Mass Effect 3 review: the ultimate ultimatum

Games like this don’t come around every so often, and when they do they need to be experienced; not just played, but experienced. Mass Effect 3 is the finale to a series that can only be described as epic, and this game in particular goes out of its way to enthral and engage you in a superb fashion. I sit here, writing the review to this game, wishing that there was more to the epic trilogy.

Epic is a word that I think I’ll find myself using a lot in this review, because there are just so many aspects of Mass Effect 3 that deserved to be named in this way. Let’s start with the story, which is perhaps the most epic part of the whole game. I recently discussed on our Neowin Gaming Podcast that Bioshock perhaps has the best story of any game I’ve played, but this trumps it by far.

The level of engagement achieved by Mass Effect 3 is nothing short of outstanding. For both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 the story was great, no doubt about that, but for the third and final instalment I really felt as if I was Commander Shepard; that I was fighting a huge force called the Reapers and that the fate of the galaxy rested on my shoulders. I was sucked in to the point where my emotions ran high during certain scenes, and where I seriously considered what the effects my choices had made.

The full story is really something that you have to experience for yourself, so I’ll try my best to avoid giving away any parts of it. However, it must be said that everything from the epic opening scene right down to the gripping ending is superbly paced, incredibly well written and on a huge (read: epic) scale. It ties in the critical parts from the first two games, and if you imported your ME2 character as I did your previous choices have huge effects on the storyline.

To sum it up, the story of Mass Effect 3 is like the final third of a gripping film: it has all the epic battles, an ultimate climax and a great resolution to end it all.

Just quickly, I was reading comments online about people being disappointed with the ending of the trilogy, but I didn’t have this feeling at all. There are multiple endings (which I have heard are similar), and I can understand where sour feelings may come from, but I came out of the game feeling satisfied. But that’s just me, and I think that each person will get something different out of it.

According to the folks at EA the game is suitable both to series’ newcomers and to Mass Effect veterans, and while I agree that the story doesn’t require too much backstory from the previous titles to enjoy, I highly recommend playing the series in order before touching 3. The first two games are great, and you will get to know the premise, story and characters before reaching this game, allowing you to engage much more with the story of Mass Effect 3.

Enough on the epic story, it’s time to move to the epic gameplay. It seems like many aspects of the game have been heavily discussed on by the development then improved for the better. For example, it bugged me how in Mass Effect 2 you could only use a few weapons specific to the class you chose, but with Mass Effect 3 any class is able to equip any weapon which is a huge bonus.

The weapons system has also been improved on in many other ways. Weapons have “weight” which affects how quickly your powers regenerated, meaning if you choose to go lighter (and therefore less powerful) with weapons you will have more tech/biotic power capabilities. This means that you aren’t ridiculously overpowered on two fronts and allows different play styles for different people. Personally I chose to approach the game with more weapons and loved it, but if I go back wanting to focus on powers I’m sure I would enjoy it while experiencing something different.

You also have the ability to upgrade and modify the weapons you have, which is more flexible than ME2 but not as confusing as the original Mass Effect. The whole system feels balanced and approachable, as it’s easy to see what weapon mods such as extended barrels and scopes affect in terms of making your weapon better. There are also grenades for the first time, which can be useful depending on your play style.

It’s much easier to enjoy the gunplay in Mass Effect 3 because of these changes, and it doesn’t feel as tedious as some parts were in earlier games. It’s by no means a hardcore first-person shooter with a complete focus on gunplay, but it means you can enjoy a more solid and rounded RPG-style game.

There are also some serious improvements to the quest system and how this affects the storyline. Throughout the game you’ll be collecting war assets to assist in the final confrontation against the Reapers, and each main quest, side quest and planet scanned helps to build this. Your commitment to going through the game and playing all the side quests to build your war assets has a direct impact on the ending.

