Mass Effect 3 – “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”

In some respects Mass Effect 3 had an impossible job. It had to improve upon ME2 while incorporating feedback from players who wanted deeper RPG mechanics to make up for the renewed focus on combat in ME2. It also had to tie up dozens, if not hundreds, of plot threads from throughout the series and resolve the conflict with a lovecraftian-cosmic threat known as the Reapers, an unstoppable force of cosmic nature that have existed in a cycle of death and rebirth for over one billion years.

BioWare stumble, and they stumble quite a lot, but while Mass Effect 3 may not be a good ending to the series (even if the DLC somewhat redeems it and some provide the highlights of the trilogy) it’s still a good enough game in it’s own right. In my review of Mass Effect 2 I talked about how the opening was a jaw-dropper with Commander Shepard seemingly dying in space after a brutal attack on the SSV Normandy and ME3 opens with a similar, albeit less effective, moment.

STORY

ME3 opens with DudeShep, or FemShep, in confinement on Earth. After the events of ME2 and its DLC Shep has been brought in for questioning as a political maneuver to appease the Batarians since in the Arrival DLC you could blow up an entire star system…along with most of the batarian race.  After meeting whoever survived Virmire and beefcake new recruit James Vega, Shepard is called before the government of Earth to tell them what they know about the Reapers. Of course, no sooner has Shepard told them “lolurfuk’d” than Earth finds itself under attack from the Reaper armada.

They waste no time in systematically destroying swathes of civilization with the UK coming under first attack. Because we’re mod cool. Anyhoo Shepard is sent by Admiral Anderson (guess who got a promotion!) to inform the Council that shit just got real and gather everyone they can find to kick the Reapers out of Earth’s backyard. Now of course things don’t go according to plan and there are many trials and tribulations along the way, with Shepard potentially deciding the fate of most of the galactic species, but it’s a fun sci-fi/war story with threads weaving back to the previous two games.

Your choices aren’t really reflected in the broad strokes of the plot but the details that make it up and the background conversations are influenced by your choices. You can meet Kasumi Goto, a techno-japanese thief and more from the previous games in cameos shaped by your decisions…but ultimately the game comes down to something of a Deus Ex Machina, even if it’s introduced about an hour into the game. The DLC goes a loooong way to helping the case for this but when Casey Hudson said that the choices meant the ending to the trilogy could be wildly divergent and not consist of an A, B, C narrative…he done goofed.

Certain elements leave a sour taste in the mouth, like the Rachni decision from ME1 essentially having no consequence in ME3…but I feel like the worst crime of all in reflecting the choices is in the final battle in ME3. The Suicide Mission in ME2 was, to me, the pinnacle of the series and what Mass Effect could be. It had interesting combat scenarios but it also reflected your choices both throughout the game and the mission, in major and significant ways. ME3’s climax doesn’t really do this, instead it gives you three or four thematic choices that for all intents and purposes could largely mean the same thing, and locks one behind an arbitary “points” system that in the vanilla game could only be accessed by the way of the multiplayer.

However the MP for ME3 is awesome so who cares. Anyway there is no best ending to ME3, with the “secret scene” basically making no sense in the context of the ending so I can’t say that it’s a huge loss, more of a dumb design decision. I would have been interested to hear a post mortem by BioWare dissecting the story process for ME3 but I suspect that won’t be happening.

ME3 does make another serious misstep with the narrative by locking a Prothean character, a precursor race to galactic civilzation, behind DLC. Originally this was Day 1 DLC and I got the LE so it didn’t bother me too much but to lock a significant character, both in narrative and badassitude, behind a DLC paywall is pretty shitty BioWare. Fo’ shame. That said the character doesn’t necessarily contribute much to the overall plot rather than just fleshing out some information here and there, but he certainly feels like he should have been included from the get go which makes the DLC method all the more galling.

