Review: Mass Effect 3

MassEffect3

This is a review of Return of the Jedi.

Another way to encapsulate that idea might have been to write that the big problem in reviewing a game like Mass Effect 3 (“ME3”), is to say that all of the problems that existed for movie reviewers in 1983 assigned to cover the new space opera movie, exist twenty-nine years later for me when trying to put fingers to keyboard to provide buying advice on Bioware’s latest role-playing game.  Neither one of these trilogies do a good job of explaining what happened in the previous installments to allow new people to get on board and presuppose that anyone putting up good money for them has already seen the first two.  There are some slight changes to the system and a few new characters and subplots, but like any third part of a trilogy, ME3 is largely, in a narrative sense, a vehicle to finish the saga of Commander Shepard and the crew of the Normandy.  This is not the kind of game which is substantially different from the earlier numbered entries like Final Fantasy; ME3 is very much a sequel to the second game.  That is why there is a character import feature.

The marketing materials for ME3 say that now is the perfect time to get into this whole Mass Effect thing.  That idea, by itself, is totally accurate.  ME3 has come out to be a fairly polarizing game so far, and if you want to have any idea of what is up with Commander Shepard and all his space pals, now is absolutely the best time to get on board with Mass Effect.  However, the implied covenant in saying that “now is the best time” is untrue.  The hinted promise is that any consumer can buy ME3 and enjoy the game just as much as a fanboy who was there six years ago when Bioware surprised the gaming community by saying they were going to make a game that involved neither dungeons nor dragons.  Put plainest: they will not, and not just because they have not had positive experiences with the brand in the past and the game strokes the nostalgic pleasure center every couple of hours.  Playing this game first is just like starting your personal Star Wars saga with Episode VI; it will be a nice light show, but it will have zero meaning or emotional impact.  And, in fact, since the re-branded Revenge of the Jedi is only a passively engaged and fairly short experience where Luke will temporarily give over to the dark side and Vader will redeem himself no matter what viewers do, watching the movie before anything else is probably more satisfying than jumping on board for the start of the Reaper invasion.  It would be possible to ask a friend what happened in earlier flicks, not as possible with the missions of the Normandy given the scope and widely different stories created by each player.

The Mass Effect series, by which I mean the proper three games and not the little side-story mobile games, is the story of the amorphous Commander Shepard.  Until recently, the covers of the titles featured a stock Shepard that I doubt that very many people recognize.  My Shepard looked nothing like him, I have no idea who that guy is, and I have absolutely zero connection to that individual.  The latest game features a reversible cover which has a lady Shepard on the back, femShep or Sheepard as she is sometimes called, acknowledging that players have been able to have their Commander be a gal from the beginning.  (Although some reports indicate that less than twenty percent of players have heard Jennifer Hale’s portrayal of Shepard first hand, so it is understandable that the stock character is the version swinging some junk.)  In addition to choice of sex organs and facial features, the Shepard character is determined primarily by what players do in certain situations.  The draw of the series, in addition to the great production and increasingly good gameplay, is this ability for players to forge their own character.  Every one of the games has their Data or Worf, memorable crew members that will go on missions and add flavor to Shepard’s vessel, the Normandy, but unlike in Star Trek: The Next Generation, players get to make their own Picard.

Not limited to superficial trifles, players at the helm can determine whether Jean-Luc is an idealist, peace-maker, a ruthless soldier determined to secure victory at all costs, or something in between, letting the player’s own sense of right and wrong, their own priorities, determine what Shepard will do in a given situation.  The main character’s persona is so determined by player’s reactions that at a few points in ME3 Shepard will even joke with other characters about how they don’t even know his/her first name.  They don’t know his name–though you do enter a token first name–but they do know that he did not kill the last surviving Rachni, a race of sentient insects that caused a galaxy-wide war when human beings were struggling in the dark ages, potentially killing every future being with a vast swarm.  The series has done a good job before, and continues to do so in ME3, of getting players to identify with their Shepard.  In a way, you will become Shepard, and this helps to draw you into this third-person, cover-based action game with light role-playing mechanics.

