Despite warnings to the Galactic Council repeatedly met with spindly, xenomorphic fingers in variously shaped cranial listening orifices, The Reapers have arrived to cleanse all organic life from a largely unprepared galaxy. Earth is first in the firing line from these seemingly indestructible insectoid machines and it is here the story of Mass Effect 3 begins.
Shepard escapes Earth and must rally support from the other alien races, first port of call the chambers of the aforementioned Galactic Council who, in what surely now must be perceived as a running joke, stick their fingers in their ears yet again and refuse to act. Shepard must take matters into his own hands.
Shortly, we’ll get onto the ins and outs of why the culmination of one of, if not the greatest series of science fiction videogames ever created is one that, even within the wider genre of films, books and TV series comports itself well. Why it holds its ground. First, though, let’s have some moaning.
Things do not start well. The first couple of hours feature very little in the way of player choice and a great deal in the way of ‘follow the man’. Worries that Mass Effect has essentially ceased life as an RPG and been reborn as a shooter (with RPG elements) are exacerbated and, though EA assures us the experience of Mass Effect 3 is different depending on whether or not you have game saves for the previous two games, the reviewed disc was pre-release non-retail code, so we were unable to port our save across.
As a result, we had to put up with a great deal of ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue in which characters who already know the facts of the story so far outline them to one another in extraneous detail. It’s unclear how much of this will be extricated with a game save, but some of it certainly won’t since it forms the core of critical current-story scenes.
On the one hand, it feels awkward and over-exposed – even, we’d hazard, to those coming new to the series. On the other hand, if Mass Effect 3 is your first port of call in the series, this method of bringing up to speed will at least prove helpful. And on some weird third alien hand growing out of a set of equally alien cuboid bollocks, to recommend playing Mass Effect 3 before playing the games which came before it is a little like recommending you read The Return Of The King as your introduction to Tolkien’s famous trilogy.
Had Tolkien, for important marketing reasons, thrown a bunch of characters into The Return Of The King’s early chapters whose sole purpose it was to have the story so far explained to their oblivious elfin faces, it would have both confounded and annoyed any who had just spent the last month reading them.
The effect here is exactly that; confounding and annoying. But, we admit, it is quite the scruple for BioWare – like many of Shepard’s choices, it’s damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t, and there’s irony in that. And we like irony, so in the grand scheme we do not blame it. Much.
Our second bugbear, and we’re willing to admit we may be going out on a bit of a limb here, is the inclusion of IGN journalist Jessica Chobot as one of the game’s tertiary characters. Arriving as she did during the first couple of hours, during the time all that expositional dialogue and follow-the-manning had us close to tears, her presence was as salt in a wound.
The reason is twofold. First, she is not a professional actress and dear God does it show. Second, it pulls back the curtain to reveal how the greasy wheels of the game’s marketing machine turn. How industry nepotism can sideline creative common sense. Still, her digitisation has, in our opinion, made her look quite a lot like an inflatable, geriatric Moogle – so that’s something, we suppose.
But wait; all this whinging and moaning does not adequately reflect the game. Not by a long stretch. Because once you’re past the follow-the-manning of Earth and Mars, once Chobot is safely stowed aboard the Normandy where you don’t have to look at her face, once all that expositional storytelling is out of the way, what is left is nothing if not exceptional, even if it is a little more simplified than we’re used to.
There’s no need to scan planets for resources anymore. Instead resources can only be found in solar systems under Reaper control. Enter the system in your Monopoly-piece-sized Normandy, hit the left trigger and waves will ping out from it and anything of any use within its radius highlighted for your collection.
Some of it is credits, used for the purchasing of weapons, armour, upgrades, or vanity items for your captain’s quarters aboard the Normandy – we built quite the fish collection, let us tell you. The rest are war assets.
The Reapers have cleansed the galaxy of organic life before and will continue to do so each time it evolves into a conjoined galactic civilisation. Your only hope against them is to see to the completion of The Crucible; an ancient, half-finished piece of technology believed to have begun construction to stop the previous cleansing millions of years earlier.
Mass Effect 3 encourages you to amass as many war assets as possible. Some will aid in the completion of The Crucible; scientists, Prothean tech and so on. Others are assets for the final battle: Asari Commando squads, Alliance Naval frigates. Rather like the upgrading of the Normandy seen in Mass Effect 2, the notion that during the final battle there will be some bespoke reckoning resultant of assets collected is implied, though in our play through, it was difficult to determine how any of it mattered come the final showdown.