I think that ME3  hits a lot of emotional beats with characters and includes some fantastic moments for fan favorites such as Garrus and Liara whilst not being afraid to send companions like Ashley or Kaidan down potentially dark routes depending on Shepard’s choices. This could annoy some people because Ashley and Kaidan’s changes in particular can be a little at odds with their established personality but in Ashley’s case in particular the routes she can take are understandable even if they don’t necessarily sit well with the player.

Of course The Illusive Man and Cerberus return and they have received a huge power boost since ME2. In ME2 they were displayed as a black ops group but in ME3, through plot explained reasons, they have vastly expanded to the point where the troops and forces under TiM’s command rival that of any singular galactic army. TiM also has changes in his motivations from being someone who holds his cards close to his chest to someone who’s not snarling and malevolent but is certainly more open. It’s a change in personality that is, yet again, explained by the overall story but personally I preferred his nature in ME2.

However he does have a fantastic moment or two towards the end of the game that show the gamut of emotions for this character and why he works so well and will remain a legendary part of the Mass Effect universe. I don’t want to spoil everything here though.

That said while ME3 contains a huge amount of story the crux of the whole thing remains a last stand war against the Reapers. I’ve previously remarked on the endings and while I won’t elaborate on that in this review, too much, I will say that ME3 marks a change in the Reapers from being an old god inspired lovecraftian mecha-space monster to a race with a directive that led them down this path. A lot of people hate it. I wouldn’t say I hate it but at the same time I can at least understand it and the oxymoronic nature of the Reapers…but you’ll have to make your mind up for yourself.

To be honest regardless of the ending of ME3 I’ve never understood people who say that it soured the entire trilogy for them. It’s almost as if the memories and experiences cultivated by 100+ hours of this amazing universe cease to exist or matter and they absolutely do not.

Oh well.

A few pieces of story DLC were released for ME3 and they are basically all worth your time and money. The Extended Cut DLC adds new scenes and conversations in around the endings and is worth a download even if you’ve never played the game before. Leviathan DLC allows you to uncover gargantuan sized secrets about the lore of the Mass Effect universe and possibly even meet the creators of the Reapers. The Omega DLC lets Shepard leave his squad behind to team up with Aria to take back Omega Station from Cerberus, who took it over during a coup in one of the comics. Finally the Citadel DLC manages to be a love letter to the fans, set anytime after a mid-game story mission but best played before the point of no return in ME3. It sees Shepard taking some much needed R&R on the Citadel before a dinner-date with Joker is rudely interrupted by mercenaries and a fun and crazy, not taking itself too seriously, adventure unfolds.

While Omega is only worth your time if you like the character of Aria, because you get a badass new power from her that can absolutely wreck most enemies, Leviathan and Citadel should be required playing for ME fans. While Leviathan is more there for lore purposes while providing cool combat scenarios and nice character moments, Citadel is there for being the ultimate summation of Mass Effect. It brings out the best in the characters, it gives no fucks about dishing out fan service, and never takes itself so seriously that you can’t just enjoy the ride and one last goodbye with these characters.

Citadel also ends with a party at Shepard’s swanky apartment on the Citadel, that they acquired from Anderson, and almost every surviving crew member from the trilogy makes an appearance and it leads to a variety of funny situations. Some may not appreciate the fan service or in-jokes that come thick and fast in Citadel…but to be honest I think if people took Mass Effect so seriously to think it’s out of place then they probably missed the point of Mass Effect in the first place, or at least took it more seriously than BioWare ever did.

Suffice to say if you like a particular character (who has a name) in the Mass Effect universe then you will probably find some reference or cameo to them in ME3. Even Conrad Verner.

SOUND

In my ME2 review I mentioned that I thought progress had been made from ME1 to ME2 and I’m pleased to say that continues into ME3. While ME2’s soundtrack drifted away from the synth-heavy OST of the original game, which was a shame, it did come bearing gifts in the form of amazing tracks like the Suicide Mission and battle themes from the Overlord and Lair of the Shadow Broker DLCs.

