SPOILER WARNING: Although care has been taken to minimise story spoilers, this review takes the full length of the game into consideration, and does discuss the game's ending as a narrative construct, albeit without discussing actual event specifics.
I type this first paragraph whilst sat in a dark room, bathed in a blue light of the television in front of me that's cheerfully reminding me that, having completed Mass Effect 3, there are a number of other related packages on various platforms that can help EA make my wallet lighter. I'm exhausted. After 120 hours with my original Commander Shepard, it's all over. Swimming in my mind are a double dozen scenes from this last game, snippets of conversation, character interactions, intimate moments that I will cherish along with the finest memories of any art form, of any story.
This is what BioWare does, indeed this is what the Mass Effect series has always been about: superb storytelling combined with a deep talent for character construction and relationship building. It's about forming bonds with virtual characters and then seeing how your choices in the galaxy affect both those on the far-flung reaches of the Milky Way, to those standing next to you on the edge of the precipice. And shooting alongside you, into it.
The culmination of a series that's already seen its fair share of high drama, apocalyptic threat, narrative twists and turns, and (depending on the way you played your hand in previous titles) love and loss, Mass Effect 3 leans heavily on its predecessors both in form and in function.
This is no bad thing, indeed the finest moments of this game shine in the little details; poignant reminders of battles gone by, and further events of the past. The appearance of side characters (if they survived) from earlier titles, all of whom remember your Shepard, and what you've done, add immeasurably to the strong sense of immersion. It's a familiar galaxy - it's our own galaxy, after all - but so far removed from our time, and populated with entirely unfamiliar species, yet BioWare have done a fantastic job in making us feel at home. The narrative through-line that forms the spine of all three games, the choices made by your Shepard, are all brought to light here. The loose ends from previous games are all tied up.
By itself, then, Mass Effect 3 is something of an unattractive proposition, no matter how much EA would have you believe otherwise. For thirty six and a half hours, not including the final thirty minutes, Mass Effect 3 is pure fan service. All of your previous squad members are given chances to shine, some of which will almost certainly bring a tear to the eye of the hardiest of veterans.
The backdrop of Galactic War - the Reapers have arrived and started attacking the homeworlds of all of the major races in the galaxy - is used perfectly to underline this. Games have tried (unsuccessfully) in the past to bring the trials of wartime to living room screens, but, in usually choosing to explore this through technical means, they inevitably fall short. By having you form attachments with your companions, and then by creating the possibility that they might die because of a decision that you make, BioWare triumph where others have failed: in capturing, to at least some small extent, the emotional impact of wartime loss.
As soon as that begins to dawn, the time you have left with your companions becomes a very palpable thing, and the realisation that this is the last game, this is the last chance to spend time with these characters, dawns heavily. In this respect, BioWare exceed their previous triumphs. A scene with Garrus, which offers panoramic views of the Presidium below, now stands as one of my favourite moments in gaming. Seeing the result of my Shepard's faith in Wrex and the krogan was a stirringly heartfelt occasion. And towards the end, hurtling towards near-inevitable destruction, staring Harbinger right in the eye, that could have been one of the finest endings to any story. Ever.
The best vocal performances of the series bring these scenes to life. Clint Mansell's score is utterly fantastic. These are the things that will stay with you. These are the reasons to buy this game. None of which will matter if you've not played the first two titles.
On a technical level, though, improvements have been made. Aside from a cover system that's still a little bit clunky, and a 'roadie run' that is so amusingly animated that it might make you giggle in the middle of a firefight, the combat is huge fun. The AI on both sides is far better than before, and the range of tactical options available to you - both in terms of powers, and the issuing of instructions - makes for engaging firefights.
This is good news in terms of multiple playthroughs, because my Vanguard plays very differently to my Infiltrator. The former is all about getting up close and personal with a biotic charge, before unleashing hell with a shotgun, and an omni-blade. The melee button provides weightier feedback when pressed, with much more satisfying results. My Infiltrator, though, is better off sitting back and scoping the place out with the sniper rifle, which has been pimped out with an improved sight and magazine capacity, thanks to a revamped upgrade system that allows for a good deal of armament tinkering.
The game does a good job of providing intelligent and challenging enemies, too, although one can apply the same criticism to Mass Effect 3 as one could to Halo Reach: that it's simply a series of Horde mode shooting galleries. The fact that the multiplayer component pulls that off so well makes the lack of variety in the main game's combat a little frustrating, but not overwhelmingly so. Better still, if the killing fatigue hits in, you can always turn the difficulty level down to 'Narrative' if you're just interested in the story. Similarly, there are options to skip conversations entirely, if all you're looking for are uninterrupted waves of TPS action. Frankly, I don't see the point in the latter when it comes to this particular series, but options are always good, I suppose.
The Normandy has undergone a view changes too. There's an additional deck, although why on earth no one thought it might be a convenient idea to put an armoury, armour locker, and power reassignment on the same deck as the galaxy map, is beyond me. The elevator loading screens are shorter than ever before, but they're still annoying. Mainly because, between the Citadel and the Normandy, you'll be spending a lot o time flitting between floors.
