Mass Effect 3 Review: A Lasting Effect

Mass Effect 3 had a lot to live up to; the ultimate threat of the trilogy had finally arrived: The Reapers. BioWare’s knack for telling emotional and character-driven stories while lacing them with intense gameplay and action got better with each installment, and there’s no shortage of these qualities in ME3. Did it live up to my expectations? In one word: Yes. It seems though, that even a franchise like Mass Effect is not immune to the ‘third installment syndrome’ that has occurred with other stories. I consider this to be Sci-Fi gaming’s equivalent of The Godfather III; two previous epics followed by one that is arguably strong in quality, but marred by blemishes that may be permanent.

One term that I used to define the difference between Mass Effect 1 and 2 was the increased intensity. Mass Effect 3 further builds on that intensity, in almost all aspects. The opening cutscene sets the tone for the entire game: The day that Commander Shepard has feared for nearly three years, the Reapers have finally arrived to eradicate organic life, and this time there may be no stopping them (I couldn’t resist the Star Trek quote, sorry). Shepard is reinstated and once again an Alliance soldier fighting the good fight. Oh, and Cerberus, The Illusive Man, and newcomer Nightwing Kai Leng are going to make his life a living hell in the process.

Mass Effect 3 is the only game in the trilogy that I would not recommend to newcomers. ME1 and ME2’s stories are largely contained. ME3 draws upon the events that happened in the first two, and how they affect the events concerning the Reaper invasion. Major plot points and arcs that are established in the first and second games are concluded or given some sort of resolution in this installment.

The entire ME1 cast (except for Wrex, and Ashley or Kaidan) returns as full-time squad members, with the addition of James Vega, Javik the Prothean (available via DLC), and one other that I will not spoil. The entire ME2 cast also returns (provided you let none of them die in the Suicide Mission) in supporting roles of differing variety. Amidst the intertwined plots and the Reaper invasion, the story is ripe with emotional and visceral character moments. There are sides to the entire cast that we have never seen before, and it was the only game in the series where I found myself drawn to tears more than once.

James Vega, who was voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr. in the game.

James Vega has attracted some considerable attention. Personally I found him to be alright. His appearance was a tad distracting; it looked as if he was modeled after a typical high school jock… or Ronnie from Jersey Shore, I’m not sure which. I overall formed a positive opinion of him; he was a lot like a representation of the ‘grunts’ that were fighting the Reapers all over the galaxy, and at times I saw him as a protégé for Shepard.

The overall progression of the narrative has been tightened this time around. There are still choices to be made in the dialogue, but their frequency is noticeably scaled back. I never lost the illusion of control, and I agreed with the new structure. The conversations felt more organic and flowed better since they weren’t stopping so often for my own input. For others this is a major negative, understandably so. But it didn’t break my immersion, I still felt like it was my Shepard; BioWare simply had more of a grip on the wheel than I.

Sam Hulick and co. (minus Jack Wall) return and deliver another enjoyable score to compliment the game. The Mass Effect theme is placed in all the right moments; action scenes are pulsing, and emotional scenes are accentuated in just the right ways. The score utilizes motifs from the first game, which I loved. No complaints here, the score is arguably the most consistent aspect of Mass Effect 3 and the franchise as a whole.

The game has returned to its third-person shooter roots, utilizing elements established in the first two games, while making some welcome changes. The arsenal of weapons from the previous games has returned. BioWare bolstered the loadout with more guns across the spectrum, offering more variety. Customization of both powers and weapon selection is still a fun part of the game, as there are many different combinations to toy with.

The other major aspect of the gameplay is the ability to recruit and acquire war assets for the fight against the Reapers. Pretty much self-explanatory. You have the opportunity to unite the galaxy in a way that has never been done before, and your choices will determine how it’s accomplished.

The game is not without its flaws. It would be prudent to start with the misdemeanors.

For some reason, they changed the journal. I don’t know why, but there’s no reason I can think of in which it would make sense. In previous journals, you had the ability to click on a quest/mission and view your progress. That functionality has been completely removed. Without some type of system in which I can check which items I do and do not have for quests, it can make completing them sometimes difficult. It’s less of a nuisance once you get the hang of things though.

Occasionally in cutscenes, Shepard—along with other characters—will jump around like a bad youtube edit. Sometimes it’s noticeable, other times it’s very noticeable. The bigger graphical issue is that some characters will disappear entirely from cutscenes, as it did with me when Liara’s sweet voice was coming from a bulkhead instead of her sweet face. This only happened to me once, but I’ve heard its frequency is varied among others.

Now, I’ll get into three issues of the game that are getting the most attention.

The Prothean, the last surviving member of his race.

Namely, the issue of downloadable content (DLC) that was released the same day as the game. The DLC in question contains a Prothean squad member by the name of Javik, and the mission in which you acquire him. DLC will always be a sensitive subject because it costs us gamers money. The main point of contention regarding Javik was not only that he was a Prothean squad member (a big deal to some), but the fact that pieces of data related to the character were discovered on the disc itself.

In this matter, I sided with BioWare. In a game that has such a wide scope, the interactions among your characters and NPC’s are extremely diverse. It made sense that they placed some primers in the game so that the DLC would fit in easier when it was released to the masses. Not to mention that when you download the character—and mission—it’s 500mb; this is not the same as a little 100kb unlock. BioWare even stated themselves that the DLC was developed after the game went into certification (when the discs and boxes were being produced).

