One massive, boneheaded mistake casts a shadow over Shepard’s final sortie, but overall, the final battle against the Reapers is still a fight worth finishing.
Flashback to a cold day in November 2007, and I’ve just started to play the original Mass Effect. A quick mission to the planet Eden Prime has gone awry, and suddenly I’m thrust into a secret war to prevent the return of an ancient, omnipotent evil. While the game starts off slowly, I quickly become obsessed with the galaxy that Bioware has crafted for me, and every decision that I make weighs heavily on my conscience. My thumb hesitates before I confirm every dialogue selection. Unlike most shooters, there’s an emotional weight and purpose driving every firefight. I genuinely feel bad when my choices end up hurting people.
Now here we are five years later, and Commander Shepard and crew are finally facing down the Reaper invasion that players have been fighting to prevent ever since that original mission to Eden Prime. Like the original game, Mass Effect 3 is an enthralling, imaginative, visually awe-inspiring masterpiece, but unfortunately, it’s not perfect — while the game for the most part manages to deliver on the quality storytelling that Bioware has become famous for, ME3’s manages to drop the ball during the most important part of the story, and when I look back on my experiences with not just Mass Effect 3 but the entire series, it’s hard to not escape the shadow of ME3’s titanically misguided ending. With that said however, Mass Effect 3 is still a mastefully crafted action-RPG that manages to do so much more right than it does wrong, and despite Bioware’s inexcusable fumble at the very end, I would still wholeheartedly recommend Mass Effect to anyone who asks.
Let’s start with the good first, because the good parts thankfully made up the bulk of my experience with Mass Effect 3.
First off, there’s the combat. Mass Effect 3 manages to strike the perfect balance between the original game’s more RPG oriented, stat driven combat and the second game’s more streamlined, action focused mechanics. Like Mass Effect 2, the game’s combat sequences control and play like your standard cover-based third person shooter, though Shepard now has new skills that encourage you to stay on the move rather than just finding a good piece of cover and turtling behind it the entire fight. The changes to the actual shooter mechanics from ME2 are subtle, but they manage to make Mass Effect 3’s combat feel substantially meatier than it’s predecessor’s: Shepard now has an evasive roll maneuver that allows him to quickly cover ground and make last second dodges, and his melee attacks can now be chained together or charged up for an instant kill “heavy” melee. While special skills and guns will still be your main method of dispatching enemies, the added abilities give players a lot of incentive to take a more proactive approach to combat.
Mass Effect’s firefights aren’t just twitch based either; you’ll need to put a lot of thought into how you customize your characters and how you use their skills during combat if you want to survive the game’s tougher encounters. Mass Effect 2 was often criticized for toning down the original game’s RPG elements too much, and ME3 corrects that supposed mistake by allowing you a far greater control over how you control your characters’ development. Old school RPG fans who take pride in their ability to “min/max” will enjoy the level of choice you have in picking upgrades with each level (you’ll often have to pick between increasing damage bonuses, armor ratings, areas of effect, etc.,) as they tailor their squad to suit their play style, while players who don’t care about stat-crunching will still find ME3’s RPG elements accessible enough to understand without having to worry about creating a gimped build for their characters.
Mass Effect’s blend of traditional RPG elements around a third person shooter core has always struck a chord with me, and ME3 has taken the series’ winning combat formula to a new height. Improved enemy AI keeps firefights interesting, even after dozens of hours of play, and even though the game recycles the same enemy types over and over, I never got tired of fighting. There’s just something incredibly satisfying about combat in this game that never got old; whether I was chucking grenades into entrenched enemies and then ordering my team to pick off the survivors as they ran, or using each of my squad members special abilities to systematically wear down the defenses of a particularly tough boss, everything about Mass Effect 3’s combat just felt right. It was exciting and fast and intense, but it was never mindless. It required tactics and rewarded strategic thinking, but it never got bogged down with pages of stats and menus. This is going to sound like hyperbole, but speaking as somebody who loves both RPG’s and action games, Mass Effect 3’s combat is simply perfect.
ME has always succeeded in making murdering thousands of aliens into a fun pastime, and now for the first time with Mass Effect 3, players are able to go online and commit galactic genocide with up to three of their friends. I was apprehensive about Mass Effect multiplayer at first, as were most fans of the series, but Bioware really has succeeded in creating an addictive multiplayer mode that surprisingly manages to integrate and fit in quite well with the series’ gameplay and narrative.
Similar to Gears of War’s Horde mode or Halo’s Firefight, Mass Effect’s multiplayer mode is a dedicated 4 player, PvE co-op that tasks players with holding a position against increasing difficult waves of enemies. Where ME differs however, is it’s variety of objectives: while most waves simply ask you to eliminate all enemies a-la GoW or Halo, ME mixes things up by occasionally asking you to activate computer terminals located around the level, assassinate a particular enemy, or stay within a specified area of the stage for a certain amount of time. Regardless of whatever objective the game tosses at you, ME’s multiplayer mode requires true teamwork, especially at lower experience levels or when you’re playing on one of the higher difficulty levels. The enemy AI is even more aggressive and tenacious than in the single player game, so if your team fails to work together and doesn’t cover each other’s backs, you’re guaranteed to be easy pickings for the stronger groups of enemies you’ll face at the end of each match.