The ability to almost fully identity with a fictional character is something that is unique to video games and to a lesser degree tabletop RPGs.  While player driven narrative is not a feature that is singularly Mass Effect, it is implemented here better than in any other game with this degree of polish, scope, or playability.  Shepard is very unlike the tons of silent protagonists in scores of RPGs.  They are often silent because there is a concern that if the main character opens his yapper and says something the player would never say, it will take him out of the game.  Mass Effect solves this problem by having players choose from a series of feelings which are interpreted into actions and thought-out and delivered dialogue.  Players become the director who helps shape the story of Mass Effect.  If you did not at least play the second game before this one, you’ll miss a lot of this determination which makes Mass Effect different and meaningful.  There is very much a face and personality to the main character that is fully developed over the course of the whole series and determined by the player.

ME3 tells the story of the final confrontation with the Reapers.  The Reapers are a race of intelligent machines as big as starships that “live” for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years.  The most technologically advanced race known to man, the machine-gods have a pattern of sweeping through the galaxy every 50,000 years to harvest and otherwise destroy all advanced civilizations.  Because it has been unthinkably long since the last appearance of the Reapers, most people think they are a myth.  Going into the game, the particular motivations of these beings is unclear and most civilizations do not seriously view them as a threat.  What is clear is that they have the ability to mentally control the minds of sentient organic beings through a process known as Indoctrination and they wiped out the hyper-advanced race of Protheans when homo sapiens were just leaving Africa.

In the first Mass Effect there were just whispers of the old machines until the final confrontation with one at the end, and in the second game Commander Shepard works with a group called Cerberus to find out more about the Reapers and eventually shut down their pawns, the Collectors.  Fighting the Collectors revealed just how insidious Indoctrination is and the conclusion of the process.  It is not merely a tool to deteriorate an organics’ morale and mind, it is a means to make organic life submit to a total cybernetic conversion that causes the ultimate nightmare scenario: life mindlessly serving machines, devoid of free will.  In the third game, the galaxy becomes keenly aware of the Reaper threat when Earth is attacked and a few people, Commander Shepard included, manage to escape the Sol system.  Shepard is tasked by the human Systems Alliance to gather all available resources and treaty with as many other species as possible to combat the Reapers and take back Earth.  The story is a good one with some potentially tear-inducing moments.

As mentioned earlier, there is an ability to import your Shepard from the last game into this one, provided the save is still somewhere around.  This process works fine, unless you happen to have started playing from the very first title, imported that character into ME2 and now want to continue the story.  The default code for the game, which has yet to be patched as of my writing of this review (Bioware says they’re aware of the problem and going to fix it, though), does not recognize the facial features of any custom characters created in the original as the second game had face codes, which ME3 incorporates into the import process. But the original did not have them and did not generate any code when the first game’s data was incorporated into the second game.

If that sounds complicated, then you are in no way going to enjoy the byzantine process created by fans of the games to generate a face code to manually enter into the latest game.  It involves hacking game saves, a copy of ME2, an ME1 clear save, a flash drive, weird computer programs and uploading data to convert on the ‘net.  Fun stuff that took me about an hour and still required some tweaking.  This bug is unforgivable.  Becoming attached and invested in one’s own player-created character is a large part of what makes this series work.  To have that attachment broken removes a key part of the experience.  It is very troubling that this apparently universal problem was not caught in QA or was not thought to be a big deal.  The only message things like this send are, “We don’t care about longtime fans of a series because we know they’ll buy the game no matter what”.  Which is true — Bioware and EA are in this to make money and don’t really care on an emotional level about players, just like Visa doesn’t care about consumers, but it is not nice to be “faced” with this reality.  In any event, if you’ve waited this long to fire up the latest in Mass Effect and you’ve got an old Shepard save, then you should keep waiting for this bug to get corrected.

