REVIEW: Mass Effect is a sci-fi epic in three parts, from accomplished RPG developer BioWare.
You could be forgiven for having missed the first Mass Effect, originally an Xbox exclusive that was later ported to PC and re-released on Steam, giving it a second chance at life. Mass Effect 2 raised the profile somewhat, cutting out much of the original game's grind and micromanagement to focus on story and streamlined, more shooter-like combat. Mass Effect 3 is the conclusion to the trilogy, and follows the second game's tactic of widening the audience: this time, through the addition of online multiplayer (this review covers the single-player campaign only - the multiplayer review is still to come).
In short, Mass Effect is the story of Commander Shepard: an 'N7' special operations soldier in the human Systems Alliance navy. It's late in the 22nd century, and giant artificially-intelligent starships known as 'Reapers' are on their way to wipe out all life in the galaxy. The third game begins with the Reapers invading Earth, leaving Shepard to unite the various races of the galaxy through a combination of diplomacy and bullets.
Shepard's first name, specialisation, background and gender are all player-customisable. I've played the whole series as a 'FemShep', or female Commander Shepard, so I'm going to say 'her'. I recommend story-focused players do the same; while both are excellent, the voice acting of Jennifer Hale as the female Shepard is widely regarded as the superior performance. If you're going to skip through the cut-scenes anyway, that point becomes largely moot.
The usual caveat: as I'm quick to tell anyone that will listen, I've spent five-hundred hours between Mass Effect 1 and 2. I've read all the books, the comics, and am as invested in the game's universe as anyone could be. If you're new to the series, you could start with ME3. However, the game really does dump you in at the deep end.
Besides a paragraph of scrolling text, there's no catch-up of the events of the previous two games, nothing to introduce the various recurring characters of the series. Without that background, a lot of the emotional impact is gone. It may also make it difficult to follow the story, as the game just assumes you know all the stuff that preceded the Reaper invasion. If you're trying to follow the story, play the previous games first.
For my first play-through, I imported my main character, Kate Shepard, with whom I've played through both previous games. This lets you carry through all the decisions you made in those games, along with your specialisation, skill points, resources and face.
At the time of writing, a commonly reported bug prevented my familiar Shepard's face from importing correctly, forcing me to partially rebuild it from memory. For a game that relies so heavily on continuation of storyline to ship with such a bug is nearly unforgivable. It's not a game-breaker, but it's proven an extremely effective means of riling up the most hardened of fans; those with several characters to import, all of whom they're quite attached to. If that describes you, then I'd recommend waiting for a patch before trying to import any of your beloved Sheps.
Gameplay is very much the same as Mass Effect 2, with a host of new enemies and new squad-mates (along with some old favourites on both sides of the equation). If you're new to the series, it's a fairly simple setup: you choose your guns and invest your experience points (gained by completing objectives) in powers and abilities. The class you chose - Soldier, Adept, etc - dictates the powers available to you. As an Infiltrator - essentially sniper-Shep - my abilities were all focussed on long-range combat and simplifying the act of shooting enemies in the brain. Other classes allow you to do anything from deploy sentry turrets to lift and throw enemies using your mind, resulting in quite radically different combat experiences.
Returning from the first game in the series are weapon modifications, albeit in a simplified and altogether less annoying way. You can find or buy upgrades for the various classes of weapon - there are five altogether, including pistols, sub-machine guns, shotguns, assault rifles and sniper rifles - and apply up to two per weapon to modify stats such as damage, accuracy and weight.
Combat is fast-paced, and may be cover-based or otherwise depending on your class. Melee combat has been improved from previous games, and dodge-rolls and other such controls have been added to provide a fluidity of motion that was previously lacking. All this makes ME3 a brilliant third-person shooter, challenging and enjoyable with the added visceral appeal of close-quarters combat.
Also, now people's heads explode when shot.
The level design is gorgeous: several times I was left staring in wonder at complex rooms that existed only as hallways or antechambers you'd spend no more than a few seconds passing through. Mass Effect has never been at the forefront of graphical perfection, and that hasn't changed; BioWare have certainly pulled everything they can from the game's ageing engine, though, with admirable results.
The story, always the principal selling point of the series, is mind-blowing in its necessary complexity. The choices made by players in the previous games could radically alter the story of ME3, down to whether major characters are even alive in the final game. Numerous times some big, powerful, emotional event occurred - totally dependent on my decisions in the previous games. Imagining how the story would have worked out otherwise is difficult, but it's obviously something BioWare have had to devote a tonne of resources to.
Those more interested in the story than anything else can even choose to play a 'Story' mode, with reduced combat difficulty. Likewise, action-focused players can opt for an experience where all dialogues play out as cut-scenes, without player intervention. I chose the option in the middle, with both insanely difficult combat and full story control. Doing that, the game took me 41 hours from start to finish. This is almost double the average time reported online, so don't expect the game to take you more than 25-30 hours unless you play on the hardest difficulty and try to do absolutely everything.
I could have given Mass Effect 3 a platinum, five-star rating. Even with the character-import bug, I considered doing so; that, after all, will be patched eventually. However, two things made that score unreasonable.
First, particularly near the game's end, there are some awful 'hold the line' moments. You're required to hold a piece of territory against increasingly difficult waves of enemies, and it just becomes a grind. All those beautiful corridors and hallways that existed just for a three-second walk-through? Why not spend some of that map-making time breaking up those combat sequences into more varied terrain. I'm all for difficulty, but if I wanted to hold a small area for half an hour, I'd go back to Team Fortress.
Second, I believe I achieved the 'best' possible ending, as I completed every last side-mission and secured every ally available for the fight against the Reapers. That end is, for lack of a more descriptive phrase, platypus-crazy. I was given three choices, which really seemed to contradict everything the game had taught me up to that point. I can't really say more without spoiling it, but the ending to an epic trilogy should tie up everything that's been introduced to that point, not throw in new elements at the very last minute.
Those points aside, Mass Effect 3 is a brilliant conclusion to one of the most immersive - and important - contributions to science fiction in recent history. Combine that with a challenging and high-quality third-person shooter, and you've got an unmissable game. It's not perfect, but it's worth a play.
Platform: PC; PS3; Xbox 360