is an absolute delight. Every squad mate has a unique personality and is voiced to perfection. I have always maintained that this is the true strength of the franchise. The Reaper storyline is hardly original but add these characters to it and you have something very special indeed. There are points in the story where you have to decide between getting the job done or saving a compatriot’s life. In a game where the companions are little more than pixels with no personality, this is hardly worth mentioning. But in Mass Effect, this is a gut wrenching moment. Even if it’s not a life and death decision, doing something that might upset your love interest (yes romance is a possibility) is something that may haunt you. It may even have far reaching consequences. This is where Bioware has always shown its expertise. It takes a lot to get a player truly invested in a virtual character; to do it for an “alien” that does not look even remotely human is harder still. And no one does it better than Bioware.
RPGs to me are all about emotional impact, there is only so much you can do with the typical “the world is ending and you must save it” plot. Saving a world where you genuinely care about the people that inhabit it is different. The story in ME3 is bleak and dark. The Reapers are already here, there is no saving the billions that are already dying as you shuttle from pillar to post in an desperate attempt to make allies of old enemies. Enemies that have hated each other for centuries. The game constantly reminds you of the fact that its going to take everything Shepard has and more to even have a snow ball’s chance in hell against a foe so overwhelmingly powerful. And it frequently asks you to make sacrifices for the greater good. In fact, one of your friends puts it in perspective:
You really have hand it to Bioware, they manage to squeeze out a lot of emotion from what is at the end of the day, a commercial product meant to entertain. Over the course of three games it has forced me to ask myself questions on free will, equality, tolerance, civilization, the meaning of intelligence, sexual preference, the need for empathy and a host of other things that I simply do not expect from a “game”. Its things like these that make me forget that I never saw any female members of many species, or any children for that matter. In any other game, this would stand out like a sore thumb but not here. Because ME has you thinking about so much other stuff, the absence of kids is something you do not even notice. This brings me to the game’s biggest and downright inexcusable failure.
There is no easy way to say this: the ending to Mass Effect 3 is downright terrible. I cannot go into detail here without spoiling the story but let’s just say it fails on every conceivable level. Apart from the fact that it negates all the choices you made up to this point, or that it makes no sense of any kind, its biggest crime was to rob the player of the one thing he/she expects at the end of tale like this. Closure. In a way, I can see what the writers were going for, but the implementation is pathetic and just plain wrong. The ending leaves us with more questions than it does answers. It contradicts so many things in the game itself that I’m stunned it was even considered let alone actually implemented. It’s one thing to end things on a bleak note, I wasn’t expecting a “happily ever after” but it’s quite another to invalidate every single decision made by a player across three games. This was a tale that took me a hundred and fifty hours to get through. I waited five years to see it to the end. And my reward was a kick in the nuts.
So how do I rate a game like this? How do I score something that had me enthralled every second of the way till the final 10 minutes? There is no denying that the time I spent with the series is some of the best gaming experience I’ve ever had. I know that I will play through ME2 at least once more. But knowing how the series ends, I doubt I’m ever finishing ME3 again even though it is a fantastic game. That’s how much of a bad taste it left in my mouth. It is impossible for me to judge this impartially because I’m so heavily invested in the series. The best thing I can do is ask myself “was it worth the money?”
The answer to that is yes.
Was it worth the wait? Was it worth agonizing over the decisions I made? Did it justify me feeling bad about some of the choices I made over the last five years?
No. No it was not.
And that’s a tragedy only old time fans of the series will understand.
There is one thing that may entice old hands from uninstalling ME3 in disgust the second they see the final cut scene. Multiplayer. I’ll be honest, I really thought this would be a tacked on gimmick meant to add another bullet point to the box. It’s actually quite good. Players can choose a class and level up with experience points they gain form playing co-op missions. The missions themselves comprise of surviving waves of progressively harder enemies. There are a number of different maps each requiring different tactics and skill sets. There may be varied objectives within a map to keep things interesting. For instance, one wave may involve hunting down certain mini bosses before a timer runs out. Another may require you to guard a squad mate as he downloads data from an exposed console. Team work is vital and there are some insane “last man standing” moments to be had. As an additional carrot for the ones who dislike side quests in the single player campaign: the victories in co-op count towards the “Military strength” score needed to beat the story. This effectively negates the need for scouring the galaxy for artifacts and such.
One caveat: any upgrades you buy are random; the game forces you to buy “packs” from the online store with either in game credits (awarded for finishing missions) or real money. It’s the kind of system designed to keep players hooked in the hope of finding that one epic piece of loot. If you are the sort who loathes micro transactions, this will annoy you. If you are the kind of person that is prone to addictive tendencies, I foresee bankruptcy in your future.
So there you have it folks. The Mass Effect experience was a heck of a roller coaster ride while it lasted. It spent five years building up to a magnificent emotional crescendo. And then went out of its way to painfully remind you that in the end, it’s just a game.
So enjoy the experience. Go travel across galaxies, explore the universe, meet interesting people, solve galactic problems, be the best bad-ass in the history of ever. And try to forget the final ten minutes.
Good luck with that.