The Ultimate Epilogue
HIGH The final battles leading up to the game's end.
LOW Getting unexpectedly locked out of some missions.
WTF Why couldn't I import my old Shepard's appearance?
Although it's not often mentioned, a thing role-playing game (RPG) fans love is when a game takes the time to wrap up loose ends. Since titles in the genre commonly run for extended lengths, it's natural that players grow attached to teammates, supporting characters, enemies and others over the course of their adventures. Finding out what happens to each one is important, and closure is cherished after spending so many hours with them.
While the trailers of aliens invading Earth prior to the game's release were suitably epic and ostensibly intended to draw in new players, I think the ad campaign was at odds with the reality that Mass Effect 3 is hardly Gears of War with spaceships. Newcomers craving bullet-fueled heroics will be talked to death and confused by potential cameos, references to past events, and revelations that may occur with little context. However, for those who've got history with Commander Shepard & crew, Mass Effect 3 is one of the longest and most thorough epilogues in the history of video games.
Like the previous entries, Mass Effect 3 is a third-person shooter/RPG hybrid with squad-based battles that take place in real time. The situation? The cold, insectile Reapers from the furthest reaches of the universe have returned to harvest all organic life, and the situation is grim. Civilizations are falling one by one, and these seemingly unstoppable invaders have extinction on their minds. Our hero must take to the stars and rally all available support for the final battle.
While the premise of gathering resources for a galaxy-spanning conflict is exactly the same as it was in Shepard's previous outing, Mass Effect 3 wisely does away with the overdone "loyalty quest" structure of the last game. In doing so, it avoids feeling like a mess of disparate episodes despite bringing back nearly every character that's ever appeared. The trick is that instead of each having their own sidestory, they're all woven into a central narrative that has clear purpose, strong pace, and sharp focus. Although I can't say letting the Reapers land on earth within the first ten minutes of gameplay was an idea that worked for me (it hardly looks like the people of Earth will survive an hour while Shepard traipses back and forth across star systems) our hero now has concrete motivation for doing what gets done and the writing, on the whole, is of excellent quality.
Along the way, reconnecting with old squaddies and finding out where they ended up is handled beautifully. It's this quality that makes the game such a fantastic endpiece to the series, and to players like myself who want to know what became of this teammate or what happened after that choice, Mass Effect 3 delivers by the truckload. In fact, it's this completeness and that leaves me puzzled about the raging furor over the final few minutes of the game. While I can understand that some non-negotiable plot points at story's end weren't as tight as they should have been and weren't to everyone's taste, they're hardly a tick on the twenty to thirty hours of meticulous wrap-up that came before.
Story and characters aside, I'm happy to report that BioWare has made several tweaks to the game's technical aspects. While skill trees for each character could be more diverse and setting up the team's gear is still too streamlined, it does feel as though some meat has returned to the bones thanks to reasonably generous options for tweaking Shepard's powers, armor and weapons. Even better, while the loathsome planet-scanning is still a factor in many smaller quests, it's been modified and sped up to be less painful. It's still not as enjoyable as touching down on a random planet to search for surprises on my own, but it dovetails appropriately with the urgency of the plot and is a clear step up from scanning in Mass Effect 2.
The retooled combat in Mass Effect 3 is also worthy of praise. While handling characters feels essentially unchanged from the last game, the level designs and conceptualization of combat are an order of magnitude better than the relentless corridor shootouts of Mass Effect 2. A few narrow hallways still manage to rear their heads, but a healthy diversity of architecture is on display, not to mention skirmish scenarios that have the player performing different tasks while under fire—things like guarding certain areas or pulling off critical objectives. I wouldn't come to Mass Effect if I was after serious gunplay, but the shooting stays fresh for the length of the campaign and even manages to deliver some jaw-dropping sequences along the way. It is, by far, the best action this series has ever seen.
As for the widely-publicized multiplayer mode, I'd say that not only is it unnecessary, it actually hurts the overall quality of the game. Why? Mass Effect 3's best ending must be earned by accumulating assets, and the missions to get them are tedious fetchquests. Little effort was made to spice them up, and my guess is they're intentionally bland to encourage players who want "the good ending" to partake of the multiplayer mode—by going online, players can reduce the number of snoozeworthy missions that must be completed.
While the cooperative wave-based combat works exactly as one might expect it to, the majority of character customization options are locked (including basic weapon selection) and can only be earned by purchasing "packs" of unlocks. The player can earn in-game credits for these, but it takes a long time to do so and the things they unlock are random.
See the plan here? Singleplayer ending-related missions are boring, so players go online to avoid completing them. Once they're online, they pay real cash via microtransactions to speed up the unlocking process and customize the experience. Frankly, this overt milking doesn't belong in a triple-A RPG. I'd have rather seen multiplayer skipped altogether and those resources put towards making the campaign's asset gathering richer and more engaging.
Although I would never say that Mass Effect 3 was a perfect game, joining Commander Shepard and the rest of the crew has been an incredible experience spanning three titles and five years. There have been stumbles along the way, but I can't think of another series that's been so full of crucial, nail-biting decisions or the sort of emotional moments that have stayed with me over time. As someone who made friends with telepathic spiders, destroyed a giant Terminator, and romanced a blue alien with tentacles for hair, I genuinely feel that BioWare has delivered the most comprehensive epilogue that an RPG fan like me could have hoped for. My hat is off to them for being able to bring this hugely ambitious project to such a satisfactory conclusion, and I hope the overall quality of this work is indicative of what we can expect from them in the future. Well done.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 32 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. 3 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language, and violence. Although all of these warning tags are accurate, I don't feel that this game is anywhere near being the most offensive or harmful thing on the market. All of the subject matter is used in the proper context, and the game itself is definitely aimed at mature players. It's a great experience and one that I would recommend… although not to children. Moms and dads, keep the little ones away and play this yourself.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There shouldn't be any issues to be concerned about here. Subtitles are available for all dialogue, and even though the combat happens in real-time, I never found any of the audio cues to be important or beneficial. When I couldn't find enemies, it was more effective to watch where my teammates were aiming than it was to try and listen for gunfire. In my opinion, the game should be totally accessible to hearing-impaired players.