March 13, 2012 – Star Wars and Star Trek have long dominated the mindshare of popular culture in the science fiction realm. They had a right to. Both told epic stories from the small screen to the silver screen, exploring the wonders of the stars. But as time passed, with Star War’s fall from grace, the lack of Star Trek dominance on television, and with the rise of new media, other stories have stepped forward to take forth the banner of science fiction space operas. But none of them come close to the marvel that is the Mass Effect series.
Mass Effect 3 sees the return of the Reapers to the Galaxy, a doomsday warned of by Commander Shepherd and her stalwart crew, and now, with Earth and the Galaxy as a whole crumbling before everyone’s eyes, no one can doubt any more. Commander Shepherd must not only rally her crew mates, but now the entire Galaxy to fight off this dire threat to the existence of all civilization. It will not be an easy task. Shepherd will have to bridge over old animosities, bring peace to disparate factions, and forge alliances where once was open hatred and war.
The story that Mass Effect weaves is astonishing in scope, certainly, but equally as amazing is the quality with which it is achieved. Watching as Shepherd finds ways to bridge the gaps between the races is believable, and set in the foundation of information being built from Mass Effect 1 onward. The Genophage, the Geth, Cerberus – all of these issues have been present since the first game, and how they play out in the last feels natural and brilliant. What should be impossible is made possible, and the choices of the past come back to either haunt or strengthen Shepherd’s cause.
The characters are similarly brilliantly portrayed. The dialogue, not just between Shepherd and the crew, but also between the crew mates themselves, is terrifically done. Each character is unique, wonderfully realized and either likeable or despicable based on their own terms. The authenticity of each character is never something questioned by the player. They have become real.
In my time with Garrus, Liara and the rest, I felt like I truly knew them. The new faces make welcome additions also. Vega, a character I was initially worried about, turned out to be a hilarious and colorful addition. Cortez provided another facet altogether, not prone to any stereotypes or bravado, he felt like a real person. This was especially important due to his status as one of the two homosexual characters in the game.
Old characters return, even if only for brief missions and cameos, and more often than not you’ll wish you could spend more time with them. Some of these characters have even moved on to different stages of their lives, and don’t rejoin the crew for believable reasons. Some have decided to settle down, others may be wrapped up in their own issues, and still others may be slowly waiting for death. You aren’t the center of these characters’ universes (for all that the game places such a responsibility on Shepherd’s shoulders), and that makes the world feel that much more real.
Now, all of this said, the story and characterization takes an abrupt turn for the worse at the very end of the game. If you have already played the game, and do not mind spoilers, you can read my analysis of the endings At My Main Blog, as well as some further analysis of what went wrong at the Rough Writers Blog. I can hardly imagine a player who won’t be disturbed on some level concerning the endings, so I have to mention it.
To put it in vague terms, for those avoiding spoilers, there is little real choice at the end of the game for the player, no matter how the player has played the game. Paragon, Renegade, it doesn’t really matter, the choices are the same, with very small differences. Also, forget closure. There is little to none. There are positive things in the endings. Some good nuggets that I cling to. But they are largely outweighed by the flaws.
It is one thing to have a bitter sweet ending. Bitter-sweet is laudable, especially given the context of the Reaper invasion. It is another thing entirely to have no good endings at all.
Forgetting for a moment DLC and any other possible ways Bioware may still fix these problems, the question remains: Despite the ending, was the game worth it?
The answer is unquestionably yes. I laughed and cried my way through the entire game. The bonds I had built over three games, the emotional investment, payed off in so many little ways. The journey of getting to the end was incredible, and easily one of the best journeys in gaming and in entertainment period. Mass Effect is on the same level for me as Star Wars and Star Trek – perhaps greater. It certainly has more of my emotions twisted up in it.
“Story story, character character, blah blah… how does it play?” – You might ask (you monster). Well, it plays a whole lot like Mass Effect 2. Nearly identically. However, it must be said that some elements of the controls have been smoothed out, and some RPG elements dropped from the first game have made a return. There are a lot more and varied weapons again, with modifications to boot. The leveling system has also gained some needed choice and variety to let the player decide exactly how they want to fight.