There was a positive sturr when it was announced that Clint Mansell, of Requiem for a Dream and Lux Eterna fame among others, would be composing for ME3. However as far as I can tell, Mansell only composed two tracks for ME3’s ost and the majority of it is spread among composers to have worked on the series so far. That said Mansell does bring in two brilliant pieces of music that act as a farewell to Earth during the aforementioned opening sequence of the Reapers’ arrival.

Mansell’s other track, An End Once and For All acts as an epilogue to the adventure and the trilogy as it is played during the narrative epilogue sequence but it is also used at the climax of various characters story arcs which can make it quite poignant when sharing moments with Liara and more.

Tracks like the battle themes from Overlord or Lair of the Shadow Broker make returns in ME3 as it is very much an end to this trilogy and core of characters, even though the series will continue with a new storyline and cast in Mass Effect Andromeda. All in the all the soundtrack to ME3 is outstanding, with a wealth of tracks pulled from across the series and new ones like the Clint Mansell tracks or the ambient music for a location like Grissom Academy sitting right alongside the classics of the series.

The voice acting continues to be improved upon game after game with series regulars putting in typically good performances and Mark Meer (DudeShep) in particular really stepping up his game to the point where he now sits alongside Jennifer Hale in terms of performance. All the characters have their personalities at first in the writing but the familiar voices and friendships you’ve built up with these characters across 100+ hours really comes home in the voice acting.

For instance the final conversation between Shepard and Garrus is almost the ultimate bro-mance moment, but can be quite poignant for fans of the characters and how they always have each others backs.

minor spoilers beware!

Martin Sheen puts in another great performance as The Illusive Man and although he’s given less to do than in ME2 (I think, on balance) the moments he does get are far more significant. In particular a late-game conversation between TiM, Shepard and Anderson brings some of Sheen’s best work in the series and gives some final clarity to his motives and reasoning, whether you agree with him or not. Sheen sells the tragic events of TiM well and while I preferred the more murky and illusive (no pun intended) character of the second game…in the larger picture of the story he does well here.

While the Citadel DLC practically makes up for any shortfalls in the character arcs I suppose that after 120-150ish hours, across three games and multiple DLCs, it’s pretty amazing that you end up having feelings, opinions and reactions to almost every character rather than only one or two. That doesn’t mean you have to like them but hey ho.

While I could probably spend at least 5000 words on each section of the game if I did’t show any restraint (you could be forgiven for thinking I’m not since ME1 + ME2 reviews so far are at least 11000 words) another VA i want to mention is Tricia Helfer as EDI. As a disembodied AI in ME2 she didn’t have a whole lot to do as a steely robotic voice but in ME3, EDI gets a body (unnecessarily sexed up) quite early on and she can then be a squad member during combat and she is a romantic interest of Jeff Monreau, the best pilot in the galaxy.

I feel like EDI’s design is a misstep, in that while I feel like although I don’t mind “sexy” designs every now and again, EDI just feels like pandering. That said the dialogue between EDI and Joker is quite interesting as there’s another cross-species debate, not so much in terms of is their relationship right or wrong but another debate in the Mass Effect universe. I think their relationship is also meant to give you more context when it comes to the final decision that can effect the lives of so many throughout the Milky Way, as Joker and EDI are those who would be affected and are close to Shepard.

In that regard it works well, and it was an interesting direction for BioWare to go, and an interesting quandary for them to pose to the player.

GAMEPLAY

ME3 continues to evolve and iterate upon the game play of ME2. The fluidity of combat is greatly increased as Shepard is more mobile than ever and capable of melee attacks and dive rolls and more actions found in a third person shooter. In terms of general movement Shepard largely remains the same, although they certainly feel a little snappier than usual. Thankfully BioWare resisted the temptation to go the GTA route of “realistic physics” causing the player to have a slow circle of movement.

