Mass Effect 3 ReviewSean Kelley
Despite its near universal praise, Mass Effect 2 was a major disappointment to me following the original. Not only was Mass Effect my first BioWare role-playing experience, but it was one of the first Western RPGs I'd ever completed. The characters, the major revelations, the choices, it all left me with the feeling that I had made a meaningful impact on the galaxy and its trajectory; it drew me in, and I loved every moment of it.
With the sequel, BioWare set out on a journey to bring more people onboard with the franchise. To do so, many of the non-essential mechanics were stripped from Mass Effect 2, leaving BioWare to hone their third-person shooter chops and deliver a character centric action title. Though I missed the awkward planetary strolls of the Mako, and comparing the stats of dozens of near-identical weapons, for better or for worse, Mass Effect 2 was infinitely more approachable than its predecessor; the problem was, for me, the franchise lost a lot of its mystique in the process.
After well over ninety cumulative hours of galaxy rescue, Mass Effect 3 is a far cry from the story BioWare began years ago on Eden Prime. Shepard's story builds on her previous victories, but the same narrative thrust I felt in the original is still missing. In Mass Effect 2 you spend the entire game assembling your team, while in Mass Effect 3 you assemble an entire armada for the inevitable conflict with the Reapers. Both plotlines provide the opportunity for interesting self-contained vignettes, such as series staples like the Genophage, but neither provided an especially compelling single narrative strand.
In Mass Effect 3 the bulk of the story missions revolve around revisiting pre-existing conflicts and turmoil. Each segment provides some definitive closure for the species and characters tied to the plot threads, but each is delivered in a very formulaic way, which can unfortunately be said for the game as a whole. The progression of the entire game can be broken down to combat, followed by running around and looking for people to talk to, hoping there are new conversation strands waiting to be unlocked or new side-quests to be given. I know what you're thinking, that's what every Mass Effect game has been, and it's true, but for some reason it's no longer as appealing.
The issue stems from a smaller crew of interesting characters (especially using a default playthrough) aboard the Normandy though the number can be padded through DLC. But the other aspect, which is significantly more disappointing, is the lack of places to explore outside of combat. Other than the Normandy and a few mid-mission relief moments, there are no 'towns' other than the Citadel to visit. Without more secondary locales to explore, return visits to the Citadel become mindless endeavors running around the same six different areas you've been a thousand times, shopping for gear, searching aimlessly for NPCs and waiting in load screens.
While wandering the various levels of the Citadel, Shepard happens upon conversations or characters that are in need of something usually a specific item or artifact. More often than not the NPC in question doesn't even actively request Shepard for help, but Mass Effect 3 logs the quest nonetheless, creating a seemingly endless wave of trivial space errand work. Cleverly, BioWare ties the side-quests, which almost always requires the streamlined planetary scanning, directly to amassing the necessary war assets to fight the Reapers. But, again, it's tedious, and if the NPCs can't take the time to engage me directly for help, I feel no real impetus to help them other than filling a mostly arbitrary war meter for completionist's sake.
In order to win the war, or even engage in it, alliances have to be forged and hatchets have to be buried. Thus, most of Mass Effect 3's storyline and player choices revolve around intergalactic diplomacy. One of the great appeals of the franchise has always been the feeling that your choices actually matter, providing real consequences that impact your unique adventure; Mass Effect 3's decisions fail to convey that impression. The choices here are clear, you know what's at stake, who will live and who will die, theoretically creating the consequences we've come to expect from the franchise; each is undercut by their actual outcome. Without spoiling specifics, even though two of the decisions provide definitive closure to series wide plot lines, both effectively change almost nothing towards this specific game's narrative.
New to the franchise, Galaxy at War provides a competent, occasionally engaging cooperative multiplayer component to the world of Mass Effect. With support for up to 4 players, Galaxy at War is yet another wave based player(s) vs. CPU mode, cut from the mold of Gears of War's iconic Horde Mode. The difference here is players can customize their characters as they level up with better powers, new weapons, mods and other various boosters, all the while contributing to your 'Galactic Readiness' ( a statistic that effects military effectiveness in the singleplayer). And, although Mass Effect 3 still isn't the top dog when it comes to third-person shooters, Galaxy at War is a reasonably fun, though ultimately unnecessary diversion.
In actuality, what holds Galaxy at War back from being a long term player investment is the asinine manner in which you accrue gear. In an attempt to nickel-and-dime their players, new characters, items, weapons and weapon mods, all have to be bought via in-game credits or with real-world money. Though that in itself isn't necessarily the problem, instead of using currency to buy exactly what you want, you're restricted to buying item packs, which are filled with completely random items. This system isn't new, collectible cards and card games have long employed the business model, promising one or two rare cards per pack, but by doing it here, BioWare is encouraging players to pony up real-world money to increase their chances of getting something useful quicker. In other loot based games such as Diablo or Borderlands you may go hours without finding the rare or unique item you want, but the fundamental difference is you can still sell all the other garbage you find along the way, providing alternate routes to useful items. Mass Effect 3 affords no such path; I've played more than six hours of Galaxy at War as an Engineer packing a shotgun and I've to find a new shotgun or shotgun skill booster, and only once received a shotgun specific weapon mod.
Still, despite its detractors, Mass Effect 3, like its predecessor is an incredibly polished game. Combat is as good as it's been in the series, punctuated by a handful of standout missions that reward the knowledge of long time fans of the series. Romance options have also been vastly improved, providing more payoff than just the awkward act of virtual sex, yielding a better sense of intimacy between partners. But, in reality, what ultimately makes Mass Effect 3 so satisfying is finally seeing Shepard's story to its conclusion; few games that claim to be a trilogy actually are, and of those, Mass Effect is probably the best of them.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.