Assuming it is possible to get past the importer, players who played Mass Effect 2 will be right at home.  Almost no changes have been made to the already solid shooting.  Shepard will use typical shotguns, pistols and assault rifles as the galaxy largely still relies on bullets to get things done.  Later, beam rifles and laser guns can be found and function differently enough to warrant experimentation.  I never found them to be very effective, so I just gave them to squad mates to at least be able to see the sharp beams of green laser arc across the battlefield.  Grenades, turning AI’s to fight against their friend, sending out attack drones, and throwing enemies around like a Jedi are all special powers that can be chosen to break up the shooting.  While Shepard is limited to a basic selection of powers based upon a class chosen at the beginning of the game, additional powers unique to other squad mates can be gained after certain character-specific story beats.  Some of these can be angled to go behind cover, much to the chagrin of enemy forces.  Typically, I have found that guns are for shooting while waiting for my space-magic timer to cool down.  While Shepard may only have a few kinds of powers, since missions are done with two squad mates, it is possible to supplement the team to have a complete range of abilities.

A further layer of customization is added by giving every weapon a weight value.  This number impacts the cool down rate of Shepard’s abilities.  So, for example, if Shepard typically has to wait eight seconds to use a crowd control power after using it once but has every heavy sort of gun equipped, it might take as much as thirty seconds to use.  Conversely, if he only has a small pistol at his hip, it might only take four seconds.  This allows for a good level of variety in what kinds of loadouts one can equip from mission to mission.  It is a great way to balance sword and sci-fi sorcery abilities rather than preventing certain character classes from using sniper rifles.  Other designers should take note.

Through all this combat, players will see an end to some of the stories established in earlier games.  The Geth vs. Quarian, the Krogan Genophage, the nature of synthetic life. These stories and more will be concluded one way or the other as determined by players.  Even if they are not playable, just about every major character you can think of will make a cameo at some point to potentially lend their efforts to the war, if they are still alive after ME2‘s Omega-4 suicide mission.  As this is the third sequential entry, there is not very much exploration in terms of new characters or in-game explanations of the characteristics and histories of the various alien races.  There is an extensive Codex, but it is not the same as getting it directly from the horse-like alien’s mouth as one could in the first two games.

The War against the Reapers will take Shepard and the crew of the Normandy to some new locations as well as to some that are changed by the conflict.  As players return again and again to The Citadel, a huge New York City sized space station that is the center of galactic civilization, the shadow of war will slowly creep in and stationary pairs of characters can be eavesdropped upon to hear how things are changing for the worse.  The game does a good job at depicting a galaxy at war given that Shepard will mostly be hanging out on board the ship in between missions to talk to team mates.  Exploration is limited to The Citadel and scanning planets for war assets.  Gathering these are largely fetch quests for people on the Citadel but luckily they do not all need to be done to succeed.

The game is billed as better with the Xbox Kinect.  What is great about the words “better” and “best” is that they are never wrong.  The use of each requires a subjective frame of reference such that so long as the person saying it believes it, it is true.  The Red Sox are “better” than the Yankees if you live in Boston and the Yankees are “the best” team in baseball if you reside in NYC and do not like the Mets.  Everything is the best and better than something else to someone.  So it is true that, to somebody, Mass Effect 3 is “better with Kinect.”

When I used the device to try to play parts of the game, I found that it added absolutely zero to the experience.  Only the voice recognition functions to do some of the things that can be done with the controller.  One can yell at the television to get a teammate to do something in the middle of a firefight, activate a power or switch weapons.  When this works it is very cool; it can keep the action going and almost makes it feel like you are commanding a squad of real people and/or aliens.  But most of the time it does not work as either the game takes too long to recognize the command or it does not interpret what was said properly.  After a few deaths or wasted rounds resulting from Garrus not using his shield overload power when you need him to because “Garrus, overload!” was too much for the Kinect to recognize, the appeal diminishes.

