The culmination of a studio's lifework. Few games can make that claim, but that's exactly what Mass Effect 3 is for BioWare. It ties together the entire trilogy, bringing relevance to decisions made five years ago when this system generation was still beginning. It masterfully blends action and role-playing, something the team has been moving towards since 2003. It brings relevance to moments some may have hated. It concludes what will be remembered as one of the greatest science-fiction tales ever to be experienced. And it does so in style.
The first two games each served a purpose. Mass Effect introduced you to the world, as Commander Shepard rose up to become the first Human Spectre. Sent on the hunt against the rogue Spectre Saren, the journey proved memorable as characters were introduced, and the realization from the very first game that you can never save everyone, no matter how hard you try, hit home pretty hard. The second game focused on the characters around the galaxy, while preparing you for a suicide mission. Mass Effect 2 ultimately falters as a stand-alone experience. The plot is poor, the level design is too small, making for extremely basic action and there's an overall lack of challenge through it all. But Mass Effect 3 brings relevance to the second game, turning Mass Effect 2 into the bridge that helps take Mass Effect's finale to its emotional highs.
And what a high it is. The sound of the Reapers still blares in my mind. That loud rumble that shook my speakers in each encounter likely won't go away anytime soon. The wails of the Banshees coming after me as I ran in fear on the battlefield, issuing commands to my team and hoping I could finish them before they reached me. The colossal scope of the Reapers as they dominated the entire screen, as I ran to avoid being trampled is a sight to behold. The boss fights that actually took place on the battlefield, and not just in the screen background as they did in Mass Effect 2 make for an exciting time that makes the battles feel personal and not just busy work. Every issue that anyone can bring up in Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2 has been dealt with. From the improved inventory to the spectacular level design that combines the open-ended levels of Mass Effect, even if they grew monotonous at times, with the guided feel of the level design of Mass Effect 2, even if it was far too constricting for a game so focused on action. Mass Effect 3 gets everything right.
Mass Effect 3 is an extremely plot-heavy game, but it treads familiar ground from the first two games at the outset: you don't have control of the Normandy and you don't have your crew. Of course, it makes sense for all three games when taking each game's plot into consideration but it is still noticeable. But once the story kicks in it never lets go. Similarly to Mass Effect 2, you will be going to different locations to recruit help, but Mass Effect 2 was essentially, as some folks put it, Seven Samurai in space, just with a worse plot. But in Mass Effect 3 you are recruiting entire races to help fight a final battle that expertly shows just how dire the situation is for everyone. Mass Effect 3's invaded Earth isnt just a stellar battleground; its easily the best representation of an alien invasion to be seen. Notwithstanding London's telephone booths nearly 200 years in the future, and they are everywhere.
And on this galactic journey you will meet many old friends again, each having gone their own separate ways. Some can be recruited, others will have their own agendas. But they are all a sight for sore eyes. But unlike Mass Effect 2, you can't guarantee everyone's safety. Whether it's returning characters or new characters, tragic and often heroic deaths await anyone. Some who are extremely attached may cry, others will be angered, but just about everyone will feel dread and shock. There were deaths that occurred that redeemed a character's past and there were deaths that shook me to the point where I had to stop playing. But there are sacrifices, there are characters you have seen since 2007, across three games, who will go with you to put everything on the line. And it makes for an amazing experience. An experience that will ultimately shake you to your core with how emotionally charged the journey is while never resorting to the hammy acting of lesser games.
The planets are something to see as well. In the first game, levels were massive, and missions had a grand scale, often tying in major cities that later took you to combat areas. In Mass Effect 2 levels were tiny, and missions were brief, though numerous. Major cities were removed from the game entirely, making them minor pitstops, and combat areas were fully separated from those so-called cities. Mass Effect 3 again brings the best of both worlds. The Citadel stands as the one major city you can go to, its significantly more streamlined than it was in Mass Effect, but is a major step-up from the tiny, non-combat areas of Mass Effect 2 that often literally spanned the length of a hallway. The only exception being Omega, which included a nightclub and several hallways, and as the best that Mass Effect 2 has to offer, non-combat areas were rather disappointing in that game. Mass Effect 3 may focus on the Citadel only, but thats because you will visit other planets and see both their cities and civilizations in all their glory as the Reapers tear it apart. The planet of Tuchanka in Mass Effect 2 was nothing more than a gladiator's pit and a stone throne, but in Mass Effect 3 theres a sense of genuine wonder as you finally see the planet in action and the Krogan culture is presented to you in ways that Mass Effect 2 never managed to pull off.
