Mass Effect 3 – Review

Platform | Release Date
PC, Xbox 360, PS3 | March 6, 2012
Developed by Bioware
Published by EA

The Pitch:

Mass Effect 3 plunges you into an all-out galactic war to take Earth back from a nearly unstoppable foe – and how you fight that war is entirely up to you. Choose a fast-paced cinematic experience or delve into a deeper, more choice-driven narrative. Either way, intense combat propels the action as you fight to unite a war-torn galaxy against a common enemy.

The elevator pitch for the Mass Effect series has been one of the most enticing in gaming history. You’re a rough-and-tumble space warrior, potentially with telekinetic powers, battling a universe destroying invasion of hyper-advanced machines. You will carry the effects of the decisions you make with you for the rest of your life. You will grow to know and love those who stand beside you, and together your actions will shape the future of all life.

It’s a lot to live up to, and with Mass Effect 3 BioWare almost succeeded.

It’s doubtless that, no matter how hard you’ve tried to shelter yourself, you’ve heard some of the controversies regarding Mass Effect 3. If the Internet is to be believed, the developer held back a crucial character to sell it to you as DLC, you cannot get the best ending without playing tons of multiplayer, and even then you’re faced with the worst ending in the history of anything ever. If you haven’t played it yet, it’s almost impossible to go in with any sense of optimism. But if you played through the first two games, you know BioWare already has you. You’ll play this as well, and you’ll likely enjoy most of it.

The Internet is right, in this narrow circumstance, about almost every complaint they’ve leveled at this game. Javik, the character granted by the From Ashes DLC, provides more insight and world backstory than perhaps any other character in the game. Unlike Zaeed, Mass Effect 2’s day one DLC character, Javik actually interacts with the world around him and other squad members. He is every bit as central to the story as Liara or Garrus, arguably moreso. After the title screen, Mass Effect 3 awakes in a tub of ice, and BioWare is there with a scalpel in hand offering to sell its kidney back for $10.

The Internet’s right about the multiplayer, too. The endings you’ll be offered depend entirely on your Effective Military Strength. This formula is derived from the amount of War Assets you earn, soldiers and civilians who have pledged to help your cause, multiplied by a Readiness percentage. If you don’t play the multiplayer or the Infiltrator iPhone app, this Readiness percentage will never rise above 50%, severely impeding your ability to choose the ending the developers deemed the best. You may not find this upsetting; the multiplayer is a sturdy 4-player co-op in the vein of Gears of War 2’s “Horde Mode”. If you find the combat of the main game to be shallow, this is still a good news/bad news situation.

Good news: You probably wouldn’t find that ending to be all that fantastic.

Bad news: None of the rest are either.

No controversy surrounding Mass Effect 3 can hold a candle to the widespread outrage over the various endings. This has no doubt wormed its way into your ear, as it did mine as I was nearing the finale. My initial reaction after the credits rolled was that the Internet was too worked up over nothing. I sat up that night unable to stop my mind from poring over the details of the ending I chose. Slowly, steadily, the plotholes started revealing themselves. I went back and ran through the other endings, and none of them managed to avoid some fatal flaw in logic. No matter your choices, the endings are light-years removed from the core of that game; from the choices you’ve been making for the past 5 years. It’s hard to believe they were the work of the same writers who penned the rest of this game, let alone the rest of the series.

I say this because the first 95% of Mass Effect 3 story is everything it needs to be. A universe set on edge needs to pull together against a common enemy, and Shepard finds himself in a constant struggle to bring about this unity. Ending centuries old ancestral animosity between entire races in order to bring about a working peace could be the final goal of a truly amazing game. In Mass Effect 3 it’s just one of many of galaxy-altering changes required to face off against a bigger threat.

Throughout this 95%, it’s easy to overlook the negatives. Combat hasn’t evolved much since Mass Effect 2, and enemy AI feels somehow stupider than ever. Upgrading and modifying weapons is cumbersome, and gives you no information on how a Mantis II is any better than a Mantis I. Side missions are slapped haphazardly into a quest log you’ll never look at, and only seem to get solved through sheer coincidence when you just happen to have already found whatever the quest-giver was looking for.

But again, all of this feels forgivable once the story gets going because the thrill of Mass Effect isn’t in the arterial spray of a decapitating headshot, it’s in talking a friend down from doing something hot-headed. It’s in saving the universe, getting no respect, and bloody well doing it again anyway. It’s in punching TV reporters in their smug little faces. All of that, all of the things Mass Effect has historically done remarkably well, can be found here.

I have to wonder, is that enough? Is it enough to tell most of a great story? We’ve largely forgiven Bioshock for doing just that, but it was an isolated narrative, not the product of 5 years of gaming. If Mass Effect 3 had ended 15 minutes earlier with a cliffhanger, it would be hard to argue it’s not as good as Mass Effect 2. Instead, it filled those final moments with some truly terrible writing that devastated its own fiction. And unlike Bioshock, Mass Effect 3 doesn’t have the depth of gameplay to help soften that blow.

If you’re on the fence about finishing the series, jump in immediately. There’s too much of the Mass Effect you love here to miss out. As for the endings, BioWare is no doubt hard at work figuring out how they can turn this around by selling you another kidney. For many, the canonical damage has already been done. The Mass Effect series is a snake charmer. We all swayed to its tune, ignoring fundamental gameplay missteps along the way, because the narrative was so mesmerizing. But what happens when a snake charmer hits that one sour note at the worst possible time?


About Adam Bash

Adam Bash was the host of the Fall Damage podcast and is currently a contributor to Splitkick. He helps make the site do things.
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