When not in combat the environments don’t usually have many layers so you won’t be climbing up ledges or crates outside of combat. However BioWare have made a few other additions to the way game play evolves. For instance while walking around the Citadel (or a similar non-combat area) you may overhear NPCs in passing. They could be having a conversation about an incident on a planet and it will trigger a side quest entry in Shepard’s journal. It’s quite a good way of Shepard picking up information as they wander around, as you are still free to act on these entries or just leave them alone.

Sometimes NPCs will be involved in a debate about a certain issue and Shepard can step in to defend a point of view, influencing the background details of how things unfold on the Citadel and also getting you Paragon or Renegade points. The reputation system is changed in ME3 to provide quite a good hybrid of ME1 and ME2’s systems. In ME3 you have a basic reputation meter that fills with either Paragon or Renegade so you can have a good mix of both and while you need to have the Reputation meter filled a certain amount to unlock certain dialogue options (I think, unverified) the amount of Paragon/Renegade points only influences the narration in the ending.

It avoids ME2’s problem or punishing someone for going too far down a route as a character may be balanced rather than purely nice, or a dick.

One of the criticisms of ME2 was that it over simplified the RPG mechanics and moved away from a very light stat based system of the original game. ME3 doesn’t return to ME1 but it does improve upon ME2 by offering customization and choice in leveling up your abilities that goes above and beyond (albeit in a different way) to how ME1 handled it. Let’s take the signature ability of the Soldier Class, Adrenaline Rush, for example. At Rank 1 it’s stats look like this;

Adrenaline Rush Rank 1

Recharge Time 5 Secs

Time Dilation +50%

Damage Bonus +100%

By the time you’ve advanced to Rank 3 (the points required for each rank add up so while Rank 1 requires 1 point, 2 requires 2 points and so on) it looks like;

Adrenaline Rush Rank 3

Recharge Time 3 Secs

Time Dilation +50%

Damage Bonus +100%

A fairly standard sort of upgrade in stats for an ability, but it’s the later ranks where the customization really comes into effect as you can chose, for each of ranks 4, 5 and 6, to pick one of two abilities that are generally very different in their behavior and how they modify the ability.

Adrenaline Rush Rank 4

Either

Hardened Adrenaline Rush

Recharge Time 3 Secs

Duration 5 Secs

Time Dilation +50%

Damage Bonus +100%

Health Damage Taken -50%

OR

Heightened Adrenaline Rush

Recharge time 3 Secs

Duration 5 Secs

Time Dilation +70%

Damage Bonus +140%

So you see that they begin to differ quite a bit, as you can go for the Adrenaline Rush that really allows you to do maximum damage, but leaves you equally exposed, or you can go for the adrenaline rush which increases your survivability by fifty percent, although you won’t do an increased amount of damage. Personally I go for maximum offense so I’d probably always pick Heightened Adrenaline Rush but you might err more towards Hardened Adrenaline Rush on higher difficulties were survivability over dps (damage per second) becomes the priority.

This sort of variation carries over into every power, which works quite well as it can really suit your play style. It can be fun to experiment with them but I tend to find that for squad mates the more survival-orientated upgrades don’t make a huge difference so I always go for the dps choices in that regard.

Everyone has a signature ability that no one else can receive although Shepard can learn it after gaining their loyalty through a personal quest or conversation, something of that ilk. These can be nice upgrades as they help give your character more options, but none of them are particularly game breaking, apart from perhaps Aria’s (dark) Flare attack, which takes no prisoners.

Although you tend to stick with your favorite characters to be in your squad if you know you are going up against the Cerberus troops for enemies then you may leave the Biotics behind and focus on people who hit hard and use tech powers to disrupt their shields and barriers. So I might bring Garrus along to act as long-range support and use his signature ability, Armour- Piercing Ammo to help tear through Atlas Mechs when their barriers are down. I may select the Ammo to increase the ammo capacity of guns using it by 50% or so and I’ll make sure Garrus’ Overload tech ability is as powerful as possible to deal as much damage to those shields.

