Mass Effect 3 review: An unforgettable end to an epic sci-fi trilogy
6th Mar 2012 | 08:00
Everything in the Mass Effect series has been leading up to this moment. The Reapers have invaded, and all organic life in the galaxy is on the verge of being wiped out. Across two games we've grown to love this universe - its characters, its cultures, its mythology - and now it's all going to be eaten by merciless, invincible space-squids.
We care as much about this place as Shepard does, which gives every fight an extra feeling of urgency, and every moral decision added weight. If the last game taught us anything, it's that BioWare won't think twice before killing off major characters, and it's this fear of losing someone you've grown attached to that makes
The story is dark and unpredictable. The writers exploit your emotions at every turn, and you never know what's going to happen next. Mass Effect 2 had a fairly simple structure - gather a crew, go through the Omega relay and defeat the Collectors. In this game, your goals are constantly changing as the war with the Reapers rages. It's more dynamic, more uncertain.
Shepard's primary concern is building an army. He already has the Alliance on his side, but it'll take the combined effort of every species in the galaxy to stand a chance against the Reaper army. This is where the game's newest and most valuable currency comes into play: war assets.
There's a lot of bad blood between the major races in Mass Effect, and you have to convince them to put aside centuries of feuding. From a story perspective, this makes for some brilliant drama. Shepard has to broker a partnership between the krogan and their mortal enemies, the salarians. He has to convince the three biggest mercenary armies in the galaxy to unite.
Despite their imminent demise, most races are reluctant to help at first. They have demands that Shepard is forced to fulfil, which makes up the majority of the priority, or story, missions. To get the aggressive, war-mongering krogan on your side, for example, you'll have to convince the salarians to cure the genophage - an engineered disease designed to keep their numbers in check. If you know Mass Effect, you'll know how big an ask this is.
When you eventually convince one of these factions or races to join your cause, they become war assets. These assets can be fleets of warships, groups of elite soldiers, scientists, or even entire armies. A new area of the Normandy, the War Room, allows you to view all the assets you've gathered from missions, and collecting them becomes madly addictive. As you gain assets, a meter fills indicating your overall strength against the Reapers.
If you focus entirely on the story missions, you'll get just enough assets for the final battle - but your chances of surviving will be slim. This is where side missions come in. As you explore the Citadel you'll overhear people talking, which will unlock optional missions. New planets will be marked on your galaxy map, and you'll be able to travel there on the Normandy.
You'll also be given side missions by your superior, Admiral Hackett, and the members of your squad. There's a lot of optional content, and we advise doing as much of it as possible if you don't want to find yourself reaching for the straight razor when the credits roll.
Side missions are short bursts of action that see Shepard and his crew rescuing civilians, destroying enemy bases, fighting Reaper ground troops, and other miscellaneous objectives. They're much better than the last game; each one feels hand-crafted, and offers something unique, whether it's a fun set-piece, a new weapon, or some gorgeous scenery to stare at.
But the real meat is in the story. As Shepard struggles to recruit the main Citadel species to join his army, he finds himself fighting Reapers, visiting exotic planets, battling his personal demons, and locking horns with a rival group who seem intent on halting his progress. Going into detail about anything would spoil the surprise, but there are moments here that completely dwarf the scale and emotional impact of anything you've seen in previous games.
On a more mechanical level, combat has been vastly improved. With all the character interaction, story, exploration and other RPG elements, it's easy to forget that a lot of your time in Mass Effect is spent shooting monsters and crouching behind cover.
There's a greater distinction between enemy types this time, which makes firefights more tactical and interesting. Some enemies carry riot shields forcing you to flank them, or go for a headshot through a tiny slot on the front. Engineers drop turrets that can chew through your shields. Cannibals restore their health by eating the corpses of their fallen comrades.
It's an entertaining mix, and forces you to constantly rethink your strategy on the fly. The AI is more aggressive too; enemies will rush you and flush you out of cover with grenades. You can play it as a straight-up shooter - and there are plenty of weapons, from SMGs and pistols, to sniper rifles and flamethrowers - but you'd be missing out on the hugely entertaining tech and biotic powers, which are essentially sci-fi magic spells.
You can conjure up a miniature black hole that sucks enemies out of cover, and then blast them with a pulse of kinetic energy that sends their ragdoll corpses flying. Or you can overload their shields and stun them with an electric shock, then finish them off with a headshot. It's when you combine powers with regular gunplay that the combat really comes to life. If you play as the basic soldier class, the combat is far less engaging.
