Publisher: Electronic Arts
System requirements: Windows XP (SP3)/Vista (SP1)/Win 7, 1.8 GHz Core2Duo or better CPU, 1 GB RAM (XP)/2 GB RAM (Vista/Win 7), 256 MB Nvidia 7900/ATI X1800 or better graphics card, 15 GB hard-drive space
ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: Available now
The word “epic” is passed around liberally in critical media, be it the movies or videogames. The unquestioned master of the epic film was director Cecil B. DeMille, whose films carried such massive scope and reach that only Cinemascope could hold them. In gaming, developer BioWare has crafted perhaps the first true epic story in the industry’s short history with the Mass Effect series. The 80 to 100-hour journey finally reaches its end in Mass Effect 3, in which one person truly shapes the future of billions.
Following the battle at the Collector base at the end of Mass Effect 2, Cmdr. Shepard has been relieved of his duties and brought to Earth. He’s been trying to convince galactic leaders that the Reapers, a devastating alien force bent on universal destruction, are on the way to cull the herd in the Milky Way galaxy, but none of them seem to want to believe him, in spite of past events that make an invasion seem imminent. His warnings prove correct when a Reaper force arrives on Earth and starts reducing the world’s cities to rubble. Leaving his friend Adm. Anderson to organize a resistance, Shepard reluctantly returns to his ship, the Normandy, and heads to Mars, where plans for a superweapon that could defeat the Reapers are said to have been found.
During the next few dozen hours of gameplay, you guide Shepard across the galaxy in search of alien races to join you in your quest to stop the Reapers. But it’s not as simple as dropping by and saying “pretty please?”. The various galactic powers have their own problems that have to be solved before they consider taking up your cause, so you travel from system to system, scratching their backs so that they would scratch yours. As you gain allies, a bar graph fills in from left to right, indicating your fleet’s readiness level and troop strength. You can move on to the end of the story at any time, but how well you might fare in the final battle is determined by your readiness level.
One of the great things about the Mass Effect series has been the small but significant improvements in the gameplay from the first game to the last. Combat has evolved from a simple, cover-based squad shooter to a more balanced combination of shooting and melee action. Resource-gathering, the bane of RPG players everywhere, has seen the biggest improvement. Instead of strip-mining every planet in the galaxy for raw materials (used to buy upgrades for weapons and the Normandy), now you scan each star system for anomalies, then only launch probes at planets where those anomalies are found — but scan too thoroughly and you can attract the attention of the Reapers, who can chase you back to hyperspace if you linger too long. The fruits of these explorations include fuel, alien artifacts, and lost military assets that help to grow your fleet. The acquisition of side quests has been changed, as well. Now all you have to do is eavesdrop on casual conversations to receive new quests; no exclamation points over the heads of NPCs, and your journal automatically updates to let you know what you need to find, where you can find it and to whom to deliver it when you’re done. And there’s one new (and slightly controversial) addition to the series: a multiplayer mode. This takes the form of a four-player co-op survival mode, played on various maps from the single-player game. Completing a dozen or so waves of enemies gains you XP to improve your MP character, as well as a bump in your battle-readiness percentage in the campaign, which helps determine which ending you get after the final battle. I’ve never been a fan of online multiplayer, but I found myself really enjoying it here. Waves are short but fast-paced, there’s plenty of ammo, and each wave is a little bit different from the one before. Fans of the series who’ve complained about the inclusion of MP should try it out; if a lone-wolf gamer such as I can get into it, then the haters might like it, too.
I feel sorry for the poor souls at BioWare who had to write the voluminous descriptive material for the game’s codex and the planets that you visit and scan; most players never bother to read it, since reading all of it would add another couple of hours to your playtime. But it’s this attention to detail that has helped make the series what it is. However, there are still a few blemishes that need to be mentioned. The battle scenes tend to be the same on every planet you visit: first wave is cannon-fodder, next waves are a bit more challenging, final wave is very tough (be prepared to die frequently); a little variation would’ve been welcome. Actually, there is one mission that’s considerably different from the others, but it takes far too long to finish and tries to fill in backstory that doesn’t really need filling in. The cover mechanic can sometimes be unreliable, exposing you to enemy fire longer than you might want. There’s a graphics glitch in the cockpit of the Normandy in which your Shepard can get stuck and not be able to move, requiring a reload. NPC crewmembers can be found in exactly the same places, doing exactly the same things, through the entire game; don’t these people have duties to perform? (And a minor gripe — only one crewmember ever salutes Shepard as he moves through the ship; aren’t these people in the military?) The galactic map indicates where any uncompleted quests can be found, but there’s no way to tell where the fuel depots are; this is important, since travel between star systems uses fuel. Moving a tiny little Normandy through the galactic map is the cheesiest thing in the entire series, and unfortunately it returns in ME3. I also had some serious sound glitches; some dialogue sounded muffled, as if the voice actors were standing too far away from the microphones. And then there’s the ending. I won’t go into the extreme drama that has been generated by the ending (that’s for another forum), but I found the ending to be completely appropriate. The fight scene leading to the final sequence is the most unrelentingly intense battle scene in the entire series. However, I did want to know what happened to my friends whom I didn’t select to go with me in the final fight. Also, BioWare has made it very inconvenient to go back and see the endings that you didn’t select in your original playthrough; the quick-save feature is disabled in the final sequence, and the last autosave is overwritten after the credits, so you have to sit through 15 minutes of exposition three times to see all of the endings.
Let’s take a look at the Mass Effect series as a whole. BioWare has crafted a story that Mr. DeMille himself would envy, a story in which the Butterfly Effect is definitely in play (a single decision that you made way back in the first game can have serious ramifications at the end of the series). You meet dozens of memorable characters for whom you feel actual emotions; few games get you so personally invested. The series is a landmark achievement in gaming, and Mass Effect 3 is a fine conclusion. It’s not the prettiest game, and it has more than it’s share of controversy attached to it, but it’s the ending to a gaming experience that should not be missed.