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Review: Mass Effect 3

review-mass-effect-3

Source: Wikimedia

Title: Mass Effect 3

Genre: Third-Person Shooter RPG, Science Fiction

Release Date: March 6th, 2012 (US), March 9th, 2012 (EU), March 15th, 2012 (JP)

System: PC, Xbox 360, PS3

Format: DVD, Blu-ray, Digital (EA Origin)

Lacking no amount of graphical and combat polish that belies their other titles, Mass Effect 3 is a surprisingly wanting exercise for BioWare in terms of the deeper narrative substance of it.

The first thing that comes to mind about Mass Effect 3 is the glitz and glamour of gaming as high art. This is the pinnacle of gaming in the modern age. The second thing that comes to mind, regretfully, is how the developers must have realized this too and slacked the hell off. What results is a game that is incredibly pretty, well acted, well resourced, and ultimately lacking the sort of depth and thoroughness that characterized the first two games in the series. This sort of slacking, however, is unevenly distributed throughout the game, showing up in some areas and blissfully absent in others in a pattern that ultimately becomes, by the end of the game, easy to trace.

Graphically, Mass Effect 3 is a bit of a mixed bag. What you’ll really enjoy here are the splendid vistas, classic character designs, enemy variety, and superb animations. What you’ll not enjoy so much are the somewhat dated graphics despite being the Unreal 3 engine and the times when the animations really aren’t so superb. The ultimate outcome here is that the art style triumphs again, with robust sci-fi panache in almost every nook, cranny and pore of the entire universe. Cerberus troopers look and feel much like you’d expect them to despite being conspicuously absent, in retrospect, in ME2. Indoctrinated and converted Reaper enemies return, and continue the general trend set by their predecessors in ME2– bulbous, tumor-like growths on top of blue cybernetics and skin. Over that, there’s the character designs that players know and love, returning in classic form, sometimes updated to reflect the galactic war scenario.

In the minutiae of it all though, the package begins to look a little frayed. Mass Effect 3 still runs on the Unreal 3 engine, and as such, the characters begin to look a little dated. That said, such is the price to pay for continuity between installments, of the ability to be able to import Shepard faces from game-to-game. It’s not a huge deal, but some ambient lighting effects are lacking compared to other recent titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. An exception to this judgment can be found on two major levels where the environment is pitched into total darkness and Shepard is forced into combat with a well-implemented omni-tool light. Where this becomes a little more evident is when comparing dialogue animations between the two; whether or not you believe Deus Ex’s subject matter is more focused than Mass Effect’s is, its animations more often match the context being presented in the dialogue than Mass Effect does, especially in the case of Deus Ex’s occasional LA Noire-type segments where much more attention is paid to the body animations and lip synchronizations. Some new animations in ME3 would have done nicely to keep up the conversation variety, and not just in the cutscenes. The combat animations tend not to suffer from this lack of variety problem, although awkward running animations plagued the game from the demo and were not fixed for the final release.

In terms of combat mechanics, including RPG character development, Mass Effect 3 is at the pinnacle of the series. As combat goes, Shepard has more speed than before and is able to perform combat rolls that take you out of LOS of some attacks very quickly, a feature that would have come in handy in previous games as well given the number of attacks that are often unfairly quick. I cannot tell you how many times how as a Vanguard the combat roll has saved my ass. There is also a fairly decent enemy diversity across the campaign, delineated into three primary enemy factions. Though you’ll never see any of the factions alongside one another, what you’ll get while fighting them is a finely tuned AI package that manages the troop presence pretty well and makes use of flanking maneuvers to keep you on your toes and special abilities to keep your head down or reduce troop casualties against the wall of fire that is Team Shepard. This is probably bar none Mass Effect 3’s biggest strength, and if you play the multiplayer component, it becomes even more apparent the sort of game mechanics that go into hunting you down and managing your team’s threat potential.

