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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mass Effect 3 (9.7/10)

Video games represent many different things for many different people. Personally, immersion is my favorite form of escapism; I love losing myself in interactive worlds. But nothing I've played has captured my imagination more so than the Mass Effect series. I don't know why I connected with it on such a deep level, but it goes beyond the fact that I'm such a sci fi nerd. Mass Effect 3 may bring Shepherd's saga to a close, but for me it was a much more personal experience. It wasn't just the ending to a fantastic narrative (yes, I have all the books and comics) and a wonderfully engaging video game experience... but I've never felt like I had more invested in a fiction beyond Star Wars. Those who know me well will tell you, that's saying something!

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I'm not going to mention much about the plot. Considering how the whole idea of the series in the first place is player choice and how those choices play out, everyone would have a slightly different experience. Long story short... the Reapers finally arrive as Shepherd warned (and was subsequently ignored), and are systematically destroying all organic life in the universe. In a mildly annoying plot twist, it turns out there is a super weapon that the Protheans were working on when they got pinched (how convenient is that?!). But getting it built will take the combined cooperation of not only the Council, but the aid of each race as well. With the Illusive Man and Cerberus trying to foil Shepherd at every turn, it's up to our hero to unite all the different species throughout the galaxy to fight back and face the Reaper threat once and for all. The wonderfully rich and detailed universe is still there for us to explore, but not without an overwhelming sense of urgency... the clock is ticking.

There are several, admittedly minor, changes to how you go about accomplishing this task. Essentially, there is a 'Galactic Readiness' bar that, depending on how much you want to do, is the gateway to the final confrontation. By completing tasks both optional and mandatory, that gauge will fill. The more resources you have collected, the more likely you are to survive. In other words, galactic readiness effects the ending you see. Like Mass Effect 2, it's all about how things play out at the end game. But this time you'll find that receiving side quests comes down to essentially eavesdropping on conversations. I like the more organic feel, but I found myself constantly wondering what I had missed. Running around the Citadel, hoping to catch a new mission turned out to be more a waste of time than anything, and I'll admit to checking the guidebook to ensure I didn't miss the good bits.

Mass Effect 3 showcases refined controls, improving on the benchmark set with Mass Effect 2. Moving in and out of cover is a bit smoother this time around. It's still not on the level with Gears of War, but it's not far off. The gunplay is still fantastic, and using the alternate weapon wheels for choosing both your arsenal and powers is fluid. In an interesting twist, you can use the Kinect to issue voice commands to your squad. Being able to shout "Liara, singularity!" is a nice alternative... when it works. Sadly, it's not terribly consistent, but it does set an interesting precedent.

Combat is a much more tactical affair with enemy AI being far more advanced than we have seen thus far. The bad guys will make good use of healing and buff techniques. You'll be introduced to a whole slew of new enemy types, and some of the advanced Reaper types are suitably tough. There are a few set piece boss battles that are mildly annoying, but for the most part the game is both well paced and reasonably challenging.

Visually, Mass Effect 3 is stunning. It's the best in the series so far, and considering how good they are that's right at the top of the heap. Seriously, take a moment to look around at the astonishing level of detail in the backgrounds. Early on there is a great moment on one of the moons of Palaven (the Turian homeworld) where Reapers are slowly traipsing around, destroying everything in the background while the burning planet fills your periphery on the horizon. It looks amazing, and what's more, those moments are the standard rather than few and far between. Space battles are on a scale akin to the Star Wars prequels. It's awe-inspiring. And that's just in-game-the cutscenes are even more impressive. The cinematic touches are more integrated and better presented than any other Mass Effect game to date. Put simply, the whole game is beautiful.

On a similar note, the cast once again delivers as the voice acting is exceptional. Working with such a well written script makes things easier I'm sure, but every cast member nailed their respective roles. There are a lot of poignant interludes with characters both past and present. Considering the obviously darker tone, this shouldn't come as a surprise. However, those moments are made all the more believable by excellent performances. The score sets the mood brilliantly, and even simple things like background chatter and sound effects are top notch. It's difficult to think of too many other games that can compete in these areas. Bioware really does the production part right.

I also appreciate how Bioware listens to their constituency. Gone are the annoying mini-games from the first two games all together. No more frustrating, time-wasting hacking challenges, no more button mashing locks. No longer do you have to mindlessly scan planets for resources (easily the worst part of Mass Effect 2). But in their efforts to streamline the experience, the argument can be made that they have effectively removed a lot of the RPG elements from this action/RPG, which is both a blessing and a curse. It's nice to focus solely on the narrative and the action, but at the same time, a little more freedom wouldn't be remiss. Hey, at least you have more choice in armaments and armor than you did in Mass Effect 2! 

Mass Effect 3 also introduces a multiplayer component to the mix, a first for the series. Regular readers know I'm not a huge online multiplayer fan, but I put my time in on this one. Why, you ask? Well, it's because to get the best ending, you really do need to play online as it effects your galactic readiness. I'm not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I really hate how you pretty much have to do it. I don't like being dictated to. However, since it's actually fun, it's less of a chore! It's basically a variation of the increasingly popular 'Horde' mode where groups of enemies come in increasingly difficult waves. You gain experience that can be spent on buying packs of items that include weapons and temporary stat boosts. It's reasonably well balanced, a blast to play with friends, and ultimately adds more to the Mass Effect experience.

For all the emphasis this series has put on player choice, I really felt far more shepherded (HA!) in the third installment than I did in the previous two. It really seemed like I was being guided on a much more predetermined path. This feeds into the discontent a great many people felt about the ending. Don't worry, I'm not giving anything away, but you'd have to be living under a rock to not know there was a severe backlash from fans regarding the final moments. All I'll say is this: I understand why people are upset, but ultimately I felt validated for spending so much of my time in Commander Shepherd's shoes.

For me, the Mass Effect franchise epitomizes what video games can be. I've laughed and even cried (I'm man enough to admit it) at moments in this series. But because I'm ultimately at the helm, I feel a personal connection greater than any movie. I felt the weight of the decisions I was asked to make, constantly wondering what I would do if ever faced with such responsibility. As I built relationships with my squad I found myself coming to genuinely care about their fate. It evoked real emotions in me, and for a medium to illicit a natural response is an impressive feat. Having imported my Shepherd through all three games, the sense of continuance and accomplishment is second to none. As far as I'm concerned, Mass Effect (as a series) is what gaming is all about. Many thanks to Bioware for this ride: we've been given the future in the present. And although I'm sorry to see Shepherd's story come to a close, his name and lore will live on as a legend, as it should.


Score = 9.7 / 10

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