Perhaps the best thing about Mass Effect 3 is that Bioware has gone into it with all guns blazing. Like Gears of War 3 it’s been designed as a grand finale to a story that has kept gamers gripped for the best part of five years, and like Gears of War 3 it doesn’t take any prisoners.
There’s no more messing around, waiting and wondering what the series’ ultimate nemesis, the Reapers, are up to, because within minutes of the game opening they’re descending on Planet Earth, obliterating everything and everyone in their path. There’s no need to guess at what the central plot might be, because all that matters is ridding the galaxy of the Reapers before they can destroy all organic life. Mass Effect 3 is sci-fi at its most epic, with a story of desperate survival against a seemingly unstoppable foe, taking in multiple systems, planets and alien races, but never forgetting to bring it home to characters you can care about. You can easily see it as Mass Effect’s take on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
It’s also a game that sees the series build on the improvements made between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. In the first game, the action and RPG elements never really gelled. One minute you were playing a second-rate third-person shooter with shonky controls, the next you were back in something closer to a classic RPG. In the second game, the shooting itself became fun, the pacing picked up and the worst parts of the game were excised, leaving few serious causes for complaint.
In Mass Effect 3 the action elements work better still, with a faster, more acrobatic Commander Shepard who can move in and out of cover faster, more challenging enemies and more intelligent squad AI. A new melee weapon gives you an option when enemies get close, and it’s easy to dive and dodge when larger foes come out punching. There are issues, in that Shepard sometimes vaults over cover or hunkers down when you don’t really want him to, but this is the first Mass Effect where the action rivals Uncharted or Gears of War instead of feeling the lesser part of the action/RPG combination.
Yet the RPG elements haven’t suffered. While the systems for experience points, character skills and weapon and armour upgrades are kept in the background, they’re still there, and at any point you can pause the action with a click of a bumper, issue orders to the two comrades in your current squad, heal your friends or cast biotics (Mass Effect’s answer to spells) at your foes. Most importantly, Mass Effect 3 is still heavy on character interaction, with clever interactive cut-scenes that impact on how your would-be allies, friends and lovers think of you, and that sometimes have dramatic consequences that will change the way the story plays out when it reaches its conclusion.
Bioware knows how to spin a good story, and Mass Effect 3 sees the return of most of your old favourite characters and the addition of a handful of new ones. It completes some of the story arcs that have been running since the first game, and there is plenty of opportunity to express your saintly side as a Paragon, or go a bit Jack Bauer as a Renegade. Sometimes the distinctions are subtle, and you’ll find some difficult moments and some challenging questions along the way, but few games put you in such a convincing universe peopled with such interesting and varied characters, and fewer still leave you feeling that the way you play your role within that universe has any real impact on the story.
In the meantime, Bioware has also learnt how to get more from the Xbox 360 and PC hardware. Mass Effect 3 nearly always looks magnificent, with beautifully detailed characters and exotic alien environments that would put many big-budget blockbuster films to shame. Mass Effect 2 impressed with a more dynamic approach to shooting cut-scenes, and Mass Effect 3 goes even further with its use of focus blurs, cinematic editing and camera movement, even if the animation can look stilted. For PS3 owners all this visual goodness comes at a cost, with reports that busy action scenes suffer from dramatic drops in the frame rate. As far as the Xbox 360 version tested goes, however, the only issues are some odd glitches where characters suddenly disappear or the scene cuts sharply, though these are fairly infrequent.
Some other niggles remain. As the commander of a starship you’ll spend a lot of time on-board the SSV Normandy, deciding which system and planet to head to next, but navigating around the ship can still be a chore, though the dreadful elevator loading sequences of the first Mass Effect have been kept to a minimum. Loading sequences outside the ship can be lengthy, and we’ve come across a few difficulty spikes later in the game – with one scene where you have to run away from overwhelming odds without getting crushed, bashed or blasted a particular problem. None of these spoil what a truly exceptional game this is.
You see, Mass Effect 3 isn’t perfect. At times you’d like to see the slightly overwrought atmosphere lighten up, or wish that the game would spend more time with characters that you’ve come to know and love. It can feel linear, as if you’re being propelled from plot point to plot point, with side quests that don’t always have the heart of those in Mass Effect 2. But when it’s at its best, Mass Effect 3 is stratospherically brilliant, with big climactic action sequences that lead to even more climactic cut-scenes, and events that will knock you off balance or leave you feeling elated, if only for a moment. As with the previous two games there are moments where the story seems to dry up and you’re stuck with a couple of stodgy missions, but as the game moves on and builds towards a crescendo, these moments become few and far between. The storyline propels you forwards, out into the stars, and you simply have to know what happens next.
If you’ve played the first two games you will, of course, see your actions there reflected this time around, as characters bring up past events or react to the Shepard you’ve played in the past. And while you can play Mass Effect 3 on its own – the game provides cues and information in the dialogue to help new players joining the series here – we’d recommend that you play it after having played Mass Effect 2. Otherwise, it’s just not the same.
Company: EA Games
- A superb, saga-capping story surrounding intense combat action. Real depth and real interactivity.
- Long load times, technical glitches, frame-rate issues on the PS3