2012-03-27

Mass Effect 3 – A Worthy Ending For The Sci-Fi Epic?

by Yo Snyder

So initially I thought I’d post a review for Mass Effect 3
after I played a good chunk of it and had an appreciation for its
similarities and differences from the previous games. I wanted to do
this so I could get a review out to the…er…masses a bit quicker, but
then this flak developed about the game’s ending. Fans apparently were
furious. Eventually Bioware announced that they would prepare a new
ending for the game, and that’s when I realized any review of the game
would have be not just about how it plays, but also about how it ends.
We’ll get to that ending in just a moment, but that and a few other
technical issues aside, Mass Effect 3 is a worthy, exciting, emotional conclusion to one of gaming’s biggest trilogies.

The Mass Effect series has always been about choice, so gamers such
as myself were excited to see how our choices would pay-off in this
conclusion. I have to admit, it’s pretty fun to see familiar faces, to
re-kindled old relationships, and to spend time reflecting on past
adventures with long-time crew-mates. Mass Effect 3 does a great
job of giving you ample time to say good-bye to characters you’ve
invested so much time with over the course of the series. Yes the
Reapers have arrived and are scourging the galaxy, giving you plenty of
epic action set-pieces as you try to stop them, but it’s the quiet
moments with familiar characters that form the heart of this game. Many
of those familiar faces are here as a result of how you played things in
previous games, which may sometimes mean (such as in my case) that you
run into old acquaintances on almost every planet. I know some feel this
coincidence of always running into someone you’ve known everywhere you
go makes the galaxy feel more like a college campus, but I didn’t mind
it all. I thought it was kind of nice.

Some hard choices were made leading up to this final adventure, but
truthfully, I felt that this time out there weren’t any tough ones left
to make. I never came across a moment where I agonized over the outcome
of a choice (except for the ending, and as I said, we’ll get to that).
There were plenty of life or death situations, but I never had to choose
who would live or die. There were some pretty epic moments throughout,
but again, I never worried about making the “right” choice in a key
moment because while those key moments came with regularity, the outcome
for them felt pretty well mapped out for me this time around. My
choices from the past came to fruition during the course of this
adventure, but I didn’t get much sense that I had many opportunities to
make new, weighty decisions  this time around because it was all coming
to an end.

What did improve, however, was the combat. There’s a greater sense of
scale for many of the battles you engage in. I never lost sight of the
fact that I was engaged in a greater conflict that was raging on a
galactic scale. Combat is fast, chaotic and intense this time around.
Enemies will flank you, get in behind you, try to pin you down with
superior fire-power; this time it really does feel like war. Popping
into cover can still feel a little too “sticky”, meaning I stick to
cover at times when I don’t mean to, but it’s nice to have quicker
options for getting out of cover like quickly sliding to new a new
position, swinging around a corner, or vaulting over cover to a new
position. The new voice command elements available from Kinect are nice
as well. As I played further into the game, I found myself using it less
often, but still using it in critical situations. When the firefight
gets intense and you run out of ammo or want to quickly coordinate an
attack using the abilities of your teammates, being able to call out
commands is a nice option and keeps the combat flowing fast. The voice
commands for Mass Effect 3 aren’t a game changers, but they certainly enhance the experience and work well as a convenient tool.

A couple other things worth mentioning before we get to the whole
“ending” scenario. First, the side-quests this time out are fairly week.
You pick most of them up by overhearing people talk in the Citadel, and
complete most of them by scanning planets in various systems. In short,
they’re glorified fetch quests that don’t do much more than increase a
number for your War Assets (which ostensibly will determine which ending
you earn).  For such a personal game, this system feels rather
impersonal and pretty much eliminates any sense of exploration (which
has never been the series’ strongest suit, but feels pretty much erased
here). Some of the same old technical problems have re-surfaced as well,
including things like texture pop-in, as well as some new ones like
characters responding to commands that I didn’t give (apparently
picked-up through some ambient noise by Kinect…I guess?),
conversations where characters lose track of each other and contort in
weird ways while talking, and some conversations where characters either
pop-in or pop-out (it’s weird to finish talking with someone and
instantly they disappear from in front of you). These little glitches
don’t detract from the overall achievement of this series or this game,
but they are worth mentioning.

