With a few reservations, I thought this was a bloody brilliant game, capping off a trilogy through which you can take a single character, earlier decisions having (some) later impacts. As far as RPGs go, in a sense it represents the opposite approach to the other current class-leader, Skyrim. Where that game provides a vast world to explore at your leisure and in your own way (lets call it the Bethesda approach), Mass Effect is much more ‘on rails’. With some optional stuff and exploration, it basically takes the form of a set of missions following one after the other, and each of those missions takes place along a pretty tightly confined track. That’s particularly true of this third instalment, set against a backdrop of an all-out war for survival, and in which the exploration elements have been thinned down to virtually nothing, so much so they feel a little vestigial, actually. But where Mass Effect definitely loses out in sense of scale, it scores big on character, drama, and action (we could call that the Bioware approach, maybe).
Having lost my character to a catastrophic Playstation failure a few months ago, I actually took the opportunity to quickly replay the second Mass Effect just beforehand, so I’ve got a pretty good idea how the two differ. Looks and feel wise, 3 improves on the already excellent. There’s a cinematic feel to everything, character models look great (even if the bottom of my character’s brows would occasionally wander through her eyelids at times of high emotion), and the detail and background on the levels is better than ever – sometimes there’s amazing stuff happening in the distance, particularly as the gigantic reapers sow destruction. Mass Effect has always been a really nicely styled and presented game, but there’s more going on here than before – a lot of thought has gone into the framing, the editing, the lighting, the cut scenes integrate into the action sometimes with sweeping shots as Shepard jumps from the shuttle. A little glitchy at times, actually, on my PS3, but you can’t fault the ambition.
Gameplay-wise 3 is pretty similar to its forebear, cover and shooting, activating powers of various kinds. The roleplaying elements were very stripped back in the second game so I’m pleased to see they’ve added some complexity back in to the levelling-up system and equipment, even if it doesn’t always seem to have a marked effect. There are fewer team mates but they have more varied powers. It actually makes for a pretty decent shooter. Without all the roleplaying elements it would be nothing special but as far as action in an RPG you won’t get better. Certainly greatly superior to Skyrim from a gameplay standpoint. The enemies are perhaps a little limited – it tends to be various configurations of Geth, Cerberus paramilitaries or Reaper wierdos, but the backdrops keep on changing, no repetition of the same warehouses or space-stations which figured in the first game, and utterly killed Dragon Age 2, everything here is unique and shows a lot of care. Lots more stuff happening around you, as well – Shepard being flung from a balcony to the ground far below, a Sandworm smashing through a bridge ahead of you, shuttles crashing overhead, all accompanied by suitably panicked dialogue from your squadmates. It ain’t Uncharted but it’s moved a little in that cinematic direction without sacrificing anything.
Voice-acting continues to be very strong, on the whole. If I was being picky I think I’d say the dialogue isn’t quite as sharp as it was in 2, less of a light touch, and the paragon and renegade options don’t seem quite as nifty, in the main. The basic system, though (which rather than giving you good or evil options gives you soft versus ruthless ones within the context of the wider mission) works very well, and really gives you a sense of making choices. Shepard has her own personality but it’s one you can steer to suit (I always play a ruthless hardass, in case you were wondering). Although you spend a lot of time watching and listening rather than playing you get enough choice (or at least illusion of choice) for there to be an undoubted connection with the main character. There’s a real kick to seeing this person you’ve created delivering the lines, taking the actions. There’s less character stuff going on this time around but then a lot of that was set up in the previous two games and pays off big here. In general there are a lot of loose ends, at both the personal and political level, that get nicely tied off.
My main criticism would be of some parts of the plotting. It starts off by plunging you into an apocalyptic war so there’s a breathless atmosphere to it which works well at driving things forward but means there’s a lot less side stuff going on. It’s also a bit more, I don’t know, foursquare in its morality somehow? A bit more gung ho. A bit more cheesy. In the second game you end up forced to work with Cerberus, a highly suspect organisation but perhaps the only hope. It felt like there was a certain level of moral ambiguity to Shepard’s actions as a result. You really were free to be ruthless, and your boss, the Illusive Man, was an excellent shady superior. Were you on the right side or the wrong, and did you like being there? This time around you’re working for the alliance again and it’s lantern jaws and good guys to the rescue all around. Your boss, Admiral Hackett, is a lot less interesting, the motives ain’t all that complex, Cerberus have gone back to being caricature bad guys and the Illusive Man a caricature nutcase villain. Little bit of a missed opportunity, I felt.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the ending, and I can kind of see where they’re coming from, but at the same time it didn’t really bother me. It was confusing, maguffin heavy, not really set up in this game let alone the earlier ones. As is so often the case, the villain’s plot, so mysterious and thrilling when unknown, seemed rather silly and baffling when explained. Plus heavy exposition from a glowing child is really, really never a good idea. On the other hand, I was so impressed with the sheer scale, bombast, and technical achievement of the action leading up to it I didn’t care. Mad firefights through the streets of ruined london, tanks exploding all around, gigantic reapers dwarfing big ben in the background. Then, having been zapped with a death ray Shepard limps along, bleeding from every orifice, armour partially melted off, just about clinging on to her pistol while a gigantic space battle takes place overhead. So the outcome was far from the strongest part but the emotion still very much held together for me and it far from spoiled the whole experience. Which is, I would say, about as good as you can get from a video game. If I could pick two games from this generation of consoles to take to a desert island they’d probably be Skyrim (no end) and Red Dead Redemption (now there’s an end).
But if I could add a third, this would be a strong contender.