Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review

I have spent over 130 hours playing the Mass Effect series, and I truly think that this story is one of the best science fiction epics of all time, or at least the best story within a video game. Throughout the series, you face increasingly critical situations where you are the last hope for not only humanity, but all the races of the galaxy as you try to find some way of defeating an artificial race of giant aliens bent on destroying all sentient life in the galaxy: the Reapers. I use the word “you” instead of “John Shepard,” because Mass Effect 3 can bring your own morality into question as the game encourages you to consider the consequences of each decision. While each game in the Mass Effect series has delivered amazing stories, the third installment brings to a close the story you have crafted from the beginning. Mass Effect 3 delivers the extraordinary tale of one man (or woman if you prefer) bearing the burden of the entire galaxy while giving the player a fantastic action shooter with the perfect balance of RPG elements. This game is by far the best game of the series, of the year, and one of my personal favorites of this past decade.

Since this is the third installment of the series, most of the battle systems and RPG elements are familiar. However, these elements have been tweaked and improved upon as well. The weapons and armor have different upgrades and customizations that improve damage, accuracy, etc. While the biotic powers have more branches of ability choices to provide more options to fit any play style. As an Engineer, I relied more on my biotic powers than weapons. I had abilities that let me create a combat drone or combat turret in a blink that supplemented my arsenal, yet I still carried around a lightweight assault rifle and a pistol because it suited me. The combat is as exhilarating as ever and still drives the narrative through communicator conversation and small talk with your team. However the enemies generally keep you from sitting still for very long. The AI forces you to think and change tactics every time a new enemy is introduced, or when they change their approach. Instead of feeling like a pause in the story to fight off some bad guys, you’re given a good challenge that makes all your customization and upgrading worth the investment.

The story is one that is almost is too big to fit in this game. There are some aspects of the story and gameplay that can go unnoticed if the player has not completed the  first and second Mass Effect games. So much of the buildup and drama come from the previous games and how your decisions affect what happens in ME3. There were many times where I actually sat the controller down and thought for a minute because I was considering the implications of my decision and what it meant going forward. Instead of making a decision based on how it would better my score in the game, I was considering the implications of saving a race from extinction or stopping a war to wipe out a species. By the time I was finished, I was truly sad to see this story end. Through my many hours of talking to the characters and learning more about them, I had invested time and emotion into these characters as if they were real. By the end of the game, I was attached to these characters, feeling sad when saying solemn goodbyes and knowing that that a nod of respect from one of my crew members could be their last. While your paragon(good) and renegade(bad) score still affect your options in conversation, they combine together to give you a reputation score that is the sum of your choices. This is a good choice on Biowares’ part, as in a way, it subconsciously drives home the idea that your game experience is the sum of your decisions, both good and bad. In my play through of each game, I was mostly paragon, but there were some choices in which I went with the renegade option because my conscience actually played a role in my decisions. I actively chose based off my own morality and character, instead of going paragon across the board. This is the best example of how the game delivers truly great narrative and character development through not only character interaction and dialogue choices, but also putting the player in the “hot seat” and making them decide how the story plays out. That’s why you really develop a relationship with your crew and have an emotional investment by the time you’re done… because you spent so much time personally crafting each relationship through every dialogue choice and action you made.

Throughout the game, the story presses the conviction that the galaxy is on the teetering edge of destruction. As Shepard, you are tasked to unite the galaxy in the war against the reapers. However, sometimes you really don’t feel like you’re saving the galaxy. Often, I felt like an errand boy doing favors for various ambassadors to get the help I needed. But every time I did a favor or solved someone’s’ problem, I found one more favor that must be done in order to get aid. This-temporarily-turned into a cycle of “favors for favors” between politicians while I frequently received increasingly grave reports of how bad the situation on earth was. Fortunately these favors put me in the middle of battles and discussion that shaped the fate of the galaxy. Every set piece and large conflict made me shed a tear or stare in awe as I watched the results of my choices. One of the main hubs in the game, The Citadel, constantly changes as the war continues, and you constantly find new quests and tasks to complete. Sometimes I found side missions simply by standing and listening to a conversation that I triggered by walking near someone. This applies even to non-quest related conversation. Sometimes you walk by and hear a conversation take place, and each time you come back and walk by them you hear another part of the conversation: another part of the story. Every little event or story or conversation drives home the grim times that you are in. Even the scanning you do in reaper controlled systems-inconsequential as it may be-shows off the state of the galaxy while giving you an opportunity to net experience points and credits. Not only does Bioware do a great job of introducing new characters and flesh them out, they bring old characters back like Garrus and Liara and provide even more reason for you to like the characters and care about them. As I keep mentioning, every little detail drive home the story and theme throughout the game and its major (and minor) set pieces.