There are more forces working against Shepard than just the Reapers. Quite apart from the obstinate nature of the majority of the so-called allied alien races, none of whom will help Shepard lest he first solve one or more of the major problems facing their society, there is also Cerberus. The shadowy pro-human organisation headed up by the Martin Sheen-voiced Illusive Man appears at every turn to foil Shepard’s efforts. Primarily, taking on the form of variously armoured cannon fodder, from standard shock troops all the way up to giant Atlas mechs.
Mass Effect 3 mainly concerns itself with the sequential closure of story threads that have run the breadth of the series. The krogan genophage, the rachni, the fate of the geth. You may save the krogans from the genophage (inflicted by the salarians to controls their numbers), and as a result the krogans will fight for you in the coming battle. The salarians will of course take umbrage and retract their offer to help. Or you can play it the other way around.
It’s the same for the other races too. Quarian or geth? You cannot have both. The choices concerning which races to side with constitute some of the most difficult the series has ever thrown at you. Until now, BioWare has taken no small pleasure in punishing your moral decisions, proving over and again that what may seem like the right choice can have consequences just as awful as the apparently evil one.
In Mass Effect 3, this has been turned up to the nth level; just as you think you’ve saved something you cherish, BioWare sweeps in to deal a crushing blow. It all adds brilliantly to the pathos of the story, to the sense of impending doom and the withering of hope. Narratively, when separated from the concept of interactivity and compared with other videogames, Mass Effect 3 is just a fantastic piece of sci-fi.
Everything about the game has greater focus, which depending on where you stand is either a good thing or a bad thing. Exploration, for example, does not turn up locations that would not have been found otherwise. Side quests are often picked up from emails, from NPCs in the Citadel, but never just happened upon out there in the wider galaxy, and as such the Milky Way feels emptier and the game more linear than it ever has before.
It is also more shooter than RPG. Where Mass Effect 2 seemed to find the perfect balance between exploration, conversation, main story, shooting and side questing, the filling between Mass Effect 3’s action sections feels a lot more like glue – necessary, functional – than that which cemented Mass Effect 2 like a big, comfy Victoria sponge – creamy, sweet and delicious.
Its tilt further towards shooter is also evidenced by the weapon upgrades whose locations constitute your reason to scour the environments rather than just plug straight on to your next objective. New scopes, barrels, extended magazines and so forth can be bolted onto your weapons to offer both a degree of customisation and in turn a greater sense of ownership.
Since Mass Effect 3 is ‘Better With Kinect’, this is how we chose to play the game: using our voices both for spoken dialogue options and for the ordering about of our squad. For the most part it works brilliantly. The ability to be able to say ‘Sniper Rifle’, watch as Shepard draws it, and as the enemy comes in close, ‘Shotgun’, then tear through their offensive line without any break in the action for wheels and bumper buttons is nothing short of revelatory.
Pretty much everything can be voice-activated. You can say ‘Garrus: Sniper Rifle’ and watch him dutifully swap out his gun, and after several hours, there even comes a time when speaking the dialogue out loud ceases to make one feel quite so much the bellend.
The problem is, it doesn’t work all the time. We tried this out on two separate setups. The first; a standard big-screen TV, with standard big-screen in-built speakers. We calibrated Kinect as we’re supposed to and selected the ‘low’ option for audio dynamism in the game menus; tweaked specifically for inexpensive audio setups.
Later, we spent the second half of the game on six grand’s worth of 7.1, dynamism set to ‘high’ and Kinect reconfigured for the new soundscape. In both instances, especially during battle, during the moments when it really would behoove the yell of ‘first aid’ to deliver, Kinect frequently failed to understand what we were saying. It does work 80 per cent of the time, but 80 per cent is nowhere near good enough when 20 percent of the time its failure sends you to the game over screen.
The problem in both cases was clearly the sound coming from the game garbling our words. Which is doubly frustrating since it’s a problem that could have been solved by allowing a headset to be used instead of Kinect. That you have to own a Kinect to access these excellent-most-of-the-time features is, in our opinion, a false necessity.
Is Mass Effect 3 good enough to count itself as a worthy end to the series? Most definitely. Only that, were we given some say, we would have encouraged BioWare to have greater regard for the players who have supported the series up until now and not to allow the embracement of newcomers to dilute the experience, however slightly, in an attempt to encourage them to believe that number three in the series is the logical place to start when, obviously, it’s not.
The emphasis of Mass Effect was story, Mass Effect 2 a balance between story and action, and here primarily on action. The more linear way in which the story is managed and the more funneled level layouts mean those wishing to see the culmination of the trilogy as a traditional RPG are going to be disappointed. However, those willing to forgive and instead sit back and experience the warm synaptic overload that Mass Effect 3 pipes into your eyes and ears, well, those people are in for one of the most entertaining rides of this generation.