The Mass Effect series are my favourite single-player RPGs, so it was with great excitement that I loaded up the final part of the trilogy. I'm happy to report that for the most part the game has not disappointed me, and certainly for 99% of it's running time it is the best Mass Effect game of the series by a long way. So, treat this review as a fans view of the single-player experience (I will touch on the new multiplayer component however). There may be some light spoilers, but I'll keep the heavy story spoilers in the hidden spoiler section.
The presentation is as slick as ever, with beautiful menus and intuitive controls. The graphics are another step up from ME2, with some truly amazing alien vistas and set pieces that are simply not done justice to in the screenshots. Some of the background textures are a little rough in the conversation cutscenes, but are easily overlooked as those same cutscenes contain the most realistic characters ever presented in an RPG (by that I mean the quality of the animations, script, lighting, even the eye technology is so good that it is easy to forget you are watching a computer game animation). The cutscenes and conversations are more cinematic than ever before, and the transition from cutscene to gameplay is often seamless.
The codex is still present and correct, containing a massive amount of narrated information for lore junkies. Another simple but great touch is the way you are given a brief run down on the various decisions your imported character made in the previous two games, which was a nice memory refresher.
The game kicks off in truly epic fashion. Whilst I managed to stay virtually completely spoiler free prior to playing the game I had heard that the start was even better than the beginning of Mass Effect 2, which is certainly one of the best beginnings to a game I have ever played. I didn't find the start of ME3 quite up to that level, mainly because it lacked the shock and surprise of what happened at the start of ME2, as the Reaper invasion of Earth had been so widely telegraphed in all the pre-release media.
Nevertheless, when contact is lost with Luna Control and the Reapers suddenly unleash their attack on Earth at the start of the game the scope and dynamism is incredible as Shepard tried to escape to the Normandy amidst scenes of epic destruction. It is also surprisingly emotional, with Bioware rather obviously, but still incredibly effectively pulling at the heart strings as Shepard witnesses the destruction of all he holds dear. Helped by Clint Mansell's beautiful piano music I was tearing up as he left the battle for Earth behind to save the greater galaxy.
I should take a moment to discuss the music here. It is truly stunning. I've always liked the Mass Effect soundtracks, but the work on ME3 is the best of the lot. Clint Mansell unfortunately only contributes two tracks, but "Leaving Earth" and "An End Once and For All" are some of the standout tracks on an incredible collection. Sam Hulick ensures that the feel of the soundtrack continues the synth-driven epic qualities of the previous games and does his best work of the series here, whilst Christopher Lennertz continues the good work he did on the DLC for ME2 whilst also showing he can create some some strongly emotive music. There is quite a bit more piano music on the soundtrack than for the previous games, and it helps to give the game a slightly melancholic feel, which is entirely appropriate given the very dark storyline. I'm listening to it as I write this and it makes me want to go and play the game all over again (which I'm sure to do at some point with my other two Shepard characters). You can listen to the entire thing here.
The sound design is spectacular in all aspects. ME3 delivers yet another new level in voice acting, and the ambient and combat sounds are all brilliantly done.
The game itself is quite linear for the first two to three hours, as Shepard takes in a quick stop on Mars before heading to the Citadel to try and forge an alliance against the Reaper invasion. Only then does the game open up into a more "open world" style with choice (and consequence) over where to go and what to do next. This linearity is used well to bring newcomers to the series up to speed with the story and to teach the player some of the new combat dynamics.
The combat in ME3 is a vast improvement over it's predecessors. It is faster, more dynamic and more chaotic. As I played an infiltrator I was able to hide behind cover and pick enemies off from a distance in the previous two games, but I found I could no longer rely on that tactic for Mass Effect 3. The enemies are more intelligent, moving sensibly, trying to outflank you and supporting each other across more open battlefields. I found it necessary to constantly review the situation and move from cover to cover using the new combat sprint, roll, climb and leap options. It makes for much more invigorating fights.
There are some interesting new mechanics in combat as well, with melee combat taking a more prominent role than in the prequels. Additionally enemy soldiers often have their own interesting mechanics, such as the Cannibals that will lurch off to find the corpses of their defeated comrades to eat when they are low on health, restoring them to full vitality. Guardians carry large riot shields that can be ripped away by biotics, though I found it more fun to shoot them through the tiny eye slits in the shields using my sniper rifle. Bioware throw everything into the mix this time round, and I found myself leaping across broken scenery, torching alien eggs, sliding down demolished walls, and using powerful turrets on fleeing vehicles whilst fighting my enemies in the game.
Combat also seems tougher due to the new mechanics, and in a few fights I have had to use four or five medpacks, something which I never had to do in the first two games.
Those players who are not so keen on all-out action are also well served as the game can be played in three different modes. RPG Mode is the default mode and plays similarly to the other two games. Story Mode trivialises the combat, emphasising the role-playing and story aspects of the game, and Action Mode does the opposite, emphasising the combat and automatically selecting conversation responses in the role-playing sections. I played in RPG Mode, as it seems that any other choice is simply compromising the game, but it's nice to be given a choice.