I purchased the DLC and can say that while the novelty of having a Prothean on your squad is fun at first, it wears off quickly. The mission in which you acquire him is set on Eden Prime (a throwback to ME1) and is largely a firefight with Cerberus while you wake him from stasis. The cutscenes regarding Javik’s origin only serve to fill in the blanks regarding details of the Protheans that we were already aware of, and nothing new is added to the lore.

I played most of the game with characters that were mainstays of ME1 and 2 and only rarely did I include Javik, Vega, or [REDACTED] in my squad. The narrative was largely unchanged because of this. The truth of the matter is that it’s easier for people to trump up Javik’s worth to make their argument more valid. But this issue has destabilized from gamers having valid concerns to a typical EA witch-hunt. It’s silly. Javik is merely sugar on top (as stated by Casey Hudson), and not the game-changing character that everyone would like to believe.

Final verdict: if you don’t like the prospect of spending ten dollars for a new character and mission, then don’t. Trust me, you won’t be missing out on as much as you may think.

Enter the ending. I felt like I was watching the finales of The X-Files, Battlestar: Galactica, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Hint: those finales were not good). Possibly one of the biggest letdowns in gaming history, the ending of Mass Effect 3 has left many of us scratching our heads and searching for answers. I found myself simply staring at the screen when I realized what was happening. It was such a stark contrast to the rest of the game and franchise. 99% of Mass Effect 3 is made up of great character development and a compelling dialogue and story about the horrors, sacrifices, and consequences of war. It was as if when they were deciding the ending they figured it would be easier to piss off everybody rather than please most of us—obviously a facetious remark on my part.

Varying choices and outcomes are the two most defining aspects of the Mass Effect lore. A lot of people are making blanket statements that, ‘your choices do not matter’ in Mass Effect 3 because of the ending. This is and is not true. Your choices matter in the context of when you’re making them; many times I found myself simply staring—maybe sweating—as I weighed my decisions, afraid of what would happen next. It was the first time since the Suicide Mission (and I never experienced this feeling prior) that I felt the true gravity of each situation and realized there would be serious consequences no matter what.

The ending however, does render those decisions pointless; that part is very true. I suppose that BioWare felt that they needed to… assume direct control (if I may?) in the final moments, but the way they went about it was just… wrong. The ending introduced some variables and mythology that were simply never present in the entire franchise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for twists. The problem was that it was further compounded by the three absolutely absurd choices that you are given to conclude the story. On top of this, the logic that is employed to justify these choices can be contradictory to a couple of serious decisions you made over the course of the game. The end result is a mess. There are major plot holes that cannot be explained. Not to mention a certain Easter egg, regarded as the ‘secret ending’ that shows that even BioWare may not have been committed to the ending that they gave us. Much like the aforementioned television finales (not so much DS9), we were left with more questions than answers.

The depressing thing is that these endings could have worked if two crucial details were not left out.

The first is diversity. I can say that the three—not 16—endings are very depressing. This is fine, as Mass Effect is an epic, and epics tend to end that way; they should end that way (Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Odyssey, The Iliad, etc.). But there is no diversity. There were no 16 endings; only three endings that are very similar save for some minor differences here and there. Differences that were vary based on factors that are wholly unrelated to them. Three negative endings are fine; but three neutral and three genuinely good endings would have provided something to fit everyone’s definition of how their Shepard would conclude the story.

The second aspect left out—and the most glaring—is an epilogue. Even the three endings we got would have been tons more acceptable if there was simple closure. What happens to Shepard, the crew, the Normandy, Earth, and the galactic community is never explicitly stated or even hinted at. Ambiguity works, but not on such a scale where almost everything is implied/not stated, and nothing is shown. Many theories have cropped up to try and explain the details of the ending, but it has gotten to the point where it seems people would rather accept these theories over the ending that is set in stone (for now). This means that the ending did not do the job it was supposed to. Depressing isn’t it?

On their forums, BioWare is mentions that they're going to answer questions once enough people are done playing the game. We should probably just be content with that.

Do I think our current ending should be changed or retconned entirely? No. BioWare does not owe us a damn thing. Nor did they not deliver on their promise as others are claiming. BioWare promised us a conclusion to the Mass Effect trilogy; that’s what we got. The definitions of variety and quality are always going to be subjective. This does not negate the craptastic nature of the endings, but the gamer entitlement that has run rampant in the midst of the game’s launch is disturbing. As much as some of us disliked aspects of the conclusions of the shows I mentioned earlier, we had to live with them, just like we have to live with this ending. No one has the right to demand an artist change their work to suit their liking, it’s very dangerous territory. You can either accept it, or never support said artist ever again until they meet your standards. Those are the only options.

A continuation of the existing story or a simple epilogue would definitely quell a lot of the animosity. The damage will always be there, but to what degree is up to the folks at BioWare.

This might go down as one of the finest game franchises ever constructed to attract the most negative controversy in its conclusion. The journey of Mass Effect 3 and the two preceding games is and was amazing and should be experienced by as many people as possible; I won’t let the five minutes that is the ending drag that down.

I should go.

Buy it!

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