Shepard was right all along. The Reapers –a highly advanced machine race of synthetic star ships hell bent on destroying all sentient life every 50,00 years, for those that don’t know- have finally arrived. After tearing through the Lunar Base defenses they’ve made for Earth, burning their way across major settlements with devastating power. Sounds like an apt setting for an introduction teeming with heart breaking separations, violent destruction and epic cliffhangers, right? Well, you won’t get it. Not quite anyway.
Unfortunately, Bioware seemed to be running towards the tantalizing start to Mass Effect 2 that had everyone talking, but caught its foot on something and face planted into mediocre beginnings.
Shepard is summoned before the Defense Committee, which has concerns after whole colonies beyond the Sol. Relay have gone silent. They claim its like “nothing they’ve ever seen before”. Although those of you who played Mass Effect 2 will note that when entire colonies started vanishing no one actually gave a dam, hence Shepard’s move to Cerberus… So this is a somewhat frustrating contradiction. If that wasn’t bad enough, when footage of The Reapers consuming London is finally patched through, there are no subdued cries… No murmurs or even a despairing collapse from a faint-hearted board member. All of which would have struck atmospheric fear into the player- it would have encapsulated that feeling of armageddon that would have stayed with them the entire game, making them really want to save the day. Bioware should have settled for nothing less after preparing their fans for warfare on a galactic scale through the course of the previous games.
Thankfully, the game starts to pick up the pace when Reaper units land in the sprawling city outside, and the player can get to grips with controls as they climb across the exterior of Reaper-chewed buildings. This gives players the opportunity to look out onto the broken landscape, and stare up at great Reaper structures parked nearby, happily mincing up all beneath them. The totally out of this world buzzing, mechanized drumming and ominous reverberations seething forth from these machines is enough to have you on the other side of the room. After defeating waves of mysterious new enemies, the level ends with the devastation I felt should have been delivered straight away; as Shepard escapes, (s)he watches fleeing ships, packed with civilians get mercilessly shot down by a Reaper, completely incapable of doing anything to help. The game’s impeccable sound track compliments the whole scene in such a way that grown men will blub and claim they’ll never love again, if it could all be stamped out by something so evil. Mass Effect 3’s introduction is almost like a metaphor of sorts for the game as a whole; a blemished masterpiece, as I will discuss.
The Mass Effect Trilogy has seen some drastic changes to its fundamental RPG format over the years; in the first it was clumsily scraped together, with glaring flaws such as obscene loot quantities and limited leveling systems. However in the second installment, Bioware took a step back from RPG… But nearly left it behind altogether; players had precious few armor/weapons choices and there was no expansion on the leveling system. Mass Effect 3 has finally delivered; the leveling system now includes power branch-offs (such as increased blast radius or longer duration ext) so that players can make Shepard’s class their own. Liara- a companion of Shepard’s in all three games- also offers upgrades through her status as “Shadow Broker”- a dealer of information. This further personalizes the progression of each player’s character. Weapon attachments have been made available too, such as powerful scopes, increased damage, stability and bullet capacity. This new system had great potential, but many fans still feel it didn’t cut into the core of true RPG individuality; there’s an extremely limited amount of attachments permitted per weapon, and players will find themselves constantly juggling mods around. Melee combat has also been introduced for the first time. It makes sense for us to see Shepard get stuck in and punch the ugly out of enemy’s faces, seeing as Khalish Al-Jilani had it handed to her enough times… Ahem. Bioware have also managed to loosely tie in class, as some will offer Shepard an “omni-blade” to cut through enemies with, while biotic Shepards will hurl a ball of energy into their victims. There are also light and heavy melee options, depending on whether the player is running or not, giving players the opportunity to create epic battle-dramas of their own. Imagine sighting your last enemy; your shields are down, you’re out of ammo. To die with honor would be a waste- you have to take them out. You surge towards them, and the shear force of your attack unleashes a blow from Shepard that takes them down in one. Exciting stuff.