Outside of the improved combat there are a couple of other new game mechanics worth mentioning. The first is the Galaxy at War system. This measures the galaxy's readiness in taking on the Reapers and is raised as Shepard travels the galaxy gathering War Assets (these can be armies, items, information, or even individual characters that can have an influence on the final result of the war).
All the War Assets are viewable at any time in the War Room on the Normandy, giving a good indication of when the alliance is best prepared for a final assault against the Reapers. These War Assets are in fact the main resource collection of the game and can be obtained through various quests, missions, conversation decisions, new scanning mechanics, a journalist you have onboard the Normandy that can feed stories back to the media, or even through decisions made in the first and second games.
Scanning of planets is much improved over the mechanic in ME2. This time you scan an area of the system as the Normandy flies around, and if you pick anything up you can then go and investigate further. The fine combing of a planets surface for resources is gone. Scanning is not without risks however, as if you are in a system that the Reapers have invaded each scan increases the risk that they will arrive and try to destroy you. They will then only leave that system once you have gone elsewhere and done something else for a while.
The Galaxy at War system can also be affected by activities outside of the main singleplayer game. Victories earned in the multiplayer component, or in the iOS Infiltrator spin-off game can also increase your War Assets in the single-player campaign. Apparently it is still possible to achieve the "best" ending without doing these extra-curricular activities, but "best" is a relative term when discussing the ending of Mass Effect 3 anyway, which I'll talk about in the spoiler section.
The other mechanic worth covering is the progression mechanics. Weapons can now be upgraded in a variety of ways, as well as modified using equipment found whilst out on missions. Armour is now also more versatile in it's effects, giving more appearance and value choices. The total weight of weapons a character equips now effects their skill recharge times, so you can carry an entire arsenal (but have very slow skill recharges) or be lightly armed but have a host of quickly recharging special abilities to use. Character skills are now more versatile with limited choices being unlocked at each level of progression, allowing some tailoring of how you want to play. These mechanics help to keep the RPG feel of the game in the middle of all the fps combat.
New to the Mass Effect series is the multiplayer aspect. This is pretty much a completely separate game in which you play a variety of characters (you can be of several different races) and classes in co-operative battlegrounds against various enemy forces. Success in the multiplayer game can effect your Galaxy at War status in the single-player campaign, but I cannot really attest to it's success as a game in it's own right as I played very little. The polish remains as high as in the main campaign, but it didn't really grab me (and it's not why I play and love the Mass Effect games). It was fun the few times I played, but there was nothing to pull me back in, and I didn't like the cash shop integration either. I'll leave a detailed review of the multiplayer portion of ME3 to those who are more interested in it.
So, that brings us on to one of the main attractions of the game (and indeed it's predecessors). Shepard's story has now been played out across three epic RPGs, with decisions made in both the first and second games effecting what happens in the third. The story in Mass Effect 3 is less about making decisions and more about seeing the consequences of decisions made in ME and ME2, and it is by far the darkest of the three games.
The writing in the game is, for the most part, superb. There are absolutely loads of great one-liners, quotes and speeches dotted throughout the game.
The basic story is well known by now - Shepard is on trial on Earth for his actions during the Arrival DLC of ME2 (wiping out an entire sector and three hundred thousand Batarians in order to stop the Reapers invading early). During his incarceration the Reaper attack is finally unleashed, with Earth at the vanguard of the war. Shepard must flee his beleaguered planet to find alliances and some way of defeating a race of unbeatable machine gods before returning to reclaim Earth. That much is told in the first hour or so, and from then on it becomes a war of attrition as the remaining forces fight to give Shepard time to come up with a way of saving the galaxy once and for all.
Click the button below to read my thoughts on the story (contains heavy spoilers).
All of which brings us to the now infamous ending. Bioware had a huge job on their hands bringing the entire trilogy to an end that would both satisfy and conclude Shepard's story. There has been a huge outcry amongst some fans that absolutely hate the ending they came up with. Read my thoughts on the ending in the spoiler section below.
So, how do I summarise Mass Effect 3? For 99% of it's playing time it is the best game in the series. It's been almost five years since I started this story, and the ending was both epic and emotional and (eventually) disappointing. There are also a couple of bugs (the inability to import your custom faces from ME2 should never have slipped through the net, but other than that I only encountered the odd glitch in cutscenes).
Despite the ending, by giving us a full trilogy of games in which to tell Shepard's story Bioware have given us something no other developer has managed, both in terms of scale and character. As well as the most epic, brilliant RPG Mass Effect 3 is a superb game, with the most polished combat and story mechanics I've yet seen. At turns playing the game left me elated, shocked, deeply saddened and exhausted. It made me laugh out loud, whoop in excitement and almost weep (pity my wife who was sat next to me for much of my play time!). That a computer game can achieve so much is unprecedented.
I know for sure that many are not just unhappy with how the story ends, but actively hateful of it. The fact a game can inspire such strong emotions is pretty telling. Over the course of three games players have become so attached to their characters that they seem like real people.
Mass Effect 3 is an incredible success for 99% of its playing time, and sadly a disappointment for the other 1%. That 1% doesn't change the fact that the Mass Effect trilogy has given me the best gaming experience I've had however.
The video below contains some of the many screenshots I took during my playthrough of the game. Looking back through it now it brings back some great memories. Click through for the full HD 1080p version.