The quest system has been majorly simplified, for the better, to make it easier to experience all the side quests in Mass Effect 3. Main quests are usually marked with “Priority” in your journal, and side quests may come up from talking to characters or through N7 notifications aboard the Normandy. There are also small side quests that see you picking up resources during main or other quests and delivering these to people on the Citadel, which is the only major free roam area you can explore.

Due to the system being simplified I’m confident that I came out of the game having played every single quest in the game, and all were enjoyable and worth the time. Unfortunately there is still planet scanning in the game which is required for some minor quests, but to a lesser extent than in Mass Effect 2. I would have preferred scanning to have been scrapped as it’s relatively tedious but it is optional and only a small part of the gameplay.

Many of the other systems present in Mass Effect 3 have stayed relatively unchanged from previous instalments. The levelling system is still great and sees you using points to upgrade your various powers and strengths. The dialogue option system is also still present and allows you to progress through the game becoming either Paragon (compassionate) or Renegade (ruthless), allowing for a great many options in gameplay style.

Multiplayer has been introduced for the first time in the Mass Effect series, and at first I was hesitant about BioWare simply slapping on a rubbish component. Luckily there are several great things about the multiplayer system: it’s completely optional, it ties into the story and it’s really fun. If you would prefer not to play multiplayer you don’t have to and you can still enjoy the deep singleplayer experience. If you do want to play multiplayer you get a bonus to your war readiness, relieving some of the pressure on completing all side quests to gain maximum war assets.

Either way I found playing multiplayer really fun, and I think it’s due to it not being overly competitive but instead cooperative. You play with three other soldiers and help each other complete objectives across ten waves of enemies: it may be simply killing all enemies or it could be activating beacons, uploading data or something else. The multiplayer maps are taken directly from the N7 side missions in the singleplayer campaign, and are well set out and easy to get used to.

A lot of players may write-off the multiplayer aspect of Mass Effect 3 without tying it, but I recommend that you give it a go as a supplement to the fantastic singleplayer campaign and you may find it surprisingly entertaining.

Graphically Mass Effect 3 looks very good; I wouldn’t go so far to say amazing, but it does make great use of the relatively old Unreal Engine 3. Many scenes look fantastic with epic scale and I particularly liked the use of the heavy blue lens flare when looking at lights/suns. Facial animations and character graphics are also quite good, but some other components of the game can look strangely graphically sub-par when others look so great.

For some platform specific things, I played on the Xbox 360 and noticed slight performance issues in some scenarios, but it won’t hamper your enjoyment of the game at all. The disc changes are more frequent than with ME2 and can be annoying but this is a limitation of the DVD technology used with the console. Kinect voice features are also integrated but unfortunately I couldn't test these as I don’t own a Kinect.

When it comes to the audio used in Mass Effect 3, it’s another example of fantastic use of an orchestral score. The soundtrack to the game adds tension in all the right places and enhances the experience in ways you would only realize if it wasn’t there. Voice acting is also superb as it has been across the entire series, so no complaints on that audio front at all. As a tip to people I also highly recommend playing the game with a 5.1 surround sound set-up as there are some epic scenes that make great use of an immersive sound set-up.

Lastly, the length of Mass Effect 3 was just right for the type of gamer I am. It’s not an RPG of the scale of Skyrim, but I don’t think hundreds of hours of quests would quite fit the game. Instead I was greatly satisfied with 28 hours of perfectly placed singleplayer missions: note that I believe I did all the side quests in this time so if you forgo doing them all your game time will be less. I also played around four hours of multiplayer on top of this before I ended the story, with the possibility of playing many more without getting tired.

Also, expect several DLC expansions from BioWare including the day-one episode From Ashes. These will definitely lengthen your experience if you choose to purchase them and are playable once you finish the main storyline.

For a huge fan of the Mass Effect series, Mass Effect 3 is exactly what I wanted to finish the epic trilogy: an enthralling and brilliant storyline, polished gameplay with improved RPG and quest elements, tough decisions to be made and an all-round enjoyable experience. Couple it with surprisingly good multiplayer and you have a real winner that will surely be one of the best gaming experiences of 2012.

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