Mass Effect has moved on from clumsy vehicle sections and monotonous mining segments, making planet exploration quick and easy. Instead of plowing a scanner across the surface of numerous planets, launching a single probe is all that’s needed. Reapers will also appear and chase the Normandy down if players get too cocky, making solar systems impenetrable for a period of time afterwards. This is a fun little addition to the game’s travelling system that helps make some of the less action based quests more entertaining.
The visuals are yet again absolutely fantastic. The developers comfortably move between epic architectural masterpieces and natural environments, with a range of missions looking out over awe inspiring alien cities, or back dropped by ominous caves and desert lands. Players will also be able to delve even deeper into the inner workings of The Geth’s illusive world, which (giving away as little as possible here) is guaranteed to blow minds. Fans of “Fem-Shep” -the female version of the game’s protagonist- will also enjoy the new default appearance created to match that of “Male Shep’s” based on Dutch model Mark Vanderloo. Fem Shep fans felt somewhat pushed to the side lines previously, with so much emphasis on Male Shepard being the hero and the face of the Mass Effect franchise- despite Jennifer Hale giving the arguably superior performance as the voice of Shepard.
Alas, one of Bioware’s old foes has shot them in the foot once again; the facial expression. Watching Shepard’s forehead attempt to furrow is like watching Madonna try and frown under the profuse amounts of botox and collagen fillers. Its… Difficult. With games like Halo 4 and L.A. Noire already beginning to master subtlety of expression, many other releases are bound to follow suit. This is an issue Bioware needs to overcome if they want to stay in the same league as other developers.
Now here’s the bit the Mass Effect series is famed for; the story line. Some of Shepard’s companions, such as Garrus and Tali have fought along-side him/her throughout all three games. The writers have beautifully developed their characters. At first they were young and somewhat naïve- searching for answers in Shepard, unsure of what the future held for them. In the second game Shepard’s “death” made them bitter, but they wielded determination to over-come the bad, just as their old Commander had done. Finally, in the third game, the attack on their home worlds has forced them to become ambassadors for their people; they are strong, experienced soldiers, fighting the fight of their lives. Tali’s fight is one of particular importance, as The Quarians attempt to take back their original home-world (which was taken over by a synthetic race of their own creation) amidst the Reaper chaos. Players have spent so much time speaking with these characters, forming bonds and even relationships with them, that every mission simply had to paint them out as the epic heroes they deserved to be. Mass Effect 3 succeeds with heart felt, cataclysmic accuracy. Missions include epic boss battles, tear jerking plot lines and epic conclusions to prominent issues that have existed since the very beginning.
Despite each character having their moment of glory –or disaster- Shepard’s team is much smaller than previous game’s. Not only was it exciting to have a range of different personalities commenting on the action, but it also offered a multitude of class variations, as each squad mate’s abilities were slightly different. Many also feel is was a crime for an extra team mate, “The Prothean” to be DLC content rather than a grounded addition to the base game. This has raised issues about whether Bioware was set on fulfilling their fan base, or just squeezing money out of them…
Mass Effect has always had a huge emphasis on choice; do you kill this person, or do you let them die? Who do you chose to carry out this suicidal order? Which race lives and which one will be destroyed? Developers promised devastating consequences for previous actions in this game, but many argue these repercussions just weren’t there. I am of course talking about the game’s infamous ending, but views are so divided that I feel it would be a crime to discuss it so briefly here. One thing I will say in defense of Bioware’s choice system is that despite choices having relatively little effect on the ending, some of the mid-game plots are grievously altered by what might seem like somewhat minute choices, such as the order players choose to complete missions in. These epic tales were enough to have me completely satisfied by the time I reached the game’s ending, and it saddens me to see them overshadowed by the ending’s controversy.
To conclude, this is a fantastic game. Its filled with great combat sections, excellent level design, thrilling plots teeming with twists and turns and massive re playability. Unfortunately though, the Mass Effect games may have been too good for… Well, their own good. The stories the developers built up, along with the choices players made for each made the range of different outcomes unimaginably vast. The stories were so rich and compelling that they just couldn’t settle for less. But unfortunately, they had to. Realizing Bioware’s true dream probably would have taken colossal amounts of time and money to realize. I think despite all they did a fantastic job, and I certainly couldn’t put the game down until I had it finished.