Mass Effect 3 Review

By Adam Sessler - Posted Mar 06, 2012

Mass Effect 3 rounds out its epic space opera with innumerous moments of restrained maturity, bringing about a conclusion that satisfies better than anything, not just in games, but in any pop medium.

The Pros
  • This is how you end a trilogy
  • Wide diversity for character options
  • Combat decidedly richer and challenging
The Cons
  • Small side quests can be teases

Mass Effect 3 Review

From the very beginning Mass Effect 3 exudes a sense of things coming to an end.  The strange beauty of the Reapers, towering godly metal cephalopods descending calmly on an earth hapless to defend itself, is conveyed with a quiet certitude and minimal histrionics.  It is the end of the world, and for those who have invested the 150-plus hours into this fabulous game series, the end of existence in this fascinating and thoughtful piece of creativity.  Mass Effect 3 rounds out its epic space opera with innumerous moments of restrained maturity, bringing about a conclusion that satisfies better than anything, not just in games, but in any pop medium.

Mass Effect 3 begins months after the conclusion of 2 during which time Shepard has returned to Earth, summarily stripped of his military authority due to his affiliation with the human-supremacist organization, Cerberus.  Not one to be idle, he continues his vain attempts to convince the galactic authorities of the impending threat from the Reapers, strange ancient beings that have habitually decimated all ancient civilizations.  The game starts with the stunning sequence of the Reapers attacking Earth, with reinstated Shepard off to rally support from all the other galactic species in the hopes that such a unified force can prevent the seemingly inevitable end of times.

The unification is trickier that it should be.  Despite the backdrop of the eradication of all organic life, squabbles among species cannot be overcome easily, and Shepard becomes the greatest ombudsman of all time, attempting to reconcile deep-seated resentments and suspicions that wrap up the political strands of the Mass Effect saga, and in the process, shines a bright light on the player’s decisions from the previous two games.  The game also forces the player to make some of the most morally complex decisions in the series that found me walking away from the screen for quite some time to ponder the significance of the possible outcomes.  Here is one of Mass Effect 3’s greatest tricks; as the final game in the series, it no longer has the lure of your decisions manifesting themselves in unknown ways in successive games and yet the decisions you make feel the most significant, perhaps because they are reflection of your own ethics.

What makes these decisions carry such weight is the writing, which has always been so effective in the Mass Effect series, not just in the clever story it weaves but the clarity with which it is done.  Minor characters and events from the first game, released in 2007, are referenced here without exposition because they have been drawn so clearly.  This is an extraordinary feat when you consider the amount of hours and dialogues generated by all three games.  The events and characters, while cut from classic tropes of sci-fi and fantasy, manage to stand out as unique, and the player is drawn in further and further by feelings of investment.  Simply put, the game makes the player care.

That player investment is rewarded greatly in Mass Effect 3 through the best writing to date from Bioware.  The large moments loom with urgency and drama, the conflicts that prevent all species from collectively fighting the Reapers are complex and thoughtful, and the character interactions with Shepard carry a surprising poignancy.  Seeing an old character who promises to buy you a drink "when it’s all over" doesn’t read like bravado but a desperate hold on a deeply fragile hope that things will work out.

Working in perfect concert with the writing is the digital acting, voice work, and non-interactive camerawork.  The conversation sequences may be less articulated than the cutscenes in Uncharted, but they convey all the necessary emotion because the voice acting is universally distinct and superlative.  What is more impressive in this Mass Effect outing are the cutscenes, some which I cannot see replicated even in film.  The framing in some scenes beautifully echoes the enormity and scope of the drama, vistas of devastation or threat.  Action sequences are very kinetic, and personal interactions have an intimacy that never feels static.  Mass Effect 3 is produced with such an amazing level of care and detail that it’s impossible not to get swept up in all its majesty.

With such strong narrative, it’s easy to forget that it’s also a game, and here too, the Mass Effect 3 steps up and trumps its previous incarnations.  Mass Effect 2 tightly narrowed its role playing depth after the redundant breadth of ME1; Mass Effect 3 finds a very happy medium that is based on a host of  options for the player that are easy to interpret and, more importantly, easy to see their impact in the game.

Shepard and his supporting cast have more skills to which experience points can be applied, and inside of each skill is a skill tree that breaks in 2 directions; for example, at level 3 of Overload, you can increase damage or widen the radius of effect.  Some skills benefit the whole team, others just the specific character.  Taken in each instance, these changes may seem minor, but collectively, they help guide character development towards support, tank, everything you’re used to in role playing games, despite which character class you choose.

