Since Mass Effect was first announced, skepticism about Bioware’s claims that choices made in its space opera would carry over its trilogy have given way to mounting pressure to make them a reality. Mass Effect proper introduced a dense universe of characters and races with real history and threw them into peril against an ancient race of synthetic life forms called Reapers who threatened to eradicate all life. But it also introduced us to Commander Shepard, the hero that took up arms to protect the galaxy. Mass Effect 2 was an incredible story of bravery set against impossible odds as Shepard once again fought against forces no one believed in.
Now Shepard is grounded on Earth, all warnings of the Reaper threat still falling on deaf ears until communication with the Alliance’s moon base goes down and the battle-ship sized creatures start assaulting the planet. When the Normandy makes it back to space, you realize that this last part of Shepard’s story is all about uniting, about every species putting aside their pasts and coming together to save all life across the galaxy.
While each mission has a singularly defined overall flow, most have built-in ties to your decisions from the previous games that make this truly feel like your Shepard’s personal story- you won’t meet characters if they’re dead, won’t make allies with ones you’ve turned into enemies. If nothing else, that’s testament to the work that Bioware put into this title- dozens of key scenes have multiple variations in the storytelling that each require writing and voice acting depending on your unique situation. Don’t expect that those decisions will create entire branching differences in the story- they affect the chances of forming the alliances you need to face the Reapers, of building up your Effective Military Strength. This is where the Mass Effect series has been progressing towards; it will end at a specific decision no matter what you do. Your choices affect how you get there.
To that end, all missions are fundamentally about collecting war assets to throw at the Reapers. Structurally, that goal is important to where the series has absolutely been developing and is appropriate to the plot and context, but is represented in a way that feels a little too overt. Your total forces are represented numerically as your Effective Military Strength, a bar that fills up informing the likelihood of success going into the last mission with a line flat out indicating the minimum number required to go into it. It’s perhaps not the ideal way of indicating your resources but not communicating it might have been worse.
The missions start to fall apart in the side quests, most of which are picked up by eavesdropping on NPC conversations until they’re added to your log. Planet scanning from Mass Effect 2 has been altered to scanning areas on the star map to find anomalies. Doing so increases Reaper awareness and after several attempts Reapers invade the system and you’re forced to evade them by leaving the system. The mechanic ends up being annoying rather than exciting because you’ll find yourself running in and out of dozens of systems to avoid Game Over screens that end up feeling empty since the game autosaves every time you enter. As was the case in both other titles, this means of exploration is the worst part of the game.
While mechanically solid, the series signature biotic and tech powers that cripple individual enemies and manage groups set it apart from every other third person shooter and slight but crucial improvements here make combat much more engaging. A new roll move gives Shepard more options to dodge attacks but also enables the character to easily move into and out of cover while new controls to transition between cover keeps firefights from being claustrophobic. Customizable armor and weapon mods allow you to tailor your configurations and strengths to your preferences, adding weapon encumbrance where loadouts weight affects the recharge time on powers finally allows the player to build Shepard into the warrior they want. The game just performs better as a shooter than ever before and smart new additions to the suite of powers available to each class allows all to play differently while still being viable on the higher difficulties. And over the course of Mass Effect 3, you will be using your guns and powers to complete quite a few missions.
The improved combat has given Bioware license to design levels that are more action focused than these games have seen before, but that’s not always for the best. While the vast majority of missions consist of unique environments, too many boil down to wave-based shooting segments in different contexts. Fortunately, the maps are more complex featuring structures and verticality that allow you to tackle enemies strategically. Turret sequences add nice variety to the pacing without feeling out of place with the action.
The layout of these maps has been greatly refined to accommodate the newly constructed multiplayer component. By logging into the Galaxy at War, players are thrown into co-op missions with up to three other players against waves of Cerberus, Geth or Reaper across nine different maps. Players can level up individual characters with their own distinct powers in each of the six classes. Experience is awarded based on performance while credits are allocated based on completing the objectives presented at every third wave. Credits are spent on increasingly more expensive packs that feature random equipment such as single use items including medi-gel, rockets and weapon mods and new or improved weapons that can be permanently assigned to any class or new races with its own powers within specific ones. Once a class has reached level twenty, it can be promoted and permanently added to your single player’s Effective Military Strength, a decision that resets class to level one. The mode is fun in its own, but doesn’t have much lasting appeal and doesn’t need to be played to get the game’s best ending.
But no matter which ending you get, Mass Effect 3 is about resolving a journey- your journey. You will have developed relationships, made choices that have impacted what happens here, even if they end in catastrophe. Mass Effect is about uniting the world, about bringing people together. In each of the stories, characters have grown because of the person you are, have become stronger, more understanding for knowing you. And, ultimately, you have grown because of them. This saga has been beautiful, daring and ambitious in its scope, and with this final chapter, Mass Effect will go down as this generations defining series and a benchmark for the future.
PLATFORMS: PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360