Shepard's more nimble, too. Tap X/A and a direction and you can roll away from enemies, or into cover. Whenever we found ourselves cornered by enemies, we'd tap triangle/Y to detonate our tech armour and stun them (we played as the Sentinel class, which is a mix of tech and biotic powers), then frantically roll away by tilting the stick back and tapping the roll button.
There's a new weapon mod system too. Each gun can have two upgrades plugged into it. Some are fairly basic, like an extended barrel to increase damage, or a scope for precise aiming, but there are others that add a new dynamic to the combat. Armour piercing is the most effective, as it allows you to shoot through cover.
A major change is that any class can now use any weapon. In Mass Effect 2, the Sentinel could only use pistols and machine pistols, but now they can equip assault rifles, sniper rifles, and heavy weapons. They've balanced this decision out with the weight system. The more guns you take into battle with you, the slower your tech and biotic powers will recharge. We made a habit of only ever taking an assault rifle with us, because there's always plenty of ammo, and it increased our recharge speed by almost 200%.
It's not just enemies you'll be fighting; Shepard has his own morals to wrestle with too. Cleverly, the game's choices are tied into the war assets system. Do you sacrifice a colony to get a fleet of volus bombers on your side? Do you use your influence to free a dangerously violent criminal from prison in order to recruit her mercenary gang? You're constantly torn between increasing the power of your army, and sticking to your personal beliefs.
One choice in particular, towards the end of the story, was one of the most difficult we've ever had to make in a game. There are two sides to take, and just when you think you've settled on one, the game throws something at you to make you reconsider - and keeps doing so over the course of an hour, toying with your moral compass. It's hard to convey how effective moments like this are without revealing anything specific, but if you're invested in this world and these characters, some of the decisions you're forced to make will hit you hard.
FRIENDS IN NEED
It's not all big, universe-changing events, though. The writers have done an excellent job with the small stuff too; the quiet, reflective moments where the characters open themselves up. Between missions, exploring the Normandy and the Citadel will see you running into your companions and talking about how the Reaper invasion and the mission is affecting them.
These discussions are touching, subtle and funny, giving you a welcome mental break from the desperate chaos of the Reaper invasion. As well as returning characters including Ashley Williams, Kaidan Alenko and Liara T'Soni from the original Mass Effect, there are a few new cast members. One of the best is an old friend from Mass Effect 2 who appears in a very different form (that's all we can say), while James Vega, an Alliance soldier, is surprisingly likeable, despite looking like a Jersey Shore extra.
There are some other distractions too, like buying fish for the tank in your quarters, or collecting model ships. Scanning is back, but you won't be spending hours slowly dragging a crosshair over planets looking for minerals. Instead, you have to explore Reaper-controlled systems to rescue survivors and acquire more war assets for Shepard's army. When you enter a system, you can scan the immediate area. If you pick up a signal, you can then scan the planet and pick up war assets, or quest items.
The problem is, the Reapers are alerted whenever you use your scanner, so you can only use it two or three times before you hear their telltale mechanical growl, and they come swarming after you in a tense game of galactic cat and mouse. If they touch you, it's game over.
The instant death is fairly pointless, as you can reload to when you first entered the system without penalty, but this new system is far less tedious than the mining was. There's still a percentage rating for each system, so completists can keep track of how many war assets they have, or haven't recovered.
That feeling of freedom and adventure - of being in command of your own starship, exploring a vast galaxy - is as intoxicating as ever. If you're the kind of gamer who values storytelling, atmosphere and immersion above everything else, this game is laser-targeted at you - and if you don't, it's still a brilliant sci-fi cover shooter in its own right.
END OF AN ERA
It's a fitting end to the trilogy, although it's not the leap that Mass Effect 2 was from the original. There's a lot of new content, and the combat is superior, but it still has the same rhythm and general feel of the last game. That's an incredibly minor gripe, though. Mass Effect 2 is one of this generation's best games, so the similarity is no bad thing. It's iteration rather than repetition.
We're not sure where BioWare will take Mass Effect next, but we're glad that Shepard's story has been given the closure it deserves. Closure that, depending on the choices you make and how strong your army is, will either leave you teary-eyed with joy, or tinged with melancholy. Few endings are so powerful.
Need tips, cheats and guides? You need our Complete Mass Effect 3 Scanning Guide - and How To Get The Perfect Ending tips, our 10 Essential Tips For Saving The Galaxy in Mass Effect 3, our expert Mass Effect 3 Class Guide or our tour of Mass Effect 3's Normandy.