Now, about that ending. I get where some are coming from; it wasn’t
exactly what I was expecting either. However, to demand a totally
different ending seems a bit extreme. The whole ending fiasco for Mass Effect 3 reminds me of the fervor over the Lost ending.
Some felt that didn’t do enough to answer long lingering questions from
the shows mythology (which, in fairness, it didn’t). However, others
felt that despite that issue, it was a worthwhile goodbye to character
we’ve grown to care so much about over the years. It provided closure on
an emotional level, if not an intellectual level. So it is with Mass Effect 3.
I felt like I got closure with these characters that I’ve spent so much
time with, but the ending just didn’t fulfill my expectations so far as
concluding the epic plot. It got a bit existential and I didn’t really
feel like I won; which after all Shepard’s been through, would’ve been
nice. Well I did win, but it was a win fraught with sacrifice and
compromise and…well, it’s complicated. While what you do in
multiplayer has an effect on which ending you get, I have to be honest,
after looking through the various endings, I didn’t see any that were
all that radically different from any other. There are slight tweaks
here and there, but they all follow the same basic template ranging from
not quite saving the day to barely saving the day to saving the day and
not surviving to saving the day and surviving to saving the day in an
entirely different way than anyone expected. Do I think a new ending is
needed? No, but I can see why some would want one. 

Ending aside, the real question is did Mass Effect 3
fulfill all my expectations for the conclusion of this trilogy. To be
honest, no, not really, but it fulfilled most of them. Far too often I
felt more like a spectator than like I was in the driver’s seat, with
big decisions determined for me. However, as a gameplay experience and
as another game in the Mass Effect universe, my expectations were met.
The game is immersive, action-packed, has a fascinating story and is
filled with fully-realized, vibrant characters with interesting stories
of their own. It has all the hallmarks of what makes the Mass Effect
series so great, adds a few tweaks and improvements (some better than
others), stumbles a bit with the ending at a few other points, but on
the whole is a very satisfying experience. The Mass Effect trilogy is
one of the great sci-fi epics of this generation in any media form, and
it’s been a joy to journey with it all the way through to the end; more
so because much of the story was my story.  I was bit emotional at the end of it all, not necessarily because of how it ended, but more because of the simple fact that it is the end, and it’s never easy to say good-bye.

Score out of 7:

Graphics:
5 – Some of the vistas and environments in this game are stunning.
We’ve come a long way from all the similar looking hallways and
planetscapes of the first game. Some the character models are a bit
stiff, lip synching doesn’t always  synch, and clipping, texture pop-in
and occasional frame-rate issues are all present, but they’re minor
nuisances that don’t detract from the overall experience.

Sound: 6
– Voice acting once again is stellar, making these characters come
alive. The soundtrack also does a good job of capturing the drama,
excitement and emotion in a variety of situations without ever being too
intrusive. Weapons all sound like they pack quite a punch, as do the
various biotic powers, which makes combat an aural as much as a visual
treat.

Controls: 6 – The wheel menus has always been a slick
interface for getting the powers, weapons and commands you want issued
to you and your squad. The addition of voice command with Kinect just
makes that all the more slick. I didn’t use it often, but it came in
handy in hectic moments when I just need to issue some quick orders.

Gameplay:
5 – Side quests and exploration are weak this time out, but the main
story, the combat, and the conversations you have are all excellent.
Again, voice command for conversations is kind of fun, but even less
necessary than it was in combat. Multiplayer is fun, but it’s impact on
the campaign isn’t really felt all that dramatically, and the same
“horde mode” gameplay as the only option can wear thin after awhile.

Story: 5 – Personally, I liked the finale of Lost, and I don’t have as many issues with the conclusion of Mass Effect 3
as some apparently do. It was a satisfying goodbye to some beloved
characters even if it didn’t satisfy my need for the story to come to an
appropriate conclusion (sometimes the bad guy can be so powerful, so
overwhelming, that the only way to defeat them is with some plot
sleight-of-hand, which is what I think happened here.)

Content: 4 –
Not as much swearing as the last game, although there is some; so that
can be a concern. It also seemed like there were a lot more more
same-sex relationships being flaunted this time around. Speaking of
which, you’re character can easily get mixed up in one of those, or
spend some between-the-sheet time with a member of the opposite sex.
Nothing explicit is shown (no more so than on a racy scene from a TV
show), but it can be a bit sensual. Just a few things to consider.

Final Score: 5 – Mass Effect 3
brings to a close an ambitious project, and for the most part, does
that well. It captures many of the elements that made the earlier games
so great, adds a few improvements, takes some steps back in other areas,
and struggles with the ending. Still, at least for me, it was a
satisfying, exciting journey that provided an appropriate good-bye to an
iconic galaxy filled with great characters.