One of the most poignant moments of Mass Effect 3 took place 10 minutes into the game. Cautiously making his way through a dilapidated building in the midst of a Reaper invasion, Commander Shepard spies a young boy taking refuge in a nearby ventilation duct. Clearly terrified, the lad finds little comfort in Shepard’s words of reassurance, refusing to be coaxed out of his cramped sanctuary. Later on, as Shepard extracts via the Normandy, he spots the same child scrambling on board an evac shuttle, only to see it obliterated by a nearby Reaper. As Shepard looks on, devastated, the emotional impact is palpable. The image of the wide-eyed youngster looking daggers at our hero before boarding the doomed craft, juxtaposed with the mechanical behemoth laying waste to everything in its path, succinctly and effortlessly conveys the sheer sense of desperation that players are facing in BioWare’s epic sci-fi spectacle. This is war; the Reapers are invading, Cerberus is up to no good, millions are dying, and the fate of all organic life hangs precariously in the balance.
Mass Effect 3 doesn’t tinker a bunch with the design philosophies laid down by its predecessor, though does make a few welcome tweaks to the series paradigm. For starters, combat is now a lot more intuitive. Shepard boasts increased agility, able to perform an evasive role in any direction by hitting the analog stick in conjunction with X. Furthermore, you can also transition between nearby cover spots seamlessly. For the most part it works great, affording greater freedom and maneuverability in combat, feeling less clunky than previous installments. In fact, aside from the inherent niggles of mapping multiple functions to X in combat (Shepard exiting cover while I selected a weapon proved annoying, or not sticking to cover at all), this is the most refined Mass Effect experience yet.
Other improvements turn up in the A.I. and sheer diversity of your opponents. I made the mistake of thinking I could sit back behind cover and snipe foes until the cows came home, but I was quickly forced to eat humble pie. Foes now come thick and fast, lob grenades at you to try and flush you out, and provide covering fire for their comrades. They’ll push you to utilize everything in your arsenal and apply tactical decisions at the drop of a hat, making for a much more rewarding and challenging experience on the battlefield. Fortunately, Shepard and co are more than equipped to deal with the onslaught of enemies – which include regular grunts, zombie-like Husks, hulking mechs and massive Reaper abominations – with a revamped weapons and upgrade system.
To put it simply, ME3 feels like an amalgamation of ME1’s RPG sensibilities and its sequel’s more streamlined accessibility. Shepard can equip all five weapon types, while squad mates – from familiar faces such as Liara and Garrus to testosterone-fueled newcomer James Vega – are limited to two pre-determined types. However, you can now pimp out guns with additional trinkets such as scopes, increased ammo capacity etc, and powers now have a bifurcation of sorts when evolving a particular ability beyond Level 3. For example, my Shepard made firm use of his grenades, and one of the options I was given was to either increase the power of each explosion, or the blast radius. This allowed me to tweak my Shepard to near-perfection and allowed me to play how I wanted, rather than be shoehorned with a style I wasn’t particularly comfortable with. It’s a great system, and combined with the improved combat, adds a fine degree of strategic depth to the proceedings, ensuring battles are a frantic, tactical playground where I was always forced to make quick decisions on how to deal with a specific enemy or situation.
Of course, your overall goal is to stop the Reapers by rallying the galaxies numerous races for a last-ditch battle. This forms the nucleus of Mass Effect 3’s driving narrative, and the basis of the Military Readiness system, which basically gives you an idea of how prepared you are for the decisive, final battle. Progressing through the game earns you War Assets to augment the Alliance’s forces, whether it’s a squad of infantry or a full-scale Turian fleet. These are primarily obtained by completing the plethora of missions on offer, or scanning planets for valuable assets. Sure, some are rudimentary fetch-quests, but the bulk of tasks are filled with meaty narrative elements and frantic, action-packed segments. I found them to be pretty varied and compelling indulgences, each one feeling meaningful to the greater good.
Naturally, rallying the galaxy for War Assets isn’t a cakewalk. Calling on the plethora of races out there for aid intrinsically opens up the door to some of the Mass Effect series’ most profound decision making to date, and your moral compass will be working overtime as you cope with the numerous political, military and philosophical turbulence of the population. Races harbour deep animosity, factions are bitter rivals, and it’s up to you to try and unite them for the good of the galaxy. Do you cure the Krogan Genophage at the risk of alienating their long-time rivals the Salarians? Do you spring a known criminal from the brink to gain the loyalty of a notorious mercenary group? These are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of decisions to make.
However, the perennial threat of the Reaper invasion really accentuates the choices forced up on you this time, more so than any other game in the series to date. And, while it’s hard to tell how much is just smoke and mirrors, I ultimately felt that I was making a difference, and the repercussions of my former actions definitely weighed on my mind. That’s something few games can boast. Planet scanning also returns, though it’s far removed from the laborious incarnation of its predecessor. Now, simply scan the immediate area, locate the source of interest, scan and probe for assets, and bob’s your uncle. Just be careful; spam your scanner too much, and you’ll have to avoid a fleet of Reaper ships that spells instant game over if you’re caught.
The contentious multiplayer also plays its part too. Essentially Mass Effect’s take on Gears of War’s Horde mode, you team up with up to three other players, taking down waves of enemies, be it Cerberus troops, Reapers or Geth. Furthermore, major races are now playable, such as Turian, Krogan and Asari. Players can level-up powers in a similar manner to the campaign via EXP points (though available powers and guns are limited compared to the main game), and use earned credits or real-life funds to purchase randomly-packaged perk packs. Make no mistake, multiplayer is a tough gig; I teamed up with a friend, and even on the lowest setting available we were pulverized on the eighth wave. The combat holds up on its own merits even while separated from the narrative trappings of the single-player, and BioWare has made an effort to nullify any potential monotony by giving you objectives throughout, such as taking down specific foes or disarming devices. It’s a fun experience, and while nowhere near as consequential as your actions in the campaign – you can do a fine job without even touching multiplayer – it serves as a pleasant addition nonetheless.
BioWare has again done a top-notch job at bringing to life an intricate, futuristic sci-fi playground. Character models are showing a few wrinkles after the likes of L.A. Noire arrived on the scene, but still showcase a surprising amount of depth. Locations really shine however, with areas such as the Citadel, war-torn Tuchanka and the lush Salarian home world exquisitely realised; some are punctuated with small touches that really pull at the heart strings, such as countless ‘Missing’ photos lining the Citadel’s docking bay flocked by concerned loved ones. Other elements aren’t so subtle. Reapers dominate the landscape, destroying skyscrapers, Turian cruisers and generally striking fear into players with their mechanical, almost guttural growls. Aurally the game totally delivers, with roaring battle anthems and melancholy passages alike acting the ideal complement to the epic on-screen antics. Voice acting meanwhile stands shoulder-to-shoulder with past games, with even generic, nameless NPCs pulling their weight in weaving Mass Effect 3’s intergalactic narrative as much as the main cast. Hearing the banter of a wife and her departing soldier hubby, for example, really put a lump in my throat.
Overall, from combat to storytelling, Mass Effect 3 is an absolute monster of a game. Despite some visual inconsistencies (clipping, Shepard talking to thin air for a few seconds), and a poor mission management that inexplicably fails to update your progress, there’s little to complain about. At the end of the day, BioWare has crafted an emotionally-charged spectacle that is unlikely to be surpassed for some time. Shepard, we salute you.