*This is a SPOILER-FREE review for Mass Effect 3. I will not discuss any reveals or important plot-points in the game, nor will I speak to the controversial ending that has so polarized Mass Effect fans.*
Mass Effect 3 is the last chapter in BioWare’s sprawling science-fiction epic. You once again take the reins of Commander Shepard, Earth last and best hope against the galaxy’s ongoing threat, the Reapers. They’ve come to Earth, and they will stop at nothing to destroy all organic life, starting with humanity. To defeat this threat once and for all, Shepard must unite the other races, convince them to commit military and scientific resources, and make a decisive stand against this synthetic scourge. To accomplish this difficult task, he must navigate the complex political relationships between the races, make peace in the face of centuries of war, and race against the machinations of the Illusive Man and his Cerberus forces.
In typical BioWare fashion, Mass Effect 3 is all about story and decision-making. From the beginning, you customize your own Commander Shepard. Gender, class, physical features…the choice is yours and goes a long way toward personalizing the experience. Indeed you can import your character from Mass Effect 2 (which might have been imported from the first Mass Effect), providing an impressive story through-line. BioWare ambitiously promised character continuity throughout the trilogy, and they’ve absolutely delivered on that pledge.
Mass Effect 3 will be very familiar to veterans of the series. The controls and gameplay are pleasantly unchanged. You will still encounter a wealth of characters and gather allies to join you on the Normandy. The conversation wheel is back, providing you with dialog options that may or may not increase your reputation, or paragon and renegade statuses. It’s all extremely well executed with uniformly strong voice-acting and a dramatic soundtrack.
The graphics are noticeably improved, adding a welcome level of detail throughout. While graphics have never been the cornerstone of the Mass Effect series, the added realism only serves to deepen the narrative. The same is true for the combat. Shepard is more mobile, able to move from cover to cover smoothly. Sprinting into a dive and landing behind a barrier is supremely satisfying. Mass Effect 3 may not be the best example of a third-person cover-based shooter, but they borrowed enough genre leaders to make it very functional.
Enemy AI has been improved as well. Your target will use cover effectively, plant turrets, and even lay down smokescreens to obscure your vision. There are a variety of enemy types, weapons, special abilities, and tactical decisions to make. All of this makes for a more visceral combat experience, even if your squad-mates require a bit of handholding.
Fans of the series will be pleased to note that class-based weapon restrictions have been removed. Instead, there’s a weight encumbrance mechanic that slows down the recharge rate of your special abilities depending on the number/weight of the weapons you carry. So while my Adept could carry a sniper rifle, shotgun, and assault rifle in addition to his pistol and SMG, doing so would slow biotic ability cooldowns by 200%. Not a good choice for an Adept or an Engineer, but perfectly reasonable for a Soldier that depends less on special abilities. For a game that is all about choices and tradeoffs, this was an elegant solution in balancing and differentiating the classes.
The big new feature is, of course, multiplayer. Many fans decried the decision to add multiplayer to a game so rooted in a single-player experience, but rest assured that BioWare intended to include multiplayer from the beginning. It was simply too difficult and costly to implement for the first two games. It’s also completely optional in Mass Effect 3, and doesn’t impact the single player experience in any way. It was intended to be a fun, game-extending diversion, and it is just that.
Mass Effect 3 sets a new bar for video game storytelling. From the very beginning, you are emotionally invested in Earth’s plight and the seemingly impossible mission Shepard embarks upon. Especially if you’ve imported a character from the previous games, you are treated to appearances from many familiar faces and see the consequences of your previous decisions. Thanks to improved graphics and combat, the mechanics of the game are now nearly on par with the narrative.
That is not to say that the experience is perfect. There are occasional collision detection and texture pop-in issues. Some of the new characters are downright unpleasant, especially meathead James Vega voiced by Freddie Prinze Junior). Instead of completely doing away with the much maligned planet scanning mini-game from Mass Effect 2, they transformed it into a hunt for “War Assets”. You scan systems instead, trying to find hidden resources. It’s streamlined, sure, but you’re still firing probes onto planets and still buying fuel to travel between systems.
Despite these questionable elements, the game absolutely shines. BioWare is a master of their craft, and Mass Effect 3 is their greatest achievement to date.