I personally could not get enough of the combat mechanics– they’re simply a joy to play through, and given the much widened arsenal the game sports now, it’s a challenge that engages egos as much as thought and reaction. Many of the different weapons in the game sport different abilities and are balanced in certain ways that keep players adapting on the fly. The Carnifex heavy pistol functions as your Dirty Harry magnum, ridiculous hitting power, but at the cost of a more limited supply of ammunition and slower rate of fire as compared to the standard Predator heavy pistol, which fires much quicker and with more ammo, but hits not nearly as strongly. The Arc Pistol is something completely different than either of them, firing a chain lightning pulse that hits multiple clustered enemies and stuns them for a small amount of damage, but can be repeated as long as you have ammunition, freeing your character to follow up with a different set of powers or a quick spray-down with a rapid-fire weapon. The arsenal is, once again, quite extensive, and though it comes at the cost of the ME2 heavy weapons slot, the abilities feel relatively well apportioned out amongst different elements in the combat system, from other weapons to character powers that I don’t miss the heavy weapons at all.

Certain boss fights are fairly epic, as it demands the most of your skills of any Mass Effect game to date. Putting points into skills helps only so much, given that it tends to open up drastic new options for you in the later levels. That said, there’s no one way to beat a certain boss– every class has its own way of beating bosses, some more dramatic than others. Vanguard Shepards tend to have a more epic time of it charging into people’s faces and ramming a biotic-sleeved fist into it right after, but Infiltrator Shepards also get well-timed headshots that do some of the most brutal damage of the game coming from the Tactical Cloak.

This is saying nothing about the multiplayer co-op mode where four players can put up matches based on the game’s N7 mission maps. Granted, this means there’s only six maps to be played, but the amount of variety the alien characters and the tactics introduce is hard to beat. If you’re a fan of playing with random people, or a ring of pretty constant players that switch up the character builds on a regular basis, the tactics can change rapidly based on the situation. One thing that’s especially impressive about this is the way the gameplay from single player just lends itself so well to the multiplayer environment. Overlapping fields of fire and having your buddies’ backs is important, but this only becomes even more so given the way Biotic and Tech powers combo up for devastating effects. Chances are in single player, you barely thought about this. In MP, as a caster, it’s all you’ll probably be thinking about given the frequency this can happen at. See a horde of Husks on the horizon? An Engineer sporting Incinerate can target one, let it loose, and an Adept backing him up can let fly with Warp on the very same Husk, setting it off in a Fire Explosion that deals physics knockback damage and fire damage all in the same breath. For the lowly but numerous Husk, this can pretty much mean the end of the threat right there. Bigger enemies aren’t going to be as affected by this, but proper management of small fry before engaging the big ones can result in epic successes.

Picard: WTF is this shit?

Never can apply this picture too much to the situation.

The narrative and the narrative mechanics are where the slacking sincerely begin to show up. There are probably a number of reasons why this happened: a contracted development cycle prevented exploration of all options, wildly divergent choices in Mass Effect 2 made following up on them all far too difficult to manage, it’s not clear. What is clear is that narrative-wise, Mass Effect 3 falls short of the mark. Since much of the narrative is subjective, I’ll have to start by describing the shortcomings in the narrative mechanics.

Pitfall #1 is the quest system: it’s a mess. Where the previous games had a number of tabs to keep track of your quests and sort them out efficiently, those functions have been inexplicably taken out this time around. Your entire list of quests can become extremely long and unwieldy, and whenever you want to get around to taking on a story mission, you have to visually sort through the list for the Priority: tagged quests and ignore the others. This becomes aggravating when players attempt to build up War Assets for the endgame scenario, more on that later, but the biggest problem is that no quests are updated in any way whether or not you’ve completed a requisite step for the quest. It will only update at all given completion of the quest. This means if you save one day after doing a good amount of exploration and come back to the game a couple of days later, odds are unless you have incredibly accurate recall, you’ll be at a loss as to what quests you can turn in and which ones you haven’t even started yet, nor will you be able to remember where and when you acquired these quests and to whom you turn them into. This necessitates obsessive record-keeping on the player’s part through a sheet of paper or chart mapping out which quests go where, and is one of the least enjoyable parts about the game. Even more inexplicably is how the menu system has lumped the Codex entries in with the Quest journal instead of keeping the quest sorting tabs separate, making the entire menu an exercise in data-sorting headaches.

