Friedrich Nietzsche once said that, “The end of a melody is not its goal: but nonetheless, had the melody not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either.” So he we are, after six years, with Bioware’s beautiful melody building to an inevitable crescendo with each note in the score punctuating with the purpose of tragedy and hope. Mass Effect 3 will see you faced with the ultimate fate of the galaxy and more importantly the fate of the characters and the stories that you have created. In taking on the final installment of Bioware’s sci-fi opus you will feel like the stakes haven’t been higher, and in many ways they haven’t been.
Mass Effect 3 takes no time in getting you straight into the fight; beginning on Earth we find Shepard, having been relieved of duty following Mass Effect 2, being called before the Alliance's Defense Committee to discuss what seems to be an imminent attack from the Reapers. During the meeting the Reapers land on Earth in quite spectacular fashion laying waste to the city that lies before you. With everything going to hell Shepard is reinstated and tasked with going to the Citadel to gather all the respective races together for a final assault to defeat the Reapers and reclaim Earth. As is typical with everything Mass Effect the simplicity of the solution is always secondary to the difficulties of the politics in this very real and tightly written universe.
So begins your trek (no pun intended) across the galaxy trying to accumulate as much military strength as you can before launching your attack on the Reapers. To achieve this you will have to undertake mission from various races to motivate them to join the counter attack or even try and repair some political fractures to unite a divided galaxy against a universal threat. As you gather support you will see your ‘military strength’ progress bar filling up, pushing you towards attacking with maximum strength, although you can attack earlier if you so wish. Extra squads and ships are available through searching the solar systems with the scan function of the Normandy which operates like a pulse sonar, doing this will uncover hidden objects in the nearby vicinity. However if you scan frequently you will alert the Reapers and they potentially will just show up and chase you out of the system with you then unable to go back until you have completed another mission. This has added a much improved, and less tacked-on, use for the planet probing function as well. On scanning a planet you have infinite probes and you will now be guided to the point of interest rather than firing and hoping, but now you have the actual desire to do it as you are searching for people to join the fight.
The writing in Mass Effect 3 is all incredibly thoughtful and the history of every character, never mind each race, is so deep and convincing you will wonder how BioWare achieved not just the content but the level of quality it is delivered with. It’s even the incidental moments that will stagger you. I found myself walking past a medic on the front lines and he was remotely talking to a civilian trying to stop the bleeding of a soldier who had been injured. I stood there for minutes just completely engaged in this faceless woman’s plight and desperate situation, it was thoughtful, heart rending and tragic. And this is a throwaway moment, an aside that many will miss and for that level of detail and thought you cannot help but admire the work on show here.
The ability to create a living and dynamic universe is what truly sets Mass Effect apart from so many other games and is testament to the sheer talent at BioWare. Even more impressive is that this level of quality shines from one corner of the galaxy to the other with no character underwritten, no race unimportant to your cause and no location anything other than fantastically realised. BioWare understand that to get the player to fully invest in the story the game must have an internal quality and consistency, and this success is not easily earned but give the sheer scale of Mass Effect 3 it seems BioWare can do this in their sleep it’s so natural to them. It’s very much an amalgamation of every sci-fi show or movie that you know and love and where there should be a hint of ‘ripping off’ here it seems fresh, the characters and worlds are better realised than most of what popular media can muster.
There has always been the debate of comparison between videogames and movies and which is the more successful medium in delivering an experience to the audience. Mass Effect 3 is a testament to the development of our much loved medium, here the lines are blurred but not in a L.A Noire impressive tech way. There is a real sense of connection to both the characters and their struggle and it’s very rare to have a sense of loss conveyed so well but because of the writing and interactivity BioWare consistently nail it. At one point you are sent on search for a mcguffin that will mark a turning point in the war and after a long slog and hard-fought battle you finally get to your goal and get your hands on the prize. In a brilliant move BioWare decide to take your prize from you leaving the war in a terrible position and forcing you into failure, removing any ability from you to make amends. You are left frustrated and hopeless, your painstaking fight throughout the mission has amounted to nothing. There are many moments of awe in Mass Effect 3 but it’s moments like this that will convey the true feeling of the hopelessness that your characters face. However these feelings of dejection and hopelessness are quickly followed by a resurgence to put things right, the pacing and story telling on show are quite simply brilliant.