In dialogue settings it is possible to read the desired response out loud instead of selecting it on the talking wheel.  This was probably intended to make players feel like they are really having a conversation, but what it actually does is make them feel self-conscious as Shepard will then parrot part of what they had just said.  It ruins the cinematic feel and flow of the speech.  As a strange design choice, for no apparent reason Kinect also allows players to yell “Activate!” when using a switch, instead of pressing the A button.  Kinect voice control was a great idea as I would have loved to not have to use the D-pad to control squad mates and instead be able to shout orders like a real fire team commander.  But it just felt so artificial to blurt out chopped phrases that didn’t always work that I didn’t use it past the first three or four missions.  Still, it’s a better way to play for someone out there.

On the topic of new features, when it was originally announced that ME3 was to have multiplayer which impacted the single player, tens of thousand of nerds shrieked to their computers to complain that this would ruin the game because of how it was implemented and that it would take resources away from the main game’s development.  As to the content concern, ME3 took me just over thirty hours to complete, which is a pretty good length in a game that doesn’t stop every forty seconds for a random battle.  It does not want for content and it actually seems to have less filler than the last two games.  Said nerds might have been a little more accurate as to the second point.  It does not seem like it is possible for players that do not have internet access, have not played earlier games, or simply have zero interest in the multiplayer or the iOS game/apps to do as well in ME3 as they otherwise could.

Mutiplayer and the iOS games will impact the war with the Reapers by affecting the Galactic Readiness rating, a series of percentages for the various sections of the Milky Way, the average of which is the Readiness number.  This number is tied to your EA Origin account and you have to be online to access or update it.  In the single player game, Shepard will be sent on short missions to secure half a dozen locations that are under attack.  After the mission is over, Admiral Hackett will say that he will periodically send Special Forces squads to maintain control over the important strategic locations.  The multiplayer matches are these missions.  So if nothing else, at least there is a fig leaf of narrative justification for the multiplayer.

Winning an online match or playing the iOS games will increase an account’s Readiness rating.  The Galactic Readiness rating is then used as a modifier to determine the Alliance’s Effective Military Strength in the war.  So, for example, say Shepard saved a bunch of colonists that agreed to work on the Crucible, the space Manhattan Project, they add to the war effort an objective number of 200 which is modified by Galactic Readiness.  If the player with the engineers never touches anything other than the campaign, the Effective Military Strength of those units will be 100 as the default modifier is 50%.  Readiness will not remain static after it is improved and declines more the higher it is.  So while there is an achievement for getting all sectors to 100% readiness, that rating will drop to 96% by the next day if nothing is done to maintain it.  It is not that big a deal and players need only play two or three hours of the multiplayer to significantly improve the values of their single player War Assets.

This is OK for now.  In the years to come, I sincerely hope that when EA shuts the servers down for this game, that the last thing they do is release a patch that raises the Galactic Readiness to a default of 75% or higher, create some way to improve the rating on your lonesome or maybe just create an offline mode option that removes this system.  It would be very lame for someone to have to hack the game to be able to get a decent ending just because they decided to play in 2016.  I have heard EA say that if you do all of the fetch quests available you can get the “good” endings regardless of how ready your galaxy is.  Given the contents of numerous online guides on the topic, I don’t think that’s true and it looks like antisocial or simply offline-only players who hate mobile gaming were right: the multiplayer did ruin their game.  Everybody else can pop online for a few hours before the end game and be fine.

Should it be popped, the multiplayer itself will be discovered to be all co-op and largely inoffensive.  On half a dozen maps, players will play a variety of preset characters in the same wave survival mode.  Every mission is essentially the same with a few randomly varying goals in a given wave: kill ’em all, kill one particular guy while other baddies spawn around the made, hold this area of the map for a while, etc.  There are no enemies in the multiplayer that are not in the main game and all of the characters’ choices have specific abilities.  The game plays just like the single player game except that it is not possible to pull up the radial menu and the powers are not re-mappable to different buttons.