Pitfall #2 is the War Assets system. It’s far more shallow than it’s been advertised to be, ending up ultimately as a tally sheet of numbers and really little else. What’s really bad about this is the way that you acquire War Assets. The vast majority of Assets you acquire will come from the hordes of fetch quests that you’ll be assaulted with by simply being in earshot of a conversation between two NPCs that are barely distinguishable from the rest of the population. You ever wonder how that quest list got so long and unwieldy? This is how. Additionally, there’s no system in place to manage these Assets or the requisite steps necessary to acquire them, feeding into the problem the previous paragraph ended on, not knowing if you have X random item that needs to go to Y random NPC and necessitating that these records be kept yourself, by hand. Adding to this is the fact that War Assets don’t really get a menu of their own. To view them, you must board the Normandy, go to the CIC deck, go past a security field that inexplicably interrupts your motion for a second and can get quite annoying after several short trips, and access a computer terminal. There is no way to check your Assets in real-time after every completion, making it difficult to gauge the impact of your actions and judge for yourself where you want to invest effort.

Pitfall #3 is the exploration that goes into the game. It’s incredibly shallow. In Mass Effect 1 and 2, there were a number of hub worlds you could explore with their own sets of NPCs and distinctive environments. It was easier to remember which NPCs were where since they all had their own distinctive hangouts. Now, all the hub worlds are lumped into the Citadel station, and the differentiation isn’t so clear in their environments compared to others past. One could argue that this change was made in the name of streamlining gameplay, and that this certainly works in regard to toning down the rampant fetch quests in the game, but it still kills the amount of concrete substantive variety. There are very few NPCs in Mass Effect 3 that are like Mr. Samesh Bhatia from ME1, the widowed husband of a dead Alliance marine who presented a unique moral dilemma in a back-and-forth between two NPCs that could be accomplished in a reasonable timeframe, but more importantly was narratively impactful and memorable. NPC conversations in ME3 are fairly often reduced to random off-to-the-side conversations that are within earshot and are difficult to pinpoint sometimes because it’s not a “full conversation” and the camera doesn’t pan around to reflect that. Trying to examine individual NPC lip flaps can be very difficult from the above-the-back view of Shepard and given the sheer amount of NPCs that can be in one environment.

Exploring outside the Citadel can be worse. There’s no tedious planet-mining to be done for individual resources, but spaceflight is now ultimately the shallowest it’s ever been for it. Finding resources is now based on a scanning system where the Normandy pings a radius around it for sensor returns. This pinging, unfortunately, arouses the ire of in-system Reapers, represented by a Reaper icon above a given star cluster, and given enough pings, Reapers can come in-system from the outer bounds of a system to pursue the Normandy. The only choice left here is to beat a hasty retreat to the outer edge of the system to the inter-system map or to hit a Mass Relay to hightail it out of the star cluster entirely. Another thing is that the Reapers stay there in-system, ready to grab you, until a certain point in the mission progression has passed, making it much more difficult to claim items for your War Assets. The worst thing is that the whole Reaper pursuit mechanic is incredibly cheap. So cheap. It’s the Normandy on the exploration map being pursued by similarly sized Reaper ships and if they manage to catch you (which they absolutely can since they eventually accelerate to speeds faster than the Normandy can move), it’s a fade-to-black and Critical Mission Failure. This is the cheapest gimmicky game mechanic I’ve seen, and it’s been replicated in a Mass Effect iOS game that I really wonder what the entertainment value is in it. It’s a very small thing, to be sure, but it’s so cheap that it feels insulting to even include it.