However it’s not all plain sailing, there are niggles and much like the characters themselves they are familiar to anyone who has played the series before. Firstly the lip sync can be distracting, it’s not exactly smooth and at times it serves only to remove you from the action and while it’s not a deal breaker it can lessen those more dramatic of interactions. The animation on the whole is of a high standard but the usual complaints come in when it comes to your character running, Shepard has always looked in some measure of digestive distress when he runs and it’s very much the same here - you would think that it was almost done as some sort of BioWare in-joke.
Aesthetically the game runs from jaw dropping to functional, and when I say jaw dropping I really do mean that you will witness some of the most incredible sights you’ll ever see in a videogame. There is a standout moment early on that sees you fighting Reapers on a Turian moon and as you fight wave after wave of Reaper ‘Husks’ you look up and you can see the Turian fleet embattled in space with the Turian home-world ablaze from attack. It’s simply stunning. These moments are not in isolation and occur frequently but to avoid robbing anyone of these discoveries I’ll just say that Mass Effect 3 deserves the description ‘epic’. It’s a word that gets over-used and usually in place of something that is simply ‘very good’, but Mass Effect 3 makes it look like the word epic was invented to describe it.
There are visual glitches such as enemies sticking to the spot motionless when you kill them, flying enemies getting stuck when trying to land and at one point it was snowing inside a shuttle while I was having a conversation. But these instances are few and far between and the ratio of things perfectly executed to minor niggles is a very healthy one. There must also be mention of the frame rate, we reviewed the PS3 code and as anyone who played the demo can tell you, at times it was frankly terrible. The same problem persists in the retail code we were given but again it’s minor enough when taken in the larger picture, it seems to be in cut-scenes mainly but you will find that after the first hour or two your eyes will be normalised to the occasional ‘Jerk-o-Vision’.
The course of the series has always seen the combat evolve and here we get to see Mass Effect at it’s most refined. On the battlefield there are subtle nuances now with Shepard intelligently able to move between pieces of cover both to his sides and also in front of him - or ‘her’ if you've went the Femshep route. It all feels that little bit slicker and there is less frustration with rolling into a wall rather than sticking to it for cover a much less frequent occurrence. When in cover you can also now perform a grab and attack move which will pull an enemy over the wall before finishing them off in style with your blade. It’s a simple addition to the repertoire of Shep but it helps to fill out the combat in an unobtrusive way. Your regulatory two squad-mates on any given mission will behave very much as you command them to and there is a lot less unexplained absences on your flank than in previous iterations. That’s not saying that you will not be frustrated when they do wander off to go head to head with something they have no chance of defeating.
This is usually not a hindrance of any great level but coming into the final third of the game the battles are intense, and perhaps a little too much, and it is in instances like this that those minor flaws can be magnified. To command a squad-mate to move to a position you hold a direction on the D-Pad, either left or right depending on the character and for them to use their assigned special ability you press either left or right on the D-Pad. Can you see the problem? It was a common occurrence for me to request an attack with a special power only to see my team-mate run off into the middle of the fray which resulted in a frantic call for them to rally back to me. However this is something that can be pegged to user error and on a control pad there are only so many functions you can assign without making control unwieldy and niggles like this are acceptable when measured against the nearly continuous quality of control the player is given.
As with all journeys Mass Effect 3 also has to come to an end and by the time you reach the conclusion you will no doubt be feeling a plethora of emotions. There are some brave decisions made in the build up to the conclusion and some that you wont see coming, but within the actual resolution of the series there is contention. BioWare have gone the Lost route to its finale, without spoiling anything I will say that it leaves a lot unanswered and depending on how you like your franchises to wind up it may serve to satisfy or infuriate. As it stands it’s an interesting finale and not quite the failure some are currently saying but their position is understandable. If this is the end of the Mass Effect series as a whole then it has gone out in style as it is absolutely breathless in delivering action, emotion and a rekindling of the love of adventure. It is very early to be rolling out ‘Game of the Year’ accolades but this will be hard to beat but if Mass Effect 3 is to be surpassed then whatever is around the corner will be absolutely phenomenal. The journey is over and taken on its own Mass Effect 3 is a masterpiece and as a trilogy it is nigh on as good as anyone could hope for. American writer Samuel Delaney said that, “Endings to be useful must be inconclusive” and I feel that is the case here. Prepare for conversations and speculation following the end and in many ways that’s the perfect way to keep the legend of Shepard alive.
The journey is over and taken on its own Mass Effect 3 is a masterpiece and as a trilogy it is nigh on as good as anyone could hope for.