Mass Effect 3

mass effect 3 female shepard bioware promo pic

The night before the Extended Cut DLC was released for free (today), I finally finished Mass Effect 3 to see what all the fuss was about. My Effective Military Strength was well over 5,000, so I had nothing to worry about, except a sense of dread not wholly related to the predicament of the galaxy.

In Mass Effect, Bioware created a universe easily the equal of Star Trek or Star Wars: a compelling, fully-realised history, geography and political landscape. It has characters you care about, worlds you want to save, and Mass Effect 2 enjoys a well-deserved 96% rating on Metacritic: it’s almost perfect. So why was ME3 so roundly criticised by its fans? Why isn’t it as good as ME2? And is the ending really that bad

The difference is that ME2 got almost everything right. It ditched the clunky mechanics of the first game and melded heart-pounding Gears of War action with a moving and engaging story. Even the captain’s cabin was full of the kind of thoughtful details you’d expect from a Bethesda game, with really the only cause for complaint being the rather hemmed-in feel to the on-planet missions.

Mass Effect 3 takes that further: it’s practically a linear corridor shooter. It’s like Half Life 2 in that it looks open-world but isn’t: you’re pinned in on all sides by rubble and there’s usually only one direction to go in. As has been mentioned elsewhere, too often your goal is to “survive”, and since most sidequests are simply to play the obnoxious minigame (dodge-the-Reaper) that takes the place of the previous obnoxious minigame (planet scanning), there’s even less scope for on-planet exploration. Which is a shame, because one of the most compelling things about Mass Effect was its atmospheric worlds. It certainly makes me nostalgic for the creepy Prothean ruins, or the lush tropical world of Virmire.

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Still, ME3 has its reasons. The worlds that you do visit are post-apocalyptic (or mid-apocalyptic) shells, where your usual goal is to retrieve some key artifact before the whole planet goes boom. There’s generally some bulls*** reason why the Reapers can’t attack from the air followed by some bulls*** reason why you can’t attack from the air, leading to some repetitive ground assaults from your team versus the zombie-like Husks and other corrupted beings.

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There’s an additional foe, too, in the form of the shady human-supremacist organisation, Cerberus, who are seeking to control the giant cyborg Reapers rather than to eliminate them.

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The score by Clint Mansell isn’t as knock-out as the previous game, though this installment is improved by gameplay changes such as the Story Mode and Action Mode, which allows you to jump straight in without having to do all the stat-faffing, emphasising either combat or cutscenes as you prefer.

After each mission, you can check your progress on the ship’s tactical war map, which displays your Total Military Strength (how many War Assets you’ve gathered through quests and dialogue, or through finding things in your dodge-the-Reapers game), and your Readiness Rating (defaulted to 50%, but increased through the surprisingly fun multiplayer missions). The two combine to form your Effective Military Strength. Too low, and it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you Earth is a goner. Get it high enough, and further options open up in the ending, with the best possible chance of survival for all concerned.

Overall, the story is considerably less gripping than the previous two installments, as it is a straightforward sequence of battles. Previous allies and acquaintances come and go, though it’s difficult to care much about Miranda or Jacob because they weren’t very interesting to start with. That said, some of the setpieces are genuinely outstanding

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(spoiler)

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and the final ground assault feels genuinely desperate and tense. I found the “goodbye and good luck” chats with my crew moving and involving, and thought the whole final Earth battle was very well handled.

That said, I can definitely see why people criticised the ending.

[SPOILER]

To get the “perfect” ending you need an Effective Military Strength of 5,000, but the “perfect ending” isn’t perfect at all. Your choice is either to try to control the Reapers or to destroy them (and with them, all synthetic life). Either the very enslavement they’re trying to impose on you, or a genocide that would wipe out your Geth and AI friends who’d been busy up to that point trying to save your neck. Oddly, the latter is the “perfect” ending, in which it is suggested that Shepard survives. A slightly lower EMS allows you to pick a third option, which is the one I chose: to sacrifice myself, Buffy style, and save everyone, albeit with the cost of forcing a DNA change on all life to meld synthetic and organic life. At least that would preserve both existence and free will and rid the universe of its 50,000-year purge cycle.

Following that very Battlestar Galactica-ish dilemma, an entirely superfluous cutscene shows the Normandy crash-landing on an unknown planet and your pals emerging intact looking reasonably happy. In my ending, EDI survived, which at least puts a smile on Joker’s face. There seemed to be no purpose to this other than to set the scene for a future DLC. Then we cut to a young boy asking his father to tell him more stories about The Shepherd – galactic hero of legend – followed by the helpful announcement that more tales of Shepard’s heroic adventures will be available soon as purchaseable DLC!

Way to go, Bioware – end on a commercial!

[/SPOILER]

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So does Mass Effect 3 suck? Not even remotely, and it’s still one of the best games I’ve played. It’s just not as good as the first game and a massive step down from the second, which is a disappointment given the jaw-dropping potential of the series.

Still about a billion times better than how Battlestar Galactica ended, though – and that’s still the best TV show ever made.

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