While the multiplayer only features one real mode with no head-to-head competitive play to speak of, a wealth of unlockables are there to ensure that you keep playing: new weapons, gear, appearance modifications, and character classes can be purchased via in-game credits (or via micro-transactions, if you’re impatient/enjoy wasting real money.) Anybody who’s ever nursed a Diablo or Monster Hunter addiction in their lifetime (as I have) will likely go into a full-on relapse while trying to unlock all of Mass Effect 3’s loot. Despite being mainly motivated by the acquisition of new unlockables, ME3 multiplayer never felt like a grind, and that’s because it shares many of the same core mechanics that made Mass Effect such a wonderful single player experience.
Multiplayer characters can be leveled up and customized in exactly the same way that the campaign mode’s Shepard can be personalized, and as with the main single player game, Bioware has done an amazing job at making each character class feel unique and useful. Just like the single player game, each character class has their own set of branching skill trees, and each species adds it’s own variation to each class: humans are balanced, jack-of-all trades types who are capable of playing any role but don’t excel in any particular area, the reptilian Drell are stealthy and agile, while the brutish Krogan can deal massive damage with melee chains, but lack any sort of evasive abilities. No one class seems to be more useful than the others, and this balance goes a long way into encouraging players to use their specialized skills to complement and compensate for the abilities and weaknesses of their teammates online. When you play with a good group, there’s a definite synergy in the way that different classes work with each other that even the best MMO’s struggle to achieve. While I originally questioned Bioware’s decision to add multiplayer into Mass Effect 3, I found myself still playing ME3’s multiplayer mode long after I had finished the game’s single player story.
And with that, allow me to segue into Mass Effect 3’s sole, substantial mistake: the story’s ending.
Now, Mass Effect 3 has been subjected to a lot of hate on the internet, mostly coming from a group of hyper-entitled fanboys who hated the game from it’s very inception. These nerd-rage fueled rants have ranged from long diatribes about inconsequential bullshit like the addition of limited ammo to the series in ME2, to the insecure, slur filled vitriol spouted by backwards thinking rednecks over Bioware giving players the option to engage in gay romances. Usually I just shrug these pointless complaints off without giving them any thought, because hey, this is the internet, and if there’s one thing that nerds on the internet love, it’s making angry knee-jerk reactions to things that they haven’t logically thought through.
With that said though, I’m afraid I’m going to have to side with the angry internet lynch mob in regards to Mass Effect 3’s ending. It really is as stupid as people say it is.
Now, as a fan of shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and Lost, I’m used to getting bizarre or disappointing endings to the stories that I love. But even when compared to those shows, Mass Effect 3’s incredible anti-climax sets a new low bar in narrative missteps. The ending is unnecessarily vague, brief, and worst of all, it completely ignores all of the choices you’ve made previously and pretty much throws out all of the series’ established rules and lore in favor of one giant, literal deus ex machina.
For the most part, Mass Effect 3 still has some of the best writing that I’ve ever seen in a game. The story is well written and managed to evoke some genuine emotional reactions from me (particularly at the end of Krogan story arc,) and the dialogue and the characters are as witty and memorable as ever. For a good 95% of the game, the story is amazing. But once Mass Effect 3 finally gets to the climactic final battle that Bioware has been building up to for the past 3 games, everything starts to fall apart: the moral choices that have been so integral to the narrative are completely forgotten about as the player is forced down a singular path towards an ending that makes zero effort to take into account all of the player’s previous decisions and actions. The final revelation during the game’s climax just comes out of left field, and the game makes absolutely no attempt at giving any context or an explanation for what happens. There’s little hints here and there that perhaps Bioware was planning something grander and… well, better written for Mass Effect 3’s finale, and I’m not sure what happened — maybe they ran out of time, or held content back for future DLC (neither of which is a valid excuse, mind you,) — but as the ending is now, with no real foreshadowing to give it some much needed context and with no attempt at providing a valid explanation for what happens, it’s an outright trainwreck.
I won’t go into spoilers here (not that there’s much to spoil mind you,) but in case you’ve already beaten the game, GameFront has an excellent (spoiler filled, obviously) article detailing the specifics of why Mass Effect 3’s ending is such a narrative disaster.
So yeah, Mass Effect 3 has an ending that makes Lost’s or Evangelion’s esoteric (some would say pretentious) finales seem like Hamlet’s final act by comparison. Does that make it a bad game? By my standards, no, not at all.
Because like I stated earlier, while ME3’s climax is almost comical in how big of a disaster it is, the other 40 hours I spent with the game were amazing. The shooter-based combat is fantastic, the multiplayer is addictive, and again, outside of the ending, the story is still home to some of the best writing you’ll ever see in a video game. Speaking objectively, it seems stupid to me to invalidate all the wonderful, dozens of hours of flawless gameplay and impeccable storytelling that ME3 has because of one final half-hour of stupidity. Yes, it’s a terrible shame that Mass Effect 3’s sole failing happens during what’s arguably the most important part of it’s narrative, and while I absolutely hate the way the game ended, I still think that Mass Effect 3 is a great game.
To put it another way: the ending definitely left me with a sour after taste, and I’ll definitely think twice before I become emotionally invested in another Bioware storyline, but at the same time, I don’t regret the time I spent with the Mass Effect series. If I could go back in time to that cold day in 2007, knowing what I know now about the series’ disappointing ending, I’d still totally tell my younger self to play Mass Effect (nevermind the possible paradox that this hypothetical situation would create.) Sure, the ending is so stupid it feels like somebody at Bioware was trying to deliberately insult my intelligence, but at the same time, Mass Effect 3 is more than it’s ending. Sometimes, the journey is better than the destination, and Mass Effect 3 was definitely one hell of a great journey.
Final Score: 9.0/10