Mass Effect is an excellent series of games which have captivated a fairly large audience of sci-fi fans and introduced the genre to a new generation of apt followers. You have returned in your role as Commander Shepard of the Alliance flagship Normandy and champion of the known universe. Currently, the universe is perched at the precipice of extinction as all organic life is threatened by an ancient race of synthetic behemoths called Reapers poised to conduct a cyclical purge of advanced civilizations. Our hero has been decommissioned due to a series of previous events and is spending his civilian time on Earth when the invasion of the human homeworld begins.
Mass Effect 3 merges first/third person shooter elements, with role playing skill and equipment based character advancement along with dialogue tree conversations. What it does exceptionally well is create a rich and fluid environment based on your choices and events as they unfold. If you are one of the dedicated players that managed to finish the first two games then you have the option of importing your save game and shaping the universe through your previous experiences. The relationships that you have had, as well as the members of the team that have been lost are reflected along with political decisions you might have made. In some cases this could make things more difficult depending on the rather arbitrary way the chips fell.
The game has a morality system built into it which determines in many ways how other races of characters might interact with you, or the options which are available to you in order to interact and intervene on the events as they are scripted. Benevolent and kind hearted choices reward Paragon points and leave you feeling like you are a good person doing your best to make everyone happy. Aggressive, and apathetic choices reward Renegade points and allow you to intimidate people and aliens through fear or outright violence. Gaining Renegade points also has the added effect of causing stress to Shepard, which manifests as a slight breakdown of previously regenerated facial cell tissue. The scarring that appears also seems to have an ominous glowing effect. By the end of this title, I looked like some sort of radioactive zombie.
Some improvements have been made to both the AI pathing and the ability to use cover but otherwise graphical improvements as well as gameplay improvements are negligible despite Bioware suggesting that a major overhaul has been done. The combat system still feels identical to the previous two titles which is actually a good thing, and thankfully the graphics were already pristine. The stylistic edge-of-your-seat cinematic cut scenes are top notch. The game sports 82 minutes of cinematic footage and a stunning 40,000 lines of audio dialogue which exceeds the sum of the previous two combined. Additionally the voice talent comprised of an all star cast including Martin Sheen, Seth Green, Tricia Helfer, Keith David, and Yvonne Strahovski who was everyone’s favorite vixen from the hit series Chuck.
The game plays out through alternating sequences of dialogue interspersed with exploration of various interplanetary stations like the Citadel, and then going out into space or distant planets to satisfy primary or secondary quests which play out in a typical sliding FPS or action RPG fashion. For each mission, you choose two companions, although certain scenarios will require that a specific companion assumes a role in the party. You then move from point A to point B while killing everything you encounter and finding various weapons, upgrades, armor, and research tech. Weapons can be fitted with a series of mods which alter the way the weapons behave and can be upgraded through purchases at consoles at both the Normandy armory, or at the Citadel market.
There are six different classes to choose from for your main character, and each one comes standard with a series of skills and abilities. Some abilities can be purchased later from your medical bay, so you can still get incredibly diverse in your overall abilities. The character upgrades are a little bit better than the original skill trees associated with ME 1 and 2, but are streamlined for simplicity’s sake. As in the preceding titles, I chose the infiltrator and made my focus stealth and sniper rifles with a priority on headshots. The skills of my teammates were situationally useful however I was more than happy to play through it without their assistance. The shooting mechanics are also enjoyable enough, although to be honest I wish I had found more than only 5 sniper rifles throughout the course of the game. I wound up buying an additional one which was available at the Spectre shop on the citadel, and it wound up being my favorite. (The Black Widow)
For all that is beautiful to be relished in the game, there are still a few things which I find infuriating about it, and considering this is the third and final chapter of the story I can’t really fathom any reason why Bioware would have ignored the glaring errors that had been established during its first two predecessors. Although the main quest line is clearly indicated on your star map and objectives are highlighted for the various star systems you are meant to travel to in order to further that storyline, side quests are completely ignored. I found myself actually flipping through hundreds of in game journal entries in order to decipher vague references to systems around the universe about which I had learned from some tart back on a random space station while she was carelessly discussing the vast riches she had lost. I literally spent hours running around searching the Citadel to find some way to advance a storyline that wound up having absolutely nothing to do with the area I was looking in. Some characters that you would think would be in plain sight on the blasted hub of intergalactic travel wind up being somewhere else entirely.
Additionally conversational dialogues are nothing like what they appear to be when you are making your choices. It might seem like you are about to tell someone off and be generally apathetic towards something they feel the need to discuss but when you choose the flip off option your character offers up something with no resemblance to the way it was presented in the dialogue tree. Perhaps most amusing of all is when during a conversational cinematic between characters it pans over to someone in the party that has something interesting to offer, and you hear their voice but they are simply not there…
All negatives aside, Mass Effect is really a great trilogy with a phenomenally woven story capable of converging on a single focal plot while providing variance for personal choices. The result is a unique experience for most players, with a solid degree of replayability. Anyone interested in science fiction, space exploration, action rpg’s, or xenophilia pornography should have a blast with this one.
*Slight Spoiler ahead*
One thing I need to mention is that there are a great number of players that are pissed off about the ending which was chosen for the game. Many people have even taken up arms in a campaign to “Take back Mass Effect” in order to petition Bioware to choose a more fitting ending for the trilogy. This is a little bit amusing to me not just because there are people that are actually that passionate about a mostly single video game, but that they are so egotistical and self-centered that they feel that they need to inject their own ending into a great story about sacrifice, and duty. Personally I enjoyed the ending I was able to choose, although it had an eerily similar feeling to the Matrix trilogy. In fact this third title paralleled the third Matrix movie in more ways than I would like to even count. Synthetic lifeforms threatening all organic life, check. Shepard, Neo, the Messiah, check. A conflict between a complex AI and its creators, check. There are even visual elements which occur that are stunningly similar, particularly during the final sequence, but I really wouldn’t want to spoil that for you. Don’t let any of this deter you from playing the game though, because I’m sure you will enjoy it. I might even play through it all again from the beginning some time. Maybe this time I’ll be a nice guy.