The same diversity is present in your arsenal.  Regardless of character class, any weapon is available.  In fact, you can carry all five weapon types at once.  How the game balances this opportunity is through the best application of weight encumbrance in any modern role-playing game; Shepard does not slow down, his biotic powers recharge very slowly.  The player has the choice to focus on guns instead of throwing shockwave every few seconds.

The weapons themselves are also more diverse.  Each weapons type has many (maybe 10+) versions that are unlocked through the game, all of them handling, feeling and looking distinct.  Each of these weapons can be upgraded up to five times for relatively modest costs, allowing the player to figure out what suits their play style before heavily investing.  Mods, once again, about five to each weapon class, are available and upgradeable, with two slots for mods open for each weapon.  This assortment, which may sounds daunting on paper, is elegantly presented in the game and takes on increasing interest as the game progresses and you fine tune your play style.  (For a while I played the game leaning on a high-powered pistol with a scope throwing my biotic powers around like a Jedi on amphetamines.)  Bioware has done an extraordinary job of fostering experimentation and discovery without penalty.

Most of these improvements would be moot if the game didn’t present the proper challenges to respect your attention to character development.  Here again, Mass Effect 3 steps up and delivers.  Enemy AI and a wide variety of enemy types are significantly improved making a normal playthrough (starting at level 30, for me) a challenge.  Armed enemies will use smoke, flank and throw grenades to flush you out of cover.  While the husks abound, other Reaper-influenced enemies will rush Shepard and his crew, keeping the whack-a-mole combat from cover at a minimum.  (I found my Vanguard Shepard’s playstyle changing significantly throughout the game upon learning that, unlike in ME2, biotic jumps became too dangerous and a slower more sober-minded approach was wiser.)  As the game progresses, the number and variety of enemies on screen can feel daunting but is also highly evocative of the despair of the larger story, which heightens the drama.

Mass Effect 3, like its two predecessors, has three components: story, combat and... that third thing.  In Mass Effect 1, it was the strange driving sequences; in ME2, it was the onerous mining; here, it is the least intrusive and the most superficial.  Throughout Mass Effect 3, your galaxy map adds regions that have been taken over by the Reapers.  You enter those sectors and scan them, looking for anomalies on planets or floating in space, that may have war assets - the currency that tracks how ready you are to take on the reapers are also acquired through normal quests - which you then pick up with little effort.  You scan more than 2-3 times in the sectors though, and the reapers show up and drive you away.  This gameplay is modest and easily exploited but minor enough to keep completionists from losing their minds.

The one true downside to this gameplay mechanic is that potentially interesting quests are closed just by scanning a planet and acquiring its war asset or, in some cases, by running back and forth between people on the citadel.  Some set-ups, such as an Elcor that asks you to rescue his people, sounds like a sidequest with discovery and action; I didn’t realize I had fulfilled my promise of help until three hours after I had.  This is a disappointment because the Mass Effect universe is so intriguing that any substantive opportunity to interact with it more is too enticing.

Not content to refine its single player, Mass Effect 3 also offers online co-op gameplay in "Galaxy at War".  This horde-style survival mode is woven into the larger fiction with you taking on the role of combatant in the war that makes the backdrop for the single player game.  What’s more thoughtful though is that your success in co-op has an effect on the single player campaign, as your efforts contribute to the preparation of the forces of good in their fight against the Reapers.  This is an alternative to doing all the single player activities and focusing on the main quests, supplementing your "galactic readiness" with co-op.

It’s a solid, stable, if slight, take on the newest multiplayer mode du jour with all the requisite leveling and upgrading to keep the devoted engaged, but it lacks of the single player game’s complexity in combat and, more importantly, its excitement because it is quite disconnected from the Shepard saga.  Nonetheless, it is a nice diversion and should find an audience with those who have been requesting some online component to the franchise.

Mass Effect 3 and the entire series stand alongside Uncharted and Skyrim in exemplifying what games can do that cannot be replicated in other creative forms.  What is so unique in this game is how the presence of its conclusion feels like the existential dread that infuses the characters that make up its universe.  The paradox of the game becomes painfully prescient as it draws inexorably towards its conclusion.  Here, Shepard is trying to determining the fate of everything but the inevitability of the final is inescapable.  All the decisions you continue to make in Mass Effect may be less consequential but they feel all the more grave as if the game is becoming a testament to who you are, or who you want to be.

That’s why I wish I could play it again for the first time.

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Editor's Note: Mass Effect 3 was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game; however, we also played the PS3 version, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.