More importantly, the enemy variety and level design have received some significant improvements. The battles I’ve had in Mass Effect 3 were easily the most interesting and intense I’ve had in the series to date. For all its prowess, the Mass Effect series has been said to be an average third-person cover-based shooter, hardly comparable to the likes of Gear of War 3. But with this entry I feel that the series has finally stepped into the the shooter big-leagues, both mechanically and tactically.
The graphics are the best in the series, even if I’ve experienced more bugs than I recall from the first two. There will be multiple times when a conversation will suffer from an inexplicably invisible or flickering squad-mate, or times when Shepherd bugs out and starts flying around Iron-Man style. But in the end, these are minor issues, and nothing like the lag from Mass Effect 2’s Omega Relay sequence is found anywhere.
To top it all off, despite the departure of the last composer, the music of Mass Effect 3 hasn’t suffered one bit. The music is wonderfully done, perfectly tailored to each moment, and drives the emotional crescendos the game will be remembered for. If any game soundtrack deserves a purchase, this would be it.
I loved this game. For all the heartbreak I have over the lame endings, the journey there was worth every second. Staying up all night never felt so good. If you haven’t played this game yet, or its predecessors, what are you waiting for? You’re missing out on one of, if not the greatest science fiction space epics of our time. It’ll be hard for anything to top this for game of the year come December. The Mass Effect series has etched its name on my heart.
STAR RATING: (4 & ½ Stars)
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
I feel utterly drained. What a ride. For as much as Bioware has me frustrated about their endings, I must also thank them for the experiences I’ve been able to have through their artistry. I would not trade my time with the Normandy and her crew, my time with Liara, Garrus, Joker, EDI and the others for anything.
Now, to be sure, the endings were pretty bad. Not completely bad, but certainly mostly bad. As for the why’s and wherefores, well I talk about the endings in some detail at both my Main Blog and over at the Rough Writers Blog, as I’ve mentioned before. I won’t be going into any more detail here. I feel like I’ve talked the subject into the ground.
But there is so much to say otherwise! I saw Earth burning, and civilians dying. I saw Palaven burning too. I saw men and women determined to fight for their worlds, and their lives, struggling against beings the size of skyscrapers with power that would make them seem gods. I cured the Genophage. I witnessed the death of a Reaper at the might of a Thresher Maw. I brought peace between the Krogan and the Turians. I passed through a virtual tron-meets-ghostbusters world.I witnessed the advent of true sentience in the Geth, and brought an end to their long conflict with the Quarians, leaving them both to build their lives together on their newly shared home world. I built an allegiance spanning the whole of the Galaxy, and fielded the grandest fleet in history. I spurred the creation of the mightiest scientific project ever conceived of.
But more importantly… I saw old friends again, and made new ones.
I joked with Vega in the cargo hold. I comforted Cortez over the loss of his husband. I befriended Traynor and watched her turn from an uncertain tech to an irreplaceable crew member. I helped Jacob save his new life protecting a scientist he loved. I helped Wrex move beyond past hatreds on to a brighter future. I witnessed Jack’s redemption and acceptance of new responsibilities. I brought Tali home, where she saw her world for the first time unhindered by her mask. I helped Miranda save her sister from her father. I said goodbye to Thane one last time. I saw Legion sacrifice himself so that his species may evolve to something greater. I watched Moridin find redemption through aiding the Krogan he had wronged, and die in the process.
I watched EDI find meaning in life. And then I watched her and Joker find love in a bold new future, where synthetics and organics are one.
I became best friends with Garrus. A cool-headed, determined and heroic badass, and one of the most amazing characters in gaming, or any other medium. I’ll never forget that time with the Sniper Rifles at the Citadel.
My Shepherd worried, mourned, laughed and loved with Liara, and saw her turn from a scared and naïve scientist into the powerful and determined Shadow Broker. And only my Shepherd will ever know her softer side – who she really is at heart.
I sacrificed myself to try and provide a better future for the Galaxy, for my friends, and for Liara – evolving all life to another plane, beyond the dichotomy of synthetic and organic, to something new, something different, something beyond our imagination.
To put into words what all this means to me would be to diminish it. So while Bioware may have failed to bring closure to this life, I will let this simple record stand as a memorial to my Shepherd, and the experiences I had living these experiences through her.
Thanks Bioware. Thanks for what you’ve given me.