Available on: Xbox 360 (version reviewed), PC, PS3 and Wii U (re-reviewed).
There’s nothing more disappointing than a story that starts off well, builds up steam in the second act then blows it in the third. Who didn’t feel let down by the final season of Lost? How about The Matrix: Revolutions, The Godfather part III, X-Men: The Last Stand or Spider-Man 3? This has always been the burden of Mass Effect 3. The first felt like a slightly unsuccessful merger of RPG and third-person shooter, somehow made enjoyable through Bioware’s sheer storytelling nous. The second married these disparate elements together, and the result was one of the most engrossing and exceptional games of this hardware generation; the kind of game you could get obsessed with for a good month or so. After all those hours of gameplay, all the battles, the choices, the big set-pieces and the weird friendships, the side stories and romances, Mass Effect 3 brings it all to a conclusion.
Mass Effect 3’s reputation has suffered since its launch early in the year. Many found the ending disappointing, and poor frame rates in the PS3 version still haven’t been entirely rectified. Yet, with the Wii U giving us a chance to go back to Bioware’s finale, we still find it a formidable game. It’s not perfect or infallible, and Mass Effect 2 looks set to go down as the pinnacle of the trilogy, but Mass Effect 3 still delivers great action, great drama and any number of great moments. It still holds up as one of the very best games released this year.
Of course, Wii U owners might be at a disadvantage in not having played the first two games, but Mass Effect 3 works around this with a motion comic summary of the story so far. If there’s any way you can play at least Mass Effect before playing Mass Effect 3 we would suggest you do so, but if you must start here, it won’t wreck your experience of the game.
Mass Effect 3 can be a more sombre experience than Mass Effect 2. In lots of ways the prequel had the feel of a sci-fi spy caper, as Shepard blazed a trail around the universe, gathering allies for his assault on the Collectors and bagging hot alien chicks (or beefcakes if you played the female version). Mass Effect 3 begins with the long-awaited arrival of the universe-ravaging Reapers, follows that with the near-destruction of humanity on planet Earth, and somehow goes more downbeat from there. As if the appearance of an almighty power that wants to scourge the universe of life wasn’t bad enough, man’s alien allies are divided by old enmities and grudges, while Mass Effect 2’s nemesis, The Illusive Man, is back with his Cerberus forces, trying to turn the situation to his own mysterious advantage.
Tonally, Mass Effect 3 can be a bit like Halo: Reach, but Bioware’s storytelling skill is reflected in the fact that, even at the most desparate moments of the game, there’s still room for humour, hope and friendship. Organic life might be on the back-foot against the Reapers’ mechanoid menace, but that doesn’t mean we have to take it lying down. And, anyway, how about those hot alien chicks/beefcakes?
As with Mass Effect 2, the scale of the game and the richness of the story can make it hard to pull out the tangible improvements to the gameplay. The biggest are in combat. Mass Effect 2 managed to turn gun-battles from a chore into something you could get your teeth into, and Mass Effect 3 goes further by making the action as gripping as the narrative. Shepard is a lot lighter on his feet, the cover system works better and both allied and enemy AI is improved to the extent that you rarely think about either, you’re just trying to kill what needs to be killed without having to micromanage your friends.
There are some new melee moves to buy you breathing space when the Reapers’ zombie grunts get in too close, and there are new slick, streamlined options for equipping both Shepard and the two crew members he can have with him at any one time. The one downside is that the use of one button for running, finding cover and vaulting out of cover will occasionally have unwanted effects. ‘Ta-da!’ says Shepard as he hops over the barricade straight into the oncoming turret fire, or finds himself cowering in front of a ruined wall when he really should be running from the behemoth behind. These are irritating and reasonably frequent occurrences, but not bad enough to make you hate the game.
The use of insta-pause radial menus for casting ‘biotics’, issuing orders and switching guns means that Mass Effect 3 hasn’t completely lost its RPG lineage even when you’re fighting. All the same, this is the first Mass Effect 3 that could be enjoyed purely as an action game. In fact, you can switch off all the RPG and interaction gubbins and play it in that vein, though – frankly – you might as well play Gears of War.
Otherwise, there are a couple of things that strike us about this sequel. While it’s by no means linear, with a central ‘save the universe’ mission that can have you either tackling a Cerberus base, rescuing a lost alien platoon or running diplomatic errands on The Citadel at any one time, there’s definitely a greater focus on the main story this time around. The loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2, where you earned a character’s trust by taking on a mission on their behalf, have been replaced by a series of Galaxy at War missions, success in which will have effects on the heroic alliance’s strength as you near the end game, and so the possible outcomes.
