Has BioWare created the best Mass Effect yet, or has it already peaked? Find out in our Mass Effect 3 review.
Published on Mar 5, 2012
It was four years ago that we first set down on Eden Prime in search of a mysterious alien artefact, but we remember it like it was yesterday. It was on the far-flung human colony there that we first took on the mysterious zombie-like Husks; where we first encountered an indoctrinated agent; and where Commander Shepard received his first glimpse of the Reaper invasion that wiped out the Protheans some 50,000 years prior.
It all seemed so simple back then. Stop Saren Arterius and save the galaxy. Little did we know that BioWare’s ambition stretched so much further than that, across two more games that would unfold a sweeping and adaptive narrative across the swirling arms of an entire galaxy. Mass Effect is nothing if not bold.
And so here we are, the Reaper cycle has come back around and humans are in the crosshairs, our homeworld under a devastating and nigh-on indefensible assault from the deadly machines themselves.
It’s time to head out into the Milky Way once again and bring to a final, definitive end to the events that kicked off in that lonely human colony all those years ago.
The jump between Mass Effect 2 and 3 feels less pronounced than it was between the first game and the second, largely because there’s less to fix this time around.
Mass Effect 2 remedied the dodgy combat and convoluted RPG mechanics of the first game, while also opening up areas of the world that were previously confined to the pages of the codex. Mass Effect 3’s job is one of refinement rather than evolution, and BioWare polishes its ideas to a mirror sheen.
Hardcore Mass Effect fans have plenty to look forward to.
On a structural level, your mission is much the same: recruit and strengthen a team, and then take the fight to an ancient evil in a bombastic final battle that will go really well or really badly, depending on how much preparation you put in.
This time, though, you’re not just assembling a team, but an entire army. Each mission performed throughout Mass Effect 3 feeds into your collection of War Assets – side quests might add a collection of scientists or a small squadron of fighters to your cause, while larger missions will see entire turian fleets or salarian Special Task Groups join the effort.
The people, armies, weapons and fleets you accumulate are represented by a number that designates how effectively these assets will perform in the final battle – the higher the number, the better your chances of success.
Getting everyone on your side is simple undertaking, though. The krogan are aggressive and stubborn; the turians proud and domineering; the salarians self-involved and selfish.
Each culture has their own motivations and agendas, and as such getting them to see eye to eye usually involves doing something that they want before they’ll agree to kiss and make up.
It’s your job to play the intergalactic intermediary and reconcile centuries of resentment and antagonism. Getting the krogan to forgive the salarians for the genophage? Convincing quarian chiefs to re-evaluate their hatred of the geth? Good luck with that.
You’ll meet plenty of new characters throughout, but one of the most disappointing revelations is that none of these are quite as memorable as those introduced in ME2.
The Citadel once again provides a respite from the storm, with shops, refugee camps and clubs.
Thane Krios, Mordin Solus, Jack – these characters stick in the mind. The new characters introduced here are muscle-bound meatheads like soldier James Vega – or, even worse, big-breasted bimbos like Jessica Chobot’s news reporter Diana Allers – or little more than moral quandaries dressed up in space suits.
Interactions with turian or krogan commanders are thematically interesting, but they lack the personality found so liberally throughout the second game.
The ever-expansive dialogue trees are still riddled with humour and insight, so it’s always worth spending your time on the Normandy chatting to your crew, but it’s the returning characters that remain the most interesting and enjoyable to spend time with – if they made if through the Omega 4 Relay, that is…
The missions themselves are some of the best written and most explosive yet seen in the series. The direct path through the main quest is, as would be expected, the most exciting, with production values often matching the set pieces seen in linear triple-A games like Gears Of War.
Some missions take place on orbiting alien moons while the planet below is ravaged by a Reaper invasion, while others will see you take on the sentient machines on foot in gripping, face-to-face confrontations.
In fact, there’s so much exciting content packed onto the two discs that we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Prothean technology had been used in the manufacturing process.
But that’s not to say the extra-curricular elements aren’t just as engrossing. Side quests might take you to huge radioactive fuel refineries, abandoned research stations on icy snow planets, or besieged schools located on distant space stations, each graphically unique and offering punchier, smaller combat scenarios wrapped up in their own standalone stories.
In close quarters with an enemy, you can hold down the button to perform a class-specific heavy attack.
