- Publisher: EA
- Developer: BioWare
- ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
- Genre: RPG
- Pros: Stunning depth, complex storytelling, emotional stakes, refined combat, amazing authorship
- Cons: Some repetitive A.I., uninspired level design
The best games of the current generation leave the player with the sense that they weren’t merely watching something unfold, but rather were authoring the story as it went along. Rarely has a franchise felt more individually tailored to my experience than “Mass Effect 3.” Not only does the game import character-specific abilities from the save file for “Mass Effect 2,” but decisions that were made in that game influence how this one plays out. This is more than a mere action experience. It’s about tough choices, fragile alliances, and complex relationships. The storytelling is as important as the action and what’s so remarkable about the title is how my story, my version of “Mass Effect 3,” will be so much different than yours.
“Mass Effect 3” opens a few years after the intense climax of “Mass Effect 2.” How you finished that game – most notably, who survived – will impact your experience in the sequel (and you really must play “ME2” before this game to fully appreciate it). At the end of “ME2,” Shepard and his team stopped the Reapers, but it turns out that they were merely delaying the inevitable galactic war. In the riveting opening scenes of the new game, the Reapers get to Earth and commence its destruction. In an indication of the emotional experience to come, Shepard spots a young boy as he’s trying to escape, but can’t get to him before the boy’s ship is blown up. The boy’s death will haunt Shepard, and the war for Earth will come at a great cost.
After a linear first two missions, the game opens up with a deep variety of story and side missions. Most of the action takes place from your ship, the Normandy, or from Citadel, a base city that houses fellow officers, stores, old friends, and new enemies. From the Normandy, the player can guide his ship to various places in a galaxy that is preparing for war. “Mass Effect 3” is about building the alliances needed to take on the Reapers and save Earth. Those alliances will require a non-stop stream of decision-making on your part. And, as in the last game, Shepard won’t be able to do it alone as classic and new characters join his squad.
Do you save a violent species like the Krogans to have them on your side or leave them to appease their oppressors? Do you side with the Quarians or Geth? Not only do the combat-heavy missions often end with tough decisions, but rarely has an action game featured more storytelling in what is essentially an interstellar war room trying to save the universe. As the game goes on, you are regularly forced to pick sides, even down to small disagreements by residents of the Citadel.
The emotional weight of “Mass Effect 3” is hard to put into words and is arguably greater than any game in history. As old friends from the past games came back into my life, I found myself getting deeper into the experience. When I received an email on the Normandy that my former squad-mate Thane was on Citadel, I dropped what I was doing to find him. I was “excited” to see an old friend in a video game! That’s how completely realized and deep the world of “Mass Effect 3” is for its players. And it makes the inevitable tragedies that much more emotionally resonant. “Mass Effect 3” is all about alliance and sacrifice. I’ve never played a game in which the fate of NPCs had as much power as they do here (to the level that the death of an old friend actually made me misty-eyed). It’s a level of storytelling that is uncommon in any art form, much less video games.
Before we get away from the storytelling, I should note that a fascinating episode of the saga of “Mass Effect 3” isn’t in the standard edition. There has been controversy over “From Ashes,” a launch-day DLC that is included on the Collector’s Edition of the game. While I have little issue with launch-day DLC that merely adds more action or deeper customization, “From Ashes” feels different. It is an emotional chapter of the “Mass Effect” saga with callbacks to the first game and a new character. It should have been included in the standard purchase price for all and, as extreme as this may sound, I can’t imagine my “Mass Effect 3” experience without it.
What about the combat? It’s been only slightly tweaked from “Mass Effect 2” with a refined grenade system, melee interaction, and cover mechanic. The shooter elements of “Mass Effect 3” are nearly as perfect as the storytelling and the combat here actually seems more complex than the last game – you’ll need to flank your enemies and instruct your squad mates more than before. I will admit that some of the side mission worlds blurred together, both in A.I. and level design, but it’s a minor complaint. There are no major complaints with this game.
There’s also a multiplayer this time that’s surprisingly deep and can even impact your single-player campaign. Most of the gameplay in the multiplayer section centers on waves of enemies against a group made up of four players. A familiar variety of weapons and powers are available as well as a variety of species and classes. It’s a deep, engaging multiplayer section, especially for fans of co-op play.
Without spoiling anything, the disappointing finale of the game has produced much controversy (to the point that "closure providing" DLC is being released this summer), but I beg you not to let the final minutes of such a notable journey cloud what came before it. Judge this game on the entirety of the experience, not just your reaction to the very end of it.