Mass Effect 3 review

By Garnett Lee, Mar 06, 2012 8:15am PST

I sit mentally slack jawed considering the completion of Mass Effect 3. The word epic gets bandied about a lot in describing video games. That's a shame. Never has it been more applicable and I want to convey just how momentous this event is. Mass Effect 3 concludes this classic sci-fi saga in truly epic fashion. The heroic Commander Shepard leads the universe in its final desperate fight to survive against the overwhelming might of the alien Reapers in a scenario that would be equally at home on the pages of a New York Times bestseller or a blockbuster Hollywood production.

But there's more here. My investment goes well beyond that of a book or a movie. I've logged well over a hundred hours in the three games over the past five years. In that time I became my Shepard. Now, in Mass Effect 3, this is completely my story, my conclusion to the fight, with all the ramifications of my actions and decisions come home to roost. Yet the immediacy of the action and the well-directed rhythm of its story make Mass Effect 3 not only the best of the three, but a game anyone could enjoy completely on its own.

I see it, though, through the battle-hardened eyes of my Shepard. I cannot separate my perception of Mass Effect 3 from that of my Shepard because so much of it reflects the choices we've made together. She--yes, I play a fem-Shep--is complex. When I struck out on this adventure in the first game I made a conscious decision to develop her personality as more of a survivor, a loner who valued self-preservation, as opposed to the archetypal do-gooder I typically play.

In Mass Effect terms, this makes her a 'renegade' as opposed to the altruistic 'paragon.' I felt okay with this decision because the difference between the two promised to be more than simply good versus evil. While this proved true over the first two games, the relationship between the two sides remained polar, requiring unwavering commitment to my chosen renegade path to maximize the development of Shepard.

Mass Effect 3 squelches this all-or-nothing dynamic by making Shepard's reputation a combined function of both sides of her personality. This opens up the door to the more real world shades of gray that color tough decisions. Free of the need to automatically select the renegade option to maximize Shepard's development, I found myself examining each situation with much great scrutiny. "What would this Shepard I've imagined do in this situation?" I kept asking myself.

While stimulating such provocative thinking sets Mass Effect 3 apart, it also exposes the limitations in current game design. In real situations there become nearly infinite permutations to the outcome as decisions shift. The game lacks such fidelity. Instead of shades of gray, it's more like a shade or two. Complicating matters, the "pure" renegade (and likewise paragon I presume) choices tend to the more extreme expression of the personality, perhaps to better expand the spectrum to make room for the compromise positions.

This put my Shepard in a jam. Some of these radical renegade actions fell well outside her acceptable boundaries. But while backing off and taking the paragon approach wouldn't hurt her development in the game, it didn't feel right either. This brought about a crisis of conscience for me and my Shepard. I began to question every decision we'd made over the course of our journey. Part of me admires Mass Effect 3 for evoking such a strong response, but another recognizes that it comes as much from promising me more than a black-and-white relationship between paragon and renegade and never quite living up to that.

Either way, we made peace with the past as the tempo of the game stepped up, leaving no time for indecision. Mass Effect 3 starts off with a bang and then hits a strong stride that ebbs and flows to allow tension to build and releases, but at an ever increasing level of intensity. The central storyline can be followed without distraction, but the side missions that are worked in naturally provide just the right pacing and all add meaningful development to the plot. Even the exploration element of the game better contributes to the core game this time out, though it still becomes tedious at times.

Mass Effect 3 also completes the evolution of the game into a sophisticated hybrid of role-playing and action. Combat lives up to top-tier third-person-shooter standards every bit as well as the character and narrative systems reflect the best of RPGs. The blend of ballistic weapons, tech skills, and magic-like biotic powers has become seamless. They are all balanced near perfectly to one another, making it a tactical pleasure developing squadmates to fulfill combat roles and then executing with them in game.

The new co-op multiplayer mode reflects the strength of the combat system. It's the big surprise of Mass Effect 3. The "horde mode" concept of teaming up with others to hold off waves of enemies brings out the best in the overlapping support capabilities of the different classes in the game. The extra kicker comes from the connection that factors playing co-op missions into the campaign giving it that extra addictive quality from a sense of accomplishing something every time I play a match.

From start to finish, Mass Effect 3 achieves at its peak by invisibly meshing all its parts to allow me to fluidly experience the adventure alongside my Shepard. It melds the story progression of the first game with an even yet improved combat engine of the second to create a game that achieves more than just the sum of those two parts. I genuinely felt I controlled the destiny of my Shepard. I reveled in those moments when being a renegade so perfectly meshed with her character more than once eliciting a "hell, yeah" from me as she told the galaxy to get its act together to fight the Reapers. Maybe the very strength of that bond with the game made my questioning its conclusion an inevitability. One thing I do know for certain, though; I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.


[This Mass Effect 3 review is based on the retail Xbox 360 version of the game, provided by publisher Electronic Arts.]

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