After this, you might argue that the pitfalls are comparatively minor. The party system is pared back down to just six characters, and this hurts the tactical variety and narrative variety you could get in ME2 by having a different teammate with you on a given mission just to see the result. Mechanics-wise though, the team expanded the options available to players when leveling up their own Shepard, putting in powers and options that ultimately made having these abilities on other characters redundant. Narratively, there’s certainly less variety to be had given the smaller number of party members and the inexplicable paring back of the supporting cast of ME2 to individual vignettes and attempts at poignant death scenes which would have worked if there were more exposition given to them in the third game. Understandably, a player that gets those ME2 crew deaths would have to have played ME2 to get them, players creating a new Shepard in 3 don’t even see the crew members, but for people who spent time in 2 with those crew will not be happy with the short shrift they get in 3.

In terms of romances, the options are slightly more open, and that’s true in every sense of it. Homosexual romances are available in the game, and is an inclusive move for LGBT game players given that it is a completely optional aspect of the game and is not made a huge deal of, which, as a science fiction title, would make sense in a future where such occurrences are commonplace and not worth the hoopla of the present day culture wars. Of course, one could wonder who was protesting the Asari, an entire race of magical blue space trans-species bisexuals, when they were revealed all the way back in ME1 (I know I wasn’t :D). That said though, in terms of the raw count of options, the field seems to have shrank, given that some of the character options feel blatantly one-dimensional for seduction, and many of your romance options in Mass Effect 2 are, once again, given short shrift.

The story is not without its strong moments. Certain love interests get extremely involved, strong cinematics, rubbing salt in the wounds of players who might have chosen the “wrong” love interest, but these are undoubtedly some of the strongest moments of the game. Other characters that might not end up squadmates get pretty epic scenarios starring themselves. Professor Solus. To give more concrete examples might be to spoil the pleasant surprises though.

For a game that comes from a pedigree of deep characterization of the people and the world itself, Mass Effect 3 is disturbingly shallow, and I can’t understand for the life of me why the narrative team made it as is. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that given said pedigree, they would command the lion’s share of the time and resources to produce a superior story. That’s not what we got here. Mass Effect 3 certainly has its moments, but it ultimately isn’t as powerful, thorough or memorable as the previous titles in the series, unless you perhaps count the raging firestorm over the ending that’s still brewing as of this writing. Speaking of the ending, it’s especially inexplicable how the substance of the possible endings wasn’t made to be delineated more clearly from one another. The consequences of your actions are made to be inferred from what information is given, and what information is given can be subjectively displeasing to fans of the series (your mileage may vary disclaimer), but on a mechanical level, the extensive reuse of assets for supposedly different endings is the more flooring issue in my opinion.

Overall, this is a very tough work to take in. Whoever did the combat mechanics did a bang-up job, and I am a fan of how smooth and challenging the combat, slinging powers and lead, has become as a result. Multiplayer modes with three other human players illustrates this entirely. Though the gameplay really just happens to fall together based on the existing single-player engine strengths, there’s no denying that it falls together very well and is one of the more surprising elements of ME3. As a story though, it just doesn’t live up to the pedigree and the hype generated around it; the slapdash mechanics surrounding the narrative only serve to demonstrate how little effort seemed to be put into tying it all together. If you followed the series for this very reason, I can’t recommend buying the game for you. Any of that advice floating around that fans of the series should buy the game is absolutely untrue. Newcomers to the series will be well-served, however. If you were curious instead how the multiplayer community and content surrounding it might develop, that could change. You may want to keep a close eye on that aspect of the game if you’re eyeing a purchase.

But as a core, stand-alone game experience, Mass Effect 3 is a hollow shell, not the epic ending we were led to expect we’d get…

... and the upcoming plans for DLC only serve to highlight that. Is this literally the image you get at the very, very dead ending of the game? Yes, sirree.


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