Fully defeating a horde will net Galactic Readiness, experience points to level up powers, and credits.  The credits add a little bit of gambling into the game as they are used to buy various bundles of equipment.  They look like trunks in the store menu, but really they are virtual baseball cards.  Upon buying one the packs, common, uncommon and rare cards may pop out new guns or character types, but more than likely they’ll be one-time stat boosts or consumables.  These upgrades and temporary power-ups add variety to the multiplayer and provide incentive to keep playing to get rarer and better gear.  If you have more money than time, it is possible to buy packs with real world credits [card].  Since it is all co-op, this does not impact any kind of balance.  If I am playing a pick-up game, then I’d be happy to play with someone who spent fifty bucks on cards to get the best gear.  Free rides are nice.

While fun enough, more than a dozen hours of playing this mode has informed me that A) biotic powers totally mess guys up when their shields are down, and B) the combat in Mass Effect is not good enough to be the sole draw of the game.  It is fun enough to hop around cover and use abilities between unloading clips on a Geth Trooper when there is a story behind the action, but it is not as fast or satisfying as a game like Gears of War where the story is secondary.  The guns themselves do not have as much impact on the enemies as they should and getting in, out and around cover is not as responsive as it should be.  In the main game there is the carrot of new story or places to discover around the next mass of enemies.  When that carrot is gone and it is just ability progression and maybe a few new guns, this game does not have the staying power of titles focused more on action.

Without giving any kind of spoiler but commenting on the last few hours of the game, I can say that I have not thought this much about the different endings in a video game in a long time.  (Fifteen years, four months and five days to be precise, from release date to release date.)  There is a fair amount of debate on the webs as to what is the “best” ending, and it is certainly possible to identify the ending which is the most difficult to achieve, but I don’t know if that is the right ending.  To say the least possible, there is a finality to the story and it ends well.  Whether or not it is satisfying on an emotional level will depend on the person playing and the choices they have made.  If you played to your heart, did what you would do if you were Shepard, and did not make every decision with a desire to “do a perfect Paragon run”, then the payoff will be fantastic.  Min/max-ers will probably feel let down.  Ultimately, it is the best conclusion to a video game series that I have seen.  With other Bioware games, I have felt a desire to go back and do the opposite of whatever I did in my first play through to see how the other side lives, to read the other entries in the Choose Your Own Adventure book.  The ending is good enough for me, such that I am not particularly interested in what other Shepards did.  That is not my Shepard, that is not her story’s end.

Mass Effect 3 is one of the best role-playing games for the seventh generation of home consoles (and PC).  The only caveat I would add to that is that the primary reason it works so well is that it draws upon the two games before it in a way that is reminiscent of the Ultima series.  But unlike Richard Garriott’s path of the Avatar, Shepard is not bound by an ethos created in response to letters from parents upset that their kids could murder shopkeepers in Ultima 3.  Shepard’s path is his/her own, and the ending is all the more impactful because of it.  I think the three games, in addition to a fun excuse to blast aliens and talk to colorful characters, are a morality tale.  What is so impressive about these Bioware games is that they can be your own morality tale, which can allow you to live out or discover what you hold important.  There can be personal discovery here, not a naked game goal to do the right thing because that’s how you get the best gear or because only nice people get to access some dungeon where the best gear is housed.  Perhaps someday there will be a collection incorporating the three games into one piece of software called something like ‘Mass Effect: Shepard’s Saga’, which would be far easier to recommend to anyone than the last game in the series.

This is as great a game as Return of the Jedi was a movie.  You should play Mass Effect.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Fantastic conclusion to an important series
+ Nice visuals, though the cut scenes are predictably better
+ Fast squad-based combat

Cons:
– Fetch quests do not add much to the game
– Character import bug is a slap in the face to longtime fans
– Multiplayer is not going to keep people playing after the war is over

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PC and PS3
Publisher: EA
Developer: BioWare
Release Date: 3/6/2012
Genre: Action/RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1 (2-4 players online)
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

[nggallery id=2301]

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.