Meanwhile I know that Cerberus also have units such as the Phantoms who are deadly as hell up close and have strong barriers but are a bit of a wet tissue when their barriers are down (and when they’re not leaping about) so I might bring along Liara to use Warp to destroy their barriers, or I may have James Vega along so when a biotic focused Shepard takes down the barriers James can use his carnage ability to deal a huge amount of damage and probably set them on fire.

You can get through the game with a single party rather than one that chops and changes with the opponents you face but it’s quite interesting to experiment as you have a wide range of party members. Brute force can ultimately knock down any enemy in the game but for optimum efficiency I’d say you probably want one heavy hitter/damage dealer, someone for taking down shields and someone for taking down barriers.

I feel as if the difficulty of ME3 is somewhat more balanced than ME2 but overall a little tougher as the increased range of enemies gives more options in combat but the increased range of movements and verticality in the level design mean that Shepard has more options than ever. Obviously the difficulty setting you pick plays a part but I feel that in ME2 a mission like the Suicide Mission should feel like a desperate struggle, as if you can make it through but it takes everything you have and ME3 generally tries to ensure this on any difficulty by including a tough mix of enemies here or there.

The introduction of certain enemies also majorly changes your game play style. For instance the aforementioned Phantoms fire blasts from their palm while moving in to cut you down with a vibroblade so you can’t really stay in cover too long, although you need to be in cover since Phantoms rarely attack on their own. The Atlas Mechs also act as powerhouses that can deplete your shields quickly and then take you down but they move slowly, generally can’t enter buildings (they’re too big) and you can also shoot through the visor and knock out the pilot.

If the pilot is knocked out Shepard can climb in the mech and deal a ton of damage to the enemy, with the only enemy who can generally take down an Atlas is another Atlas.

ME3 also returns to an aspect of ME1 in that you can equip any weapon now, however it differs as in ME1 if you were untrained you’d be wildly inaccurate but in ME3 the accuracy is the same across the board. While this might sound great and an excuse to stock up on the most powerful weapon of each type, each weapon has a weight category and weight will add to the cooldown of each power. For instance if Shepard used Flare at it’s lowest the cooldown is roughly 5 1/2 seconds but at maximum load it could take 40+ seconds to recharge! Obviously this means you want to balance so that a character who rarely uses powers will have a lot of guns while the ones who use their powers won’t have many weapons at all.

If there’s one problem with this approach it’s that you will find that the weapons don’t handle too differently or at least apart from wanting to snipe an enemy across the way there’ll be no inherent advantages to using a shotgun over a sniper rifle and so on. Each weapon can be upgraded (to Rank X, only available on NG+) and augmented with features that can increase stats, but you never (or at least I’ve not noticed after 5-6 playthroughs) find yourself requiring a certain weapon because an enemy type is weak to it etc.

Take the Atlas Mech for example. It has it’s shields and I can get that any weapon damages them at roughly the same rate but when the shields are down I would have liked it if Assault Rifles and Pistols did a tiny amount of damage and to damage it you’d either have to get up close with a shotgun (and risk a melee attack from the mech) or take out the pilot with a piercing sniper rifle shot. If you play on Insanity then the difficulty of the game may necessitate you wanting to play more cautiously anyway but a more tactical approach would have been welcome as even if Barriers are best taken down by Warp or shields best depleted by Overload etc…it feels as if there’s no need to mix and match at times as a basic squad could take on anything.

It may seem a tad negative but it’s not. Overall I feel as if ME3 has the best combat in the series so far, but the RPG mechanics could be expanded upon and the tactical options and necessities could definetley be iterated and improved upon for Andromeda’s release in 2016.

GRAPHICS

 

I mentioned that ME2 looked a lot better than ME1 and also performed a lot better and ME3 stays the course in that regard. While it doesn’t look significantly better than ME2 the performance remains strong with no noticeable dips or pop in, at least in my experience with the game. ME3 includes more big vistas and locales than ME2 and the game manages to generally look very good while doing so.

