It was to be the epic conclusion to one of the best and most-loved game series of this generation, but Mass Effect 3 has ended up being mired in controversy around its ending. So what’s all the fuss about?
Given that one of the most alluring features of the Mass Effect trilogy is its rich history and detailed backstory, it makes sense that any review of the final part of the series looks back at where it all began. Back in 2007, developers BioWare created a science fiction role-playing game, set in the 22nd century after mankind discovers alien technology on Mars, enabling them to travel through the galaxy and encounter other alien races.
Like good fusion cuisine, Mass Effect stepped away from traditional sword-fighting role-playing games by offering a third-person shooter gameplay mechanic. The combination of an intense and gripping story and addictive gameplay sequences saw it immediately become a massive success among the gaming community.
Its sequel, Mass Effect 2, continued the tradition, with tighter gameplay and a new, grander storyline. Like its predecessor, the game won awards left, right and centre for its amazing level of detail and the rare ability to connect the player with the lead character, Commander Shepard. The sequel also introduced the ability to import the player’s character from the first game, including custom appearances, as well as key decisions made in the original.
Which brings us to Mass Effect 3, the recently released conclusion to the trilogy. Like Mass Effect 2, this game allows users to import a character from the previous game, from his or her appearance to the key decisions players made during the game.
This continuity from previous games, while not essential to enjoy the ME3 experience, is highly recommended. While BioWare and Electronic Arts make a point that Mass Effect 3 is a great place to start playing the series, they are wrong.
To truly get the most out of the series, you need to start at the beginning, as you grow to both admire and respect not only your own Commander Shepard, but also your crewmates and non-playable characters. The emotive scenes in the final game, where key characters either die or barely survive in your battle against the deadly Reapers, mean more when you’ve experienced the entire trilogy.
The final game in the series sees the monstrous alien AI machines known as Reapers – giant squid-like robots with almost indestructible armor and devastating weaponry – begin their invasion of Earth and the wiping out of all intelligent life in the galaxy. It’s a war you spent the first to games trying to prevent, but now that it’s here, the entire universe is looking to you to lead them against the devastating machines.
As with the other Mass Effect games, there are two main components in playing the game. There’s the story – which is driven by conversations with other characters, as well as completing key action sequences – and there’s the action itself.
For the first time, BioWare has offered the ability to customize how much of each aspect you’d like to play. So if you find the act of talking to every shipmate after every mission tedious, you can have conversations skipped or played out as a non-interactive video. Alternatively, if you like the dialogue, you can dial down the difficulty so combat is easier than trying to shoot Space Invaders from between blocky bunkers. This addition of customisable gameplay is a welcome addition for different types of gamers, but ultimately the best experience is still the combination of both gaming elements.
The action itself is fairly tight, which makes it enjoyable. The third game sees the addition of an omni-blade for intense melee damage up close, as well as the ability to attack from cover undetected. There’s not much chance of stealth though, so you won’t get to use the latter all too often. The ability to upgrade weapons as well as ammo has returned after a brief hiatus in the second game, and there’s a new weight classification on weapons, which slows down the speed of your power regeneration if you carry too many heavy weapons.
There’s an abundance of missions to complete in your quests to defeat the Reapers. The main quest involves uniting the different races, from the war-loving lizards known as the Krogan to the all-female blue-coloured Asari and the amphibious Salarians, the main story arc sees you reunited with old friends and comrades as you try and unite the galaxy.
Secondary quests see you battling the human terrorist organisation known as Cerberus, who have expanded their mission brief since you worked with them in the second game. The mysteries surrounding Cerberus’ aims are eventually answered towards the end of the game, but it forms a good counterpoint to the main story.
There are also plenty of additional side quests, which generally involve finding key pieces of information throughout other missions and returning it to the right person. All of these actions work to boost your war readiness rating, which was supposed to influence how the ending of the game played out. And it does, but just not in the way many fans were expecting.
Mass Effect 3 is the first game in the series to introduce a multiplayer component, and despite protestations from fans, it’s actually very well implemented. Essentially a 10 minute co-op horde mode, multiplayer sees you battle growing waves of enemies – either Reaper, Geth or Cerberus – and try and survive.
The maps and combat are all well designed and easy to follow, and the fact that it’s a co-operative multiplayer means that there’s plenty of incentive for non-multiplayer gamers to give it a go. Each successful game contributes to the Galactic Readiness rating, which again is supposed to influence how the end of the game plays out.
The other new element BioWare has introduced this generation is the addition of mobile apps – Mass Effect Infiltrator and Mass Effect DataPad. Developed by Australia’s IronMonkey Studios, the apps let you contribute to the galactic readiness by either playing the mobile shooter Infiltrator or by playing a basic map-based game to increase your stats.
While many reviewers found these games an entirely unsatisfying way to expand on the Mass Effect universe, it was refreshing to see such an engaged way to expand the experience away from the console and onto portable devices. The biggest problem was that the games are only available for iOS, which limits the potential audience.
Then there’s the ending. Plenty of other reviewers have lamented the final 15 minute sequence of the game, and the sad truth is that they have a point. For a game built around the idea that every decision you make influences how your experience plays out, the final 15 minutes seem to make most – if not all – of your previous decisions meaningless. After so many struggles, to watch your own version of Commander Shepard simply accept the options given to him seems like a cop out. It was underwhelming, if not a little disappointing.
That said, BioWare and EA have listened to the many, many complaints from fans about the ending and have announced a free DLC pack to hopefully address these concerns. Whether or not it’s successful is yet to be seen, but given the amount of time and emotional investment you put into all three games, let’s hope it is.
But despite the underwhelming ending, the game itself is a testament to the developers at BioWare. It concludes what has been one of the best gaming franchises in this generation of games consoles, and was well worth the time and money.
Some have referred to the Mass Effect series as the Star Wars for the Xbox generation. It’s a good analogy – with its engaging story set in space, the series has pushed the boundaries of what an RPG is meant to be. The final instalment, while not perfect, is a fitting way to conclude the story of Shepard, with plenty of action and characters you care about. But like you would never watch Return of the Jedi without experiencing A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back, playing Mass Effect 3 without tasting the first two games is a tragedy. When judged as a whole, it’s impossible to deny that Mass Effect truly is a master example of the potential of video games as a storytelling medium.
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Nick Broughall is the Australian Editor of TechRadar.com, where he gets to indulge his passion for geekery and the lastest technology. He is also the Editor of EFTM.com.au, where he gets to indulge his passion for manliness, from sampling fine liquor to the joys of growing a beard. It's a pretty good life, really.