The overarching narrative may be pitched as a race against time, but you’ll find yourself wiling away the hours in these lesser-known corners of the universe nevertheless, seeking out new missions and new supporters for your cause.
The actual RPG mechanics are again scaled right back, perhaps even more so now that scanning planets for elements has been completely removed.
Now upgrades and weapons are purchased with credits via a terminal in the Normandy, with some extra depth added in the ability to augment weapons with items such as scopes, damage modifiers and thermal clip enhancements.
There’s a greater variety to be found in armour too, but it’s more based around enhancing and buffing your existing skills than it is making Shepard look like a badass.
Where Mass Effect 3 feels most discernibly improved over its predecessor is in the combat. The rhythm and punch of gunplay have been sharpened to such a point that even non-believers may find themselves convinced that cover-based action is as important a part of Mass Effect as trying to sleep with your sexy comms officer.
Weapons feel more powerful and direct thanks to some sharp and impactful sound design, while cover is much easier to navigate and vault if need be.
A nifty roll move has also been added, which comes in useful when avoiding the projectile attacks launched by a new and diverse range of enemies.
Catching up with classic characters is one of the better aspects of Mass Effect 3.
Some Cerberus soldiers carry shields that need to be removed before they can be damaged or shot through if you’ve equipped the right weapon upgrade, while engineers will set up turrets and repair their allies’ shields if not quickly removed from the battlefield.
There are also faster and more manoeuvrable ninja-like units who will dodge your crosshairs and make a beeline for Shepard when the opportunity presents itself.
Husks, too, come in all-new shapes and sizes thanks to the Reapers, who have meddled with the DNA of turians, batarians, asari and more in order to create a more varied and dangerous ground force.
Human husks still just run at you like brain dead cannon fodder, but the alien husks will utilise tactics and strategy that must be matched by the player – movement and an ability to pick out the most dangerous targets on the battlefield.
The RPG elements are still there, but they’re disguised far more confidently under the guise of the shooter, the stats never getting in the way of a good, satisfying headshot.
Tighter targeting, a heavier sense of feedback, and a new array of enemy combat tactics ensure that Mass Effect 3’s gunfights never feel like a chore. They expertly balance challenge with entertainment, and, most importantly, are as confident in making you feel like a tactician as a tank.
Unlike its predecessors, Mass Effect 3 doesn’t have a crutch to lean on in the form of a future game on which to hang each player’s choices. There is no continuation from this point; this is truly the end, so why should the players care who lives or dies?
Several elements have been removed entirely, such as the ability to holster your weapon.
Reason suggests that it should matter little if you decide upon the extinction of one species over another, or if the final battle results in heavy losses for your fleet.
As long as you successfully reach the end credits, you’ve won. Bad choices aren’t going to come back and bite you in the ass in Mass Effect 4. You’re not going to be missing any of your favourite characters.
But it does matter. You do deliberate over your choices. You do care who dies and who survives. You do want to build the best army possible and stick it to the Reapers right where it hurts, because you’re so invested in this universe.
Ever since we set foot on Eden Prime we’ve learned of histories, cultures and civilisations through the codex; we’ve formed and broken alliances with entire species; we’ve changed the fate of a galaxy at the press of a button. We’re emotionally attached, and playing the ending of Mass Effect 3 feels important.
Space-faring sci-fi can be difficult to get right. For every Alien there’s a Battlefield Earth. For every 2001, a Barbarella. For every Star Wars, a Star Wars prequel.
Considering that it’s full of alien space nymphs and such a bending of science that it would make Albert Einstein spin fast enough in his grave to power a Mass Relay, you’d think Mass Effect would fall in with the bad crowd.
But, in reality, there really are few videogame stories told with this much attention to detail, and this much love and care given over to fabricating a rich and believable back story.
Mass Effect 3 caps off a trilogy that is well constructed, imaginative, and even thought provoking. What’s more, it may play out the time-worn cliché of saving the universe, but BioWare has filtered that old chestnut through a story that feels genuinely new, even within the confines of a very crowded genre.
The ending might perplex and annoy as many as it satisfies, but it can’t be denied that there are no loose ends, no hanging narrative threads, and no irritating cliffhangers. All that’s left is the sense of a good story, well told.
So, so long, Commander Shepard. You served us well. You are dismissed.