The war room is possibly the most significant change, offering up a constant stream of updates on the assets at your disposal for the war against the Reapers. Each time you finish a mission, or locate something of interest on a distant planet, the display will refresh to reveal the latest addition to the war effort, bumping up the 'Effective Military Strength' bar. You can also check out your Galactic Readiness, a stat increased by pumping hours into the multiplayer, and iOS game. Rather curiously, your Galactic Readiness has no real impact on proceedings at all, with the Effective Military Strength statistic it augments only determining whether or not a single character remains alive for a further five minutes. It doesn't change the ending, nor does it impact on the outcome of the final battle at all, in spite of all of the PR waffle to the contrary.
It's a good thing, then, that the multiplayer is fun to play simply for the sake of it. Mass Effect's take on squad-based combat is finally ripe for co-operative action, now that the combat system has been nipped and tweaked again. To be honest, this is the most comfortable fit for Mass Effect 3's continuous hordes, and being able to take a customised character into battle with three other friends is an absolute joy. You can upgrade your powers just like Shepard's, although you have fewer available to you in total, with match across Bronze, Silver, and Gold arenas of difficulty earning you XP and credits that may be exchanged for better weapons, or one-off items like med-kits. There's a sneaky micro-transaction opportunity built into the in-game store, too, that's a little bit worrying, but then again, this is EA.
They'd probably charge us for multiple endings if they could. Speaking of which...
Ultimately, Mass Effect 3 is the journey that every single fan has been waiting for. The pacing is perfect throughout, the calm before the storm of the last battle giving you a chance to check back in just one last time with everyone who's shared this epic tale with you. But then, just at the last moment, everything gets ripped out from underneath you.
In a game, in a series, where choice and consequence has been paramount, Mass Effect 3's ending is a huge kick in the teeth. Deus Ex: Human Revolution's was bad, but Eidos hadn't spent two previous, enormous games making you care. At least those endings were markedly different, too. Mass Effect 3's triple threat of button choices results in virtually identical final cutscenes, with a little colour palette change. All of the choices, all of the sacrifices, all of the relationships, the friendships, the alliances, all are forgotten in the space of ten minutes of Matrix Revolutions-esque waffle that not only makes absolutely no sense in the context of the series, but actively tries to retcon certain aspects of the previous narrative. Everyone's fate is left uncertain, the lack of closure (when there'd been two perfectly good moments at which to end the story only five minutes prior) is borderline criminal.
Is it wrong to feel this way? Of course not. BioWare asked that we invest in their series, and we did, gladly. But, unfairly, this is an ending that makes you ask the question 'Was it worth it?' For the first time, I have no desire to replay a Mass Effect game, because I know that this is it. This is all I'll get: three colours of the same, inevitable ending. No explanation. No closure. No satisfaction. If I want the combat, I'll play the multiplayer. It means that every single choice I made, from the start of the original game, to the end of this one, none of them matter. My Shepard, as different as he may be from yours, doesn't matter. Paragon or Renegade, it's all for nothing. That's not a comment on futility, lord only knows what this ending might have been if BioWare had been brave enough to explore that, but rather drawing the curtain on the Beautiful Lie that Mass Effect has become in the space of five minutes.
It's not about entitlement, although you'd think £120 (not including the series' DLC) might earn us a better ending. It's bad storytelling, and that's the kicker. The fact that BioWare have proven time and time again that they're not a lazy studio, that they care about the little things, that previous games (including from this very same series!) have explored final scenes that reward multiple playthroughs of differing styles and choices, just makes it all the more frustrating. Of all of the memorable moments in Mass Effect 3, and there are many, that this is the most prevalent is a real shame.
Of course, it wouldn't be nearly as frustrating if we'd come into Mass Effect 3 as a starting point for the series. Maybe I was wrong all along.
- Multiplayer combat is excellent
- Plenty of 'WOW!' moments
- Superbly paced story
- Riddled with bugs
- The culmination of Tali's romance is the laziest thing I have ever seen
- Sabotages itself at the end
The Short Version: The third and final entry in the Mass Effect trilogy is a stunning achievement. The combat systems are better than ever, the multiplayer hugely enjoyable, and there's a sense of scale and heightened emotion that drives everything. But it's the excellent pacing and wonderful writing that rings out, providing us with some of the most memorable moments in videogaming, sadly undone completely by an ending that no-one - neither players, nor (most importantly) the characters themselves - deserves.
Second Opinion (Jonathan Lester): Mass Effect 3 will disappoint if you haven't played the original games. Without context, you'll be presented with an overlong corridor shooter featuring weak cover mechanics, surrounded by characters you don't care about reminding you of events you've never experienced.
But as the climax to six years of adventure, Mass Effect 3 is absolutely masterful. The best dialogue and scripting of this generation brings your characters and choices together in profoundly satisfying ways, becoming both viscerally epic and deeply personal in equal measure.
Sadly, the endgame is shockingly poor: a linear slap in the face to series fans who've poured their heart and soul into 90 hours of ultimately meaningless decisions. It's lucky that the journey is so much more important than the destination. 8/10