However at times the game can look a bit ugly with low resolution textures marring an otherwise pretty game. ME1 was notorious for disparity between named NPCs and random NPCs etc in terms of how much detail they were afforded and while BioWare have greatly improved on this when it does appear it sticks out like a sore thumb.

It’s not that the game ever looks “bad” (imo) and it is understandable, if a little frustrating, that the PC version was help back by consoles with 256-512mb of RAM but when the PC versions don’t have high res textures etc or any significant options and improvements over the console versions I feel it’s quite a big failing on BioWare’s part. That said I personally found the game very bug free. I can remember one or two times (across multiple playthroughs) where the game either froze or glitched out requiring a restart or reload but it was remarkably blemish free.

These glitches never happened after anything in particular (like excessive actions etc) so it’s understandable that they could be missed during QA.

However the graphics of the game still help to sell the games biggest and most important scenes. Moments like the intro where Reapers arrive on Earth sell the devastation and make the Reapers seem like cosmic behemoths that we could have no hope of defeating while a few space battles and pre rendered scenes still look fantastic and help give a sense of scale and occasion. After all even if ME3 isn’t the end of the series it is the end of the core story based around this cast of characters and BioWare ensure it goes out with a bang in that regard.

Seeing locations like Rannoch, homeworld of the Quarians, or Palaven’s moon make for some fan pleasing moments as you visit many places that have only been referenced before in the franchise. It does have an element of a victory tour about it but BioWare give these locations distinct and unique looks and help keep them memorable. For instance Palaven’s Moon has a memorable skybox/view of a major city on Palaven on fire, something Garrus remarks about as it is his hometown.

Rannoch has a weird beauty about it, looking like somewhere that hasn’t been lived upon in a long time, and Tali’s remarks about wanting to build a house on Rannoch (especially if Shepard is her love interest) help give these worlds character. You also visit the Asari homeworld of Thessia which has essentially become Earth 2.0, in so much as it has come under devastating attack by the Reapers. Although other plot reasons bring you there it’s another one of those locales that, as you move around, you find yourself thinking that you wish you could visit it in nicer times and explore.

The lack of noticeable frame rate drops or texture pop in is all the more impressive when you remember how the series started out with the original ME game on Xbox 360 (and later on PC) and I hope that it’s something BioWare continue with in the future.

I would also say that BioWare have more of an influence of the earlier aesthetic for the series, that influenced by 70s and 80s sci fi, with some of the locations and characters you visit.The one world that springs to mind in this regard is Sur’kesh, the salarian home world, which you visit early in the game. I still feel as if it’s a shame for BioWare to have not slimmed down some of the armor and outfits that Shepard + co can wear as while it may suit the likes of Wrex, Grunt and Vega I prefer the mix of sleek sci-fi aesthetics and the slightly more bulky, Gears of War/NFL influenced outfits that some of them have.

You can see the early versions of Shepard, Garrus and Wrex (the galaxy-saving defacto party of choice) and while the differences aren’t major the general look of Shepard is something a little brighter and slimmed down. That said I don’t mean to sound as if all the sets of armor you can wear look bad or anything, just as a personal preference I prefer the old art style although I feel as if the new one works fine.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The problem for the series I suppose is that it is constantly trying to find it’s identity in a game play and graphical perspective. However the little we’ve seen of Mass Effect Andromeda (supposedly rendered using in-game assets but yeah…I’ll believe it when I see it) suggests BioWare have found both a middle ground and settled upon a style with which they are happy.

As I replay ME1 now I think about bits and pieces from throughout the trilogy and I look forward to them, and I enjoy learning more about the universe again as I talk to a colorful cast of characters and enjoy the game play. To be honest it feels that at the end of the day BioWare crafted an incredible universe filled with cool lore and fantastic characters and while they stumbled a helluva lot along the way and made decisions a lot of people didn’t like or agree with…it’s still a universe you can love to come back to and experience time and again, and it’s a cast of characters that feel like friends by the end of it.

So…

SAY NORMANDY!!!

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