Mass Effect 2 set one hell of a high bar for storytelling through characters and personal choices. So you can’t help but feel sympathetic toward the amount of pressure put on BioWare and Mass Effect 3 to live up to everyone’s expectations.
- Developer: BioWare
- Publisher: EA
- Reviewed on: Xbox 360
- Also Available on: PC, PS3
- Release Date: March 6th 2012 US / March 9th 2012 Europe
The Reapers have finally arrived in the known galaxy, with a heavy concentration of their forces heading for Earth. This is where we rejoin Commander Shepard, who has been grounded since dealing with the Collector base, cutting all ties with Cerberus and surrendering the Normandy SR-2 to the Alliance. Moving swiftly through the Sol System, it’s not long before the Reapers arrive and Shepard is forced to leave Earth to gather allies, fleets and entire races to join the war against the Reapers.
Gathering forces will create some extremely difficult decisions (a familiar concept within the Mass Effect series); however, now each decision will still lead to the ultimate goal: returning to Earth with an entire army. The war is a lot less personal than the events of Mass Effect 2, and rather than winning the loyalty of just a few individuals, Shepard must negotiate agreements between races and provide solutions to some issues that have been present for centuries. But this is war, and something you’ll be constantly reminded of: You can’t save everyone. Every choice could potentially have casualties on both sides of a disagreement. Sometimes they’re nameless soldiers or civilians, and other times it’s much more personal.
This is where the biggest change to Shepard comes to light. Previously, every action Shepard takes has been controlled by the player through dialogue or combat options. Now, Shepard has become a lot more human, which is reflected through the new way Shepard gains reputation. While Paragon and Renegade options still exist, along with the popular interrupts, not every action will offer points towards one or the other. Instead, Shepard has a reputation bar which contains both Renegade and Paragon points, but can be built up through neutral actions that aren’t associated with being either good or bad, just an action that needed doing. As Shepard gains more reputation, the bar increases, but unless the reputation has some additional Paragon or Renegade points attached, the ratio of points will remain the same.
Because of this, you no longer have to play the game taking morality to one of two extremes to get the best ending. While Shepard’s character has become more than a blank slate for you to control, your choices are still what the make the story your own. And these choices can lead to some emotional scenes amongst current and former squad-mates. While this might tug heavily on someone who imported my Shepard from Mass Effect 2 and invested hours into making a unique character, new players to the franchise may not get the full effect if any of these moments occur for them. In that respect, while starting at Mass Effect 3 is indeed one way to go, importing your save file from Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 will definitely get you the full effect of the game.
In gameplay terms, Mass Effect 3 hasn’t exactly advanced in leaps and bounds from Mass Effect 2, but it’s light years away from what we had in Mass Effect. The combat now plays like a more standard third-person cover shooter. Shepard can now combat roll around the field, quickly mount or hurdle over cover and heavy melee attack to deal with cover breaking enemies. The enemy AI is now relentless and much more unforgiving, with heavy hitting enemies that force you into cover, backed up with faster moving enemies that force you out of it. While this may tempt you to take every single weapon that will fit on your N7 armour, hold on, because your weapon loadouts have also changed.
Shepard now has a limited carrying weight, and while you can take one of each weapon into combat, doing so will increase the cooldown of your combat powers. The key is balance, and knowing what enemies you’re going to fight. You can also decrease the amount of weight in your weapons, though. Unlike Mass Effect 2, your weapon upgrades are interchangeable whenever you can find a work bench, with upgrades being available to buy at Citadel stores or littered throughout most of the missions. You can now give your squad members completely different weapons to what Shepard carries, just by changing their upgrades to suit your needs.
These combat changes have paved the way for an intense but still immersive cooperative multiplayer section to the game. Based on the tried and tested wave defense formula, Mass Effect 3 multiplayer maps are taken straight from missions in the single-player campaign, (missions that always end with Admirial Hackett telling you that Special Forces have been deployed to protect the area). These are the Special Forces, teams of up to four consisting of the same classes available in the single-player, as well as the opportunity to play as Turians, Asari, Krogan and even Drell. Working together, you’ll repel Cerberus, Reaper and Geth forces for 10 waves and then proceed for extraction. While not essential for improving your single-player experience, completing matches and importing your multiplayer character into the Galaxy at War greatly increases your readiness levels, allowing you to get the best possible ending to the game.
Kinect functionality in the game also works well, mostly, and can practically remove the need to pause combat to access the power wheel, making battles much more instant and fluid. You also have the option of speaking dialogue selections to further conversations. While not really adding much to the experience, it’s a nice option for when you want to sit back and play just the story without having to worry about holding the controller as much. It’s not completely accurate though, but it could be made better after some calibrations. But while having a voice command would put you at a disadvantage in a fight, it’s definitely a nice addition for the more casual player.
For some, though, tweaks to the combat system are completely irrelevant. Since we first saw the Normandy SR-1 launch through the Mass Relay back in 2007, the Mass Effect series has been more about the universe, the characters and the Commander Shepard that players have invested in. So now we’re being given a Shepard that’s a lot less of a blank slate for us to assume the role of, and despite importing a save file that started in Mass Effect, it seems some of our big and important choices haven’t made much of a difference in the story. Just one example: Despite electing him to be a Councilor after the battle for the Citadel, Anderson is now an Admiral, and Udina has taken his place on the Council. This isn’t how things were left in Mass Effect 2. The only way you’ll find out how this happened: if you checked the entry for Udina in the codex. That’s fine, and it still offers an explanation without interrupting the story, but you have to wonder, would your decision back then really be making any impact on the events now?
BioWare have still crafted a fantastic story, with such great references to previous characters, events and even fan discussions, that I found myself grinning from ear to ear every time. The much more personal approach when speaking to current and former squad members really touches a nerve for anyone who loves this franchise. It all builds for Shepard, constantly faced with doubts when it comes time to return to Earth. The game ends on an extremely bittersweet note, complimented brilliantly by the amazing soundtrack. No ending to a video game has ever hit me so emotionally, as well as raise so many questions as to the future of this series.