But this galaxy under siege helps provide an intensely atmospheric game, one that's darker in tone than Mass Effect 2 without having to resort to that games forced attitude on nearly every character. Exploring the cities you were never given a proper chance to see in Mass Effect 2 while doing battle matches the high stakes and rising tension of the narrative. Even as failure hits you hard, as you watch entire planets fall, you will be compelled to keep going forward. And with remarkable level design you will be excited to see these conflicts through to the end. This is not like Mass Effect 2 where you simply hide behind an obvious cover spot and enemies follow a set pattern in dull, shooting gallery combat. This involves actual movement on the battlefield, taking tactical control of your teammates and it goes beyond just the level design but into how improved enemy AI is from the other two games. Battles on normal can finally present a challenge.
BioWare must be commended on more than just the improvements and general design though. They have crafted an experience without compromise, one which every type of player can enjoy. Mass Effect 3 provides three ways to play: Action, Role-Playing and Story. Action completely removes dialogue options and focuses exclusively on combat. Role-Playing is the intended experience that brings the same intense combat while letting you dictate how the story plays out. And Story simplifies the combat but keeps the decisions. No matter your preference, Mass Effect 3 provides options on how to play the game.
Despite all of the things that Mass Effect 3 gets right, there are a few missteps. The most obvious is space exploration. To BioWare's credit, this is the best that the series has been, but that isn't saying much. In the first Mass Effect you would land on barren planets and discover some artifacts or a base to attack. But it was far too tedious. In Mass Effect 2 you scanned planets for minerals that you would use to help you upgrade your gear or ship. But it involved scanning planets manually and purchasing probes. Absolute monotony. Mass Effect 3 improves this by letting the scan lead to only one location on the planet. This location is often a War Asset that prepares your Galactic Readiness by providing you with more support for the conflict. Other times you will find items that you overhear characters in the Citadel speaking about to help them for the War. Returning it to them helps your existing assets and gets you some extra money. It's a step up as it isn't monotonous, but it isn't a stand-out feature. Still, the more you explore the more assets you accumulate.
These assets can also be accumulated in the game's multiplayer as Galactic Readiness, which sits at 50% until you play the multiplayer. It isn't required though and won't really alter the game. In all honesty, you're better off playing Gears of War 3's Horde or Call of Duty's Zombies modes as the game follows a similar structure. The actual assets can be found in either mode though, so again, it is to BioWares credit for providing the option, even if it feels out of place with the series. It is fairly fleshed out, allowing you to play as other races and having their talents available as you play cooperatively. But it is far from the main draw of the game.
The other misstep is how the game's ending is presented. Not the actual ending itself, that's fine and the events that take place are hinted at numerous times in this game. But the presentation of the ending is really a joke. You literally are presented with a choice. It doesn't matter what your actions were up to that point, you simply choose which ending you want. Regardless, there has been a lot of fire thrown in BioWare's direction over how the ending played out, but it works fine. It involves a bit of Deus Ex Machina, but it preserves the game's mythology at the same time. There is no real necessity for the Extended Cut, but I do intend on replaying the trilogy again after this game, so I will see if it truly adds anything meaningful to the existing experience. It is a shame that so many people made such a fuss over a perfectly competent ending. It may not be to everyone's liking, and it could have been better, but what is available works fine.
Minor missteps aside, Mass Effect 3 is BioWare's finest effort. It doesn't require nostalgia to bring their past successes to life as Dragon Age and Star Wars: The Old Republic tried (and ultimately failed at). Instead, it moves forward, realizing the team's ambitions over the past decade of creating a perfect hybrid RPG that could focus on fantastic role-playing and intense action. Where each of their games from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic up to Dragon Age II each faced numerous missteps that kept those ambitions in check, Mass Effect 3 succeeds by getting everything right. It will take your breath away. It will shock you and leave you in awe. It is a genuinely well-crafted game, but most importantly, for the thirty or so hours it lasts, the game is terrific fun.
*Review formatting is still busted. Shame on you GameSpot.
*And for some reason my blog doesn't copy over apostrophes from Word. Don't mind it. I'll fix it. :/