Throughout this review I haven’t spoke much to Mass Effect 3’s flaws. That’s because what few flaws it has are quite small and inconsequential in comparison to the mountain of successes Bioware has. Throughout my play through, I did notice some frames per second lag or a few texture rendering problems. However, as I look at these problems I tend to think that this isn’t a flaw or bug that Bioware didn’t fix. I think it is proof that games are getting almost too large for current technology to keep up. I noticed similar things in games like Batman: Arkham City, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Each game was quite large in scope, magnitude, and size on a disc. Mass Effect 3 comes in a two disc format for the 360, and I think through playing the game, it shows how much the developers are really pushing these machines to their limit. I can’t say the PS3 is having the same problem, but the 360 is definitely being pushed to its technical limits through games like ME3. On another point, I think the dialogue circle is something that should be revised. Generally you figure out after the first few conversations that the top right option is the paragon or “good guy” option, the bottom right one is the renegade or “jerk” option, the middle is somehow “riding the fence”, and everything on the left is informational. Sometimes the placement of the dialogue choice doesn’t actually reflect the sentiment of what is said. It’s not necessarily a flaw in the design of the wheel or something that really affects gameplay, but it is displaying the fact that even though Bioware has given us control over the story and conversation in an innovative way, there is still room for improvement. Bioware has done a fantastic job with this game in so many areas and it isn’t perfect. But it comes as close as any other game has to being the best it could be.

The multiplayer side of Mass Effect 3 is quite interesting and fun. It gives the generic wave defense “Horde Mode” gameplay a new twist by using weapons and biotics fighting the various enemies from the ME Universe. For something that could have been tacked on to satisfy the publisher, Bioware did a good job in creating a fleshed out multiplayer experience, while tying it into the story of the game. As more and more systems are invaded by the reapers, your Galactic Readiness is measured (in the single player story) by the recourses you acquire through quests and the various areas fighting off the reaper invasion. The more your readiness is increased, the better off you are and at 100% readiness you unlock different endings.  Here’s where the multiplayer comes in. You are in those key areas and your squad has to defend against the enemy waves to finish the mission. By doing so your overall Galactic Readiness increases as does you characters’ level letting you put more skills into your biotic powers and giving you credits to buy “Equipment Packs”, the games way of getting upgrades and new weapons. While the packs contain different upgrades, items, and boosts and is incredibly useful, it is woefully random. You could be using a sniper rifle and an assault rifle, and get packs with only 2 or 3 useful items or upgrades that can be applied to your weapons, essentially making your purchase worth half or less of what you were originally intended. I’m not to comfy with the idea of using Microsoft points or in game credits to purchase these packs, but I like even less that these packs aren’t guaranteed at all to give you anything that could be really useful. Usually you get a few useful things like med packs or shield regenerators, but when you really want a new scope for you sniper and get an extended clip for a shotgun, that can be more that a little annoying. The gameplay itself is quite good and fun to play around with for a few hours, especially when you want to get the 100% to get a different ending in the game. However I wouldn’t expect to be playing any more than a few weeks.
While there has been some heated discussion about the ending, I tend to like it overall. While the “multiple” endings were really just the same ending tweaked with a few different cinematic scenes and color changes, The ending is good and made me think about the choices I had made up to that point and was as riveting as the events that led up to this point. I agree that there should be more different endings that would be based on your overall score and the decisions from all three games, but I can only imagine how difficult that would be, and how many different “endings” that would make. In the end the ending is what the artists have given us and as fans we either like or dislike it. Personally, I am okay with the ending, but not enthusiastic about seeing the same ending tweaked a little to make it “different.”

Verdict: This game has brought me many emotional highs and lows that I never thought I would experience in a video game. Pleasantly surprised, I am still awed by the amazing story they conveyed so well through every aspect of this game, from mechanics and action, to conversation and relationships with each character. And I still stand by the ending Bioware has given us. Even with its flaws, I appreciate the fact that it made me think and really ask myself questions I otherwise wouldn’t consider if the game hadn’t been so amazing. If you like a good story, like Deus Ex(and Human Revolution), and are willing to invest the time in the series, then I say give this game a try. The only real problem is that I can’t really recommend this game without giving a caveat that anyone who is interested should play Mass Effect 1&2 first to really appreciate the full experience this series has to offer. Even so, this game should serve as a barometer for how this medium can convey a moving story and create a world as fantastic as Star Wars or Lord of The Rings. This is truly one of the closest things to a “perfect game” that I have been able to find since I started playing them.
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