The missions we’ve sampled are certainly fun and challenging, with the kind of difficult ethical decisions we expect from Mass Effect. All the same, they don’t have quite the variety or the emotional draw of the loyalty missions. In fact, if Mass Effect 2 was a game about making new friends, Mass Effect 3 is more about getting closer to – and even saying goodbye to – old ones. A handful of new characters are thrown in, but they don’t quite have the same magic as the comrades you’ve fought with through so many hours before. At times you also miss the prequel’s slightly lighter feel and – if we’re not mistaken – it’s more difficult in these dark times for Shepard to pull. It’s no wonder he spends so much of the game frowning.
On the subject of ethical choices, Mass Effect 3 pulls off some really interesting moments. In the past, as in most Bioware games, the morality could seem a little binary. As always, every interactive cut-scene has a selection of dialogue choices, which branch off in Paragon (goodie) or Renegade (not so goodie) directions. Mass Effect’s split has always been a little different from, say, the light side/dark side split in Star Wars: The Old Republic, but in most cases you could take the Paragon path and feel secure in your place on the moral high ground. In Mass Effect 3 the situations aren’t always so clear, and on more than one occasion we’ve found ourselves taking the Paragon side, but unsure that we haven’t created a worse long-term result.
And this is important because, above all else, Mass Effect 3 is emotionally engaging. It succeeds because it has the kind of epic, cinematic sweep that you find in films like The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Avatar or El Cid, working on the biggest, most obvious levels even if it’s not always the most subtle of narratives. This is a game about heroism, fear, honour, courage, friendship, love and sacrifice, and in its best moments it’s enthralling.
With Mass Effect 2, Bioware began to nail what makes a sci-fi game cinematic; not just the gleaming starships and the beautifully designed future worlds, but the way you stage the action scenes and the dialogue scenes, and the way you use the virtual camera. Mass Effect 3 is better still, and while there are still some sticking points – the animation feels a little stiff at first, and in this respect Heavy Rain and Uncharted remain streets ahead – it’s not long before you’re totally caught up. The production design is consistently great, and the HD graphics and the lighting stunning. The score is fantastic, and the voicework uniformly excellent. Yet this is also a game that excels in the little things; the background chatter as you walk around The Citadel, or the datalogs you collect as you roam around each mission, each one filling in some little missing piece of story.
Of course, Mass Effect 3 isn’t perfect, and naysayers will still find plenty to moan about. Without installing the game the load times can be painful, the camera is a mess when enemies get too close, sometimes dropping Shepard out of view, and there are occasional weird glitches as one scene transitions to another. On the plus side, the spectacularly tedious galactic exploration and mining sub-game from Mass Effect 2 has gone. Instead, you now uncover secrets and gather resources using a pulse sensor, though use this too often and you’ll summon the Reapers to the scene.
Mass Effect 3 shone on the Xbox 360, and struggled with inconsistent frame rates on the PS3. Having seen some issues with other Wii U cross-platform titles we were nervous about this version, but in fact it’s closer to the 360 experience than the PS3, with a little judder here and there, but nothing game-breaking.
This is also one of the better Wii U cross-platform games in terms of harnessing the Wii U GamePad. There are no Arkham City-style gimmicks to be found. Instead, the Wii U GamePad displays a map of the immediate area, making it easier to find your way through some of the less linear environments, while also providing a column of shortcut icons on either side. These can be custom-mapped to biotics and abilities, giving you instant access to powers without having to pause the action and fiddle with the radial menus. In a way, this emphasises the action aspects of the game at the cost of the RPG elements, but then that’s in tune with the development of the trilogy as a whole.
The Wii U GamePad also enables an alternative approach to moving the other two members of your squad around. You can still target an area and tap the d-pad left or right to move them into position, but it’s also possible to drag their icons from one place to another on the map, allowing a little more fine control and strategy. This can be challenging – not to mention distracting – in the heat of battle, but in the early phases of a fight it can be a good way to ensure you make the most of the environment.
Perhaps the best use of the Wii U GamePad, however, is the ability to switch the main display from your TV to the built-in screen. Mass Effect 3 is an enormous game, and not having to fight over the telly in order to play it has obvious attractions. Sure, there’s a drop in detail, colour and resolution if you’re used to a half-decent TV screen, but there’s also something really great about slouching on the sofa with the action less than an arm’s length away. It’s a great fit for the game.
A gripping end to a captivating sci-fi saga. The action elements of the game have never been stronger, but Mass Effect 3 hasn’t lost its RPG-like depth or its storytelling brilliance, and as the tale builds up to its conclusion it just gets better and better. It’s great on the Xbox 360, PC and PS3 – despite continuing frame-rate issues on the latter – and a great addition to the Wii U’s launch line-up, making intelligent use of the features of the Wii U GamePad.